The Organicist Conception of the World. By L_E & Z, On Behalf of the APP Circle.

The one intelligible theory of the universe is … objective idealism [which acknowledges] the physical law as derived and special, the psychical alone as primordial … [and] matter [as] effete mind, inveterate habits becoming physical laws. (C.S. Peirce, Collected Papers, 6.245, 1891)

The attempt to understand nature remains one of the basic objectives of Western thought. It should not, however, be identified with the idea of control. The master who believes he understands his slaves because they obey his orders would be blind. When we turn to physics, our expectations are obviously different, but here as well, Vladimir Nabokov’s conviction rings true: “What can be controlled is never completely real; what is real can never be completely controlled.” The [naturally mechanistic] classical ideal of science, a world without time, memory, and history, recalls the totalitarian nightmares described by Aldous Huxley, Milan Kundera, and George Orwell.

                                                                                                      –Ilya Prigogine[i]

1. Organicism, Liberal Naturalism, and Natural Mechanism

 Organicism is a liberally naturalistic and pro-scientific, but also anti-mechanistic and anti-scientistic conception of the world, including ourselves.

Organicism is committed to the metaphysical doctrine of liberal naturalism. Liberal naturalism says that the irreducible but also non-dualistic mental properties of rational minded animals are as basic in nature as biological properties, and metaphysically continuous with them.

More precisely, according to liberal naturalism, rational human free agency is an immanent structure of essentially embodied conscious, intentional, caring human animal mind; essentially embodied conscious, intentional, caring human animal mind is an immanent structure of organismic life; and organismic life is an immanent structure of spatiotemporally asymmetric, non-equilibrium matter and/or energy flows. Each more complex structure is metaphysically continuous with, and embeds, all of the less complex structures.

Again: Human freedom is dynamically inherent in and dynamically emerges from essentially embodied conscious, intentional human animal mind. And essentially embodied conscious, intentional, caring human animal mind is dynamically inherent in and dynamically emerges from life. Thus human freedom is dynamically inherent in and dynamically emerges from life. Moreover, life is dynamically inherent in and dynamically emerges from spatiotemporally asymmetric, non-equilibrium matter and/or energy flows. Therefore, human freedom, human mind, and life are all dynamically inherent in and dynamically emerge from spatiotemporally asymmetric, non-equilibrium matter and/or energy flows. Here is a simplified diagram of the basic metaphysical continuities and structural embeddings, according to the liberal naturalist conception:

free agency –> human animal mind –> organismic life –> asymmetric, non-equilibrium matter/energy flows

According to liberal naturalism, to borrow an apt phrase from the later Wittgenstein, our rational human free agency is just our own “form of life,” and free agency, as such, grows naturally in certain minded animal species or life-forms. Correspondingly, freedom grows naturally and evolves in certain species of minded animals, including the human species, precisely because minds like ours grow naturally and evolve in certain species of animals, including the human species.[ii]

Another name for liberal naturalism is “objective idealism.” Objective idealism is sharply distinct both from subjective idealism, which says that the world is nothing a phenomenal mental construction of an individual cognizer (as defended, e.g., by Berkeley, the neo-Kantians, early Carnap, C.I. Lewis, and Nelson Goodman) and also from absolute idealism, which says that the world is nothing but a giant mind, its thought-forms, and its thought-processes (as defended, e.g., by Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel).

