SCIENCE     versus     MATERIALISM

by     Reginald O. Kapp

SECTION II - DOUBLE DETERMINATENESS

Chapter XVI - SPECIFICATION AND EIDOS


THE reader may be surprised, even a little disappointed, that we have hitherto ignored all that the great philosophers of the past have had to say. Particularly one who is a student of philosophy may feel that we have quite unnecessarily dragged him from his familiar surroundings into uncharted regions where he may look in vain for recognizable landmarks, where he is deprived of the guidance which his knowledge of the history of thought should give him. Such a reproach, if it be made, deserves to be taken seriously.

It is our aim, as it should be the aim of every writer, to say what we have to say as precisely as possible and in such a way that we may give as little trouble as possible to the reader. If neglect to define the place of our own point of view in the general body of philosophical doctrine has caused us to fail in this aim, we deserve his reproaches.

We might, of course, throw ourselves on his mercy and plead our ignorance of philosophy. But this would not exonerate us. We are writing as an engineer, but not exclusively for engineers. We must study all those who are interested in our theme. Our ignorance could be remedied and would have to be remedied if clarity could be increased by an excursion into those regions of philosophy which have been explored by the leading thinkers of our civilization. What we put into these pages and what we leave out must not be settled by the limitations of our own reading. In deciding how much space we shall devote to the links of our own thought with that of others we must, like every author, be influenced only by a careful balance of the gains and losses to the reader.

There is a gain in the appeal to the authority of the great men of the past, but at the cost of demanding the effort to recall exactly what other philosophers have said. Our experience has shown that this effort is often a considerable burden, while the gain from the appeal to authority is of doubtful value whenever various interpretations of the meaning of the mighty dead exist. This uncertainty applies particularly to the great philosophers of ancient Greece. We have read in one book, for instance, that Plato appreciated the significance of change, in another that he ignored it. One person has told us that Zeno of Elea, the one who originated the famous paradoxes, was a subtle thinker who demonstrated brilliantly how inadequate the philosophical systems of his contemporaries were. Another person has told us that Zeno propounded silly riddles which any schoolboy could solve. To quote any philosopher of the golden age is, therefore, not enough. One must refer in addition to the interpretation of the philosopher in question as given by this or that commentator.

That such various interpretations are possible need not surprise us. When we read Plato, for instance, we can never be sure that his words mean the same to us as they did to the students who walked with him and talked with him in the gardens of the Academy on the outskirts of Athens. Plato found the perfect way of saying what he had to say to those to whom he said it. But these were men who lived in different surroundings from ours and had a different cultural background. They knew when their teacher was to be understood literally and when metaphorically. They could take to a nicety the measure of Plato's irony. They knew when the point of his argument was scientific and when dialectic, when poetical and when ethical. But it is difficult for us to know with certainty.

The backing of authority is not the only or even the greatest gain to those who are shown how and when an author's thought is continuous with that of his predecessors. For those who are already versed in the history of philosophy there is the added advantage that they can follow an argument more easily when it starts from familiar ground. Were we addressing ourselves exclusively to students of philosophy it would, therefore, be our duty to define our relation to the philosophical systems of the past before we began to develop our own arguments. But we are not addressing ourselves exclusively to students of philosophy, and copious quotations from the great philosophers would provide anything but familiar ground to those who are not intimately acquainted with the various aims and tendencies of rival philosophical schools. Here we have to balance the gain to one group of readers against the loss to another, and we are convinced that those whose reasoning powers have been sharpened in the discipline of a philosophical training will be less handicapped on unfamiliar ground than those who lack this advantage. So the latter have the greater claim to our consideration. To credit the reader with less scholarship than he possesses does but little harm. But to credit him with more defeats the author's purpose, which is to be understood.

We must also remember that the profoundest thinkers of the past, particularly those of ancient Greece, do not seem to have given a great deal of attention to the problems with which we are concerned. They did much to elucidate the distinction between concepts and the things conceived, between the general and the particular, between order and chaos, between reason and sensation, between good and evil, between virtue and sin, between the eternal and the temporal, between permanence and change. They were interested in the nature, and limitations of thought, in questions of conduct, in justice, in the value of discipline.

