Levels of Existence
At this point, we will begin consideration of the empirical evidence that confirms the conclusions which were reached in Chapter 4 by inductive reasoning. It has already been emphasized that this is a purely scientific work, in which the development of thought conforms strictly to accepted scientific principles, and the conclusions therefrom constitute scientific knowledge in the same sense in which that term applies to any other product of scientific inquiry. But the influence of established modes of thinking may make it difficult for some readers to free themselves from the belief that there must be some difference between this metaphysical exploration and a purely physical investigation. This is not true. To be sure, the metaphysical existences with which we are dealing are inaccessible to our physical senses, but so are most of the entities along the present-day frontiers of physical science. In both cases, we know the existences only by their effects. The task of science is to arrive at a specific and definite interpretation of those effects, and the standard scientific procedures have been established for this purpose. In order that there may be no misunderstanding as to the significance of the second phase of the metaphysical inquiry that we are now starting, it will be appropriate to review just where we now stand relative to the several steps of the standard scientific procedure.
The development of the Reciprocal System of theory established that, contrary to previous scientific opinion, based on an erroneous conception of the nature of space and time, metaphysical existence is possible. Application of standard methods of inductive reasoning in Chapter 4 then showed that such existence is probable, and it identified some of the characteristics of that probable existence. This completes steps 1 and 2 of the standard scientific procedure. In the pages that follow, we will determine what effects on human life will theoretically result from interaction with such metaphysical existences (step 3), and we will then verify all findings by showing that the theoretical results are in full agreement with actual experience (step 4).
In beginning this process, the first point to be noted is the presence of distinct kinds, or levels, of existence in the physical universe. This is one of the significant physical facts that conventional science cannot explain and therefore refuses to recognize. The predominant scientific opinion at present is that everything in the universe can be placed on one vast evolutionary ladder, the “great chain of being,” as it is sometimes called, beginning with the smallest subatomic particle and terminating (for the present, at least) with Homo sapiens: “one evolutionary track leading from atom to man.”69 As Victor Weisskopf expresses this idea, summarizing a discussion of the subject:
We have seen how life and man evolved from the original hydrogen gas, or better, how we believe today it may have happened. It is a development from the simple to the complicated, from unordered chaos to highly differentiated units, from the unorganized to the organized.70
This kind of a viewpoint is always immensely popular, both inside and outside the scientific profession. The evolutionary hypothesis has proved to be very fruitful in the living world, and the suggestion that this idea which has been so successful in application to biological organisms can be applied with equal force to the physical world as a whole has great appeal to the human mind. At first glance, it seems to be an important step toward that unity of nature which appears so eminently desirable—so fitting and proper—to scientist and layman alike.
But, unfortunately, the human mind is also prone to relax its critical standards when a pleasing hypothesis of this kind comes along, and to accept a superficial appearance of observational agreement with the hypothesis as proof of its validity, without applying the rigorous tests that sound scientific procedure requires. Neither the scientist nor the layman has given this hypothesis the kind of critical scrutiny that each applies to less glamorous ideas. If any serious attempt is made to examine its credibility, the hypothesis collapses. It is obvious almost immediately that there is no evolutionary process in the inanimate world analogous to biological evolution.
It is true that there is a gradual increase in complexity with time. Very young aggregates of matter consist almost entirely of hydrogen, the simplest of the elements; and the giant organic molecules that are the building blocks from which biological entities are constructed make their appearance as the end products of a process that requires billions of years for completion. But this is not a process of evolution, in the sense in which that term is applied to living organisms; it is merely a process of aggregation. Atoms will combine with other atoms whenever they come into contact under appropriate conditions of temperature and pressure, providing that the energy balance is favorable; that is, the combination is energetically more stable than the individual components. The giant organic molecule is simply the product of a series of appropriate combinations of this kind.
In this aggregation process, there is no requirement that the simpler compounds precede the more complex ones. They usually do. For instance, the relatively simple paraffinic or olefinic hydrocarbons usually constitute the raw material from which the more complex hydrocarbons of the aromatic series are produced in industry, and it is probable that the same is true in nature. But the aromatics could be formed directly from carbon and hydrogen atoms. In fact, studies of the pyrolytic process indicate that this is just what happens when aromatics are produced in this manner. One of the primary products in this process is anthracene, a complex triple-ring structure containing 24 atoms. Such a result is impossible in the living world. Biological evolution must build its complexity step by step, and an increase in complexity comparable to the step from carbon and hydrogen atoms to the anthracene molecule would require the formation of intermediate structures and would take a long time for completion. In the inanimate world, on the other hand, there is no physical obstacle to the construction of even the most complex molecule in a fraction of a second, just as the anthracene molecule is formed, if enough atoms of the right kind happen to be available where needed.
