What a living thing is, what an artifact is, and why the first living thing would have been one (Part One of a Response to the Smithy)
|April 27, 2010||Posted by vjtorley under Intelligent Design|
The Smithy, a Web site devoted to the life, times, and thought of the Subtle Doctor, the Blessed John Duns Scotus, has recently weighed in on the ID controversy, with three recent posts by Michael Sullivan in response to my post, In Praise of Subtlety. Before I continue, I would like to congratulate Michael Sullivan for successfully defending his dissertation on Friday, April 23.
Reading Michael Sullivan’s latest blog posts, I realized that I had not been precise enough in my definitions of what a living thing is, and of what an artifact is. It would be a terrible thing if we ended up talking past each other in what promises to be an interesting philosophical exchange, so I shall do my best to prevent that happening.
The views I present below are my own, and I take full responsibility for them. In formulating them, I have endeavored to marry the best insights of Aristotle’s philosophy and modern science.
What is a living thing?
Specifically, I claim that:
(i) having a “good of its own” is a property of all living things, and only living things, and that it defines the meaning of “life”; and
(ii) for biological organisms, having a “good of its own” goes hand-in-hand with unique formal features which characterize living things. In other words, a material object is alive and has a good of its own if, and only if, it possesses these formal features.
However, the formal features cannot be understood without reference to finalistic concepts, which is why a purely formal characterization of life could never succeed.
First, we can define a living thing in terms of its unique kind of finality. A living thing is a thing with a good of its own.
All kinds of natural objects have a built-in tendency to produce certain determinate effects, under the right circumstances. This is evident from the fact that they behave in accordance with scientific laws. Insofar as these objects consistently tend towards determinate effects, again and again, they are displaying future-oriented behavior. The effect they tend towards can be called their telos. Additionally, these things possess an internal unity, and may resist being taken apart. The atoms in crystals, for instance, are bound together by strong chemical bonds. However, this internal unity of natural objects does not mean that we can speak of anything as being good for them. For example, soil, water and sunlight are good for a plant; but it simply makes no sense to say that anything is “good for” soil, good for water, or good for sunlight. These things are not the sort of things that can meaningfully be said to benefit from anything. Only living things can properly be said to benefit, because they possess a good of their own.
Still, we might ask: how do we know which things have a “good of their own”? Empirically, what distinguishes them from other things? Our first definition captures the essence of a living thing, but it is far too vague for scientists to use.
Second, we can define a living thing in terms of its form. I contend that a living thing is a thing possessing all of the following features:
(i) a master program controlling the organism’s internal parts and their internal interactions from the top down, and also governing the organism’s vital processes and biological functions – especially nutrition, growth and reproduction;
(ii) a nested hierarchy of organization (in which macromolecules are nested into organelles, organelles into cells, cells are nested into tissues, tissues into organs, and organs into an organism), whose formation and maintenance is governed by the master program; and
(iii) embedded functionality: living things are built from the bottom up, by intrinsically adapted parts whose entire repertoire of functionality is “dedicated” to supporting the functionality of the whole unit which they comprise. This embedded functionality starts all the way down at the bottom, at the level of atoms and molecules. It is thus part of the very “warp and woof” of a living thing.
The first two features would commonly be regarded as formal features of organisms, but as we shall see, they cannot be adequately characterized without reference to the telos of the organisms possessing them, so actually they could be described as both formal and finalistic; while the attribute of embedded functionality can be viewed as an empirical manifestation of both formal and final causality, insofar as it describes the manner in which the structured parts of an organism subserve the interests of the whole.
By “master program” I mean a single, unified set of instructions. An assortment of low-level programs working independently of one another, in the absence of any kind of central co-ordination, would be unable to accomplish their respective tasks smoothly and harmoniously, as they would be liable to interfere with one another. In particular, an assortment of independent programs could not be relied upon to accomplish two vital tasks: first, directing the formation of the organism’s bodily structures during its development; and second, preserving the organism as a single, viable entity and co-ordinating its activities.
This master program, I believe, is where the functional complex specified information that is found in each living thing resides.
