Biology and mechanism

by Neil Rickert

In an earlier post, I wrote “Living things don’t fit with what I consider to be mechanism.”  In today’s post, I’ll discuss what I see as the distinction between biology and mechanism.

The meaning of “mechanism”

The term “mechanism” is hard to define.  The Wikipedia page is a disambiguation page linking to several alternative meanings.  The page on the engineering meaning comes closest to what I think of when I use the word “mechanism.”

A mechanical system, as I use that term, is a passive receiver of energy.  What we call “mechanical” is the way in which that energy percolates through the system via motions of parts and the forces that they apply to cause motions of other parts.

When people mention “determinism”, they often have in mind the apparent determinism of such mechanical systems.  I’ll use the expression “mechanical determinism” to refer to that, even if it might not be completely deterministic.  Those who deny that there is any possibility of free will, are probably thinking of something like that mechanical determinism.

Biology

So where does biology differ from this idea of mechanism?

Quite simply, biological organisms are not passive receivers of energy.  Rather, biological organisms are active seekers of energy.  They have found ways of finding energy to meet their needs, and have thereby achieved some degree of energy independence.

With this energy independence, biological systems have been able to give themselves some independence from mechanical determinism.  Biology does use mechanism.  It uses that for control, particularly self-control.  But,  because of its autonomous ability to acquire energy, it is not limited by mechanical determinism in the ways that passive receivers of energy are limited.

Free will

It is still unclear what people mean by “free will.”  But what they do mean seems to include some ability to make autonomous decisions.  Our ability to make autonomous decisions is linked to our ability to be autonomous energy seekers.  Those two autonomous behaviors are mutually dependent on one another.

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12 Comments to “Biology and mechanism”

  1. Biological systems still form a subset of mechanisms.

    I don’t see any bar, in principle, to mechanical (in the traditional engineering sense) autonomous energy seeking systems. This early example was limited by the technology available to it:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digesting_Duck

    But I imagine that it would be possible to make a better system eventually, particularly with novel materials science and other great technologies that are coming along. What seems to be lacking is only the desire and need for such a system, given current technological limits.

    Again, you have only defined a separation of biology and your understanding of mechanism according to your own assertion. You have explained what criteria you use to make the distinction, but you have not addressed why those criteria, energy seeking self-sustaining automata, can not be mechanistic systems – or why biological systems are not mechanistic. It seems you have engaged in a taxonomic division that like for evolutionary species is only different as examples are isolated by time and space, with no obvious species barrier between. Biological systems seem to have emerged from non-biological systems, from simple mechanistic to complex mechanistic, with no obvious point of separation.

    Another point: biological systems may have been passive receivers of energy in their early forms. And, in a sense, the active nature of energy seeking depends on a passively caused mechanisms that drive the biological system to find energy. This of course brings in the notion of free will.

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    • This early example was limited by the technology available to it:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digesting_Duck

      That does not appear to be relevant.

      Again, you have only defined a separation of biology and your understanding of mechanism according to your own assertion. You have explained what criteria you use to make the distinction, but you have not addressed why those criteria, energy seeking self-sustaining automata, can not be mechanistic systems – or why biological systems are not mechanistic.

      I’m not sure of your point. Of course I am going by what I take to be the appropriate meanings. It’s not as if we have some sort of ultimate list of universal meanings available for consulting.

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  2. My point is that you are claiming there is a distinction between biology but the reasons you give can be just as easily used to show there is no distinction:

    – Autonomy – yes, machines can be designed to have a degree of ‘autonomy’
    – Energy seeking – yes, machines can be designed to be ‘non-passive’ energy seeking

    And a lot here rests on the meaning of terms like ‘non-passive’ in a context that is so wide.

    So, one could argue that ‘They have found ways of..’ implies a degree of self-induced autonomy that machines don’t have. But there are a few responses to this:

    – Humans didn’t design themselves, so they didn’t actively ‘find ways’ in the sense that this term might imply. They had the autonomy first and where driven mechanistically from earlier predecessors: an early biological entity would come across energy passively or cease to exist as that entity and transform into a ‘dead’ collection of molecules.

