1902 Encyclopedia > Evolution > Evolution in Philosophy: Interpretation of Modern Scientific Doctrine.

(Part 33)


Interpretation of Modern Scientific Doctrine.—A word or two, in conclusion, respecting what is known as the modern doctrine of evolution. It is important to emphasize the fact that this is a scientific doctrine, which has been built up by help of positive research. As such, of course, it emphasize the fact that is a scientific doctrine, which has been built up by help of positive research. As such, of course, it embodies the mechanical, as distinguished from the teleological, view of nature’s processes, Yet it still awaits its final philosophic interpretation it still awaits its final philosophic interpretation. We cannot yet say under what head of our historical scheme it is destined to fall.

We think the question of the universal applicability of the doctrine to physical and mental phenomena may be allowed. There are not doubt wide gaps in our knowledge of both orders. Thus it may reasonably be doubted whether physical theory can as yet enable us fully to see the necessity of that universal process from the homogenous to the heterogeneous in which evolution consists ; yet in rough and vague way the process is being made theoretically intelligible. Again, the transition from the inorganic to the organic is, as Professor Tyndall has lately us far from being conceivable in the present state of our knowledge ; and this seems to be implied in the remarkable hypothesis by which Professor Helmholtz and Sir W. Thomson seek to account for the first appearance of life on our planet. Yet we may reason from the general tendencies of research that this step may some day he hypothetically explained in physical and mechanical terms. Again, in spite of Mr Spencer’s brilliant demonstration of the general continuity of mental life much remains to be done before all the steps in the process (e.g., from particular to general knowledge, from single feelings to self-consciousness) are made plain. Nevertheless, we may even now dimly see how such mental process may be knit together in one larger process.

Allowing, then, that the doctrine of evolution as a scientific hypothesis is probably true, the question arises, what is its exact philosophical purport? How far does it help to unify our knowledge, and is it the final explanation of the complex events of our world?

First of all, then, as a unifying generalization, it is clearly limited by the fact of the correlation of mental and physical evolution. These two regions of phenomena may be seen to manifest the same law, yet they cannot be identified. All the laws of physical evolution can never help us to understand the first genesis of mind ; and this difficulty is in no way reduced by Mr Spencer’s conception of a perfect gradation from purely physical to conscious life. The dawn of the first confused and shapeless feeling is as much as "mystery" as the genesis of a distinct sensation. Our best exponents of evolution, including Professor Du Bois Reymond (Ueber die Grenzen des Naturerkennens, p. 25. sq.), fully recognize this difficulty. We have here much the same "mystery" which meets us in the conversion of a nerve-stimulus into a sensation in the developed organism. The sequence is unlike any properly physical succession, and so cannot be further explained by being brought under a more general law. Not only doctrine of he conservation of energy, as applied to organic processes, leads to the conclusion that the genesis of mind in general and of every single mental phenomenon is from a physical point of view, something non-essential.

We may, no doubt, avoid this difficulty, in appearance at least, by assuming that all material processes down to the vibrations of the indivisible atoms are accompanied with a mode of feeling. This may, of course, be proposed as a properly scientific hypothesis, and as involving no metaphysical assumption respecting the nature of atoms. The great difficulty here would be, how we are to conceive of modes of sensibility that do not enter into a collective consciousness, and which appear to lack all the characteristics of our own conscious life.

Even, however, if this huge difficulty of the genesis of mind is got over, there still remain limits to the explanation effected by the doctrine of evolution. Thus, while it might be able to deduce all the processes of physical evolution from a few assumption respecting primitive matter and its laws, it would have no such data for resolving all these steps in the mental process which result in a heterogeneous mode of feeling. How, for instance, is it to account on general principles, and by priori reasoning, for the differentiation of a vague tactual sensibility into what we know as sight and hearing—sensibilities which underlie all our ordinary conceptions of the physical world? Here are manifestly set rigid limits to the explanation effected by the doctrine of evolution, the limits which J.S. Mill has laid down as those of all kinds of explanation of phenomena. The doctrine by no means helps us to resolve all laws of succession into one.

