There are no pure bodies: The monotheistic spiritual naturalism of Anne Conway, part 3

[… continued from last post]

Nye, Andrea, Feminism and Modern Philosophy : An Introduction (New York: Routledge, 2004).  Andrea Nye is an emeritus professor of philosophy whose work, like that of Jane Duran, is steeped in feminist theory.  In the titles of the two books by these women that I’ve listed here, the word ‘feminism’ has marched from the back (in Duran’s title) to the front (in Nye’s title).  But both authors are equally up front about wanting to reconfigure, so to speak, the philosophical “quilt,” both as we have received it and as we will pass it on, in a way that allows men and women to contribute “pieces” to it on an equal basis and where neither sex feels compelled or pressured to sew its pieces in a gender-denying or -infringing way.  Critics of this approach bristle at the idea that philosophy could (or should) be gendered, or somatic, or biological, or conditioned by anything, save its own premises and logical consistency.  Philosophy, according to them, is genderless and bodiless, tasteless and odorless.  They imagine that philosophical insight arrives like an androgynous voice from the void, and that the insights and the sound arguments built therefrom owe not a thing to sound digestion.  A nasty bout of ptomaine poisoning might temporarily convince them otherwise, but once their gut floras and immune systems recovered, they would be denying a somatic basis for philosophy again in no time – the ingrates.  J. B. van Helmont (1579-1644), whose son (and literary executor) would later befriend and influence Anne Conway, knew better.  The preeminent modern scholar on the elder van Helmont, Walter Pagel, has written, “Van Helmont presented a fully developed case for the subordination of the nervous system to the vital principle,” and “It was in the stomach that Van Helmont located the centre and seat of the vital principle, the anima sensitiva,” and

“Life,” then, embraces sensory power that starts at the lowest level of naturalis perceptio and ascends to a kind of “tissue-intellect.”  The latter enables a tissue or organ to judge or to “know” what is good or harmful for itself and the economy of the organism as a whole.  This discriminating virtue is intrinsic in the tissue and there is nothing structural or functional acting between tissues, notably no higher authority, such as a soul, or a nervous system serving as a regulator or transmitter of stimuli.  The knowledge required is inherent in the local working-matter.  Thus, the pylorus knows when to open and when to close.  . . .  When initiating vomiting the pylorus closes and sends a wave of motion along the body of the stomach toward the oesophagus.  Gnarus est pylorus rerum agendarum in stomacho – “the pylorus knows the agenda of the stomach.”  (Walter Pagel, Joan Baptista Van Helmont : Reformer of Science and Medicine, two prior quotes and this quote: pp. 124, 129, 119)

We who have not yet developed our own equivalent to van Helmont’s organic wholeness of vision may be forgiven for seeing nothing in the above that we would recognize as philosophy – only physiology – but for van Helmont chemistry, medicine, philosophy and theology were all of a piece, all part of one and the same fabric of human understanding.  Thus, van Helmont was able to discern an overall pattern in the (still uncut) quilt, even as he added to it, whereas we, who have scissored the quilt into God knows how many pieces, discern no pattern at all and just see small, random-looking patches of cloth, to which we continually add.  Can we really learn to stitch human understanding back together and see it whole again?  Do we even want to try?  Happily, the answer to the second question appears to be a qualified “yes,” as indicated by the existence of interdisciplinary studies and projects within the academy.  Sadly, the answer to the first question appears to be a qualified “no,” as indicated by the unwillingness of the academy to make the kind of substantive institutional and cultural changes required to create and sustain attractive career paths for faculty in interdisciplinary fields, vis-à-vis faculty in traditional fields, and by the unwillingness of interdisciplinary faculty to “cut ties” with reductionist thinking, methods and practices.  Until both of these things substantially occur, interdisciplinarity will remain largely eyewash or a pipe dream.  The goal of women like Nye and Duran of reconfiguring just one academic field, philosophy, in just one aspect, gender-inclusivity in the canon, may seem small in comparison to the task of creating real interdisciplinarity in the academy, but it’s still incredibly ambitious given the institutional intractability that pervades every academic field.

