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Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

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cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

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cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

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cover of the book How Novels Think

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cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

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cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

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cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

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The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

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Monday, October 17, 2011

Vitalism III: Weird Matter and the Properties of Objects

Posted by Bill Benzon on 10/17/11 at 12:00 PM

I’d though that, with Vitalism, Computation, and Mechanism, I’d said all I wanted to say about vitalism. A half-hour’s contemplation in the bathtub convinced me otherwise.

Weird Matter

Let’s start with my first post in this series, Vitalism and Mechanism: Bennett and Bryant, where I asked: “What the heck can I make of wave/particle matter/energy non-local backward jaunting swiss-cheesy stuff?” That’s a far cry from classical dead matter whose major property was its extension in space (res extensa). Whatever it is we’re up to, for example, we’re NOT trying to figure out how life evolved from res extensa. To the extent that a vital principle has been invoked to explain THAT, we may not need it, because THAT’s not our starting point.

That is, we’re not trying to figure out how life could possibly evolved from what is, in effect, sterilized beach sand. Whatever the substrate was, it wasn’t that. Even in the case of beach sand, at the quantum level it’s strange stuff, and not like classical res extensa.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that it’s one thing to say that a vital principle inheres in the universe as a whole, another to say that it inheres even in beach sand. David Hays and I pretty much agreed to the first when we agreed that the universe is fecund, evolving up multiple realms of being. Bennett seems to be arguing for the latter in her “Chapter 4: A Life of Metal.” One can imagine the first being true without the second being true, but it’s hard to imagine vitality in sand without it being inherent in the universe as a whole.

The Properties of Objects

Now let’s turn to my second post, Vitalism, Computation, and Mechanism, where I argued for distinguishing between two kinds of computation and mechanism, classical and chaotic. Both are fully deterministic in that future states of a system depend on its initial state. But the mechanisms evolving the system from one state to the next are different in ways that seem to require different mathematical description and different computational realization.

We know that classical systems, such as coupled pendulums, are capable of self-organized periodic behavior. That does not distinguish them from the chemical clocks that Levi Bryant mentioned in his original post. That is to say, mere periodicity is not in itself diagnostic of chaotic mechanism. I presume that the mechanism driving the chemical clock operates at the atomic level and does not involved classical-mechanical resonance. Hence it must be an example of chaotic mechanism.

What about synchronization among fireflies? That’s a well attested phenomenon. I do know whether or not the neural circuitry has been worked out though I believe that some of the biochemistry and genetics are known. Will the chaotic mechanisms that explain chemical oscillators be sufficient to explain firefly synchronization? I do not know.

What about the phenomenon of a group of people marching in step with one another? At one level that’s the same classically mechanical behavior as coupled pendulums, chemical oscillators, and firefly synchronization. But what’s the underlying mechanism? Perhaps the mechanism that explains firefly synchronization will also explain human synchronization, but we don’t know. Nor do we know whether we need nothing more than chaotic dynamics to explain our three ‘post-classical’ cases: chemical clocks, firefly synch, and human synch.

One point is that all of these systems exhibit a known property of classically mechanical systems: periodicity. We also know that three of the systems also exhibit chaotic dynamics. But we don’t know whether or not the mathematics of chaotic dynamics is in itself a sufficient descriptive tool for the other three.

If it is not, what tools will we need?

I note as well that the terms of this discussion have now moved away from the terms in which Levi Bryant posed his original criticism of Bennett. Instead of self-organization vs. vitalism I’m talking about: 1) “weird” matter, and 2) various kinds of properties of objects, specifically, classically mechanical, chaotically mechanical, and 3) possibly unspecified others. My bias in this is that there ARE other classes of properties and that, with careful analysis, it should be possible to identify at least some of those classes. But that’s more than I want to take on.

In general, it is my belief that, in principle, objects can have many kinds of properties (if you will, they can withdraw in many ways). Whether sorting them out is a matter for philosophy or for various empirical discipline, that I cannot say.

A Complex Universe

Finally, I want to quote a passage from an essay I wrote with David Hays, A Note on Why Natural Selection Leads to Complexity. The point of this passage is a comment by Ilya Prigogine about the scale of the universe and, in particular, the scale where life happens:

We live in a world in which “evolutionary processes leading to diversification and increasing complexity” are intrinsic to the inanimate as well as the animate world (Nicolis and Prigogine 1977: 1; see also Prigogine and Stengers 1984: 297-298).  That this complexity is a complexity inherent in the fabric of the universe is indicated in a passage where Prigogine (1980: xv) asserts “that living systems are far-from-equilibrium objects separated by instabilities from the world of equilibrium and that living organisms are necessarily ‘large,’ macroscopic objects requiring a coherent state of matter in order to produce the complex biomolecules that make the perpetuation of life possible.” Here Prigogine asserts that organisms are macroscopic objects, implicitly contrasting them with microscopic objects.

Prigogine has noted that the twentieth century introduction of physical constants such as the speed of light and Planck’s constant has given an absolute magnitude to physical events (Prigogine and Stengers 1984: 217-218).  If the world were entirely Newtonian, then a velocity of 400,000 meters per second would be essentially the same as a velocity of 200,000 meters per second.  That is not the universe in which we live. Similarly, a Newtonian atom would be a miniature solar system; but a real atom is quite different from a miniature solar system.

Physical scale makes a difference. The physical laws which apply at the atomic scale, and smaller, are not the same as those which apply to relatively large objects. That the pattern of physical law should change with scale, that is a complexity inherent in the fabric of the universe, that is a complexity which does not exist in a Newtonian universe. At the molecular level life is subject to the quantum mechanical laws of the micro-universe. But multi-celled organisms are large enough that, considered as homogeneous physical bodies, they exist in the macroscopic world of Newtonian mechanics. Life thus straddles a complexity which inheres in the very structure of the universe.


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