Essays on Life Itself

Essays on Life Itself 

by Robert Rosen

  Ordering Details(2000) Columbia University Press; ISBN 0231105118 [Amazon] [Columbia U. Press]




From the Publisher

Compiling twenty articles on the nature of life and on the objective of the natural sciences, this remarkable book complements Robert Rosen´s groundbreaking Life Itself -a work that influenced a wide range of philosophers, biologists, linguists, and social scientists. Breaking free from the constraints of reductionist reasoning, which maintains that simple, empirical mechanisms are the basis of all life, the renowned biophysicist tackles a remarkable range of subjects that will stimulate similarly far-reaching audiences.

In Essays on Life Itself, Rosen takes to task the central objective of the natural sciences, calling into question the attempt to create objectivity in a subjective world. The book opens with an exploration of the interaction between biology and physics, unpacking Schrödinger´s famous text What Is Life? and revealing the shortcomings of the notion that artificial “intelligence” can truly replicate life. Rosen also challenges the paradox of the brain as organism and the receptacle of scientific reasoning. Elegantly rounding out his argument, the author reflects on the quandary of side effects, moments when science confronts unpredicted outgrowths of a process thought to be reduced to a system.

An intriguing enigma links all of the essays: How can science explain the unpredictable? As a century defined by extraordinary scientific progress draws to a close, Essays on Life Itself is a critical work that asks readers to reconsider what we have learned and where science can lead us in the years to come.

About the Author
Robert Rosen was professor emeritus of biophysics at Dalhousie University and the author of books including Life Itself (Columbia 1991), Principles of Mathematical Biology, and
Principles of Measurement.


From the Preface

“This volume is a collection of essays, intended primarily to enlarge upon a number of points that were touched upon in Life Itself. I believe they are of independent interest and importance, but I felt the ideas could not be pursued in that place, since they would detract from the main line of the argument to which Life Itself was devoted.

    Thus this volume should be considered a supplement to the original volume. It is not the projected second volume, which deals with ontogenetics rather than with epistemology, although some chapters herein touch on ideas to be developed therein.”


Chapter Excerpts

Part I: On Biology and Physics

    “To me, the basic question in biology, to which all others are subsidiary or collateral, is the one put most succinctly by the physicist Erwin Shrödinger: What is life?

    Any question becomes unanswerable if we do not permit ourselves a universe large enough to deal with the question. Ax = B is generally unsolvable in a universe of positive integers. Likewise, generic angles become untrisectable, cubes unduplicatable, and so on, in a universe limited by rulers and compasses.

    I claim that the Gödelian noncomputability results are a symptom, arising within mathematics itself, indicating that we are trying to solve problems in too limited a universe of discourse. The limits in question are imposed in mathematics by an excess of “rigor”, and in science by cognate limitations of “objectivity” and “context independence”. In both cases, our universes are limited, not by the demands of problems that need to be solved but by extraneous standards of rigor, The result, in both cases, is a mind-set of reductionism, of looking only downward toward subsystems, and never upward and outward.”

Chapter 1:    The Shrödinger Question, What is Life?  Fifty-five Years Later

“Open systems thus constitute in themselves a profound and breathtaking generalization of old physics, based as it is on excessively restrictive closure conditions, conservation laws, and similar nongeneric presumptions that simply do not hold for living things. Seen in this light, then, is it really biology that is, in Monod’s words, “marginal,” “a tiny and very special part of the universe,” or is it rather the old physics? In 1944, Shrödinger suggested that it was the latter that might be the case. Today, fifty-five years later, that possibility continues to beckon and indeed, with ever-increasing urgency.”

Chapter 2:     Biological Challenges of Contemporary Paradigms of Physics and Mimetics

    “The following remarks are intended to address two problems: (a) the role of contemporary physics in dealing with nature and properties of living systems, and (b) the role of mimetic approaches (usually prefaced by the adjective artificial) in dealing with these same matters.”

Chapter 3:    What is Biology?

