WHEN the present author had asked himself - but not yet
answered - the question whether Matter is the only reality, he
consulted his friends among biologists. He went to biologists
because he realized that, as an engineer, his best hope of finding
an answer he could understand was to study the controversy
between vitalism and materialism.
The author was always told that vitalism was dead, killed by
the progress of science. He was often told this with some
vehemence. When, in a spirit of innocent inquiry, he asked
for more details he was often met with a little impatience. He
realized that many biologist-philosophers felt strongly on the
subject. At the same time he learnt that there was ample
authority for the answers he received. He was given the names
of many eminent biologist-philosophers who had proved in
their books that vitalism was dead, who were still writing
books in which they proved it.
The author was a little puzzled by so much insistence. If
vitalism were so very dead, it seemed to him, there would be
no need to disclaim it so loudly and so often. If no serious
opponents to materialism were left, there would be no call to
be ever ready for battle. Vitalism might be dead, thought
the author, but its ghost must be tough to haunt biological
circles so insistently. In other words, the emphasis with which
his questions were answered had the unintended effect of
making the present author critical. He suspected that the
evidence against vitalism might not be so strong after all.
He put his doubts to a young biologist of a serious but unphilosophical turn of mind. "I am not interested," was the
reply. "But I can tell you this. There are more vitalists about
than one would ever suspect, particularly among the older
biologists. But, of course, they keep their views dark. I will
not mention any names, but you should hear what Sir ---
thinks about them." Evidently vitalism was something to be
ashamed of. A sort of vice which assails old men when their
mental powers are failing, a sin against the Holy Ghost of the
biologist's Credo. A biologist seemed to regard a man who
holds vitalist theories much as an engineer regards a man
who takes out patents for perpetual motion machines. Rather
than describe vitalism as dead, it appeared, one ought to call it
The next step taken was to look at as many of the recommended books as could be obtained. The author bought a few
and borrowed others. To gain an insight into the past history
of the subject he joined the London Library and spent stimulating afternoons in its narrow canyons between towering and
crowded shelves labelled "biology" and "philosophy", taking
down any likely-looking volume and reading as he stood, a
little conscious that as an engineer he had no business to be
there at all. He followed up references in other libraries. He
cultivated an eye for relevant passages in the columns of Nature
and other periodicals.
He was surprised at the large number of distinguished
biologists who have disclaimed their belief in vitalism. It
showed that, while an engineer-philosopher is an oddity,
biologist-philosophers are numerous. Even in books and
papers written by specialists on their own subjects, allusion
to the controversy would appear here and there, in a preface,
a footnote, an occasional paragraph. Sometimes the writer's
point of view was stated explicitly; more often it was tacitly
assumed, as the only one which could be accepted by scientists.
It became evident that most writers on biology had thought
about the nature of Life and made up their minds.
Gradually the present author became steeped in the attitude
of biologists towards the nature of Matter in general and the
nature of Life in particular. Accounts of what he learned will
occur in this book from time to time as occasion arises, but it
will be convenient for the reader to have a brief summary here
and now of the reasons which have led most biologists to reject
vitalism even though we shall sometimes have to repeat matter
from this chapter later on when we come to discuss various
aspects of our problem in fuller detail.
The objections which biologist-philosophers have against
vitalism are threefold. They consider firstly that there are
better alternatives, secondly that there is strong evidence
against vitalism, and thirdly that there is no evidence for it.
Some of the more cautious and open-minded biologists confine
themselves to the third objection. We ourselves would consider this quite sufficient if we could agree that there was no
evidence for vitalism. But we propose to show later on in this
book that there is a great deal.
We must confess that when we started our investigation we
thought that the only alternative to vitalism was the doctrine
known as mechanism. But we have since learnt that, while
mechanism is the oldest school of materialism, there are also
several other more recent ones to which we have already
referred in Chapter 1. These go by a variety of names, such
as emergent vitalism, holism, methodological vitalism. There
is a further theory which was propounded by the late J. S.
Haldane to which no specific name seems to have been given.
We shall have to consider in due course the differences
between these various schools in so far as the differences help
to clarify our problem. But we need not do so just yet. For
at the moment we are concerned only with the answer they
give to the question whether there are any influences separate
from the Material Universe. To this question they all answer
The consequences of this answer have been stated clearly
and fully by biologist-philosophers and others and could, no
doubt, be conveyed entirely in the form of quotations drawn
from various sources. But quotations make dull reading,
duller often outside their context than in it. Besides, in the
course of our reading too many books went back on to their
shelves, too many periodicals into the waste-paper basket from
which we failed to copy appropriate passages. Life is full of
lost opportunities, though that is hardly an excuse for our
remissness. We must be prepared to admit that engineers are
less diligent in making copies of interesting passages than those
accustomed to historical or philosophical work.
We must, therefore, limit the number of quotations we
bring and amplify them in our own words, hoping that when
we state what is implied in the rejection of vitalism we may
say only what our opponents can agree to.
We have found a lucid and well-balanced statement in
Bastian, a distinguished physiologist of a past generation.
