Chapter 1: The Frontiers of Biology — Does Process Thought Help? by W. H. Thorpe and Response by Bernhard Rensch.

Mind in Nature: the Interface of Science and Philosophy
by John B. and David R. Griffin Cobb, Jr.

Chapter 1: The Frontiers of Biology — Does Process Thought Help? by W. H. Thorpe and Response by Bernhard Rensch.

W. H. Thorpe is Director of the Sub-Department of Animal Behavior, Department of Zoology, at the University of Cambridge.

At the very start of my work in biological research I was much inspired and stimulated by the writings of Whitehead. I expressed this in the first chapter of my book (Thorpe 1951, 1963). He seemed to me one of the very few philosophers who showed a real understanding of biology; its nature and its problems. I still regard him as one of the most profound minds of his time and still find refreshment and stimulation in his writings on an extraordinary variety of topics.

But over the years I have found him less of a support in biological research than I had at one time hoped and expected. So I will try to single out one or two recent biological developments to illustrate this and at the same time mention some which seem more compatible with the Whiteheadian view.

The two main frontiers of biological thought at present are (1) the living/non-living frontier (and included in this the tremendous problem of the origin of the ‘primitive’ cell) and (2) the mind/life frontier. Both these frontiers seem today as impassable as ever they did; and indeed the first seems to have been rendered (contrary to popular belief) even more impregnable, as a result of the unraveling of the genetic code, than it was before.

The First Frontier

Ever since Victorian times it has been the changes in physics and in astronomy which have in fact seemed so appalling and disconcerting to many thoughtful persons. Many of our most cherished beliefs have gone by the board. Atoms were thought to be permanent, unchanging elements of nature. Now, far from remaining unaltered, they appear to be created, destroyed, and transmuted. What do remain enduring are certain abstract attributes of particles, of which the electric charge and the wave aspects of elementary physical particles are the most familiar. Edmund Whittaker (1949) has described what he calls postulates of impotence, but which Bronowski (1969) has cleverly entitled the laws of the impossible, a break-up of which is particularly disturbing. Thus a great part of mechanics can be derived from the single assertion that perpetual motion is impossible. In special relativity it is impossible to detect one’s motion if it is steady, even by measuring the speed of light. In general relativity it is impossible to tell a gravitational field from a field set up by one’s own motion. In quantum physics there are several laws of the impossible which are not quite equivalent: the principle of uncertainty is one, another is that it is impossible to identify the same electron in successive observations. At bottom all the quantum principles assert that there are no devices by which we can wholly control what state of a system we will observe next. Bronowski translates that into the statement, "It is impossible to ensure that we shall copy a specified object perfectly."

One of the most striking differences between physics and biology arises in just this context. I think one can say that in biology there are no genuinely biological postulates of impotence except that spontaneous generation is impossible. Any other postulates of impotence which may appear to be part of biology are in the end, I think, reducible to physics, and it is from that discipline that they really come.

But there is another side to all this. There are assumptions which we cannot do without, even though all seems to be dissolving. One of these is that there is a real world which we in some measure apprehend by our senses: that is to say that knowledge is possible. And (as Bronowski [1969] points out) in the field of science this means that it is rational. But this is not to imply that nature is necessarily therefore all machine-like. And this idea of a great machine is one of the great misconceptions of our age, haunting the biologist now as it haunted the thinkers of the nineteenth century when Tennyson wrote, "The stars, she whispers, blindly run." But let us come back to biology, and particularly to the ideas of modem biology as affecting man’s views of nature and his own place in it.

In 1944 Professor Schroedinger wrote a little book entitled What is Life? This treatise of less than a hundred small pages has perhaps had more influence on recent thinking on this topic, among both physicists and biologists, than almost any other recent study. Schroedinger points out that when a piece of matter is said to be alive it is because it goes on ‘doing something’ -- moving, exchanging material with its environment, and so on. Moreover, it goes on doing this for a much longer period than we would expect an inanimate piece of matter to ‘keep going’ under similar circumstances. A system that is not alive, if isolated or placed in a uniform environment, usually ceases all motion very quickly as a result of various kinds of friction. Temperature becomes uniform by heat conduction and after that the whole system fades away into a dead, inert ‘lump of matter.’ A permanent state has been reached in which no macroscopically observable events occur, a state which the physicist speaks of as thermodynamical equilibrium or ‘maximum entropy.’ During a continued stretch of existence, it is by avoiding rapid decay into the inert state of equilibrium that an organism appears so enigmatic; so much so that from the earliest stages of human thought some special non-physical or supernatural force was claimed to be operative in the organism.

