Beyond Desartes and Newton: Recovering life and humanity

Progress in Biophysics and Molecular Biology 119 (3):219-244 (2015)
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Attempts to ‘naturalize’ phenomenology challenge both traditional phenomenology and traditional approaches to cognitive science. They challenge Edmund Husserl’s rejection of naturalism and his attempt to establish phenomenology as a foundational transcendental discipline, and they challenge efforts to explain cognition through mainstream science. While appearing to be a retreat from the bold claims made for phenomenology, it is really its triumph. Naturalized phenomenology is spearheading a successful challenge to the heritage of Cartesian dualism. This converges with the reaction against Cartesian thought within science itself. Descartes divided the universe between res cogitans, thinking substances, and res extensa, the mechanical world. The latter won with Newton and we have, in most of objective science since, literally lost our mind, hence our humanity. Despite Darwin, biologists remain children of Newton, and dream of a grand theory that is epistemologically complete and would allow lawful entailment of the evolution of the biosphere. This dream is no longer tenable. We now have to recognize that science and scientists are within and part of the world we are striving to comprehend, as proponents of endophysics have argued, and that physics, biology and mathematics have to be reconceived accordingly. Interpreting quantum mechanics from this perspective is shown to both illuminate conscious experience and reveal new paths for its further development. In biology we must now justify the use of the word “function”. As we shall see, we cannot prestate the ever new biological functions that arise and constitute the very phase space of evolution. Hence, we cannot mathematize the detailed becoming of the biosphere, nor write differential equations for functional variables we do not know ahead of time, nor integrate those equations, so no laws “entail” evolution. The dream of a grand theory fails. In place of entailing laws, a post-entailing law explanatory framework is proposed in which Actuals arise in evolution that constitute new boundary conditions that are enabling constraints that create new, typically unprestatable, Adjacent Possible opportunities for further evolution, in which new Actuals arise, in a persistent becoming. Evolution flows into a typically unprestatable succession of Adjacent Possibles. Given the concept of function, the concept of functional closure of an organism making a living in its world, becomes central. Implications for patterns in evolution include historical reconstruction, and statistical laws such as the distribution of extinction events, or species per genus, and the use of formal cause, not efficient cause, laws.

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Arran Gare
Swinburne University of Technology


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