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Large Questions

The Phenomenon of Life

by Hans Jonas
Harper & Row, 303 pp., $6.00

The Knower and the Known

by Marjorie Grene
Basic Books, 283 pp., $6.00

The Identity of Man

by J. Bronowski
Natural History Press, 107 pp., $3.95

Whether man is a part of nature or not is one of the largest and most persistent problems of philosophy, and unlike many philosophical problems it is a matter about which every moderately reflective person is likely to have an opinion. Most people, like most philosophers, are dualists, believing, with Descartes, that there are two distinct kinds of thing in the world that are wholly irreducible to each other; on the one hand subjects and acts of consciousness, infallibly known to introspection, and on the other spatially extended physical objects, including the human body, imparting motion to one another by impact.

Dualism has many interesting consequences. It makes the personal survival of bodily death intelligible by extricating the soul from the collapse of the body. It encourages a more or less ascetic kind of morality which calls for the control by the higher, spiritual aspect of a person over the lower passions of the body. It implies that the methods of inquiry which have given us, through natural science, an ever-increasing mastery over our environment cannot be successfully applied to men and the societies they compose.

Gilbert Ryle, the most trenchant of contemporary anti-dualists, has suggested that the widespread acceptance of this way of looking at things is the responsibility of Descartes and that if only his sophisticated conceptual mistakes were exposed we could settle down to a straightforward all-embracing naturalism which would see men as just one kind of common object, distinguished only by the relative complexity and variety of their behavior. This is too parochial an explanation for a belief that is part of our second nature. Descartes’ dualism is only a more lucid and unequivocal version of the dualism of Christianity, arrived at by the Fathers of the Church through superimposing the philosophy of Plato on elementary Christian beliefs. Furthermore the distinction of mind and body is not even a Western, let alone a Christian, monopoly, being present in all the major religions.

THE ANTI-CARTESIANISM of philosophers like Ryle and Wittgenstein turns out to be less far-reaching than it seemed at first, for dualism, in another guise, survives it. Shown the door in its Cartesian outfit, it is readmitted when decently clothed in more or less Kantian garments. Man’s uniqueness in the world arises from the fact that he is a rational agent. His actions are not natural events that can be causally explained. As the deeds of a rational, language-using being, they have to be understood and not just perceived and correlated like the movements of a machine.

Dualism has suffered a series of wounds in the last hundred years from developments in natural science that have been more debilitating than the arguments of analytic philosophers. A violent glancing blow was administered by Darwinism when it demonstrated the continuity of man with the rest of the animal creation (Descartes saw animals as machines). Experimental psychology and the social sciences have suggested that man is a subject for causal inquiry, though as much perhaps by their energy and self-confidence as by the achievement of agreed results. Most recently the cybernetic theory of servo-mechanisms has been thought to provide a model for the causal explanation of the type of purposive conduct that is characteristic of man. These tendencies all point towards materialism but that, as these books by Dr. Jonas and Mrs. Grene show, is not the only option.

Dr. Jonas is an anti-Cartesian, in a philosophically grand or Teutonic manner, but he is equally opposed to the lines of thought, especially the Darwinian and cybernetic ones, which have been called upon to justify a move to materialism. Indeed he regards both materialism and idealism as just truncated relies of the theory of Descartes. The dualist divides the world into active mind and inertly extended matter; the materialist reduces mind to dead matter; the idealist reduces matter to a kind of collective fantasy of minds. What Dr. Jonas aims to revive is an improved and chastened version of the Aristotelian idea that existences can be arranged in a hierarchy with dead, physical matter at the bottom, living matter, metabolically interacting with its environment, just above it, next the animal creation with its ability to perceive, feel, and move, and, at the top, man, the incorrigibly visual imagemaker and theorist (in the last chapter an inchoate and diaphanous God is dangled before us as a final dressing).

This animal-vegetable-mineral theory, a resistance to all metaphysical homogenization, has had several modern defenders. In the 1920s much was heard of “emergent evolution,” an idea bred by crossing Darwin and Hegel. Its most distinguished exponent was Whitehead, to whom Dr. Jonas makes occasional respectful references. His book’s originality lies in its confrontation of new scientific material, such as cybernetics and the DNA molecule, rather than in the general project it undertakes. In this respect the dust-jacket is very misleading. On the front it describes Dr. Jonas as “taking issue with the evolutionary optimism of Teilhard de Chardin” who is mentioned only once in the main text, and in a footnote at that, and on the flap the book is described as “an ‘existentialist’ interpretation of biological facts.” These remarks are derived directly from the Preface but bear little relation to what follows. At times Dr. Jonas decorates his exposition with “existentialist” trappings. Life always looks forward to death, he tells us, and is thus in a continual state of crisis, it must confront its fate with audacity. These items from the existentialist vocabulary are really harmless, added coloring matter. The point of the book is to show the intellectual inadequacies of dualism and materialism. Both doctrines deny conceptual autonomy to life, and materialism denies it to mind as well. The arguments against these denials very properly occupy much more of Dr. Jonas’s attention than dramatic verbal gestures, such as “our thinking today is under the ontological dominance of death,” i.e., it has a materialistic tendency.