As opposed to either subjective idealism or absolute idealism, liberal naturalism, aka objective idealism, says that rational human mindedness grows naturally in the manifestly real physical world, in organisms whose lives have an appropriately high level of non-mechanical thermodynamic complexity and self-organization. The manifestly real natural physical world necessarily includes our real possibility and is immanently structured for the dynamic emergence of lives like ours and minds like ours. Or in Thomas Nagel’s formulation: “rational intelligibility is at the root of the natural order.”[iii]

Organicism is directly opposed to Natural Mechanism. Natural Mechanism says that all the causal powers of everything whatsoever in the natural world are ultimately fixed by what can be digitally computed on a universal deterministic or indeterministic real-world Turing machine, provided that the following three plausible “causal orderliness” and “decompositionality” assumptions are all satisfied:

(i) its causal powers are necessarily determined by the general deterministic or indeterministic causal natural laws, especially including the Conservation Laws, together with all the settled quantity-of-matter-and/or-energy facts about the past, especially including The Big Bang,

(ii) the causal powers of the real-world Turing machine are held fixed under our general causal laws of nature, and

(iii) the “digits” over which the real-world Turing machine computes constitute a complete denumerable set of spatiotemporally discrete physical objects.

In direct opposition to Natural Mechanism, however, the world-conception of Organicism says that the causal powers of biological life (and in particular, the causal powers of living organisms, including all minded animals, especially including rational human animals) are neither fixed by, identical with, nor otherwise reducible to the Conservation-Law-determined, Big-Bang-caused, real-world-Turing-computable causal powers of thermodynamic systems, whether these causal powers are governed by general deterministic laws or general probabilistic/statistical laws.

So if the general thesis of Organicism is true, then anti-mechanism is true and Natural Mechanism is false.

2. Organicism, Natural Piety, the Formal Sciences, and the Natural Sciences

Organicism is also committed to the doctrine of what the early 20th century British philosopher Samuel Alexander—following the Romantic poet Wordsworth–called natural piety. According to Alexander:

I do not mean by natural piety exactly what Wordsworth meant by it–the reverent joy in nature, by which he wished that his days might be bound to each other–though there is enough connection with his interpretation to justify me in using his phrase. The natural piety I am going to speak of is that of the scientific investigator, by which he accepts with loyalty the mysteries which he cannot explain in nature and has no right to try to explain. I may describe it as the habit of knowing when to stop in asking questions of nature.

[T]hat organization which is alive is not merely physico-chemical, though completely resoluble into such terms, but has the new quality of life. No appeal is needed, so far as I can see, to a vital force or even an élan vital. It is enough to note the emergence of the quality, and try to describe what is involved in its conditions…. The living body is also physical and chemical. It surrenders no claim to be considered a part of the physical world. But the new quality of life is neither chemical nor mechanical, but something new.

We may and must observe with care our of what previous conditions these new creations arise. We cannot tell why they should assume these qualities. We can but accept them as we find them, and this acceptance is natural piety.[iv]

Natural piety accepts liberal naturalism as a set of truths about primitive, irreducible, causally-efficacious immanent structural facts in nature. According to natural piety, neither are you alienated from nature (a Cartesian ghost-in-a-machine) nor are you a “lord and master” of nature (a Baconian/Cartesian technocrat). To believe both of these at once was Victor Frankenstein’s tragic mistake, repeated endlessly and magnified infinitely in the deeply misguided epistemic and metaphysical doctrines, and scientistic-technocratic ideology, of Natural Mechanism:

Learn from me, if not by my precepts, at least by my example, how dangerous is the acquirement of [naturally mechanistic] knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.[v]

Organicism fully conforms to modern physics, and in particular to non-equilibrium thermodynamics, under the non-deterministic interpretation of it offered, e.g., by Ilya Prigogine.[vi] Correspondingly Organicism fully conforms to modern chemistry, biology, and the cognitive neurosciences, insofar as these are all construed in terms of the non-deterministic interpretation of non-equilibrium thermodynamics and liberal naturalism. In other words, Organicism takes natural science seriously too.

More specifically, it is not scientifically unserious to be a liberal naturalist and hold that non-equilibrium thermodynamics, comprehending both physics and chemistry, and biology, especially including organismic biology and ecosystemic biology, and finally cognitive neuroscience, are all anti-mechanistic. Why must all the basic sciences be interpreted in accordance with Natural Mechanism?