This kind of thing does not happen in the ordinary course of events, simply because the right atoms are not available in the right place at the right time, and they are not available because the probability of their being available is almost infinitely small. The aggregation of atoms into giant organic molecules takes a long time for completion only because the probability of the right kind of contact taking place is small and a long time elapses before this small probability produces a reality. It takes place as a step process because the probability of the occurrence of the right conditions for formation of a complex molecule by adding more atoms to a molecule of somewhat less complexity is much greater than the probability of the occurrence of the conditions that would permit the formation of the complex molecule directly. The so-called “evolutionary” process in this field is thus nothing more than a process of aggregation that proceeds slowly because of the very low probability of the right kind of contacts.
In the biological realm, on the contrary, the increase in complexity is inherently cumulative. A protein molecule could form directly from its constituent atoms if the right atoms were available in the right positions at the point of formation, just as the anthracene molecule is known to do, but it is not conceivable that the coalescence of any number of single-celled organisms could produce a polar bear. The evolutionary process as we find it in living organisms is not merely a matter of aggregation, like the formation of a molecule; it is a long process of gradual development by trial and error, in which the new is derived from the old by modification rather than by mere addition.
Another striking point of difference is that in biological evolution the new replaces the old, either partially or completely, whereas in the inanimate process of aggregation, the new and more complex structures are always a tiny minority, the relative proportions of the various structures being determined almost exclusively by the relative probability of their formation. The dinosaurs, which once reigned supreme in their environment, are now extinct, but any chemical compound which ever predominated in a particular environment still predominates in that environment. The sands of the Mesozoic era, when the dinosaurs roamed the earth, were grains of quartz, just as are the sands of today.
Again, we find that living organisms are unique in their ability to utilize food; that is, they can extract from their environment substances that are composed wholly or in part of the materials needed for the growth of the organisms, they can break these substances down into simpler units, and can reconstitute them into the specific forms that can be used by the living bodies. Inanimate structures, on the contrary, can grow only by obtaining from the environment some kind of matter that is capable of being added directly. The most that they can do in the way of adapting existing material to their use is to pull a loosely bound atom or atomic group away from some other structure.
An even more significant difference is connected with the basic physical principle known as the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Inanimate matter obeys the Second Law implicitly, whereas living matter behaves in a manner that seems to defy the law. By way of illustration, a wooden fence post will burn if any part of it is momentarily exposed to a high temperature. The Second Law says that any naturally occurring process, such as this combustion of the fence post, results in a decrease in the availability of energy, and accordingly, we find that the available energy in the carbon dioxide, water vapor, and ashes, the principal combustion products, is substantially less than that in the original fence post. A naturally occurring reversal of the process would violate the Second Law since recreation of the fence post from the products of combustion would increase the availability of energy. But this is just exactly what happens in the living world. A seedling tree takes the carbon dioxide from the air, extracts the water and the constituents of the ashes from the soil, and within a few years it has recreated the fence post. We cannot take the stand that the growth of a tree is not a natural process, unless we give that term an altogether different meaning than it now possesses, the meaning that is utilized in the statement of the Second Law. It is therefore evident that the living world and the non-living world are not governed by the same set of rules.