However, the mere presence of a master program per se does not confer life on an entity, as it fails to explain why the entity should possess ends. I claim that in order to give rise to ends, the master program needs to be a very specific kind of program: one which generates a nested hierarchy of structure within the organism, and which also allows the functionality of the lowest levels to subserve that of the highest levels. Then and only then can we speak of the structure-as-a-whole as having a good of of its own.
A nested hierarchy is a necessary (but not sufficient) condition for an organism’s having a good of its own, because it is impossible to ascribe ends to an organism unless its parts work together for the benefit of the whole. To do this, the parts need to be hierarchically ordered. Finally, the hierarchy needs to be nested, in order for the parts to be intrinsically ordered towards the well-being of the whole. In a non-nested hierarchy, each part would be directed by some other part above and outside it; thus the part-whole finality would be merely extrinsic.
(Some definitions: Nested hierarchies involve levels which consist of, and contain, lower levels. Non-nested hierarchies are more general in that the requirement of containment of lower levels is relaxed. For example, an army consists of a collection of soldiers and is made up of them. Thus an army is a nested hierarchy. On the other hand, the general at the top of a military command does not consist of his soldiers and so the military command is a non-nested hierarchy with regard to the soldiers in the army. Pecking orders and a food chains are also non-nested hierarchies.)
The nested hierarchy of living things reflects a functionality in which the entire repertoire of the functionality of the parts is “dedicated” to supporting the functionality of the whole unit which they comprise. (By “the entire repertoire”, I mean everything that the parts actually do.)
Dr. James Tour illustrates the concept of embedded functionality as follows:
[Let’s say that] you see a tree [and] you want to make a table, [so] you chop down the tree [and] you make a table – that’s [building] top down. But, the tree and I and everything else in nature are built from the bottom up. Molecules have certain embedded interactions between them and embedded functionality. Those come together to form higher-order structures called cells and those form higher-order structures and here we are.” You might also envision this as building from the inside out, or by forming the required traits in the smallest conceivable building blocks first. (Geer, D. “Organic Computing: Life that Computes.” In “Techworthy” computer magazine, Bedford Communications, 2002.)
This “dedicated” functionality can be seen at every level of organization of a living thing, from the bottom up. Living things are built from the bottom up, by “dedicated”, intrinsically adapted parts; today’s human-built computers are designed from the top down, out of parts which have to be modified in some way, to suit the designers’ ends.
Embedded functionality is by no means unique to living things: as Dr. Tour points out in the above quote, it is found in molecules too. However, what I am suggesting is that all organisms, and only organisms, possess the combination of a master program that directs the generation of a nested hierarchical structure with the property of embedded functionality.
The reason why any reductive identification of final ends with any lower-level properties is bound to fail is that the ends possessed by organisms are holistic ends, and no lower-level description of a biological process, however complete it may be, can be equated in meaning with a holistic description of the same process, even if the two descriptions are truth-functionally equivalent. It is for this reason that Mayr (1982) rejects the simplistic assertion by what he calls strong mechanists, that organisms are nothing but chemical machines, whose properties and parts are wholly reductively identifiable with and explicable in terms of the laws of physics and chemistry. (See Mayr, J. 1982. The Growth of Biological Thought: Diversity, Evolution, and Inheritance. Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.)
An additional reason why final explanations are not reducible to formal ones is that such a reduction incorrectly assumes that we can describe the formal features of a living organism using non-teleological terminology. But when we are talking about organisms, it is impossible to compartmentalize our language regarding formal and final causality in this way: the two forms of causality are inextricable. We cannot, for instance, properly describe an embedded functionality without reference to its ends. And although an inanimate object could contain a master program or nested hierarchy of organization in the absence of embedded functionality, even these formal features, when realized in an organism, cannot be properly described without reference to the ends that they enable the organism to achieve.
Thus the fact that an organism’s master program governs its process of development and maturation does not mean that we can “reduce” this long-term biological goal to the program that codes for it. Indeed, we cannot properly understand the master program regulating an organism’s development unless we first grasp what the development is for – a future state (maturation), which is a holistic goal of the organism.
What is an artifact?
I’ll begin with the etymology of the word “artifact,” a noun which dates from 1821.
According to Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary, the word “artifact” is of Latin etymology, derived from the Latin arte, by skill (ablative of art-, ars skill), and factum, neuter of factus, past participle of facere, to do.