    – The religious would argue, in a confused and somewhat contradictory sense, that humans too where designed, as we design machines – as Rev. Paley would have it – and then magically free will is inserted as an upgrade. None of that implies humans ‘found ways of’ but were given such ways and means and then left alone as autonomous mechanisms.

    I see nothing in your distinctions between biology and machines that cannot be applied to machines, and therefore biology is a more complex example of mechanism, we are a subset of machines.

    Only in the old simplistic restrictive sense of ‘designed by humans’ are we not machines. In which case we are still a subset of machines: we are machines not designed by humans but which have come about through the natural forces of dynamic matter and energy in the universe.

    The universe is a dynamic place. It is itself a mechanism. Just as an engine is a component of a car, while the car also has simpler mechanisms like windscreen wipers, so too in the scope of mechanisms that is the universe cars are components, and engines and wipers are subcomponents – the classifications are convenient but do not remove the notion of mechanism.

    Also, in the scope of the universe, humans are mechanisms, and subcomponents are hearts, DNA replication mechanisms; brains and neurons, …

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  3. “Quite simply, biological organisms are not passive receivers of energy. Rather, biological organisms are active seekers of energy. They have found ways of finding energy to meet their needs, and have thereby achieved some degree of energy independence.”

    Except at the molecular level. At the molecular level, they are just as passive as any other atoms are in terms of being “receivers of energy”.

    “With this energy independence, biological systems have been able to give themselves some independence from mechanical determinism. Biology does use mechanism. It uses that for control, particularly self-control. But, because of its autonomous ability to acquire energy, it is not limited by mechanical determinism in the ways that passive receivers of energy are limited.”

    Because they operate mechanically at the atomic/molecular level, they don’t really have any independence from mechanical determinism. It is true that there are unique/complex aggregates of these mechanical interactions with biological systems that wouldn’t generally exist with non-biological systems, but nevertheless they are still aggregates of mechanical interactions. So ultimately they are just as limited as any other collection of atoms are at the most fundamental level, even though there are new patterns of complex interactions happening at higher levels. Since these higher level processes are all mediated by enzymes and DNA/RNA ultimately anyway, they are all limited by the mechanical interactions of DNA/RNA, enzymes, etc., which must respond to the stimuli/electro-chemical potentials as they do (save randomness), and thus are just as limited from a deterministic point of view.

    I would say that one could analogize the differences between biological and non-biological systems with that of a simple computer compared to a more complex computer that can learn, maintain memory/configuration/homeostasis by recharging capacitors (like DRAM), etc. They are both still limited similarly at the most fundamental level (binary coded operations, their hardware, etc.), though the more complex computer certainly has higher level configurations and more complex capabilities not present in the simpler computer. In terms of classical free will, biological can be no more free than the fundamental molecular/mechanical operations that produce/constitute the higher level processes.

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  4. If I had to guess, and it would be a giant leap of a guess, I would say that the passive receivers with the most advantage survived, and with evolution and time, the ones highest efficiency became so complicated that the line between receiver and seeker became blurred.

    Or there is a teleological mechinism, which is probably much harder to verify, but not completely out of the question.

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    • I tend to see homeostasis as important here. A homeostatic system can be said to be following a purpose of remaining in stasis. I see this as the basis of the apparent natural teleology that we find in biological systems.

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      • “A homeostatic system can be said to be following a purpose of remaining in stasis. ”

        I still think you are being vague with ‘purpose’ here. It could mean the programmed goal of a mechanism. In which case many mechanistic systems remain in stasis.

        Note that homeostatic systems are not closed systems. The feature of being homeostatic implies that without those mechanisms they could not maintain states that are in conflict with their environment, particularly a changing environment.

        A common situation is where humans live in places that are hot during the day, cold at night, and vary according to weather and season – in that case their homeostatic systems must regulate internal temperatures.

