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Out of Control

About a century ago, the common belief that life was a mysterious liquid that infused living things was refined into a modern philosophy called vitalism. The position which vitalism held was not very far from the meaning in the everyday phrase, "She lost her life." We all imagine some invisible substance seeping away at death. The vitalists took this vernacular meaning seriously. They held that while the essential spirit stirring in creatures was not itself alive, neither was it wholly an inanimate material or mechanism either. It was something else: a vital impulse that existed outside of the creature it animated.

My description of the aggressive character of life is not meant to be a postmodern vitalism. It is true that defining life as "an emergent property contingent upon the organization of inanimate parts but not reducible to them" (the best that science can do right now), comes very close to sounding like a metaphysical doctrine. But it is intended to be testable.

I take the view that life is a nonspiritual, almost mathematical property that can emerge from networklike arrangements of matter. It is sort of like the laws of probability; if you get enough components together, the system will behave like this, because the law of averages dictates so. Life results when anything is organized according to laws only now being uncovered; it follows rules as strict as those that light obeys.

This lawful process coincidentally clothes life in a spiritual looking garb. One reason is that this organization must, by law, produce the unpredictable and novel. Secondly, the result of organization must replicate at every opportunity, giving it a sense of urgency and desire. And thirdly, the result can easily loop around to protect its own existence, and thus it acquires an emergent agenda. Altogether, these principals might be called the "emergent" doctrine of life. This doctrine is radical because it entails a revised notion of what laws of nature mean: irregularity, circular logic, tautology, surprise.

Vitalism, like every wrong idea, contains a useful sliver of truth. Hans Driesch, the arch twentieth-century vitalist, defined vitalism in 1914 as "the theory of the autonomy of the process of life," and in certain respects he was right. Life in our dawning new view can be divorced from both living bodies and mechanical matrix, and set apart as a real, autonomous process. Life can be copied from living bodies as a delicate structure of information (spirit or gene?) and implanted in new lifeless bodies, whether they are of organic parts or machine parts.

In the history of ideas, we have progressively eliminated discontinuities from our perception of our role as humans. Historian of science David Channell summarizes this progression in his book The Vital Machine: A Study of Technology and Organic Life.

First, Copernicus eliminated the discontinuity between the terrestrial world and the rest of the physical universe. Next, Darwin eliminated the discontinuity between human beings and the rest of the organic world. And most recently, Freud eliminated the discontinuity between the rational world of the ego and the irrational world of the unconscious. But as [historian and psychologist Bruce] Mazlish has argued, there is one discontinuity that faces us yet. This "fourth discontinuity" is between human beings and the machine.

We are now crossing the fourth discontinuity. No longer do we have to choose between the living or the mechanical because that distinction is no longer meaningful. Indeed, the most meaningful discoveries in this coming century are bound to those that celebrate, explore, and exploit the unified quality of technology and life.

The bridge between the worlds of the born and the manufactured is the perpetual force of radical disequilibrium -- a law called life. In the future, the essence that both living creatures and machines will have in common -- that which will distinguish them from all other matter in the universe -- is that they both will have the dynamics of self-organized change.

We can now take the premise that life is a something in flux that is obeying laws which humans can uncover and recognize, even if we can't understand them fully. As a way to discover the commonalty between machines and creatures in this book, I've found it useful to ask, What does life want? I also consider evolution in the same way. What does evolution want? Or to be more precise, What does the world look like from life and evolution's point of view? If we consider life and evolution as "autonomous processes," then what are their selfish goals? Where are they headed? What are they becoming?

Gretel Ehrlich writes in her lyrical book Montana Spaces : "Wildness has no conditions, no sure routes, no peaks or goals, no source that is not instantly becoming something more than itself, then letting go of that, always becoming. It cannot be stripped to its complexity by cat scan or telescope. Rather, it is a many-pointed truth, almost a bluntness, a sudden essence like the wild strawberries strung along the ground on scarlet runners under my feet. Wildness is source and fruition at once, as if every river circled round, the mouth eating the tail -- and the tail, the source..."

There is no purpose, other than itself, to wildness. It is both "source and fruition," the mingling of cause and effect in circular logic. What Ehrlich calls wildness, I call a network of vital life, an outpouring of a nearly mechanic force that seeks only to enlarge itself, and that pushes its disequilibrium into all matter, erupting in creatures and machines alike.

Wildness/life is always becoming, Ehrlich says. Becoming what? Becoming becoming. Life is on its way to further complications, further deepness and mystery, further processes of becoming and change. Life is czircle of becoming, an autocatalytic set, inflaming itself with its own sparks, breeding upon itself more life and more wildness and more "becomingness." Life has no conditions, no moments that are not instantly becoming something more than life itself.

As Ehrlich hints, wild life resembles that strange loop of the Uroborus biting its tail, consuming itself. But in truth, wild life is the far stranger loop of a snake releasing itself from its own grip, unmouthing an ever fattening tail tapering up to an ever increasingly larger mouth, birthing an ever larger tail, filling the universe with this strangeness.