Monday, August 9, 2010

3.1 Organisms and action

3.1 Organisms and action
Man’s life, man’s action, and man’s values are examined at their broadest level in the philosophical science of ethics.[1] Concepts such as value, worth, good, judgement, action, rationality, and many others like these, are critical for both ethics and economics. This strongly suggests we should start with the foundations of ethics. In a better world, one with better education systems and content, there would be no need for economics to examine this much and instead it could take this knowledge for granted by way of assuming that students would learn it in basic philosophy classes. However we do not live in such a world, where instead at the time of writing philosophy is not commonly taught and much of what is taught in philosophy classes is either mysticism or, frankly, garbage. We are left with no option but to make our own effort to look at the essentials that are critical precursors to economics.

Philosophy begins its analysis of ethics with a look at the nature of life, action and value generally. There is a good reason for that: man is an organism of a certain type. Everything he is and does is a variation of and development from what it means to be an organism, whose variations and developments come from the biological histories that lead up to the existence of the particular types creatures classifiable as men. Only by first understanding that set of three themes can we make sense of those variations and developments for man in general and then each concrete man. It is no accident that those three concepts are shared by ethics and economics alike, because objective ethical theory must base its science on analysis life, action and value generally before it can look at their application to man. Thus while this discussion sets the scene for their application to man, what is presented in this chapter is not alone sufficient to cover man’s special case and the extra considerations that must be made with regards to his possession of the conceptual faculty. These matters are left to the next chapter to deal with.

The meaning of life
Existence is primarily composed of entities.[2] Everything in existence pertains to the existence of entities. All the laws of nature pertain to the actions of entities. All sciences are but specialisations in examination of subsets of entities and laws of their action, and all proper scientific inquiry must include due recognition of the interconnectivity of all sciences with each other. This includes the connection between the science of economics and the science of ethics, and also the science of ethics with the broader science of philosophy of which it is a part.

All entities exist in definite forms, including living organisms. The constancy of material substance[3] means that the only fundamental alternative regarding existence versus non-existence is the class of form in which something exists. What differentiates the living from the non-living is a fundamental distinction between what organisms do and why versus the non-living not doing so and why not. That fundamental distinction lies only in the form that various entities take and what they do in relation to those forms. The distinction is that only the living need to keep up certain types of action in order to stay within the realm of the living, whereas the non-living need not do anything to remain within the realm of the non-living. The living have a conditional existence as the living and need to act so as to fulfil and maintain those conditions, whereas the non-living faces no such conditional existence and is in no position to do anything about that fact.

The condition for the continued existence of an organism – as a living organism rather than a corpse – is that various definite actions must be regularly undertaken. In their capacity as physical entities organisms are entropically unstable, to use the terminology of the physicists. What this means is that organisms must keep on drawing in matter and energy so as to maintain themselves or else they will collapse. As one philosopher put it, “a living organism does not have the passive stability of inanimate matter”.[4]

Further, this conditional existence and need for regular action goes beyond just simple invocation of the laws of thermodynamics and includes the fact that organisms are frequently targets for consumption by other organisms facing the same principle of conditional existence. Thus most organisms will also have to protect themselves in some fashion against other organisms who want to eat them so as to co-opt their matter and energy.[5]

Thus either way, as both seekers and sources of sustenance, organisms must do something so that they may continue being what they are. They must both take in matter and energy from outside themselves and prevent loss of the same from within themselves. An organism is – and, if it is to stay in existence, has to be – a goal-directed entity.[6] Observe that the actions required and the particular types of material and energy sources required will be those suited to the nature of the organism in question: this is just the Law of Identity and Law of Causality as applied to the conditional existence of organisms. But these are only differences in the particular implementation of the one principle that is common to all living things: each organism must act in a way suited to its nature so that it may go on acting, on and on until the day it can act no more. This principle is a self-referential self-perpetuating cycle. That is what life is: life is a process of self-generated self-sustaining action.[7] We thus differentiate organisms from other entities by reference to life: an organism is an entity that exhibits life in its structure and action.

By contrast, inanimate entities have neither the need nor the capacity to sustain themselves as examples of the inanimate. Although they might be violently reactive when they come into the presence of other materials or upon receipt of certain trigger events, they can sit entropically metastable and unchanged indefinitely. They frequently do have passive stability, have no inherent need to drawn in matter and energy from outside themselves, and even if they don’t have that stability and do have identifiable time-spans of existence (such as stars) then neither is there anything they can do about it and nor can they have a stake in preventing. To the extent they contain energies that can be released they are capable of motion, but they do not act. They are not goal-directed, they do not have a way of living, they are not alive. They are lumps of stuff, nothing more. We will pay them no further mind other than as objects of potential interest to organisms.

