The question of specific properties of life compared to nonliving things has accompanied biology throughout its history. At times this question generated major controversies with largely diverging opinions. Basically, mechanistic thinkers, who tried to understand organismic functions in terms of nonliving machines, were opposed by those who tried to describe specific properties of living entities. As this question included the human body, these controversies have always been of special relevance to our self-image and also touched practical issues of medicine. During the second half of the twentieth century, it appeared resolved, that organisms are explainable basically as physicochemical machines.
Especially from the perspective of molecular biology, it seemed to be clear that organisms need to be explained solely by the chemical functions of their component parts, although some resistance to this view never ceased. This research program has been working quite successfully, so that science today knows a lot about the physiological and chemical processes within organisms. However, again new doubts arise questioning whether the mere continuation of this analytical approach will ultimately generate a fundamental understanding of living entities. At the beginning of the twenty-first century the quest for a new synthesis actually comes from analytical empiricists themselves.
The view of the organism as a molecular or even as a physical machine left the question open, how mind gets into relationship with physical processes of the body. Neither philosophical considerations nor proposals from natural sciences have been able to resolve this persistent problem, a subject since Descartes. Anthroposophic Medicine proposes that there is not just a direct connection, but that the specific entity of the living mediates between physical processes on the one hand, and manifestations of soul and mind on the other hand. Rudolf Steiner called this entity "the etheric body".
Using knowledge of modern biology, it becomes increasingly possible today to study the properties of this level of human organization, which humans share with animals and plants. Living beings exhibit properties and characteristics that are especially shown by life processes. They are typically not present in nonliving systems, although in some cases superficially comparable phenomena may be found. Of course, chemical reactions as well as physical processes are involved in organic functions, but they are integrated within organized and autonomous living entities. This perspective does not contradict the results of reductionistic research, but rather grants them meaning within the context of organismic systems. The concept of an "organismic biology" in this sense is an increasingly active and modern area of research, to which studies from the background of Anthroposophy are contributed.
To gain knowledge of this entity is central for any medicine and especially for Anthroposophic Medicine, as many processes of illness and healing are mediated by this level of life itself. In addition, it will influence our understanding of nature in general.
Dr. Priv.-Doz. Bernd Rosslenbroich
Institute of Evolutionary Biology and Morphology
Faculty of Health, School of Medicine, Witten-Herdecke University, Germany
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