On Polanyi, Clayton

On Polanyi, Clayton

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Metanexus: Views 2001.11.14 1657 words

Martinez Hewlett, in his guise as a recovering reductionist, is the autho=rof today’s column. It, too, is a response to the column by Phil Clayton onthe philosophy of Michael Polanyi which appeared this past Friday(2001.11.09) on Metanexus. For more information about the chemist turnedphilosopher, Michael Polanyi, as well as a copy of the schedule for thePolanyi Society meeting at the AAR, from which these papers are taken,please consult last Friday’s column.

When he was a mere reductionist, Martinez Hewlett worked as a chemist andbiochemist at the V.A. Hospital in Sepulveda, California, at theMassachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., and at theUniversity of Arizona where he is to be found today. His specialty has beenthe molecular biology of the family Bunyaviridae, with special emphasis onthe members of the California serogroup viruses, notably LaCrosse andsnowshoe hare viruses. As a recovering reductionist, Martinez Hewlettcounts among his occupations teaching, creative writing (he is the author o=fa novel titled Divine Blood), and philosophizing about various aspects ofscience. He is an active participant in the St. Albert the Great Forum onTheology and the Sciences, held at the University of Arizona Newman Centerand a lay member of the Dominicans. Thus, the OPL letters after his name.

According to Martinez Hewlett,

The philosophical position of ontological reductionism was critiqued byPolanyi at its most important level, when he pointed out that theinformation content of biological macromolecules such as DNA could not, infact, be accounted for simply by the chemistry of the molecules. He stresse=dthat the information must be insensitive to the chemistry, otherwise allDNAs of biological entities could not be composed of the same fournitrogenous bases.

As research progresses in the deciphering and decoding of the human genome,as well as that of other species, this very bivalent quandary–how is theinformation (to be) interpreted?–will arise again and again. To say that w=eare decoding the genome seems to me to be a rather less than felicitous useof language. One is thrown back to the romance of childhood decoder ringsfound in cereal boxes. And yet we know that this is not the case, for thevery existence of the organism is the true decoding of the genetic text. Itis not a novel, but an set of instructions to which we merely transcribe an=dassign labels not meanings or significance. So, what are some other possibl=eoptions? Well, read on to explore what Martinez Hewlett has to say aboutthese issues. =20

What impact upon religion will the eventual decoding and deciphering ofthe human genome have upon religion and upon the science and religiondialogue? I would like your opinion for a future column. So, if you wouldappend your comments to this article by using the comments button at thebottom of the web page or by writing to me at <ake@Metanexus.net>, I wouldbe much obliged!

–Stacey E. Ake

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Subject: On Polanyi, Clayton, and Biology: Some Musings of a RecoveringReductionistFrom: Martinez Hewlett, Ph.D., OPLEmail:hewlett@u.arizona.edu

Introduction

At the beginning of the 21st century we have the opportunity, through theeyes of Clayton and Polanyi, look critically at the discipline of biology.We see, much to the dismay of many of us who practice this science, a fieldthat is lost in its 19th century roots while trying to espouse 20th or 21stcentury models.

The two principal organizing features of modern biology are products of theintellectual climate of the European 19th century, and, as expected, bothreflect the prevailing philosophical assumptions of determinism andreductionism. These two ideas, Mendelian genetics and Darwinian evolution,come together in the middle of the 20th century to produce the Neo-Darwinia=nsynthesis. As a result, the hierarchical structure of modern biology can berepresented by the bottom-up organizational structure shown in Figure 1:

To see Figure 1, go to <http://griffon.mwsc.edu/~polanyi/mjhpolan.html>.

The extreme position of the ontological reduction represented in this figur=eis typified by the physicalism of biologists such as Francis Crick andRichard Dawkins, along with philosophers such as Daniel Dennett. In fact, a=tthe heart of the much touted Human Genome Project is the conviction thatsequencing all of human DNA will ultimately tell us everything there is toknow about what it means to be human.