        But it doesn’t need to be a changing environment. A human living in consistently cold place must maintain body temperature whether the temperature of the environment is constant or varied.

        So too, an inhert object like the moon may be considered not to be a homeostatic system because there are no processes going on that are so obviously maintaining a state that is contrary to the environment. But any planet that maintains a stable condition at its rocky surface that is contrary to space can be considered to be a homeostatic system – especially with night/day and seasonal variations in the heat reaching the upper atmosphere.

        I would say the same for earth too, but then life forms contribute to earth’s homeostasis. But then again, I consider life on earth to be mechanistic and so the earth remains a mechanistic homeostatic system.

        But even for organisms like humans, I also see them as machines. But they are homeostatic too, while they continue to survive. So again, your making a point that only applies if you have already made your point that life forms that are also homeostatic systems are not mechanistic systems. You’re still affirming the consequent.

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  5. Is “mechanics” a single, unified body of theory? If so, is it possible to describe (or define)THE mechanical system as an example that we can compare to “non-mechanical” systems?

    We have classical mechanics and its relativistic extensions to high velocities and large masses, and its quantum-theoretic extensions to small masses and small spaces, etc., but none of this could be described as a seamlessly integrated whole. There remain significant outstanding problems in each of these theories individually and in synthesis.

    It would be nice, to begin with, if one could provide a succinct, but somewhat more precise description (than the one Neil Rickert provided) of mechanics or a mechanical system, if only for the sake of argument.

    What is a MECHANICALsystem? As opposed to any other kind of system one may imagine.

    E.g., could one define a mechanical system as one in which the effects of any force operating on the system are simply additive or monotonic functions of the causes?

    That would exclude virtually every system we are familiar with in common experience.

    Metaphysical atoms in metaphysical motion in a metaphysical void hardly begins to describe the mechanics I studied in school. Or the mechanics of ordinary experience. So how in the world did such a thin veil of “theory” become the very paradigm of science to so many philosophers? More parody than paradigm, isn’t it?

    What is “mechanics”?

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    • Is “mechanics” a single, unified body of theory?

      No, it isn’t. It is just a word used as part of the name of some theories, and used elsewhere in ordinary speech.

      It is of the nature of human language, that most words do not have precise definitions or clear meanings.

      The whole point of my post was to explain something about what I mean by “mechanism” and to present reasons for that meaning. People disagree on meanings. And the comments responding to this thread are mostly disagreements over the meaning of “mechanism”.

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  6. I understand. I really don’t have any criticism of passivity as a criterion for defining a mechanical system, because it suggests conservation, which I also think is characteristic of mechanical v. “non-mechanical” systems.
    The laws of mechanics are conservative. Symmetrical. Which I have always regarded as a bit of a paradox.(As I mentioned above.)

    However, not all mechanics is formulated in terms of ENERGY. Newton’s laws arn’t. And, because energy is conserved it can’t distinguish mechanical from non-mechanical. If one accepts that even non-mechanical systems conform to physical laws.

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  7. Useful distinctions may be made between mechanical systems and I think these distinctions may be more fruitfully explored, rather than the non-/mechanical distinction.
    After all, the philosophical understanding of mechanics pretty much covers anything and everything a philosopher may imagine.

    A long time ago some natural philosopher wrote (words to the effect) that God is perfectly capable of producing a machine that perfectly emulates a human.

    And so what of it? God can do whatever He is of a Mind to do.

    Who’s gonna tell Him No?

    I don’t see “mechanics” as a serious problem.

    In design theory a predictive or anticipatory system is often deemed a non-causal or acausal system. Why?

    They are called non-causal in fealty to philosophers, who have insisted that any event that occurs or could occur in the future cannot be the cause of anything in the present or past.

    Imagine how your philosophical life would work out if you knew virtually nothing about the past and nothing about the future.

    Homeostasis is maintained by reference to a time-independent state… This creates the illusion that so confounds both engineers and philosophers trained in mechanics.

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