Nye’s book, like Duran’s, is passionate, very well-written, and deeply thoughtful.  Although both books are historical, in that both more or less treat modern philosophy from its inception (Duran even reaches back to Hildegard of Bingen) to the present day, Nye’s book is not structured around specific women philosophers (the way that Duran’s book is) and this perhaps allows Nye’s discussion a bit more room to maneuver.  All of her chapter titles, in fact, reference men philosophers, except for the one titled “The virtues of misogyny” and the one, important for our purposes, titled, “Reworking the canon: Anne Conway” (pp. 64-83).  As the chapter title intimates, Nye has a problem, and thinks you should too, with the fact that Conway isn’t part of the canon of modern philosophy even though, objectively speaking, she belongs there.  But Nye has no illusions about the difficulties entailed in reworking the canon:

Even when a woman philosopher of note is identified, she can seldom be simply added on.  A canon is not a list of disconnected names.  Relations between thinkers, worked and reworked by generations of commentators, bond philosophical materials together in historical sequences with direction and meaning.  A thinker critiques or responds to specified predecessors.  He or she is a link in an ideological sequence, more or less linear, more or less progressive.  Because a canon represents a line of thought with links to the present, just as with scriptural canons additions can cause reverberations up and down the line, both in accounts of ideas that predate the addition and in accounts of ideas that come after it.  Adding to a canon often means revisions of past history and present history, as other additions and deletions, and other interpretations and judgments, become necessary to reshape a coherent succession of ideas.  (p. 69)

Her critics might reply: “But why should we bother with all of this?  Isn’t this an excessive reaction to the admitted and, in hindsight, patently unfair exclusion of an important early modern philosopher because of her sex?  It’s too bad that it happened, but what’s done is done, and can’t be undone.”  Something that separates Nye’s work on Conway from the other works I’ve presented here is the biological knowledge and perspective she brings to the table.  In the following passage Nye responds to this “Why bother?” criticism with prescient indications of just where a philosophy that had integrated Conway into its canon might go next, if (you will pardon the expression) it had the balls to do so:

Addition of a figure like Conway to the canon of modern philosophy requires some reworking of historical sources and historical problems in philosophy.  It can also cause dislocations at the present end of the historical sequence.  Once premodern sources of philosophy are construed differently, lines of philosophical thought converge differently into the present.  The standard sequence from Cartesian rationalism, to British empiricism, to Kant, leads naturally, after an interlude of romantic protest, to the logical positivism of the 1930s, to the linguistic and analytic philosophies of the postwar period, and to the increasing emphasis on logical semantics at the close of the twentieth century.  In the process, philosophy sheds in successive stages theological or metaphysical elements and finds a proper academic niche as the handmaiden and guardian of the sciences and as under-laborer in the fields of computer programming and linguistics.  A line of thought from Conway, however, might lead in other directions.

Many of Conway’s theological and metaphysical ideas are echoed in Simone Weil’s “thinking body” or non-credulous God, and her sense of the redemptive force of pain (Oppression and Liberty; Gravity and Grace).  Evelyn Fox Keller’s discussion of methods in the biological sciences might find a “god-mother” in Conway’s alive and ever-changing nature.  Instead of a guiding metaphor of natural law, stand-in for Decartes’s ruling transcendent God, Keller’s feminist scientists study self-regulating and dynamic systems that are part of a nature that is generative in its own right.  Here a scientist’s job is neither to collect and collate data nor to penetrate, uncover, dissect, or master nature from the distant perspective of a controlling mind, but to interact creatively and productively in partnership with nature and its capacities (A Feeling for the Organism; Reflections on Gender and Science; Refiguring Life).  In postmodern philosophy after Conway, instead of logical semantics with its truth functional logic, the geometry and topology of organic structures might interest philosophers and lead to new insights in metaphysics.  (p. 81)