This philosophical assumption is inherent in models of the human nervoussystem that attempt to explain consciousness as merely an epiphenomenon o=fthe biochemistry of neuronal activity.

Polanyi on Biology

The philosophical position of ontological reductionism was critiqued byPolanyi at its most important level, when he pointed out that theinformation content of biological macromolecules such as DNA could not, infact, be accounted for simply by the chemistry of the molecules. He stresse=dthat the information must be insensitive to the chemistry, otherwise allDNAs of biological entities could not be composed of the same fournitrogenous bases.

Polanyi’s critique has been largely ignored in the modern synthesis.However, beyond this simple demonstration of the fallacy inherent in theassumptions of modern biology, Polanyi offered a wider vision, that of theemergence of systems from assemblages of the subunits contained within thesystem. It is this proposal that is the focus of Philip Clayton’spresentation.

From the standpoint of a recovering biological reductionist, as PhilipClayton characterized me in 1998, this offers an opportunity to recast one’=
sphilosophical base. But before I propose an emergentist view of my own, letme comment on some of the contributions and critiques that Clayton discusse=swith respect to the work of Polanyi.

Clayton on Polanyi

As Clayton rightly points out, Polanyi’s contributions to the currentdiscussion cannot be overstated. His characterization of boundaryconditions, both active and passive, as well as his theory of knowledge andmind become central to any present-day treatment of emergent phenomena. Ofgreater importance, I believe, is his theory of structure and information,with its explicit appeal to top down causality. I emphasize this because ofthe nature of biological information and because the focus of the biologica=lphyiscalist has always been on the primacy of the informational moleculesqua chemicals.

Clayton also offers necessary critiques of Polanyi’s work. I would like tofocus on two of these criticisms: Polanyi’s interpretation of developmentalbiology and Polanyi’s choice of philosophers or philosophies.

Developmental biology, including neurobiology, is perhaps the most activearea of investigation within the general rubric of modern biology. WhenPolanyi considered the state of this discipline in the early 1960’s all ofbiology was under the strict influence of the molecular biology paradigm. I=tis no wonder that, given his view of the reductionist mode of Jacob andothers, he reacted strongly in another direction. His acceptance ofmorphogenetic fields and gradients can be seen, in retrospect, aserrors. However, a closer examination of modern developmental models showsthat such concepts as positional effects, cytoplasmic determinants,gradients of morphogens, and cell-to-cell signaling are commonly invoked.All of this means that, while the cell nucleus contains the coreinformation necessary for a cell’s development (Clayton, this meeting), itis likely that the DNA is a necessary but not sufficient explanation. Is itpossible that Polanyi was partially correct?

Clayton states that Polanyi may have bid on the wrong philosopher. In hisargument, Clayton mentions Aristotle’s doctrine of entelechy as the critica=lflaw in this choice. Clayton wishes to avoid the quasi-Aristotelianmetaphysic in the development of emergentism. He focuses on strongsupervenience as an explanatory model that strengthens the idea of emergenc=efor consideration by theologians. In his seminal work, God and Contemporar=yScience Clayton argues for causal powers as the strongest argument fordownward causation in the case of strong supervenience.

However, the idea of causal powers strikes me as quite Aristotelian. Willia=mWallace, in his book The Modeling of Nature, develops a contemporaryphilosophical approach that he calls the causal model. In this work heargues that, like Aristotle, one can use the world of artifacts as anexplanatory model for the natural world. In this model he recognizes fourcauses: matter, form, agent, and end. His recasting of theAristotelian/Thomistic view can easily be reconciled with a downwardcausation model, although the philosopher Michael Dodds prefers the terminside out causality. So, it seems to me that the idea of causal powersfits nicely into this neo-Aristotelian view. Entelechy, of course, must beabandoned in any contemporary argument, in the same way that el=DDn vital is =
aconcept that has no explanatory usefulness. But it may be going too far tothrow out the model with the interpretation.

Is A New Biology Emerging?