Though biologist-philosophers may now regard much of his
philosophy as out-of-date, we believe that they would all
endorse what he says on page 21 in Chapter II of his book,
Nature and Origin of Living Matter:
"Each material body has properties of its own - properties which.
are due to its molecular constitutionand which make it what we
know it to be. Certain of the objects around us, for instance, have a
power of assimilation, of growing, of developing, and of reproducing their kind. Bodies possessing such properties have been
arbitrarily named 'living' bodies and the word 'life' has been used
as a mental symbol connoting the sum total of the properties which
distinguish such bodies from the members of the other great class
whose representatives do not possess them. These properties are
undoubtedly of a much higher and more subtle nature than those
of non-living matter, but it should be distinctly understood that they
are as much dependent upon the mere qualities and nature of the
material aggregate which displays them, as the properties of a metal
or the properties of a crystal are the results of the nature and mode
of collocation of the atoms of which such bodies are composed.
"Putting it more plainly, we may say that the phenomena
manifested by living things are dependent upon the properties and
molecular activities of a particular kind of matter known as protoplasm, just as mental phenomena are dependent upon the properties
and molecular activities of nerve tissues and just as magnetic phenomena are dependent upon the properties and molecular activities
of certain kinds of states of iron. And though generalized conceptions of these several kinds of phenomena have been embodied
in the terms life', 'mind', and 'magnetism' respectively, neither
of which corresponds with any independent existence, yet regarded
as ultimate facts, we are just as impotent to 'explain' the relation,
or nexus of causation, existing between magnetic phenomena and
the one set of molecular activities, as we are to 'explain' the relation
between the phenomena presented by the simplest forms of life'
and the molecular constitution and activities of protoplasm."
Where Bastian said that the phenomena manifested by living
things are dependent on the properties and molecular activities
of protoplasm we believe that mechanists, emergent vitalists
and others would all prefer to say "wholly dependent", and we
believe that they would all agree to much more than Bastian
said in the above-quoted passage. The minimum consequences
from the view that there are no active influences separate from
the Material Universe are that there is no essential difference
between the organic and inorganic worlds; that all vital
phenomena are wholly the result of physical forces; that the
finely featured patterns forming living bodies are entirely
originated and maintained by the unaided action of Matter
on Matter; that living forms escape destruction because they
operate as completely automatic machines; that the properties
of organic bodies result from the properties of Matter in
general. All opponents of vitalism would also claim that the
behaviour of living things can be fully explained and described
in terms of the pushes and pulls exercised by material forces
on their component parts, complemented possibly by the
influences with which quantum physics is concerned; that no
agent or principle occurs in living bodies which cannot also
be found in non-living systems; that the laws studied by
biologists are nothing but special applications of those governing the behaviour of the whole of the Material Universe.
Materialists would further all agree to the view that a full
explanation of Life and Mind and of everything pertaining
thereto could be stated in terms of physics and chemistry if
sufficient were known about the physical and chemical processes operating, and that all mental phenomena are wholly
accessible to physical methods and could, given suitable
apparatus and an appropriate technique, be observed, measured
and recorded. It is a tenet of every materialist creed that if
particles of matter were so assembled as to form an exact copy
of a living organism, the result would be a living organism.
If, according to this philosophy, the exact likeness of a man
could be constructed in a laboratory, the result would be indistinguishable from a man born of woman. It would display
the same type of behaviour, possess the same instincts, reflexes,
thoughts and aspirations. We must infer that, according to
every form of materialism, it would also have similar
memories, though the rest of us would know such memories
to be delusions.
Some biologist-philosophers insist that the answer "no" has
other more far-reaching implications. When we asked which
writers had most effectively disposed of vitalism we were
frequently advised to study J. B. Watson, the founder of
the materialistic school known as "Behaviourism." Adherents
of this school believe that the study of animal and human
behaviour suffices to prove materialism. On page 17 of his book
called after his doctrine Behaviourism, Watson says that this
doctrine is gradually superseding introspective psychology,
functional psychology, philosophy, ethics, social psychology,
sociology, religion, psycho-analysis. We have strictly preserved
the order in which the various items appear in J. B. Watson's
Behaviour is not the only field of study for which such
sweeping claims are made. Hogben, another biologist-philosopher whom we were recommended to read, attaches
significance to research into the labyrinthine organ. This
organ is situated in the ear and enables creatures to maintain
their balance. On page 223 of his book. The Nature of Living
Substance, he says:
"The system of Descartes was finally overthrown by the evolutionary theory. The system of Kant is predestined to a similar
doom when professional philosophers are prepared to face the disquieting consequences of modern research into the labyrinthine
organ' and Sherrington's work on muscular sense."
Hogben's book contains many similar passages. On reading
it one infers that nasty shocks are in store for most philosophers
from Aristotle down to those of the present day once the "disquieting consequences" of sundry recent biological discoveries
have been appreciated.
It would be easy to make fun of the exuberance and dogmatism shown by Watson and Hogben, and most biologist-philosophers adopt a more dignified and restrained presentation
of their views. Nor do they usually attack rehgion and the
great philosophers in this forthright fashion.
