Machinic Life: The Replicants are (among) Us

“‘Organisms are resilient patterns in a turbulent flow— patterns in an energy flow.’

Carl Woese, Noble Prize winner

“I believe that I have somewhere said (but cannot find the passage) that the principle of continuity renders it probable that the principle of life will hereafter be shown to be part, or consequence, of some general law…”

– Charles Darwin in a Letter to George Wallich

“Pan-mechanism is not simply the claim that being is composed entirely of machines, but that all interactions are machinic interactions.”

– Levi R. Bryant (MOO)

For a long while there was a thin red line that divided inanimate matter from animate life forms, chemistry from biology, but in the last few years many scientists working within biophysics and molecular biology are blurring such distinctions and discovering new and surprising things about matter and its operational life. Take the ribosome for instance:

The ribosome is a tiny organelle present in all living cells in thousands of copies that manufactures the protein molecules on which all life is based. It effectively operates as a highly organized and intricate miniature factory, churning out those proteins— long chain-like molecules— by stitching together a hundred or more amino acid molecules in just the right order, and all within a few seconds. And this exquisitely efficient entity is contained within a complex chemical structure that is just some 20– 30 nanometres in diameter— that’s just 2– 3 millionths of a centimetre! Think about that— an entire factory, with all the elements you’d expect to find in any regular factory, but within a structure so tiny it is completely invisible to the naked eye.1

Another scientist, Peter M. Hoffmann, tells us in his work in molecular biology using the touch based rather than site based atomic force microscopy (AFM’s) he “discovered the fascinating science of molecular machines. I realized that life is the result of noise and chaos, filtered through the structures of highly sophisticated molecular machines that have evolved over billions of years. I realized, then, there can be no more fascinating goal than to understand how these machines work— how they turn chaos into life.”2

Attacks against reductionist or methodological naturalism have become a staple of the new turn toward religion in science. Religious philosophers like Alvin Plantinga (2011).’Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion and Naturalism’ would have us believe that there is a deep and serious conflict between naturalism and science:

“Taking naturalism to include materialism with respect to human beings, I argue  that it is improbable, given naturalism and evolution, that our cognitive  faculties are reliable. It is improbable that they provide us with a suitable  preponderance of true belief over false. But then a naturalist who accepts  current evolutionary theory has a defeater for the proposition that our faculties are reliable. Furthermore, if she has a defeater for the proposition that her cognitive faculties are reliable, she has a defeater for any belief she takes to be produced by her faculties. But of course all of her beliefs have been produced by her faculties—including, naturally enough, her belief in naturalism and evolution. That belief, therefore—the conjunction of naturalism and evolution—is one that she can’t rationally accept. Hence naturalism and evolution are in serious conflict: one can’t rationally accept them both.” (p.xiv)

Yet if we return to the beginning of this form of naturalist tradition in the seventeenth century, with the invention of the first microscopes, scientists searched for the secret of life at ever smaller scales. Biological cells were first described in Robert Hooke’s Micrographia in 1665 (Figure 0.1). It took until 1902 for chromosomes to be identified as carriers of inheritance. The structure of DNA was deciphered in 1953, and the first atomic-scale protein structure was obtained in 1959. Yet, even while scientists dissected life into smaller and smaller pieces, the mystery of life remained elusive.

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Epistemic Naturalism: Quine, Goldman, Kuhn, and Brassier

“Philosophy of science is philosophy enough.”
– W.V. Quine

Broadly speaking the Analytical tradition in philosophy can be characterized by an emphasis on clarity and formal logic and analysis of language, and a profound dependence and respect for the natural sciences. Some of the main precursors of this movement in philosophy are Bertrand Russell, Ludwig Wittegenstein, G.E. Moore, Gottlob Frege, and the logical positivists who derive from them.