On the one hand Polanyi has pointed out the logical error that lies at theheart of the molecular paradigm of the modern synthesis. On the other hand,Polanyi and Clayton both have constructed an important argument forsupervenience and emergence as an explanatory model for the nature ofconsciousness and the mind. In between these two statements lies the entirehierarchical structure of modern biology. In order to bridge this, it willbe important to reconstruct the view. To do this, it will be necessary toemploy first the weak supervenience of Kim. In this model (Figure 2) theemergent properties of higher order structures are emphasized by the spacethat is not included in the sum of the subvenient parts. In addition, sinceno arrows are shown, the direction of the causation is left unstated.

To view Figure 2, please go to<http://griffon.mwsc.edu/~polanyi/mjhpolan.html>.

This model may not satisfy the strong supervenience sought by thetheologian. However, it may serve as a starting point in the discussion wit=hbiologists still lost in the hierarchy. I offer it as a lure that mightrescue my colleagues who remain addicted to the powerful yet limited drug o=fontological reductionism.

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This publication is hosted by Metanexus Online http://www.metanexus.net. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Metanexus or its sponsors.

Metanexus welcomes submissions between 1000 to 3000 words of essays and book reviews that seek to explore and interpret science and religion in original and insightful ways for a general educated audience. Previous columns give a good indication of the topical range and tone for acceptable essays. Please send all inquiries and submissions to. Metanexus consists of a number of topically focused forums (Anthropos, Bios, Cogito, Cosmos, Salus, Sophia, and Techne) and periodic HTML enriched composite digests from each of the lists.

