Biological metaphysics?

by Rishidev Chaudhuri

IMMUNE-SYSTEMTo my mind, the most fascinating biological systems lie in the uncanny interstices between the physical and the intentional, between systems that can be understood as purely material objects, in the mould of physics or chemistry, and those that seem to require some notion of self (and other) or intentionality or that use complex regulatory loops to maintain themselves as some sort of consistent entity. For example, how should we make sense of the immune system which, on the one hand, seems obviously physical (and hence avoids the debates associated with consciousness) and yet seems to contain at least a primitive notion of self and other, that maintains representations of and long-term memories about its environment and that seems to regulate in a way that feels teleological (or most easily understood this way). These systems challenge us theoretically partly because they are fiendishly complicated, typically consisting of many interacting parts and levels of interactions. But more than this, these parts and levels of interactions seem to form a consistent whole in a way that, say, a gas in a box doesn't, and in doing so they elude our theoretical frameworks. It's not that we know what a good theoretical description would look like and haven't found it yet1. Instead we seem to lack the right level of general principles of understanding and organization. At some point the principles we use to understand physical bodies (energy, entropy, conservation laws and so on) seem to break down, but the principles that we use to understand other subjects in the world (desires, goals, representation and such) don't yet hold. Thus these are material collections that are simultaneously coherent entities, inextricably embedded in the world and insensible without it. At the risk of sounding like one of those Continental metaphysicians whom physicists are always raising their eyebrows at, much of what is exciting about this realm is that it hints at new metaphysics, new categories of making sense of what a system is, what a meaningfully describable entity is, and so on. And reassuringly, these theoretical projects are anchored in the study of physical systems; this doesn't guarantee truth but does provide a set of constraints that nudge speculation in interesting directions.

One direction we might proceed in emerges from taking seriously the mathematics that partially helps make sense of these systems (as it develops) rather than simply treating it as a descriptive tool. Few people still believe that mathematics gives us access to a Platonic realm that links the mind to things in themselves, and yet mathematics seems to offer something more than a set of logical consequences drawn simply from definitions. Somewhere in between, there's a plausible case to be made that mathematics helps clarify and reveal something about the categories that allow our minds to make sense of the world (in addition to creating new ones and perhaps new forms of understanding). This suggests that we could use mathematics the way a psychoanalyst uses projection or free association: we gaze upon what we have produced in making sense of the world and this makes conscious to us the underlying conceptual structures we used. Such an endeavor is somewhat fraught, and is reminiscent of the enthusiasm for chaos theory, catastrophe theory, complexity and all the other late 20th century programs that seemed to promise a universal framework within which to understand complex systems and then, despite many individual successes, fell short. But we have no choice but to push our theoretical frameworks in these ways and perhaps the falling short is a lesson suggesting modesty rather than retreat. Indeed a number of the ideas from these frameworks are important advances, and ideas like feedback loops, strange attractors and catastrophes have been influential in the modern theoretical toolkit. Complex biological systems need more mathematization, not less, and the attempt to conceive of new mathematical forms to account for these systems is still ongoing (though perhaps less programmatically than before). Stretching these forms beyond the scientific and attempting to draw broad theoretical conclusions (for example, about the nature and types of entities we can usefully speak about) is bound to be prone to over-generalization and false trails, but this is true of any attempt at theoretical advance.

Another possible direction is to allow concepts to trickle down from the realm of the Subject. We undeniably relate to subjects in ways very different from objects; even leaving aside the ethical realm, we grant subjects a certain unity of self, and ascribe intentions and internal states to them. Perhaps these concepts can be stepped further down the chain of being. This is even more fraught than generalizing from mathematical structure, of course. It hints ominously at a return to a dubious vitalism that seems to have been theoretically exhausted. And, at a more popular level, it drifts close to a fluffy New-Ageiness and a tendency to confuse sloppy thinking with profundity. Yet these rejected views of the world do contain within them a meaningful lament, and understanding systems as purely instrumental objects throws away a whole realm of being and of theoretical possibility. It has also been a long time since we took subjects very seriously; perhaps it has been long enough that we can return and start to reanimate matter, though hopefully with the accumulated wisdom of the intervening years. After all, the way we relate to objects has extended further and further into the ways we relate to subjects. Both modern science and philosophy have destabilized the subject to an extent that it is unlikely to return in its full grandeur and everything from post-structuralism to neuroscience encourages us to see the self as a contingent and fragmented multiplicity. Theoretically, we rarely speak of subjects as coherent essences and in most of the sciences we shy away from “anthropomorphizing people” (as Morgenbesser is reported to have said of Skinner). So maybe it's possible to let the categories we use to understand subjects leak back into inanimate matter (albeit transformed), much as we previously let bodies rolling down inclined planes, swinging pendulums and collections of gases diffuse up into the realm of subjects. Of course the selves and intentions we might project onto complex biological systems are not ultimately real. But then the selves we use to understand each other probably aren't real either, and yet are essential to our world.

This is all very speculative, but it at least vaguely suggests a theoretical program; this program is already being carried out implicitly (by scientists, with all the benefits and dangers that implies) and would benefit from being dragged into the light. We live in a world increasingly flooded with multi-level measurements of complex biological systems, and our reaction to this data deluge wavers between Promethean enthusiasm and bafflement tinged with fear. In the midst of all this it is good to pay more than lip-service to the idea that we will need new foundational frameworks to progress and to give ourselves permission to occasionally chase thoughts that hover on the edge of the nonsensical.

1The answer doesn't seem to be to write down an approximate Hamiltonian for the immune system, for example.