by     D. Tompsett

R 0 Kapp (1885-1966) - An Engineer vs Materialism

Why do men struggle so desperately to deny non-material reality?

This year, 2006, marks the 33rd anniversary of the formation of the SMN in 1973. It also marks the 66th anniversary of the publication of a challengingly titled book, Science versus Materialism in 1940. I often wonder whether a copy of that book (SvM) may have nestled in the libraries of the scientist founders of the SMN such as Leggett, Spencer, and Shackleton, and perhaps also of Blaker. Despite its wartime publication, I also hope that copies may have reached both Trinity College Dublin and the newly founded Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies where Schrödinger had just taken up the Chair of Theoretical Physics at the invitation of de Valera the Prime Minister. I say this because it was in 1943 that Schrödinger delivered the lectures entitled "What is Life?", published the following year, which had such far-reaching influence. (It is well known that two major figures had themselves influenced Schrödinger Delbrück on heredity and Boltzmann on the thermodynamics of living systems).

What is certain is that in preparing SvM in the late 1930s Kapp had himself read widely on - to use Lorimer's words - the "underpinnings of science". He had been appointed to the Render Chair of Electrical Engineering at University College London in 1935 thereby becoming a professorial colleague of J BS Haldane then Professor of Genetics (later switching to Biometry). Haldane wrote numerous popularisations of science (the Dawkins, Paul Davies and John Gribbin of his day), all of which emphasised his "implicit materialistic philosophy". Kapp took advantage of his opportunity to quiz his new biologist friends, particularly Haldane, and became progressively convinced that they did not appreciate how far their limited under- standing of physics led them to make quite unwarranted assertions about the nature of reality, and about the "powers" of Matter.

In SvM Kapp loses no time (p.6) to point out that although biologists claim that they study Life, in fact they do not. "The field of study of biologists is not Life but living organisms. They investigate the structure and behaviour of these, not the causes of such structure and behaviour. Biologists can and do get along very well without knowing what Life is, just as electrical engineers get on very well without knowing what electricity is".

Kapp was well aware that since the early years of the twentieth century, when the vitalistic theories of Driesch and of Bergson had been in vogue, the high priests of biology had exerted every effort to suppress such heresies. He was met with impatience and vehemence when "in a spirit of innocent enquiry" he asked for more details. 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." He was a little puzzled by so much insistence. "If vitalism were so very dead, there would be no need to disclaim it so loudly and so often. Vitalism might be dead, but its ghost must be tough to haunt biological circles so insistently." (SvM, p.33). One definition of a generation is one-third of a century. On this measure, two generations have passed since the publication of SvM, and one since the formation of the SMN. Half a century has also elapsed since the unravelling of DNA and the burgeoning of molecular biology - the first of Schrödinger's prescient anticipations in 1943. But his equally acute questions on the thermodynamics of "order from disorder" remain unanswered. And the "implicit materialistic philosophy" retains its centrality in the great majority of writings on both physics and biology. Of course some of the articles and books reviewed on the pages of Network Review (as it is now called) put forward balancing theses, but it is clear that what Blaker observed in the 1970s remains dominant. The answer which most scientists would give today to Kapp's basic question - "Is Matter the only reality?" - is, "Yes". The "implicit philosophy" of SMN is no doubt to say "No"?