In Conway’s metaphysics, Creation is organic, pluralistic, evolutionary, and – this is crucial – of one substance.  There is no existing thing (nor can there be) of which one can say, this is entirely devoid of “spirit.”  Thus, there are no pure “bodies.”  Even rocks and minerals, which most of us today take to be entirely lifeless and spiritless, have, for Conway, highly “congealed” spirits that are able to insinuate themselves into, or be incorporated by, other spirits, as well as able to “die” and be “reborn” as new spirits that are either better or worse than the old ones.  And – this is also crucial – for Conway, mankind has no special prerogative or exemption with respect to all this “becoming.”  Nye (emphasis added):

The great wealth of natural history observation available in the seventeenth century influenced Locke’s moral skepticism.  There is hardly any cruelty or barbarism, observed Locke, after reading his travel tales, that men do not practice somewhere on the globe.  Natural history inspired another kind of insight for Conway.  Everywhere in the natural world there is vibrant transformation, metamorphosis, and change.  Environments change.  Grass dies out.  Creatures adapt and change in order to be able to nourish themselves on other food.  Rocks dissolve and become sand.  Hybrids and mutations occur.  Plant a wheat seat and something like barley sprouts.  Animals die, are eaten by men, and animal flesh turns into men’s spiritual energy.  An animal eats grass; grass turns into animal flesh.  A worm spins a larva and turns into a butterfly.  There is no justification in Conway’s metaphysics for setting men apart from this process of change.  A man can sink so low, can become so prey to lust or anger that he is an animal.  The species man might sink so low that it is no longer “man.”  Alternatively, in an evolutionary sense, over successive generations, an animal might turn into a man.  Is man so great, she asked?  Or is man just a part of the “ladder of being”?  Some of Conway’s examples reflect common misapprehensions of her day, like the spontaneous generation of animals from mud.  In spirit they are consistent with contemporary biological science.  The organic and the inorganic world is one substance; animate life evolves from inanimate substance although we may not know how that happens.  (pp. 76-7)

With respect to the mystery invoked in the last sentence quoted above, Addy Pross, who is a professor of theoretical biophysical chemistry, has just had published a fascinating “perspectives” article in the peer-reviewed Journal of Systems Chemistry.  Because this journal is open access the full text of the paper is freely available and can be read, here.  It is beyond the scope of this post for me to attempt to discuss this scientific paper in detail, but I think that those who take the time to read it will come away very impressed by the holistic thinking of its author.  Although the paper in no way delves into metaphysics, I trust that the interested reader will be able to see that Conway’s metaphysics are by no means inconsistent with the theories expressed therein.  Although some of the terminology used may be mildly daunting for some, the text should be readily comprehensible for the educated lay reader.  The paper is admittedly fairly long, and so readers who are pressed for time may wish to just read the abstract, the introduction, sections 2.2.3 and 2.2.4, and the concluding remarks, all of which I have reproduced below for the sake of convenience.  If the paper is of no interest to you, or you wish to read it via the provided link instead, you may quit reading now, as my comments in this post end here.

[To be continued in next post…]

From “Toward a general theory of evolution: Extending Darwinian theory to inanimate matter,” by Addy Pross:


Though Darwinian theory dramatically revolutionized biological understanding, its strictly biological focus has resulted in a widening conceptual gulf between the biological and physical sciences.  In this paper we strive to extend and reformulate Darwinian theory in physicochemical terms so it can accommodate both animate and inanimate systems, thereby helping to bridge this scientific divide.  The extended formulation is based on the recently proposed concept of dynamic kinetic stability and data from the newly emerging area of systems chemistry.  The analysis leads us to conclude that abiogenesis and evolution, rather than manifesting two discrete stages in the emergence of complex life, actually constitute one single physicochemical process.  Based on that proposed unification, the extended theory offers some additional insights into life’s unique characteristics, as well as added means for addressing the three central questions of biology: what is life, how did it emerge, and how would one make it?


