“The Universe is not only stranger than we imagine, it is stranger than we can imagine”1
Alfred North Whitehead developed his philosophy of organism in “Process and Reality” published in 1929. In researching his work on organism, including works by Plato, Spinoza, and Kant, questions arose which led me to this exploration of organism from a different perspective.
Before beginning my metaphysical exploration of organism I feel compelled to ask a brief, but more basic question. Is it possible to develop a meaningful theory of reality that can rise above the oft spoken criticism of philosophy by others that such theories can never be proven one way or the other? In other words can contemporary metaphysics meet the challenge of rising above being more than just adding more conjectural schemas to an already long list?
Could such theories have enough reasonable cause to present such a case? I think the answer is yes, but it is not necessary that it be “yes”. It just may happen to be the case by examining available empirical evidence and a priori analyses that certain ontological positions are either significantly supported or questioned. The ones I mention here in no way exclude other evidence or analyses that may be supported from contributing to the discussion.
A one builds a case it is implied that a case with more support especially diverse support is necessarily a better case than one with less. This support may come from outside the realm of philosophical theorizing or it may come from the complexity of the internal consistency of the statements made in the overall theory it fits into. In some ways this is little different than what physical scientists do in looking for theories that satisfy as much of the known data as possible that may relate to the area of interest they are investigating.
It is possible to build a strong case but not one that can ever be proven. Such a case can never be built to the stated standards of the physical sciences, but that is not necessary. Theirs are necessarily limited to the narrow confines of their data and theirs can never be proven either, but in general with their narrower goals they have a higher degree of probability. In philosophy we have no such limitations on what problems we can tackle. We can attempt to answer a lot more questions but usually with a less clear degree of certainty.
Reality is organismic. The universe is the visible part of the organismic reality. It is infinite with no beginning and no end. It is an organism unified by an electromagnetic field. The universal organism mediates its activity through its electromagnetic field. It also interacts electromagnetically with the small scale organisms with which we are familiar. These organisms, in our scale, mediate their activity electrochemically, and also electromagnetically.
All organisms are finite other than the universal organism. Unlike the universal organism they reproduce and directly evolve. That these organisms are found so infrequently among the mass and space of the universe is a unique paradox of reality.
An organism is the unification of will and matter. Consciousness originates out of this unification. The will is the endowment from the cosmic organism. It enables the mortal organism to utilize the data it receives from outside itself to act in its own interest. Organisms fulfill their purpose as individuals and in societies of individuals. The will expresses the purpose of all organisms, which is to survive.
The will directs an organism’s physical being including its acquisition of the matter it needs to grow and sustain itself. An organism’s will, its matter, and consciousness is a unified being which is always unified during its lifetime. Its will originated through its parent organism through the electromagnetic field of the universal organism. While matter can exist independent of organism, the will can only exist unified with matter.
An organism has freedom to pursue its purpose. That freedom is limited by the particular nature with which it was endowed. It’s parent organism is the same as it in its functional capability. There are typically incremental genetic differences from generation to generation. Over many generations these genetic differences can become large enough to change its functional capability.
Organisms can only be created by similar organismic parents. They cannot be created directly out of non-organismic matter. They are of the basic fabric of reality. AN Whitehead deals similarly with this issue by making all matter organism. But in the absence of such theoretical attribute there is nothing in matter to endow it with the aim to become a unified being with will consciousness or thought.
How an organism’s will activates the physical matter of its body is of great ontological interest. If one starts with an organism as being the nexus of will, matter, and consciousness, how ideas control physical matter becomes important.
The processes that result from an organism’s nexus of these are all electromagnetic or electrochemical. The data of thought typically originates electromagnetically from outside the organism. It is processed electromagnetically by the organism. The process of internalizing data from that which is external to the organism, through the senses, and then registered in the organism is the process of consciousness.
Organisms direct their physical being by converting their impulses and thoughts into messages which control their physical activity. The entire process from prehensions to the actions of the organism is electromagnetic and electrochemical. An explanation of how thought can direct matter is necessary to define organism and to include or exclude theories of reality in any ontological inquiry.