Whether or not the living organisms violate the Second Law in a strictly technical sense is still a matter of doubt. Bridgman, who has given the matter intensive study, concludes that there is not sufficient reason to believe that they do, but he concedes that there is no positive evidence to support this conclusion. “Certainly if any successful attempt has been made to examine on rigorous grounds the applicability of the second law to biological systems the result is not generally known,”71 he admits, and he even questions whether the concept of entropy, which is central in the Second Law, is applicable to living systems. He points out that these systems are irreversible in a different sense than the usual irreversible systems in the inanimate world, and goes on to say, “All living systems are of this nature and technically the concept of entropy may not be applied to such systems.”72 Du Nouy expresses the same conclusion: “The application of this concept [entropy] to living phenomena has not yet been realized and raises grave difficulties of principle.”73
In reality, however, all of the debate over this issue is rather pointless, since the biological systems certainly violate the spirit of the Second Law irrespective of whether or not enough hairs can be split to keep them from violating the letter of the law. There is no question but that the biological trend is toward order, whereas the trend in the inanimate realm, the trend dictated by the Second Law, is toward disorder. When we put the case in this manner, Bridgman concurs emphatically:
It springs to the eye that the tendency of living organisms is to organize their surroundings, that is, to produce “order” where formerly there was disorder. Life then appears in some way to oppose the otherwise universal drive to disorder.74
J. H. Rush states the case in somewhat more picturesque language:
Life pushes its way through this fatalistically determined world like a river flowing upstream. It is a system of utterly improbable order, a message in a world of noise.75
The facts brought out in the foregoing paragraphs show that the “evolutionary sequence” that so many present-day scientists think that they see, extending from subatomic particle to man, is not an evolutionary sequence at all; it is merely an arrangement of the various entities of the universe in the order of increasing complexity. Only in the living realm is this increased complexity a result of evolution. There is no evolution, in the sense in which this term is applied to living structures, in the non-living world. Furthermore, this difference between the processes by which greater complexity is attained is only one of the many items of evidence that show the existence of a very definite discontinuity in the order of increasing complexity at the point where life begins. The behavior of the living organism is altogether different from that of non-living matter. Even Weisskopf, whose enthusiastic appraisal of the status of the “continuous chain” hypothesis opened this chapter, admits that “The phenomena of life do not seem to fit at all into the framework of the events which we so far have come to expect from matter composed of atoms and molecules.”76
All of the foregoing adds up to a complete refutation of the “continuous chain” hypothesis, yet this is still not the whole story. The realm of the living is not only very different from the realm of the non-living, in its processes of developing the complex from the simple, in its action upon the environment, and in the basic principles that govern its existence, but is also, in some important respects, the direct opposite of the non-living world. This is a very significant point, and some of its implications with respect to the relation of life to inanimate matter will be discussed in detail in the next chapter.
At this time, we will want to take note of the fact that if we follow the order of increasing complexity still farther, we ultimately arrive at another discontinuity very similar to the discontinuity between the living and the non-living: another point where the governing rules change very drastically, and, as in the transition from non-living to living, are completely reversed in some important respects. Of course, the adherents of the “great chain of being” concept do not concede this point. As in the case of the lower discontinuity, they simply refuse to look at the evidence. Sir Alister Hardy makes this comment:
There are some people who, brandishing “Occam's razor” and fascinated by it, think it right for science to ignore half the properties of living things because they seem to complicate the issue.77
One of the most prominent features of life is that perpetuation of that life, either for the individual or for the species to which he belongs, is the dominant factor in the behavior of living things, the factor to which all else is subordinated. “The over-all and universal goal,” says Simpson, “is simply survival.”78 But if we continue to follow the order of increasing complexity, we eventually encounter a living unit which is outwardly no different in its general aspect from certain other living units lower in the scale of complexity, just as the simplest living unit is outwardly not essentially different from some non-living aggregates, but which reverses the characteristic behavior of living things, and takes many actions that definitely militate against continued existence of the individual and his species. Here again, as in the jump from non-living to living, the behavior beyond the discontinuity is not only different. It follows basic rules which, in important respects, are diametrically opposite from those governing the behavior on the lower side of the line. The most complex living unit, man, is not governed entirely, or even primarily, by the survival motive.
Those who are unable to reconcile this fundamental difference with their basic theories of existence naturally make every effort to explain away the inconvenient facts. Since the evolutionary theories adequately account for those aspects of animal behavior that subordinate survival of the individual to survival of the species, an attempt has been made to extend this explanation to the unique aspects of human behavior. But however attractive such explanations may be to those who want to believe them, they cannot stand up under critical scrutiny. There are many common human actions that are obviously irreconcilable with any survival motivation, direct or indirect. For example, when one man risks his life to protect that of another who is not strong enough to protect himself—an act that is not uncommon in human life—the performance of the act risks the survival of the individual, and the objective of the act is detrimental to the survival of the species, as the species would be better able to survive if its weaker members were eliminated. Human life is full of actions that share this anti-survival, or at least non-survival, character.
