The Fundamental Principles of the Universe and the Origin of Physical Laws by Attila Grandpierre

3. The solution of the question: is biology reducible to physics?

3. 1. The life principle of Ervin Bauer and the question of reducibility

By my evaluation, the most thorough, systematic, insightful foundational work of theoretical biology, which is at the same time also explicitly articulated in mathematical formulations is that of Ervin Bauer (1920, 1935/1967). It is hard to evaluate the real significance of his work, and its marginal influence to the present-day science seems to be rooted largely in historical circumstances and in the ignorance of dominant materialism. Ervin Bauer was born (1890) and educated in Hungary. He has been working in the most productive period of his life (1925-1937) in Soviet Union, in Moscow and Leningrad. He became arrested and jailed in prison in 1937 and died as a victim of Stalin’s massacres in 1942 (Tokin, 1963/1965, 11-26).

In his main work “Theoretical Biology” (1935/1967) he formulated the key requirements of living systems. The first requirement is that “the living system is able to change in a constant environment, it has potential energies available to work”. His second requirement tells that a living system acts against the physical and chemical laws and modifies its inner conditions. His third, all-inclusive requirement of living systems tells that “The work made by the living system, within any environmental conditions, acts against the realisation of that equilibrium which would set up on the basis of the initial conditions of the system in the given environment by the physical and chemical laws” (Bauer, 1967, 44). This third requirement does not contradict to the laws of physics since the living system has some internal equipment, the use of which may modify the final state reached from the same initial state in the same environment. “The fundamental and general law of the living systems is the work made against the equilibrium, a work made on the constituents of the system itself” (ibid., 48).

Definition 3. Bauer formulates the universal law of biology in the following form: “The living and only the living systems are never in equilibrium, and, supported by their free energy reservoir, they are continuously invest work against the realisation of the equilibrium which should occur within the given outer conditions on the basis of the physical and chemical laws” (ibid., 51).

“One of the most spectacular and substantial difference between machines and living systems is that in the case of machines the source of the work is not related to any significant structural changes. The systemic forces of machines does work only if the constituents of the machine are taken into motion by energy sources which are outer to these constituents. The inner states of the constituents of a machine remain practically constant.  The task of the constituents of a machine is to convert some kind of energy into work. In contrast, in the living systems the energy of the internal build-up, of the structure of the living matter is transformed into work. The energy of the food is not transformed into work, but to the maintenance and renewal of their internal structure and inner states. Therefore, the living systems are not power machines” (ibid., 64). The fundamental principle of biology acts against the changes which would set up in the system on the basis of the Le Chatelier-Braun principle (ibid., 59). The Bauer-principle recognises the problem of the forces acting at the internal boundary surfaces as the central problem of biology. “Modern physiology attributes all the potential differences to the characteristics of phase boundaries or the membranes, i.e. to the conditions prevailing at the internal boundary surfaces” (ibid., 85). The potential differences and the biological modification of the internal boundary conditions are in close relation with the molecular structure of the living matter. In the living state the living molecules show a characteristic elongation, a deformation which is related to electric polarisation and magnetism. The primary significance of bioelectromagnetism in the biological organisation is recognised as well: “if, due to the higher potential of the living matter, assimilation overcomes dissimilation, as it does in the embrional textures, breeding summits, the lattice structure is more deformed, shifted from the equilibrium and therefore such a locus obtains a positive charge. If some stimuli disturbs the processes of assimilation, and therefore also the maintenance of the inequilibrium structure and so the structural energy decreases, the structure becomes closer to the equilibrium and in such a locus a negative wave will develop. Now if the texture dies away, an equilibrium lattice structure will develop, and this place will have a negative charge in comparison to the living parts of the texture” (ibid., 87).

Now Definitions 2 and 3 are very useful when evaluating the level of biology if it represents or not an autonomous ontological level irreducible to the physical principle. If new treats emerge on the development or complexification of a system, these emergent characteristics may still belong to the realm of physics. Emergent materialism is a monist ontology based on the belief that physical principles may trigger processes that determine the development of emergent processes, including the living processes, too. With the use of Definitions 1, 2 and 3 I show here that the concept of emergent materialism in the biological context is based on a false belief. The material behaviour (Definition 2) tends towards the physical equilibrium. The biological behaviour is governed by the life-principle (Definition 3) which acts just against the material behaviour. It can do this only by a proper modification of the boundary conditions of the physical laws. The biological modification of the (internal) boundary conditions of (living) organism is behind the realm of physics. The biological activity acts on the degrees of freedom that are not active in the material behaviour. Therefore, we found a gap between the realms of physics and biology. If the biological principle is active, because the conditions of its activity (a certain amount of complexity, suitable material structures, energies etc.) are present, it realises a thorough and systematic modification of internal boundary conditions of living organisms. In comparison, in an abstracted organism in which the biological principle is not active, the same internal boundary conditions would be not modified, and so the organism should fall towards physical equilibrium. In principle, it would be possible to fill the gap with processes in which the biological modification is not realised in a rate necessary to govern the physical processes. In practice, such intermediate processes are strongly localised in space and time, and the ontological gap is maintained by the continuous and separate actions of the physical and biological principles. This formulation offers us an unprecedented insight into the ultimate constituent of reality. Using the newly found formulation of the ultimate principle of matter, our Definition 1 may be formulated in a more exact manner:

Definition 1’: any existent is regarded as an “ultimate reality”, if it is based on a universal and ontologically irreducible ultimate principle.