All thought, memories and impulses are either electrochemical or electromagnetic. Everything an organism does and how it does it is physical. There are no independent thoughts or impulses that originate or proceed without being physical. All thoughts have physical, that is, electromagnetic analogues.
Of particular interest is the organism’s origination of ideas, how the brain of higher organisms creates generalized and analogized ideas from its memories gathered from its external environment. It is at this point in the process that subjectivity is introduced. Despite subjectivity the ideas developed are remarkably similar in individuals of the human species, and likely so in other species of higher organisms. Once there is a sufficient breadth of these ideations the brain can then create thoughts to accomplish its goal of survival. ln so doing it also creates a basic language.
Answering the most basic questions about organisms is suggestive of different metaphysical positions. How long it would take to produce the most basic organism by random process is one question whose answer is suggestive of including or excluding different philosophical positions. The ability to describe how thought can direct matter or matter can create thought is another. Both a priori and empirical methods must be considered.
All known organisms have certain characteristics in common. They are all carbon based and have a DNA code. Whether prokaryote or eukaryote they have certain cellular characteristics in common. They have at least some similar organelles regardless of whether they are animal, plant, fungus, bacteria or algae. Though, their internal functioning when broken down to its most basic parts always obeys the laws of physics and chemistry, the ways in which they act as complete organisms go beyond those laws in novelty as organisms pursue their own ends. This novelty has a distinctive kind of disorder in relation to unorganized matter, yet a cohesion and unity that we recognize in all organisms
Organisms appropriate and direct the matter they need to sustain themselves. They live in sustaining environments on earth. The entire surface of the earth could be considered one such environment. They range in size from the microscopic to the largest mammals. Their will and consciousness enables their mobility, providing them with options to appropriate new sources of energy to sustain themselves and to grow. However this mobility is limited and acquiring new sources of energy to sustain their metabolic needs and growth are limited by their current capabilities. Will and consciousness are inherently limited in each organism’s lifetime and in the becoming of future generations of these organisms.
We know with certainty organisms exist. It is this certain knowledge that makes organism an excellent beginning for an inquiry into the nature of reality. There is already a body of empirical knowledge that explains their functioning and it is quite probable that further empirical evidence will continue to emerge, providing more insights into biology and life itself. On the other hand it cannot be said with certainty that God or a similar force integral to a particular view of reality exists. The existence of God or this force can only be inferred, regardless of what probability we place on that existence. For this reason a derivation of the existence of God or such force should rely on both a-priori and empirical knowledge of organism.
The universe is seen by physical scientists and others as an aimless agglomeration of moving particles organized through the force, charge, and spin of subatomic particles into what we observe as physical matter. Some believe that physical matter can organize itself into life without the need of any further agency, resolving the difficult task of explaining consciousness and will by just assuming their automatic evolution from physical matter. Arguing for such a position without establishing any evidence that it can occur is no lesser burden than arguing for the existence of God by starting with that as the premise. Both materialism and theism have the same burden, they cannot lead to a fundamental explanation of reality by using themselves as a starting point from which to build. Organisms exist with certainty, unifying will consciousness and physical matter and thus should be a focus in metaphysics.
The idea of the universe being organismic, that is being an organism first entered mainstream philosophy with Plato. In the Timaeus2 he stated, “The visible universe is a living creature”, … In the Timaeus the idea of the universe being a macro organism is explored. Over 2000 years later in the Gifford lectures 1927-28, AN Whitehead refers to the Timaeus, suggesting Plato’s philosophy is similar to his own philosophy of organism.
What would such an organismic universe look like? It could be several organisms, n>1, with non-organismic other, and that these organisms would live in an eco system similar to how we live in one. The universe as we know it would be part of either one of these meta-organisms or the non-organismic other they would coexist with. These meta-organisms would be finite.
