New Physics or New Metaphysics?

On Growth and Form, 1992 Dover reprint

Does the study of living systems require a new physics? Not if new physics requires the discovery of yet to be known particles or forces or strange quantum mechanical effects. Organisms are not different from other types of matter as far as their atomic properties are concerned. However, the term organism itself points to where we will be needing new physics. Organism is related to organization; in other words, what we need to be looking for are laws of organization that are relatively new.

There is nothing new about the search for laws of organization. D’Arcy Thompson was looking for them more than a hundred years ago. More recently Stuart Kauffman and others have also called for laws of organization. I think we need to go one step further: we need to think about organization as a distinct entity from substances, whether they be atoms, quarks or strings. In Aristotle’s physics there were four causes: the material, the formal, the efficient and the final. Organization is a combination of the material and the formal cause and much of what is new in cognitive science — like embodied cognition– is coming from emerging intuitions about organization and organisms. What we are groping towards is a synthetic mode of knowledge (is it a science?) that is neither so particular that it only applies to certain carbon based life-forms and not so abstract that it is reducible to atoms. Neither embodied cognition (too particular) nor current physics (too universal) fits the bill but we are getting there, I think.

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