The practice of that which is ethically best—what we call goodness or virtue—involves a course of conduct which, in all respects, is opposed to that which leads to success in the cosmic struggle for existence.79 (T. H. Huxley)
Individuals have often cherished values which are not at all conducive to individual survival. Dying for one's ideals, sacrificing life for something that is considered of higher value than life, has been a value attitude frequently found in human history.80 (Walter A. Weisskopf)
Many ways of behavior which are regarded as ethical or praiseworthy enhance neither the chance of survival nor of reproductive success of the persons so behaving…. The origin of human values through natural selection is an oversimplification which can hardly be sustained.81 (Theodosius Dobzhansky)
Von Weizsäcker points out that care of the older members of the community is an outstanding example of this kind:
There is a strong selection pressure—to use this technical term of selection theory—favoring a good protection of the lives of young individuals; thus the love of parents for their children is common among higher animals. There is, however, no selection pressure favoring the survival of old individuals once they have generated and protected a sufficient number of children. On the contrary, they now become useless eaters. Thus love of adult children for their parents is very rarely seen in animals; the far wider and deeper vision of man seems to be needed in order to understand that caring for the old is a meaningful task.82
Such examples could be multiplied almost indefinitely, and it is clear that those who try to account for the distinctively human behavior patterns on a purely survival basis are closing their eyes to the experience of the race. Actually, however, few of those who characterize ethical behavior as an evolutionary product are able to maintain their position consistently. Marshall Walker, for instance, is positive and unequivocal in stating his position:
Ethical behavior for man is that pattern of individual and collective conduct which maximizes the probability of survival of man as individual and species.83
But nine pages later in the same book he tells us that “Nature is concerned with survival, not justice,”84 which is exactly the position taken in this work. Nature, in its biological manifestation, is, indeed, concerned with survival, and only with survival, but man is concerned with justice and other non-survival objectives, even where, as in the case discussed by Walker in the paragraph from which the second quotation was taken, these objectives are in conflict with the survival motive.
It is sometimes argued that there are other goals more important to the human race than mere survival, and that the evolutionary process in human beings may be preferentially directed toward these other objectives rather than toward survival. But this is an argument against the position that it is intended to support. Biological evolution is a survival process, and substitution of some other objective, thus changing the dominant factor underlying the whole course of behavior of the organism, is irreconcilable with the hypothesis of continuity. Hence, such suggestions do not offer any escape from the crucial fact that there is a major discontinuity somewhere between animal behavior and what is usually considered the more advanced types of human behavior. Below this point, survival is the law of life; beyond it, other considerations are controlling.
Once the existence of these two great discontinuities in the order of increasing complexity is recognized, the next question that arises is: What is their significance? As a background for a consideration of this question, let us take a look at the general subject of emergent properties. In a system governed by simple basic laws, complex phenomena are possible only because combinations of simple entities have properties which the entities themselves do not possess; that is, new properties emerge by reason of the combinations.
As a very simple example, let us consider two entities A and B that have no properties other than magnitude, and let us call these magnitudes a and b respectively. As long as each entity remains in isolation, each has but one property. If the two become associated in some manner, however, the system AB has not only the properties a and b, but also a+b, aÐb, bÐa, ab, a/b, and b/a, together with a multitude of more complex properties involving such things as numerical factors or exponents. All but a and b are emergent properties. In the analogous physical situation, the proliferation of properties by means of combinations of different types is still more extensive, as the basic physical entities have more properties to begin with. This is the situation that makes the Reciprocal System of physical theory possible. In this system, space and time are defined in terms of a mere handful of properties, but combination of these properties in different ways and in different proportions produces an immense number and variety of phenomena that in total constitute the physical universe.
It is important to recognize, however, that all of this multiplication of the consequences of the interaction of the original constituents, whether it be on the scale of the hypothetical system AB or the scale of the universe, is governed by the basic laws that are applicable to these original constituents. For instance, the fundamental unit of ordinary matter, the atom, is subject to the inward-directed force that we call gravitation. This gravitation is inherent in the atom; the same thing that makes it an atom causes it to gravitate. No matter how complex a material aggregate may become or how many different properties may emerge from that complexity, this situation does not change. Each atom is still subject to gravitation, and the gravitational law that applies to the individual atom is equally binding on all combinations of atoms.
It is conceivable that some physical entities may be subject to a gravitational law of a different character—in fact, the Reciprocal System tells us that this is actually true—but if and when we do find any such entities, we know immediately that they are not composed of matter of the type with which we are familiar. The emergence of new properties in a system because of increased complexity does not accomplish any change in the basic patterns of behavior of the system. Anything that does not behave in the characteristic manner of ordinary matter is not ordinary matter.