AN ARGUMENT is brought against dualism which has had a number of exponents in recent years: Husserl and Merleau-Ponty, Whitehead and, most recently, Stuart Hampshire in Thought and Action. It is that the Cartesian account of our experience of ourselves is a simple theorist’s falsehood. We know ourselves not as detached contemplators of visual imagery but as embodied agents directly involved with an obstructive physical environment. Our primary conception of ourselves is of something which falls on both sides of the Cartesian iron curtain. The thing we know best and most intimately is neither wholly mental nor wholly physical; the two orders of being are inextricably involved with one another.

With dualism thus dispatched in the first chapter the way is clear for dealing with its apparent residuary legatee: materialism. Dr. Jonas starts with Darwinism, with the view that life and mind, the higher levels of existence, have emerged from the lower level of matter by the impact of natural selection on chance variations. This notion, he says, represents man as a disease of the amoeba, a complex defensive response by protoplasm to instabilities arising accidentally within it. His main point here is negative: The evolution of species is a fact and so is the occurrence of mutations, but the view that mutations occur accidentally and not in the pursuit of some purposive scheme is a metaphysical hypothesis, “a mere trial with Occam’s razor.” But in default of a definite alternative with some positive support, the application of Occam’s razor here is surely appropriate. At any rate, Dr. Jonas concludes, since mind is as much an evolutionary product as living species is, we must see the distinguishing characteristics of man as continuous with the other properties of natural objects. A materialist would agree more readily to this than to something Dr. Jonas seems to regard as entailed by it, the view that we must ascribe “inwardness” or consciousness to the earliest forms of life. We can admit, as against Descartes, that dogs and cats are conscious beings, that suffer pain and enjoy pleasure, without going nearly as far as that.

Having undermined the mechanical account of the overall development of living things, Dr. Jonas turns to the mechanical account of their detailed behavior. He starts at the beginning with the fact of metabolism, the constant exchange of matter that goes on between an organism and its environment. To establish his point that all living things have some sort of inwardness, he argues that they cannot be identified through time in the way plain material bodies can. A piece of inorganic matter traces a continuous path in space throughout its history and is sharply distinguished from its environment, but there is no such boundary in the case of a metabolizing organism, which is a persisting form imposed on ever-changing material, like a wave in the sea, not a fixed chunk of stuff. The only model we can make use of to identify a self-integrating organism is that provided by the unitary self-consciousness which is the basis, under all bodily changes, of our own identity as persons.

THERE ARE TWO MAIN DIFFICULTIES to this bold proposition. The first is suggested by the comparison of an organism with an ocean wave. Inorganic bodies are as much persisting forms as living bodies. We do not identify them through the material they are made of, because we do not in general know what its exact constitution at different times is, and we cannot do so, since identity of ultimate composition is neither necessary nor sufficient to the identity of a material complex. Bits get rubbed off physical things and other bits get stuck on to them, though the mechanism of these exchanges is not metabolic. Furthermore the ultimate bits themselves cannot be identified by their constituents for, if really ultimate, they have none. The second difficulty is that, even if we like to think that some animals have continuing inward personalities, the intimations of these personalities are far too thin to support the host of identifications of organisms we confidently make. In fact we identify real dogs and toy dogs in just the same way, according to the continuity of their observable properties and position.

Against cybernetic accounts of purposive behavior Dr. Jonas argues, irrefutably, that a servo-mechanical torpedo does not feel depressed when it fails to hit its target in the way an unlucky Kamikaze pilot might in the brief moment available for regret. Equally irresistible is the distinction he draws between serving a purpose and having one. But his main argument here is meant to be more conclusive than these rather loose considerations. The cybernetician, he argues, cannot consistently include his own activities as a theorist within the scope of his own theory, cannot explain his own beliefs as the causal outcome of negative feedback without implying that since they are thus caused they are without rational justification. This immensely popular argument is simply a fallacy. For all its yeoman service in countless series of Gifford Lectures and other edifying assaults on the pretensions of science, it is devoid of cogency. My belief at this moment that it is raining can be causally explained by my optical equipment, my linguistic education, and the environmental fact that it is raining. Because the first of these factors is in good working order and the second was in this respect efficient, my belief corresponds to the way things are. The argument looks plausible because in practice we are usually interested in causal explanations only when beliefs are false or arguments are invalid. Diagnosis is only for the sick but the possibility of causal explanation is less restricted.

