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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Top of Page