Copyright notice: Except when otherwise noted, articles may be forwarded, quoted, or republished in full with attribution to the author of the column and Metanexus: The Online Forum on Religion and Science . Republication for commercial purposes in print or electronic format requires the permission of the author. Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 by Metanexus Institute. Metanexus: Views 2001.11.14 1657 wordsMartinez Hewlett, in his guise as a recovering reductionist, is the autho=rof today’s column. It, too, is a response to the column by Phil Clayton onthe philosophy of Michael Polanyi which appeared this past Friday(2001.11.09) on Metanexus. For more information about the chemist turnedphilosopher, Michael Polanyi, as well as a copy of the schedule for thePolanyi Society meeting at the AAR, from which these papers are taken,please consult last Friday’s column.When he was a mere reductionist, Martinez Hewlett worked as a chemist andbiochemist at the V.A. Hospital in Sepulveda, California, at theMassachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, Mass., and at theUniversity of Arizona where he is to be found today. His specialty has beenthe molecular biology of the family Bunyaviridae, with special emphasis onthe members of the California serogroup viruses, notably LaCrosse andsnowshoe hare viruses. As a recovering reductionist, Martinez Hewlettcounts among his occupations teaching, creative writing (he is the author o=fa novel titled Divine Blood), and philosophizing about various aspects ofscience. He is an active participant in the St. Albert the Great Forum onTheology and the Sciences, held at the University of Arizona Newman Centerand a lay member of the Dominicans. Thus, the OPL letters after his name.According to Martinez Hewlett,The philosophical position of ontological reductionism was critiqued byPolanyi at its most important level, when he pointed out that theinformation content of biological macromolecules such as DNA could not, infact, be accounted for simply by the chemistry of the molecules. He stresse=dthat the information must be insensitive to the chemistry, otherwise allDNAs of biological entities could not be composed of the same fournitrogenous bases.As research progresses in the deciphering and decoding of the human genome,as well as that of other species, this very bivalent quandary–how is theinformation (to be) interpreted?–will arise again and again. To say that w=eare decoding the genome seems to me to be a rather less than felicitous useof language. One is thrown back to the romance of childhood decoder ringsfound in cereal boxes. And yet we know that this is not the case, for thevery existence of the organism is the true decoding of the genetic text. Itis not a novel, but an set of instructions to which we merely transcribe an=dassign labels not meanings or significance. So, what are some other possibl=eoptions? Well, read on to explore what Martinez Hewlett has to say aboutthese issues. =20What impact upon religion will the eventual decoding and deciphering ofthe human genome have upon religion and upon the science and religiondialogue? I would like your opinion for a future column. So, if you wouldappend your comments to this article by using the comments button at thebottom of the web page or by writing to me at <ake@Metanexus.net>, I wouldbe much obliged!–Stacey E. Ake=3D-=3D-=3D-=3D-=3D-=3D-=3D-=3D-=3D-=3D-=3D-=3D-=3D-=3D-=3D–=3D-=3D-=3D-=3D-=3D-=3D-=3D-=3D-=3D-=3D-=3D-=3D-=3D-=3D-=3D-=3D-=3D-=3D-=3D-=3D-=3DSubject: On Polanyi, Clayton, and Biology: Some Musings of a RecoveringReductionistFrom: Martinez Hewlett, Ph.D., OPLEmail:hewlett@u.arizona.eduIntroductionAt the beginning of the 21st century we have the opportunity, through theeyes of Clayton and Polanyi, look critically at the discipline of biology.We see, much to the dismay of many of us who practice this science, a fieldthat is lost in its 19th century roots while trying to espouse 20th or 21stcentury models.The two principal organizing features of modern biology are products of theintellectual climate of the European 19th century, and, as expected, bothreflect the prevailing philosophical assumptions of determinism andreductionism. These two ideas, Mendelian genetics and Darwinian evolution,come together in the middle of the 20th century to produce the Neo-Darwinia=nsynthesis. As a result, the hierarchical structure of modern biology can berepresented by the bottom-up organizational structure shown in Figure 1:To see Figure 1, go to <http://griffon.mwsc.edu/~polanyi/mjhpolan.html>.The extreme position of the ontological reduction represented in this figur=eis typified by the physicalism of biologists such as Francis Crick andRichard Dawkins, along with philosophers such as Daniel Dennett. In fact, a=tthe heart of the much touted Human Genome Project is the conviction thatsequencing all of human DNA will ultimately tell us everything there is toknow about what it means to be human.This philosophical assumption is inherent in models of the human nervoussystem that attempt to explain consciousness as merely an epiphenomenon o=fthe biochemistry of neuronal activity.Polanyi on BiologyThe philosophical position of ontological reductionism was critiqued byPolanyi at its most important level, when he pointed out that theinformation content of biological macromolecules such as DNA could not, infact, be accounted for simply by the chemistry of the molecules. He stresse=dthat the information must be insensitive to the chemistry, otherwise allDNAs of biological entities could not be composed of the same fournitrogenous bases.Polanyi’s critique has been largely ignored in the modern synthesis.However, beyond this simple demonstration of the fallacy inherent in theassumptions of modern biology, Polanyi offered a wider vision, that of theemergence of systems from assemblages of the subunits contained within thesystem. It is this proposal that is the focus of