But in this book we are not concerned with any of these things. We are concerned with the distinction between material and non-material reality in general and the question whether Life is material or non-material in particular. Those whose contributions to philosophy have been great and lasting have not ignored these problems, but they have usually treated them as incidental to problems in ethics, religion or psychology. Even our great contemporary, Bergson, who has done more than others to illuminate the very problems with which we are concerned, has approached them from a different angle. What use would it, therefore, be for us to define our attitude to Bergson, let alone to Plato or Kant or Hegel? In doing so we should merely be saying what we think on subjects which have little or nothing to do with the theme of this book. And we should tempt the reader to provide us with the label attaching to this or that school while we want him, instead, to follow our arguments with an open mind. We are very anxious that he shall consider what we do say and not what his knowledge of other writers may lead him to fancy that we are going to say.

We have decided, therefore, to refer to other writers only on those occasions when we can make our arguments clearer by doing so, though this must make us seem ungrateful to men like Bergson and Eddington, to whom we owe much. Such an occasion presents itself now. For there is a superficial resemblance between a specification and that which Plato called an "eidos," and which is translated into English as "idea". The resemblance might suggest that the two words mean the same thing, whereas they really mean very different things. Unless we compare them we fear, therefore, that any reader who has studied his Plato may be misled.

Plato taught that, in addition to the world of sense perceptions, there is a world of ideas, each idea being the counter- part of something which we know by experience. He said in effect in The Republic, Book X: "There are many beds and many tables; but there is only one eidos of a bed and one eidos of a table. And the artificer who makes each of these pieces of furniture looks to the eidos of a bed or a table, and so makes the beds and the tables which we use. The man does not make the eidos, he only copies it."

Had Plato said nothing more we should, indeed, have to conclude that he meant the same thing as specification. We can devise a modernized passage on parallel lines: "If there are many beds and many tables, there are also many Ford cars; but there is only one specification for each model. And a workman in Mr. Ford's factory who helps to make the cars looks to the specification so that he may know what to do. The man in the shops does not make the specification, he only copies it; for it has been prepared in the office."

So striking a correspondence between the two concepts proves that our argument can only gain in clarity if we follow up the comparison. We will, therefore, now proceed to discuss in detail what a specification is and what it is not, and we will contrast it with the Platonic eidos whenever it seems useful to emphasize a distinction. It will then become apparent how little true resemblance there is.

There is a difference already in the things to which the two words apply, for in Plato's view everything which appeared to him significant had its counterpart in an eidos, whereas only some things have their counterpart in a specification. Plato taught that there are ideas for such abstractions as beauty, truth and goodness. He declared that the idea of the Good was pre-eminent over all the others and embodied them all. He thus established a bridge between his doctrine of ideas and his ethics.

But it is clearly meaningless to speak of the "specification" of any abstraction. One can specify beautiful things and good things, but not beauty or goodness unattached to any material reality. The word "specification" applies only to the measureable attributes of concrete things: to their shape, their size, their structure, their number, their physical properties, their durations, their order in time and space.

And even when applied to concrete things eidos is a wider concept than specification. Plato would have said that there is not only an idea for a bed and one for a table and one for each other manufactured article. He would have also said that there is one idea for a mountain, and one for a river, and one for a star, and one for a crystal. But there is no specification for any of these things. They have merely shaken down under the unco-ordinated action of Matter on Matter. As we explained in the last chapter there is no need to invoke a specification in order to explain those things which have merely shaken down. The laws of physics and chemistry suffice. Only those things are specified which are prevented from shaking down.

And there is always a specification for these. It would be very arbitrary if we were to say that some of the things which are prevented from shaking down are specified and others not. It would be still more arbitrary if we were to limit the use of the word to written or printed documents. The specification for St. Paul's Cathedral began to exist as soon as it took form in Sir Christopher Wren's imagination, long before a single word had been set down on paper or a single drawing made. The humble potter, moulding his clay, works direct from brain to hand. He does not trouble to make a drawing of the finished pot. Yet he follows a specification as surely as the bricklayer.

It would also be arbitrary if we were to limit the use of the word to those things to which we can attach some dignity or which have a conspicuous practical significance or some measure of permanence. In the most insignificant events a specification is followed provided only that things are prevented from shaking down. The cook who boils our breakfast egg places it in water at a specified temperature and leaves it there for a specified three minutes. With varying success, a golfer sends the ball in a specified direction. When eventually it does reach the eighteenth hole this is not a result of shaking down. When we say that a cookery book specifies the way to prepare a meal and the plan of a golf course specifies the way the players are to proceed we do not arbitrarily stretch the meaning of the word. We use the word in its literal sense with the meaning which everyone attaches to it. We surmise, however, that Plato would have deemed some of the things which are specified to be too trivial to be worthy of a place in his world of ideas.