    “In this chapter, I had intended to consider only the legitimacy of identifying two very differently defined things: a “Mendelian gene,” defined in indirect functional terms via its manifestations in larger systems (phenotypes), and an intrinsic structural feature (sequence or primary structure) of a polymeric molecule. As it turned out, this question could not be readily separated from its own, deeper context, one that goes to the very heart of reductionism itself.”

Part II: On Biology and the Mind

“The mind-brain problem is somewhat apart from my direct line of inquiry, but it is an important collateral illustration of the circle of ideas I have developed to deal with the life-organism problem. I do not deny the importance of the mind-brain problem; it was simply less interesting to me personally, if for no other reason than that one has to be alive before being sentient. Life comes before mind, and anything I could say about mind and brain would be a corollary of what I had to say about life. That is indeed the way it has turned out.”

Chapter 4:    The Church-Pythagoras Thesis

    “It is my contention that mathematics took a disastrous wrong turn some time in the sixth century B.C. This wrong turn can be expressed as an ongoing attempt, since then, to identify effectiveness with computability. …. “The impact of that wrong turn, made so long ago, has spread far beyond mathematics. It has entangled itself into our most basic notions of what science is. …. From this common concern with measurement, concepts pertaining to mathematics have seeped into epistemology, becoming so basic a part of the adjective scientific that most people are quite unaware they are even there.”

Chapter 5:    Drawing the Boundary Between Subject and Object: Comments on the Mind-Brain Problem

“The identification of objectivity with what is independent of or invariant to (these are not the same) perceivers, or cognizers, or observers, is what has led to the current infatuation with the machine as simulacrum of life and mind. Roughly speaking, if a machine can “do” something, that is prima facie evidence of its objectivity, and of its admissibility into science. Hence the conflation of mechanism with what is objective, and the relegation of anything nonmechanistic to the realm of the subjective, the ad hoc, the vitalistic, the anthropomorphic: in short, beyond the pale of science.

    I shall argue, to the contrary, that mechanism in any sense is an inadequate criterion for objectivity; that something can be objective (and hence a candidate for scientific scrutiny) without being in any sense a mechanism. That is, the perceived dichotomy between mechanism and vitalism (i.e., denial of the former means affirmation of the latter) is a false one.”

Chapter 6:    Mind as Phenotype

    “An essential feature of this discussion is the necessity of learning about a material system, not only by taking it apart into subsystems, but also by putting it into larger systems with which it can interact. …. In biology, these two ways of viewing a given material system are already radically different, and highly inequivalent. But as we have noted, the invocation of specific larger contexts creates impredicativities that contemporary physics does not like to admit; that is precisely why there is a measurement problem in physics, and a life-organism problem in biology, and a mind-brain problem. Such problems ultimately force us into some deeply ingrained habits of thought, which it is entirely possible are bad habits.”

Chapter 7:    On Psychomimesis

    “This argument from a mimesis to an identity is a version of the Turing Test, designed by Turing (1950) to provide an answer to the question, Can a machine think? and thereby to provide an operational characterization of thought itself. It is precisely this kind of extrapolation that allows mimesis to encroach on science and even on mathematics, as we shall see. In fact, the real question, approached mainly in the context of machines, brains, and minds, is the extent to which mimesis is in itself science or is only a mimic of science.”

Chapter 8:    The Mind-Brain Problem and the Physics of Reductionism

    “Problems such as the mind-brain problem appear hard because they involve properties (e.g., life and mind) that depend on impredicativities within the systems x that manifest them.  ….  Just as an attempt to break open an impredicative loop in a mathematical system, and replace it by a finite syntactic list or algorithm, destroys all properties of the loop itself, so any attempts ot fractionate a material system containing closed causal loops destroys all of its properties that depend on such an internal loop. Such fractionations constitute a material version of formalization, artifactual as far as questions like the mind-brain problem are concerned.”

