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On the Biotic Aspect

Magnus Verbrugge

Dooyeweerd introduced the biological phenomenon as an aspect in his A New Critique, Vol. II, p. 107 ff.  He derived this from features we observe in entities (things) we see and that differ from those displayed by inanimate matter in a special way and then call "alive."

Lifeless things only show the functions of physical interaction, such as gravity, magnetic, weak and strong nuclear forces, and we abstract these physical functions from the way material particles behave. Dooyeweerd called these functions displayed by concrete inanimate entities their physical aspects. He stressed that it is important to realize that abstracted functions are not concrete things but concepts.

Some of the phenomena that living entities display are reproducing by division or sexual propagation, preserving itself as a whole entity by means of absorbing nourishment from its environment, by metabolism and by a continuous change of its own constituents, etc. Living things are always busy directing all its physical constituents in order to "stay alive."  They also reach a point in time when they cease to do all this, disintegrate and "die."

He emphasized that LIFE IS NOT PERCEPTIBLE TO THE EYE OF SENSE, it is not some thing we can see. Rather, it is a mode, or the way we see how certain entities function and then we use an abstract concept called "life" to indicate the functions we saw displayed. Life is thus a function of these entities, which by the active directing of their constituents distinguish themselves from "dead, inorganic or lifeless objects" which lack such functions.

We use abstract concepts to refer to features such as gravity, color, reproduction, beauty, weight, size, altitude, death etc. But being abstract means that these concepts have no origin or end, and that that applies also to the abstract concept of life. It too has no origin or end; it is not a "thing" we can see. Only real, living entities have that feature by definition. They have a beginning and an end. They are "born" of their parent(s) and they "die." The idea of spontaneous generation went out the window a long time ago.

One problem we encounter in all this is that some scientists still believe that all living things initially arose, not from parents, but with inert matter. And that conviction originated with people who cling to a materialistic faith. They believe that in the beginning there was only energy (and) or matter.

Dooyeweerd always emphasized that we first observe whole things and then decide whether they display only physical functions or also biotic ones. We first see things and then abstract their qualifying aspect, either physical or biotic, not the other way around. Ibid. p.108.

When we see a frozen seed, we don't know whether it is alive and we only find out when it begins to show the "life aspect" such as the functions of growth, spontaneous motion, reproduction etc. We cannot possibly see life first and then a thing that lives. That reverses the order of what we can see and is not the way scientific observation works. For these reasons the term "origin of life" is not a scientific term.

The laws governing its continued existence characterize each living being. Dooyeweerd called this "law cluster" its individuality structure. However, many authors used this term also for the individual entity itself, because the English language uses "structure" for both an entity and the way an entity is "constructed." Hence this term individuality structure can end up sounding like the structure of a structure. For this reason one of his pupils Dr. P. Verburg, a professor in linguistics, proposed the term IDIONOMY instead. The word "idios", means special or particular as in idiosyncrasy and idiopathy, and "nomos"+ means law.

Each material thing shows that it functions in the four earlier aspects: it is one entity or functor but may have a number of parts and will show a number of functions  its numerical aspect. It takes up space, showing its spatial aspect. It shows motion in its internal organization and also in relation to other entities. And it shows physical functions such as gravity, magnetism, etc. Physical things may be atoms, molecules etc.

Plants function in the first five aspects: those of number, space, motion, physical interaction and in addition that of life. Animals function in these, but also show the aspect of sensory/motoric function, that Dooyeweerd called the psychic aspect. Animals sense what attracts them, what repels them, they sense pleasure and fright; they have memory and react to these sensations with motion or flight, they have other phenomena that plants lack.

We humans function in all of these and many others that have a normative side: we can obey the laws God set for us and we can disobey them. Plants and animals lack all the aspects from logical thought to faith. But all of these share the aspect "life."

