Thursday, 14 November 2013

Vitalism And Mentalism/Dualism?

Before addressing the title question of Is There Life On Other Worlds? (New York, 1963), Poul Anderson rightly devotes Chapter 1 to galaxies, stars and planets and Chapter 2 to "Life on Earth." From this thesis and antithesis, so to say, he is then able to proceed to his hypothetical synthesis: life elsewhere in the galaxy.

It used to be thought that organisms were activated by a special quality or vital force that had not emerged from inorganic matter but had entered it from some other source. However, in 1828:

"...Friedrich Wohler synthesized urea, a typical biological product, from inanimate materials." (p. 42)

In 1952, S. L. Miller produced amino acids by applying an electric discharge to a mixture of methane, ammonia, hydrogen and water. Organisms are composed of proteins which are made of amino acids which, in turn, are compounds of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen, with no extra "vital force" necessary to explain their chemical interactions. Anderson goes on to mention "...enzymes, organic catalysts..." but, unfortunately, the sentence is unfinished because a line of text is missing at the end of p. 48.

Amino acids have also been produced by exposing formaldehyde and nitrate to sunlight. Purines, which are biologically essential materials, have been produced by polymerizing hydrogen cyanide molecules. In general, energized complex molecules interact and become more complex.

Still reading Chapter 2, I have not yet reached Chapter 6, "The Appearance of Intelligence." Consciousness and/or intelligence have, like life, been regarded as requiring an extra ingredient in addition to matter. One view, I think advocated by Descartes, is that, contrary to appearance, animals are merely unconscious automata whereas human beings are conscious because in them an immaterial mind or soul interacts with the in itself unconscious brain. I was taught, however, that the faculties of the human soul are intellect and will and that, lacking such a soul, animals are nevertheless sensorially conscious.

It is my opinion that intelligence is a refinement of consciousness and that the latter indeed differs qualitatively from unconsciousness but that this new quality has emerged from organic processes just as a new color can emerge from the mixture of two existing colors. I expect Anderson to endorse such a materialist account of the origins of consciousness and intelligence but meanwhile will continue reading until I reach Chapter 6.


  1. Hi, Paul!

    I checked my hard back copy of IS THERE LIFE ON OTHER WORLDS to see if the text you mentioned as being missing from the paperback version you have was there. And this is what I found on pages 48-49 of the hard back: " catalysts, which govern the intricate chemistry of life--and without which many essential reactions could not take place at all--are proteins. A distant relative of protein, nucleic acid, is the carrier of heredity."

    If you copy this on a piece of paper and insert in your paperback copy of IS THERE LIFE ON OTHER WORLDS? you will have the missing text. No guarantee, of course, that the paperback doesn't have more lacunae.