Chapter 1: Some Main Philosophical Issues in Contemporary Scientific Thought by Ivor Leclerc
Ivor Leclerc previously taught at the University of Glasgow and is now Professor of Philosophy at Emory University.
The philosophical issue which is quite fundamental to scientific thought is that of the ultimate nature of the physical. It is necessary today that this issue be very much to the fore because the course of scientific development in the last hundred years and more has rendered unacceptable the conception of the physical which had dominated scientific thought since the seventeenth century. In particular this issue is of primary importance to the consideration of the philosophical problems involved in biology, the topic of this book.
The most effective approach to this fundamental issue at the present time is to start with the conception of the physical which has determined modern scientific thought until this century. To become clear about that conception is also important because there is still a very considerable carry-over of features and aspects of that conception in contemporary scientific thinking as tacit presuppositions, presuppositions which are inconsistent with the new conception of the physical now requisite and in our time in the process of formulation.
Modern science was grounded in the seventeenth century in a radically new conception of the physical, the conception of the physical as ‘matter.’ It is of crucial significance for scientific thought today to appreciate what is entailed in that conception of the physical. The concept of ‘matter’ goes back to Aristotle,1 and throughout the entire medieval epoch until the beginning of the modem period the Aristotelian conception persisted of ‘matter’ as the correlative of ‘form’ in the physical existent. That is, ‘matter’ meant one ingredient in the physical existent, that which is formed, that which is the recipient of definiteness -- as such it itself being without any definiteness or character; the other ingredient was ‘form,’ that whereby the existent was ‘what’ it was, with a particular definiteness as this or that. Further, in medieval thought it was explicitly maintained that the component which is ‘matter’ was sheerly passive -- ‘matter’ was a passive recipient, a merely passive potentiality for ‘form’; by contrast all activity or agency was ascribed to ‘form.’2
The great philosophical innovation of the seventeenth century was to conceive ‘matter’ as per se the physical existent; ‘form’ was separated from matter to become an independent, mental or psychical, existent. This dualism of all existence into two ultimate kinds, physical and mental, has been determinative of almost all thought since that time. It is a doctrine which today needs to be subjected to searching scrutiny. What is of immediate significance to us is that, in conceiving the physical existent as ‘matter,’ seventeenth-century thought accepted and carried over as the essential connotation of ‘matter’ (which is indeed grounded in the etymology of the term3) what it had been in the medieval epoch, namely of sheer passive potentiality. Thus in the modern conception, the physical existent as ‘matter’ was in itself completely devoid of activity or agency -- it was strictly ‘inert,’ as Kepler was the first to characterize it; it was ‘movable’ but could not move itself, as Newton insisted. Since the physical as ‘matter’ was without activity, this entailed that it was in itself changeless, i.e., without any internal change, and thus incapable of any process of ‘becoming.’ The only change possible in respect of the physical as ‘matter’ was a purely external change of place, i,e., of being moved from one place to another.
But the result of the development of science has been that in this century there has occurred a de facto abandonment of that early modern conception of the physical. It is now on the whole implicitly or explicitly accepted in the basic sciences that physical existents are somehow and in some respect ‘active.’ This, as Whitehead among the earliest clearly appreciated, amounts to a radical change in the philosophical conception of the physical, a change indeed no less radical than had been the introduction of the conception of the physical as ‘matter’ in the seventeenth century.
The fundamental philosophical implication of the contemporary scientific development, as Whitehead perceived, was the rejection of all which was entailed in the concept of ‘matter.’ That concept had implied that the physical existents were sheerly passive, in themselves changeless; the necessity today is to conceive physical existents as ‘active,’ as in a process of becoming. Secondly, the concept of the physical as ‘matter’ implied that physical existents are capable only of undergoing locomotive change, and accordingly the science of physics had understood physical existence solely in terms of bodies in motion. The conception of the physical as in a ‘process of becoming,’ on the contrary, entails other kinds of change in addition to locomotion, kinds which are not reducible to locomotive change. This opens up new vistas for the understanding of physical existence which, as Whitehead saw, bring the sciences of physics and biology much closer together than had been possible on the antecedent conception.