Part III:    On Genericity

    “It was a main thrust of Life Itself that what is more generic does not merely reduce to what is less so – it is more the other way around. In particular, I argued that mechanistic systems are nongeneric in several basic ways; they are simple, whereas most systems are complex. I characterized the nongenericity of simple systems in terms of their infinitely feeble entailment processes, either causal entailment in natural systems or inferential entailment in formalisms. From the standpoint of complex systems, simple ones are infinitely degenerate; they are like a high-order polynomial, most of whose roots coincide.”

Chapter 9:     Genericity as Information

    “Indeed, most of the truly radical aspects of Thom’s book [Structural Stability and Morphogenesis] have never been discussed at length; the book itself is largely viewed as a wrapper for the Classification Theorem. But that theorem, conspicuous as it is, is only the tip of an enormous iceberg. I will go beneath the water a bit to explore some of the architecture of that iceberg, especially concerned with the implications of genericity for science in general, for the deeper relations between biology, physics, and mathematics it reveals, and above all, the the theoretic and philosophical principles buried in it.”

Chapter 10:    Syntax and Semantics in Languages

“[W]e cannot identify pure syntax with objective, and dismiss all the rest as subjective. A language fractioned from all its referents is perhaps something, but whatever it is, it is neither a language nor a model of a language. ….  The main issue, however, is that, just as syntax fails to be the general, with semantics as a special case, so too do the purely predicative presuppositions underlying contemporary physics fail to be general enough to subsume biology as just a special case. This kind of attitude is widely regarded as vitalistic in this context. But it is no more so than the nonformalizability of Number Theory. Stated another way, contemporary physics does not yet provide enough to allow the problems of life to be well-posed.”

Chapter 11:    How Universal is a Universal Unfolding?

“On the face of it, however, bifurcation theory should be as much a representation of system generation as of system failure. Indeed, in generating or manufacturing a mechanical structure, such as a bridge, we need the bridge itself to be a bifurcation point, under the very same similarity relation pertaining to failure modes; otherwise we simply could not even build it. The fact that we cannot in general interpret universal unfoldings in terms of generation modes as we can with failure modes raises a number of deep and interesting questions. Obviously, it implies that the universal unfolding is far from universal.”

Chapter 12:    System Closure and Dynamical Degeneracy

    “At issue here is the profound question of how to create a physics of open systems – specifically, a physics which will be powerful enough to encompass the material basis of organic phenomena. The prevailing approach, which has developed historically over a period of centuries, is to take the closed, isolated, conservative system as primary, and attempt by one means or another to open it up. (Nicolis and Prigogine 1977). The considerations sketched above indicate that this is at best the hard way to go about it; as we have indicated, the closed systems are so degenerate that essentially anything can happen. The alternative strategy is to acknowledge the primacy of open systems, and forget about closed systems in this context altogether.”

Chapter 13:    Some Random Thoughts about Chaos and Some Chaotic Thoughts about Randomness

    “By its very nature, nongeneric dynamics is inherently less robust, in the face of truly arbitrary environments. Indeed, nongeneric dynamics can look robust only if we severely restrict the genericity of the environment as a source of system fluctuations. Perhaps, indeed, the way to discriminate between “chaotics” and its alternatives lies precisely here – pushing a system into a truly arbitrary niche and seeing what happens. It is, of course, equally possible that both pictures are wrong (Rosen 1979), that dynamics itself is already too nongeneric.”

Part IV:    Similarity and Dissimilarity in Biology    

    “The chapters in this part cover a variety of more special topics and applications, especially to biological form and to morphogenesis.”

Chapter 14:    Optimality in Biology and Medicine

    “One explicit way of excluding telos from physics is by postulating that present change never depends on future states (or future forces). To us, this still seems reasonable enough; it is easy to accept that such a dependence on the future is incompatible with traditional views of determinism. On the other hand, it was early recognized that the variational principles of physics, which we reviewed above, seem already to violate this maxim; we need both a present and a future configuration to determine a path. Thus, the Principle of Least Action, say, which is at the very heart of theoretical mechanics, looks more telic than mechanics itself allows. This has always bothered people, and many have taken the trouble to rationalize it away on various grounds, which we need not pause to review here. But these facts point to perhaps a deep relationship between the nature of optimality principles in general and the things we do not understand about organic phenomena.”