In his review of a book by J. Lever, Creation and Evolution, Dooyeweerd wrote on the use of the substantive word "life":

"We can say that our temporal world of experience has an organic life aspect; yet this is not a concrete what. It is a fundamental manner or mode of being in our experience that cannot be equated with any living "something." Philosophia Reformata Vol. 24, 1959.

The Theory of Enkapsis

Dooyeweerd stressed the difference between living parts and non-living entities in a living body.

The non-living, physically qualified entities in a body.

The live body actively absorbs  captures - its nutrients, molecules and atoms from the outside and directs them to function for its own continued existence. It breaks down many of these molecules and rebuilds them into its own molecular constituents. This capture function Dooyeweerd called Enkapsis and emphasized that all these entities are inert, no matter how large and complicated they may be, such as genes or DNA molecules. They can be kept outside of the body under suitable physical condition. One can analyze these in the laboratory, where they interact in random fashion. Today biologists even remove some of these and insert them in other bodies that accept them and work with them. These captive particles remain physically qualified, material entities.

The living, biotically qualified, entities we call the PARTS of a body.

From these inert objects a body builds its own PARTS in extremely complicated ways. The most mysterious phenomenon is that the body uses inert matter for producing not only complicated inert compounds but also living PARTS such as its cells, roots, stems, leaves etc. in the case of plants. No inanimate thing has ever been seen to accomplish this feat.

Animals "grow" limbs and their internal organs, such as a brain. In some cases we can transplant such living parts and they may continue to function as living parts of another body. But without human care and special manipulation they cannot live outside a body and thus must die. But living parts always originate in a living body, no matter how small. And by means of living parts bodies produce the complicated inert molecules. It goes never the other way around.

The body uses all these living parts and inert constituents for specific functions, but again, to say that they cause certain functions in the body reverses the real order. The body absorbs the simple and makes the more complicated ones, and uses them all for its many functions, from simple atoms such as sodium and molecules like water, carbohydrate or genes and DNA.

The theory of Enkapsis defined.

Dooyeweerd distinguished two different relations between a body and its contents. That between body and its living parts he called the whole-part relation. The one between the body and its inert entities he called the enkapsis relationship or intertwinement.  The reason for this distinction was the fact that inert molecules and atoms can exist outside a body indefinitely without any change in their individuality structure that is physically qualified  they never die. The living parts on the other hand do not survive indefinitely because their individuality structure is biotically qualified, the same as that of the body as a whole, and hence, when left alone, they decompose and "die."

The living subject directs the function of its constituents.

As a biotically qualified subject the organism directs its physically qualified atoms and molecules, dead objects, according to not merely their own physical laws, but the biotic laws, specific for each species.  Dooyeweerd called this function of directing objects an objective function and the relationship between organism and its material particles he called the enkaptic relation or intertwinement.

In his N.C. III, p. 634 he wrote:

"we have introduced the term 'enkapsis' to denote the intertwinement of an idionomy with a different radical-typical or geno-typical character"

This relationship raised the question of how a body does this. In the past it sometimes gave rise among biologists to the idea of a spirit or other metaphysical "substance" that "does" all this.

Dooyeweerd discussed the various theories formulated by biologists, from Aristotle on to biologists in our day. For example he discussed the neo-vitalist Hans Driesch, who assumed a substance-concept that would account for the fundamental difference between biotic and physico-chemical functions and called the process entelechy. It was to form and originate the living body as a form-totality. N.C. Vol. III, p. 736. He further remarked on this:

"As adult men who have outgrown animistic representations we know perfectly well that water itself does not live. Yet, in the aspect of life we ascribe to it the objective function of being a necessary means for life." N.C. I p. 42:

Paraphrasing on this by substituting atoms or molecules for water in the case of plants or animals, we may say that

"We know perfectly well that molecules themselves do not live. Yet, in the aspect of life we ascribe to them the objective function of being a necessary means of life."

