Nature as the Arficer of Itself

In discussing the artificial, and in particular how a science of the artificial could be developed, Simon points out one of the basic flaw in Neo-Darwinist theory.  Anything adapted is by definition going to exhibit some sort of teleology,  and any functional explanation relies on that teleology.  Simon only extends it to biological life, but given the  apparent teleology found even in physics, when attempts are made to ‘explain’  the commonality of shapes in galaxies, for instance, his notes apply to all natural science.  So science itself stands or falls on the ability to refashion science itself in such a way as to account for contingent behaviour while not losing the validity of empirical research.  The double complexity involved in biological life is that living things do not simply adapt to an a priori environment.  Only insofar as the being is, is there an environment at all.  Without a living being that in a sense ‘posits’ itself as different from the rest of reality the rest of reality cannot become an ‘environment’ in the first place.  Compounding this initial logical problem (how can anything posit itself as different, except ass the completed organism, retroactively?) the reality thus posited as environment is largely a result of the activity of other living beings.  The interplay of life doesn’t occur in a pre-given reality, although it began there.  Instead it interplays with the rest of nature as it is and has been historically.  This was Darwin’s biggest insight – that nature is historical in an analogous way to human history.  It’s only by seeing the artificiality inherent in what we think of as nature – it’s teleological character – that ‘artificial selection’, a process well understood by human beings since the beginning of agriculture, could be applied back to nature virtually unchanged.  Nature has to be viewed as teleological artifice, or the very notion of natural selection is an invalid metaphor.  This applies not only to individual living beings, but to nature itself as a whole.  The argument about the ‘unit’ of evolution, whether it’s the organism, or the organism with it’s symbiotic microbial contingent, is a ridiculous argument from this vantage point.  The ‘unit’ of evolution is nature itself viewed as a historical whole.

Simon is also implicitly accepting a functional ontology, something most explicitly presented by Heidegger. While in most areas of experience, including common sense, functional ontology is the de facto accepted ontology, precisely in the theoretical mode favoured by ‘natural’ science, structural ontologies are favoured over functional ontologies.  This favouring of an ontology that by and large is irrelevant in most areas of experience, rather than lack of ability or acuity, is the most significant reason that ‘things’ of the sciences are largely uninteresting to the average layman.

An artifact can be thought of as a meeting point—an “interface” in today’s terms—between an “inner” environment, the substance and organization of the artifact itself, and an “outer” environment, the surroundings in which it operates. If the inner environment is appropriate to the outer environment, or vice versa, the artifact will serve its intended purpose. Thus, if the clock is immune to buffeting, it will serve as a ship’s chronometer. (And conversely, if it isn’t, we may salvage it by mounting it on the mantel

Simon, Herbert A.. The Sciences of the Artificial (p. 6). The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.


Obviously the answer is not to do away with the empirical.  Science must continue to develop on the basis of evidence.  But empirical inquiry into the contingent does raise a problematic not properly answered by Simon’s distinction between ‘mathematical’ and ‘quantifiable’ precisely in the areas generally accepted as matters for natural science, since the basis of the epistemological validity of the mathematical is the notion of a temporally prior self-aware creator-being, since the simplistic causality of natural science since the 17th century does not allow for a temporally a posteriori telos as ontological a priori, which is where natural science incorporated a fundamentally technical, i.e. produced via an aware intentionality.

The answer, perhaps somewhat counter-intuitively, is not to remove the empirical basis of the natural sciences, but to base the evidential arbitration of the natural sciences on empirically tested speculative philosophy.  The notion is described by Zizek in considering the philosophical ramifications of quantum mechanics in terms of contingency, and the relevance of Hegel’s speculative philosophy in determining the ontological validity of a scientific hypothesis, when the science involved is no longer seen as a set of necessary universal laws, but as transcendental-historical contingency.

The basic problem of evolutionary cognitivism— that of the emergence of this ideal life-pattern— is none other than the old metaphysical enigma of the relationship between chaos and order, between the Multiple and the One , between parts and their whole. How can we get “order for free,” that is, how can order emerge out of initial disorder? How can we account for a whole that is more than the mere sum of its parts? How can a One with a distinct self-identity emerge out of the interaction of its multiple constituents? A series of contemporary researchers, from Margulis to Francisco Varela, have contended that the true problem is not how an organism and its environment interact or connect, but, rather, the opposite: how does a distinct self-identical organism emerge out of its environment? How does a cell form the membrane which separates its inside from its outside? The true problem is thus not how an organism adapts to its environment, but how it is that there is something, a distinct entity, which must adapt itself in the first place. And it is here, at this crucial point, that today’s biological language starts to resemble, quite uncannily, the language of Hegel. This relationship between the empirical and the transcendental-historical gets further complicated with the fact that, over the last few
decades, technological progress in experimental physics has opened up a new domain, that of “experimental metaphysics,” unthinkable in the classical scientific universe: “questions previously thought to be a matter solely for philosophical debate have been brought into the orbit of empirical inquiry.” 3 What were until now merely topics for “thought experiments” are gradually becoming the topics of actual laboratory experiments—exemplary here is the famous Einstein-Rosen-Podolsky double-slit experiment, first just imagined, then actually performed by Alain Aspect. The properly “metaphysical” propositions tested are the ontological status of contingency, the locality-condition of causality, the status of reality independent of our observation of it (or some other form of interaction with it), and so on. Nonetheless, we should be careful here not to overestimate the philosophical consequences of this “experimental metaphysics”: the very possibility of “empirically testing” so-called metaphysical (basic ontological and epistemological) propositions bears witness to a radical break which cannot be accounted for in empirical terms.
Zizek, Slavoj (2012-04-30). Less Than Nothing: Hegel and the Shadow of Dialectical Materialism (p. 910). Norton. Kindle Edition.
Of course, this cannot be taken to an extreme, where for instance untestable ontological propositions are thereby treated in the manner the most naive of logical positivists would prefer.  Many, if not most, ontological propositions can only be tested via thought, and that hasn’t fundamentally changed.  What has changed is that certain observations in the sciences are implying ontological propositions that can be tested as part of the scientific process itself.  These propositions, in a number of cases, challenge the basic assumptions of ‘natural’ science itself, and the most successful challenge to an invalid scientific assumption is always going to be its empirically demonstrated failure.



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