Actually, when we speak of new properties emerging, we are using the word “new” in a rather restricted sense, as these so-called “new” properties are limited to items which are already implicitly contained in the original entities. As expressed by Walker, they are “latently present in each of the isolated constituents even though such properties are unobservable while the constituent is isolated.”85 The emergent properties a+b, ab, etc., are “new” in a sense, but they are derived specifically from a and b. It is not possible for any properties to emerge in the system AB that are not capable of derivation from a and b. A property c, for example, cannot emerge in this system.
One present-day school of thought, however, is basing its explanation of life and of man on theories of emergent properties that ignore the inherent limitations of emergence. As explained by Muller, “These [theories] are based on the organismic concept of a whole different from the sum of its parts; the gist of them is that a new quality of existence ‘emerges’ from combinations, a quality that is nonadditive and nonpredictable from a knowledge of the original elements.” “The favorite analogy” of the emergent evolution theory, he says, “is the emergence of water: water is qualitatively different from both oxygen and hydrogen and no chemist could have foretold its quality. Just so, on the large scale, did life emerge from matter, mind from life.”86 H. A. Overstreet elaborates this theme:
Water, however, is not simply the sum of hydrogen and oxygen. It is something qualitatively new, something that cannot be found by the most searching examination of the gas, hydrogen, nor of the gas, oxygen. No amount of previous knowledge of the atomic structure of hydrogen and oxygen could, apparently, give a knowledge of this peculiar fluid that results from combining the two gases.87
But these contentions are one hundred percent wrong. The qualitative properties of water can be predicted from the properties of oxygen and hydrogen, even without the new information developed from the postulates of the Reciprocal System. With the benefit of this new knowledge, we can go still farther and calculate the quantitative properties as well. Furthermore, when these authors speak of the properties of water as “qualitatively different” from, or “not related to” the properties of oxygen and hydrogen, the meaning that is given to the word “properties” is definitely misleading, even though technically correct on the basis of popular usage. For instance, water is a liquid at room temperature, whereas hydrogen is a gas. Superficially, this may appear to be a “qualitative difference,” but the truth is that hydrogen is a liquid under certain conditions, whereas water is a gas under certain other conditions. Both substances can exist in either state; the only difference between the two, from this standpoint, is in the boiling temperature. The same situation prevails all along the line. The striking differences between water and hydrogen, as we normally come in contact with them, those differences which the authors that were quoted are calling differences in properties are, strictly speaking, merely differences in the numerical values of certain properties.
All of the properties of water are either the same properties that are possessed by oxygen and by hydrogen—density, specific heat, compressibility, vapor pressure, surface tension, etc.—with different numerical values, or they are properties similar to a+b, ab, etc.; properties of combinations as such. For example, water has the property of dissociation; a hydrogen atom does not. But dissociation is nothing more than a certain kind of process of separating into parts. The only reason why a hydrogen atom cannot dissociate is that it is a single unit and has no parts. A hydrogen molecule, which consists of two atoms, does dissociate under appropriate conditions. Then again, water can act as an acid. Here, it would seem, is a totally new property, something that is quite foreign to hydrogen and oxygen. But when we dig a little deeper, we find that an acid is simply a compound that can transfer a hydrogen atom to some other substance under appropriate conditions. Thus the acidic property is “new” only in the sense that dissociation is new; it is something that a combination can do just because it is a combination.
This matter of emergent properties can be seen in its true light by making use of the concept of the system. For this purpose, we define the system as the original entity or entities together with all entities that can be produced from it or them by processes of combination or rearrangement. The oxygen-hydrogen system which we have been discussing is a relatively small one. In addition to the hydrogen atoms and the oxygen atoms, which are the original entities in this case (by definition), the system includes water (H2O), hydrogen peroxide (H2O2), the hydrogen molecule (H2), the oxygen molecule (O2), the ozone molecule (O3), the hydrogen ion (H+), the hydroxyl ion (OH-), and a number of more complex and less stable units such as the hydronium ion (H3O)+, the ice molecule (H2O)x, together with various aggregates of these units. If we substitute carbon for oxygen, the new system is an enormous one, comprising thousands upon thousands of combinations.
Regardless of whether the system is small or large, the properties of the system are defined by the properties of the original entities and the general laws to which these entities are subject. No unit of the system can have any properties other than those which can be logically derived from the properties of the system as thus defined. Anything that cannot be derived in this manner has no legitimate scientific standing. The appeal of the emergent evolution theory to physical analogy is groundless. Notwithstanding the pronouncements to the contrary that were quoted earlier, the properties of water are fully determined, both qualitatively and quantitatively, by the properties of hydrogen and oxygen atoms and the general laws to which these atoms are subject. Furthermore, the system consisting of hydrogen and oxygen atoms and the derivatives thereof is part of a larger system, consisting of all basic units of matter and the derivatives of these units, and the properties of water are fully determined by the properties of matter and the laws to which matter is subject. Nor do we need to stop here. The matter system is part of a still larger system, consisting of units of space, units of time, and the derivatives of these units, and the properties of water are fully determined by the properties of space and time and the general laws to which space and time are subject. All this is brought out in detail in the previous publications describing the Reciprocal System of theory.