The general philosophical problem of the nature of the physical has to be articulated into a number of more special, interconnected problems. This had been clear to the more perspicacious thinkers of the seventeenth century, such as Descartes. It was seen that there was the problem as to what precisely was entailed in the conception of the physical as ‘matter’ in respect of the diverse plurality of entities in which the physical manifests itself. It was not sufficient to maintain simply that they were all ‘material.’ For in some respect there is a difference in status among these entities. The problem of this difference in status had come to the fore toward the end of the first quarter of the century as a result of the rejection of the medieval Aristotelian conception of organic entities as constituting unitary wholes and as such identifiable as primary physical existents.
In the early seventeenth century the conviction had grown that these wholes, of which living organisms were the paradigm instances, were not integral wholes but were rather composites, strictly aggregates -- which is to say that they were wholes which were no more than the sum of their constituents. Thus, it was maintained, it was the ultimate constituents which had to be conceived as the true primary physical existents. These were conceived as the ultimate units of matter, in themselves not further divisible, i.e., ‘atomic’ in the etymological sense of the term. Since the material atoms were the primary physical existents, it meant that all other entities had the derivative status of mere aggregate collections, their features as composites being no more than the arithmetical sum of the features of the constituents.4 This was incontestably demonstrable, it was thought, in experiments in mechanics, in which it made no difference what mass of matter was used, for the laws of motion were indifferently exhibited by all composites; clearly therefore these laws must hold too for the indivisible atomic constituents of those composite bodies.
Thus, in terms of this theory, the philosophical problem concerning the status respectively of the plurality of entities received a relatively simple solution. This was to conceive all entities as divided into two groups, the one constituted by all the primary physical existents, the atoms of matter, and the other constituted by all the various aggregate composites of the primary existents.
Although this theory of material atomism came to dominate by the end of the seventeenth century -- and continued to do so completely until the present century -- we should take account of the alternative theory of Descartes in order further to elucidate the philosophical problem of the status of the plurality of entities. Descartes regarded the theory of material atomism as involving insuperable difficulties, such as that of divisibility, difficulties which he was able to avoid with a very different conception of the physical as ‘matter.’ Descartes maintained that the physical per se was constituted by one entity, a one res extensa; that is, there was one ultimate physical existent, a single ‘matter’ indefinitely extended and indefinitely divisible. The plurality of entities, the bodies which are the subject-matter of the science of physics, he conceived as derivative from the one res extensa or matter, constituted by the differential locomotion of parts of the one ultimate res extensa. Thus, despite his difference from the theory of material atomism, Descartes similarly divided all entities into two basic groups, in his case a one primary physical entity, and the group constituted by all derivative entities, the plurality of bodies which, he agreed, were composites of varying degrees of complexity by reason of the differential motion of their constituent parts. Both Descartes and the material atomists were agreed that the character of all composites was no more than the arithmetical sum of their parts, and that the character of composites was accordingly exhaustively analyzable and understandable in terms of the locomotion of the constituent parts. Descartes, for example, explicitly regarded human and animal bodies as complex machines. That is, biological organisms had a status no different from any other composite.
In the subsequent centuries scientific inquiry has revealed an increasing number and complexity of entities, but the philosophical problem of the relative status of these entities has been largely ignored. Yet the philosophical problem has become ever greater. For the diversity of entities -- in physics: atoms, electrons, protons, neutrons, positrons, etc., etc.; in chemistry: atoms and molecules; in biochemistry and molecular biology: highly complex structures of simpler molecules, and cells; in biology: again molecular structures, cells, structures of cells into organs, a vast variety of different kinds of organisms -- is not being conceived in these sciences as mere aggregates understood mechanically in terms of the locomotion of constituents. Rather it has become increasingly clear that composite entities are constituted by relatednesses or patterns of relationship among the constituents.