Pantin, in discussing such statements, points out that almost everything that Schroedinger has said about life could at least in some measure be said about a thunderstorm. A thunderstorm goes on doing something, moving, exchanging material with the environment, and so forth; and that for a much longer period than we would expect of an inanimate system of comparable size and complexity. It is by avoiding the rapid decay into an inert system of equilibrium that a thunderstorm appears so extraordinary. But the parallels between living organisms and thunderstorms, and indeed some other meteorological phenomena, are remarkable. It is true that thunderstorms arise by spontaneous generation, and since they are incapable of sexual reproduction, natural selection can only act upon them by selecting individuals and not by acting upon the whole species. Like living organisms, they require matter and energy for their maintenance. This is supplied by the situation of a cold air-stream overlying warm, moist air. This situation is unstable and at a number of places vertical up-currents occur. Once these have developed they are maintained, at least for a while, through the liberation of heat consequent upon the formation of rain as the warm damp air rises. Each up-current ‘feeds’ upon the warm and damp air in its neighborhood and is thus in competition with and can suppress its neighbors. A storm is in fact parasitic on the increase of entropy which would result from the mixing of warm moist and cold air to form a uniform mass. Moreover, the storm itself has a well-defined anatomy of what can almost be called functional parts.

But although certain non-living systems, of which the thunderstorm is such a striking example, do show what we can call ‘organismal characters,’ this property is nowhere found in so high a degree as it is in living organisms. Woodger (1960) pointed to the importance of the fact that living things have parts which stand in a relation of existential dependence to one another, e.g., limbs, digestive organs, circulatory systems and brains. And even in a single cell we find organelles, micro-organs so to speak, all of which seem to constitute some essential part of the cell’s machinery. So we can ask of the structures in a living organism, just as we can ask of the structures in a man-made machine, "What is this for?" We can often give fairly exact and plausible answers. It has been argued, I think convincingly, that we cannot sensibly ask that kind of question of natural non-living systems. It is surely nonsense to ask of a solar system or its parts, or of a nebula or an atomic structure, or of the parts of a mineral, "What is this for?" Any answer which we think we can give is an answer of an entirely different kind from that which we can give in the case of a man-made machine or the parts of a living organism. Another distinction, of course, concerns reproduction. If we compare this in living and non-living systems we find that in non-living systems (e.g., thunderstorms or vortex rings), new examples are generated but the new ones do not exactly reduplicate the old. In the reproduction of living organisms, however, reproduction is essentially reduplication of all the essential features of the design (Pantin, p. 75). It is the fact that the organization of living creatures, whether great or small, is determined by a molecular and therefore precisely repeatable template that makes biological reproduction possible.

So we can say: (a) What organisms do is different from what happens to stones. (b) The parts of organisms are functional and are inter-related one with another to form a system which is working in a particular way or appears to be designed for a particular direction of activity. In other words the system is directive, or if we like to use the word in a very wide and loose sense, ‘purposive.’ (c) The material substances of organisms, on the one hand, and inorganic materials, on the other, are in general very different. And there is still another difference which seems to me of great importance, and that is (d) that organisms absorb and store information, change their behavior as a result of that information, and all but the very lowest forms of animals (and perhaps these too) have special organs for detecting, sorting and organizing this information -- namely the sense organs and specialized parts of the central nervous system. I shall return to this very important aspect later.

First we must make it clear, as of course Michael Polanyi has done, that we adhere to the basic assumption that all local structural or physiological organizations and events inside the living being occur according to a local biochemical determinism. That is to say that there is no firm evidence whatever against, and an immense amount of evidence for, the view that the ‘ordinary’ laws of physics and chemistry hold within the organism just as they do within a man-made machine. The problem is how to explain the stability and reproduction of even the simplest organism in space and time in terms of the organization of the structure itself.

It is a claim of molecular biologists, a claim with which we can in general agree, that they have made very large steps towards reducing the problem of the organization of the living being (including even the problem of its hereditary processes) to physical laws. Some indeed would claim to have accomplished the whole task already. We shall come back to the question of the hereditary organization later. Here we can say that what the molecular biologists have done is to develop a model of the cell which behaves very much like a classical man-made machine, or an automaton, but one in which the ‘secret of heredity’ is found in the normal chemistry of nucleic acids and enzymes. The implication of this is that parts functioning like a machine can be described as a machine even though these parts may be single molecules; and machines are understood in terms of elementary physical laws. This is an attractive analogy and is indeed one which we have all been using for a long time. As has been explained above, we repeatedly and successfully ask the question, "What is this for?" when considering the different structures in living organisms -- quite as successfully and legitimately as we can ask this of a piston, a lever, or an electric circuit in any machine designed by man.

The Nature of the Organization Shown by Living Beings

But we can easily be trapped by this useful analogy into losing sight of two basic aspects of living beings which are clearly evident to the physicist but, curiously enough, overlooked by the biologist. It is, of course, no satisfactory answer to respond to the question, "How does a man-made machine or living machine work?" by saying that it obeys the laws of physics and chemistry. As Pattee (1971) points out, if we ask, "What is the secret of a computing machine?" no physicist would consider it in any sense an answer to say, what he already knows perfectly well, that the computer obeys all the laws of mechanics and electricity. If there is any problem in the organization of a computer, it is the unlikely constraints which, so to speak, harness these laws to perform highly specific and directive functions which have of course been built into the machine by the expertise of the designer. So of course the real problem of life is not that all the structures and molecules in the cell appear to comply with the known laws of physics and chemistry. The real mystery is the origin of the highly improbable constraints which harness these laws to fulfil particular functions. This is in fact the problem of hierarchical control. And any claim that life has been reduced to physics and chemistry must in these days, if it is to carry conviction, be accompanied by an account of the dynamics and statistics and the operating reliability of enzymes ultimately in terms of present-day groundwork of physics, namely quantum mechanical concepts. So we have two questions, "How does it work?" and "How does it arise?" The second question has in fact two facets: (a) how does it arise in the development of the individual organism during the process of growth from the moment of fertilization of the egg; and (b) how does the egg itself come to get that way -- that is to say, how can we conceive of evolution as having ‘designed’ the cell?