However, today we face a more difficult problem when adult men ascribe to inert atoms or molecules a subjective instead of an objective function and claim that they can form or originate 'life', i.e. a living being, just like the entelechy of Hans Driesch. In that case these adults, even well know scientists, also have not outgrown an animistic representation.

It is remarkable how often the writers in today's media use the words "building blocks of nature" for molecules, or genes, for assigning to them functions that only living beings can perform. A typical example of this is a writer in a newspaper who wrote:

"As the authors of the newly finished human genome have so duly noted, we are each the product of 3.12 to 3.15 billion chemical letters of DNA spelling out 100,000 genes arranged in two sets of 23 chromosomes apiece.  …It is possible to describe each person on earth as a specific collection of bits, pieces, parts and units.

And another article contained these quotes:

"there exists a gene that in a normal embryo causes the eye, heart or whatever to form normally."

And further:

"is focusing on genes that make the zebra fish's heart, blood vessels and endoderm, cells that eventually form the animal's liver." (My emphasis).

To ascribe to inanimate molecules, also called "chemical letters", the ability to "produce" us, living beings, is a clear example of animistic representation.

In contrast to this Dooyeweerd wrote about this enkaptic intertwinement between a living body and its enkaptic but inanimate constituents that:

"If a thing (e.g. a molecule) with a particular individuality structure functions enkaptically in a thing with a different (biotic) structure, this enkaptic interlacement always means a binding of the first (inert) structure. That is to say the molecule exceeds the boundaries of its internal structural principle in this enkaptic function within a living thing." N.C. Vol. I, p. 639.

Thus, the subjective internal leading function and principle of these molecules is the physical aspect, but as by being formed by a living entity, they acquire an objective role to play that is qualified by its directing captor, in this case a biotically qualified one. 

He illustrates this with the example of the relation between a bird and its nest. The living bird is the subject when making its nest that is a physically qualified subject. But in its relation to the bird, the nest performs a biotically qualified object function. N.C. Vol. I, p.42.

Applied to genetic situations, a biotically qualified body received its genes and DNA from its parents. They are physically qualified entities inside it, where they perform a biotically qualified object's function. Writes Dooyeweerd:

"The objective functions belong to things themselves in relationship to possible subjective functions, which these things do not possess in the aspects of reality involved." Ibid.

For the case of genes that means that the body makes them as chemical objects for all its new cells out of atoms and directs them to perform biotically qualified object-functions. This means that the body needs and uses them to help perform biotic functions, such as metabolism, respiration, growth, repair of damaged organs, etc. But in every case it is not chemicals but the living body that performs these biological functions. There is no logical explanation for inert molecules to do this. To understand this is very hard for people who try to reduce all phenomena to material and mechanical causes. But scientists have no excuse to misinterpret reality.

We are continually surrounded by miracles. All our own vital functions, such as just thinking, listening to our heartbeat that goes on year after year, or watching how our white blood cells rush to any injured part of our body, lack a physical explanation. But who would claim that our heart, our brain, our white blood cells do not live, but are dead mechanical devices?

It is one of Dooyeweerd's major merits to have discovered the aspects of things and events that surround us. And he demonstrated that we must distinguish them for understanding our world and for becoming better scientists.

Other areas to explore are those of how to care for all living beings, and especially for us humans: their care and maintenance of health. Medicine and its organization. Of research, practicing doctors, nurses and hospitals. But that also directs us to Dooyeweerd's discussion of social institutions. There is much to be done!

Magnus Verbrugge, July 28, 2000

For more reading, see: The Biotic Aspect, and Arthur Jones on what life is.

Copyright (c) 2000 Magnus Verbrugge (now deceased). All rights reserved.

This page is part of a collection of pages containing ideas that are referred to within The Dooyeweerd Pages, which explain, explore and discuss Dooyeweerd's interesting philosophy. Email questions or comments would be welcome.

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Created: July 2000 Last updated: 6 August 2002 tidied up. 7 January 2013 rid unet, .nav, links to biotic and biotic.jones.