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Thoughts On Transcendence

February 27, 2012 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 90, Issue 9

Rudy Baum’s Dec. 12, 2011, editorial (page 3), which deals largely with an article by Michael Polanyi that appeared in the Aug. 21, 1967, issue of C&EN, was of interest to me. I had recently read a new book, “Michael Polanyi and His Generation: Origins of the Social Construction of Science,” by Mary Jo Nye, published by the University of Chicago Press. It is an engrossing story of one of the outstanding scientists of his time, and a fine historical account of the lives of a generation of European scientists caught up in the wars and economic strife that wracked Europe during the period 1914 through 1945.

Baum takes a turn at critiquing Polanyi’s C&EN article, in which Polanyi argues that “life transcends physics and chemistry.” That is, the workings of a biological entity such as a cell cannot be explained by simple recourse to physical and chemical laws alone. Baum finds himself in disagreement with at least some of what Polanyi writes but ducks an attempt to reconstruct the arguments that are involved. However, a few words on the historical aspects of the issues involved might be of some interest.

Polanyi is credited with keeping alive the idea that there is much more to understanding biology than a strict reductionism can provide. In two of his major works, “Personal Knowledge” and “The Tacit Dimension,” he wrote of the concept of emergence, the idea that the structure and organization of an entity, be it a machine such as a wristwatch or a biological cell, exert what philosophers refer to as a downward causation on the basic physical and chemical processes that the entity engages in. The organization and three-dimensional structure of the cell determine how certain reactions occur, how components of the cell are transported, and so on. One can say, then, that while everything that goes on in the cell is in accord with the laws of physics and chemistry, the properties that we think of as cellular can’t be accounted for simply by supplying a list of the molecules and their amounts; they emerge from the cell’s structure and organization.

Polanyi wrote on these matters near the end of his career, and in a time when reductionism was the ideal toward which science reached. He did not get all the biology right, and he tilted at some windmills he might better have left alone. In truth, his C&EN piece is rather turgidly written and not always clear. But while he did not actually invent the notion of emergence, Polanyi was prophetic in expounding upon it when he did. In the 1990s, emergence theory arose to become a significant topic of discussion in biology and the philosophy of science.

By Theodore L. Brown
Estero, Fla.

In 40 years of practicing science, I couldn’t help but confirm my intimate belief that society is ultimately ruled by the philosophers and not by scientists and engineers. Even if we had the firm conviction that everything in the heavens and on Earth is reducible to physical interaction and to the stringent laws of causality, this wouldn’t be more than a philosophical ideology, because we have not made the world; we just discover it and try to fit our gained knowledge into hypotheses and theories.

For this reason, I stopped criticizing philosophers on scientific and technical grounds; this would be equivalent to cutting the branch of the tree whereupon I am sitting. Philosophers may, however, be criticized on philosophical grounds. For example, someone pretending that every material process is reducible to physical causality would have to assume that human action is also reducible to physical causality (after all, we are made of atoms). But assuming this, we can no longer uphold the concepts of freedom and moral responsibility, and we cannot justify either to reward or to punish someone for what he has done, because everything on Earth would then be a pure mechanical action-reaction mechanism, outside the categories of good and evil, governed solely by the laws of causality. Denying the transcendence of life will at the same time deny the inalienable rights of the human being and the possibility of a lawful, organized, and civilized society!

Philosophers such as Michael Polanyi expressed this early in a terminology that we should at least try to understand. Bio-logy, “the science of life,” will, for the philosophical reasons given above, never be a molecular science in the deterministic-causal sense. This affirmation by no means excludes molecular biology as an integrating and very helpful part of the science of life. Similarly, the fact that information transfer can be tied to deterministic-causal physical processes (if not, we couldn’t copy a file onto our hard disk), does not mean that information is always of deterministic-causal nature.

It is noteworthy that the (empirically found!) second principle of thermodynamics states that the entropy of a closed system is not bound to any conservation law, and according to our observation, it is generally increasing with time. Entropy, in a mathematical sense, is the logarithm of the information content of the system. In other words, according to our empirical findings, the information content of a closed system may, and generally does, increase with time.

As information can be the cause of a physical process, we must conclude that there are not only physical but also nonphysical causes of physical processes. The second principle of thermodynamics is the principle of transcendence of life!

By Edgar Müller
Prilly, Switzerland



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