The things which we have called specified are sometimes called artificial. It may be said, for instance, that St. Paul's Cathedral is an artificial formation and the end moraine of a glacier a natural one. Hence the reader may think that we should do better to distinguish between artificial and natural things rather than between specified and unspecified ones. But we hope he will not think so. For how unsatisfactory is the distinction between artificial and natural! Those who make it commonly apply the word artificial only to the products of human effort, suggesting thereby that the things done by homo sapiens are all unnatural. Is it unnatural for our species to build cathedrals and to cook their food? Though the poet said that in nature "every prospect pleases and only man is vile" we do not believe that man is a complete unnatural monstrosity. We are always astonished when we read this word "artificial" in what purports to be a serious contribution to thought, and we never have found it used by an outstanding authority. Only those contrast artificial with natural whose discipline is so slight that they set down the first words which come into their minds without waiting to discover what they mean to say or what is the proper way of saying it.

In their duration as well as in their universality Plato's ideas differ from our specification. The world of ideas was conceived as eternal and changeless. Nothing could ever be lost to it, nothing added, nothing modified. Ideas were believed to have started their existence at the beginning of time and to go on unchanged till the end of the world. Had Plato consulted the Oracle at Delphi and been told that, in due course, a Mr. Ford would found a motor-car factory, he would have declared that the eidos of a Ford car existed already.

But we can all agree that there was no specification for motor-cars in those days. Specifications come and go. They are altered from time to time and adapted to developing needs. When we say, therefore, that a living organism conforms to the requirements of a specification we do not mean that this has always been in existence. We do not suggest that in the days of the Dinosaur there was a specification for Arab steeds or that there is still one for Dinosaurs to-day. We mean that the specifications for living organisms occur like those for buildings and machines as and when occasion arises.

This brings us to the question of the origin of specifications. Such a question did not arise in Plato's philosophy. As he taught that ideas originated with the beginning of all things he attributed to them an independent self-existence. But we cannot attribute an independent self-existence to all specifications, or even think of them all as the direct work of a super-human Creator; we attribute some of them to human agency.

But when we speak of the specification for a living organism we obviously do not mean a man-made specification. Nor do we necessarily mean anything made by a superhuman intelligence, nor even by a superhuman mind which is lacking in intelligence. Why should we? We know of nothing which could lead us to believe that anything in the nature of Mind makes the specifications to which living organisms conform. We do not know what makes them nor by what process, and scientists cannot tell us. All that they have been able to discover is a little about the process by which the specifications, once they exist, come to be modified. But this belongs to a chapter on genetics and will be discussed in its proper place on some future occasion.

Anyhow, the origin of specifications, interesting though the subject is, belongs to another field of investigation. We are concerned here only to draw conclusions from the bare fact that there are specifications for living organisms. These conclusions would be the same whether the specifications were due to a God, or a Demiurge, or a Life Force, or Entelechies, or a World Intelligence, or a Super-Mind, or a Sub-Mind, or some influence with no Mind at all. We can be sure of one thing only. They are not due to the unaided action of Matter on Matter. For, let us repeat, it is not in the nature of Matter unaided to produce specifications or to follow them when produced. So vitalism is justified provided only it be proved that the specifications exist, no matter how they may originate. We must turn now to another aspect of the eidos. This was regarded as the embodiment of perfection. Plato's eidos of a table was free from all the flaws and blemishes which we find in our own tables. His eidos of a circle was of something more perfect than we can possibly reproduce with pencil and paper, where every little roughness in the surface must cause a minute departure from a true circle. He would, no doubt, have said that the eidos of a Ford car represented a vehicle which never failed to start in traffic, which never gave its owner one moment's anxiety, which never needed repairs, which never wore out.

But a specification does not call for perfection. In the interests of the shareholders the specifications prepared by motor-car manufacturers do not require anything better than can be produced at the price at which the cars are to be sold. Steel is never specified to be unbreakable but to have a tensile strength of, say, thirty tons per square inch. A measuring instrument is not required to give perfect accuracy but to read within a specified margin of permissible error. The cook is not told to boil our breakfast egg for exactly three minutes but for about three minutes. Suppose it were necessary to specify that something was to be circular and that a small departure from a true circle mattered. The proper way of doing so would not be to say that the circle was to be perfect. If the specification were drafted very scientifically it would mention instead to how many decimal points π was to be observed.