Chapter 15:    Morphogenesis in Networks

    “One of the most ancient, and at the same time the most current, fields of theoretical biology is that concerned with morphogenesis – the generation of pattern and form in biological systems. This chapter is devoted to the development of an integrated framework for treating morphogenetic problems, not only because they are of the greatest interest and importance in their own right but also because they tell us some important things about theoretical biology in general, and they help us articulate the position of biology vis-à-vis other scientific disciplines.”

Chapter 16:    Order and Disorder in Biological Control Systems

    “As we have seen, the concept of entropy loses all significance once we depart from the choice of closed, isolated systems as standards. We can retain the term for open systems, but only at the cost of inventing an increasingly unwieldy formalism of “entropy fluxes,” which are attempts to create new Lyapunov functions for the open system dynamics. If the system is open enough, this whole approach fails; the problems associated with open systems are dynamical problems and not thermodynamic ones.”

Chapter 17:    What Does It Take to Make an Organism?

    “To attach synthetic significance to analytic fragments and, still more, to believe that analytic knowledge (i.e., a knowledge of how something works, its physiology) can tell us something about it’s creation, its ontogenesis, is an article of faith inherited from the machine metaphor…. It is a most unfortunate legacy; in too many ways, it leads us in exactly the wrong direction. It identifies analysis with synthesis, replacing the latter with the former. What we must do, rather, is to separate them again. The process of doing this, however, takes us immediately outside the machine metaphor itself and everything it rests on.”

Part V:    On Biology and Technology

    “I have long believed, and argued, that biology provides us with a vast encyclopedia about how to solve complex problems, and also about how not to solve them. Indeed, biological evolution is nothing if not this, but its method of solution (natural selection) is, by human standards, profligate, wasteful, and cruel. Nevertheless, the solutions themselves are of the greatest elegance and beauty, utterly opposed to the discordances and mortal conflicts that created them. We cannot use Nature’s methods, but we can (and, I believe, we must) use Nature’s solutions.”

Chapter 18:    Some Lessons of Biology

“Perhaps the first lesson to be learned from biology is that there are lessons to be learned from biology.” 

Chapter 19:    Bionics Revisited

“We shall not, in the following, be directly concerned with such questions [re the impact of bionics], but rather with another that illuminates them, and that can be phrased roughly as Where (if anywhere) does machine end and organism begin? Machine and organism are essentially different in kind, and, as a consequence, the concept of machine does not exhaust the dimensions of technology.”

Chapter 20:    On the Philosophy of Craft

    “Indeed, the entire concept of craft changes completely when dealing with complex systems. For we cannot generically approach them exclusively by simple means. There is a sense in which complex systems are infinitely open; just as with any infinite thing, we cannot exhaust their interactive capacities by attempting to control their parameters one at a time. In particular, the simple control cascades previously mentioned will generally not break off; hence, magic bullets of this character will generally not exist.”

Chapter 21:    Cooperation and Chimera

    “Here I shall take a look at the evolutionary correlates of chimera formation, and particularly at chimera in the sense of an adaptive response, based on modes of cooperative behavior in a diverse population of otherwise independent individuals competing with each other as such. If we take chimera seriously, in the sense of being a new individual with an identity (genome) and behaviors (phenotype) of its own, we can raise some deep epistemological and system-theoretic questions. These range from the efficacy of reduction of a chimera to constituent parts, all the way to sociobiology (i.e., what is phenotype anyway?), and beyond.”

Chapter 22:    Are Our Modeling Paradigms Nongeneric?

    “I shall proceed with a discussion of the concept of genericity, culminating in an argument that simple systems are nongeneric (rare). I will then discuss the related concept of stability, and the testing for stability by applying generic perturbations. I will conclude by showing that dynamical systems, systems of differential equations, become complex when generically perturbed, and I will briefly discuss what this means for the scientific enterprise.”


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