The Idea of Hierarchy

It is the necessary concept of hierarchy in biology which pinpoints the problem. And the problem is one of hierarchical interfaces. In common language, a hierarchy is an organization of individuals with levels of authority -- usually with one level subordinate to the next one above and ruling over the next one below. For an admirable account of this, see Koestler and Smythies (1969). So any general theory of biology (which must include the concept of hierarchy) must thereby explain the origin, operation, reliability and persistence of these constraints which harness matter to perform coherent functions according to a hierarchical plan. Pattee (1970,1971) says:

It is the central problem of the origin of life, when aggregations of matter obeying only elementary physical laws first began to constrain individual molecules to a functional, collective behavior. It is the central problem of development where collections of cells control the growth or genetic expression of individual cells. It is the central problem of biological evolution in which groups of cells form larger and larger organizations by generating hierarchical constraints on subgroups. It is the central problem of the brain where there appears to be an unlimited possibility for new hierarchical levels of description. These are all problems of hierarchical organization. Theoretical biology must face this problem as fundamental, since hierarchical control is the essential and distinguishing characteristic of life (1970, p. 120).

He goes on to point out that a simpler set of descriptions at each level will not suffice. Biology must include a theory of the levels themselves.

I have said above that even the simplest biological mechanism is to a superlative degree more complex than the most complex of humanly constructed machines. It is perhaps instructive to consider this complexity as it appears when we look at the human body and brain. Professor Paul Weiss (1969) has put this very dramatically by pointing out that the average cell in our bodies contains about 105 macromolecules. The brain alone contains 1010 cells, hence about 1015 macromolecules. To get these figures themselves into perspective, it is worth remembering that the age of the galaxy in which our solar system resides is estimated at 1015 sec! This is to say each of us has in our brains about as many macromolecules as there have been seconds since our part of the cosmos began to assume its present form.

This is just another way of putting the problem that Schroedinger poses in his book, What is Life? The problem is mainly that of the contrast between the degree of potential freedom, on the one hand, and, on the other hand, the perseverance and the essentially invariant pattern of the functions of such systems. (By ‘degrees of freedom’ we mean simply the number of variables necessary to describe or predict what is going on. Thus there is a potential freedom amongst trillions of molecules making up the brain, or for that matter the whole body.)

Consider this for our nervous system, and following this our thoughts, our ideas, our memories. Schroedinger was forced to the conclusion that, as he put it, "I. . . that is to say, every conscious mind that has ever said or felt I. . . am the person, if any, who controls ‘the motion of the atoms’ according to the laws of nature." This puts the problem of the boundary conditions, which have to be maintained all the time in both simple and complex examples of biological mechanisms, as it appeared to one of the most able physicists of his time who had given particular thought to these problems. Polanyi, as we have seen, assumes that all molecules work according to natural laws, but concludes that, since no one has accounted for hierarchical organization by these laws, there must be principles of organization which will in due course be found not to be reducible to the laws of physics and chemistry. Many others would be rather more cautious. Thus the physicist Pattee (1970) expresses himself as neither satisfied with the claim that physics explains how life works nor the claim that physics cannot explain how life arose. In his view (i) the concept of autonomous hierarchy involves collections of elements which are responsible for producing their own rules as contrasted with collections which are designed by an external authority to have hierarchical behavior. He then (ii) assumes, of course, that they are part of the physical world and that all the elements obey the laws of physics. He limits his definition of hierarchical control (iii) to those rules or constraints which arise within such a collection of elements but which affect individual elements of the collection. Finally, and perhaps most important, he points out (iv) that collective restraints which affect individual elements always appear to produce some integrated function of the collection. In common language this is to say that such hierarchical constraints produce specific actions or are ‘designed for’ some purpose.