The use that is currently being made of the concept of emergent properties, attributing anything new that appears along the route of increasing complexity to “emergence,” is completely unjustified. It has no logical basis, and the empirical support that is claimed for it from such items as the unique properties of water is wholly non-existent. As it is now being used, the concept of emergence is just another demon, a hypothetical agency that is invoked when no logical explanation can be found. “The theory of Emergence is not a working hypothesis,” says du Nouy, “It is not even scientific.”88 In order to get back on the track, scientifically speaking, we need to recognize just what sort of properties can emerge and what kinds cannot. The points developed in the foregoing paragraphs should make this distinction clear. The properties of acidity, of dissociation, of liquidity at room temperatures, etc., can emerge when water is formed from hydrogen and oxygen, because these are properties of the system hydrogen-oxygen; that is, they can be logically derived from the properties of oxygen and hydrogen together with the general laws governing those elements. The property of inverse gravitation, on the other hand, cannot emerge, because the system hydrogen-oxygen is subject to normal gravitation. Similarly, the property of honesty cannot emerge, as such a thing is completely outside the properties of the hydrogen-oxygen system. Like all other areas of existence, the biological realm is subject to the principle that “from nothing nothing comes.” Emergence cannot create something out of nothing. Only those properties can emerge that are properties of the underlying system.
At each of the two points of discontinuity in the order of increasing complexity in the observed universe, new properties appear which are definitely incompatible with the properties of the system previously existing. At the first discontinuity, there is a jump from inanimate matter which moves toward disorder and which is not subject to any evolutionary process, to a living structure which moves toward order and whose entire character is determined primarily by evolutionary processes. At the second discontinuity, there is a similar jump from a form of life in which the basic objective is survival (the evolutionary objective) to a form of life in which the basic objectives are different from, and often in conflict with, the objective of survival. In each case, there is a drastic change in the general pattern of behavior, a definite departure from the properties of the system previously existing. Thus it is clear that there are three separate and distinct levels of existence: three separate systems. Obviously there are relations between the three, but it is equally evident that each has its own set of rules and follows its own course.
Stated most simply, the phenomena of the inorganic, organic, and human levels are subject to different laws peculiar to those levels.89 (Theodosius Dobzhansky)
Since the three levels exist, and since the differences between them are of such a nature that they cannot be due to the emergence of new properties by reason of structural complexity, it follows that, at each discontinuity, some new element must enter into the situation: some factor that is entirely foreign to the level immediately preceding. The fundamental differences between the levels simply demand that such a factor exist.
The two outstanding events or critical turning points [in evolutionary history] were the origin of life and the origin of man…. With the appearance of life, and again with the appearance of man, something quite novel entered the world.90 (Dobzhansky)
The great majority of present-day scientists are inclined to reject this contention summarily, in spite of the fact that it is a prima facie requirement of the existing situation; but when we pin them down specifically, we find that it is not the conclusion itself that they object to, it is the inference that they are afraid will be drawn from it: the inference that the special factor which makes life what it is has a metaphysical origin. For centuries, a conflict has raged between the “mechanists,” who believe that “all living phenomena can be unequivocally explained in physico-chemical terms,”91 and the “vitalists,” who believe that “special ‘principles,’ different from all physical and chemical ones, are… ‘active’ in living organisms, guiding and organizing the vital processes which for that reason can never be resolved into a mere play of physico-chemical forces.”92 While a metaphysical origin of these “special principles” is not necessarily required, the vitalist position obviously opens the door to the development of explanations of this character, and the present generation of scientists, strongly opposed to leaving any loophole for the entry of metaphysics into the field which science has preempted, condemns the entire “special principle” concept in an excess of precaution.