Alternatively the organismic universe could be a single organism, n=1, unified with mortal organisms of the micro level. In this case our universe would be coextensive with this single organism, in time and space. There would be no non-organismic other for the meta-organism and it would exist eternally with the universe. All the non-organismic other that exist at the microcosmic level for mortal organisms are part of the universal organism. This organism manages its physical being and consciousness in a way similar to mortal organisms, that is through an electromagnetic field.
Just as with mortal organisms, the will is limited in its ability to provide the universal organism with complete freedom from its physical nature and environment. Even with this limitation the universal organism is able to evolve. It evolves as a consequence of its being unified with everything in the universe. On this cosmic scale the will and consciousness are what I call the cosmic force, akin to a more traditional view of God, the one important difference being that it can never exist independent of its unification with matter.
Plato rejects multiple meta-organisms in favor of one universal organism. His reasoning is compelling. I see the meta-organism as the center and source of all ontological significance though Plato does not. This meta-organism is teleological by its nature. It is consistent for it to be the coherent embodiment of what some could call God. It certainly is well situated to have all the attributes we could think of as God.
Spinoza’s3 thought also embodies principles that amount to seeing nature as an organism. Kant also saw organisms as being special in this regard, defining an organism as “cause and effect of itself.”4 These references point out the persistence of organism in mainstream western philosophy over an extended period of time, whether the idea is fully developed or not.
An organismic universe, in a similar way as mortal organisms on a microcosmic scale, represents the true nature of reality. Just as with mortal organisms, the will is limited in its ability to provide the organism complete freedom from its physical nature and environment. With these limitations it is however still quite powerful and evolves as mortal organisms evolve.
Traditional western religion and thought has seen God as all powerful and often transcendent to the world. When looking at the universe as an organism, there is certainly no reason why the attributes of God would not be consistent with God being an organism. The concept of God when seen as an organism’s will and consciousness, even on a cosmic scale is more clearly seen as limited in its considerable power.
The cosmic force is not omniscient. From its perspective the future holds potentialities and therefore probabilities for future events. This is in concordance with quantum theory. The cosmic force evolves with the world. It is the recipient of these probabilities rather than their initiator. The cosmic force is never fully realized. That would be a lesser state of being for it than with a future of options. In the present the cosmic consciousness encompasses everything past and present.
There is a relationship between the cosmic unity and mortal organisms, a nexus between the two. There is reason to believe that the nature of the universal organism, or cosmic unity, is consistent with and similar to mortal micro-organisms. From this perspective we can examine certain aspects of the cosmic force, and how it relates to mortal organisms.
Existence is the primary statement of what an infinite reality implies, and survival follows from existence as the purpose of life. In fact existence is the only thing that can follow from an infinite reality and therefore survival must become the driver of life, ultimately determining what is internalized as good.
All organisms have the ability to survive to varying degrees based on their development. Their survival is based on the nature of the threats they face. Their survival as individual organisms becomes a part of the enduring nature of the cosmic unity.
Survival is the guiding principle for activity of all organisms. More highly developed organisms will adopt better behaviors to promote survival. These behaviors become codified and, internalized. Organisms increase their survival by developing more and better ways to respond to different situations. This increased complexity is a byproduct of the organism’s increased ability to survive because it can respond to a greater variety of situations. We refer to the process of increasing complexity as evolution.
What promotes survival is moral or good, survival of the individual, survival of the group as a whole, and survival of that which is external to the group, its environment, on which it depends for its survival. Self-survival is the most immediate with group survival longer term and sustainable environmental survival the most long term. There is a natural harmony between pursuing survival of the self, survival of the group and survival of the external that the group depends on. Though there is not always clarity on each individual option, over time the group will tend to apportion choices among the three alternatives most advantageously.
An overexpression of self-survival becomes bad behavior. What is best is an equilibrium of self, group and environmental survival. Placing too much emphasis on either group and/or environmental survival can lead to more occasional mismatches of threat and response. This is ultimately not good for self-survival. Balancing the three is part of the art of being a higher organism.
