Re: SUO: Definition of life
Doug, Erik, Philippe, Bill, et al.,
I hesitate to mention Peirce's Thirdness because I always get
a barrage of questions from people who haven't read the literature
asking me to go back over elementary issues that have already been
discussed ad nauseam.
That is why I wrote that explanation of Peirce's definition of life
without using the word "Thirdness" until the very end, when I pointed
out that the explanation that I gave was, in fact, an illustration
of Thirdness without using the word.
In reply to those people who have questioned the issues of Thirdness,
I highly recommend the two volumes of selected readings from Peirce:
Peirce, Charles Sanders (EP) The Essential Peirce, ed. by N. Houser,
C. Kloesel, and members of the Peirce Edition Project, 2 vols.,
Indiana University Press, Bloomington, 1991-1998.
Meanwhile, I'll comment on some of the other issues:
Doug McDavid wrote:
DM> I think you're conflating two senses of "purpose" in what you say
> below. One is the purposefulness of the amoeba in pursuing its
> survival-oriented life processes. The other is purposefulness with
> respect to the very existence of the amoeba, as in fulfilling some
> grand plan or design. The second meaning is what should more properly
> be termed teleological, and scientists are wise to avoid arguments
> based on ultimate purpose of some omnipotent designer.
The fundamental point I was trying to illustrate is the fact that
every definition of life involves some notion of goal, purpose, or
"telos". I certainly agree that there are multiple senses of purpose
in the life of the amoeba (and of any other kind of life as well).
But that simply reinforces my argument: every definition of life
requires at least one kind of purpose. If you want to multiply
the kinds, be my guest. You are strengthening my point.
And the word "telos" in Greek covers all of those kinds. It simply
means the goal or end of some action. Aristotle used it to cover all
kinds of "final causation" -- to use the common English translation.
Furthermore, the scientists who try to avoid teleological explanations
end up using synonyms like "attractant" and "homeostasis", which merely
disguise the underlying issues without in any way avoiding teleological
arguments or, if you prefer, final causes.
That doesn't imply the existence of "an omnipotent designer". It's
quite possible that the original pattern of Thirdness that gave birth
to life was a matter of chance, which was then selected by the process
of evolution. But once that pattern was came to be, it was able to
maintain itself and develop further by using "final causes".
An attractant is nothing more nor less than a goal. It is something
that attracts. It leads the organism toward a goal. As Aristotle
would be happy to point out, it is a final cause.
The word "homeostasis" is another word that scientists use when
they try to disguise their teleology. Following are some definitions
that you can find by typing "homeostasis" into Google. For each of
them, I quote the source of the definition so that anyone who doubts
my interpretation can look further.
1. "Homeostasis is the maintenance of a stable internal environment.
Homeostasis is a term coined in 1959 to describe the physical and
chemical parameters that an organism must maintain to allow proper
functioning of its component cells, tissues, organs, and organ
systems. Single-celled organisms are surrounded by their external
environment. Most multicellular organisms have most of their cells
protected from the external environment, having them surrounded by
an aqueous internal environment. This internal environment must be
maintained in such a state as to allow maximum efficiency. The
ultimate control of homeostasis is done by the nervous system. Often
this control is in the form of negative feedback loops. Heat control
is a major function of homeostatic conditions that involves the
integration of skin, muscular, nervous, and circulatory systems."
This means that there exists some state S, which serves as the
"final cause" or "goal" or "internal attractant" that the organism
"strives" to maintain by making "appropriate" adjusments. All of
those terms in quotations can only be further defined or explained
by some recourse to an Aristotelian notion of final cause.
An alternative explanation is in terms of "feedback", which avoids
most of the usual teleological terms, but it does so by introducing
a very explicit "feedback loop", which sends information backwards,
shall we say, from the "end". Athough the notion of feedback sounds
as simple as a thermostat, it always involves an irreducible triad:
a sensor, an actuator, and a standard for comparison. When input
comes from the sensor, it is compared with the standard; if the
input is greater than the sensor, a negative signal is sent to the
actuator (e.g., to reduce the temperature of the furnace); if the
input is less than the standard, it sends a positive signal to the
actuator (e.g., to raise the temperature).