But the facts are undeniable. As expressed by Beckner, “The empirical problems that gave rise to the controversy between ‘vitalists’ and ‘mechanists’ are still with us, though nowadays they are discussed in other terms.”93 In achieving their present ascendancy over the vitalists, the mechanists have not been able to supply a mechanical explanation for the unique behavior characteristics of living organisms. “It is an obvious commonplace,” says Nagel, “but one that must not be ignored if that issue is to be justly appraised, that there are large sectors of biological study in which physico-chemical explanations play no role at present.”94 Von Bertalanffy, who is not an advocate of vitalism, is nevertheless still more emphatic:
We can undoubtedly describe the organism and its processes physico-chemically in principle although we may still be far removed from reaching such a goal. But as vital processes they are not characterized in this way at all, since what is essential in the organism is that the particular physico-chemical processes are organized in it in quite a peculiar manner.95
It is evident that this is another illustration of the point brought out in Chapter 1: that the scientist relies on “faith” in reaching some of his conclusions just as much as the theologian relies on faith in arriving at some of his religious doctrines. In the controversy between the mechanists and the vitalists, neither side has anything concrete to support its position. The mechanists are confronted with an existing situation for which they have no explanation, while the vitalists have an explanation for which they cannot produce any evidence. The mechanist can only rely on his faith that an explanation will be forthcoming at some future time; the vitalist relies on an equally strong faith that no mechanistic explanation will ever be found, and that his “special principle” will have to be accepted in the long run. Sinnott summarizes the existing situation in this manner:
The plain fact is that in the present status of science biological organization remains still unexplained, and that many investigators are doubtful whether we are nearer to the ultimate answer than we were half a century ago.96
As matters now stand, the physical scientists, who are one step removed from the problem, are generally staunch mechanists. “The mechanistic view is supreme,”97 reports Asimov, a biochemist. But the biologists, who are face to face with the dilemma, are less confident. As Von Bertalanffy puts it, “Between physico-chemistry and metaphysics biology pursues a strange and crooked path.”98 A few decades ago, most biologists, probably somewhat overawed by the prestige of the physical sciences, were mechanists, although even in 1931 J. S. Haldane reported that “such support as it [the mechanistic conception of life] still receives is, at least, nearly always half-hearted and depends mainly on the absence of any clear conception of what can take the place of the physico-chemical interpretation.”99 More recently, there has been a return to something which, to the outsider, appears to be nothing more than the doctrines of vitalism dressed up in some new clothes, substituting a “creative potential” for the former “vital force.” As Habgood states the case, the individuals who adhere to this new view “are trying to defend in modern terms what vitalism has always stood for, even though they may reject all the older vitalistic theories.”100
Notwithstanding the strong family resemblance, the supporters of this so-called “organismic” viewpoint contend that there is actually a significant difference between it and vitalism. “At first glance this creative potential may look much like the old élan vital,” concedes Muller, but he stoutly affirms, “Actually, however, the organismic view is a higher synthesis of the vitalism-mechanism controversy, retaining the positive findings of both schools, transcending their artificial problems and their unnecessary exclusions.”101 From the standpoint of our present objectives, the significance of this continuing attempt to reconcile the opposing viewpoints is that it constitutes a recognition that there is a basic problem here which is still unresolved.
Even those philosophers and scientists who hold fast to mechanism occasionally reveal their uneasiness about the situation. Bridgman, for instance, comments that “now that we have quantum phenomena, a proof that vital phenomena are outside thermodynamics would not be so catastrophic as it would have been earlier in scientific history.”102 This statement is particularly interesting, not so much because of what it actually says, but because of what it implies. We may deduce from this statement (1) that Bridgman‘s confidence in the strength of the mechanistic position is by no means unlimited, and (2) that the mechanists’ view of the relation between the living and the non-living is not so much a product of an unbiased appraisal of the evidence as it is a reflection of their fears concerning the “catastrophic” effect which the vitalistic explanation would have on some of their other beliefs.
