Friday, August 28, 2009

Being a membrane…

In his dialogue with Pierre Changeaux, titled What Makes Us Think?, Paul Ricoeur (pp. 203–206) draws attention to the thoughts of Hans Jonas and Emile Canguilhem on the philosophy of biology. In Organismus und Freiheit, for example, Jonas considers the phenomenon of autointegration and the attendant notion of an individual. Jonas's point is that "the price of individuation … is the growing awareness of the otherness of the world and the growing solitude of the self." Ricoeur goes on to note one of Canguilhem's major claims in La Connaissance de la vie: "The peculiar characteristic of living beings … is that each of us make a milieu for themselves." Ricoeur then recalls (p. 207) how Jonas "attempted … to show how already in the 'simplest' true organism––existing by way of metabolism, and thereby self-dependent and other-dependent at once––the horizons of selfhood, world and time, under the imperious alternative of being or nonbeing, are silhouetted in a prenatal form." In other words, to live is to spread outward––while still maintaining an individualized limitation-space vitally separate from "everything else." As the ancients put it, "Bonum diffusum est sui [The good is diffusive of itself]."

In the same way that an organism exists only by being "membranized" (i.e., bounded-apart-from other entities) in its surroundings, so the Universe qua One-Together* exists in its ontological totality only by being bounded off from the greater "Being-environment" of God's own Eternal Being. The spatiotemporal membranes of the cosmos are analogous to the cellular boundaries of any cell in a larger organ/organism. If God were merely "some other object" in some imagined hyperspace, He would just be a part, a member, of the Universe. But the point here is that God is not just some 'bigger', even 'biggest', object. Rather, the entire existence of the Universe, as a dynamic assembly of subparts, requires a fundamental "membrane" limitation for its own proper structure. The Universe and God exist in fundamentally different ways. Just as a cell completely depends on its environment for its nourishment and sustenance, without simply dissolving into the environment, so the cosmos depends on God as the source of its "ontic sustenance." The analogy is asymmetrical in the same way that an environment, like God, does not depend on or derive from any of the cells which it engenders and sustains. Infinity is not a proper object of empirical science, therefore if the Universe is simply posited to be "infinite like God," then the Universe eo ipso ceases to be an object of empirical science. God, by contrast, is a proper object of metaphysical inquiry, and therefore ought not be penalized for failing to be "an empirical reality."

* Universum, as it was coined by Lucretius in De Rerum Natura (bk. IV, line 262), basically means "rolled/wrapped into one." This is quite amusing, considering how we often refer to the universe as "the Whole Enchilada"!

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