The "Emergent" School of Philosophy
Another Possible Misunderstanding
Figments of the Imagination
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Needham is among these when he speaks of an element of drill in crystal-formation. Soldiers being drilled in the barrack square perform specified movements and arrange themselves in specified formations. When Needham makes a distinction between molecules which move aimlessly hither and thither and molecules which conform to an element of drill, he makes a distinction between specified and unspecified behaviour. He implies that inanimate Matter does not only possess order, but that it also gives orders. For how can things be drilled unless orders are given?.
The attitude expressed thus clearly by Needham, and often too evasively by others, to provide suitable passages for quotation, has become prevalent. It is the attitude which has earned for our most recent amateur philosophers the reputation of being "no crude materialists". Though these may deny the existence of any non-material influences, they attribute to Matter such remarkable accomplishments that reviewers can detect an idealistic streak in the modern materialism.
It is so nice to think that even molecules do not always behave aimlessly. What a good Material Universe ours must be if such minute particles have sufficient self-discipline to conform to an element of drill quite by themselves without the aid of any non-material influences! "Which of us when he observes unfailing obedience to the laws of physics and chemistry," we shall soon be told, "can deny that Matter possesses all the civic and military virtues?"
We suspect this because of what we have read in those materialists who pride themselves on their up-to-dateness. "The cry 'mere machines', formerly popular with the old-fashioned mechanists, has been superseded long ago", they tell us. "Crystals, too, can be proved to be an unsuitable analogy. The true prototype of a living organism is to be found in the atom."
In a paper entitled Quantum Mechanics as a Basis for Philosophy, for instance, and published by The Philosophy of Science of January 1934, Professor. B. S. Haldane says: "An atom is a complex system which automatically repairs itself after the loss of one or more electrons". Here Haldane applies the language of biology to the inorganic world. He does not declare that biologists have no right to use such words as "repair" and "loss". He tells us that physicists may use them with perfect justification when speaking of atoms, and by doing so he seeks to eliminate any distinction between the organic and the inorganic world.
We have shown already that such words as "repair" and "damage" can be applied only to specified systems. And if Haldane beheved that the atoms found in Nature were unspecified, that they were allowed to have any structure whatever, he would not use the word "loss". He does not say that an electron just falls on an ionized atom as a stone falls down a sloping bank. He implies instead that an ionized atom captures an electron as a hungry sparrow captures a grain of corn. Haldane's mode of expression attributes initiative to the atom analogous to the initiative exerted by a sparrow.
It might be suggested that Haldane could have said what he meant just as well without the use of the words "loss" and "repair". But this is exactly what he could not have done. Had he avoided these words, he would have sacrificed the analogy he sought to establish. In other words, Haldane's use of language and his claim to have found in the atom a significant analogy such as a sloping bank could not provide, reveal his belief that atoms are not allowed, like heaps of rubble, to be constructed anyhow, but that they have to be thus and not otherwise.
The analogy has been carried beyond the seeking of nourishment and the healing of wounds. In our little collection of quotations, we have found two passages which convey concisely an attitude which we have found expressed in more diffuse terms many times. The first is from the late J. B. S. Haldane. He is reported in Nature of July 11th, 1931, page 78, to have said at the International Congress of the History of Science and Technology: "Atoms seem now as if they had properties similar to those which vitalists attributed to living organisms".
J. B. S. Haldane did not only say that atoms have the same properties as living organisms. He said that they have, in particular, those properties which vitalists attributed to living organisms and which materialists, presumably, did not. If the passage means what it seems to, it is that it is quite scientific to be a vitalist about atoms, but quite wrong to be a vitalist about living organisms. That anyone could take such a remark seriously only shows how interesting the atom must appear to some of our modern biologist-philosophers.
The other passage occurs in Lowson's book The Causes of Evolution, where it is attributed to J. B. S. Haldane: "If we ever explain life and mind in terms of atoms, I think we shall have to attribute to the atoms the same nature as that of minds, or constituents of minds such as sensations". If this were true, let us realize, the removal of an electron from an atom would not only be damage; it would amount to painful damage. On page 60 of J. B. S. Haldane's The Philosophical Basis of Biology we have even found the suggestion that atoms reproduce! Is love among the sensations which we are expected to attribute to atoms? Perhaps Jacques Maritain means something similar (if he means anything) when he writes in Science and Wisdom: "The admirable renewal of contemporary physics gives to the scientist a sense of the mystery which is stammered by the atom and the universe".
