Soul as substance (pt. 2)

After a book length molecular biological account of life and a grudging acknowledgement of abiogenesis, Franklin Harold sets his cards on the table:

I cannot bring myself to believe that rudimentary organisms of any kind came about by the association of prefabricated molecules, born of completely chemical processes in the environment. Did life begin as a molecular collage? To my taste, the idea smacks of the reconstitution of life as we know it rather than its genesis ab initio. It overestimates what Harold Horowitz called the munificence of nature, her generosity in providing the building blocks for free. It makes cellular organization an afterthought of molecular structure, and offers no foothold for autopoesis. And it largely omits what I believe to be the ultimate wellspring of life, the thermodynamic drive of energy dissipation, creating mounting levels of structural order for natural selection to winnow. If it is true that life resides in organization rather than substance, then what is left out of account is the heart of the mystery: the origin of biological order.

The Way of the Cell. p. 250.

Did life begin as a molecular collage? To my taste, the idea smacks of the reconstitution of life as we know it rather than its genesis ab initio.

Explanatory accounts are normally expected to appeal to something more substantial than catching a lucky break, but other than England’s thermodynamic account of life, abiogenesis accounts are very careful descriptions of the natures of things made with an eye to explaining that, given nature is such-and-such, all we would need for life is to catch a lucky break.

offers no foothold for autopoesis.

Cells are from cells, and life is a line of descent. True, lines of descent might converge on a simpler form (though this isn’t totally clear) but to take this as making them converge to the simplicity of the non-living is at least a non sequitur, and is perhaps the closest we can come to judging an empirical truth impossible. We have lots of experience of where life comes from, and even of life arising from very simple things, with no experience of it arising naturally except from life. The scandal is that the only way to imagine life as having always existed requires buying into crackpot theories like panspermia. We can’t admit that a real being came to exist with no being before it – that would be creation ex nihilo!

If it is true that life resides in organization rather than substance, then what is left out of account is the heart of the mystery: the origin of biological order. 

“Substance” is (I think) being taken in the sense opposed to “organism”. It’s not totally clear that Harold can quite say what he wants: any account of abiogenesis will account for an organization – what he has to mean is that the mystery of living things is that order itself is substantial. The organism is not something one gets for free once all the molecular and functional parts have acted of their own. Anyone can understand order (it’s an accident that we make all the time. I’m doing it right now while typing) and anyone can understand substance (the fundamentally real and foundational) the whole mystery is order being substantial. 

This is exactly what Aristotle means by soul. 

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