It is in considering the third of the above four statements, in relation to classical mechanics, that the difficulties are seen to be at their greatest. Classical physics appears to provide no way in which an explanation can be reached because it requires a ‘collection’ of particles which constrains individual particles in a manner not deducible from their individual behavior. However, it has been pointed out that in quantum mechanics the concept of the particle is changed and the fundamental idea of a continuous wave description of motion produces the stationary state or local time-independent collection of atoms and molecules. So it seems to be not impossible that hierarchical structures could be reducible to quantum mechanics, although, as we shall see later, the whole scheme of quantum mechanics is now in such confusion that, to the outsider, it seems far from clear to what extent they will be able to help. But even if structural hierarchies can be explained ultimately in this way, there is still something missing when we come to biological systems. Complexities of physical structure seldom if ever, by themselves, provide any feature which seriously suggests to biologists that such structures are in any sense alive. As has been said above, what organisms do is different from what happens to stones. The piece missing in the hierarchies of the non-biological world is, once again, function. What is so exceptional about enzymes and what creates their hierarchical significance is the simplicity of their collective function which results from their very detailed complexity. This is the core of what is meant by integrated behavior.


We are generally content with the view that a physical system, at least a macrophysical system, may appear completely deterministic. But the attempt to reduce living systems to such, that is to say formal reductionism, fails in part because the number of possible combinations or classifications is generally immensely larger than the number of degrees of freedom. And then, as we have seen, living systems are self-programming; this means that the particles of which they are composed form an internal simplification, or self-representation, and these systems of self-representation which assume control of the whole seem utterly baffling in many cases because they appear to originate spontaneously. Again this means that the organism is self-programming. This concept of living organisms being uniquely different from non-living systems in having an internal self-representation raises a point of profound importance. It is difficult to know where in the animal kingdom one has the need to postulate ‘self-consciousness,’ ‘self-awareness’ or, to use Eccles’ phrase, ‘the experiencing self.’ We come to the conclusion that as we proceed from man downwards through the animal series, the lower we go the less useful (as predictive of animal behavior and as leading to an understanding of animal nature) the concept becomes. Until with the lowest animals and with the plants the usefulness of the idea becomes vanishingly small. But if it be true that all living organisms have internal self-representation, does this not amount to saying that the seeds of self-consciousness are present in all living creatures -- from the virus and bacterium upwards?

Another theoretical physicist, Walter M. Elsasser (1966), has approached some of these problems in an original manner by considering the number of internal configurations in which a complex system may exist in theory. Astronomers assume the existing finite total of atomic nuclei is of the order 1080 but, as we have seen, the lifetime of our galaxy is assumed to be no more than 1018 sec. Elsasser argues that the number of distinguishable events which can occur in a finite universe is correspondingly limited. In considering these systems of increasing complexity we must soon reach a point where a number of internal configurations in which the system may exist will vastly exceed the number of actual examples of any one given class that can possibly be collected in our universe. It follows that, if the discrepancy between the number of possible states and the number of possible samples is large enough, we can assert without fear of contradiction that no two members of a class, e.g., no two members of an animal or plant species, not even two bacteria, can ever be in the same internal state.

This leads Elsasser to suggest another characteristic of living organisms as distinct from non-living. He says that in physics the classes of things, e.g., atoms, protons, electrons, etc., are very homogeneous. It is a fundamental assumption that all the helium atoms in the universe are identical; though when we come to larger aggregations, however fully homogeneous the class, the objects would have to be not only chemically equivalent but also in the same quantum state. That is to say, for complete homogeneity all the members of a class have to be at the absolute zero point of the temperature scale so that their molecules are in the ground state. But the point is that in principle we do have, and can work with, the ideal of homogeneous classes in physics. And all fundamental questions of theory may be evaluated in terms of these. This can never be the case in biology, even in principle, as the number of individuals in any class in existence at one time is far too small to allow statistical prediction to have any physical significance. The resulting conclusion is that while physics is a science dealing with essentially homogeneous systems and classes, biology is a science of inhomogeneous systems and classes. In physical terms one may say that an organism must be a system that is endlessly engaged in producing, regenerating, or increasing inhomogeneity, and thereby the phenomenon of individuality, at all levels of its functioning.

Polanyi seems so convinced of the impossibility of the physical explanation of these biological constraints that he often appears to be speaking as a vitalist. That is to say, he is coming near to returning to the original idea of an indwelling vital principle guiding the organism in some manner completely independent of its physical nature. Elsasser does not go as far as this, and he suggests that there is room for (and we must assume the existence of) separate laws -- biotonic laws, as he calls them -- which are compatible with the quantum laws but not deducible in principle from them. Two other physicists have considered this matter carefully, E. H. Kerner (in Waddington 1970), and D. Bohm (in Bastin 1971). Bohm indeed appears to find not only room for, but, even within physics itself, a necessity for ‘hidden variables,’ which the usual scheme of quantum theory has ruled out as a matter of principle. Kerner, considering this, hesitates as yet to espouse either biotonic law or the incompleteness of quantal law, for he feels that no clear set of observations seems thus far to compel either. And we must not forget that a quantum-mechanical calculation even on one particular bacterial cell would be incorrect for every other cell, even of the same species -- a point clearly made by Elsasser in his conclusions about the heterogeneity of the material with which the biologist has to deal. Finally one must here bring in again the most important biological discovery of recent years, and this is the discovery that the processes of life are directed by programs -- which, besides manifesting activity, also in some extraordinary way produce their own programs. Professor Longuet-Higgins (in Waddington 1970) sums this up from the biological point of view by showing that it results in the biological concept of the program being something different from the purely physical idea of the program. And we can now point to an actual program tape in the heart of the cell, namely the DNA molecule. Even more remarkable is that programmed activity which we find in living nature will not merely determine the way in which the organism reacts to its environment; it actually controls the structure of the organism and its replication, including the replication of the programs themselves. This is what we mean by saying once again (a statement that can hardly be reiterated too often) that life is not merely programmed activity but self-programmed activity.