From these remarks it may be thought that a specification is no more than a description of what is, while a Platonic idea is a description of what might be. But a specification is not only a description. This can be made of the end moraine of a glacier just as well as of St. Paul's Cathedral. Yet only the latter was built to a specification. A specification is not a description of what is, but of what shall be. The future tense is used throughout in the documents issued by architects and engineers. A specification exists before the thing which it describes. Only for this reason can its determining effect be additional to that given by the laws of physics and chemistry. The specification to which any Ford car is built necessarily comes first and the car afterwards. This is true even though thousands of similar cars may be on the roads already. Each new car can only come into being as the result of a specification and this is necessarily older than all the cars of the same model. In the same way we assert that each new sparrow can only come into being with the help of a specification, and this is necessarily older than all the sparrows which are alive to-day. If we wish to retain the word "description" we have to say that a specification is a pre-existent description.

This brings a specification into the same relation to anticipation which a historical record bears to memory and suggests an interesting field for metaphysical study which we have no space to explore here. We will only point out that, while philosophers have had much to say about the relation between past and present, they have dealt far less exhaustively with the relation between future and present. Bergson, for instance, has dealt in a profound manner with "Matter and Memory". But no one has yet given equal study to "Matter and Anticipation". Perhaps someone will do so some day. Then the word "specification" will be useful. For as we learn what has happened from a study of history, so do we learn what is going to happen from a study of specifications.

A specification is not only a pre-existent description. It also constitutes a set of restrictive requirements. It says that things may not be any size, any shape, anywhere, anyhow; but that they shall be thus and not otherwise. Only on this account does a specification play its part in preventing things from shaking down.

It goes without saying that a specification only calls for things compatible with the laws of physics and chemistry. If it did not, it would be useless, for it could never be followed. And it also goes without saying that a specification does not demand that the laws of physics and chemistry shall be followed. To do this would, again, be useless, for these laws will be followed whether specified or not. The requirements in a specification are all additional to those imposed by the laws of physics and chemistry. They demand a choice between alternatives all of which are physically possible. There are many ways in which clay can be moulded, but the specification in the mind of the potter only allows it to be moulded in one of these ways. To say that the structure of a living organism conforms to the requirements of a specification, is to say that the substance forming it could have been assembled in a variety of ways, all physically possible, but that the specification permits only one of these to be adopted. We come back again to our oft-reiterated contention that, according to vitalism, living substance does not possess greater freedom than lifeless substance, but less.

In excluding the laws of physics and chemistry from its requirements a specification differs radically from a Platonic idea. Professor A. Wolf has gone so far as to suggest in The Outline of Modem Knowledge, on page 10, that Plato's ideas may have been intended to represent the eternal laws of nature. Remembering what Plato has said about the eidos of a bed and the eidos of a table as well as what he has said about the ideas of beauty, truth and goodness, we doubt whether many commentators would interpret their Plato as Wolf does, but we are sure that all would agree to include the laws of physics and chemistry among the Platonic ideas.

We now come to a couple of questions which are not at all easy to answer. Are specifications objective or subjective? Are they material or non-material? We might add a third question: Are they with or without location? But this is the same as to ask whether they are material or non-material. For all material things have location. They must be somewhere. And by our definition given in Chapter I and to be explained later all non-material things have no location. Though they may exist, they are nowhere.

Concerning Platonic ideas the answer to these questions is easy. Plato's philosophy had that hard, clear outline which characterized all Greek thought and all Greek art. He had no doubt that ideas were not subjective in the sense of being peculiar to an individual, but that they were objective in the sense of being independent of individuals. This is apparent from the remark: "The man does not make the eidos, he only copies it."