Despite the enormous developments in molecular biology during the past half century, the science of biology appears to have reached a conceptual impasse.  Woese [1] captured both the nature and the magnitude of the problem with his comment: “Biology today is no more fully understood in principle than physics was a century or so ago.  In both cases the guiding vision has (or had) reached its end, and in both, a new, deeper, more invigorating representation of reality is (or was) called for.”  The issue raised by Woese is a fundamental one – to understand the genesis and nature of biological organization and to address biology’s holistic, rather than just its molecular nature.  Kauffman [2] expressed the difficulty in somewhat different terms: “…we know many of the parts and many of the processes.  But what makes a cell alive is still not clear to us.  The center is still mysterious.”  In effect, the provocative question, “What is Life?”, raised by Schrödinger over half a century ago [3], remains unresolved, a source of unending debate.  Thus, despite the recent dramatic insights into the molecular character of living systems, biology of the 21st century is continuing to struggle with the very essence of biological reality.

At the heart of biology’s crisis of identity lies its problematic relationship with the two sciences that deal with inanimate matter – physics and chemistry.  While the on-going debate regarding the role of reductionist thinking in biology exemplifies the difficulties at a methodological level, the problematic relationship manifests itself beyond issues of methodology and philosophy of science.  Indeed, the answers to two fundamental questions, central to understanding the life issue, remain frustratingly out of reach.  First, how did life emerge, and, second, how would one go about synthesizing a simple living system?  Biology cannot avoid these questions because, together with the ‘what is life?’ question, they form the three apexes of the triangle of holistic understanding.  Being able to adequately answer any one of the questions depends on being able to answer the other two.  A coherent strategy for the synthesis of a living system is not possible if one does not know what life is, and one cannot know what life is if one does not understand the principles governing its emergence.  Richard Feynman’s aphorism (quoted in [4]) captured the issue succinctly: “What I cannot create, I do not understand.”  Remarkably, the laws of physics and chemistry, the two sciences that deal with material structure and reactivity, have as yet been unable to adequately bridge between the physicochemical and biological worlds.

Despite the above-mentioned difficulties we believe that the problem is resolvable, at least in principle.  If the widely held view that life did emerge from inanimate matter is correct, it suggests that the integration of animate and inanimate matter within a single conceptual framework is an achievable goal.  This is true regardless of our knowledge of the detailed historical path that led from inanimate to animate.  The very existence of such a pathway would be proof for that.  If indeed such a conversion did take place, it suggests that particular laws of physics and chemistry, whether currently known or not, must have facilitated that transformation, and therefore those laws, together with the materials on which they operated, can form the basis for understanding the relationship between these two fundamentally distinct material forms.

In this paper we wish to build on this way of thinking and to draw the outlines of a general theory of evolution, a theory that remains firmly rooted in the Darwinian landscape, but reformulated in physicochemical terms so as to encompass both biological and non-biological systems.  Such a theory, first and foremost, rests on a basic assumption: that the physicochemical principles responsible for abiogenesis, the so-called chemical phase – the stage in which inanimate matter complexified into a simple living system – are fundamentally the same as those responsible for biological evolution, though for the biological phase these principles are necessarily dressed up in biological garb.  Darwin would no doubt have drawn enormous satisfaction from such a proposal, one that attempts to integrate Darwinian-type thinking into the physicochemical world.  However such a sweeping assumption needs to be substantiated.  Accordingly our analysis is divided into two parts.  In the first part we argue for the basis of that assumption, and in second part we attempt to describe key elements of that general theory, as well as the insights that derive from it, in particular with regard to the three central questions of biology, referred to above.  The analysis draws heavily on data from the emergent research area termed by Günter von Kiedrowski, ‘Systems Chemistry’ [5,6].  The essence of this emergent area is to fill the chemical void between chemistry and biology by seeking the chemical origins of biological organization.  . . .

