Science in Christian Perspective
Reprinted from the Christian Graduate 22, No. 3, 24 (1969)
From: JASA 22 (December 1970): 128-131.
'William Paley, the eighteenth-century Christian apologist,
as making the universe like a watch which He wound up, left to tick,
repaired. For those modern Christians who are ashamed of Paley, it will come as
a shock that a kind of teleological argument from mechanical design
being reintroduced by the distinguished nonChristian scientist and pilosopher,
Dr. Michael Polanyi. This is all the more interesting because, instead of God
being the designer, the design is attributed to an evolutionary process which
is not personified, and which cannot be described in the scientific language of
physics and chemistry.
Considering the universe for a moment as a machine, let us look at Polanyi's argument. Almost all scientists today believe, of course, that, in the words of Polanyi, "so far as life can be represented as a mechanism, it is explained by the laws of inanimate nature". Dr. Polanyi's position is antithetical, and this is his revolution: "I differ ... most from biologists, by holding that no mechanism-be it a machine or a machine-like feature of an organism-can be represented in terms of physics and chemistry." Even more strongly than this, he expresses incredulity that
for 300 years writers who contested the possibility of explaining life by physics and chemistry argued by affirming that living things are not, or not wholly, machinelike, instead of pointing not that the mere existence of machinelike functions in living beings proves that life cannot be explained in terms of physics and
The reasons he gives for his hypothesis fall into three major points.
1. His first reason is that machines are not reducible to a description in terms of physico-chemical laws. This is because they are defined by the distinctive functions which the mind of man has imposed upon them; machines are shaped and designed for a special purpose. A 'washing-machine' is defined by its function of 'washing clothes', and the clothes-washing function is what moulds it to its typical recognizable shape.
An illustration reminiscent of Paley that Polanyi gives in several essay-articles is the watch: a physical and chemical molecular topography of his watch would not give enough information to tell you 'what' it is. In contrast, a child's description-the thingamajig you have on your wrist to tell the time with-gives this information. There is a related problem when more obvious means of conveying information are considered. A physical chemical topography of the page you are reading at this moment would say nothing of its word content, or the total meaning of those words.
2. It will prove easier to understand his second point if it is realized that all machines as a whole make
up a boundary condition (a term borrowed from physics). What Dr. Polanyi calls a 'boundary condition' may be taken to mean any form which is distinct in quality from all other forms, and which can have a diversity of possible contents. The sonnet-form in poetry would be such a 'boundary condition'; so would the medieval Christian and early modern scientific concept of the universe, and so would be such a thing as speech. (The latter is one of Polanyi's own examples.) But the 'boundary condition' also necessarily includes the function defining a machine which we discussed in the first point. Thus we may say-even though the more important constituent of the two is not made explicit-that it is the structure or form of the machine, with its function, which makes up its boundary condition.
In all machines, the boundary conditions exert a control or organization over the materials which compose them, even though the material nevertheless works autonomously according to physico-chemical laws. Polanyi concludes therefore that any mechanism is clearly under a hierarchical dual control. The 'upper level' is under the control of a particular boundary condition-constituted by the distinctive machine-structure plus its related function-which harnesses the baser 'lower level' controlled according to physical and chemical laws. If, for example, a car is smashed into a cube in a junk-yard, the 'lower level' laws of physics and chemistry continue to work just as inexorably in the cube as they did in the car when it was speeding down the freeway.
By this principle of boundary condition, Polanyi says that it follows that machine-like structures of living beings appear likewise to be irreducible to terms of physics and chemistry. A biological organism has the two aspects of a boundary condition: its organs are defined by their vital functions (for example, the digestive function of the stomach), and its total shape or 'morphology', with the shapes of its parts, enable it to be recognized; both aspects together tell 'what' it is. The former aspect partially parallels the function of a machine. The more important formal or morphological aspect of the biological organism parallels the structure of the machine. Without these irreducible plant and animal morphologies or forms, of course, biological science would not exist. It categorizes the observed in plants and animals. On the impossibility of biology ever being a molecular science, Polanyi says,
Even supposing we did produce a mathematical expression for the shape of one living specimen, including all its anatomy at one particular moment, the formula would not cover its changes due to growth and decline and it would of course fail even more widely to cover the variety of specimens belonging to one species.
Not only is a comprehensive species a boundary condition, but also the unity of
identity of a growing plant or animal from seed to adult.
3. The third step in Polanyi's argument is this: the code or 'template'-as Prof. J. D. Bernal calls it on the helix or coil of the DNA molecule is similarly not describable in terms of physics and chemistry. James Watson and Sir Francis Crick, and the majority of biologists, believe that DNA templates determine the growth and morphologies (forms) of all the animate world, making life "one biochemically interconnected unity every element of which, down to the smallest virus, operates its synthesis by this . . . molecular mechanism" of DNA (Bensal, Science in History, p. 198). This seems to prove the contrary to Polanyi's view; it seems to make 'life' determinable by the inanimate laws of physics and chemistry.