From our viewpoint two generations later it is interesting to note how early Kapp drew attention to what later became a major theme. On pp. 52-3 of SvM he says, "It seems strange indeed that physicists have never thought of drawing conclusions from a study of Matter during its passage through a living organism. For at such times Matter exists in a peculiar state not reproducible elsewhere and the physicist has always been rewarded when he has studied Matter under new conditions." Here Kapp gives examples of very low and very high temperatures, pressures and densities, high velocities, and high electric and magnetic fields, and continues, "During its passage through a living organism Matter is not subjected to any of these extremes. But it is subjected to another extreme never found outside an organism. This is an extreme of unstable equilibrium. Particles are sometimes so delicately poised that their position depends on a balance of forces far closer than can ever be obtained in the inorganic world. Maybe the conditions for equilibrium in certain organic substances would provide the physicist with a scale of measurement which would enable him to reach closer limits even than the close ones set in the inorganic world by Heisenberg's principle." (i.e. of uncertainty). Such a suggestion predated Prigogine's work by at least a generation. I invite both biologist and physicist members of SMN to find examples of references to these matters before 1940. In 1993 a conference was held at Trinity College Dublin to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Schr8dinger's lectures. The papers were printed in the book, What is Life? The next Fifty years (CUP 1995; Eds. M P Murphy and L A J O'Neill). The final paper was, Order from disorder: the thermodynamics of complexity in biology by E D Schneider and J J Kay. Schneider has recently published a book (written with D Sagan) in which he expands on that paper. It is intriguingly entitled, Into the Cool: Energy Flow, Thermodynamics and Life (University of Chicago Press 2005). It was reviewed in Nature (436,627) on 4 August 2005 by J Doyne Farmer of the Santa Fe Institute. He ends his review thus: "Understanding the logical and physical principles that provide sufficient conditions for life is a fascinating and difficult problem that should keep scientists busy for at least a millennium. Thermodynamics clearly plays an essential part, and it is appropriate that the authors stress this - many accounts of the origin of life are easily rebutted on this point. But it isn't the principal actor, just one of many. The others remain unknown". And in an earlier paragraph Farmer says, "The selection process that the authors posit is never clearly defined, and they never explain why, or in what sense, it necessarily leads to increasing complexity". On p.146 of the book the authors refer to Bergson's élan vital (although they prudently omit "vitalism" from the index!), and go so far as to admit, "...we do recognise that he correctly emphasised the role of energy use in living systems. Non-equilibrium thermodynamics makes it clear that living is a chemical and physical process of an energetic universe". In my view it is the gingerly used word "selection" in these quotations which is the key. The whole of Kapp's book and the several later books and papers which he wrote proceed from his denial that Matter on its own (or as he says UNAIDED) is ever capable of "selection, guidance, control, the capacity for discrimination, for disposing objects in accordance with a pre-existent plan, for ensuring that the structure and behaviour of things shall occur in a specified way". It is this attribute which Kapp claims is common to every active non-material reality which we can conceive. These words appear on p. 262-3 of SvM just before he proposes his neologism "diathete" to which he had been pointed by his colleague at UCL, M T Smiley, the Professor of Greek. Reality, says Kapp, consists of Matter and Diathetes. Matter he defines as anything having location in space. Anything is a diathete which discriminates.

I recommend the reading of the whole of SvM, but failing that, then chapter 27, "Non-material Reality", from which the above quotation is taken, and also chapter 28, "Non-diathetic Reality" (which apart from the 4-page "Epilogue" is the last one in the book.) The first words of chapter 27 are, Why do men struggle so desperately to deny non-material reality? Surely Blaker would have welcomed serious study towards providing guidance towards an answer.

Mind, Life and Body (1951) is a genuine sequel to SvM, as closely reasoned and as cogently presented. Perhaps only an electrical engineer could have explained so well the essential features of a relay. Its two inputs are its "controlled energy" and, quite independently, its "operating energy plus diathesis". The operating energy is always only a tiny fraction of its controlled energy. Its single output is then "controlled energy plus diathesis". The relevance of these facts to living organisms, it seems, are just as opaque to biologists in 2006 as they were in 1940 and 1951.

In the final chapter (XX - "Towards a Solution") Kapp offers the only tentative way that I have ever read as to how a diathete, lacking any location in space and therefore unable to exercise any physical force, can yet influence the position in space reached by a component of an organic molecule. This is the central issue dividing materialists and their opponents. He suggests that living organisms are like a cascade of relays, and that diathetes work on the primary relay by controlling the moment in time when a specific atom in a large organic molecule acquires the minimum energy to activate the vital process. He concludes that he has made a prima facie case for a new field of study of diathetics. (MLB p 187)

It was on the basis of SvM and MLB (plus perhaps his paper Living and Lifeless Machines to the British Society for the Philosophy of Science) that Kapp was invited to deliver the 27th series of Riddell Memorial Lectures at the University of Durham. The review in the Journal, of the BSPS (BJPS) by Professor H H Price of Oxford ends , "Everyone interested in the philosophy of nature should read this little book", i.e. the text of the lectures, Facts and Faith: the Dual Nature of Reality (OUP, 1955).

David Tompsett
10 Chestnut Place
Watlington, OX4 5RJ
(January 2006>

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