Why does life exist? That is actually many questions in one. There are two regarding efficient causation alone. The first is: how come life came into existence? This is an interesting question, but abiogenesis is a topic we may safely leave to biology.[8] It is the second efficient-causation question that we in economics are concerned with: how come life continues to exist? The answer is as identified, that life continues to exist because organisms have been successful at doing what they need to do in order to go on living and reproduce, in turn possible because the nature of life-bearing planets allows this. Further, for economics we are more interested in the question as put in terms of final causation: what end does life serve? The answer is that there is no goal for life except more life. There is only the one fundamental alternative: life or death. Life is an end in itself. It exists for no other reason than to continue to exist; life exists for its own sake.[9] Economics is a science that examines the nature and consequences of the use of a major set of means of living by which certain types of creatures go about pursuing this end as applied to their particular conditions.

Further examination of the phenomenon of life may safely be left to the science of biology. There will only be economic interest in organisms other than man insofar as individual organisms may be useful to men, which makes organisms and what they can do as goods and services just the same as other useful objects besides men.

The meaning of action
As we have seen, in the general use of the word ‘action’ all things can be capable of releasing energy for work, but only organisms can do so proactively. They are goal-directed, where the goal of their self-generated action is to sustain life as that type of organism. We thus need to identify the distinction between action arising from non-life processes and action arising from the proactivity of life: proaction is action generated by organisms so as to pursue goals. In all organisms but man, their goal in generating it is always the furtherance of those organisms’ forms of life. This distinguishes goal-directed action both from the actions of inanimate matter and also the non-goal-directed actions of organisms (such as the acts of falling over and tumbling or cellular breakdown). But for the sake of ease, and that ‘proaction’ is not a word in common English, from this point on assume that reference to ‘action’ means the action of organisms in their capacity as organisms.

Living things need to act – but as the totality of material substance in the world is constant the only thing that action can accomplish is alteration of form[10] and only in ways that the Laws of Identity and Causality permit. With that in mind, and making reference to causation, we can specify more exactly what action is: action is the motion by organisms that interrupts of one set of chains of cause-and-effect and initiates of another set to replace the first, intended to result in material substance taking on a more life-sustaining form than would otherwise have existed.

All organisms are entities of a certain type. All organisms are accounted as “alive” by virtue of them all exhibiting the same one principle of action: self-generated and self-sustaining action. What makes any organism in particular “that type of organism” is its concrete application of that principle, as determined by each organism’s form. Every type of organism has its own way of living, as appropriate for the particular form in which it exists. In whatever way any organism does it, there is a common principle of action for living: each type of organism has its own particular means of survival, and any organism’s survival depends on the successful use of its means.

Since action is about altering the course of events, in all action there is always a definite “from” referring to one state of affairs and always a definite “to” referring to another state of affairs. This therefore also means that all action is exchange[11]. For living things in general this predominantly takes the form of the matter and energy used to by organisms so that they may obtain a greater amount that that expended, but not exclusively so and nor is the choice of paths to follow always a neat measurement of kilojoule balances. There is one further critical concept remaining to be dealt with.

The meaning of value
Organisms live by means of acting to obtain their needs from the world around them. These needs are valued by those organisms. It is from this practice that the concept of ‘value’ gets its definition: a value is that which an organism acts to gain and/or keep.[12]

It is only the concept of life that makes the concept of value possible. Only through observation of the fact that good-versus-bad is only and can only be meaningful in relation to what is good or bad for organisms – particularly observation of that that the pleasure-pain mechanism in conscious animals exists to serve that end, beginning with observation of this in action in relation to oneself – can one arrive at the concepts of life and value.[13] Things can only be valuable when organisms act to gain and/or keep those things so that these organisms may continue their lives. Things can only be valuable if, amongst other conditions we will discuss shortly, they are means to the ends of organisms.

1 Peikoff, L (1991) op.cit. p3
2 See above, section 2.2
3 See above, section 2.1
4 Binswanger, H (1990) The biological basis of teleological concepts, ARI Press, p40
5 The “food chain” is this principle extended to multiple links. It is rooted in the material on Earth and energy from our sun, though some organisms live on chemical energy (as the original organisms also did), and a few others still from radiation in nuclear reactors (!).
6 Rand, (1964) op.cit., p16
7 Rand, (1957) op.cit., p932
8 The root answer is that subsequent to the formation of Earth, and after many chemical reactions in various watery locations over the course of a few hundred million years, there arose one molecule that had the property of catalysing the formation of copies of itself from the contents of the liquid from which it originated. It did this for a simple reason: because it could. With that, evolution began, life-proper entering the picture some time later. See, for example, Dawkins, R, ()
9 Rand, (1964) op. cit, p17
10 von Mises, L, (1966/1996) op. cit., p194
11 Simmel, G (1900), ‘A chapter in the philosophy of value’, American Journal of Sociology, Vol 5;  Liberty Fund, p52; von Mises, L, (1966/1996) op. cit, pp97-98
12 Rand (1964), op.cit, p15
13 Rand (1964), op.cit, p17

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