The scientific problem is the clarification of the relations of the entities constituting a composite, for example the number of constituents and the pattern or structure displayed in their relationship to each other. The philosophical problem is respecting the relations per se, to understand the nature of relations, and particularly those involved such that they result in just those composites with just those features exhibited by the composites. For example, consider the chemical theory of molecules as exhibiting definite structural relationships of their constituent atoms. The philosophical issue is that, since the particular features of the molecules (as gaseous, liquid, solid, as acid or alkaline, etc., etc.) are directly correlative to structural relationships, the composite wholes could not be the mere arithmetical sum of the constituents; ‘structural relationship’ implies something more than ‘arithmetical sum.’ The philosophical problem is how ‘structural relationships’ and the features dependent upon them are to be accounted for.
This philosophical problem of the nature of relations drives us back to the more ultimate problem of the nature of the physical existents: what must be their nature such that they can have relations which are constitutive of structural composites? For example, what must be the nature of physical existents such that the composite, the molecule of water, not only consists of one oxygen atom and two hydrogen atoms, but that they are at a particular distance from each other and in a particular three-dimensional pattern? It is evident that this composite structure is completely inexplicable in terms of the physical existent conceived as ‘matter.’ For the concept of matter’ contains nothing whatever whereby such a structural relationship could result. The locomotion of material particles might fortuitously eventuate briefly in such a geometrical pattern, but there is no reason whatever in their nature as ‘matter’ why they should continue in that pattern -- on the contrary, their not so continuing is what would follow from the concept of ‘matter.’ Also the conception of the constituent entities as ‘matter’ provides nothing whereby there could be what are termed ‘valency bonds’ between the atoms. It is evident that quite a different conception of the nature of physical existents is necessary.
Philosophically considered the conception of the physical as ‘active’ provides the requisite basis for the physical existents to be in structural relationship. Leibniz had seen this in the seventeenth century, and so had Kant in the next century (in his pre-critical writings). For if a relationship is to make a difference to the entities involved, as opposed to being purely ‘external’5 -- and such a difference is precisely what is involved in a ‘structural relationship’ -- then that relationship can only be effected by the acting of the entities concerned; since unless they act to bring about a relationship, any relationship which there might be would be entirely external, as it is in the case of the physical conceived as ‘matter.’ The fundamental acting of a physical existent must therefore be relational acting. This is what both Leibniz and Kant maintained. And this is what Whitehead has maintained in this century with his doctrine of ‘prehension’ -- acting for him is a prehensive relating. In terms of such acting not only is structural relationship accounted for, but also the phenomenon of ‘bonds’ between the entities.
We need now, with the conception of the physical as ‘acting,’ to return to the philosophical problem raised in Section II of the status respectively of the different kinds of entity. Specifically the question here is: which are to be identified as ‘acting’ entities in the primary sense -- as opposed to being only derivatively acting, that is, by virtue of the acting of the constituents of the entity in question? For example, are we to conceive chemical atoms as active in the primary sense while molecules are active only derivatively? But atoms, in current theory, are themselves composites; does this then imply that they too are derivatively active, it being their constituents, electrons, protons, etc., which are primarily active? But some at least of these constituents, e.g., protons, would themselves seem to be composite, so that by the logic of this argument the truly active entities must be identified with the ultimate constituents, those which are not themselves composite.
This position is very persuasive, and has been adopted by a number of thinkers, for example, Leibniz in the seventeenth century, Kant in the eighteenth, and Whitehead in this century. Whitehead’s ‘actual entities,’ like the ‘monads’ of Leibniz and Kant, are such ultimate acting entities. Thus this position, like that of material atomism, makes a basic distinction in status among entities between those comprising the ultimate constituents, which are ‘simple,’ in the sense of not being composites, and those which are composites. Further, in this position, as in material atomism, all composites are alike in philosophical status; that is, there are no fundamentally different kinds among them -- analogous to the difference in kind exemplified by constituents and composites -- which means that the diversity among composites is to be understood entirely in terms of degrees of complexity of relationships among the constituents.