Monod (1970, 1971) has suggested that the combination of processes which must have occurred to produce life from inanimate matter are so extremely improbable that their occurrence may indeed have been a unique event (an event of zero probability). Monod also rightly points out that the uniqueness of the genetic code could be the result of natural selection. But even if we assume this, the extraordinary problem remains that the genetic code is without any biological function unless and until it is translated, that is, unless it leads to the synthesis of the proteins whose structure is laid down by the code. Now Monod shows that the machinery by which the cell (Or at least the non-primitive cell, which is the only one we know) translates the codes "consists of at least fifty macromolecular components which are themselves coded in DNA." Hence the code cannot be translated except by using certain products of its translation. As Sir Karl Popper comments (1972, 1974), "this constitutes a really baffling circle: a vicious circle, it seems, for any attempt to form a model or a theory, of the genesis of the genetic code." In fact this undreamed of breakthrough of molecular biology, far from solving the problem of the origin of life, has made it, in Sir Karl Popper’s opinion, a greater riddle than it was before. Thus we may be faced with a possibility that the origin of life, like the origin of the universe, becomes an impenetrable barrier to science and a block which resists all attempts to reduce biology to chemistry and physics.

The Second Frontier

We come now to the question: How far does the existence of conscious awareness, as we ourselves experience it, constitute a new domain over and above that established by the phenomena of the lower ranges of the biological world?

But first we must consider for a moment what exactly we imply by the term, for it has many overtones of meaning. But we can at least say that it involves three basic components: First, an inward awareness or sensibility -- what might be described as ‘having an internal perception.’ Second, an awareness of self, of one’s own existence. Third, the idea of consciousness includes that of unity, implying, in some rather vague sense, the fusion of the totality of the impressions, thoughts and feelings, which make up a person’s conscious being, into a single whole. As Lashley put it, the process of awareness implies a belief in an internal perceiving agent, an ‘I’ or ‘self’ which does the perceiving. This in its turn implies that the agent selects and unifies elements into a unique field of consciousness. Next, it follows again, that this perceiving self (a) transcends time and space, bringing into immediate relation events remote from one another in these dimensions, and (b) makes possible in man the creation of aesthetic and ethical values held to be absolute.

There are four main attitudes of mind open to those who consider these problems. They are as follows: (I) We may accept the Cartesian dichotomy as essentially valid, which of course commits us to Dualism. This may be of two types or intensities: (a) one that allows a two-way causal interaction between mental and physical events, which we may call the strong form of dualism; or (b) the weak form (epiphenomenalism) which allows mental events to be effects but never causes. (II) We may accept Berkeley’s position and regard mental entities as real and the idea of material entities as at best a convenient abstraction. (III) We may acknowledge material entities as real but dismiss the idea of mental entities as an abstraction. Finally (IV) we may assert that certain events are at one and the same time both mental and material -- the mental, so to speak, being the interior view of that which has a physical exterior. This is usually known as the ‘Double Aspect Theory’ or ‘Identity Hypothesis.’

Of the above I, for the moment, rule out (II) as being, for most scientists and many philosophers, regarded as verging on the absurd. Similarly (III) can be eliminated as clearly false since it negates the whole of experience (though quite a number of physiologists and a vast number of scientists who have not thought deeply on the matter are attracted to it as being superficially convenient and ‘tidy’). So we are left with (I) and (IV), both of which involve us in some form of ‘dualist’ commitment. In fact a great many biologists and physicists of great reputation -- Paul Weiss, Polanyi, Elsasser, Eccles and Sherrington (to mention only a few) are presumably dualists, of one type and degree or another. And this leads us to the views of philosophers and to the central and ever-present problem of reductionism.

Amongst philosophers and logicians, particularly amongst those who have given special attention to scientific problems, many names could be mentioned, including that great thinker, L. T. Hobhouse, whom I like to mention first because I owe so much to his writings. When Hobhouse speaks of what he calls "the correlation of governing principles" -- a concept which involves the recognition of abstract moral law and eternal values which are good in themselves -- he has surely passed far beyond the possibility of any form of scientific reductionism. Again the views of Sir Karl Popper and the logician William Kneale are, in some sense at least, unashamedly dualist. The former indeed sees no future at all for philosophical reductionism. To these I might have added the name of Professor Stephan Koerner, and finally that bright comet in the present-day firmament which, according to certain observers, comes trailing dazzling clouds of uncertain composition, namely Dr. Noam Chomsky.

