Thursday, February 16, 2006

The mundane and the marvelous -- Part 2

I expected to get lambasted for yesterday's post on the mechanical metaphor for life. I've been told more times than I can count: Think of life as a machine and you'll treat life as a machine. Think of the hummingbird at my bird feeder as a little lawn mower, and I'll treat it as a lawn mower.

Well, no. I don't treat the hummingbird as a lawn mower. You have never heard about lawn mowers on this blog, but you have often heard about hummingbirds. What makes the hummingbird different from the lawn mower is not that the bird has an irreducible soul, but complexity. Even a single cell in the hummingbird is vastly more complex than a lawn mower.

It is the complexity of the hummingbird that commands my reverence and love, the amazing emergent majesty of it. My appreciation for the hummingbird's complexity is only enhanced by what I know about its metabolism, its aerodynamics, its biochemistry -- in short, everything scientists have learned by application of the mechanical metaphor.

The idea of an irreducible soul is lovely, but it has led exactly nowhere in science. And before you say "So what?", ask yourself if you would prefer to live in a world without modern medicine. If your kid had foot-and-mouth disease (see yesterday's pic), would you rather know about reducible viral biochemistry or irreducible souls?

Perhaps the nearest thing we have today to an adequate metaphor for life is the internet. We can talk about an ecology of the internet, the evolution of the internet, and perhaps even a metabolism of the internet, turning the tables, using biological metaphors for a technological artifact. The internet is a thing of almost organic complexity -- Teilhard de Chardin's noosphere -- and no one doubts that it is reducible to hardware and software.

But make no mistake, scientific knowledge does not exhaust the hummingbird's meaning, any more than does the motor metaphor in Mary Oliver's poem Hummingbird Pauses at the Trumpet Vine: "...who doesn't want/ to live with the brisk/ motor of his heart/ singing/ like a Schubert..."