SCIENCE     versus     MATERIALISM

by     Reginald O. Kapp

SECTION III - THE MATERIAL UNIVERSE

Chapter XXIV - THE PHILOSOPHY OF EMERGENCE


WE reject mechanism because it is based on absurd theories about the nature of Matter. As an engineer we know that it is not in the nature of Matter unaided to fall into the form of machines. It has been claimed that more recent materialistic theories avoid the errors of mechanism. These can conveniently be grouped under the single title of the philosophy of emergence, for they differ more in name than in substance. Among them are emergent vitalism which has been advocated by Lloyd Morgan, the methodological vitalism of J. A. Thomson and the holism of Smuts. They all have their roots in the metaphysics of Samuel Alexander.

We have examined these more recent theories in the hope that we might be able to find them more acceptable to an engineer than mechanism can ever be. But we have been disappointed. We have been obliged to conclude that the philosophy of emergence, which may be valuable in its proper sphere of metaphysics, has been forced into a service for which it is quite unsuited.

It is a merit in the newer theories that living organisms are recognized as more than machines and that the reality of Mind and sometimes also of God is accepted. These things are denied by mechanists. But in these theories concepts like Mind and God are all attributed to the unaided action of Matter on Matter. This school rejects, to use Lloyd Morgan's words, "anything of the nature of Entelechy or Elan - any insertion into physico-chemical evolution of an alien influence". John Lewis, who is a follower of this school, says in his Introduction to Philosophy on page 32: "When we find living matter we do not conclude that it consists of matter plus life, but that life is one of the forms of matter itself; that matter organized according to a particular pattern exhibits the properties of hfe."

An engineer is not likely to find more acceptable than mechanism a doctrine which asserts that Matter unaided can produce more, much more than machines; that it can produce also Mind and even a Deity. The accomplishment required to produce a machine is considerable, but the accomplishments with which the "newer and better" materialists credit Matter are stupendous. The "improvement" brought about during the last half century is in the spinning of ever more fantastic theories about the nature of Matter.

These theories are permeating a large section of thought. We have rarely opened a recent book purporting to enlighten us about the nature of the Universe (with the exception of those written by physicists) which has not shown the influence of the philosophy of emergence in a form which, we feel sure, must be a distortion of its original metaphysical presentation. A number of trained philosophers as well as the amateurs advocate these applications of the philosophy of emergence to the problems presented by the organic world. And we have searched in vain for any effective criticism. While Professor Stebbing has exposed the fallacies of some physicist-philosophers, the far more serious fallacies in those who force the philosophy of emergence into the service of materialism seem to have passed unchallenged. Yet it seems to us very necessary that the naive crudities of this preposterous use of philosophy should be pointed out, and a suitable occasion presents itself while we are considering the nature of the Material Universe.

The philosophy of emergence, when applied to our theme derives from a recognition of the distinction between those properties of any given system which are possessed by its component parts and those properties which are due only to the relations between the component parts. It is claimed that the things which mechanists fail to explain can be explained in terms of the latter class of property. The whole philosophy is made up of three interdependent parts. The first is the theory that Matter conforms universally to a principle of organization. It is used to explain the existence of living organisms. This theory has been constructed in recognition of the fact that a complete theory of the nature of reality must start, not with the origin of properties but with the origin of the systems possessing the properties. If the properties of living organisms are attributed to the structure of their bodies, this structure cannot, in turn, be attributed to the properties. In the philosophy of emergence it is attributed to the nature of Matter.

The essence of the second theory is that a physico-chemical interpretation of the organic world is inadequate. Properties are said to emerge from the relatedness between the parts of a configuration which could not have been predicted. Hence, it is claimed, the laws of physics and chemistry do not suffice to explain those qualities which emerge from the structure of a living organism. This theory has been constructed in recognition of the need to account for true novelty. As distinguished from mechanists, followers of this school believe in unpredictable events. The third theory is that the properties which emerge from the relatedness between the component parts of an organism cause and control all its activities.