Unfortunately, the definitions listed in Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary all contain some reference to being made by human beings. This is rather unhelpful for our purposes, as it would imply that anything created by aliens, for instance, is not an artifact! So I’m going to put forward my own definition, which I hope will strike most people as a sensible one.
Before I define what an artifact is, I’d better say what it is not.
(1) An artifact is not a kind of thing, like “water.” An artifact, as the etymology of the word shows, is something made with skill; thus anything made with the requisite skill might qualify as an artifact.
(2) An artifact is not a thing made in a particular way. What characterizes an artifact is the skill (or art) that goes into the making of it, rather than the technique with which it was made.
(3) An artifact is not a thing possessing only extrinsic finality, like a car or a mousetrap – i.e. made solely for the benefit of another, and possessing no good of its own. For there is no reason in principle why a living thing could not be made in a laboratory in the same way that human artifacts are made in factories – by assembling one piece at a time – although in practice, it would be extremely difficult. If a living thing was made with the same set of laboratory skills as a human artifact, then it would make sense to call the living thing an artifact too.
(4) An artifact is not simply a thing made by an intelligent agent. That would be too broad. For an intelligent agent might make something haphazardly, without applying skill, or alternatively, as a result of applying very little skill – “Just add water.” Things made in this fashion would not deserve to be called artifacts.
So, what is an artifact?
An artifact can be defined broadly as:
(i) a thing that was made with skill (even if it could have been reliably produced through a process where no skill was applied),
or more narrowly as:
(ii) a thing whose form is such that it could only have been reliably made through the application of skill, and not as a result of any other process.
(I’ve added the word “reliably” to exclude freakish events that might just happen to generate something on a particular occasion, but which cannot be reliably counted on to do so – e.g. a tornado just happening to blow the parts of an artifact together. Obviously, tornadoes are not a reliable way to generate artifacts.)
Next question: what is skill?
By “skill” I mean any activity (a) performed by an intelligent agent acting intentionally, and (b) resulting in information which helps generate a specific pattern or form, that can perform one or more functions.
Alternatively, skill could also be defined as any activity that inputs functional complex specified information, as defined by Dembski, W. A. and Wells, J. The Design of Life. 2008. Foundation for Thought and Ethics, Dallas. (See pages 311-320.)
Skill does not have to include the physical activity of assembling the parts of an artifact, piece by piece. Obviously, a Being that could make all the parts of an artifact at once (e.g. a 747, to use one of Sullivan’s examples) would be at least as skillful as a being that assembled the parts, one piece at a time.
The Scriptures tell us that God made all things by His Word. For instance, in Genesis 1:3, God says, “Let there be light.” That’s skill, by my definition, even if it took place by creation ex nihilo. Later, in Genesis 2:7, God forms a man from the dust of the ground, which sounds more like assembly. If that account is literally true, then that’s skill, too.
In saying that the first living thing was an artifact, I mean that it was an artifact in the narrow sense. Because it was the first living thing, it could not have been generated naturally from another living thing. Thus it must have either been generated from non-living matter, without the application of skill, or it must have been generated (somehow) through the application of skill. However, I would contend that the form of the first living thing was such that it could only have been made through the application of skill, and not as a result of any other process. (I will explain why below. Briefly: its master program was too rich in what Dembski calls functional complex specified information to have been generated in any other way. Putting it another way: living things instantiate recipes, and neither the laws of nature nor chance are capable of creating recipes.)
However, I would add that the first living thing need not have been assembled piece by piece, by God, although it might have been. If it was made by God from pre-exisiting parts, then those parts must have been assembled in a particular order.
Thus the first living thing could only have been produced through an activity performed by an intelligent agent, acting intentionally. This intelligent activity resulted in information which helped generate a specific form: a master program that could perform the biological functions required by the first living thing. This form satisfied all the requirements listed above for a thing to qualify as having a good of its own (master program, nested hierarchy and embedded functionality).
Now let us compare a living thing with a water molecule. Water molecules are naturally generated all the time, as a result of matter (hydrogen and oxygen, under the appropriate conditions) behaving in accordance with the laws of nature. Is skill required here? Certainly, skill (more specifically, God’s Word and Wisdom) was required to create the laws of nature. The fine-tuning argument illustrates this point beautifully. But was skill required to create this particular water molecule? No. Once the laws are up and running, no extra input of intelligence is required.
