Tuesday, 2 September 2003

Genomic Philosophy (2003)

From The Philosopher, Volume LXXXXI No. 2 Autumn 2003

By G. W. Middleton

The goal of the Enlightenment Project is nothing less than the fundamental understanding of the organic and inorganic, of life and death. And its paradigmatic procedure is the scientific method, the practical application of the intellectual process, which precedes by progressive abstraction and decomposition of the whole into its parts and the re-arrangement of them to form laws which explain the whole.

After all, biological complexity and sophistication is achieved by the atomisation of life, the decomposition of the unitary, the dissolution of the organic into the inorganic. Reality is mathematised, geometrised in our desire to grasp it. When we theorise on the trajectory of a body in space, we resolve the continuous nature of indivisible motion into static parts in order to integrate them. Scientific analysis demands petrification of process and division of that produced without division.

Henri Bergson's Creative Evolution describes these procedures in detail, summarising them thus: 'All the operations of our intellect tend to geometry, as to the goal where they find their perfect fulfilment'. He describes the conceptualisation of the action of a hand passing into some iron filings in a single movement and leaving it's imprint:
'Some will account for the position of each filing by the action exerted upon it by the neighbouring filings: these are the mechanists. Others will prefer to think that a plan of the whole has presided over the detail of these elementary actions, they are the finalists. But the truth is that there has been merely one indivisible act, that of the hand passing through the filings.'
The effects of the application of enlightenment methodology on the labour process underpins much Marxist thought. György  , in his seminal essay Reification and the Consciousness of the Proletariat, puts it thus:
'... the mathematical analysis of work-processes denotes a break with the organic, irrational and qualitatively determined unity of the product. Rationalisation in the sense of being able to predict with ever greater precision all the results to be achieved is only to be acquired by the exact breakdown of every complex into its elements and by the study of the special laws governing production - this destroys the organic necessity with which inter-related special operations are unified in the end-product. The unity of a product as a commodity no longer coincides with its unity as a use-value.'
Rationalisation transforms time from quality to quantity. Time sheds its qualitative, variable, flowing nature; it freezes into an exactly delimited, quantifiable continuum filled with quantifiable 'things' (the reified, mechanically objectified 'performance' of the worker, wholly separated from his total human personality): in short, it becomes space. Yet Enlightenment time does not endure. It is a static-time which in calculation and analysis fixates. It is the t of mathematics and physics which functions by a stopping-up and a segmenting-of the indivisible flow of duration.

Real time, swollen with all of the past, irrupts into the present as the absolutely novel. Life thus is a continuous process, an ever-preceding movement which our biology holds fast and gazes at. Our intellect can only grasp the Bergsonian vital impetus, which in its contact with matter constantly creates the unique, by a permanent interruption, an interruption which allow for infinite analysis after the event of that which before the event is totally beyond analysis.

The total system cannot permit the unforeseen, the unpredictable, the novel. These deny finality, stability and closure, are antithetical to control, manipulation and prediction. Yet the progress of life is not one of recognition and familiarity but one of strangeness, mystery and magic. The unique present moment happening always and everywhere in real time, constantly and permanently prevents all attempts at total systematisation. It cannot be caught fast until it is gone. The totalising urge is an eternal game of catch-up with the unknowable and unforeseeable present.

The very progress of knowledge moves it ever further from totality. Any connection between a myriad of intricate sub-specialisms occurs by chance. In specialisation, we repudiate any interest in the possibility of the total system. Intellectual endeavour takes place in innumerable arenas, each 'a formally closed system of partial laws', in Lukács' words. For any system, anything outside it is conceptually and practically beyond it's comprehension. Even a systematisation, a supra-ordination, of them all seems an insurmountable task.

The rationalisation of work and the 'structure-creation' of economic processes moves in the same direction. Lukács discussing periods of economic crisis puts it thus:
'The true structure of society appears rather in the independent, rationalised and formal partial laws whose links with each other are of necessity purely formal (i.e. their formal interdependence can be formally systematised), while as far as concrete realities are concerned they can only establish fortuitous connections - the whole structure of capitalist production rests on the interaction between a necessity subject to strict laws in all isolated phenomena and the relative irrationality of the total process.'
Thus rationalism can never complete its task of obtaining knowledge of the whole of existence. The immediate and unique present always escapes the petrification of process which is its method. Its own continuous extension in specialisation takes it ever further from completeness but perhaps the most problematic issue for the logic of the total system is the content of the system. The most consistent philosophical expression of this problem is found in Kant's absolute adherence to the impossibility of having any knowledge of the world independently of our perception of it. Our understanding can only be of 'things which may be objects of possible experience', that 'outside the field of possible experience there can be no synthetic a priori principles'. We cannot know anything independently of our own perceptions. There can be no privileged transcendental view of the objective. We can know nothing as it is, but only as it seems.

Despite its meaning being endlessly debated, the thing-in-itself simply conceptualises the fact that any experience of the objective can only ever be through the perspective of a subject. Its meaning is that ultimately knowledge is only ever personal. Its irrationality denies entirely the possibility of the total system.

Kant makes the impossibility of closure and completion even more explicit in his analysis of the antinomies of rational cosmology. In reason's inescapable desire to view the whole be free of the chains of causality of the objective. The Kantian moral actor is a poor thing, impotent within the natural world, stripped of every desire, inclination and self-interest, of that which defines the individual.