After all, Church and Turing show us that logical truth in every system at least as rich as classical first-order polyadic quantified predicate logic with identity, aka “elementary logic,” cannot be determined by Turing-computable algorithms, and therefore cannot be naturally mechanized; and Gödel’s incompleteness theorems show us that every mathematical system at least as rich as Peano arithmetic cannot be naturally mechanized.[vii] Yet no one regards elementary logic and Peano arithmetic as somehow less than seriously scientific.

If formal piety about logic and mathematics is intelligible and defensible, as they surely are, then by the same token, so too is natural piety about physics, chemistry, biology, and cognitive neuroscience.

So if one can be fully serious about logic and mathematics without holding Natural Mechanism about them, then one can fully serious about physics, chemistry, biology, and cognitive neuroscience without holding that Natural Mechanism is true about them, since all of the natural sciences presuppose logic and mathematics. In particular, if the non-deterministic interpretation of non-equilibrium thermodynamics, together with Church’s and Turing’s discoveries about logic, together with Gödel’s incompleteness theorems, are all true, then Natural Mechanism is false even about physics, and yet we can still be fully serious about logic, mathematics, and physics.

Organicism, together with its doctrines of formal piety and natural piety, clearly meet this theoretical standard.

3. The Organicist Revolution in Philosophy

The contemporary British philosopher Helen Steward has recently remarked that

[t]he task [of understanding free will and agency] requires some reflection on the organizational principles of living creatures, for it is only through such reflection … that we can start to understand where the difference really lies between, on the one hand those things that are true agents, and, on the other, mere machines, entities that nothing will ever be up to, however impressive they may be…. I am exceedingly hopeful that the next few years will see the beginnings of a revolution in our conception of the human person, as philosophical and everyday conceptions of the scientific picture of the world are freed from outdated Newtonian ideas and begin to take more note, both of the complexities of science as it really is and of the undeniable fact of our animal nature.[viii]

Along with Steward, we believe that we are at the beginning of an Organicist Revolution in philosophy that is fully comparable to Kant’s “Copernican Revolution” in metaphysics.

Kant’s Copernican Revolution says that in order to explain rational human cognition and authentic a priori knowledge, we must hold that necessarily, the world structurally conforms to our minds, rather than the converse. The Organicist Revolution, in turn, says that the real possibility of human consciousness, cognition, caring, rationality, and free agency, and therefore also the  “Copernican” necessary structural conformity of world-to-mind, provided that we actually do exist, is built essentially into the non-equilibrium thermodynamics of organismic life, and necessarily underdetermined by naturally mechanical processes and facts.

Hence the Organicist Revolution in philosophy that is implied by liberal naturalism and natural piety not only includes Kant’s Copernican Revolution, but also goes one full revolutionary cycle beyond it.

Since the 17th century, philosophical revolutions have happened roughly every one hundred years, and each revolution takes roughly twenty years to unfold:

(i) the late 17th and early 18th century anti-Scholastic Rationalist revolutionDescartes, Spinoza, and Leibniz, but also including Newtonian scientific mechanism, followed by an Empiricist reaction,

(ii) the late 18th and early 19th century anti-Rationalist, anti-Empiricist Kantian Copernican Revolution and absolute idealism—Kant, Fichte, Schelling, and Hegel, followed by an anti-Hegelian reaction, including Kierkegaard and neo-Kantianism, then by Brentano, Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty and existential phenomenology, and

(iii) the late 19th and early 20th century anti-idealist Analytic philosophy revolutionFrege, Russell, Moore, and early Wittgenstein, followed by Vienna Circle logical empiricism, later Wittgenstein and ordinary language philosophy, then by Quinean and Sellarsian scientific naturalism, then by Strawsonian conceptual analysis, and currently, Analytic metaphysics.