We have on several occasions, quoted passages in which the first of these three theories is expressed. There is Broad's concise interpretation expressed in the words that Matter has a natural tendency to fall into the form of organisms, and his further suggestion that there is a general tendency for complexes of one order under suitable conditions to form complexes of a higher order. There is Smuts's behef expressed in his book Holism that material systems always tend to form wholes. There is Needham's apparent belief in a cosmic drill-sergeant and Benjamin Moore's law of complexity quoted on page 106,( Click here) a quotation which the reader should study carefully again. We can also quote J. B. S. Haldane who said on page 117 of Materialism: "The physical universe appears to us as a universe of atoms, electrons and protons, but in the very manner of their existence these units imply inherent coordinations." And on page 120 he said: "It seems to me that the actual general picture presented to us by physical science is of a Universe from which chaotic activity of every sort is progressively disappearing, and that this picture harmonizes with the conception of biological evolution or the religious conception of the universe as a progressive manifestation of God's activity."

Strange, we say to ourselves, that it should have been left to biologists and philosophers to discover this great principle of nature. Physicists must be very remiss not to have mentioned it in their text-books. They must have had plenty of opportunities of observing the operation of this principle. If the tendency of Matter to fall into the form of organisms operates everywhere, the constellations must be far better organized now than they were at an earlier period in the world's history. Astronomers ought to tell us about it. And if the tendency to form higher and higher complexes has been in operation since the beginning of time there can be hardly any low ones left by now. Most of the complexes which fill our Universe must have become very high indeed. The cosmic drill-sergeant must have brought Matter to a state of discipline which the Prussians might well envy. Are our physicists blind, that they have not noticed all these goings on?

Why do those who work in the Cavendish Laboratories neglect to perform such experiments as would demonstrate the truth of these aspects of the philosophy of emergence? They ought to place a number of objects in a test-tube (or a cauldron or whatever may be the proper vessel for the demonstration) and observe how such a collection confirms the theory by falling into the form of an organism. Or if, at the first attempt, the form of an organism did not result, perhaps a higher complex would. The experiment ought, at least, to confirm the holism of Smuts. The collection of objects might be expected to fall into a better whole.

Of course, a philosopher of the emergent school would have to be present to interpret the results. For we doubt, we very much doubt, whether a physicist would recognize a higher complex when he saw one. These philosophers classify all things according to a scale of complexity in some such sequence as electrons and protons, atoms, small molecules, large molecules, unicellular organisms, multicellular organisms. But we have failed to discover by what criterion one configuration is said to be more complex than another; why, for instance, a large molecule should be more complex than a small one or a molecule more complex than an atom.

The criterion might be the number and diversity of the constituent parts. A large molecule can be sub-divided into more bits than a small one and these bits are more varied. But a large heap of stones contains more components than a small heap, and yet we do not think that anyone would say that the larger the heap the higher the complex. Believers in the philosophy of emergence would probably not say that a heap of stones was more of a whole than a single stone. Yet they do say that the collection of atoms which forms a molecule is more complex than a single atom. They must believe that the collection of atoms in a molecule meets some criterion of complexity which the collection of stones in a heap does not meet. But we do not know what this criterion is.

Without the help of our amateur philosophers, moreover, research workers might overlook laws which are so unlike those to which they are accustomed. Moore said that the law of complexity is manifest with varying intensity in different types of matter. According to Broad's interpretations of these amateurs suitable conditions are needed before the law can operate by which complexes of one order form complexes of a higher order. And even when the conditions are suitable Broad speaks of no more than a tendency for the complexes to form on a higher level. Similarly he mentions only a tendency for Matter to fall into the form of organisms.

Physicists have not yet learnt to attach any meaning to the notion that a law is manifest with varying intensity. According to the law of gravitation the force between two bodies is always proportional to the product of their masses. It is not sometimes more and sometimes less than this product. Physicists only apply the word "intensity" to an effect, as when they speak of a force in terms of pounds per square inch.

Nor are physicists familiar with principles which operate only under suitable conditions or which do no more than tend to operate. No self-contained system has been excused from observing the first law of thermo-dynamics on the plea that the conditions were unsuitable. Nor does a self-contained system only tend to conserve its energy. If it did only tend to do so it might sometimes conserve but a portion. The principle of conservation of energy operates as completely as can be verified by the most accurate measurements. Perhaps these are the reasons why physicists cannot perceive those aspects of the behaviour of Matter which have been revealed to the finer imagination of the emergent vitalists. It is clear that a few properly selected philosophers, both amateur and professional, ought to be attached to the Cavendish Laboratories!