In this present study, our undertaking is to make a cold-blooded an unbiased study of the facts as they stand, without any concern as to what implications our findings may have on other aspects of human thought, either inside or outside the scientific field, and without any arbitrary preferences for one type of explanation over another. When we examine the situation on this basis, it is clear that there is a definite discontinuity between living and non-living, and that living organisms follow basic laws and principles which are totally different from, and in some important respects directly opposed to, the laws and principles governing inanimate matter. From this it is evident that some new factor is involved in life that is not present, or at least not effective, in inanimate matter: “something quite novel,” as Dobzhansky said in the statement quoted earlier. Heisenberg summarizes the situation:
One learns from simple biological experience that the living organisms display a degree of stability which general complicated structures consisting of many different types of molecules could certainly not have on the basis of the physical and chemical laws alone. Therefore, something has to be added to the laws of physics and chemistry before the biological phenomena can be completely understood.103
There is no observational evidence of the existence of this “something,” the “quite novel” factor that reverses the rules of the inanimate sector of the universe and makes life possible, other than such observations as we may make of its effect on the behavior of organisms, and there is no direct indication of its nature—whether it is material or non-material, physical or non-physical. But there is no escape from the conclusion that such a factor must become effective at the point of discontinuity between non-living and living. “In any case something new has definitely been added in these steps of the origin of life.”104 (George G. Simpson)
Scientists are inclined to lay great stress on minimizing the number of basic assumptions utilized in their theories, and the principle commonly attributed to William of Occam which condemns unnecessary hypotheses is generally accepted as an important guideline for scientific work. But it is even more important to have enough basic elements to work with, and this is something that many men of science are inclined to overlook in those cases where they cannot readily identify all of the elements that are needed.
An example that was discussed at some length in Beyond Newton105 is that of the structure of the huge aggregates of stars known as the globular clusters. In these clusters, tens or hundreds of thousands of stars maintain approximately fixed positions in what is apparently one of the most stable of all astronomical structures. It is quite evident that the cluster as a whole is held together by gravitational forces, but if gravitation were the only force in operation, the stars could not maintain their separations; each cluster would eventually collapse into one single mass. Obviously no one force could account for the existing situation. There must be some other force with which the gravitational forces are in equilibrium, but no adequate force has been identified. Under the circumstances, the logical course would have been to recognize the fact that a second force must exist, and to keep an eye open for some indications of its nature. But present-day science is inclined to take the position that anything which is not within its current range of vision is non-existent, and we can look in vain for any admission by the astronomers that they are short one force of some kind.
In this case, the development of the Reciprocal System has resulted in the identification of the missing force and clarification of the entire problem, but this merely emphasizes the absurdity of refusing to recognize logical necessities just because they are outside the current limits of scientific knowledge. Those limits are constantly being extended, and notwithstanding the reluctance of the scientific “authorities” to concede that there is anything beyond their range of vision, they will be extended again and again. The clear necessity for the entry of something new in the transition from non-living to living is simply a signpost indicating a place where another extension of the limits of scientific knowledge is essential.
The same considerations apply to the discontinuity at the upper end of the evolutionary path:
It has to be noted that there is not a straight line—cosmic development, living evolution, human society. There are critical points, or creaking joints: the first is the transition from non-living to living… the second is the transition from the biological to the human social and cultural…. If it is one process, what do the critical points mean, since they constitute at least a change of direction and the dominance of a new element?106 (Leslie Paul)
Like the lower discontinuity, the upper “creaking joint” is a place where something new enters into the situation; where the rules change, and a new perspective is required in order to understand what is taking place.
If we go beyond biology and include psychology in the discussion, then there can scarcely be any doubt but that the concepts of physics, chemistry, and evolution together will not be sufficient to describe the facts.107 (Werner Heisenberg)
Here, too, the great differences in behavior above and below the point of discontinuity definitely demand the presence of a new factor of some kind. Those who deny its existence are simply refusing to face the issue squarely. The argument that they always offer is that there is no observational evidence of such a factor. As von Weizsäcker puts it:
Where else than in inorganic matter should life have its origin; where else than in animals should man find his ancestors? We see no other possible origin.108
There is no merit in this argument. The fact that von Weizsäcker cannot see any other origin may be interesting, but it is not relevant unless he is omniscient, which presumably he does not claim. On the other hand, the facts cited by Heisenberg—the fact that something has to be added to the concepts of physics and chemistry to make biological phenomena intelligible, and something more has to be added to the concepts of physics, chemistry, and evolution to make human behavior intelligible—do define the situation. They do not tell us the nature of the “something more,” but they make the existence of these additional factors a matter of certainty. There is no justification for refusing to recognize that which, according to the evidence now before us, definitely exists, even though this existence does not fit neatly into the accepted physical pattern.
We must therefore not be discouraged by the difficulty of interpreting life by the ordinary laws of physics. For that is just what is to be expected from the knowledge we have gained of the structure of living matter. We must be prepared to find a new type of physical law prevailing in it.109 (Erwin Schrödinger)
This is the observational picture as it now stands. In the next two chapters, we will develop the theoretical picture, and we will compare the two to see how closely they are in agreement: how strongly the facts of observation support the theoretical conclusions, and how well the theoretical conclusions explain the observed facts.