Several of Dr. Jonas’s arguments recur in Mrs. Grene’s somewhat desultory celebration of the epistemology of Professor Michael Polanyi. In her best chapter she enforces with an impressive array of technical detail the argument against the sufficiency of natural selection and chance variation as an explanation of the evolution of species. She emphasizes its unplausibility as an account of any but the smallest of adaptations and argues that the Darwinian scheme of ideas has the infinitely elastic character of a tautology, compatible with any conceivable evidence, like a bathing suit that can snugly fit any figure. In chapters on Aristotle, Descartes, and Hume she builds up an indictment of the conception of the disembodied, purely spectatorial knower of traditional theory of knowledge and extends a welcome to Kant’s insistence on the knower’s active contribution to what he knows. She too infers that any causal theory of belief that falls within its own scope is self-refuting. Her general aim is much the same as Dr. Jonas’s: to reestablish the idea that reality is a hierarchical system the higher levels of which can be understood only in teleological terms. Nature is alive and cannot be understood mechanically. The most real things, by Polanyi’s criteria of independence and potentiality of freedom, are not just analyzable assemblages but integral wholes, purposive achievements not contingent happenings.

MUCH OF HER BOOK takes the form of trying Polanyi out on the doctrines of major philosophers. A silly question of Plato’s (how can we set out to discover new knowledge unless we know what we want to know already) is given a sensible interpretation (how do we get new knowledge), a kind of tour de force of which that philosopher is infinitely susceptible. Polanyi’s view is that if all knowledge were impersonal and explicit, as the epistemological tradition takes it to be, we could learn nothing new. At all times there is a mass of personal, tacit knowledge on which we rely that cannot be communicated. We know more than we can say. The meaning and utility of this doctrine remain obscure. Mrs. Grene’s adherence to it seems largely an occasion for quite properly and reasonably reopening a number of questions closed by mechanistic and scientistic philosophers. It works as a general device for softening the contours of what we take to be established, objective knowledge. Mrs. Grene is excessively fond of the words “context” and “framework” and often seems to rely on them to give a hard, technical quality to somewhat amorphous and indefinite speculations.

Both of these books are collections of essays rather than continuous developments of a unitary project. Mrs. Grene’s looks more like a unity, but Dr. Jonas’s is more of a unity in fact, since its intellectual backbone, the doctrine of a hierarchy of irreducibly different kinds of being, is more definite in itself and more firmly related to the detail that surrounds it than is what corresponds to it in Mrs. Grene’s book. These two writers are united in their opposition to the differently based but similarly directed materialistic tendencies of most biological science and a good deal of analytic philosophy. This duality of aim is a difficulty for them. Orthodox biologists will reject a negative approach that discountenances what they are doing without clearly specifying what they should be doing instead. (And they may well feel that the Darwinism objected to is more Darwin’s than the mid-twentieth century’s.) Analytic philosophers, on the other hand, will find Dr. Jonas’s arguments familiar and refutable and Mrs. Grene’s usually rhetorical and inconclusive. But both books, particularly Dr. Jonas’s, are rational undertakings, not vaguely inspirational musings à la Teilhard, and raise persistent philosophical problems of live issues in the current growth of science. As a fairly thorough-going materialist I do not find Dr. Jonas’s arguments disturbingly powerful, as I have tried to show with some strategically central examples of his reasoning, but they at least provide the kind of criticism which it enlivens a genuine conviction to have to meet.

THIS CANNOT BE SAID for Dr. Bronowski’s four lectures on The Identity of Man, which have not been transferred altogether satisfactorily to print. The exposition moves fluently and almost obsequiously along, coaxing our better selves into agreement with whatever it is that he is trying to get across, amid much dropping of the names of very up-to-date theories and abstract ideas. But there is not a great deal in the way of clearly paraphrasable content. Science involves imagination as much as poetry. Science has ethical implications, requiring self-forgetfulness and the love of truth, but there are other essential values of a tenderer kind. There is a kind of self-knowledge that eludes science and which we must get from literature. Poetry has no moral but it displays universal humanity to us and inspires a sense of community. Alongside these modest and hardly exceptionable theses some more striking suggestions are implied. Much hostility to science, he says, is due to men’s desire to be assured of their uniqueness. But if this is the uniqueness of individuals, poetry as he describes it will be of little help since it shows how alike we all are. The limits of mechanism are specified in the following mysterious remark: “the input which the brain prepares for itself from its own output, in one of its modes of knowledge, cannot be written as a formal tape of instruction for any machine that we can understand, in principle.” Does this mean that no machine could write poetry? Or that no machine could understand poetry? In either case what he says is the beginning of a problem rather than the solution of one.

Letters

Large Questions August 18, 1966

Eristic Trickery July 28, 1966

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