Now if biology is based on an ultimate principle different and independent from the physical principle, this should mean that biology is not reducible to physics. If the principle of life did not exist as a separate and independent principle from physics, then the accidentally starting biological processes would, after a short period, quickly decline towards the state of equilibrium, towards physical “equilibrium death” (here we generalise the concept of “heat death” including not only thermodynamic equilibrium). But as long as biological laws are irreducible to physical ones, the tendency towards physical equilibrium due to the balancing tendencies of the different physico-chemical gradients cannot prevail, for they are overruled by the impulses arising from the principle of life. The main point is that the biological impulses has a nature which elicits, maintains, organise and cohere the processes which may otherwise set up only stochastically, transiently, unorganisedly and incoherently when physical principles are exclusive.

The essential novelty of the biological phenomenon therefore consists in following a different principle, which is able to govern the biological phenomena even when the physical principles keep their universal validity. Until a process leads to a result that is highly improbable by the laws of physics, it may be still a physical process. But when many such extremely improbable random process is elicited, and these extremely improbable events are co-ordinated in a way that together they follow a different ultimate principle which makes these processes a stable, long lifetime, lawful process, then we met with a substantial novelty which cannot be reduced to a lower level principle.

An analogy may serve to shed light to the way of how biology acts when compared to physics. It is like Aikido: while preserving the will of the attacker and modifying it using only the least possible energy, we get a result that is directly the opposite of the will of the attacking opponent. It is clear that the ever-conspicuous difference between living beings and seemingly inanimate entities lies in the ability of the former to be spontaneously active, to alter their inner physical conditions according to a higher organising principle in such a way that the physical laws will launch processes in them with an opposite direction to that of the “death direction” of the equilibrium which is valid for physical systems. This is the Aikido principle of life. A fighter practising the art of Aikido does not strive after defending himself by raw physical force, instead he uses his skill and intelligence to add a small power impulse, from the right position, to the impetus of his opponent’s attack, thus making the impetus of the attacker miss its mark. Instead of using his strength in trying to stop a hand coming at him, he makes its motion faster by applying some little technique: he pulls on it. Thus, applying little force, he is able to suddenly upset the balance of the attack, to change it, and with this to create a situation advantageous for him.

The Aikido principle of life is similar to the art of yachting. There, too, great changes can be achieved by investing small forces. As the yachtsman, standing on board the little ship, makes a minute move to shift his weight from one foot to the other, the ship sensitively changes its course. Shifting one’s weight requires little energy, yet its effect is amplified by the shift occurring in the balance of the hull. Control is not exerted on the direct surface physical level, but on the level of balance; it is achieved via altering balance in a favourable direction that against much larger forces, the effect of very small forces prevails. However, being able to alter balance in a favourable direction presupposes a profound (explicit or implicit) knowledge of contributing factors, also the attitude and ability to rise above direct physical relations, as well as the ability to independently bring about the desired change. If life is capable of maintaining another “equilibrium of life”, by a process the direction of which is contrary to the one pointing towards the physical equilibrium, then the precondition of life is the ability to survey, to analyse, and to spontaneously, independently and appropriately control all the relevant physical and biological states. Thus, indeed, life cannot be traced back to the general effect of the “death magnet” of physical equilibrium and mere blind chance that are the organisation factors available for physics. The principle of life has to be acknowledged as an ultimate principle which is at least as important as the basic physical principle, and which involves just the same extent of “objectivity” as the physical principle. If it is a basic feature of life that it is capable of displaying Aikido-effects, then life has to be essentially different from the inanimateness of physics, just as the principle of the behaviour of the self-defending Aikido disciple is different from the attacker’s one. Thus in the relationship of the laws of life and those of physics, two different parties are engaged in combat, and the domain of phenomena of two essentially different basic principles are connected. Practising the art of Aikido is possible only when someone recognise and learn the principle and practice of Aikido. Now regarding the origin of the principle of Aikido, it results from the study of the art of fight. Regarding the origin of the principle of biology, it cannot result from the physical laws by a physical principle, since the ultimate principle of physics acts just the contrary to the life principle. Therefore, the life principle shows up as an independent ultimate principle above the realm of physics.

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