Whitehead came to a position of what could be called ‘panpsychism.’ Philosophically this is of course eminently respectable and indeed most attractive. As a biologist I have long been immensely impressed by and beholden to Whitehead’s philosophy of organism (Process and Reality), in that it seems to me that he is the first great philosopher who really took trouble to comprehend the biological developments of his time. My trouble with panpsychism, as advanced by Whitehead and, for instance, Charles Hartshorne, is that I see no conceivable scientific possibility of investigating its significance. It is easy enough to assume some sort of psychic element in the ultimate physical particles; indeed Eddington himself toyed with that idea. It may be that, as Carl von Weiszaecker (1968) has boldly suggested, since the concept of a particle itself is just the description of a connection which exists between phenomena, there may, if we are prepared to jump into strict metaphysical language, be no reason why what we call ‘matter’ should not in fact be ‘spirit.’ This I think amounts to saying that not only physical theories but biological theories portray not nature itself but our knowledge of nature. Again the trouble here is that I see no conceivable scientific possibility of confirmation.

Nor does the combination of physical units, in so far as modern physics reveals them, suggest to us how, or by what laws, psychic units could similarly combine and so produce what we recognize as the mental. Moreover there is a lack of parallelism between the laws of the combination of the physical units and those governing the development of mind. We can indeed assume with panpsychism that the mental, spiritual, artistic and ethical values which we experience really are in some sense one with the electrons and other primary components of which the world is made. But yet it does not appear to be so. Consequently a great leap of faith is required to believe it -- a leap without, so it seems to me, any scientific evidence. Yet reductionism requires a much greater faith. In the former case we are required to believe something which is eminently sensible but which cannot be scientifically confirmed; in the second we are required to believe in a source of value added to or injected into a natural process as complexity develops, which we are unable to understand -- either this, or we have to regard values as pure epiphenomena.

One might choose many different examples to illustrate the basic problem of reductionism and its refutation. However, I think that, rather than coming at once to biology, one secures a better perspective by starting with physics. First, we must say that, as a working hypothesis, reductionism is the major basic tool found to be in use among the great majority of active experimental scientists. And with good reason: for when and where it is successful, it achieves the most impressive of all scientific advances. In fact as a working tool it is indispensable, and all of us use it all the time. But many scientists go on from there to accept it without question, not merely as a tool, but as a philosophy. That is, they assume that all the activities of our minds and bodies, all the changes and complexities shown in the study of animate or inanimate matter, are controlled by the same set of fundamental laws.

To the ordinary working scientist there is an obvious course of action, perhaps one should call it a temptation. Having first assumed that there is a basic set of fundamental laws, the temptation is to proceed from there to what seems an obvious corollary, that everything obeys the same fundamental laws. Then the only scientists who are studying anything really fundamental are those who are working on these laws. A physicist colleague of mine to whom I am much indebted (Anderson 1972) has pointed out, in a discussion of the topic "More is Different," that if this were so, then the only scientists who would certainly be regarded as carrying out ‘fundamental’ work would be some astrophysicists, some elementary particle physicists, some logicians and other mathematicians, and a few more. This reductionist point of view, which seeks knowledge by analysis, almost inevitably leads its proponents to assume, quite unwarrantably, that all that is then required is to work out the consequences of these laws by the prosecution of what is called ‘extensive science,’ whereupon all truth will be revealed! But there is a tremendous fallacy here. For even the apparent success of the reductionist hypothesis in certain areas does not by any means imply the practicability of a ‘constructionist’ one -- to reduce everything to simple fundamental laws does not imply the ability to start from those laws and reconstruct the universe. In fact, "the more the elementary particle physicists tell us about the nature of the fundamental laws, the less relevance they seem to have to the very real problems of the rest of science, much less of society."

Actually it is a mistake to be too analytical in one’s approach and to assume that all new and fundamental laws come from logical analysis. They do not. Take the arguments for the building of a thousand billion electron volt accelerator. We often hear it argued that, in short, intensive research goes for the fundamental laws, extensive research for the explanation of phenomena in terms of known fundamental laws. It is often assumed to follow that, once new fundamental laws are discovered, a large and ever increasing activity begins in order to apply the discoveries to hitherto unexplained phenomena. Thus the frontiers of science extend all along a long line from the newest and most modern intensive research, over the extensive research recently spawned by the intensive research of yesterday, to the broad and well developed web of extensive research activities based on intensive research of past decades. Hence, on this view, ordinary physicists are applied particle physicists, chemists are applied physicists, biologists are applied chemists, psychologists applied biologists, social scientists applied psychologists, etc. Anderson states, "I believe this is emphatically not true: I believe that at each level of organization, or of scale, types of behavior open up which are entirely new, and basically unpredictable from a concentration on the more and more detailed analysis of the entities which make up the objects of these higher level studies." True, to understand worms we need to understand cells and macromolecules, but not mesons and nucleons. And even the comprehension of cells and macromolecules can never tell us all the important things that need to be known about worms. At each level in fact there are fundamental problems requiring intensive research which cannot, be solved by further microscopic analysis but need, as Anderson says, some combination of inspiration, analysis and synthesis."