Living things are naturally generated all the time, too. Is skill required here? Certainly, skill (more specifically, God’s Word and Wisdom) was required to create the laws that allow biological organisms to function, and I will argue below that it was also required to create the first living thing. But is skill required to create each and every new organism that pops into existence? No. Reproduction is a natural process; once this process is in place, no extra input of intelligence is required to create new organisms that come into existence.
Why abiogenesis is theologically objectionable to ID proponents
Some Thomists believe that God could have created a cosmos that generated life through the laws of nature. They insist that in such a cosmos, final causality would still be universal, as it would be found in every law-governed process. Because things obeying the laws of nature exhibit a consistent tendency towards certain effects, they can be said to be directed by God at ends. In addition, God would be required to conserve such a cosmos in being; He did not just create it and walk away.
However, what many ID proponents find offensive about the proposal that the laws of nature alone, operating on inanimate matter, could have accounted for the origin of the first living organism is that laws, being general in scope, cannot be said to be aimed at the production of any particular individual. Thus if the above proposal were correct, the first living thing would have been generated without any skill. Sure, God would have used His skills to “set up the show” by creating the universe with its laws, and continuing to conserve everything in existence. But the actual generation of the first living thing would have been accomplished via automatic processes (laws) that were not specifically aimed at the production of that particular thing. Thus no extra input of intelligence would have been required to create the first living organism that came into existence. I have to say that sounds rather godless to me. It just doesn’t smell right. It’s too “hands-off” – not much better than Deism.
What about Professor Michael Behe’s proposal that God set up the universe at the beginning of time with an extremely finely tuned set of initial conditions, so that all He had to do was press “Play,” as it were, and the universe then unfolded naturally, resulting in the first living organism? Now, that proposal doesn’t bother me at all. Why not? Because God still explicitly designed the initial conditions, with a view to producing the first living thing. What’s more, He explicitly intended the production of that living thing, and no other. Thus on this scenario, God’s skill was applied in creating the first organism was applied in the very specific initial conditions set up by God at the beginning of time. No problem.
What I do object to is the proposal that the laws of nature, combined with just about any old set of initial conditions, could have generated the first living thing. First, it’s too impersonal a process to generate something as significant (and as splendid) as the first living thing. Second, it denies that any skill went into the making of the first living thing (which is scientifically absurd, for reasons I’ll explain below). Third, it makes life itself sound like an accident – which implies that you and I are accidents too.
Why abiogenesis is scientifically absurd
Here’s the argument, in a nutshell.
A living thing, as we have seen, contains a master program that governs all its vital activities – including reproduction.
Thus a living thing embodies a recipe for its own creation. Normally, a living thing is created from another living thing, according to the recipe in its master program.
What about the first living thing? How was it generated? Could the laws of nature and/or chance events have generated it? No.
The laws of nature are not directed at the creation of recipes. Recipes have meanings: they have a very highly specific semantic content. The laws of nature are directed at the generation of things (e.g. water from hydrogen and oxygen), rather than meanings. However, a living organism isn’t merely a kind of thing, like water: it actually embodies a message in its master program. The laws of nature are not directed at the production of messages.
That’s why the laws of nature cannot explain the origin of the first living thing.
Chance doesn’t create recipes, either. Recipes have meaning. Chance doesn’t produce meaning.
That’s why chance cannot create a living thing.
Since there was a first living thing, it must have been created by something that can generate meaning.
Only intelligence is reliably capable of generating meaning. Neither laws nor chance will do the trick. Both are too non-specific to generate the specified complexity that characterizes life.
Intelligence is the only reliable explanation of the origin of the first living thing.
Why we should be glad that we’re descended from artifacts
An artifact in the strict sense of the word, as I have defined it, is a thing that could only have been made with skill. Machines are artifacts, but they lack a good of their own. Living things are blessed with a good of their own, but they can only be said to possess this good by virtue of possessing certain formal features, among which is a master program. It takes skill to write a program. Thus the first living thing must have been a Divine artifact, in addition to having a good of its own.
I for one am glad that I’m descended from that artifact. It means that God did a good job of making something which gave rise to me. Now who could possibly object to that?
Part Two of my reply will be posted later today.