Though we have opened this exploration with our conclusion that organism leads to an infinite universe and and a cosmic unity of will, matter and consciousness, there may be other ontological positions that are consistent with a philosophy based on empirical analysis of organism. These ontologies may be associated with different empirical understandings derived from either biology or physics.
In some cases our empirical understanding points to different possible ages for the universe. The level of probability for organisms to form from random process is inversely related to the time available for them to accomplish that goal, that is the minimum age for the universe that is required. The longer the odds against life forming from random process, the older the age of the universe must be.
Physics has determined the currently accepted age of the universe. Ontologies suggested by physics may not be consistent with ontologies suggested by biology or vice versa. This disagreement though difficult to resolve, reduces the possible ontological explanations for reality, which are explored here.
In the last half of the 20th century the double helix model of the DNA molecule was discovered. If it were to be postulated that organisms could be created from simple matter, probabilities could then be calculated based on a pre organismic environment of what the chances were for creating the minimum DNA strand capable of supporting minimal life. The probability of just producing a single strand of DNA by random process capable of sustaining life is so infinitesimally low that the universe would have to be orders of magnitude older than 14 billion years, the age currently calculated. The very low probability of producing the other necessary precursors of life further lessen this probability. This leaves us in the position of looking for an explanation of organism that does not rest on the assumption that they can be created by random process of physical matter.
With respect to the divergence on the age of the universe between the methodology of physics and the analysis from biology, it is appropriate to suggest possible reasons in the currently accepted methodology of physics that could cause it to underestimate that age.
We know from physics the standard model does not account for all important interactions and incorporate the full theory of general relativity and gravitation or contain a dark matter particle consistent with cosmological observations. This is not a criticism of the model, just stating the obvious that physics is not settled science and that the ultimately determined age of the universe could be substantially different than the currently accepted 14 billion year age. Though it can be said that the 14 billion year age of the universe is supported by science, the terribly long odds for the origin of life arguing against this age is also supported by science.
Further, unification of all four fundamental forces has not been accomplished for almost a century now. None of this means they are in error, just that science operates within a process of self imposed continuous review and possible adjustment over time based on new data and methods from all reliable sources within physics, but not just within physics.
If we assume a different view of the universe for the moment other than a materialist one, an organismic cosmology may either be a better foundation for a unified theory of the four basic forces or offer an explanation for why unification has been so difficult. It may be that all past present and future motions in an organismic universe may not be devoid of organismic novelty as amply displayed by organisms here on earth and that in an organismic universe on a cosmic scale, equations that rely on relationships holding across all variables at all values may be difficult to discern.
The argument for the very low probability of producing DNA by random process as a precursor of life is essentially quite simple. There is a very large number of possible arrangements of a single strand of DNA that can be produced by random process and a very small number of possible strands that would be capable of sustaining life. Because the probability is so low it points to the need for a dramatically older universe, possibly trillions of years older or infinite. If it can be shown that origin of life cannot follow from random process, then materialism would not be viable and some other ontology must better explain reality. The odds are so long against materialism being possible they are essentially zero. Such an old universe required to rule out materialism essentially leaves only those requiring a cosmic force, that is theist, deist, pantheistic or other similar ontologies.
It is not just the long odds against producing a viable DNA strand, but there are similar long odds for producing all the organelles necessary for life. The ribosome organelle in particular presents perhaps the most difficult challenge. How would random process even begin to produce a translation machine that transforms the nucleotide monomer arrangement into instructions to produce the appropriately necessary but completely unrelated proteins? It would seem the odds of producing a ribosome would be of a similar order as the odds of producing a Boltzman Brain. All the very low probabilities for each of the precursors would need to be multiplied together to calculate the odds against producing life.
Additionally, all this would have to take place in a primordial pool over such a long period of time that the time necessary for the completion of the precursors would far exceed the limits of how long the pools themselves could survive intact, based on chemical degradation of the pools, geological forces containing the pools and planetary forces that would compromise and destroy the pools on a regular basis. Indeed the time period for random process is so long it would far exceed the lifespan of planets and their solar systems to exist for one such pool or a succession of them to be successful.