Before modern amateur philosophers, the atom evidently looms as something very special and significant, though J. B. S. Haldane extends this significance to large molecules. "It is time that materialists asked themselves in a little more detail 'what sort of a thing is mind?'" he says in The Scientific Worker of February 1938, on page 19. "They would, I think, discover that the properties of mind were decidedly like those of the system of energy associated with a large molecule".
Thus it is stated in the supplement to Science of February 3rd l939 on page 99: "The essential point about these huge chemical molecules of the viruses is that they are believed to represent the borderline between animate and inanimate matter". (Our italics). In the same article the wonderful statement occurs that "the process of organic development flows uninterruptedly from atom to man". Our first ancestor was, presumably, an atom possessing peculiar reproductive vigour.
Now the atom, minute though it is, is a collection of still more minute objects such as protons, neutrons, electrons. A cloud is a collection of drops of water. The end moraine of a glacier is a collection of boulders and pebbles and grains of sand. Atoms, clouds, and end moraines of glaciers all contain energy unevenly distributed. Why is the atom singled out in each of the quotations and theories enumerated above? Would the authors be content to substitute cloud for atom? We feel sure that they would not.
They would not succeed in persuading themselves that a cloud suffered any loss or damage through removal of a portion of its substance, or that a cloud ever did anything to replace a loss. They would not say that, as it grew, it captured more drops of water. They would not succeed in persuading themselves that clouds have any of those mysterious properties which vitalists attribute and materialists deny to living organisms. They would not succeed in persuading themselves that clouds have any of the sensations which Haldane has been attributing to atoms. They would think it less effective to declare that a cloud stammers a sense of mystery. They would not succeed in persuading themselves that the properties of Mind are like the system of energy associated with a large cloud or that clouds hold any position at all in the evolutionary scale, high or low.
Why not? Why this distinction between atoms and other inorganic objects? The old-fashioned mechanists made no such distinction. To them, every object living or lifeless was attributed only to the interplay of mechanical forces. Nor do those materialists who invoke only the monkey of chance make any such distinction. To them every object is but the fortuitous result of unco-ordinated happenings. In the past, only the vitalists drew a line; and they drew it between the organic and the inorganic worlds. Now, our up-to-date materialists also draw a line, but they do not draw it in the same place. Atoms are on the same side of their line as are living organisms. Clouds and the end moraines of glaciers are on the other side.
To avoid a crude materialism, it would seem, one must idealize Matter, or rather some bits of Matter. And the bits considered most suitable in this Year of Grace 1939 are atoms. Teach that these have something significant in common with living organisms and one may hope to please the Bishops, although one may still refuse to invoke non-material influences.
Partly, perhaps, but not altogether. There is a more plausible justification in the regular structure attributed to the atom in our text-books. If all those who stress the philosophical significance of atoms believe that these are specified structures, they have every reason for drawing the line where they do. And a somewhat superficial reading of physics, particularly a reading coloured by biological thought, may well result in such a belief.
We may read in text-books what the atom is like. The more we read about it, the more we may be led to think that, in the atom, Matter proves its ability to follow a specification unaided. Our first introduction to the subject will probably have been via classical mechanics. In terms of this branch of physics, we will have learnt that the atom is somewhat like a miniature Solar System. There is a central massive nucleus corresponding to the Sun. This is, in itself, a complex formation made up of a number of constituent parts, except in the hydrogen atom where it may, but does not always, consist of a single proton. The nucleus always carries a positive electric charge corresponding to the Sun's gravitational field. It attracts one or more negatively charged electrons, the number depending on the magnitude of the positive charge on the nucleus. These negative electrons rotate about the nucleus as planets revolve about the Sun. Hence every text-book description must convey the impression that the atom is not, like a cloud, allowed to have any structure, but that it must like a sparrow be "thus and not otherwise". And a description in terms of quantum mechanics would convey the same impression.
Consider the number of specified requirements met by the atoms as described in text-books. As just one example there is the requirement that the nucleus of the Oxygen atom shall carry exactly eight unit positive charges of electricity, no more and no less. Is eight not a specified number? Does not this requirement prove that the Oxygen atom shall be thus and not otherwise?
No. It only proves that we call every atom an Oxygen atom when its nucleus happens to carry eight unit positive electric charges. Nature does not call for the number eight. It allows any number. But when we do not find eight, we do not say "Oxygen". We say something else. When we find ten, we say "Neon"; when we find seventy-two, we say "Hafnium"; when we find but one, we say "Hydrogen"; and when we find none at all, we call the thing a "Neutron".
