THE NATURE OF LIFE

Existing Perspectives

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Written by Dr. Nash Popovic

The Materialist Interpretation

Materialist doctrine is based on the belief that the functioning of living organisms can be reduced entirely to physical and chemical processes. Consequently, ‘the study of life at all levels, from social to molecular behaviour, has in modern times relied on reductionism as the chief explanatory concept.’ (Morowitz, 1981, p.34) Some supporters of materialism, zealous to associate life with inanimate matter, even use machine-like terminology. For example, Richard Dawkins, of ‘The Selfish Gene’ fame, describes living organisms in terms of mechanisms, replicators and robots. Ironically, this, in fact, contradicts materialism:

It has for some time been generally supposed that organisms are mechanisms and that, since mechanisms work in accordance with physical and chemical laws, organisms must also do so… Unfortunately this assumption has been misconceived to mean that organisms must be wholly explicable as the resultants of physical and chemical laws because mechanisms are. Actually it means exactly the opposite. For mechanisms are not wholly explicable as the resultants of the operation of physical and chemical laws. (Polanyi & Prosch, 1975, p.168)

Machines are purposely built and they can be fully understood only in that context. So, if life forms are machines, the same should apply. Polanyi concludes: ‘biologists will tell you that they are explaining living beings by the laws of inanimate nature, but what they actually do, and do triumphantly well, is to explain certain aspects of life by

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