Dynamic kinetic stability (DKS) and dynamic kinetic states of matter

A system is considered stable if it is persistent, remains unchanged with time – that is an operational, phenomenological definition.  Within chemical systems we recognize that a system’s stability can arise for either thermodynamic or kinetic reasons and, accordingly, we speak of thermodynamic and kinetic stabilities.  Importantly, both arise from lack of change.  Paradoxically, however, there is another kind of stability in nature that is actually achieved through change, rather than through lack of change.  This stability kind is a dynamic stability.  Consider, as an example, a flowing river or a water fountain.  The river or fountain, as an identifiable entity, would be classified as stable if it maintains its presence over time.  That, as already mentioned, is the manifestation of stability – unchanging with time.  But, of course, the water that makes up the river or fountain is changing constantly so the river’s (fountain’s) stability in this instance is of a dynamic kind, one that comes about through change.  So though the river (fountain) as an entity is stable, its stability is of a distinctly different character to that associated with static entities.

As already discussed above, a stable population of replicating entities, whether chemical or biological, also manifests a dynamic kind of stability.  The population of replicators can only be ‘stable’ if the individual entities that make up the population are continually being turned over, just like the constantly changing water content of the river or fountain.  Thus one might think of the population of molecular replicators as a ‘molecular fountain‘.  The significance of the term ‘dynamic kinetic stability’, as applied to a stable population of replicating entities, may now become clear.  The term ‘dynamic’ reflects the continual turnover of the population members, the term ‘kinetic’ reflects the fact that the stability of the replicating system is based on kinetic parameters, such as k and g of eq 1, i.e., on reaction rate constants, rather than on thermodynamic parameters.  It is the values of these parameters, together with the availability of resources, which determines the stability of the particular replicating system.  Accordingly we may characterize stable replicating systems (i.e., those that persist over time), whether chemical or biological, as dynamic kinetic states of matter.  The utility and significance of this term can be more clearly gauged by comparison with the term frequently used to describe inanimate systems, the more traditional thermodynamic states of matter that characterize much of chemistry.

The physicochemical driving force within replicator space

Let us now specify the factors that would tend to enhance the stability of a replicating system.  Fundamentally all physicochemical systems tend to undergo transformations from less stable forms to more stable forms.  The second law of thermodynamics is the formal expression of that general drive.  But within the constraints of the second law a range of outcomes is possible, and for reasons described above, for replicating systems, kinetic factors predominate.  Specifically, within replicator space, the space in which dynamic kinetic stability is effectively in control, the selection rule becomes: from kinetically less stable to kinetically more stable.  Thus, within that space the driving force is effectively the drive toward greater DKS.  In other words, whereas the second law requires all chemical systems to be directed toward their most stable state (lowest Gibbs energy state), within replicator space a second law analogue effectively governs the nature of transformations [36,39].  A recent study by Boiteau and Pascal [40] also reaffirms the idea of a fundamental evolutionary driving force.

The above discussion now makes clear a major distinction between events within the physical and biological worlds.  Within the physical world the second law is a useful predictor of what is likely to take place.  That is how we are able to predict the melting of ice when placed in warm water, or the explosion that results from the mixing of hydrogen and oxygen gases.  Generally speaking, that is the law that allows us to relate reactants and products for any reaction in an intelligible fashion.  Within the biological world, however, that world of replicating systems, the second law provides effectively no predictive power.  Neither the behavior of a stalking lion nor the single cell phenomenon of chemotaxis is explicable in terms of the second law.  Of course all biological phenomena are consistent with the second law, but that global requirement in itself is of no predictive value.  Rather, biological phenomena can be best understood and predicted on the basis of their teleonomic character [41,42], a character that is totally unrelated to thermodynamic stability and the second law.  The behavior of a hungry lion or of a bacterium in a glucose solution with a concentration gradient are each readily understood and predicted in teleonomic, not thermodynamic, terms.  As we will discuss shortly, teleonomy, that quintessentially biological phenomenon, can be given a physicochemical basis, but it will be by relating it to kinetic, as opposed to thermodynamic, parameters.  . . .