The question must be raised as to whether the diverse plurality and character of composites is adequately explicable solely in terms of the acting of the ultimate constituents. Further, does that theory adequately account for complex composites as constituted by hierarchical structures of less complex composites, e.g., of structures of atoms to constitute molecules, of structures of molecules to constitute cells, of structures of cells to constitute a biological organism? Are such hierarchies of composites necessitated at all by the theory of actual (or acting) entities as solely the ultimate constituents, any more than it is by the theory of material atomism? In the case of the latter theory the fact of such hierarchies of composites is strictly gratuitous, as it is merely a state of affairs which is empirically found to be the case; in terms of that theory composites cannot be any more than pure aggregates. In the former theory, since acting is relating, composites are not mere aggregates; but is the fact of hierarchies of composites constituting more complex ones any more than a merely empirically discovered state of affairs? Why should there be such hierarchies? Is it necessitated by the constituents as relationally acting? That necessitates only that there be structured composites, but not hierarchical structures of such composites.
Yet the evidence of scientific research testifies to these hierarchies having an importance of a kind too great for their existence to be merely fortuitous. An alternative theory seems to me to be necessary to account for them. For such a theory, the first requirement is to reject the view of acting pertaining only to the ultimate constituents of composites. This opens up the way for a conception of composites as per se acting entities. I have elsewhere6 propounded such a theory -- which can be only adumbrated here -- in which the actings of the constituents integrate to compose a single, higher-level entity, which per se as an integral whole acts relationally with respect to other such entities. An atom, composed of electrons, protons, etc., would be an instance of such a composite entity having its own agency as such, i.e., not derivatively from its constituents. Likewise molecules would be higher-level entities, per se the subjects of non-derivative agency. Still higher-level composites constituted of a hierarchy of lower level entities are biological organisms.
On such a theory, therefore, composites of various grades of complexity would have the status of being actual physical existents in their own right, and not as such ‘reducible’ to their ultimate constituents -- as in the theory of material atomism, molecules and biological organisms are reducible to the ultimate constituents.
Closely connected with the foregoing issues is another set of philosophical problems. These have become of increasing moment with the developments of our time in molecular biology. The central problem is to explain the fact that some complex molecular structures come to have biological features.
This problem has, of course, been under consideration for the past hundred years and more, and gave rise to the theory of ‘emergent evolution.’ This concept of ‘emergence,’ however, philosophically considered, is no solution; rather it only more specifically raises the problem, namely of how emergence is possible. Now there is not only emergence of something, but also emergence from something. And with the dominance of the conception of the physical as ‘matter,’ this meant that what emerges are ‘biological’ entities from ‘matter.’ In terms of the physical as ‘matter,’ the biological entities could, however, not be fundamentally different in nature from their material constituents; that is, biological entities are intelligible purely in terms of their chemical constituents, which in turn are reducible to their ‘physical’ constituents, which is to say that biological entities are basically intelligible in purely mechanistic terms. This doctrine has been opposed by thinkers maintaining a doctrine of ‘vitalism,’ namely that biological entities, manifesting the feature of ‘life,’ are generically different, i.e., not reducible to ‘matter.’ Since, however, biological entities evidently have the ‘material’ entities as their constituents, it is inexplicable, on the given presuppositions, how the emergence of life is possible.
Other thinkers, recognizing the impossibility of the derivation of something with a generically different feature from what is completely devoid of that feature, have put forward a doctrine of ‘panpsychism.’ This involves a complete rejection of the doctrine of the ultimate existents as ‘matter’; the doctrine maintains instead that they are fundamentally ‘psychical’ in nature. This had been the doctrine of Leibniz in the seventeenth century, and Leibniz saw the philosophical implications of this theory with great clarity. It entailed that bodies, equated with ‘matter,’ must be derivative from the ultimate psychical constituents as composites of them, all the characteristics of ‘body’ (extension, impenetrability, mobility, etc.) as well as the passivity of ‘matter’ being analyzable as features displayed by composites of such psychical existents in relation.7 Apart from the particular difficulties in which Leibniz’s theory is involved, such as that it has the consequence that all relations must be phenomenal (thus necessitating his recourse to God as the principle of pre-established harmony), the doctrine of panpsychism has a paradoxical consequence. This is that the ‘physical’ existent is essentially ‘psychical’ in nature.
