That Relational Thing

What is life?

That was the question he posed to himself.

No, he wasn’t asking the simple, vague, ill-posed, question: what those fuzzy, sloppy thinking Philosophers often try to talk about in volumes of words.

He was, in his mind, asking a precise question.  A scientific question. For to answer this question, he had to ask the immediately deductible question: What is life, Not?  Both questions are difficult to answer — precisely.

But he wanted to answer, What is life?, precisely, and he did give an answer: in his last book before he died.

But, there were critics of his work, although the vast majority are ignorant of his work.

An unnamed critic remarked: “The trouble with you, Rosen, is you’re always trying to answer questions that nobody wants to ASK!

In fact, Robert Rosen, an Architect Rational, never looked for controversy and was in the beginning surprised by the the vehemence of his critics.

Robert Rosen
Robert Rosen

“I have never regarded my attachment to science as constituting in any conventional sense a ‘career’ or vocation or job. To me, it is an Imperative in itself, more akin to what theologians refer to as a ‘calling’; something which would be corrupted and defiled by being subordinated to any such personal considerations as constitute professional aggrandizement.”

“But I have no option in this; and in any event, the questions themselves are real, and will not go away by virtue of not being addressed. This attitude, I know, has estranged me from many of my colleagues in the scientific enterprise, and has put me far from today’s ‘main stream’. But sooner or later, if I am at all correct, that ‘stream’ will flow my way.” [Robert Rosen, Autobiographical Reminiscences]

Only time will tell if he is correct. I suspect he is correct.

For Architects, the world exists primarily to be analyzed, understood, explained – and re-designed. External reality in itself is unimportant, little more than raw material to be organized into structural models. What is important for Architects is that they grasp fundamental principles and natural laws, and that their designs are elegant, that is, efficient and coherent. [Please Understand Me II]

For Rosen it was life that intrigued him.

“Einstein has reported how his scientific instincts were galvanized in early childhood by a compass needle. What the compass needle did for Einstein was accomplished for me by humble living things; beetles and crickets and caterpillars. Among my earliest memories are walks through wild and overgrown vacant lots which dotted the asphalt Brooklyn landscape into which I was born. Under ever rock was a new and thrilling universe of living things. From these experiences was born an eternal passion, a lust, to understand why these things, in their separate ways, were alive, while the rock was not. The rocks were themselves mildly interesting, but in a bland, impersonal way; it was the life which was the compelling challenge to me.”  [Robert Rosen, Autobiographical Reminiscences]

In his book, Life Itself, Robert Rosen *precisely* shows the reader the logical limitations of current scientific thinking in the form of modern physics and the machine metaphor. This is not your typical rant on reductionism. Everybody has heard the reframe against reductionism, “the whole is more than the sum of the parts,” but Rosen shows in precise terms, much more: there is a limitation of modes of entailment (inference).

Relational Biology is what Rosen coined to refer to what he was interested in.  It is radically different from practically all the work in mainstream biology.  He was interested in reasoning about functional organization, as opposed to, the conventional analysis of structural organization. He said: “when studying an organized material system, throw away the matter and keep the underlying organization.”

Approaching organisms with what he considered to be excessively reductionistic scientific methods and practices sacrifices the whole in order to study the parts. The whole, according to Rosen, could not be recaptured once the biological organization had been destroyed. By proposing a sound theoretical foundation via relational complexity for studying biological organisation, Rosen held that, rather than biology being a mere subset of the already known physics, might turn out to provide profound lessons for physics, and also to science in general. [Wikipedia]

He said:

“If, as I believe, my scientific work comprises a single unity, then that unity reflects the mandates of the underlying unified problem with which I have been concerned. I have tried to listen only to what that problem tells me, and to follow its exigencies. That is the key to how I perceive science itself, and why I have never allowed anyone to tell me how science in general, and Biology in particular, ‘ought’ to be done. Only the problem itself can do that.” [Robert Rosen, Autobiographical Reminiscences]

He advises that in understanding a system through systemic functional reasoning.   Fabrication of theory, that is something that conventional science still considers an black art, something not subject to systematic reasoning.   The fact that his approach goes against conventional science does not matter.  It is no less scientific.  In fact, it maybe the only manner we in science can make significant progress.

