Chapter IX. Criticism Of Mechanical Theories
Theory, Processes, Life, View, Nature, Vital
In attempting to define our attitude to the mechanical theory of life, we have first of all to make sure that we have a right to take up a definite position at all. We should have less right, or perhaps none, if this theory of life were really of a purely “biological” nature, built up entirely from the expert knowledge and data which the biologist alone possesses. But the principles, assumptions, supplementary ideas and modes of expression along all the six lines we have discussed, the style and method according to which the hypothesis is constructed, the multitude of separate presuppositions with which it works, and indeed everything that helps to build up and knit the biological details into a scientific hypothesis, are the materials of rational synthesis in general, and as such are subject to general as well as to biological criticism. What is there, for instance, in Weismann's ingenious biophor-theory that can be called specifically biological, and not borrowed from other parts of the scientific system?
One advantage, indeed, the biologist always has in this matter, apart from his special knowledge; that is, the technical instinct, the power of scenting out, so to speak, and immediately feeling the importance of the facts pertaining to his own discipline. It is this that gives every specialist the advantage over the layman in dealing with the data of his own subject. This power of instinctively appraising facts, which develops in the course of all special work, can, for instance in hypotheses in the domain of history, transform small details, which to the layman seem trivial, into weighty arguments. Similarly it may be that the success of the mechanical interpretation in regard to isolated processes may make its validity for many other allied processes certain, even though there is no precise proof of this. But we cannot regard this as a final demonstration of the applicability of the mechanical theory, since the same technical instinct in other experts leads them to reject the whole hypothesis.
But here we are met with something surprising. May it not be that while we are impelled on general grounds to contend against the mechanical interpretation of vital phenomena, we are not so impelled on religious grounds? May it not be that the instinct of the religious consciousness is misleading when it impels us—as probably every one will be able to certify from his own experience—to rebel against this mechanisation of life, the mechanical solution of its mysteries? Lotze, the energetic antagonist of “vital force,” the founder of the mechanical theory of vital processes, was himself a theist, and was so far from recognising any contradiction between the mechanical point of view and the Christian belief in God, that he included the former without ceremony in his theistic philosophical speculations. His view has become that of many theologians, and is often expressed in a definition of the boundaries between theology and natural science. According to the idea which was formulated by Lotze, and developed by others along his lines, the matter is quite simple. The interest which religion has in the processes of nature is at once and exclusively to be found in teleology. Are there purposes, plans, and ideas which govern and give meaning to the whole? The interest of natural science is purely in recognising inviolable causality; every phenomenon must have its compelling and sufficient reason in the system of causes preceding it. All that is and happens is absolutely determined by its causes, and nothing, no causæ finales for instance, can co-operate with these causes in determining the result. But, as Lotze says, and as we have repeatedly pointed out, causal explanation does not exclude a consideration from the point of view of purpose, and the mechanical interpretation does not do so either. For this is nothing more than the causal explanation itself, only carried to complete consistency and definiteness. Purposes and ideas are not efficient causes but results. Where, for instance, there is a controlled purposive occurrence, the “purpose” nowhere appears as a factor co-operating with the series of causes, for these follow according to strict law, and the “purpose” reveals itself at the close of the series, as the result of a closed causal nexus, complete in itself, always provided that the initial links in the chain have been accurately estimated. The same is true of the processes of life. They are the ultimate result, strictly necessary and sufficiently accounted for in terms of mechanical sequence, of a long chain of causes whose initial links imply a definite constitution which could not be further reduced. Whether this ultimate result is merely a result or whether it is also a “purpose” is a question which, as we have seen twice already, it is wholly beyond the power of the causal mode of interpretation to answer. Given that an infinite intelligence in the world wished to realise purposes without instituting them as directly accomplished, but by letting them express themselves through a gradual “becoming,” the method would be exactly what is shown in the mechanical theory of life, that is, the primitive data and starting-points would have inherent in them a peculiar constitution and a rigidly inexorable orderliness of causal sequence. And Lotze emphasises that it would also be worthier of God to achieve the greatest by means of the simplest, and to work out the realisation of His eternal purposes according to the strict inevitableness of mechanism, than to attain His ends through the complicated means, the adventitious aids, and all the irregularities implied in the incommensurable activities of a “vital force.” (“God needs no minor gods.”)