In fact, such an apt analogy must confirm biologists in their conviction that the methods of physicists and biologists are fundamentally identical. Since it is evident to them that the atom is a specified structure, they must think that the task of the physicist is to discover what the specifications for lifeless objects are just as it is the task of a biologist to discover what the specifications for living objects are. The biologist remembers that he himself must study many sparrows before he can be sure what a normal sparrow is like. He dare not base generalizations on incomplete statistical material lest his conclusions be invalidated by some abnormality. Similarly, he probably believes physicists study a large number of atoms before they can say what the normal atom is like. Some of those observed may have fewer electrons than the average, just as a few sparrows may be found with some deficiency. But the physicist finds that such missing electrons are soon replaced, just as an abrased piece of skin soon heals. Consequently, the occasional existence of a few incomplete Oxygen atoms need not be taken as proof that eight planetary electrons are not a specified requirement.
This, we feel sure, is how many biologists and others visualize the physicist's methods. What they have read about atoms must then lead them to think that a Problem of Repeated Form is not only met in the organic world. To state the number of Oxygen atoms in our Universe, one would have to say a million million many times over. Does not this prove that for atoms, as well as for sparrows, there is a formidable Problem of Repeated Form?
Again, no! — and for this simple reason. The atom as described in text-books is not a discovery; it is an invention. The description given by physicists is as certainly a specification as the description of sparrows given by biologists is a specification; but there is this difference. The description of the atom is a man-made specification. It is one which Nature does not follow. The description of a sparrow is a specification which Nature does follow.
The text-book atom can, perhaps, with some difficulty be manufactured in a laboratory; not, of course, by a process of assembly, but by a process of creating specified conditions. But once produced, the text-book atom, far from doing something to preserve itself as Haldane believes, is destroyed very quickly. Its life is, probably, but a small fraction of a second.
How, then, are atoms constructed in Nature? The answer is: "Anyhow". This means that the text-book model is not precluded. But it is a rare accident, since any conceivable alternative structure may occur as well. In Nature, for instance, all or any of the planetary electrons may be, and often are, lacking. The atoms in those massive stars known as white dwarfs are stripped of all their electrons. So are possibly the atoms well inside our Sun. If it were true that removal of but one electron constituted damage, we should need a stronger word to describe the condition of the atoms in a white dwarf star. We should have to say that they were terribly mutilated, poor things.
In these stars, atomic nuclei and electrons are all very crowded and very violently agitated. If a sample of substance taken from such a star were represented by a model large enough to render the nuclei and electrons visible, we should not be able to detect any of that order or any evidence of that organization which our up-to-date amateur philosophers like to picture in the microstructure of the Universe. Each particle would appear to move independently of the others. One could never associate any particular electron with any nucleus. One could not observe any electronic paths even remotely resembling planetary orbits. In a white dwarf star each particle, be it nucleus or electron, is driven hither and thither by turbulent electromagnetic fields as a leaf is tossed about by a whirlwind.
These are extreme conditions. In other stars which are not quite so hot, only some atoms are stripped entirely. Others retain some of their planetary electrons, while a few may, for fleeting moments, possess the full text-book number. At the comparatively unusual temperature of our Earth's surface, the full number is the rule rather than the exception.
It is only sometimes possible to associate any given electron with any particular nucleus in a molecule. And it is never possible to perceive anything which could, by the widest stretching of language, be called order, system or organization. The atom is every bit as useless an analogy to a living organism as a cloud or any other fortuitous inorganic arrangement of particles. And inorganic molecules reveal no more trace of order, system or organization than do atoms. The theory of the emergent school of philosophy — that molecules become more highly organized as they become larger and more complex — is nothing but a wild fantasy.
But the biologist hardly realizes this because his own methods are so different. He does, for the greater part of his time, investigate and describe what he has found, and not what he has invented. His observational material is manufactured for him by Nature.
So it is true enough that both the physicist and the biologist study things which conform to the requirements of specifications. But the specifications which the physicist knows are of his own making and have been put into effect by human beings. The specifications which the biologist knows are not of his own making and they are put into effect by an unknown agency which, for want of a better word, we call Life.
This is why vitalists are right in drawing a line between the organic and the inorganic worlds. The old-fashioned mechanists who refused to draw any line at all were, at least, logical, though they were mistaken. But the newer materialists who draw their line right through the inorganic world are illogical as well as mistaken, and they make the greater error. For they do not realize that if physicists were to describe what they find in Nature instead of what they have invented, they would sum up their observations in the words: "Chaos, everywhere chaos."