Aristotle, Rashevsky, Rosen – A common thread


“Again, we do not regard any of the senses as wisdom; yet surely these give us the most authoritative knowledge of particulars. But they do not tell us the ‘why’ of anything – e.g., why fire is hot; they only say that it is hot.”

   – Aristotle, Metaphysics Book I Ch. 1


Robert Rosen made extensive use of Aristotle’s categories of causality in his study of complex system. In reading Aristotle, I found some remarkable similarities to some of Rosen’s statements. In addition, Rosen’s mentor, Nicolas Rashevsky, also made many remarks that seemed to indicate that perhaps all three of these great thinkers had views of the world which were, to some extent, compatible with each other on a deep level. The following  sets of quotes are offered for those interested in comparing the similarities in the thinking styles of these great men.


“Just as in any discussion of parts or equipment we must not think that it is the matter to which attention is being directed or which is the object of the discussion, but rather the conformation as a whole (a house, for example, rather than bricks, mortar, and timber), in the same way we must think that a discussion of nature is about the composition and the being as a whole, not about parts that can never occur in separation from the being they belong to.”

        – Aristotle, Parts of Animals, Book I Ch. 5

“A very serious shortcoming is this:…There is no successful mathematical theory which would treat the integrated activities of the organism as a whole….The fundamental manifestation of life mentioned above drop out from all our theories in mathematical biology.” 

        – Rashevsky, Mathematical Biophysics Vol. 2, p.306

To sum up: It may perhaps be true that the question “What is life?” is hard because we do not yet know enough. But it is equally probable that we simply do not properly understand what we already know.”

        – Rosen, Life Itself, p.17


“Past students of nature, however, took the opposite view. The reason for this is that they did not see that the causes were numerous, but only saw the material and efficient and did not distinguish even these, while they made no inquiry at all into the formal and final causes.”

        – Aristotle, Generation of Animals, Book II Ch. 5

“Let us, however, appraise the problem realistically. In celestial mechanics, where we deal with forces varying as simply as the inverse square of the distance and acting on rigid masses, the three-body problem, let alone the n-body problem, still defies in its generality the ingenuity of mathematicians. The forces between cells are much more complex; they are non-conservative, and the cells themselves are not merely displaced but also changed externally and internally by these forces. What are the chances within a foreseeable number of generations to even approximately master the problem of an organism as an aggregate of cells, considering that this organism consists of some 1014 of cells, hundreds of different tissues, and thousands of complex interrelated structures. Pessimism is not a healthy thing in science, but neither is unrealistic optimism.”

        – Rashevsky, Mathematical Biophysics Vol. 2, p.307

“This is a fateful situation. Once we have partitioned the ambience into a system and its environment, and (following Newton) once we have encoded system into a formalism whose only entailment is a recursion rule governing state succession, we have said something profound about causality, and indeed about Natural Law itself. In brief, we have automatically placed beyond the province of causality anything that does not encode directly into a state-transition sequence. Such things have become acausal, out of the reach of entailment in the formalism, and hence in principle undecodable from the formalism.”

        – Rosen, Life Itself, p.102


“But if the existence of man and animals and their parts is natural, we must have to say of each part – of flesh, blood, bone….face, hand, foot – in virtue of what, and in respect of what sort of capability, each is such as it is. For it is not enough to say what it is made of, for example of fire or of earth….For its nature in respect of conformation is more important than its material nature.” 

        – Aristotle, Book I Ch. 1

“When we observe the phenomena of biological integration we notice, however, not quantities, varying continuously or discontinuously, but certain rather complex relations….Topological analogies go much deeper in the realm of the living when we observe not merely structural but functional (in a biological sense) relations. The unity of the organism and the unity of all life is expressed by just that kind of relations.”

        – Rashevsky, Mathematical Biophysics Vol. 2, p.308

“Biology becomes identified with the class of material realizations of a certain kind of relational organization, and hence, to that extent divorced from the structural details of any particular kind of realization. It is thus not simply the study of whatever organisms happen to appear in the external world of the biologist; it could be, and in fact is, much more than that. Biology becomes in fact a creative endeavor….”

        – Rosen, Life Itself, p.245


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2 Responses to Aristotle, Rashevsky, Rosen – A common thread

  1. Peter J. Mango says:

    Shouldn’t you be in touch with the Institute for the Study of Nature? (The Vice President, Dr. Michael Augros, is a friend.) They have an interesting board as well, who would be interested in the biological themes you mention. – Peter Mango, Ph.D.

  2. Tim Gwinn says:

    Thanks! Their site does look of interest to me.