Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Ontology of the Metabolic

For Hans Jonas the beginning of life marks an ontological revolution in the history of matter (The Phenomenon of Life, p. 81). Unlike the particle, or an event structure such as a wave that can be described mathematically, the living organism possess a form that is a function of its metabolism and cannot be explained by reducing it to its material constituents. The living organism has a world and a corresponding interiority. It is self-transcendent, spatially and temporally extending beyond its own immediacy (pp. 84-85.) Jonas sees in the organism a primary dialectic of freedom and necessity; he sees this as not merely an aspect of the human condition, but an aspect of the cosmos, an aspect of being since the ontological revolution that is life.

In Jonas' view the emergence of life rather than the emergence of consciousness represents the greatest challenge to thought. This focus creates an interepretive problem. Jonas believes that the amoeba's conation can be reasonably infered based on our own human experience of being a living body, but that to make the same inference for the particle would be unwarranted anthropomorphism (pp. 81-83). He writes that "the teleological structure and behavior of [the] organism is not just an alternative choice of description: it is, on the evidence of each one's own organic awareness, the external manifestation of the inwardness of substance. To add the implications: there is no organism without teleology; there is no teleology without inwardness; and: life can be known only by life" (p. 91). Thus while Jonas regards lifeless matter as an abstraction, as something that doesn't quite fully exist, he does yet believe in substance, a property of living, concrete being. Is there a paradox here, in that the organism, particularly the autotroph, relies on something that doesn't concretely exist? I'm not sure, though I find it telling that Jonas' preferred example of the primitive organism is the amoeba, a hetertrophic protozoan. In any case, Jonas' belief that life is only intelligible to the living requires the exercise of a judicious anthropomorphism, or zoomorphism. Once we allow for making inferences based on our own experience, what limits do we accept on our use of such inferences?

I've already touched on the possibility that Jonas is wrong with respect to protozoa and what kind of dent (if any) that might put in his panpsychism. But what if he's correct? Did consciousness emerge historically by building on what was already present, not in raw matter, but in the being of the organism? What connection is there between metabolism and consciousness? Are self, world, and temporality all prior to the existence of consciousness? How much can we really say about a vital identity without relying on shoddy inferences? We'll see if Jonas has anything to say on the topic when I turn to his next chapter, "To Move and to Feel: On the Animal Soul."

Labels: , , , ,

posted by Fido the Yak at 11:45 AM.


Post a Comment

Fido the Yak front page