The other limits set to the explanatory power of the modern doctrine have already been hinted at. Thus the doctrine sets out from a given point in time, at which it assumes a definite arrangement of material (and mental) elements to have obtained. "Of the beginning of the universe," says Professor Clifford, "we know nothing at all." Again, Professor, J. Clerk Maxwell tells us1that we must from the first assume an infinite number of molecules exactly alike in their weight and rate of vibration ; and he distinctly argues against the supposition that this system of like elements can have been evolved. There is room then for the question, how this particular order of elements arose. And even is we go further back, and make with Mr Spencer the large assumption that these various classes of molecules have been evolved from perfectly explanation of this original homogeneity. In short, it is plain that every doctrine of evolution must assume some definite initial arrangement which is supposed to contain the possibilities of the order we find to be evolved and not other possibility.

Such being the limits of the scope of explanation by the idea of evolution, the question arises whether these apparently permanent gaps in our scientific knowledge can be filled up by extra-scientific speculations. One may seek to show the need of such a metaphysical interpretation of evolution by a reference to the very nature of the doctrine. As a scientific truth, it is simply the highest generalization respecting the order of phenomena in time, and as such makes no assumptions with regards to the ultimate nature of that force, and mind, of which it speaks. What it may be asked, are the realities corresponding to these terms, and how are we to conceive of their mutual relations? Each of the supposed deficiencies in the doctrine of evolution just referred to leads us back to those various metaphysical doctrines in which, as we have seen, the idea of evolution has usually clothed itself. In order to understand what Mr Martineau calls the whence as distinguished from the when, and to provide a substantial support fro the thread of phenomenal events, it would seem as if we must fall back on some ultimate philosophic assumption respecting the efficient principle in the process.

With respect to metaphysical dualism, it must be said that it leaves us pretty much where we were. The correlation of two distinct substances and their manifestations in the way required by the doctrine of evolution. (whether this correlation be universal or not), needs explanation as much as the correlation of the two sets of phenomena. On the other hand, materialism, spiritualism, and the so-called monism, have each their merits and their drawbacks as helps to the interpretation of evolution. If materialism recommends itself by assuming the fewest possible principles, it is exposed to the objection that it bids us conceive a reality which is wholly distinct from mind. Further, it fails to give any intelligible account of the rise of progress of mental activity. Again, spiritualism assists us in accounting for the genesis of mind, and for the appearance of intelligent in the world. Yet it is questionable whether this doctrine, assuming as it does some form of unconscious mind (whether-soul or as elements of feeling), is not beset with as many difficulties as it resolves. Further, it may be doubted whether the spiritualistic idea, in its common pantheistic form has yet succeeded in rendering intelligible the fixed mechanical order which marks all stages of evolution. Finally, it may be allowed that the monistic doctrine of one reality with two faces does in appearance lift us over the difficulties which beset the materialistic and the spiritualistic interpretation of evolution. Only is it in truth anything more than a verbal simplification, and does it not rather leave us confined in that dualism where science has to land us?

It would thus seem that the doctrine of evolution has by no means as yet received its final philosophic character. No one of the metaphysical doctrines which are at our command is so plainly and completely adapted to transform it into a final doctrine of existence, that it must of necessity be accepted at once and by all.

To this we must now add that to many minds this resort to a metaphysical principle as the support of the process of evolution will not be held to be necessary. A positivist, who thinks that our knowledge of the universe must for ever be limited to phenomena, is at perfect liberty to accept the doctrine of evolution and to regard it as an ultimate expression for the order of the world. Nay more, the empirical idealist—who may perhaps be defined as a positivist that has fully analysed his "phenomena"—can accept and give a meaning to the doctrine of evolution as formulating the order of sensations, actual and possible, of conscious minds. Mr Spencer somewhere says that, if idealism is true, evolution is a dream. Yet this assertion may be reasonably disputed. It may perhaps seem staggering to be told that evolution postulates vast periods of time in which there existed no mind to experience the sensations into which the world is on the idealistic hypothesis resolved. Yet this difficulty is only apparent, since past physical evolution stands for a projection, so to speak, of now existing minds, and for an order of sensations conceived as possible under other and imaginable circumstance.2 To the empirical idealist physical evolution stands for an imagined order of perceptions in an indefinite number of minds, mental evolution stands for an order of sensations conceived as possible under other and imaginable circumstances. To the empirical idealist physical evolution stands for an imagined order of perceptions in an indefinite number of minds, mental evolution for actual successions of feeling in many minds, and the transition from the one to the other means the succession of actual states of consciousness on possible or imagined states. The unity. Of the world-process arises from the ability of the individual mind, which now reflects