Only by active intervention in content, through creativity and the effecting of change can be we loosen the grip that contemplation places us in. Limits to thought can only be overcome by action:
'The essence of praxis consists in annulling that indifference of form towards content that we found in the problem of the thing-in-itself. Thus praxis can only be really established as a philosophical principle if, at the same time, a conception of form can be found whose basis and validity no longer rest on that pure rationality and that freedom from every definition of content. In so far as the principle of praxis is the prescription for changing reality, it must be tailored to the concrete material substratum of action if it is to impinge upon it to any effect.'
For Lukács it was the proletariat who was to liberate mankind from the reified structure of its existence but 80 years of world history have fulfilled his prophecy completely.
'Only when the consciousness of the proletariat is able to point out the road along which the dialectics of history is objectively impelled, but which it cannot travel unaided, will the consciousness of the proletariat awaken to a consciousness of the process, and only then will the proletariat become the identical subject-object of history whose praxis will change reality. If the proletariat fails to take this step the contradiction will remain unresolved and will be reproduced by the dialectical mechanics of history at a higher level, in an altered form and with increased intensity. It is in this that the objective necessity of history consists.'
The Bergsonian flight into intuition, Kant's Critique of Practical Reason and Lukács' vision of the 'salvific' role of the proletariat all fail to solve in any meaningful way the riddle of content, genesis and totality that Enlightenment thought creates and sustains.

These philosophies all issue in a demand for practice to break the petrification of rationalisation and the contemplation of rationalism and whilst the form that this practice should take varies, all thinkers radically exclude from their premises, since this would completely contradict the philosophy itself, the possibility that Enlightenment practice could ever be the answer to the riddle of Enlightenment thought. However, the unlimited explosion of scientific knowledge since the appearance of these works requires a re-evaluation of this possibility:
  • Can our knowledge of a thing ever reach such a fundamental depth that it allows us to know that thing, finally as it is and not forever to know it just as it seems? 
  • Can science as practice give us the objective world which Kant ultimately failed to do in thought, in the Transcendental Deductions?
  • Does our knowledge of things ever become so utterly extensive, reach such a comprehensive breadth that it becomes total knowledge?
  • Does the incessant scientific transformation of quality to quantity provide us with such a totality of content that the generation of the truly novel, the qualitatively unique, becomes possible?
  • Can the science of time, t, allow us to reclaim Real Time?
Let us speak of Life, the organic, the mirror that Bergson constantly holds up to the sterile formalism of scientific reductionism. The living cell is totally dependent upon the proteins that 'subserve' the functions of metabolism and repair, the production and maintenance of a membrane, of replication and reproduction, and without the transcription and translation of DNA these proteins do not exist. There is nothing more fundamental to the life of the cell than the bases that constitute DNA, guanine, adenine, thymine and cytosine; without these there is no life, beyond these lies the inorganic. On the 14th April 2003 the International Human Genome Sequencing Consortium announced the completion of the Human Genome Project. The finished sequence covers approximately 99% of the Human Genome and contains less than 1 error per 10,000 bases. In 50 years we have gone from the discovery of the double helix to the near contiguous text of three billion DNA letters.

It is the same biological reductionism that gives us the anatomists dissection that has led us to the Human Genome, but the end - points are radically different. The former is the aestheticisation of death, the latter the total alphabetisation of life. Pushing down through layer upon layer of the phenomena of what it is to be human we reach the lowest common denominator which is not life itself but the essential content of that life. Available in public databases, for use without restriction, we are the co-owners of our fundamental script, named and created by ourselves, in its totality. The search for the minimal gene set, the least amount of DNA required to initiate and maintain life, is an attempt to exclude all the massive redundancy of this script.

This is Enlightenment rationalisation at its extreme but precedes in the diametrically opposite direction to that of the decomposition of the unitary and interruption of process. The aim is the creation, albeit a reproduction, of life, a restitution of process in real time from the atomised, segmented and fixed.

Genetic engineering is prediction and calculation, again at its most extreme, but it is productive of the novel. The search for longer lasting tomatoes and for designer babies, albeit banal and reprehensible respectively, is manipulation of content in a creation of the unique. Perhaps most audacious are the attempts to create entirely new genomes, ones that obey the dictates of human logic rather than those handed to us by natural selection. Researchers are attempting to engineer cells that build proteins from completely novel amino acids, one which do not form any part of the repertory of the 20 used in nearly all living cells on earth.

Bergson's philosophy is a constant attempt to situate understanding in the ever - present of unique happening, to reverse the direction in which matter inclines, in which mechanism takes us, but it provides no point of departure. The genome is the ultimate point of departure for this reversal. Derived mechanistically but from practice, not from thought, it imbues the vital impetus with human vision and consciousness. The question of the possible closure of the system of Life itself is no longer an issue of the adequacy of philosophical method but one of technological advance, of praxis not of intuition.

It is in genetic manipulation, and in particular manipulation of the human genome, that the solution that Lukacs proposed to resolve the antinomies of classical thought is to be found - here in the practical creation of content and concrete totality by the identical subject-object.

If the completed genome of any organism is the thing-in-itself of that organism, if the manipulation of this content generates the indivisible and constantly unique movement of life and if the minimal gene set describes the essential conditions for that life in its totality then it becomes a key task for Philosophy to reflect on the implications that Biology has for the way we now philosophise.

Address for Correspondence

Dr. G. W. Middleton,
The Royal Surrey County Hospital,
Egerton Road,
Guildford, GU2 5XX.
United Kingdom