To Lotze himself these original data and starting points are the primitive forms of life, which, according to his view, are directly “given,” and cannot be referred back to anything else (except to “creation”). But it is obvious that his view can be enlarged and extended so as to refer the derivation of the whole animate world to the original raw materials of the cosmos (energy, matter, or whatsoever they may be), and to the orderly process by which these materials were combined in various configurations to form the chemical elements, the chemical compounds, living proteids, the first cell, and the whole series of higher forms. If this nexus has taken place, it is nothing else than the transformation of the “potential” into the “actual” through strict causality. And if this actuality proves itself to have claims, because of its own intrinsic worth, to be considered as intelligent “purpose,” the whole system of means, including the starting-point, can be recognised as the means to an end, and the original wisdom and the intelligence which ordained the purpose is only glorified the more through the great simplicity, the rational comprehensibility, and the inexorable necessity of the system, which excludes all chance, and therewith all possibility of error.
This extension of Lotze's reconciliation of the mechanical causal with the teleological point of view is impressive and, as far as it goes, also quite convincing. It will never be given up, even if the point of view should change somewhat. And we have already seen that it is quite sufficient as long as we are dealing only with the question of teleology. But we must ask whether religion will be satisfied with “teleology” alone, or whether this is even the first requirement that it makes in regard to natural phenomena. We have already asked the question and attempted to clear the ground for an answer. Let us try to make it more definite.
Many people will have a certain uneasiness in regard to the Lotzian ideas; they will be unable to rid themselves of a feeling that this way of looking at things is only a pis aller for the religious point of view, and that the fundamental requirements of religious feeling receive very inadequate satisfaction on this method. The world of life which has arisen thus is altogether too rational and transparent. It is calculable and mathematical. It satisfies well enough the need for teleology, and with that the need for a supreme, universally powerful and free intelligence; but it gives neither support nor nourishment to the essential element in religious feeling, through which alone faith becomes in the strict sense religious. Religion, even Christian religion, is, so to speak, a stratified structure, a graduated pyramid, expressing itself, at its second (and undoubtedly higher) level, in our recognition of purpose, the rationality of the world, our own spiritual and personal being and worth, but implying at its basis an inward sense of the mysterious, a joy in that which is incommensurable and unspeakable, which fills us with awe and devotion. And religion at the second stage must not sweep away the essence of the stage below, but must include it, at the same time informing it with new significance. Whoever does not possess his religion in this way will agree with, and will be quite satisfied with the Lotzian standpoint. But to any one who has experience of the most characteristic element in religion, it will be obvious that there must be a vague but deep-rooted antipathy between religion and the mathematical-mechanical conception of things. Evidence of the truth of this is to be found in the instinctive perceptions and valuations which mark even the naïve expressions of the religious consciousness. For it is in full sympathy with a world which is riddled with what is inconceivable and incommensurable, in full sympathy with every evidence of the existence of such an element in the world of nature and mind, and therefore with every proof that the merely mechanical theory has its limits, that it does not suffice, and that its very insufficiency is a proof that the world is and remains in its depths mysterious. Now we have already said that the true sphere for such feeling is not the outer court of nature, but within the realm of the emotional life and of history, and, on the other hand, that even if the attempt to trace life back to the simpler forces of nature were successful, we should still be confronted with the riddle of the sphinx. But any one who would say frankly what he felt would at once be obliged to admit that the religious sense is very strongly stirred by the mystery of vital phenomena, and that in losing this he would lose a domain very dear to him. These sympathies and antipathies are in themselves sufficient to give an interest to the question of the insufficiency of the mechanical view of things.
For it is by no means the case that the mechanical theory, with its premisses and principles, is the interpretation that best fits the facts, and that most naturally arises out of a calm consideration of the animate world. It is an artificial scheme, and astonishing energy has been expended on the attempt to fit it to the actual world, that it may make this orderly and translucent. It certainly yields this service so far, but not without often becoming a kind of strait-jacket, and revealing itself as an artificiality. In so far as the special problems of biology are concerned, we shall afterwards follow our previous method of taking our orientation from those specialists in the subject who, in reaction from the one-sidedness of the mechanical doctrine, have founded the “neo-vitalism” of to-day. Here we are only concerned with the generalities and presuppositions of the theory.
We must dispute even the main justification of the theory, which is sought for in the old maxim of parsimony in the use of principles of explanation (entia, and also principia, præter necessitatem non esse multiplicanda), and in Kant's “regulative principle,” that science must proceed as if everything could ultimately be explained in terms of mechanism. For surely our task is to try to explain things, not at any cost with the fewest possible principles, but rather with the aid of those principles which appear most correct. If nature is not fundamentally simple, then it is not scientific but unscientific to simplify it theoretically. And the proposition bracketed above has its obvious converse side, that while entities and principles must not be multiplied except when it is necessary, on the other hand their number must not be arbitrarily lessened. To proceed according to the fundamental maxims of the mechanistic view can only be wholesome for a time and, so to speak, for pædagogical reasons. To apply them seriously and permanently would be highly injurious, for, by prejudging what is discoverable in nature, it would tend to prevent the calm, objective study of things which asks for nothing more than to see them as they are. It would thus destroy the fineness of our appreciation of what there really is in nature. This is true alike of forcible attempts to reduce the processes of life to mechanical processes, and of the Darwinian doctrine of the universal dominance of utility. Both bear unmistakably the stamp of foregone conclusions, and betray a desire for the simplest, rather than for the most correct principles of interpretation.
