Organism or Mechanism

Don Herbison-Evans ,

written 24 July 2010, updated 2 January 2012, 10 May 2015

One of the first dichotomies each of us makes as an infant is probably that between mother and not-mother. Typically, we later generalise this to a classification of things which we encounter in the universe as either organism or mechanism. Being one of our first discernments, we naturally apply this later to many unknown situations in an attempt to understand them, as we go through life.

But this dichotomy is not as black and white as it may seem. Many people think of boats and ships as female entities. We also often swear at and cajole things like cars, computers and other machines when their actions do not correspond with our expectations, as if they were living beings. The earth itself is thought by many to be a living being: Gaia, although the opposite view was espoused by Douglas Adams in his Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy book series, in which he suggested the Earth was in fact a very complex computer created to solve the question "Why is '42' the answer to the question "What is the meaning of life, the universe and everything?"?"

So it is only to be expected that people will use the analogy of the universe itself to a either person or to a machine, and here lies the simple dichotomy of religion and science.

There is of course more to each than just which metaphor to apply to the world. Each religion has a long complex history, and has associated ceremonies which give many people joy and understanding. On the other hand, science with its offshoot of engineering, has given us the machines which are essential to our most modern civilisation.

So the universe (and indeed any entity) can be seen as either an organism or a mechanism. Choosing one point of view is an act of faith. But this choice in no way invalidates the other. The view I wish to promote here is that both are correct and true. This can be glimpsed in the aphorism that if God had meant man to fly, He would have given us the brains to devise machines in which to do it.

We may take as an example the main theories of twentieth century physics: namely Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. Their axioms are totally contradictory. Relativity takes as its starting point that all measurements are relative but can be accurate. Quantum Mechanics assumes that measurements can be absolute but are always inaccurate. Each theory gave us great insight into many physical phenomena in our universe, yet they cannot both be correct at the same time. For a given physical situation, physicists use an act of faith to decide which theory to use. Maybe there is a greater 'Unified Theory' which encompasses both. Many people have tried to compose one (for example Sir Arthur Eddington), but all such theories so far have had lacunae, and there are phenomena in our universe to which they give the wrong answers.

There appears to be a similar dichotomy in our experience. Our understanding of anything new is always based on that which we have encountered before (hence our knowledge is relative) and our knowledge is incomplete as we have not made observations from the beginning of time (and hence our knowledge is inaccurate).

For me: I "understand" "my world" (all my experiences hitherto) as a myriad network of associations and hierarchies. I "understand" or "explain" a new fact or idea by linking it in to that network. If I cannot link it in, and it sits alone as an inexplicable datum, then I feel that I do not understand it. So I have a group of inexplicable things sitting in a mental box called "magic" in my mind, unlinked to "my world", and some are fortunate so I call those "miracles", and some are unfortunate, and to each one of those I say "bugger".

To me: miracles, magic, and bad luck are manifestations of higher understandings that I have not attained. I see these inexplicables as challenges: they are the sources of my next steps in understanding the world. I need them to be linked to the network. Just saying "life is a remarkable piece of luck/inexplicable good fortune and chance" is, to me, an abnegation of our power of understanding, and an insult to the God who gave us that power.

Certainty only exists in our simplistic mental models of our world. We have a mental model of arithmetic, and in that model,

1+1 always = 2 But put two male Siamese Fighting Fish in a tank together, and next morning you are likely only to have one. Uncertainty exists in the real world because our models can only a be approximations to that world, and we can never be sure which model to apply to a particular circumstance. But some things are are less uncertain than others. The classic is rolling 2 dice. Of the 36 possible combinations of faces turning up, only one adds up to 12, but six add up to 7, so a score of 7 is much more likely. This mental model is certain. But in the real world, dice have worn edges and curved faces so this model is not as accurate as it might be, but it can provide useful guidance. By classifying and counting our past experiences, we subconsciously assign levels of likelihood to different things.

But even our models are not certain. We are not good at logic. There have been a number of 'proofs' of Fermat's Last Theorem published that have subsequently been shown to have logical flaws. So there is only one certainty: and that is that there are no other certainties, well I think so anyway.

But some things, like the permanence of solid objects, are observed so often as to be fairly useful for prediction purposes, like we are inclined to avoid driving into walls. So probabilities range from ridiculously improbable to totally dependable, and everbody's assessments of this probability for any particular situation is dependent on that individual's experiences, and so is totally subjective.

Well: that is my mental model of 'certainty'. How well does that fit the real world?

We use our assessments of probability all the time in our lives. Each new sensory datum is not thought about as an isolated instance, but is compared with subconscious predictions made from that which we observed before. This greatly reduces the number of alternatives, and gives us reaction speed: very useful for example for avoiding collisions when driving. So we live in an internal world of continuous prediction. Going outside of what we consider likely requires effort of thought, and we each demand good reason to do that. But it does seem silly to go around in a religious fervour causing mayhem and death just because other people use different internal models of the universe.

Such is life, the universe, and everthing.

I am grateful for discussions with Penelope Phillips on guidance in these matters.