Now a paradox betokens something amiss with the theory. The root trouble with it is that, although it intends to overcome the consequences of the ontological dualism introduced in the seventeenth century, it proceeds by tacitly accepting that dualism. For it is that dualism which had elevated the psychical or mental into the status of an independent existent; and panpsychism proclaims this to be the only kind of existent. What is necessary in the situation today is a rethinking of the general problem of the nature of the physical, and, in getting clear about that, of the particular problem of the ontological status of the psychical or mental. That is, it is to be determined what kind of being or existence is to be accorded to the psychical or mental, and what therefore is its relation to the physical. A solution to this should enable us to explain how complex molecules are able to have biological characteristics.
The philosophical issue here -- and it is a quite fundamental one -- is whether the basic acting of an existent is, or can be, a psychical or mental act. That is, it is necessary to question the ontological thesis of Descartes -- which is in fact a Neoplatonic one, going back to Plotinus in the 3rd century AD. -- which has been the foundation of most modern philosophy. Descartes had maintained that the only act of being is an act of ‘thinking’; physical existence in his doctrine is without any acting of its own -- it simply ‘is,’ by God’s creative act. But the philosophical situation has been radically altered by recent scientific developments, which have demonstrated that the physical is in itself ‘active.’ The question we therefore today face is whether there are two ultimate and distinct kinds of acting, physical and mental -- that is, actings constitutive of two ultimate and distinct kinds of existent. I submit that molecular biology evidences to the contrary. The need therefore is for an alternative theory of the status of the psychical or mental.
We have seen that physical acting must be a physical relating, that is, a relating of one physical existent to another. This is what Whitehead was maintaining in his doctrine of ‘prehension’:8 for him the basic acting of an actual entity is an act of ‘prehending,’ i.e., of ‘grasping’ another actual entity. He specifically termed this basic act a ‘physical prehension,’ thus making terminologically explicit that for him the basic act is a physical relating.
Now in analyzing we necessarily employ general or universal terms -- here, ‘acting,’ ‘prehending,’ ‘relating.’ But what exists are individual instances, concrete, definite; that is, each individual relational acting has a very specific definiteness or character whereby it is that uniquely determinate, individual act, and distinguishable as such. There are two points being made in this. The first is that every ‘act’ is necessarily individual and perse unique; that is, by its nature as an ‘act’ it is there and then, and that act cannot be again -- which is to say that it is not repeatable; ‘repetition’ must necessarily consist in a numerically different act, with the same character or definiteness. For -- and this is the second point -- it is ‘definiteness’ which is universalizable, i.e., capable of being shared by many, for such a capability is precisely what constitutes the nature of the ‘universal’; as Aristotle said, "that is called universal which is such as to belong to more than one."9
This enables us to recognize a fundamental distinction between a physical act and a mental act. A physical act is an individual particular relating to another individual physical entity. A mental act on the other hand is concerned with the universal or general; it has the universal as its object. A mental act is a grasping of a universal character or definiteness. This was in fact clear early in the history of philosophy, whence mental acting was termed ‘conceiving,’ from concipere, to take hold or lay hold of, to take to oneself, to take in, take, receive. That is, in its original philosophical use, the term conceiving’ meant a mental ‘taking hold of’ the form of definiteness manifested in an individual existent. The abstract noun ‘conception’ means the act of conceiving and/or the fact of conceiving, i.e., of taking hold of and holding something in the mind, and thus frequently also connotes ‘what’ is so held -- in this being synonymous with ‘concept,’ or ‘thought,’ or ‘idea’ in its modern usage. ‘What’ is so held as a universal. Even when we speak of ‘conceiving’ an individual or ‘having a concept of’ an individual, we are conceiving that individual in terms of the universals which determine its definiteness or character.