It may be said that we are wrong to take so literally what the philosophers of the emergent school say. Perhaps so. But let them translate their assertions into terms which do not lay them open to ridicule and they will be left with mere commonplaces, not worth saying. They will then tell us that Matter does not always fall into the form of organisms and that it is only known to do so in the presence of Life. They will discover that there is no more sense in saying that Matter tends to fall into the form of organisms because it sometimes does so than there would be in saying that meteorites tend to fall into people's backyards because one may occasionally fall in such a place. They will realize that Matter which flies about in the inorganic world becomes associated into molecules when the conditions are favourable for the formation of molecules and dissociated into atoms when the conditions are favourable for dissociation; that Matter sometimes adopts intricate-looking configurations and sometimes simple-looking ones and that there is exactly the same justification for propounding a law of simplicity as for propounding a law of complexity; that there is no more complexity in the inorganic world today than there was a thousand million years ago. But to admit all this would be to destroy the foundations of this whole philosophy.

Believing that a law of complexity holds throughout space and with varying intensity, philosophers of the emergent school also believe that this law leads to forms intermediate between those which, without hesitation, we should call living and forms which, without hesitation, we should call lifeless. It is asserted that such intermediate forms existed when Life was beginning to appear on earth and it is frequently suggested that viruses may be such intermediate forms.

We have met this suggestion frequently and it has led us to wonder what an intermediate form would be like. The suggestion implies a reason to believe that viruses may have some of those features which are held to be characteristics of an intermediate form. We have tried to discover what those features may be, but without success. We cannot conceive of any criterion by which we could recognize an intermediate form if we met it. Nor has anyone been able to enlighten us. Such a form must either possess some of the attributes of living organisms and lack others, or it must possess the attributes to a reduced degree. Either suggestion amounts to a logical absurdity as must appear as soon as we leave abstractions and consider concrete possibilities.

Powers of reproduction and need for nourishment are among the attributes of living organisms most frequently mentioned. If we found things which needed nourishment but did not reproduce their kind we should not call them intermediate forms. We should regard them as quite alive, but sterile. Suppose, then, we found things which did not need nourishment. Unable to increase their bulk they would not, of course, reproduce their kind. Would we call these intermediate forms? Would we say that, like the bread-and- butter fly in Alice, they always die? Or would we say that, like old soldiers in the famous song, they never die? Of course not. We should say that, like pebbles, they were never alive.

If we were to find that other attributes were omitted we should reach similar conclusions. We should either say that the things were completely alive in spite of the lack of these attributes, or that they were completely lifeless. We cannot pick out any attributes from a list of those said to be characteristic of living organisms, lack of which would constitute the criterion for an intermediate state.

We fare no better if we try to describe an intermediate form in terms of the degree to which any of the attributes of living organisms are manifest. If things need only a little nourishment, we do not call them intermediate forms, we call them living organisms with a low rate of metabolism. No one can prepare a description, however fantastic, of a thing which could conceivably be called an intermediate form. Those mechanists who declare that one can make no distinction between living and lifeless things are mistaken. But their logic is better than that of emergent vitalists who claim not only that there is a distinction between living and lifeless things but even that there are fine grades of distinction between things which are wholly and things which are partly alive. We have to conclude that those who speak of intermediate forms use words which have no meaning for anyone, themselves included.

We come now to the second component part of the newer materialistic theories. Its starting point is so obvious that no one would quarrel with it. This is that any assembly is something more than the sum of the items of which it is composed. It has properties (sometimes also called "qualities") which are not implicit in the component parts but which are due to the configuration. These properties are called emergents. To take a crude example, a house has properties which are not implicit in the bricks of which it is built. These are due to the way in which the bricks are put together, to their relatedness. They are called emergent qualities. Similarly a pudding has a different taste to the taste of its ingredients; the properties of chemical compounds differ from those of the constituent atoms. John Lewis quotes as an example the taste of the combination of sodium and chlorine which forms common salt. In a living organism the component substances are assembled in a distinctive way, and distinctive properties emerge, of course, from the mode of assembly.

We can well believe that a distinction between the relatedness of things and the things themselves is essential to a sound metaphysics and that, with the help of this distinction, the trained philosopher can lead us far towards an understanding of the nature of reality. We feel sure, though we are hardly qualified to express an opinion, that those pioneers of thought who have, in recent decades, introduced the concept "emergence" have done a great and lasting service. But, unfortunately, new concepts are liable to be played with like new toys and they are then sometimes spoiled.

