SCIENCE     versus     MATERIALISM

by     Reginald O. Kapp

SECTION I - CLEARING THE GROUND

Chapter IV - WHAT IS THE BIOLOGIST-PHILOSOPHER'S CRITERION?


WHAT in all these interesting and important studies, we ask ourselves every time, is supposed to have killed vitalism? What criterion has been applied to each new achievement by which one may decide whether the discovery supports vitalism or materialism? Until we know what the criterion is we can gain no profit by delving into all these specialized branches of biology. When we have studied the way the semi-circular canals in the labyrinthine organ record variations from the vertical, when we have mastered the intricacies of genetics, when we have learnt exactly what difference in the ratio of the two diameters of an ellipse a dog can appreciate, we shall still not know whether the consequences of all these facts are disquieting or comforting unless we are provided with a criterion by which we may test them.

We are told, for instance, that the canine behaviour investigated with such marvellous care and ingenuity by Pavlov supports materialism. But we ask: How would a dog have to behave in order that what it did was taken to support vitalism? We have read a good deal on the subject but have never found the answer to this question.

Or take another example. Scientists have recently made some very important discoveries in the field of endocrinology. They know now that a man's moods and character are influenced markedly by his endocrine balance. At one time people thought that his moods and character were influenced by the state of his liver. And these ignorant people were often vitalists. Watson and others say that the new knowledge proves how very wrong they were to be vitalists. Why is it vitalism to attribute moods and character to the liver and materialism to attribute them to the endocrine glands? Biologist-philosophers expect us to be very quick- witted.

Engineers have various criteria by which they can test any theory to discover whether it is sound or not. The first law of thermodynamics is one of the most useful of these. Any theory which violates the principle of conservation of energy is known to be false and need not be considered further. Finding that biologists reject vitalism almost as unanimously as engineers reject perpetual motion we assumed that they did so by some corresponding criterion and have been to some trouble to find out what it is. Direct statements of the criterion being so rare, we have had to employ inference very largely and we have reached the conclusion that biologists use three criteria when they tell us that vitalism is incompatible with the facts of science.

The first is dependence on environment, the second is obedience to the laws of physics and chemistry, the third is obedience to any laws, in other words, causality. We have read nothing to suggest that biologist-philosophers apply any other but these three.

We know that dependence on environment is sometimes used as a criterion, for this has been mentioned by the late J. S. Haldane. On page 53 of his book Materialism he wrote:

"The fatal difficulty associated with vitalism is that observation and experiment have shown with ever-increasing clearness that the supposed influence of the vital principle is dependent on what were admitted by the vitalist to be ordinary physical and chemical conditions in the environment. A lack or excess of something (for instance, oxygen or carbon-dioxide) in these conditions, or some abnormality in them, is sufficient, not merely to hinder life for some time, but to pervert or entirely destroy it. . . . In view of all this, biologists have almost unanimously abandoned vitalism as an acknowledged belief, and I do not think that they are ever likely to return to it."

The same is stated more briefly on page 122 of the same book:

"We can easily show by experiment or observation that all the phenomena occurring within the body of a living organism are dependent on surrounding conditions. Vitalism is therefore inconsistent with our experience."

These passages illustrate how strong an influence a fashion may exert. It has become the fashion among biologists to tell us that various recondite discoveries made by specialists reveal some new truth full of philosophical implications. And when we examine this revelation we find that it is something which was never doubted. Everyone knew it already from his everyday experience. Here even so eminent a scientist as the late J. S. Haldane succumbed to the prevailing fashion. He told us, in effect, that science is discovering "with ever-increasing clearness" that we suffocate if we lack air!

Of course we do. Of course we depend on our environment. We cannot with impunity take poison, or walk through flames or stand under a falling chimney pot. Nor can our internal tissues live unless they are bathed by blood in a healthy condition. Cells are highly sensitive to their surroundings. But how does this dependence disprove vitalism? How can one argue that vitalism would only be true if living substances were independent of its environment? If it were we should conclude that living organisms were omnipotent, which has never been suggested. The vitalist assertion that in their passage through the organic world substances are guided by non-material influences does not preclude the self-evident fact that suitable substances must be available including oxygen and that the ability of the tissues to resist external interference or to control its environment is limited. Dependence on environment is indeed a strange criterion.