There is a necessary relation of the mental to the physical act, in a twofold way. The first is that the definiteness which is conceived, i.e., grasped and held by the mental act, must initially be derived from the physical. This is indispensable if there is to be knowledge of the physical, as the history of philosophy of the last three centuries has made clear.10 The second is that mental acting is required by the physical in the process of physical acting. The reason for this is that physical acting is not either simply fortuitous change nor is it a mere mechanical interconnection; physical acting as a relating is ‘directed to’ another entity, and this entails the factor of ‘end’ -- this is not a mere anthropomorphic projection; the concept of ‘end’ is implied in the concept of ‘acting.’ Now acting as directed to an end necessitates the mental, for ‘end’ cannot be involved without the mental. This means that the theory of mental acting as constitutive of a distinct and separate mental or psychical existent is untenable; mental acting must be seen as a factor or ingredient in the total physical existent -- which was Whitehead’s doctrine in conceiving the mental as one ‘pole’ of an actual entity.11
We are now in a position to deal with the problem of how it is possible for biological features to develop in complex molecules. Biological molecules -- -such as for example the DNA molecule -- are found to be complex structures of less complex chemical molecules. What distinguishes the biological molecules is not only greater complexity of structure, but certain features of activity not possessed by the less complex chemical molecules. Now activity can in no way arise from what is completely in itself devoid of activity. But we have shown that the conception of the physical as matter,’ i.e., as devoid of acting, is to be wholly rejected. This means that the difference between the very complex biological molecules and the less complex chemical ones must be analyzed in terms of degrees in complexity of activity. Further, this higher degree of complexity of activity is bound up with the higher complexity of structure.
The factor which makes possible not only complexity of structure, but any structural relationship at all, is the mental acting which is ingredient in the physical existent -- structural relationship, as the outcome of inter-acting, entails the factor of ‘end,’ which necessitates mental acting. What is requisite to account for degrees of complexity of structure is conceptual origination in respect of ends, and this is precisely the function of mentality. For, as we have seen, mental acting initiates by conceiving, i.e., grasping, the definiteness of the physical, and holding it in abstraction in its universality. In its abstract universality the definiteness is a possibility for actuality. But every abstract definiteness, in its universality, is related to every other universal definiteness;12 it is in the nature of mental acting to be able to grasp, conceive, an alternative definiteness. There is clearly a continuous spectrum of alternatives, and there must be degrees in mental capacity to conceive alternatives at varying ‘distances’ from any given definiteness.13
It is the conceiving of alternatives different from the past which enables physical acting to actualize changes in structural interrelationship and achieve greater complexity of structure. And greater complexity of structure in turn involves the possible conception of ever more complex alternatives, which can thus result in patterns of physical acting. Such structures of greater complexity accordingly are able thereby to have a range of alternative responses to environmental changes -- in contrast to the much more restricted and unvarying responses of which simpler structures are alone capable. It is this greater capacity for a range of alternative responses which constitutes the basis for the capacity for ‘adaptation’ to the environment characteristic of biological organisms, both in the sense of the adaptation of the organism to its environment, and the organism’s adaptation of its environment to it -- under the latter, basic is the inclusion of parts of the environment into its own complex structure as ‘food.’
In conclusion I shall deal briefly with one more philosophical issue which is of the utmost moment for contemporary scientific thought. This is the problem of the nature of change involved in the physical, that is, the problem of motion, motus, what the Greeks called kinesis. In terms of the theory of the physical as ‘matter, as we have seen, only one kind of change is possible, namely locomotion, change in respect of place. But with the rejection of that theory of the physical, with on the contrary a conception of the physical as ‘active,’ we face a quite different situation respecting the problem of change.
To conceive ‘acting’ as basically analyzable into locomotive change -- as seems to be the tacit presupposition in much scientific thinking still -- is entirely inadequate. As we have seen, physical acting must be fundamentally a relating, and relating cannot be understood in terms of mere ‘impact,’ for this can result at most in only change of place -- and indeed, as was clear to thinkers like Descartes, Newton, Leibniz and Kant, on the conception of the physical as in itself passive ‘matter,’ even change of place could not occur upon mere impact, there being necessary also an ‘act’ setting the impacted body into motion. Physical acting conceived as a relating, as Kant particularly insisted, entails an internal change being effected in the other entity.
This means that fundamentally the ‘change’ entailed in the ‘acting’ of a physical existent cannot be essentially locomotive change; rather locomotive change must be seen as either only one aspect of the change involved in and constituting ‘acting,’ or as only the resultant of the change involved in ‘acting’-- the latter is the view of Leibniz and of Whitehead; I would myself incline to the former alternative. But this difference does not affect the important point, which is that the interrelatedness of physical existents is not to be understood as being essentially mechanistic.