This has happened to the concept "emergence". We have just seen how without logical or scientific justification a law of complexity has been grafted on to the concept. To the doctrine that properties emerge from the way in which things are arranged the doctrine has been added that things arrange themselves in such ways that specific properties may emerge. Similarly the further doctrine has been grafted on to this concept that the laws of physics and chemistry do not enable one to predict all the qualities of a new inorganic configuration. Lloyd Morgan said that emergence "does not interpret life in terms of physics and chemistry".

According to his school, the various properties arising from the combination of individual parts are of two kinds called respectively resultants and emergents. Resultants are defined as properties which can be predicted before the combination comes into being and emergents as properties which cannot be predicted either with the help of the laws of physics and chemistry or by any other means whatever. Examples will make the distinction clearer.

If two pound weights are put together, the combined weight of two pounds, being predictable, is called a resultant. But suppose one could not predict the taste of a pudding made in a given manner from given ingredients, then the taste of the pudding would be called an emergent. Lloyd Morgan said:

"The essential feature of a mechanical, or, if it be preferred, a mechanistic interpretation, is that it is in terms of resultant effects only, calculable by algebraic summation. It ignores the something more that must be accepted as emergent. It regards a chemical compound as only a more complex mechanical mixture, without any new kind of relatedness of its constituents. It regards life as a regrouping of physico-chemical events with no new kind of relatedness expressed in an integration which seems, on the evidence, to mark a new departure in the passage of natural events. Against such a mechanical interpretation - such a mechanistic dogma - emergent evolution rises in protest. The gist of its contention is that such an interpretation is quite inadequate. Resultants there are, but there is emergence also."

It must be noted that emergent evolution does not rise in protest against a mechanistic interpretation of living Matter only. It ascribes emergent properties to any arrangement, for instance, to those of the electrons in an atom, those of any given group of atoms, or molecules, or lifeless particles of any sort whatever. It does not assert that emergence begins at the stage of complexity manifested by living substance, but that it occurs everywhere. Lloyd Morgan claimed, for instance, that a complete knowledge of the molecules of a substance in a vaporous condition would not enable the liquid or solid condition of that substance to be predicted. Broad denies that the chemical behaviour of any elementary substance could be predicted without experiment. He says in The Mind and Its Place in Nature on page 63: "Nothing that we know about hydrogen itself or in its combination with anything but oxygen would give us the least reason to expect that it would combine with oxygen at all."

Believing this. Broad says that the law connecting the properties of a compound with its component elements and with the structure of the compound is, so far as we know, a unique and ultimate law. From the context it is clear that he means the same as we do when we say kurma law. This suggests one reason (additional to the need to explain true novelty mentioned above) why followers of the emergent school are anxious to emphasize that some properties arising from a configuration are unpredictable. As we find innumerable kurma laws when we study the organic world the distinction between this and the inorganic world can only be made to disappear if we find innumerable kurma laws in the latter too.

However, both Lloyd Morgan and Broad are wrong in their facts. A complete knowledge of the molecules of a substance in a vaporous condition would enable the liquid or solid condition of that substance to be predicted. The physical properties of liquids and solids depends on the way in which the molecules are packed when they shake down, and this is known if the shape of the molecules is known. The molecules of an oil, for instance, are long and cling firmly to each other, side by side, so that a collection of them tends to be grouped in layers like the stalks in a cornfield. But the ends cling less firmly and easily lose their hold. Consequently one layer slides easily over another. This explains why oil spreads over the surface of water and why it is a good lubricant. A physicist who discovered a vapour consisting of long molecules with the appropriate distribution of clinging power at the sides and ends could predict the lubricating properties of that substance in the liquid state.

The other example already quoted from Broad is that the power of hydrogen to combine with oxygen could not be predicted. This example is as unfortunate as the one given by Lloyd Morgan. The fact that the hydrogen atom has a single satellite electron and that the outer ring of the oxygen atom lacks two electrons for perfect screening would enable a physicist to predict that two atoms of hydrogen would combine with one of oxygen. It is possible to predict the chemical behaviour of any substance from a knowledge of the number of unit charges carried by its atomic nuclei.