We are sure that, for Plato, ideas were also non-material and, therefore, without location, though, according to one authority we have read, Plato said so in a metaphorical and rather paradoxical way. For it appears that he did declare that the world of ideas exists somewhere. But he chose a place which for him and his contemporaries symbolized nowhere. He taught that the world of ideas was a long way off, beyond the firmament and, moreover, in that part of the heavens which never appeared above the horizon at Athens. To the comparatively untravelled Greeks whether they were believers in a flat earth or not, this was a region of the sky which no man could ever set eyes on. An admittedly perfunctory search has not enabled us to find this statement in Plato. But it seems to us quite consistent with his method of teaching. Certainly Plato did not mean that the position of the world of ideas could be defined in terms of miles distance and degrees of latitude and longitude. He meant that this world was doubly inaccessible to our observation and, therefore, as good as nowhere. This was Plato's way of making it clear that an eidos could neither be felt, nor seen, nor heard; that our senses could never discover it by any means whatever, direct or indirect; in a word, that it was non-material. We are convinced that Plato knew well enough that a thing which is non-material lacks all the attributes of Matter including those which can be measured in terms of distances and angles and that he, therefore, did not mean his geographical statement about the world of ideas to be taken literally.

Perhaps Plato would have been less perfectly understood if he had expressed himself with a more pedantic accuracy. Had he said that the world of ideas was nowhere his students might have thought that there was no such world. The distinction between "nowhere" and "not" may have presented great difficulties to the ancient Greeks. It certainly presents great difficulties to us moderns.

When we leave Platonic ideas and come to consider specifications we find. that it can be argued with plausibility both that they are subjective and that they are objective, both that they are material and that they are non-material.

We say rightly that a thought is subjective. It cannot be without a thinker; its existence depends on an individual. In this sense the specifications for buildings and. machines would have to be called subjective. They arise out of the thoughts of individuals, their existence depends on individuals. The one to which St. Paul's Cathedral was built originated in the mind of Sir Christopher Wren.

But once this specification had come into being it led an existence independent of its creator; so much so, indeed, that it could have been effective even if commencement of the work had been delayed for years, even though Sir Christopher had died or retired before the work was completed. We have to conclude that in one sense a specification has an objective existence.

The proof again that a specification is a material object can appear simple and convincing. In so far as it is a written or printed document with a place on the shelves of an office its material nature is obvious. But even when it is not in documentary form it is easy to argue that it is material and has location. We have already pointed out that the specification for St. Paul's Cathedral existed at one time only in the mind of the architect and that the specification for a clay pot probably never gets further than the potter's mind. But this does not prove that the specification has no material form. Some might assert that Sir Christopher Wren's conceptions were constituted by some characteristic configuration of the molecules in the grey matter of his brain. From such considerations it would seem idle to contend that a specification is non-material.

Yet this suggestion can be justified quite convincingly and without recourse to hair-splitting metaphysical niceties. One need only remember that one and the same specification can exist in a variety of different ways. It is the same specification if written on different paper in different characters, if translated into another tongue, whether its requirements be presented in words, drawings or models, or only in the condition of the cerebral cells of some person. Yet we all know that one and the same material thing cannot exist simultaneously in a variety of shapes.

And here is another similar argument. The specification may be preserved in a number of copies. One of these may be kept in the architect's office, another with the builder and a third with the clerk of works. Yet there is only one specification. Here we have one in three and three in one in a different sense to that used by theologians. But the allusions may not be wholly irrelevant. For the solution of the puzzle concerning the Church's conception of the Trinity is based on the fact that God is non-material. And in the same way we are led to assert that a specification is non-material. A material object cannot be in three places at once. And a non-material thing can, by definition, not be anywhere at all.

Here we have some contradictions which did not trouble Plato. And some interesting questions arise. Is the concept "specification" a complex one having some objective and some subjective aspects, some material and some non-material ones? Or is it an ambiguous term which sometimes means one thing, sometimes another? Ought we to distinguish between the specification itself and the record of the work to be done? Are the documents not part of the specification at all but only the means of recreating this in the minds of those who read the documents? Is it conceivable that a specification could exist which had no material representation at all, neither in a document, nor in a drawing, nor in a model, nor in someone's brain cells, nor in any other place?

No doubt the contradictions can be resolved and the questions answered. We might attempt to do so ourselves. But we should not be satisfied with the result. We distrust facile ways out of a logical dilemma and, in our opinion, the riddles and questions we have just propounded belong to an important section of metaphysics with which we are not qualified to deal.

Neither do we need to do so. For our argument does not depend on our ability to prove either the subjective or the objective aspect of the specifications to which the organic world conforms, either their material or non-material character. We are content to concede that these specifications are just like those with which architects and engineers are acquainted in so far as that they can only be effective if they are represented as material records of the work to be done. If we conclude that living organisms are specified we must adopt vitalism whether the specifications exist as material objects or not.

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