There is one point which presses itself on the notice even of outsiders, and is probably realised even more keenly by specialists. The confidence of the supporters of the mechanical theories of earlier days, from Descartes onward, that animals and the bodies of men were machines, mechanical automata, down to the mechanical theories of Lamettrie and Holbach, of l'homme machine, and of the système de la nature, was at least as great as, probably greater than, that of the supporters of the modern theories. Yet how naïve and presumptuous seem the crude and wooden theories upon which the mechanical system was formerly built up, and how falsely interpreted seem the physiological and other facts which lent them support, when seen in the light of our modern physiological knowledge. Vaucanson's or Drozsch's duck-automaton or clockwork-man, with which the mechanical theorists of bygone days amused themselves, would not go far to encourage the physiologist of to-day to pursue his mechanical studies, but would rather throw a vivid light on the impossibility of comparing the living “machine” with machines in the usual sense. For things emphatically do not happen within the living organism in the same way as in the automatic duck, and the more exact the resemblance to the functions of a “real” duck became, the more did the system of means by which the end was attained become unlike vital processes. It is difficult to resist the impression that in another hundred years,—perhaps again from the standpoint of new and definitely accepted mechanical explanations,—people will regard our developmental mechanics, cellular mechanics, and other vital mechanics much in the same way as we now look on Vaucanson's duck.
Associated or even identical with this is the fact that in proportion as mechanical interpretation advances, the difficulties it has to surmount continually crop up anew. Processes which seem of the simplest kind and the most likely to be capable of purely mechanical explanation, processes such as those of assimilation, digestion, respiration, for which it was believed that exact parallels existed in the purely mechanical domain, as, for instance, in the osmotic processes of porous membranes, are seen when closely scrutinised as they occur in the living body to be extremely complex; in fact they have to be transferred “provisionally” from the mechanical to the vital rubric. To this category belong the whole modern development of the cell-theory, which replaces the previously single mechanism in the living body by millions of them, every one of which raises as many problems as the one had done in the days of cruder interpretation. Every individual cell, as it appears to our understanding to-day, is at least as complicated a riddle as the whole organism formerly appeared.
But further: the modern development of biology has emphasised a special problem, which was first formulated by Leibnitz (though it is in antithesis to his fundamental Monad-theory), and which appears incapable of solution on mechanical lines. Leibnitz declared living beings to be “machines,” but machines of a peculiar kind. Even the most complicated machine, in the ordinary sense, consists of a combination of smaller “machines,” that is to say, of wheels, systems of levers, &c., of a simpler kind. And these sub-machines may in their turn consist of still simpler ones, and so on. But ultimately a stage is reached when the component parts are homogeneous, and cannot be analysed into simpler machines. It is otherwise with the organism. According to Leibnitz it consists of machines made up of other machines, and so on, into the infinitely little. However far we can proceed in our analysis of the parts, we shall still find that they are syntheses, made up of most ingeniously complex component parts, and this as far as our powers of seeing and distinguishing will carry us. That is to say: organisation is continued on into the infinitely little.
Leibnitz's illustration of the fish-pond is well known. He could have no better corroboration of his theory than the results of modern investigation afford. His doctrine of the continuation of organisation downwards into ever smaller expression is confirmed to a certain extent even by anatomy. By analysing structural organisation down to cells a definite point seemed to have been reached. But it now appears that at that point the problem is only beginning. One organisation is made up of other organisations—cells, protoplasm, nucleus, nucleolus, centrosomes, and so on, according to the power of the microscope; and these structures, instead of explaining the vital functions of growth, development, multiplication by division, and the rest, simply repeat them on a smaller scale, and are thus in their turn living units, the aggregation of which is illustrated better by the analogy of a social organism than by that of a mechanical structure.
In order to follow the mechanical explanation along the six lines we have previously indicated, we shall, as we have already said, entrust ourselves to the specialists who are on the opposite side. The difficulties and objections which the mechanical theory has to face have forced themselves insistently upon us even in the course of a short sketch such as has just been given, but they will be clearly realised if we approach them from the other side. But, first of all, a word as to the fundamental and, it is alleged, unassailable doctrine on which the theory as a whole is based, the “law of the conservation of energy.” The appeal to this, at any rate in the way in which it is usually made, is apt to be so distorted that the case must first be clearly stated before we can get further with the discussion.
|Written By Dr. Rudolf Otto|
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