SCIENCE     versus     MATERIALISM

by     Reginald O. Kapp

SECTION II - DOUBLE DETERMINATENESS

Chapter IX - ANTHROPOMORPHIC THEORIES


WHEN a simple savage first sees a machine he may worship it or attempt to conciliate it with peace offerings. To his untutored mind it is a sort of living being. To the biologist-philosopher, whose education is as different from that of the savage as the clothes he wears, a living being is a sort of machine. It is sometimes claimed that the difference between these two points of view embodies the knowledge acquired by science and philosophy during the last thirty centuries.

Even if we do not consider this view to be justified, we do still realize that there is a difference between the outlooks of the two men. This difference cannot lie in any distinction they make between machines and living bodies, for neither the savage nor the modern biologist-philosopher recognizes any distinction. It lies in the distinction they make between machines and other inorganic objects. To the untutored savage the machine is fundamentally different from all other lifeless things; to the biologist-philosopher it appears to resemble them in all essentials. He knows, or can at least find out, how the machine works. He is aware that it conforms to the laws of physics and chemistry, that it holds no mysteries for the initiated. He, therefore, feels justified in regarding it as typical of all lifeless objects.

No doubt it is more obvious to an engineer than it would be to most people that a machine is not at all typical of all lifeless objects, that it is essentially different, for instance, from the raw materials of which it is constructed. But surely everyone must realize that the finished machine and the raw materials are not the same thing.

So why take the strange view for granted that, if living organisms are "mere machines", materialism, is fully justified (and justified, moreover, in its mechanistic formulation)? Why is it assumed on both sides of the dispute that materialism can only be refuted by proving that living organisms are more than machines? One of the very few vitalists among biologist- philosophers, McBride, says, for instance: "The ordinary biologist, however materialistic he may be, does not in practice avail himself of the 'machine comparison' in order to explain the activities of living beings." True, maybe. But as an argument for vitalism, how weak! The suggestion is that the materialist would hold the field if he could avail himself of the "machine comparison", whereas, in fact, the resemblance of living organisms to machines is the last thing we ought to expect the materialist to use as an argument.

We could quote innumerable other passages in all of which the same false conclusion is implied. Living organisms are mere machines, it is argued, and, like machines, they conform always to the laws of physics and chemistry. Therefore, the mechanist form of materialism is declared to be unanswerable. We have not been able to discover any appreciation of the fallacy in this view among the writings of biologist-philosophers; and we have searched diligently. Nor does the theologian, moralist or teacher ever seem to realize that the "machine comparison" is the worst possible argument for materiahsm. We can only recall two authors altogether who have pointed this out, though, unfortunately, we did not make copies of the relevant passages. The first of these authors is a physicist, Sir Oliver Lodge, the second an engineer. Sir Ambrose Fleming.

It is strange that those trained both in biology and the humanities should so consistently fail to appreciate the fundamental distinction between a finished machine and the raw materials of which it is formed. We think it can only be because they have never had an occasion to view machinery in its proper perspective.

To do so we must remember that machines have not been in the world for very long. When the earth was first formed it began as a mere molten mass. When it cooled it acquired its present geological features. There were mountains and rivers, clouds and the rolling seas, glaciers which carried stones and mud in their course. For countless ages this dead world circled round the sun. Then in the unknown depths of time, how, when and where no one knows, a new type of object appeared on the earth's surface. These were living organisms.

Gradually the living things changed and grew and spread until they covered much of the earth's crust. Then they affected physical conditions there. They held up water in its passage from the hilltops to the sea; they broke up rocks and stones and turned them into loam; they added oxygen to the air. But Life and its products still filled a very small portion of the earth's volume, but a minute fraction of the whole of space.

For further countless ages the earth bore its added burden of living matter round the sun. The time was so long and the distance travelled by the solar system so great that the very picture presented by the constellations changed. And the picture presented by the living things changed even more. Algae, mosses and ferns followed each other. Great forests appeared. Creatures grew in size and complexity, had their day and became extinct. Evolution led to warm-blooded creatures and eventually to the immediate predecessors of man. And during all this time nothing could have been found to provide the biologist-philosopher with an illustration for his creed. There were no motor-cars, no watches, not a single chemical factory, not even a test-tube. In that obscure past the doctrine of mechanism would have been impossible because there were no mechanical devices. There was nothing which could have suggested such a doctrine.

The next age marked the advent of man, and he began to fashion objects to his needs. At first the number of manufactured articles in the world remained small. A few clay cooking-pots, simple weapons, primitive clothing, would complete the list. One would have had to go far and search carefully to find examples of this new type of object. But as time went on the number of articles due to man's skill and ingenuity increased, and to-day they are so numerous that, in our towns, we are completely surrounded by them. As often as not civilized man may raise his eyes and look around him and see nothing which was not devised by the mind and fashioned by the hands of his fellows.

It is natural, therefore, that when a modern philosopher has to choose an inanimate object for the illustration of an argument he will most readily select something which has been manufactured, and not something to be found in regions untrodden by man. A frequent choice is a table, or if the illustration requires something which moves it is a watch or a motor-car. We have grown up among such articles from childhood; they are so familiar that we take them for granted; we sometimes forget that they could not be in a world untouched by Life and intelligence. A philosopher is particularly liable to forget this. For he is neither a craftsman nor an engineer nor a manufacturer. To him all concrete objects are things which are found. The activities which went to the making of them are outside his field of interest. This is why it rarely occurs to him to make a distinction between the two types of object.

For many purposes it is immaterial which type of object is selected. A glass to the lecturer's hand, the table at which he stands, or a motor-car illustrate an argument as aptly as would a pebble, a stream or a star. Sometimes a thing which has been made is even more suitable than one which can only be found. When the earth is described as God's footstool the happiness of the illustration strikes us at once. When the whole world is represented in the story of the Creation as if it were a manufactured article fashioned by the Deity much as engineers may fashion a machine we appreciate that we are hearing a sublime legend which could not be more suitably expressed. We know that we are not presented with a scientific description of the world's beginning. We regard the truth in such a legend as of the kind which belongs to great poetry and not as of the kind which belongs to science. And we are content that our poetry be anthropomorphic, that it should describe the immensities of the Universe in terms of the puny activities of Man.

But when the mechanist attempts to explain the Mystery of Life in similar terms he claims to speak, as a scientist, not as a poet. He asks us to interpret his statements quite as literally as a Fundamentalist would have us do with the first book of Genesis. He really means that those machines which have been made by one single type of animal in one little corner of the Universe are typical of both living organisms and all lifeless objects. He is satisfied that this trivial result of the presence of Life and intelligence in the world is able to explain Life itself.

It is evident that the plentifulness of manufactured articles in our cities has provided a trap into which the mechanist has fallen too readily. For the thesis he sets out to prove is that living organisms are fundamentally the same as any object in the inorganic world. There is no particular reason inherent in this thesis why machines should be selected as typical lifeless objects in preference to any others. But a mechanist need only attempt to reword his argument in such a way that every illustration drawn from the list of things made is replaced by one drawn from among things only to be found, in order to realize how unconvincing his doctrine is.

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