Sri Chaitanya Saraswat Institute of Spiritual Culture & Science in collaboration with Indian Institute of Technology-Madras present:

A Scientific and Philosophical Conference on

Ontological Distinction between Mechanical, Chemical & Biological Systems

31 January - 1 February 2020

IC SR, Hall III, Indian Institute of Technology - Madras, Tamil Nadu, India

There have been many profound developments within the last 100 years in the form of various scientific concepts. Inspite of this many fundamental problems are still unsolved and it has been difficult to find any integrated theory, which can address in its full scope. For example, we frequently come across systems that can be sub-categorized into three categories, viz., (i) Mechanical, (ii) Chemical and (iii) Biological Systems. However, despite a clear distinction between their ontological natures it is often uncritically presumed in modern science that all these different systems can be explained based upon the same set of laws of logic. This distinction become even more apparent when we consider the animate (biological systems) and inanimate (mechanical/chemical) objects. Animate objects seem to spontaneously move themselves and inanimate objects move only when impelled by some applied force outside or beyond the object. Thus it is necessary that a detailed nature of spontaneous movement must also be understood. A very important question is what automates the animate living objects, which does not seem to exist in the dead objects.

Chemical reactions in the living organisms are of a special kind called biological activity. These reactions are sustainable and become very complex, even defying all explanation at a simple chemical level because of the intricacy involved. Living organisms exhibit further peculiar traits that we call behavioral symptoms that are not found in inanimate objects. That is, organisms exhibit growth, irritability, reproduction, metabolism and so on. Animate objects or organisms behave in manners that chemical objects do not exhibit.

Yet what is it that moves dead matter (dunamis or potentiality) into action (energia, act-uality). Aristotle called that actualizing force enetelechia or entelechy. This peculiar word comes from teleos or teleology, and specifically it refers to inner (en) teleology. It means purpose or end in the sense of aim. Thus the dunamis or potentiality has different potencies depending on the kind or species of creature that it is. For example, the seed of an oak tree, or the egg of a chicken have certain potencies within them characterizing the type of matter they are. When their potency is awakened their entelechy will drive them to actualize as a tree or chick.

Aristotle considered the situation from this point of view and concluded that there is a soul that was responsible for this. A couple of thousand years latter G. W. F. Hegel also demonstrated in his Science of Logic that there is a Concept involved in the determination of its corresponding content. In between these two towering figures of philosophy, Immanuel Kant also developed the same themes in his philosophical analysis of the scientific understanding of organisms. In the following sections we briefly consider the three systems according to their inherent logical distinctions.

Mechanical Systems
Mechanical objects do not have an internal relationship of parts. For example Newtonian gravity depends upon mass, but the internal composition of that mass does not play any role in determining their attraction to other planets. Thus gravity acts in a purely external way to unite the planets into the solar system. In mechanistic objects, the unifying Concept (in this case, gravitational force) exists only implicitly, and therefore only explicitly or externally to the object. Mechanics views a system as having separable, independent parts that are fully understandable outside their connection within the system of which they are parts. When the parts of a system retain the same identity when isolated from the system as when connected within it, it is called a mechanical system.

Chemical Systems
Those entities that show an intrinsic affinity toward other entities leads to the next type of object – the chemical object. Chemical objects have parts that are internally related. They are not the same when isolated from each other as when they are connected or united with each other. Thus, for example, a salt crystal cannot maintain its identity when divided at its most fundamental molecular level since sodium and chloride atoms when divided would form two distinct substances – sodium and chlorine. External relations are formed due to the intrinsic properties of the individual parts of a chemical reaction. Thus an acid is intrinsically related to an alkali, which combine to form a neutral salt. Their unity, the neutral salt, is a completely different substance compared to the distinct parts in their isolation.

Biological Systems
In biological systems parts that cannot be separated from a system without destroying it as a working system, can no longer be called parts but are participants or members of a dynamic whole. The participants are as essential to the whole as the whole is to the participants – this is the biological system or organism. Here we are removed from the stasis of fixed objects and are in the milieu of pure dynamical activity. Participants cannot be isolated from the whole in which they are participants and remain what they are. A DNA molecule can no more be what it is as a producer of protein molecules, than the protein molecules can be what they are as produced from the action of DNA, and producing the DNA. Each participant is cause and effect of every other participant, as Kant defined organism. Therefore nothing in an organism is without purpose, nor is the organism as a whole without purpose in the environment. Thus everything in the organism is both purpose [end] and means.