Now it has been almost exactly 100 years since the early Analytic anti-idealist philosophical revolution. So if the historical pattern persists, then we are actually at the beginning of another philosophical revolution, over the next 20 years and fully into the heart of the 21st century, although it may be difficult to see its precise shape because we do not have the benefit of historical hindsight, or of an adequate emotional and reflective distance from actual historical processes.

At the turn of the 20th century, in the work of Charles Sanders Peirce and Henri Bergson, and then in the 1920s, in direct reaction to the cataclysmic devastation of World War I, there was in fact a short-lived first wave of the Organicist Revolution in philosophy: we can find this directly expressed, e.g., in Henri Bergson’s Creative Evolution in 1907, in Samuel Alexander’s Space, Time, and Deity in 1920, in John Dewey’s Experience and Nature in 1925, and in A.N. Whitehead’s “philosophy of organism” in Process and Reality in 1929.

At roughly the same time, there were also several closely related important dynamicist, organicist, conceptual developments in biology/ethology and physics, including C. Lloyd Morgan’s Emergent Evolution in 1923, and, in 1944, Erwin Schrödinger’s pioneering work on quantum mechanics and the nature of biological life, What is Life? The Physical Aspect of the Living Cell. Schrödinger’s book initiated non-equilibrium thermodynamics and complex systems dynamics, as developed by Ilya Prigogine and J.D. Bernal in the second half of the 20th century, and alongside this in the 1970s and 1980s, the autopoietic approach to organismic biology worked out by Francisco Varela and Humberto Maturana.

But except for some suggestive remarks in Wittgenstein’s 1953 Philosophical Investigations about “forms of life,” Hans Jonas’s Phenomenon of Life in the mid-1960s,[ix] and the short-lived Process Philosophy movement in the USA in the late 1960s and early 70s, the first wave of the Organicist Revolution simply crashed onto the barren, rocky shores of 20th century professional academic philosophy and was destroyed.

What accounts for the fifteen year gap between Whitehead’s Process and Reality in 1929 and Schrödinger’s What is Life in 1944? And what ultimately destroyed the first wave of the Organicist Revolution in philosophy?

The answer is obvious: the coming-to-power of the devilishly malevolent, totalitarian, imperialist Nazis in Germany in the 1930s, along with the rise of other forms of totalitarian, imperialist fascism in Japan and Italy, then the second global cataclysm of World War II, then post-war Stalinist Russian communist totalitarian imperialism in eastern Europe, and the Cold War, and then finally, since the fall of the Berlin Wall in the 1980s, almost complete world-domination by what we will call The Four Horsemen of the New Apocalypse:[x]

(i) global corporate capitalism,

(ii) the worldwide rise of political neoliberalism,

(iii) the Americanization of world culture via information technology and social media, and

(iv) an all-encompassing scientistic, technocratic philosophical conception of non-human nature and human nature alike, Natural Mechanism.

If we are correct, however, then in a direct reaction to the economic, political, sociocultural, and spiritual devastations of the New Apocalypse, we are now in the earliest stages of the second wave of the Organicist Revolution, which will finally bring to completion what the most brilliant and radical philosophy of the early 20th century started, before fascism, World War II, the Cold War, and the New Apocalypse all so violently intervened.

And because the first wave of the Organicist Revolution was ultimately destroyed by violently repressive, regressive, devolutionary politics, the second wave will also be necessarily accompanied by a liberationist, progressive, dynamacist politics.

4. Organicism, Scientistic Statism, and the Sleep of Reason

Nevertheless, there is currently a serious and widespread cognitive illusion standing in the way of the second and decisive wave of the Organicist Revolution in philosophy, both inside philosophy itself and outside it, in the larger sociocultural and political world.

Clearly, Natural Mechanism and scientism are pervasive default assumptions of mainstream Logical Empiricist/Positivist and post-Positivist analytic philosophy, from 1929, when the Vienna Circle published their revolutionary manifesto, “The Scientific Conception of the World,”[xi] through post-World War II Anglo-American philosophy, until today.