For life to be produced from random matter it would also have to be demonstrated in theory at least how thought could be accomplished. What would the ontology and cosmology look like? A specific analysis would have to be presented that shows how matter can create thought. This has never been successfully accomplished. It does not appear that accounting for life in this manner will work.
Demonstrating that one of a total of two possible alternatives is wrong is not as convincing a way to demonstrate the other is correct as demonstrating the viability of the other on its own. It therefore must also be shown that the thought of an organism can physically direct the matter that is integrally part of that organism. Thus it is necessary to show that organisms can function by explaining how thought can direct matter. This was outlined earlier during the discussion of the electromagnetic prehension of data from outside the organism and how it is internalized. The generalized and analogized ideas are then used to create electrochemical impulses to the matter of the organism to effect movement.
Some have suggested a more incremental approach to produce life from non-life random process, based on intermediate stages or partial life. With this approach it makes perfect sense to look at either the first step away from random process towards life or the most immediate step to life.
Producing self-replicating organic chemicals has been a subject of this approach. Producing them is no different than producing anything else that is mechanistic. The problem of going to life from a non life mechanism still remains. Proponents of this methodology rely on the plausibility of laboratory chemical reactions to make their case for random process as a causative agent of life. This is not a difficult standard to reach and ultimately does not decide anything. Plausibility is not a level of scientific certainty. It can only be a suggestion for further experimentation at best.
It also would make sense to explore the last step or something close to it before our current DNA world. Some consider an RNA world an important part of this approach. Though simpler than DNA, RNA world offers nothing more than the very low probability of DNA. Other problems presented by ribosomes and the synchronized origin of life are still there. RNA is less stable per number of pairs than DNA and a much smaller strand would introduce new problems of post life sustainability. RNA world is of course speculative where DNA world is real. If RNA world existed and were alive the problem of getting to RNA world not be any easier than getting to DNA world from pre-life random process.
A 14 billion year old universe coupled with an extremely low probability of producing life from physical matter in that time frame implies a cosmic force is needed to account for life. An intervening theistic God must be central to the ontology associated with this situation. The cosmic force would be required to make up for the insufficient amount of time 14 billion years allows for producing life from inert matter with this set of conditions. While an intervening God may have more than one option to reach that goal, a simple way it could produce life in such an attenuated time period, would be to suspend normal probability and just select the needed outcomes.
A finite but very old universe that is old enough to be functionally infinite, it could be argued, would not require altering the probabilities for random process to produce the required DNA strands. Such an old universe relies on the proposition that an infinite amount of time available for a finite process to reach completion can solve any problems. But because of the serial destruction of the primordial pools before each one of the necessary intermediate steps can be completed within the time available, this cannot happen.
Materialism thus fails to provide a plausible explanation for how life arises from pre-life conditions, that is solely from the physical motion and properties of particles; and other difficulties including the eventual simultaneity needed for the start of life.
The other alternative is that the universe has always existed and always will exist as a unification of will, matter and consciousness. In an infinitely old universe the cosmic force has existed with the physical universe as the universal organism coextensive with the universe.
In the early 1980’s Fred Hoyle expressed his views of how low the probabilities were of life arising from random process of matter. Research in biology since has done little to change those odds. Though Hoyle zeroed in on the probabilities of producing proteins from amino acids, as it turned out, one of the less effective ways of making his case, the odds of producing DNA with sequences capable of sustaining life would have been far more effective. The simplest life forms require a DNA strand of about 160,000 -200,000 pairs. Each pair has one of 4 possibilities, denoted by nucleotides A, C, G and T. Each specific pair has a probability of a particular monomer occurring of one in four. So by random process (before the origin of life) the probability of producing the same DNA strand as one needed by a most basic life form with 160,000 DNA pairs would be 4^160,000, or ~ 10^96,000.