W.V. Quine was one of the first to propound an influential naturalized epistemologyHe ultimately wanted to replace traditional epistemology with the natural sciences (i.e., psychology ). He felt that the psychological study of how people produce theoretical “output” from sensory “input,” and the other is the logical reconstruction of our theoretical vocabulary in sensory terms. In Quine’s view, the second approach cannot succeed, and so we are left with psychology. The basis of this view is a theory of knowledge that limits its scope and methods to those of the natural sciences and their conclusions. Within this domain there is three main forms of naturalized epistemic theories: replacement, cooperative, and substantive naturalisms. Replacement would have us abandon traditional forms of epistemology in favor of naturalist science and its methods. Cooperative epistemic forms tells us that traditional epistemology would benefit from the cognitive sciences. Substantive epistemic centers on the factual assertions of ‘facts of knowledge’ and ‘natural facts’.

Alvine Goldman on the other hand provided what he termed causal reliabilism. This is a theory of knowledge that states that a justified true belief counts as knowledge only if it is caused in a suitably reliable way. What Goldman tells us is that it is necessary also to construct a theory of what epistemic justification really is, as opposed to how common sense takes it to be. That theory will be grounded in our psychological understanding of how beliefs are formed, and it will include assessments of those processes in terms of reliability.

Thomas Kuhn applied a naturalistic approach to the social sciences using epistemological questions. Kuhn inspired naturalism is not incompatible with the naturalism that draws on psychology and the natural sciences. Such naturalistic epistemologists as Alvin Goldman and Philip Kitcher have fruitfully applied insights from both the natural and the social sciences in the attempt to understand knowledge as a simultaneously cognitive and social phenomenon.

Naturalistic epistemologists seek an understanding of knowledge that is scientifically informed and integrated with the rest of our understanding of the world. Their methods and commitments differ, because they have varying views about the precise relationship between science and epistemology and even about which sciences are most important to understanding knowledge.

Epistemic naturalists usually try two sorts of approaches: 1) either they try to show the issue is empirical and then to apply scientific data, results, methods, and theories to it directly; or, 2),  they try to undermine a problem’s motivation by showing it arises only on certain false, non-naturalistic assumptions.

Yet, despite its efforts, naturalistic epistemology does face serious challenges from the problems of circularity and normativity. They are seeking nothing more nor less than the unification of science and philosophy. Others such as Ray Brassier seek instead a revisionary naturalism within this same tradition.

Brassier in his work Nihil Unbound pushed the limits of nihilism to its final extent. He linked epistemological naturalism in Anglo-American philosophy (Sellears) with anti-phenomenological realism in French philosophy. Against certain post-analytical streams of thought that have tried to bring together Heidegger and Wittgenstein against scientism and scepticism, he offers a version of eliminative materialism loosely coupled with speculative forms of philosophy.

It is in this non-dialectical turn in materialism that I’ve found congenial with my own thought. As Brassier tells us “The junction of metaphysics and epistemology is marked by the intersection of two threads: the epistemological thread that divides sapience from sentience and the metaphysical thread that distinguishes the reality of the concept from the reality of the object.  …For just as epistemology without metaphysics is empty, metaphysics without epistemology is blind. (T 279)” 1

It is this fine line or balancing act between the two disciplines that marks a distinction that makes the distinction needed to obviate many of the difficulties we face within both Analytical and Continental traditions. Against grand theories and final narratives that try to fit science into a ‘Theory of Everything’ Brassier wants to do something different: “Science does not need to deny the significance of our evident psychological need for narrative; it just demotes it from its previously foundational metaphysical status to that of an epistemically derivative ‘useful fiction’.”(interview)

As he recently related, he is a “nihilist precisely because I still believe in truth, unlike those whose triumph over nihilism is won at the cost of sacrificing truth. I think that it is possible to understand the meaninglessness of existence, and that this capacity to understand meaning as a regional or bounded phenomenon marks a fundamental progress in cognition.” (Ibid.) The notion of a regional or bounded conception of phenomenon is key to this form of epistemic naturalism that some have called a revisionary naturalism. His thought is aligned with Wilfred Sellars work in that as he said in correspondence with  on Being’s Poem:  “Sellars is concerned with developing a metaphysical vision in which not only  are secondary qualities integrated and their relationship to primary qualities  explained, but the articulation between the sensation of the former and the conception of the latter is also accounted for.” It is just here that epistemology and metaphyisics touch base with each other without one or the other having some central priority over the other.

1. Elliott, Jane; Attridge, Derek (2012-03-12). Theory After ‘Theory’ (p. 279). Taylor & Francis. Kindle Edition.