Concluding remarks

Darwin’s contribution to modern scientific thought is profound and irrevocable.  It has forever changed man’s view of himself and his place in the universe.  By demonstrating the interconnectedness of all living things, Darwin brought a unity and coherence to biology that continues to impact on the subject to this day.  But a paradoxical side product of that extraordinary contribution with its specific focus on living things, was that it resulted in a distancing between the biological and the physical sciences, one that continues to afflict the natural sciences.  The disturbing result – despite the enormous contribution of the Darwinian theme, Darwinism remains unable to explain what life is, how it emerged, and how living things relate to non-living ones.  The challenge therefore is clear.  The scientific goal – the relentless striving toward the unification of science – requires that the chasm that divides and separates the biological from the physical sciences be bridged.

In this paper we have attempted to demonstrate that by reformulating and incorporating the Darwinian theme within a general physicochemical scheme, one that rests on the concept of dynamic kinetic stability, the animate-inanimate connection can be strengthened.  What the general scheme suggests is that life is, first and foremost, a highly complex dynamic network of chemical reactions that rests on an autocatalytic foundation, is driven by the kinetic power of autocatalysis, and has expanded octopus-like from some primal replicative system from which the process of complexification toward more complex systems was initiated.  Thus life as it is can never be readily classified and categorized because life is more a process than a thing.  In that sense Whitehead’s process philosophy [65] with its emphasis on process over substance seems to have been remarkably prescient.  Even the identification and classification of separate individual life forms within that ever expanding network seems increasingly problematic.  The revelation that the cellular mass that we characterize as an individual human being (you, me, or the girl next door) actually consists of significantly more bacterial cells than human cells (~10^14 compared to ~10^13) [66], all working together in a symbiotic relationship to establish a dynamic kinetically stable system, is just one striking example of the difficulty.  As humans we naturally focus on what we identify as the human component of that elaborate biological network, but that of course is an anthropocentric view, one that has afflicted human thinking for millennia.  A description closer the truth would seem to be that life is a sprawling interconnected dynamic network in which some connections are tighter, others looser, but a giant dynamic network nonetheless.  And it is life’s dynamic character that explains why identifiable individual life forms – small segments of that giant network – can be so fragile, so easy to undermine through network deconstruction, whereas the goal of creating life is such a formidable one.

A closing remark concerning life’s complexity.  Life is complex – that is undeniable.  But that does not necessarily mean that the life principle is complex.  In fact we would argue that the life principle is in some sense relatively simple!  Indeed, simple rules can lead to complex patterns, as studies in complexity have amply demonstrated [67,68].  So we would suggest that life, from its simple beginnings as some minimal replicating system, and following a simple rule – the drive toward greater dynamic kinetic stability within replicator space – is yet another example of that fundamental idea.

A final comment: this paper has discussed the concept of dynamic kinetic stability in some detail, and the question as to which stability kind – dynamic kinetic or thermodynamic – is inherently preferred in nature, could be asked.  There is, of course, no formal answer to this question.  In contrast to thermodynamic stability, dynamic kinetic stability is, as noted earlier, not readily quantifiable.  Nevertheless an intriguing observation can be made.  Since the emergence of life on earth from some initial replicating entity some 4 billion years ago, life has managed to dramatically diversify and multiply, having taken root in almost every conceivable ecological niche.  Just the bacterial biomass on our planet alone has been estimated to be some 2.10^14 tons, sufficient to cover the earth’s land surface to a depth of 1.5 meters [69].  The conclusion seems inescapable – there is a continual transformation of ‘regular’ matter into replicative matter (permitted by the supply of an almost endless source of energy), suggesting that in some fundamental manner replicative matter is the more ‘stable’ form.  What implications this continuing transformation might have on cosmology in general is beyond both our understanding and the scope of this paper.

This entry was posted in Animal theology, Conway, Anne, Helmont, Jan Baptista van, Pagel, Walter, Philosophy (uncategorized), Scandinavian creation theology, Science, History of. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to There are no pure bodies: The monotheistic spiritual naturalism of Anne Conway, part 3

  1. Pingback: There are no pure bodies: The monotheistic spiritual naturalism of Anne Conway, part 2 | Extravagant Creation

  2. Pingback: There are no pure bodies: The monotheistic spiritual naturalism of Anne Conway, part 4 | Extravagant Creation

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s