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Norm Hirst’s Propositions on Life

This post is a summary of Norm Hirst’s Propositions on a New Metaphysics and Science of Life-Itself.


Norm Hirst (1932–2012) was an independent scholar studying life and values for over 50 years. At MIT, Hirst studied with Robert Hartman, a visiting professor developing a formal axiology. See my reviews of Hartman’s Freedom to Live and The Structure of Value. Hartman later became Hirst’s friend and mentor. In working with Hartman, Hirst came to the conclusion that we need to extend our notions of reality to include a living universe.


Norm Hirst concluded that there is something profoundly wrong with the way life is understood and lived. Understanding life and values became his sole focus for over 50 years. Hirst claims that we will not understand life until we understand its organismic nature. We must understand that life is fundamental, non-deterministic and has the ability to act. To be alive is to be able to act.


Organisms are self-initiating, self-acting, and creating. They are alive. Norm Hirst writes that “…there is nothing in our history of ideas, whether philosophical or scientific, that deals with living self-acting entitites. Everything in our philosophy and science is an attempt to imitate life with non-living entitites not capable of self-determining and self-initiating action.

Norm Hirst draws a distinction between mechanisms and organisms, that do not function by mechanisms. It used to be an outrageous claim that cosmos is living, but Hirst proposes “that we must … see that the cosmos is a living organism.” To him “reality, including physical reality, is the creation of life-itself.” “Strictly speaking there is no totally, non-living anything.

Living organisms are self-aware and self-motivated. This means that they are “totally outside the domain of current scientific thinking.” “Current scientific thinking is either classification, as in creating a taxonomy, or causal dynamics.” It is, furthermore, assumed that “causal dynamics must be both quantitative and predictive.” Numbers are a convenient, but they are not the only form of order. The new science will not be used for prediction, but for guidance in finding effective acts.

New Science

Erwin Schrödinger (1887–1961) claimed in What Is Life? (1944) that we need a new physics to understand life. Norm Hirst claimed that we need a new science, and that “physics can be derived as a special case.

Norm Hirst put a great deal of effort into studying logic. “It turned out to be totally disillusioning.” There is, in short, no logic of meaning. Hirst ultimately concluded “there is no meaningful logic.” Believing that philosophy was a way of exploration Norm Hirst turned to it, but he found that mainstream substance philosophy offers a wordview, a metaphysics, that further entrapped us. “Not only is a new view of reality required, we also need to change protocols of inquiry to cope with it.” “The science applicable to life does not yet exist.”

New Logic

Classical and new logics, including Peirce’s logic, have inherited “subject-predicate forms of propositions.” In other words, they show their linguistic heritage. However, Norm Hirst doesn’t believe that “living processes speak human languages, except for some of the living processes of humans.” After years of studying logic, Norm Hirst reluctantly came to agree with Whitehead that “The exactness is a fake.” (See Alfred North Whitehead, Science and Philosophy.)

Life Requires

Norm Hirst asks what we need to expect of a science of life and suggests that life requires:

  • Variety
  • Cooperation
  • Autonomy
  • Communication
  • Coherence
  • Awareness (in this moment of “now”)

Norm Hirst believes that the most serious mistakes result from the failure to understand that life needs “huge variety and harmonization.” “Finding ways to harmonize and utilize variety” creates health. We resort to violence and destruction when harmonization is, or seems, impossible.

New Formalisms

Norm Hirst, furthermore, makes the following distinctions between old and new logics, or formalisms:

Old LogicsNew Logics
Truth preservingCreative
Thing oriented (extensional)Meaning Oriented (intensional)
ConsistentAllows oscillation
Excludes self-reference (self-knowing)Requires self-reference (self-knowing)
Excludes valuesValue-driven

Traditional logics require truth-preservation. They are designed for arguments and collapse if there are inconsistencies. However, life must be able to evolve and can “quickly move beyond current truth“. Hence, traditional logics cannot handle the requirements of life.

Life, furthermore, is not computable. Thus new formalisms must be based on “forms of order other than numbers“. The question is not “Is it true?“, but “Can one get there from here?” The functions will be acts, transformations.


The primary value, for me, of Norm Hirst’s propositions is that he, through a lifetime of inquiry, makes it clear that a new form of logic and thinking is required to understand life itself. The mathematical and logical foundations of physics are totally inappropriate for understanding life.

Mathematics creates the “thought recipes” for physics, but cannot create the “thought recipes for a science of life“. Mathematics is too rigid and “does not allow the flexibility required by living processes.” Life is creative. It is only “when and where it gets bogged down and develops habitual patterns” that it can be “understood by logical concepts, theoretical physics, mathematics, and the hard sciences.

Norm Hirst makes another important distinction which I would like to emphasize. He distinguishes between entities that are autonomic versus allonomic. Hirst writes that “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.” Organisms are born to create their own life. They are self-creating, and not just self-organizing. “They maintain their own life by constantly recrating it.” Their purpose is not to fulfill external tasks, but to develop their own life. It’s worth remembering!

Related post:
Notes on Goethe’s Aphorisms

By Jan Höglund

I share my reading, book reviews, and learning in my blog.

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