But we must remember that all other biologist-philosophers
who declare that no non-material reality ever aids or influences
the behaviour of Matter imply thereby everything which
writers like Watson and Hogben assert. Anyone who is honest
with himself cannot both deny non-material reality and adopt
any doctrine which postulates non-material reality. Christianity
constitutes belief in a God who guides and controls the course
of events here and now. It insists that this God is non-material.
Many philosophies insist that Mind and the Soul are non-material. Few philosophies, indeed, and fewer rehgions attribute everything around and within us to the unaided action of
Matter on Matter. If biological discoveries did really prove
that Matter is the only reality it would be quite true that all the
theologians and most of the philosophers have been wrong,
and it would be the duty of scientists to say so to the world.
In spite of these obvious facts each new doctrine propounded
by biologist-philosophers as an alternative to vitalism is commonly welcomed as less extreme than mechanism. Though
its followers deny non-material reality as emphatically as the
most dogmatic mechanist has ever done it is said to constitute
"no crude materialism". Such claims have been made in turn
for emergent vitalism, holism, methodological vitalism and all
other ways of asserting the belief that things are never subjected
to non-material influences.
How can these doctrines be less extreme than mechanism?
To the question whether there are influences separate from the
Material Universe one person can say "no" with more hesitation than another; he can give clearer or more convincing
reasons for his answer; he can be more or less dogmatic. But
how can the word "no" be sometimes more and sometimes
less extreme? Perhaps it can when used by a diplomat. Then
this little word may have subtle shades of meaning which an
engineer would miss. But here we are concerned only with a
question of simple fact. The engineer can justify his literal-mindedness when he insists that only two answers are possible
and that each can have only one meaning.
And what does it mean to say that the answer "no" constitutes "no crude materialsm"? Can this answer be rendered
more palatable to the theologian by disguising it with an
idealistic sauce? Can any one ever hope to squeeze belief in
a non-material God into the doctrine that there is no non-material reality of any sort? Those who pretend that to deny
that Matter is ever controlled by non-material influences is no
crude materialism are merely dodging the consequences of
their doctrine in the hope of making the best of both worlds.
We certainly disagree with writers like Watson and Hogben.
But as an engineer accustomed to plain statements we can still
respect the honesty of men who do not flinch from the "disquieting consequences" of their doctrine.
However, the point we have to consider is not whether the
answer "no" can by any ingenuity be made to solve the
conflict between science and rehgion, but whether the answer
"no" is right or wrong.
With this question we come to the second of the biologist-philosopher's objections to vitalism, namely that there is
evidence against it. He tells us that this evidence is furnished
by science, and when asked which science, he answers "biology". The branches of biology most frequently mentioned
are physiology, behaviour and genetics. A few quotations will
In the book already referred to Hogben says on page 26:
"Moral philosophy can no longer claim that there is any aspect
of the Nature of Life which is beyond the province of physiological
Discussing the effect of biological discoveries on vitalist
theories, A. S. Russell says in The Listener of 20th September
193 3, on page 411:
"Every year, however, the mechanical attack covers more and
more of the field, where the opposing view has been dominant."
In a book review in Nature of 4th March 1933. page 314, the
late E. F. Armstrong said:
"We may ask the question: Is the human body a mere machine
governed wholly by
the principles of physics and chemistry?
Whenever it is understood, the answer is in the affirmative, and
such work as that of Pavlov has extended our positive knowledge
into the field of the control of the nervous reflexes. The growth of
science has largely swept away the belief of the traditionalist, but
vital principles may still lurk in processes not completely understood."
In Nature of 25th November 1933 we read on page 801: "Even
the mysteries of creative power are becoming less occult
through the good offices of Drosophila". Breeding experiments with Drosophila flies, be it explained, have done much
to increase our knowledge of the new science of genetics, a
science originated by the Austrian, Mendel. Others, again,
have found proof of materialism in Pavlov's research on
conditioned reflexes, though we have never been able to discover why it should be of greater philosophical significance
that a dog secretes saliva at the prospect of food in a Russian
laboratory than that he wags his tail at the prospect of food in
an English kitchen.
To an engineer it seems a far cry from, say, the labyrinthine
organ to the solution of a big philosophical problem or from
genetic research on Drosophila flies to the mysteries of creative
power. His plodding mind is not in the habit of holding such
widely different things in close juxtaposition. He can believe
readily enough that there is a connection, but, accustomed as
he is to mathematical forms of proof, an engineer requires
that an argument shall lead from one statement to another by
short and closely reasoned steps. But biologist-philosophers
never seem to take us by such steps. Instead they make long
and disconcerting jumps. They tell us many most interesting
things about the physiology of the blood or the way in which
elliptical discs and other unlikely objects can be used to stimulate the salivary glands of dogs and then, when we have become
thoroughly fascinated, they break off quite suddenly and tell
us that they have just been proving how dead vitalism is. That
is, admittedly, not exactly how their argument proceeds, but
it is the impression left on us when we look back on books we
have studied some time ago and try to recall the course which
the reasoning took.
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