Keith D. Farnsworth uses the concept of “formal, efficient and material causes“, to become the foundation for considering living systems as causal systems
Living systems have long been a puzzle to physics, leading some to claim that new laws of physics are needed to explain them. Separating physical reality into the general (laws) and the particular (location of particles in space and time), it is possible to see that the combination of these amounts to efficient causation, whereby forces are constrained by patterns that constitute embodied information which acts as formal cause.
Embodied information can only be produced by correlation with existing patterns, but sets of patterns can be arranged to form reflexive relations in which constraints on force are themselves formed by the pattern that results from action of those same constrained forces. This inevitably produces a higher level of pattern which reflexively reinforces itself. From this, multi-level hierarchies and downward causation by information are seen to be patterns of patterns that constrain forces. Such patterns, when causally cyclical, are closed to efficient causation. But to be autonomous, a system must also have its formative information accumulated by repeated cycles of selection until sufficient is obtained to represent the information content of the whole (which is the essential purpose of information oligomers such as DNA).
Living systems are the result of that process and therefore cannot exist unless they are both closed to efficient causation and capable of embodying an independent supply of information sufficient to constitute their causal structure. Understanding this is not beyond the scope of standard physics, but it does recognise the far greater importance of information accumulation in living than in non-living systems and, as a corollary, emphasises the dependence of biological systems on the whole history of life, leading up to the present state of any and all organisms.
The concepts proposed here are far from the full answer to overcoming the challenge of biology to physics, but the resolution of efficient cause into force and formal cause (information), with all its consequences, seems to provide a sufficiently fresh perspective to stimulate further progress. There are several unanswered questions, notably it remains a mystery how the information needed for autonomous operation of a living cell was accumulated in the first place….