The feedback loop, which seems simple, was not discovered until
the 17th century. It is present in every living organism and
notably absent in nonliving things. The fundamental triad of
sensor, actuator, and standard confirms my point that triadic
relations are essential to life. Furthermore, that innocuous
term "standard" is another disguised synonym for "goal", "aim",
"purpose", or "final cause".
2. "A built-in, automated property of a system that executes and
monitors events essential to the existance of the system, such as
animal breathing and instinct. It is a self-regulating mechanism
that allows a system to avoid paying detailed attention to its
most basic functions therby helping keep it in a steady state."
By Arthur Koestler, _The Ghost in the Machine_, quoted in
All the comments I made in point #1 apply equally well to this
definition. But an even more significant sign of a final cause
is the word "essential". Whenever you see that word, you can be
certain that somewhere there is some hidden, implicit, or latent
assumption of a "goal", "aim", "purpose", or in general "telos".
Another telling term is "self-regulating", which implies a "self"
that has some "essential" definition and "regulation", which
implies some "regula" or "rule" that determines, what one might
call the "goal", "aim", "purpose", or in general "telos".
3. " Homeostasis is one of the fundamental characteristics of living
things. It refers to the maintenance of the internal environment
within tolerable limits. All sorts of factors affect the suitability
of our body fluids to sustain life; these include properties like
temperature, salinity, acidity, and the concentrations of nutrients
and wastes. Because these properties affect the chemical reactions
that keep us alive, we have built-in physiological mechanisms to
maintain them at desirable levels."
The key words that indicate a goal, purpose, or final cause are
"tolerable", "suitability", and "desirable". Google has 129,000
hits for the word "homeostasis", and without going any further,
we can safely predict that none of the proposed definitions avoid
some kind of end, purpose, goal, final cause, or as Peirce would
say, some variation or aspect of Thirdness.
DM> My preferred definition of life is autopoiesis, as defined by
> Maturana and Varela. Their definition explicitly rejects teleology,
> as I'm using it. I'm afraid your two heroes, Peirce and Whitehead,
> build on a shaky foundation in this regard, given the prominence
> of the concept of "God" in their arguments.
To dispose of the last sentence first, let me note that the concept
of "God" does not occur as an explanatory factor in any arguments by
either Peirce or Whitehead. They use that term in very few of their
writings, and their notion of God is a rather pantheistic notion that
is simiar to Einstein's. It is essentially the ultimate spirit of
the universe, and they never use that notion to explain anything that
cannot be much more easily explained by very direct observation.
The term "autopoiesis" is even more teleological than homeostasis.
Following is a quotation of one of Varela's definitions:
"the process whereby an organization produces itself. An autopoietic
organization is an autonomous and self-maintaining unity which
contains component-producing processes. The components, through their
interaction, generate recursively the same network of processes which
produced them. An autopoietic system is operationally closed and
structurally state determined with no apparent inputs and outputs. A
cell, an organism, and perhaps a corporation are examples of
autopoietic systems." Quoted in
Before going any further, note the term "self-maintaining", which is
another synomym for "homeostasis". In addition to all the aspects
of teleology involved in homeostasis, Varela introduces a few more
such as "autonomous", which means self governing or setting one's
own "standards" or "laws". As we discussed above, those are more
disguised synonyms for "telos" or final causes. The "same network
of processes which produced them" is just one more feedback loop,
which (1) has a "standard" that determines the goal, end, or "telos"
and (2) has one or more irreducible triads. The term "state
determined", which is not defined here, sounds like just another
disguised synonym for a "goal", "end", "purpose", or "telos". And
finally, the word "unity" raises the question of what makes an
organism a "unit"? The usual answer is some "essential" property,
which just leads us back to some "goal", "purpose", or "telos".
From Erik Larson in reply to Doug McDavid:
EL> I might be misreading John, but I thought he was just committing
> himself to a definition of life as a 'triadic' relation ('X does P
> to achieve R') as opposed to the dyadic relations of instances of
> efficient causation. That would seem agnostic as to the notion of
> "purpose" he had in mind--certainly it wouldn't imply something like
> a theistic worldview, I would think.
Yes, that is what I had intended.
Philippe Martin wrote:
PM> 1) 2nd form entity types specialize 1st form entity types, and
> 3rd form entity types specialize 2nd form entity types
> 2) this is still not an example of why "thirdness" is needed:
The point is that every definition of life involves some irreducible
triad. The feedback loop of the thermostat is a very simple example.
