SCIENCE     versus     MATERIALISM

by     Reginald O. Kapp

SECTION I - CLEARING THE GROUND

Chapter III - MATERIALISM


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 taboo.

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 "no".

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 list.

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 illustrate this.

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 inquiry."

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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