These days researchers are obsessed with making models as an aid to understanding reality. But there is a danger here in that in concentrating on the models the actual living world around us is lost sight of. And the same can be said regarding the metaphors that are in frequent use. How true to reality is the mind picture evoked by the metaphor.
This paper “argues that a new theoretical understanding of the cell is emerging from the study of these phenomena which emphasizes the dynamic, self-organizing nature of its constitution, the fluidity and plasticity of its components, and the stochasticity and non-linearity of its underlying processes.”
This increasingly accurate view demonstrates how misleading the machine metaphor is. Inventors and engineers are trying to build machines that are more like living systems but we are still a long way off from achieving this goal. Machines fall very far short of living systems.
A metaphor, as well as for its poetic use, can be used when an entity that is hard to describe is better understood in terms of an entity that can be much more clearly defined. But as our knowledge of these living systems becomes more detailed then the machine metaphor loses its usefulness and constrains our thinking.
Why call these dynamic complexes within cells “nano machines” when a more realistic term would be “nano beings”. They do not behave and function like dead machines with their levers, struts, braces, containers and clamping devices. They are living tissues and living beings, going through their own life cycles and functioning in ways reminiscent of higher animals such as insect colonies, or of growing vegetation. Their nature and activity is more like that of the animals and plants of our everyday sense world than that of human made machines.
We are at a stage of our evolution where we have become detached from the natural world. As Owen Barfield puts it, we have moved from the ancient position of being within nature, participating in the natural world along with the creatures around us, to the detached position of onlookers. In “Saving the Appearances” he relates the way we are after this transition:
For the generality of men, participation was dead; the only link with the phenomena was through the senses; and they could no longer conceive of any manner in which either growth itself or the metamorphoses of individual and special growth, could be determined from within. The appearances were idols. They had no “within.” Therefore the evolution which had produced them could only be conceived mechanomorphically as a series of impacts of idols on other idols.
The machine metaphor became dominant and it turned into a form of idolitry when it was taken literally and it still is being taken literally. It’s time to move beyond this way of thinking.