Stephen Talbott and a science of qualities

I’ve stumbled across this astonishing series of articles by Stephen L Talbott at the Nature Institute. Astonishing because it’s an overview of some of the new (and astonishing!) processes being discovered within the cell, including some very good stuff on epigenetics, yet put in the context of a whole scientific and philosophical critique of not only Neodarwinism, but of the whole reductionist approach to biology and of ateleological science overall. An ambitious set of targets indeed!

There’s a lot of it, and some is somewhat technical, but don’t let that put you off wading through the lot. It’s some of the most conceptually fruitful stuff I’ve read in a long while.

I don’t want actually to summarise what should be read as a developing argument, but I will relay one broad conclusion: that everything in biology points towards meaning, and shows science’s total rejection of that concept to be willfully blind. That’s my terminology, not his. He puts it thus:

And yet, in a baffling show of tolerance for contradiction within science, an entrenched metaphysical dogma assures us that the universe in which these creatures of meaning exist is a universe inherently without meaning, idea, or thought.

By “meaning” he understands the demonstrable subordination of every individual process in the cell, interacting in unfathomable complexity with every other process, to the overarching individual concerns of the cell, and indeed of the whole organism. One can no more explain that meaning in simpler terms than one can explain the meaning of a Shakespeare play or an individual human life.

One illustration of this struck me in particular:

Finally, if there was any place where biologists expected a causal explanation of the organism to emerge clearly, it was in the study of Caenorhabditis elegans, a one-millimeter-long, transparent roundworm whose private molecular and cellular affairs may have been more exhaustively exposed than those of any other organism. The adult hermaphrodite has exactly 959 cells, each precisely identified as to origin and type: for example, 302 cells belong to the nervous system. The developmental fate of every somatic cell, from egg to adult, had already been mapped out by 1980, but this mapping and the associated molecular studies did not produce the expected explanations. Sydney Brenner — who received a 2002 Nobel prize for his work on C. elegans — acknowledged that development “is not a neat, sequential process . . . It’s everything going on at the same time”. Even regarding the carefully mapped cell lineages of this “simple” roundworm, “there is hardly a shorter way of giving a rule for what goes on than just describing what there is”. In other words, the only “rule” for the development of this worm is the developmental description of it. When critics suggested he had not really come to an understanding of the worm, but had “only” described it, Brenner responded, “I’m not sure that there necessarily is anything more to understand than what it is” (Lewin 1984).

There is a parallel here with the whole concept of information theory, as conceived by people like William Dembski and Stephen Meyer with respect to  the DNA code. The basic information theory concept of Shannon information (and its subset, specified or functional information) is that it is algorithmically complex. That is, any means you use to define it must be at least as long as the information itself. So you can define a natural law in a few lines of computer code, but to define The Merchant of Venice or the human genome you have to spell it out in full. Talbott’s case is that life is fundamentally irreducible to anything other than a description of what it is. Molecular studies may help your understanding, just as word studies may illuminate Shakespeare, but without considering overall purpose and meaning, you will never have even a basic understanding of either.

For those of a theological bent, I had glimmerings of such ideas when trying to come to grips with the Biblical letters of John in an earlier post. John refuses to develop his argument in the kind of linear logic we find natural. Instead, he repeats his concepts in different permutations until we begin to see how his themes of Christ, love, the Spirit, light and so on form an interrelated holistic unity. That kind of irreducible organic unity is what Talbott sees, and it is both refreshing and enlightening.

Towards the end of the final (so far) article he distances himself from the concept of Intelligent Design, on the basis that “design” is the kind of mechanistic model which has led science astray. It is true, I think, that ID has adopted from the sciences a rather mechanical view of things (for example the intentionally highly engineered-looking graphics of the flagellum), but actually nothing in what he says would be anything but welcome to the core of Intelligent Design. The informatics representation of DNA as a linear code is, after all, only a stepping-stone to ID’s claim that it has meaning. Talbott merely extends that meaning to the whole of life.

My impression is that Talbott actually restricts his teleology to life itself (and in a lesser sense to the physical Universe). That is, he seems not to imbue it with a transcendent cause. But it certainly does not exclude such a cause, not least because, like so many of the new thinkers in biology, he gives no good account of how it actually arose. Even his disavowal of a vital force or soul, in a Cartesian dualist sense, is quite compatible with Christian anthropological monism and the Biblical idea of animal souls.

I don’t see how metaphysical naturalism can survive his onslaught. But read the series – then let me know what you think!

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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