Many DNA strands are much longer going into the millions, with higher organisms such as human beings in the billions. Even allowing for the fact there may be many different sequences of DNA, capable of sustaining initial life, subtracting for these and for the so called “junk DNA” leaves a very low probability, one in 4^100,000 to produce a viable DNA strand, or one in ~10^60,000. Even if a billion sustainable life forms could be formed by such a random process that would reduce the odds from one in 10^60,000 only slightly to one in 10^59,991. To put 10^60,000 in perspective it is equivalent to the number 1 followed by 30 pages of zeros. Extremely long odds to even comprehend.
Those odds grow still longer given the average life of DNA before its chemical bonds begin to break down in a non-life environment. This degradation along with the continual degradation of the primordial pools containing the nucleotide monomers make already long odds impossible to overcome. The other precursors, proteins, organelles, etc., are all subject to the degradation of their chemical bonds as well in the prelife environment The odds become overwhelming in comparison to the 10^80 atoms believed to exist in the universe. When we take into account life can only exist at or near the surface of select planets this number drops below 10^70 vs a probability of 1 in 10^60,000 just for the DNA. This forms the basis of argument that the universe must be orders of magnitudes older than physics calculates.
With the very old universe having been eliminated as the materialist alternative, we are left to choose between the 14 billion year universe coupled with the intervention of a theistic cosmic force or an infinite cosmic unity, a universe that has always existed, as an organismic unity. How do we compare these two remaining possibilities?
The infinite cosmic unity existed without mortal microcosmic organisms initially. Its material composition was non-organismic matter. At some point in its infinite life microcosmic organisms were introduced by the macrocosmic organism. This is what we observe today in our universe, mortal microcosmic organisms along with non-organismic matter. On a cosmic scale everything has always been one organismic reality.
One ontological question is if this is more or less plausible than introducing physical matter at the beginning of a finite reality and assuming a cosmic force, that is God as in theism, must have been there already in what would otherwise have been nothingness, that is without matter.
The issue arises about the nature of God in the prephysical reality of physical nothingness? God as the creator of the universe in this pre physical world would not be coexisting with the four fundamental forces of the universe. God could only be all thought. However thought by itself does not meet a basic test because thought by itself cannot direct or interact with matter or create matter, just as it can’t in higher mortal organisms. If one could postulate that a thought from God could do that, then you could postulate anything about thought or God in this context. Why wouldn’t it be just one of many possible conjectures? My conclusion is that anything that can be said to have unlimited attributes has little or no value as a construct.
If God cannot exist in a prephysical reality then there cannot be a prephysical reality. We have already ruled out materialism/physicalism. Without a cosmic force in a prephysical reality or materialism what could create the universe? Organisms require a cosmic force and a cosmic force must be eternal, that is without a finite starting point. This casts serious doubt on creation ex nihilo. A temporally infinite universe is the only alternative.
In the present an eternal organismic universe is known with the greatest amount of certainty. By this I mean life, that is organism, is known in great detail, as the present is our best laboratory to explore reality. No one can doubt, the existence of organism in the present.
The past can also be known with greater certainty than with any other theory of reality, because reality evolves and therefore it is always very similar to its recent past, but with less complexity. No other theory of reality starts with as little speculation. Not theism which starts with an essentially unknowable conception of God; nor materialism which requires an as yet undemonstrated transformation from pure physical matter to one in which consciousness, will and thought are unified with physical matter. Materialism provides no basis for how that happens. In an eternal reality this unity exists infinitely back in time as the necessary nature of reality as well as infinitely forward in time.
*Author Bio: Barry’s background includes studying philosophy at the University of Maine. Metaphysics has been his avocation his entire life, especially the philosophy of Alfred North Whitehead. He tells us he has spent most of his life trying to make sense of this reality we find ourselves in. Professionally he was a financial analyst and economist as well as a business executive, and is currently retired. He is married and has two children.
1 attributed to JBS Haldane
2 Timaeus pp38-44, Cornford
3 “Spinoza and the Theory of Organism,” Hans Jonas, for a full explication of Spinoza on organism
4 Kant, §§64–65 of the Analytic of Teleological Judgment