But over that period, carried on the back of the The Four Horsemen of the New Apocalypse, Natural Mechanism and scientism have also seeped like poison gas (the doomsday weapon of WW I) and exploded like an atomic bomb (the doomsday weapon of WW II) into the larger cultural and practical world, especially into the authoritarian politics of the modern state, encompassing not just contemporary Anglo-American culture or contemporary European culture, but also world-culture, and contemporary human life.

From the standpoint of Organicism, we can clearly see that scientism and statism play essentially the same functional role in their respective cultural domains, and that they also mutually support one another, indeed are symbiotic, each taking in the other’s conceptual and practical laundry, and each making the other’s existence and survival possible.

On the one hand, the Natural Mechanism of scientism tells us that we are nothing but deterministic or indeterministic decision-theoretic “biochemical puppets”[xii] or “moist robots.”[xiii]

And on the other hand, statism tells us that we are obligated to obey the coercive commands of governments—powered by sophisticated exact science and its advanced technology, finance, and industry—no matter how absurd or immoral these commands  might  actually be, without ever daring to think or act or live for ourselves, lest we fall back into the chaotic, evil, pre-scientific, pre-statist Hobbesian “war  of  all against all” in the “state of nature,”[xiv] and lose the marvelous egoistic or collectivist benefits of life as decision-theoretic biochemical puppets or moist robots.

We call this tightly-circular, dyadic, and symbiotic conceptual and practical system that governs the 20th and 21st century sociocultural and political world, scientistic statism. Scientistic statism is the real-world manifestation of Francisco Goya’s all-too-true observation and warning in the Los caprichos (1797–99) that “the sleep of reason breeds monsters” (el sueño de la razón produce monstruos).

Fritz Lang’s presciently anti-scientistic and anti-Nazi films from 1922 and 1933, Metropolis and The Testament of Doctor Mabuse, and the genre of classic dystopian science fiction novels, especially including Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1920-21 We, Aldous  Huxley’s 1931 Brave New World, George Orwell’s 1984 from 1949, Anthony Burgess’s 1962 The Clockwork Orange, and Philip K. Dick’s 1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and hundreds of films and novels since then, e.g., James Cameron’s The Terminator from 1984—ominous year!—jointly capture the soul-destroying and freedom-crushing spirit of scientistic statism in its most blatantly authoritarian and totalitarian manifestations.

Correspondingly, Hitler’s totalitarian Nazi German state and Stalin’s totalitarian Communist Russian state are, to be sure, scientistic statism’s most brutal, destructive, and horrific instantiations. Scientistic statism is how the Enlightenment turned into a Terminator.

Nevertheless, throughout the 20th  and early 21st centuries, the very same monster-breeding, Terminator-creating symbiotic system of scientistic statism has been and is fully at work worldwide, not merely in countries with blatantly authoritarian or totalitarian regimes, but also in liberal democratic capitalist nations, including the most scientifically-sophisticated and technologically-advanced, financially rich, and industrially powerful ones.

Indeed, the richest and most powerful scientistic statist liberal democratic capitalist nation in the world, the United States of America, the Land of Liberty, dropped two atomic bombs on hundreds of thousands of Japanese non-combatants, co-authored the Cold War nuclear weapons build-up, supports capital punishment as well as the individual and collective right to bear arms, has one of the biggest economic-welfare gaps in the world between the richest and the poorest people, no universal system of free healthcare, and regularly invades other countries, all without rational or moral justification. And it also claims, backed up by coercive violence or the threat of coercive violence, that its citizens must mechanically obey its political authority over all these and many other rationally unjustified and immoral acts, decisions, and laws.

Now according to the Natural Mechanism of scientistic statism, we are really nothing but “biochemical puppets” and “moist robots,” i.e., nothing but natural automata, or natural machines, whose evolutionary and neurobiological mechanisms continually generate the cognitive illusion that we are free agents.