Popper, in a recently published consideration of the problem of scientific reductionism, commences by asking three questions: (1) Can we reduce or hope to reduce biology to physics or to physics and chemistry? (2) Can we reduce to biology or hope to reduce to biology those subjective conscious experiences which we may ascribe to animals, and, if question (1) is answered in the affirmative, can we reduce them further to physics and chemistry? (2) Can we reduce, or hope to reduce, the consciousness of self and the creativeness of the human mind to animal experience, and thus, if questions (1) and (2) are answered in the affirmative, to physics and chemistry?

Before proceeding to answer these questions, Popper makes the following points: First, he suggests that scientists have to be reductionists in the sense that nothing is as great a success in science as successful reduction. Indeed it is perhaps the most successful form conceivable of all scientific explanations, since it results in the identification of the unknown with the known. Second, Popper suggests that scientists have to be reductionists in their methods, either naive or else more or less critical reductionists, and sometimes desperate critical reductionists, since, as he points out, hardly any major reduction in science has ever been completely successful. There is almost always an unresolved residue left by even the most successful attempts at reduction. Third, Popper contends that there do not seem to be any reasons in favor of philosophical reductionism. But nevertheless the working scientists should continue to attempt reductions for the reason that we can learn an immense amount even from unsuccessful attempts at reduction, and that problems left open in this way belong to the most valuable intellectual possessions of science. In other words, emphasis on our scientific failures can do us a lot of good.

Popper proceeds to discuss some of the classical examples of reductionism. Einstein wrote in 1920: "According to our present conceptions the elementary particles (that is, electrons and protons) are nothing else than condensations of the electromagnetic field. . . . our view of the universe presents two realities . . . namely, gravitational ether and electromagnetic field or -- as they might also be called -- space and matter." By using the term nothing else here, Einstein implied that this was an example of complete reduction -- as Popper remarks, "reduction in the grand style." Einstein was not the only one and by 1932 almost all leading physicists -- Eddington, Dirac, Einstein, Bohr, de Brogue, Schroedinger, Heisenberg, Born and Pauli -- accepted uncompromisingly the reductionist view. Popper gives a quotation from R. A. Millikan (1932) in which this physicist says that nothing more beautifully simplifying has ever happened in the history of science than the whole series of discoveries culminating about 1914, which finally brought about practically universal acceptance of the theory that the material world contains but two fundamental entities, namely, positive and negative electrons.

But, as Popper points out, this reductionist passage was written in the very nick of time, for it was in the same year that Chadwick announced his discovery of the neutron and Anderson (1933) first discovered the positron. Nevertheless, many of the greatest physicists, such as Eddington (1936), continued to believe that with the advent of quantum mechanics the electromagnetic theory of matter had entered into its final state and that all matter consisted of electrons and protons. Popper (1972) points out that, though we still believe in the repulsive forces as being electromagnetic and still hold Bohr’s theory of the periodic system of elements in a modified form, everything else in this beautiful reduction of the universe to an electromagnetic universe with two particles of stable building blocks has by now disintegrated. An immense number of important new facts has been learnt, but the simplicity of the reduction has disappeared. This refutation of the reductionist position started with the discovery of neutrons and positrons and continued with the discovery of new elementary particles ever since. But particle theory is not even the main difficulty. "The real disruption is due to the discovery of new kinds of forces, especially of nuclear forces irreducible to electromagnetic and gravitational forces." So now we have at least four very different and still irreducible kinds of forces in physics: gravitation, weak decay interactions, electromagnetic forces and nuclear forces.

In discussing Pauling’s work (1959) on the nature of the chemical bond, Popper further asks: even supposing that we have a fully satisfactory theory of nuclear forces, of the periodic system of the elements and their isotopes, and especially of the stability and instability of the heavier nuclei, have we thereby a fully satisfactory reduction of chemistry to physics? The answer is ‘No.’ For, an entirely new idea had to be brought in, an idea which is somewhat foreign to physical theory -- the idea of evolution, of the history of our universe, of cosmogeny. This is so because the present theory of the periodic system explains the heavier nuclei as being composed of lighter ones, ultimately as being composed of hydrogen nuclei (protons) and neutrons (which might in turn be regarded as a kind of composition of protons and electrons). This theory assumes that the heavier elements have properties which can only actually result from a very rare process in the universe which makes several hydrogen nuclei fuse into heavier ones. These heavier elements are at present regarded as products of super-novae explosions. The present estimate is that, since hydrogen forms 25% of all matter by mass and helium 75% of all matter by mass, all the heavier nuclei appear to be extremely rare -- not more than 1 or 2% by mass. Hence the earth and presumably the other planets are made of extremely rare materials. The present most widely accepted theory of the origin of the universe -- that of the hot big bang -- claims that most of the helium is the product of the big bang itself and occurred within the very first minute of the existence of the expanding universe, and that the background radiation which is now being studied so intensively provides some evidence of the date of this initial explosion. Moreover it is only under the circumstances of the intense gravitational contraction, which leads to super-novae outbursts, that the heavier elements have been formed. Two things of great interest emerged from these considerations. First, in the conditions of the once supposed universally distributed primeval nebula, existence of gravitational forces could never have been envisaged and consequently the existence of heavy elements could never have been envisaged. These can thus be regarded as genuine emergents in the strict sense. In so far as chemistry has been reduced, it has not been reduced to physics but to cosmology (or as Popper says, even to cosmogeny). And present views seem to imply that the possibility of ever reducing chemistry to physics are remote indeed.