No one would claim that a thermostat is "alive", but it embodies a
purpose that some human built into its structure. That purpose is
the "standard" that determines when the actuator is invoked to change
the settings of the furnace.
In responding to Philippe, Bill Tepfenhart wrote:
BT> At the level of firstness, all actions that an individual can make
> are equally likely.
> At the level of secondness, the likely actions are limited to those
> that make sense for the role held by the individual.
> At the level of thirdness, the set of likely actions are further
> limited to those that are consistent with the goals of the agent.
Instead of the word "likely", I would prefer to say "unconstrained".
Firstness does not constrain a definition by anything outside the
entity that is being characterized. Secondness constrains the
definition by dyadic relations to other things. Thirdness constrains
the definition by a triad that involves at least one "goal", "purpose",
"standard", "end", "telos", or "final cause".
From Doug McDavid's more recent note in this thread:
DM> My thinking over the last couple of years has gravitated toward
> the notion of system as perhaps the most fundamental concept in my
> personal view of the world. On other occasions I have posted a list
> of close to 100 variants on the concept of system, but for the moment
> I am happy with Ross Ashby's definition, which is "... any set of
> variables that is selected ...". This is a good working definition
> because it focuses on the other fundamental concept in my own
> uppermost ontology, which is purpose.
I don't disagree. But I would point out that what is fundamental in
system is some "purpose", or if you prefer "organizing principle"
that serves as the "telos" or "final cause" that explains why it
is a system rather than a random collection.
And please note the word "selected" in Ashby's definition. Whenever
there is a selection (other than a purely random collection), there
is some organizing principle, law, standard, purpose, goal, telos,
or final cause that determines how and why the selection was made.
DM> What I am thinking is that a system is any of the many variations
> as noted elsewhere, having as characteristics identifiable parts that
> are interrelated and subject to some form of behavior. Parts,
> relatedness, and behavior are all intrinsic to any system. Based on
> the Ashby definition, it is axiomatic that the system itself is
> identified by an observer, based on some purpose of the observer.
> The purpose of the system is then further identified in relation to
> the purpose of the observer in calling it out from the surrounding
There are two points here: (1) the observer's purpose in making the
selection, and (2) the underlying principle embodied in the "system"
itself. In some cases, the observer may be reading something into
the observation, as in the case of "seeing" images in clouds and
ink blots. But in many other cases, the "unity" of organization is
actually present in the phenomena. That "unity" is the result of
some law (or in Greek "nomos"), goal, purpose, telos, or whatever
you want to call it.
DM> Terms like "final causation" and "teleological explanation" have
> ring to them, that in my mind conjurs notions of pre-ordained cosmic
> design. This is a level of purpose that could be ontologized, and if
> it's lurking in unspoken axioms, it would be good to bring it out
> explicitly. In fact, an ontology of purpose would be valuable
There is nothing inherent in the terms "final cause" or "telos"
that in any way suggest a "pre-ordained cosmic design". Aristotle,
Peirce, Whitehead, and others who used those terms did not imply
that there were. I will grant that some people have used the order
observed in the universe to deduce a "lawgiver" or "designer".
But many people, including Einstein, Peirce, and Whitehead, never
implied that the lawgiver was personified as wise old man with a
long beard. Both Peirce and Whitehead maintained that there was
an essential element of chance in what happens (as modern quantum
mechanics claims). The element of chance would mean that there
is nothing remotely resembling a "preordained design", but one
that is continually evolving.
And to get back to quantum mechanics, there is an accumulating body
of evidence that final causes are necessary to explain the observed
results. But that is a topic for another disucssion.
DM> By the way, you put an interesting twist on the ontology of purpose
> when you say "useful for our purposes". Purpose of ontology?
Certainly. There are infinitely many possible ontologies, and the
one(s) we choose to write down are the ones we find most useful for
DM> And one more "by the way": neither system, nor purpose, are
> concepts ontologized in SUMO.
Of course not. They never did their homework. For the past two
years, I've been telling them to read Peirce's writings, and they
haven't done so. They said that they incorporated some of the
concepts from my KR ontology, but they omitted everything based
on the category of Thirdness -- and that includes system, purpose,
intention, organization, business, and life.