But, argues Polanyi, DNA is in itself a boundary condition, and as such cannot be reduced to physicochemical laws. In the first place, the DNA is defined by its genetic function, the biological equivalent to a machine's reason for being constructed. In the second place, and more important, it bears a quantity of information that "determines the genetic development of an organism". This is because, by self-duplication, the information-content of the DNA mechanism induces in posterity "an equivalent amount of organic differentation". In short, it in reality determines the plan or animal morphology, or structure.
This 'shaping' aspect of DNA has two implications: (i) as an information-conveyor, the DNA code, like a page of print, defies reduction to physics and chemistry; (ii) as DNA hears a pattern or blue-print 'informed' with the shape of the potential new organism, the pattern must be regarded as just as much a morphological (or structural) feature of that organism as that shape is. As a morphological feature of an organism, the DNA pattern cannot therefore he reduced to physico-chemical laws. This means simply that DNA in its vital function of shaping life fulfills the requisites of a boundary condition, and as such controls or organizes from a 'higher level' the various chemicals which materially make up the DNA coil; constituents which, as the 'lower level', also work autonomously according to the laws of physics and chemistry. This 'upper level' boundary condition says Poaoyi "brings the vital shaping of offspring by DNA into consonance with the shaping of a machine by the engineer".
Moving from the micro level to the cosmic, Polanyi does not regard the universe to be under a boundary condition in its totality. He believes it to he essentially disorganized; that is, in a probable state according to
the Second Law of Thermodynamics. This does not relieve him of the designer-difficulty, however. His belief that the animate portion of nature and manmade machines are controlled by boundary conditions, leaves open the question of morphogeoesis (the emergence of form from chaos) and the beginnings of consciousness just as urgently as if the universe is regarded as a mechanism. More naively, the question could he formulated, 'Who or what is the designer of the mechanisms of animate nature?'
It is significant that Dr. Polanyi feels the current theories of evolution to he quite inadequate to these problems. This is because, in describing biological organisms, the biologist assumes their shapes (morphologies; boundary conditions) to he valid scientific data. Yet the biologist, then attributes morphogenesis and the arrival of consciousness to natural selection. Polanyi, in terms too technical to repeat here, argues clearly that such a probable or predictable selection as natural selection in such an arrangement as the four mobile chemical substituents on the DNA coil would allow no information-content, content which obviously must be there if DNA carries the blueprints for all living organisms. Information requires an improbable or unpredictable organization by an imposed boundary condition. A partial but good analogy is the way wordsymbols have been arranged in this article by my mind. The words are not in an alphabetical sequence, or in any other orderly predictable sequences based on such factors as the numbers of letters or syllables (e.g., ones before twos, twos before threes, etc.). Rather they serve me in my communication-attempt, and are selected and organized from my vocabulary with this function in view, although of course some modifications of style and grammar have taken place.
At this exciting point in his theory, Dr. Polanyi makes a profound optimistic jump in his reasoning. Mechanical control in animate nature, he points out, is not determinable from the 'lower level' of physicochemical laws. Furthermore, there is a hierarchy of mechanisms with man at the top. Man alone has sufficient consciousness to impose boundary conditions without a prewritten blueprint such as DNA; man alone can make blueprints. If biological structures are irreducible to physico-chemical laws, and likewise such things as man-made machines and communication symbol-systems, then why cannot man's consciousness be accepted as irreducible? Such an irreducibility frees a man from the shackles of believing himself to he a machine whose blueprint is completely prewritten, a belief strongly adhered to by Sir Francis Crick or Gilbert Ryle, for example.
Dr. Polanyi's optimism concerning the reality of consciousness is a logical jump because he at present has no basis for it:
We need a theory of knowledge which shows tip the fallacy of a positivistic scepticism and authorises our knowledge of entities governed by higher principles (boundary conditions). Any higher principle can be
known only by dwelling in the particulars governed by it. Any attempt to observe a higher level of existence by a scrutiny of its several particulars must fail.
To 'authorise' the higher levels we observe in animate nature, and sense in our
own consciousness, a designer is necessary, a designer who has some
(e.g., the ability to create blueprints for mechanisms). This
designer must also
he big enough, at least, to control and organize the vastness of the apparent
hierarchy of animate nature. Against bigness such as this, the nations are as
a drop in a bucket.
Sources for Polanyi
'Life Transcending Physics and Chemistry' (Chemical and Engineering News, August 21, 1967.)
'On the Modern Mind' (Encounter, May 1965). 'The Structure of Consciousness' (Brain, Part IV, 1966).
'Life's Irreducible Structure' (Science, Vol. 160, June 21, 1968).