Anyhow we do not believe that this is the criterion applied by those who tell us that "every year the mechanical attack covers more and more of the field where the opposing view has been dominant." They do not mean that it is being proved more and more that living substance depends on its environment. We think it more likely that they apply the second criterion - obedience to the laws of physics and chemistry. If they do this they would mean that every year more and more instances are found which prove vital processes to conform to these laws. They would then consider the only possible evidence for vitalism to be an occasion when the laws of physics and chemistry were suspended or superseded.

Do any vitalists think that this can ever happen? Perhaps. But we do not know, for we have been unable to find the subject discussed anywhere. But we wish to make it clear that we ourselves do not think so. An engineer is accustomed to find strict conformity to the laws of physics and chemistry in his machines, and naturally expects to find the same in living organisms, as, for that matter, in all things made up of material substance. The true evidence for vitalism is, in our opinion, of a totally different character.

We are so fully convinced that in a living organism the laws of physics and chemistry are always obeyed, that we consider it futile to point so insistently to the accumulating evidence for this provided "every year by the mechanical attack." We believe that no research is needed to prove it; that it is true by definition. For to say that a thing conforms to the laws of physics and chemistry is the same as to say that it exhibits the properties of Matter. These laws tell us what Matter is like and how it behaves everywhere and at all times. It is inevitable that phosphorus in a living organism will behave like phosphorus, nitrogen like nitrogen. If they did not, we should not call these substances phosphorus and nitrogen. We should use other names. And if Matter of any sort did not behave like Matter when in an organism, we should not call it Matter. It, too, would be given a different name. Vitalism (at least the form of vitalism we are advocating) asserts that living matter is called "matter" because it conforms to the laws of physics and chemistry, and that it is called "living" because it conforms to the laws of the non-material influences referred to as Life. How it may conform to two sets of laws is one of the problems which will have to be solved.

There remains the third of the biologist-philosopher's criteria. Some of the facts which they cite against vitalism do not prove at all that the laws of physics and chemistry have been obeyed. Nor do they disprove it. They simply leave the question undecided. The facts of behaviour are an example. These, too, are claimed to make vitalism untenable. When in Pavlov's laboratory a dog secreted saliva at the sight of an elliptical disc something of importance was proved, no doubt. This may have been that there is no sharp distinction between conscious behaviour and physiological reflexes. And the secretion was a chemical process, so there is a law connecting elliptical discs and a certain chemical reaction. But we may look in vain for such a law in textbooks on chemistry. These do not discuss the chemistry of elliptical discs as catalysers.

All that is proved by the facts of behaviour as well as by many other biological discoveries is that certain physical and chemical changes occur in conformity to some sort of a law which may or may not be a law of physics or chemistry. When biologist-philosophers make so much of these discoveries it must be because they believe that proof of any sort of law is sufficient disproof of vitalism. If so causality alone is their criterion.

There is no doubt that, for some obscure reason, the view has long been prevalent that materialism and belief in causality are one and the same thing and that any and every denial of materialism constitutes nothing but belief in free will. In his Lay Sermons delivered in 1870 Huxley said on page 156: "Anyone who is acquainted with the history of science will admit that its progress has, in all ages, meant, and now, more than ever, means, the extension of the province of what we call matter and causation, and the concomitant and gradual banishment from all regions of human thought of what we call spirit and spontaneity."

We shall ask the reader to pause at this moment and ask himself why Huxley did not, instead, couple matter and spontaneity, spirit and causation. Were Huxley's reasons logical, or scientific, or based merely on unproved and preconceived notions? When the reader has considered this question he will be better able to understand what we shall have to say.

When A. S. Russell says that "every year the mechanical attack covers more and more of the field where the opposing view has been dominant" does he mean that no one thought previously that there is causality in vital processes? Before Pavlov had demonstrated the law by which one can predict how a given stimulus in a dog leads to a certain response, did people say that there was no law? Surely not. Anyone who has been responsible for the education of a child or has used the whip on a dog doubts as little that there is a consistent connection between stimulus and response as did the most scientific worker in Pavlov's laboratory. Those who breed horses and chickens are as firmly convinced of causality as those who breed Drosophila flies. Our daily actions are based on belief in causality.

Let it, therefore, be made perfectly clear that vitalists do not necessarily deny causality. To say that Life is separate from the Material Universe is not the same as to say that it follows no laws. Why should it be?

We might review many more recent discoveries made by biologists in specialized fields of study which have been claimed to disprove vitalism. We should always reach the same conclusion. So far as our present problem is concerned the biological facts to which so much philosophical importance is attributed are always found merely to confirm what is commonly accepted. They lead to no conclusion which cannot be reached equally well from simple facts with which everyone is familiar.

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