Ruthless pragmatists about ideas, and insatiably curious, Architects are driven to find the most efficient means to their ends, and they will learn in any manner and degree they can. They will listen to amateurs if their ideas are useful, and will ignore the experts if theirs are not. Authority derived from office, credential, or celebrity does not impress them. Architects are interested only in what make sense, and thus only statements that are consistent and coherent carry any weight with them. [Please Understand Me II]

Quote1.pngIt has turned out that, to be in the position to say what life is, we must spend a great deal of time understanding what life is not.Quote2.png  — Robert Rosen

0 thoughts on “That Relational Thing”

  1. One thing I’ve noticed about Architects like Rosen is that they do their work mostly by defining new terms and notation and sticking to them rigorously. This has the advantage of precision but the disadvantage of needing to learn an Architect’s particular “language” to proceed. In mathematics, that can take a year or more just to learn one subfield such as, say, cohomology or root systems. One could even say that Architects design scientific theories by creating languages to describe reality. In my own case, of course, I go through a lot of pains trying to explain my ideas in familiar terminology—only to run into the problem that different people have different (often incorrect) definitions of familiar terms or people think my language is too simplistic, insisting that I replace words like “done” with “completed” and “use” with “employed” or the hated “utilize”. For me, I suppose, it is more important to be able to convey understanding in simple terms with all my metaphors and familiar language at the risk of sacrificing clarity.

    1. Even in the normal course of creating new theory, there is always a mismatch with words. For example, with the word “compact” in mathematics there are several definitions (that are not the same) and those from the outside really don’t know that there are several “useful” definitions — and those “inside” often not really care to worry about the mismatches. E.g., those who favor a topological view point would consider it resolved with “their definition” and use this, whereas those favor an algebraic point of view consider it resolved with “their definition” and use that. This happens in all fields, including mathematics and information science. Of course, in religion and politics real blood is spilled, whereas in the more precise fields it’s only money (mostly in terms of salary) and fame (or grants for slave labour, e.g., graduate students).

      I have a hammer.
      I hammer in the mornin’ …

      1. My previous comment didn’t pass the moderation test. What I wanted to say that I had these days a discussion here and one failed report of Rosen’s ideas (without actually mentioning him – I was actually more asking questions than suggesting answers) in a “popular form” for Famelab. There was a very strange situation that you can communicate some concepts better with informed laypersons than experts and experts often just don’t want to read and grasp a slightly different approach (and in Rosen’s case flawless) to ideas. For instance: Jung (compared to Freud) is much more appreciated by laypersons interested in the depths of their own psyche than by psychotherapists (totally regardless of efficiency of different approaches). We should read more Hesse’s The Glass Bead Game (Magister Ludi).

        1. Your previous comment was a “difficult” comment (to figure out what do with it, in a short of time I have allocated to deciding on what to approve), since my religion is science and I have faith in reason — and I love technology, and I do look askance at any people references that I either didn’t know (i.e., Ivan Illich) or I had considered “flakey” and sufficiently “fuzzy” in their background axioms (i.e., philosophy or religion) as their basis in reasoning. So your recommends of Jung (myth psychiatry), Buber (philosophic religion), and Illich (?political Rosseau-ism?) made me “file” the comment to decide “later” — probably neglect and probably by default, reject.

          I typically have my eyes glaze over when “trying” to read Jung and Hesse after a few minutes, I never could bring myself to read Buber. This is not surprising since these three are Idealists.

          I have similar problems with reading Bourbaki like material, for a different reason. And that is the reason that Tim has referred to. Rosen’s Life Itself, to me, was the Goldilocks book that I read at the right time, knowing enough for shock and awe, and to read it 10-20 times over the next 10 years to “get it”. Now I can look at the Monster Group and not have my eyes glaze over despite its complexity and simplicity.

    1. Not having done much research on him, I recall that I peg him as some kind of Idealist, I don’t think I could get a specific type with so little that I was going on when I read about him and some of his work. A fuzzy thinker — yes a systems thinker, but again I have a bias against philosophy. So take my bias with a grain of salt.

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