Norm Hirst on self law and non-self law

Norm Hirst makes a distinction between following self-law and non-self law which is pertinent to understanding the difference between living organisms and machines. He writes (in italics):

It is useful to distinguish between entities that are autonomic, obeying self-law and entities that are allonomic, obeying non-self law. We have been led astray by our experience of obedient things. In dealing with living autonomic self-acting entities it may come as a surprise that they do what they want with no thought of obedience. 1

Organisms are autonomic and come into being as a whole entity and grow into maturity as a whole entity unlike machines that are assembled piece by piece by some other. There is a distinction between being autonomic, obeying self-law, and allonomic, obeying some other’s law. Machines are allonomic; they obey the laws built in by external agencies. There is no way for any other to build in the internal laws of a living entity. 2

Obedience is not the foundation of any living process although many people may believe that it is. The idea of imposed obedience may seem to be necessary if there is also a belief that that is the only way a being learns self-control and respect. There are two natural processes at work that must be accounted for in a living organism that obedience does not allow. The first process is that a living entity inquires through action to find effective acts. An act is effective if it produces the results intended. … The second process begins with growing awareness of coherence conditions that come out of relationships of all kinds. These are minimum conditions connecting us to one another while not unduly limiting our freedom. We grow into beings both unique and social. 3

… imposing obedience is theoretically impossible with a living organism. Control and force may be used to influence and coerce, but ultimately the living entity chooses from a wide variety of responses to such efforts, some of which may appear to be obedient. It is not a machine nor will it respond by cause and effect. Remove the force and most likely you will find a natural desire for freedom of choice and inquiry quite different from that being imposed. Some beings will choose to rebel, to fight, to choose violence in order to express and self-fulfill. … Further, empirical research shows clearly what the theory predicts. Insisting on obedience in childhood is more likely to lead to violence in adult life. This goes beyond opinion. 4

Forced obedience is just as impossible as the cow violating gravity by jumping over the moon. However, herein may well be one of the areas by which we are making the world sick. Force and dominance over another living entity cannot work ultimately. The force of life will insist on finding it’s own unique way no matter what we believe. 5

1 Norm Hirst, Towards a science of life as creative organisms
2 Ibid..
3 Norm Hirst, Art is Essential to Life
4 Ibid..
5 Ibid..


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