The Meaning of Life
This dissertation takes up Maurice Merleau-Ponty's unfinished project of developing an ontology of nature whose concepts are drawn from the phenomenon of life, rather than from human techne. I argue that the question of life has been hopelessly obscured by the collapse, in the Modern era, of the distinction between nature and artifice. We cannot hope to understand the difference between life and non-life until we understand the difference between the living body and the machine. Merleau-Ponty's constant aim was to show that the living body is not a blind mechanism, and that the body has its own endogenous sense which is not projected onto it by a disembodied consciousness. Central to these efforts were the phenomena of learning and development, and the concept of form or Gestalt. Development is what distinguishes the living body, which is an open-ended process of becoming, from the machine, whose possibilities are determined in advance by its creator. In order to conceptualize the phenomenon of development, Merleau-Ponty appropriated from psychology the concept of form (Gestalt): a dynamic, self-organizing whole that cannot be decomposed into independent parts. Where the conception of nature as mechanism implies that everything is determined in advance, Merleau-Ponty's conception of nature as Gestalt allows for the genesis of genuinely new phenomena through nature's own self- organizing movement. We would thus be able to understand the genesis of sense in nature as a process of morphogenesis--the genesis of form. However, Merleau-Ponty struggled to clarify the ontological status of form. He lacked the conceptual resources to explain form in its own terms, rather than by contrast with the decomposable wholes of human artifice. This dissertation attempts to locate these conceptual resources in the science of complexity that has emerged since Merleau- Ponty's death, and whose descriptions of complex systems are uncannily anticipated in Merleau-Ponty's writings. I take from this new science the conception of form as asymmetry or difference, and of morphogenesis as symmetry-breaking or self-differentiation. In order to investigate how meaning emerges out of form, I turn to recent work in biology and psychology that applies the concept of symmetry-breaking to the phenomena of anatomical growth and motor development. By studying the development of the living body and its behavior, I show how nature articulates itself into perceiver and perceived. In the movement of the living body, form folds back upon itself, giving rise to a new kind of meaning: a pre-reflective, motor significance that is neither mechanism nor mental representation. In Chapter One, I distinguish the living body from a machine or artifact by distinguishing between manufacturing and growth. This distinction, which seemed obvious to the Ancients, has been obscured by Modern science's pivotal decision to treat nature as if it were a product of human artifice. This decision has committed us to an atomistic ontology, which takes nature to be a synthetic whole composed of mutually indifferent parts. However, this ontology faces a basic problem, which I call the problem of form: how to explain the synthesis of indifferent atoms into the complex, harmonious wholes we observe in nature, without appealing to an intelligent designer. Nowhere is this problem more acute than in the phenomenon of anatomical development or embryogenesis. I argue that biology has been unable to explain this phenomenon in mechanical or atomistic terms: the Neo-Darwinist view of the living body as a synthetic whole determined in advance by a genetic blueprint or program has succeeded not by explaining development, but rather by ignoring it. In Chapter Two, I argue that the problem of form--and of living form in particular--can only be resolved by abandoning our atomistic ontology, and with it our synthetic understanding of form as a shape imposed on an indifferent material. Recent developments in the science of complexity have yielded a new definition of form as asymmetry or difference. On this view, the genesis of form in nature is not the synthesis of wholes out of pre-existing parts, but the self-differentiation of wholes into parts through symmetry-breaking. In order to understand how natural wholes become less symmetrical over time, I introduce three further concepts from the science of complexity: nonlinearity, stability, and instability. With these concepts in hand, I return to the problem of embryogenesis, in order to show how complex living forms can develop reliably and robustly without being determined in advance by a design or program. In Chapter Three, I turn from anatomical development to the development of behavior, in order to see how the genesis of form becomes a genesis of sense. I begin by criticizing three mechanistic theories of behavior--Behaviorism, Cognitivism, and Connectionism--which suffer from the same problem of form that plagues mechanistic theories of anatomical development. Behavior grows like an organ: by symmetry-breaking, not by synthesis. Learning is not a matter of association, but of differentiation: the perception of increasingly subtle asymmetries in the body's environment through increasingly asymmetrical movements. It is the world that teaches the organism how to move--but a world that is only revealed to the organism by its own movements. Thus the living body and its world grow together dialectically, each driving the other to become more determinate through its own increasing determinacy.