But if this were true, then we would be in an even worse cognitive place than Pinocchio, a wooden puppet who longed to be a real boy. We would be nothing but “meat puppets,”[xv] dreaming that we are real human persons. Indeed, some contemporary philosophers even think that once we are liberated from this serious cognitive illusion, we will see finally clearly see that we are nothing but highly complex “biochemical puppets” and that a deterministic, block universe “physics makes us free.”[xvi]

According to Organicism, any philosophical doctrine which holds (i) that we are nothing but “biochemical puppets,” no matter how highly complex and amazing these puppets are, and (ii) that a deterministic, block universe “physics makes us free,” is something straight out of Orwell’s 1984 and The Terminator.

Indeed, it is not hard to see the stomach-turning unintentional similarity between the scientistic slogan “physics makes us free,” and the hideously sanctimonious slogan posted over the gates of Auschwitz, Dachau, and other Nazi concentration camps, Arbeit macht frei.

How politically expedient it would be for any 21st century equivalent of “Big Brother” to be able to convince us that our being nothing but highly complex decision-theoretic, deterministic automata and our being “free” are the same thing.

On the contrary, then, it is a direct implication of the Organicist conception of the world and ourselves that it is precisely those who believe and want to convince us that we are deterministic (or indeterministic) natural automata who are in the grip of a serious cognitive illusion, not we who conceive of ourselves as purposive, living, essentially embodied, conscious, intentional, caring, really free rational and moral animals.

Thus Organicism finally liberates us from the sleep of reason.


[i] I. Prigogine, The End of Certainty (New York: The Free Press, 1997), pp. 153-154.

[ii] For a detailed development, defense, and elaboration of the “mind-in-life” thesis, see E. Thompson, Mind in Life (Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 2007).

[iii] T. Nagel, Mind and Cosmos (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2012), p. 17.

[iv]  S. Alexander, “Natural Piety,” in S. Alexander, Philosophical and Literary Pieces (London: Macmillan, 1939), pp. 299-315, at pp. 299, 310-311, and 306, underlining added).

[v]  M. Shelley, Frankenstein; Or, the Modern Prometheus, 1818 edn., available online at URL =<>, vol. 1, ch. 3.

[vi] See, e.g., Prigogine, The End of Certainty. A better title would have been The End of Mechanism.

[vii] See, e.g., G. Boolos, and R. Jeffrey, Computability and Logic (3rd edn.; Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989).

[viii] H. Steward, A Metaphysics for Freedom (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2012), pp. 198-199. Italics added.

[ix] H. Jonas, The Phenomenon of Life: Toward a Philosophical Biology (Chicago, IL: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1966).

[x] The Four Horsemen of the Biblical Apocalypse were Conquest, War, Famine, and Death.

[xi] See The Vienna Circle, “The Scientific Conception of the World,” available online at <>. Actually, the manifesto was co-written by Rudolf Carnap, Hans Hahn, and Otto Neurath on behalf of the other members of the Circle.

[xii] See, e.g., S. Harris, Free Will (New York: Free Press, 2012).

[xiii] See J. See J. Schuessler, “Philosophy That Stirs the Waters,” New York Times, 29 April 2013, available online at URL = <>.

[xiv] Here it is not irrelevant to remember that Hobbes was Galileo’s friend, and later Francis Bacon’s private secretary. So the symbiotic connection between scientism and statism was also present at the very origins of the historical period we now call “the Enlightenment.”

[xv] See, e.g., the edgy 90s rock band, The Meat Puppets, “We Don’t Exist,” available online at URL = <>

[xvi] See, e.g., J. Ismael, How Physics Makes Us Free (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2016).

This entry was posted in Not An Edgy Essay by Z. Bookmark the permalink.

About Z

Z is a 50-something cosmopolitan anarcho-philosopher, and previously was a tenured full professor of philosophy at a public university somewhere in North America, but still managed to escape with his life.