Philip Clayton’spresentation.From the standpoint of a recovering biological reductionist, as PhilipClayton characterized me in 1998, this offers an opportunity to recast one’=sphilosophical base. But before I propose an emergentist view of my own, letme comment on some of the contributions and critiques that Clayton discusse=swith respect to the work of Polanyi.Clayton on PolanyiAs Clayton rightly points out, Polanyi’s contributions to the currentdiscussion cannot be overstated. His characterization of boundaryconditions, both active and passive, as well as his theory of knowledge andmind become central to any present-day treatment of emergent phenomena. Ofgreater importance, I believe, is his theory of structure and information,with its explicit appeal to top down causality. I emphasize this because ofthe nature of biological information and because the focus of the biologica=lphyiscalist has always been on the primacy of the informational moleculesqua chemicals.Clayton also offers necessary critiques of Polanyi’s work. I would like tofocus on two of these criticisms: Polanyi’s interpretation of developmentalbiology and Polanyi’s choice of philosophers or philosophies.Developmental biology, including neurobiology, is perhaps the most activearea of investigation within the general rubric of modern biology. WhenPolanyi considered the state of this discipline in the early 1960’s all ofbiology was under the strict influence of the molecular biology paradigm. I=tis no wonder that, given his view of the reductionist mode of Jacob andothers, he reacted strongly in another direction. His acceptance ofmorphogenetic fields and gradients can be seen, in retrospect, aserrors. However, a closer examination of modern developmental models showsthat such concepts as positional effects, cytoplasmic determinants,gradients of morphogens, and cell-to-cell signaling are commonly invoked.All of this means that, while the cell nucleus contains the coreinformation necessary for a cell’s development (Clayton, this meeting), itis likely that the DNA is a necessary but not sufficient explanation. Is itpossible that Polanyi was partially correct?Clayton states that Polanyi may have bid on the wrong philosopher. In hisargument, Clayton mentions Aristotle’s doctrine of entelechy as the critica=lflaw in this choice. Clayton wishes to avoid the quasi-Aristotelianmetaphysic in the development of emergentism. He focuses on strongsupervenience as an explanatory model that strengthens the idea of emergenc=efor consideration by theologians. In his seminal work, God and Contemporar=yScience Clayton argues for causal powers as the strongest argument fordownward causation in the case of strong supervenience.However, the idea of causal powers strikes me as quite Aristotelian. Willia=mWallace, in his book The Modeling of Nature, develops a contemporaryphilosophical approach that he calls the causal model. In this work heargues that, like Aristotle, one can use the world of artifacts as anexplanatory model for the natural world. In this model he recognizes fourcauses: matter, form, agent, and end. His recasting of theAristotelian/Thomistic view can easily be reconciled with a downwardcausation model, although the philosopher Michael Dodds prefers the terminside out causality. So, it seems to me that the idea of causal powersfits nicely into this neo-Aristotelian view. Entelechy, of course, must beabandoned in any contemporary argument, in the same way that el=DDn vital is =aconcept that has no explanatory usefulness. But it may be going too far tothrow out the model with the interpretation.Is A New Biology Emerging?On the one hand Polanyi has pointed out the logical error that lies at theheart of the molecular paradigm of the modern synthesis. On the other hand,Polanyi and Clayton both have constructed an important argument forsupervenience and emergence as an explanatory model for the nature ofconsciousness and the mind. In between these two statements lies the entirehierarchical structure of modern biology. In order to bridge this, it willbe important to reconstruct the view. To do this, it will be necessary toemploy first the weak supervenience of Kim. In this model (Figure 2) theemergent properties of higher order structures are emphasized by the spacethat is not included in the sum of the subvenient parts. In addition, sinceno arrows are shown, the direction of the causation is left unstated.To view Figure 2, please go to<http://griffon.mwsc.edu/~polanyi/mjhpolan.html>.This model may not satisfy the strong supervenience sought by thetheologian. However, it may serve as a starting point in the discussion wit=hbiologists still lost in the hierarchy. I offer it as a lure that mightrescue my colleagues who remain addicted to the powerful yet limited drug o=fontological reductionism.=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=This publication is hosted by Metanexus Online http://www.metanexus.net. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of Metanexus or its sponsors.Metanexus welcomes submissions between 1000 to 3000 words of essays and book reviews that seek to explore and interpret science and religion in original and insightful ways for a general educated audience. Previous columns give a good indication of the topical range and tone for acceptable essays. Please send all inquiries and submissions to. Metanexus consists of a number of topically focused forums (Anthropos, Bios, Cogito, Cosmos, Salus, Sophia, and Techne) and periodic HTML enriched composite digests from each of the lists. Copyright notice: Except when otherwise noted, articles may be forwarded, quoted, or republished in full with attribution to the author of the column and Metanexus: The Online Forum on Religion and Science. Republication for commercial purposes in print or electronic format requires the permission of the author. Copyright 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 by Metanexus Institute.