This is not to deny that physical interrelationships can be conceived mechanistically. Today it has become most important to understand correctly the concept of ‘mechanism.’ To conceive something mechanistically is to conceive it in terms of locomotion. In the theory of the physical as ‘matter,’ the relations of physical entities can be conceived and understood only mechanistically, i.e., only in terms of their locomotive changes. In the conception of the physical as ‘acting,’ on the other hand, change of other kinds in addition to locomotive change are admitted, so that a mechanistic analysis must accordingly be only of an aspect of physical acting, which means that since it leaves out of account other aspects or features of change or motion, it is an abstraction. Of course there can be no disputing that for some purposes such abstraction is entirely legitimate and indeed necessary. But what has to be avoided is what Whitehead has called the ‘fallacy of misplaced concreteness,’ namely mistaking the abstraction for the whole concrete, in this case taking locomotion to be the only kind of motion or change.
For an understanding of the change or motion fundamental in physical acting, it is necessary to concentrate on that acting as producing structural relationships. This is clearly requisite in molecular biology, but it is not less so in chemistry. This emphasis on acting’s producing structural relationships is also necessary today in physics; to put the primary emphasis on this instead of on locomotion will complete thc revolutionary transformation which has been occurring in twentieth-century physics.14 This also basically alters the relation to each other of the sciences of biology, chemistry, and physics. In the earlier conception of the fundamental motion or change of the physical as locomotion, it was necessary to conceive biology as reductive to chemistry, and chemistry as reductive to physics. But with the different conception of physical change as acting necessitated today, the sciences of physics, chemistry and biology must be seen as concerned respectively with entities exhibiting different grades of complexity of structural interrelationship. These different grades of complexity will also represent different kinds of physical existents -- for such structures must be more than mere aggregates, as we have seen -- with distinct features. The biological kind, for example, by virtue of its structure’s making possible the requisite degree of conceptual origination, is that having the characteristic of ‘life.’
1. But the term ‘matter’ is much later, and has a different etymology from the Greek hyle, a difference which has influenced the connotation of the term in later usage. See note 3 below.
2. This conception of ‘matter’ as essentially passive, with ‘form’ the principle of activity, is Neoplatonic, and doubtfully to be ascribed to Aristotle.
3. Materia means the stuff of which things are made, e.g., by a craftsman; it is the recipient of a form given to it. The word is from the same base as mater, mother; in ancient times the role of the mother in generation was thought to be merely the recipient of the new life sown in her, she herself contributing nothing to it. Cf. F. M. Cornford, Plato’s Cosmology (1937), p. 187.
4. Cf. Newton, Principia, "The Rules of Reasoning in Philosophy" at the beginning of Book III.
5. Which means that it would be a relationship only to an external observer; as far as the entity itself is concerned, it is devoid of any relationship at all.
6. In my The Nature of Physical Existence (Humanities Press; 1972), ch. 24; cf. also "The Problem of the Physical Existent" in International Philosophical Quarterly IX (1969): 40-62
7. For a more detailed analysis of Leibniz’s theory see my The Nature of Physical Existence, chs. 22-24
8. The term derives from prehendere, to grasp, seize, catch; cognate with , to take in, hold.
9. Metaphysics, 7, 1038b11.
10. Or should be seen not to have done so; this was quite clear to Kant -- cf. Critique of Pure Reason, beginning of Introduction.
11. Because the confusion still persists, it should perhaps be explicitly stated that the ‘mental’ does not entail ‘consciousness’ -- the latter is a feature possible only for fairly high-grade mentality.
12. This is what Whitehead speaks of as its ‘relational essence’ -- see his chapter on "Abstraction" in Science and the Modern World.
13. I say ‘must be’ because we humans not only are not capable of conceiving all alternatives, but quite evidently differ quite considerably among ourselves in respect of the capacity to conceive alternatives. The range in diminishing capacity clearly manifests itself in the other primates compared with man, and on further down the scale in animal species. There is no intrinsic reason why this diminishing capacity should not extend indefinitely, to the simplest physical existents.
14. It seems to me that this is the direction in which the thought of David Bohm is going.