11 May 2013

Teleology and Metabolism

In an earlier edition of Café Philosophy entitled ‘Momentary Man’ we published (April 2012) a theory by Bertrand Russell in which it was stated that a human being is forever changing, moment by moment and is therefore never the same.  This same theory is enunciated in a book by Luca Illetterati and Francesca Michelini: Purposiveness, Teleology between Nature and Mind.  I have included some notes from this book to add further light on this subject.- Rob Mason.

Definition: teleology (tĕl'ēŏl'əjē, tē'lē-), in philosophy, term applied to any system attempting to explain a series of events in terms of ends, goals, or purposes. It is opposed to mechanism, the theory that all events may be explained by mechanical principles of causation. Teleonomy, a more recent evolutionary view finds purpose in the higher levels of organic life but holds that it is not necessarily based in any transcendent being but rather their evolutionary adaptation. 

Definition: metabolism (from Greek: μεταβολή metabolē, "change") is the set of life-sustaining chemical transformations within the cells of living organisms. Metabolism allows an organism to feed itself by taking the required energy from external sources, and consists in the continuous process of restoration of matter within the organism itself.  

Definition: Autopoiesis (from Greek αὐτo- (auto-), meaning "self", and ποίησις (poiesis), meaning "creation, production") refers to a closed system capable of creating itself. The term was introduced in 1972 by Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela to define to the self-maintaining chemistry of living cells.

Metabolism keeps organisms materially in a steady flux: at no time is their substance one and the same yet they constantly maintain their identity.  By this central aspect of its functioning metabolism it can very well be considered the defining quality of life: every living being has it, no non-living has it.  Consequently we discover the elusive notion of the “Constitution of an identity” as the governing principle of autonomy.
“In this strange process of being for an observer the particles of matter that make up the organism in each moment are only temporary and passing contents.  Their identity does not converge with the identity of the whole through which they pass.  But it is exactly by the passing of alien matter as part of itself that the whole maintains its spatial system, the living form.  From a material point of view it is never the same, although it keeps its identity exactly by not keeping the same matter.  If it will be the same as the sum of its matter it has ceased to live. (Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life)”
Thus the key distinguishing aspect of the living can be stated as follows:
It exchanges matter and acts thereby from a subject pole partially independently of the underlying matter:
As precarious existence it is always threatened by non-existence, so its concern is to avoid perishing; in order to do this it is again completely dependent on matter whose characteristics are the very reason for its concern:
Even the simplest forms of life have a subjective perspective as a result of existential need:
Therefore life as such will always be captured by the antinomies of “freedom and necessity, autonomy and dependence, I and world, relatedness and isolation, creativity and mortality” Hans Jonas.

At the centre of Jonas’ description stands the fact that organisms materially create themselves, a notion parallel with the definition of autopoiesis  (refers to a closed system capable of creating itself) proposed at about the same time Jonas formulated a comprehensive concept of his idea:
Our first observation is that Organisms are things whose existence is their own achievement.  That means that they only exist out of what they are doing… Therefore the statement, that the existence of organisms is their own achievement simply means: their activity as such, is their being. (Jonas 1992,82)
This entails that teleology (the idea that final causes exist in nature) is a primordial tendency of matter manifesting in the form of organisms.  As an embodiment of intrinsic teleology an organism is, in a strong sense, a “natural purpose.”

“The perspective of a challenged self-affirming organism lays a new grid over the world: a ubiquitous scale of value.  To have World for an organism thus first and foremost means to have value.  It brings forth this value – the goal of its intrinsic teleology – by the process of its on-going identity making.
The fundamental point of departure is that life says “yes” to itself. In wishing itself to continue, it declares itself as a ‘value.’  Thus may we say that mortality is the narrow door through which value, the thing addressed by “yes,” entered the otherwise indifferent universe?” Jonas 1992)
The primordial structure of value then manifests in what can now be called the subjective dimension even for the simplest organisms.  Only in the light of desire of the living does the world gain structure.  A world without organisms would be a world without meaning; and it is life’s incessant need and deficiency that a subjective perspective and activity is established in the world.  Subjectivity is the absolute interest an organism takes in its continued existence and fulfilment of what it lacks, or as Anthony Damasio once said: All living things from the humble amoeba to the human being are born with devices designed to solve automatically the basic problems of life.  Those problems are: finding sources of energy, incorporating and transforming energy; maintaining a chemical balance of the interior compatible with the life process; maintaing the organism's structure by repairing its wear and tear; and fending off external agents of disease and physical injury.
Purposiveness, Teleology between Nature and Mind by Luca Illetterati and Francesca Michelini
The Phenomenon of Life, by Hans Jonas.

Professor Corey Anton, talks about The Phenomenon of Life by Hans Jonas