It might have been less easy to detect the error if Lloyd Morgan and Broad had chosen other examples. Physicists do not always predict what will emerge from a new relatedness arising out of a new assembly of parts. But this is only because they are not infallible, not because new configurations create new unpredictable properties with objective meaning. If they did so, the very foundations of physics would be shattered. It is part of the physicist's faith that if he has complete knowledge of all the conditions existing in a given system he can predict everything objectively true about its nature. It is a faith that has been repeatedly justified by results. For instance, the nature and chemical properties of the element Hafnium were predicted before the substance was discovered. It was known from the periodic table of elements that there must be a hitherto undiscovered substance with atoms having a certain characteristic configuration; and it was predicted that certain properties would attach to this configuration. When the substance was discovered the predicted properties were found to belong to it. Physicists did not expect and did not find any unpredictable "emergent" properties.

Are we then to conclude that there are no properties which physical, science cannot predict? Certainly not. Physical science has its limitations. Only that which depends entirely on the thing observed is fully predictable. But there is much which also depends on the observer. No physicist can predict this, for he does not know enough about the observer. He calls the properties which depend on the observer subjective to distinguish them from the objective ones which depend on the thing observed. He has no difficulty whatever in showing that no objective property is unpredictable and that none, therefore, earns the name "emergent", in the sense given it by Lloyd Morgan.

Therefore, John Lewis is right in his facts and wrong in the conclusion that these facts support the philosophy of emergence when he says on page 70 of his "The taste of the combination of sodium (a metal) and chlorine (a poisonous gas) is something unique - it is the taste of the compound, which is common salt. A chord in music is more than the sum of its parts." It is quite true that it is not possible to predict what a pudding made with untried ingredients will taste like. The taste of the pudding is, therefore, to be classed as an emergent. But the reason why it is unpredictable is that the problem contains an unknown element separate from the ingredients. This is the palate and nature of the person who is to eat the pudding. Similarly what we call the taste of sodium chloride depends on the human palate. Whatever examples we investigate we are always brought to the same result: that all properties called "emergent" are unpredictable, because they depend on an observer. When the properties of Hafnium were predicted from what was known of the configuration of its atom at least one thing about it could not be predicted in that way. This was its name. What it would be called depended on something other than the configuration. All true emergents are like this. In fact, "resultant" appears to be nothing but another word for objective property, and "emergent" another word for subjective property.

The third of the theories which have been grafted on to the sound root of the philosophy of emergence is that a great many other things emerge from the relatedness between the parts of an assembly besides properties. The capacity of living organisms to assimilate food, to act in self-defence, to reproduce their kind have all been classed as emergents. Some followers of this school go even further, as is shown by the following passage from Lloyd Morgan: "In a physical system where life has emerged, the way things happen is raised to a higher plane. In an organism within which consciousness is emergent a new course of events depends on its presence. In a person to whom reflective thought is emergent, behaviour is sustained at a higher level. If the quality of deity be supervenient, the plane of conduct is yet higher."

In this short passage we are told that Life, consciousness, reflective thought and the quality of deity are all emergents. This is much to attribute to the relatedness between the component parts of a configuration.. John Lewis's contention is similar in the remark: "When we discover that matter itself has the potentiality of new properties, including thought itself, when it takes on new patterns, the concept of a force acting in matter can be discarded." For "discover" he ought to have said "indulge in the pleasant fantasy," for no such discovery has been made. At the moment we are, however, more interested in the glib assumption that thought is a property.

It is obvious that those properties which can be attributed to relatedness are only things, like colour, taste, hardness, ductility, electrical conductivity. These are abstract nouns derived from adjectives. They define what things are like. But the problems which followers of the emergent school claim to solve are not concerned with what things are, but with what they do. Abstract nouns derived from verbs are added, with no justification, to the list of emergents. Not only the colour of a bird's plumage but also its instinct for self-preservation is attributed to nothing but the relatedness between the constituent molecules, not only qualities but also behaviour, not only the nature of the Universe but also God's control of it.

It is bold, indeed, to assume that the little word "emergent" can embrace with one broad sweep all things between heaven and earth. And the slender basis of this grand audacity is simply that appearances depend on structure! Yet we have not been able to discover so much as a hint that those who make this assumption are aware of the enormous jump their reasoning takes when it arrives at one bound from properties to achievements. The system which the new materialism has derived from the philosophy of emergence depends for its plausibihty on obscuring the difference between the concept "being" and the concept "doing".

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