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Quote of the Week
(November 29, 2021)

How does the cell divide? How is body temperature maintained? How do signals originate, move through the uncertainties of multicellular environments, get transduced, and ultimately produce their specific effects within individual cells? — such inquiries about sustained narratives commonly provide the questions for molecular biological research projects. But the “explanations” arrived at typically abandon the narrative context of the original inquiry and focus instead on isolated physical causes. For example, how does the structure of this molecule fit together with the structure of that one, or which proteins interact with which others? It may be implied that answers to such questions explain the narrative, but they never do. The physical transactions are simply caught up in the narrative.

The truly biological problems have to do with how countless such interactions are woven together as the threads of an integral and recognizable story, when it would be perfectly lawful, in a physical sense, for every one of the interacting molecules to head off in a direction irrelevant to the storyline and engage in any one of a thousand other transactions. No analysis of physical lawfulness can distinguish the different cases, because physical laws know nothing of the organism’s storyline.

What the typical explanations fail to acknowledge, in other words, is the overall, ongoing, coordinated activity — the appearance of purpose — that prompted the very questions the biologists began investigating. The language of physical causes never gets us to the story of the organism — never traces the organism’s unique and colorful path through its own world. Of course, we do need the usual physical picture, but we get its meaning only when we look through it, rather as we “listen through” the physical sounds of speech in order to discern the thoughts and intentions of the speaker.

(from “The Problematic Effectiveness of Reason in Biology”, Part 1 of “From Bodily Wisdom to the Knowing Self”)

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