Traditionally, in both eastern and western philosophy, life is understood as a cognitive or sentient principle. Sentience cannot be manufactured artificially by any noble mechanical and chemical arrangement of dead atoms and molecules. In the ancient eastern philosophy based on the Vedāntic or Bhagavat paradigm, for example, the invocation of Śrī Īśopanisad provides the concept of ‘Organic Wholism’: “oḿ pūrnam adah pūrnam idaḿ pūrnāt pūrnam udacyate pūrnasya pūrnam ādāya pūrnam evāvaśisyate – The ‘Organic Whole’ produces ‘organic wholes’. An ‘organic whole’ cannot arise from parts that have to be assembled. That process can only produce inorganic, mechanical or chemical processes, not living organisms.” A similar conclusion was made by Rudolph Virchow in 1858, “omnis cellula e cellula” (“every cell comes from a cell”). In 1864, Louis Pasteur also demonstrated that life cannot arise from non-life (abiogenesis is impossible) and with experimental evidence, established the theory of biogenesis: Omne vivum ex vivo – Life comes from Life.

Therefore, within the Vedantic traditions it is well understood that biological systems are irreducible. They are wholistic systems (pūrnam idaḿ). Meaning a biological individual is a complete whole that comes from another individual of the same species. India is the most ancient civilization and its rich ancient tradition of Vedanta has produced and preserved deepest thoughts in the area of wholism, consciousness, causality, epistemology and their relevance in practical applications. A change in scientific thinking in the 21st century from conventional thinking of the past century has aligned frontier developments more favorably towards Vedanta. Specifically consciousness has become in itself a very important dimension of study. Its importance is being realized in not only biology but also in Quantum Physics, Mathematics and the Origin of Universe.

However the scientific worldviews regarding consciousness are still in their developing stages and there are many genuine questions in the thoughts of scientists which need a systematic approach for a solution. The Western Philosophers like Descartes and Kant had put many arguments about consciousness which are a matter of constant deliberation. Later, Hegel developed the concept of wholes as ontological wholes. However, if we carefully examine, it is India where these thoughts have been explained in most careful and logical manner through the ages by great personalities like Srila Vyasadeva, Sripad Ramanujacharya and Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu. A culture of mutual harmony, understanding, reason and thought exchange will benefit science, philosophy and Vedanta by bringing a more complete understanding of the true reality that we are part of.

This conference will bring together scientists and philosophers, and aims to foster new collaborations and research avenues with potential relevance towards development of scientific understanding of life and its origin.


Conference hashtag: #systems2019 || #systems2019

Ontological Distinction between Mechanical, Chemical & Biological Systems


    • Sripad Bhakti Madhava Puri Maharaja, Ph.D. (Conference Visionary, Serving Director, Princeton Bhakti Vedanta Institute of Spiritual Culture and Science, NJ, USA)
    • Devendra Jalihal, Ph.D. (Conference Chair, Chairman of the Center for Continuing Education, and previous Head, Department of Electrical Engineering, Indian Institute of Technology - Madras Tamil Nadu, India)
    • Bhakti Vijnana Muni, Ph.D. (President, Sri Chaitanya Saraswat Institute of Spiritual Culture and Science, Bengaluru, Karnataka, India)
    • Bhakti Niskama Shanta, Ph.D. (Gen. Secretary, Sri Chaitanya Saraswat Institute of Spiritual Culture and Science, Bengaluru, Karnataka, India)
    • L. S. Ganesh, Ph.D. (Professor, Department of Management Studies, Indian Institute of Technology - Madras Tamil Nadu, India)
    • R. Dhamodharan, Ph.D. (Professor, Department of Chemistry, Indian Institute of Technology - Madras Tamil Nadu, India)
    • V. Srinivasa Chakravarthy, Ph.D. (Professor, Department of Biotechnology, Indian Institute of Technology - Madras Tamil Nadu, India)
    • P. Sudarsan, Ph.D. (Professor, Department of Humanities & Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Technology - Madras Tamil Nadu, India)

  • DATE

    31 January 31 - 1 February, 2020


    IC SR, Hall III, Indian Institute of Technology - Madras Tamil Nadu, India

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“As scientists attempt to understand a living system, they move down from dimension to dimension, from one level of complexity to the next lower level. I followed this course in my own studies. I went from anatomy to the study of tissues, then to electron microscopy and chemistry, and finally to quantum mechanics. This downward journey through the scale of dimensions has its irony, for in my search for the secret of life, I ended up with atoms and electrons, which have no life at all. Somewhere along the line life has run out through my fingers. So, in my old age, I am now retracing my steps, trying to fight my way back.”

:: Albert Szent-Györgyi
(Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1937)

“From the reader's perspective, a book is composed of alphabetical letters; but the book itself did not originate from these letters. Ultimately it is from the ideas of the author that the letters of the book come to be. In the same way, the molecules of a biological organism are the result, not the origin of life. This is the difference between the order in which we come to know things (ordo cognoscendi) and the order in which something comes to be (ordo essendi).”

:: Sripad Bhakti Madhava Puri Maharaja, Ph.D.
(Conference Chair & Serving Director, Princeton Bhakti Vedanta Institute of Spiritual Culture and Science)

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