Popper points out that nuclear forces are thus potentialities and become operative only under conditions which are extremely rare, namely tremendous temperatures and pressures. He goes on to suggest that this comes very close to a theory of essential properties which have the characteristics of predestination or pre-established harmony. At any rate "a solar system like ours depends, according to present theories, on their pre-existence." The same close approach to the idea of pre-established harmony applies to the production of heavy metals by gravitational forces and, if this is the best that can be done, then any philosophy of pre-established harmony is an admission of the failure of the method of reducing one thing to another. "Thus the reduction of chemistry to physics is far from complete even if we admit unrealistically favorable assumptions. Rather, this reduction assumes a theory of cosmic evolution or cosmogeny and in addition two kinds of pre-established harmony in order to allow sleeping potentialities, or relative propensities of low probability built into the hydrogen atom to become activated. Thus we are operating with emergent properties." In fact the so called reduction of chemistry is to a physics that assumes evolution, cosmology, cosmogeny and the existence of emergent properties.

Karl Popper also develops the thesis that the idea of problem-solving is quite foreign to the subject matter of non-biological sciences but seems to have emerged together with life. Even though there is something like natural selection at work prior to the origin of life, we cannot say that for atomic nuclei survival is a ‘problem’ in any sense of the term. Nor can we say that crystals have problems of growth or propagation or survival. But life, as Popper says, is faced with the problem of survival from the very beginning, indeed we can describe life if we like as problem-solving, and living organisms as the only problem-solving complexes in the universe. This, of course, does not mean that we have to suppose that all life has a consciousness of the problems that have to be solved. This is obvious nonsense. Popper agrees that there can be little doubt that many animals possess consciousness and can be, at times, even conscious of a problem. But, he says: "The emergence of consciousness in the animal kingdom is perhaps as great a mystery as the origin of life itself" He will, however, agree that there can be little doubt that consciousness in animals has some function and can be looked at as if it were a bodily organ. We have therefore to assume, "difficult as this may be, that it is a product of evolution, of natural selection." Of course, for the behaviorists, who tend to deny the existence of consciousness altogether (a position quite fashionable at present), there is no problem. But, as Popper says, "a theory of the non-existence of consciousness cannot be taken any more seriously than a theory of the non-existence of matter." These theories, he says, solve the problem of the relationship between body and mind by a radical simplification. It is the denial either of body or of mind. But, as Popper says, "in my opinion it is too cheap." In fact there seems to be no prospect whatsoever of reducing the human consciousness of self and the creativeness of the human mind to any other explanatory level. Here Jacques Monod (1971) would appear to agree with Popper in that he calls the problem of the human central nervous system ‘the second frontier,’ comparing its difficulty with the ‘first frontier,’ the problem of the origin of life itself. Popper indeed believes that the reduction of chemistry to physics, of biology to chemistry, of animal conscious or subconscious experience to biology, and of consciousness itself and the creativeness of the human mind to animal experience, are all problems the complete success of which seems most unlikely if not impossible.

So, after this very rambling discussion, I end with the query included in my title: Faced with this extraordinary impasse (or rather not one but a whole series of them), Does Process Thought Help?



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By Bernhard Rensch

Bernhard Rensch is at the Zoologisches Institut of the Westfaelischen Wilhelmss-Unversitaet in Muenster, West Germany.


You mentioned that there seems to be no prospect of reducing the human consciousness of self to any other explanatory level. In my opinion we can do this by analysing the ontogenetical development of this concept in a young child. In my paper I point out that the concept of one’s own self becomes gradually developed in early youth. The child soon learns to distinguish his own body from the environment, because reciprocal feelings only arise when he touches a spot of his own body, and when strong feelings, particularly pain, arise in his body. In this way the child begins to distinguish two kinds of psychic phenomena: those which indicate his own body and those which have to do with the environment. Later on the concept of one’s own self becomes enhanced by remembering personal experiences, knowing one’s own name and so on. At last also concepts of extramental ‘things’ originate.

The basic facts, which I mentioned, are also experienced by higher animals. We can therefore assume that they have at least prestages of such self-consciousness. Social animals can therefore learn to act according to their rank in the society. And apes surely have a concept of their own self. This could for instance be proved by experiments with a mirror. As soon as they begin to recognize themselves in a mirror, they begin to took to the mirror when they clean or touch a spot of color which the experimenter had put on their front, or when they clean their teeth or try to inspect their backside. (Gallup 1968; Lethmate and Duecker 1923 [references given at close of Rensch’s essay]).