FOOTNOTE (p.771)

(1)Discourse on Molecules. See also the very interesting section on the "Nature and Origin of Molecules," which concludes the work on the Theory of Heart.

(2)It may be added that the hypothesis of the uniform correlation of the physical and the mental enables us to assign an element of actuality (mental life) to the remote periods here spoken of.

on these many successions, to gather them up by a series of acts of imagination into a collective ideal experience for itself..

Thus the doctrine of evolution seems to be susceptible of statement in terms of idealism as easily as in terms of realism. In truth, each mode of viewing the process is at once possible and beset with difficulties. The difficulty of giving an idealistic interpretation arises from the popular distinction of mind or perception and something beyond and independent of this. The difficulties of giving a realistic interpretation have in part been stated already in speaking of the different realistic interpretations (materialism and spiritualism). To these must be now added the fundamental obstacle to all realism, which itself, in a specially striking way, in relation, to the doctrine of evolution,—d namely, the difficulty of conceiving in terms of human consciousness something which is independent of, antecedent to, and creative of, this consciousness.

It may be asked, perhaps, whether the doctrine of evolution, by providing a new conception of the genesis of our cognitions, has anything to say to the question of a real independent object. What the doctrine effects with respect to such cognitions as those of space is to show that the bare fact of intuitiveness or innateness does not establish their non-empirical or transcendental origin. Similarly it may be held that the doctrine opens a way of accounting for the growth of the idea of independent realities, supposing this to be now an innate disposition of the mind—viz., by regarding this idea as arising in a succession of many generations, if not out of, yet by help of, certain elements or aspects of experience. It may, however, be maintained that the idea is not even suggested by experience ; if so, it would follow from the evolution theory that its present persistence represents a permanent mental disposition to think in a particular way. Even then, however the question would remain open whether the permanent disposition were an illusory or trustworthy tendency, and in deciding this point the doctrine of evolution appears to offer us no assistance1.

As a scientific doctrine, whatever its ultimate interpretation, evolution has a bearing on our practical, i.e., moral and religious ideas. This has already been shown in part by writers from whom we have quoted. Among other results, this doctrine may be said to give new form to the determinist theory of volition, and to establish the relativity of all moral ideas as connected with particular stages of social development. It cannot, as Mr Sidgwick has shown, provide a standard or end of conduct except to those who are already disposed to accept the law sequi naturam as the ultimate rule of life. To such it furnishes an end, though it would still remain to show how the end said to be unconsciously realized by nature, the well-being of individuals and of communicaties, is to be adjusted to the ends recognized in common-sense morality, including the happiness of all sentiment beings. It may be added that the doctrine, by assigning so great an importance to the laws of inheritance as means of raising the degree of organization and life, may be expected to exert an influence on our ideas of the solidarity of the present generation and posterity, and to add a certain solemnity to all the duties of life, prudential morality included.

The bearing of the doctrine of evolution on religious ideas is not easy to define. MR Spencer considers the ideas of evolution and of a pre-existing mind incapable of being united in thought (see his rejoinder to Dr Martineau, Contemporary Review, vol. xx. p. 141 sq.). Yet, according to others, the idea is by no means incompatible with the notion of an original Creator, though it serves undoubtedly to remove the action of such a being further from our ken. At first sight it might appear that the doctrine as applied to the subjective world, by removing the broad distinction between human and the animal mind, would discourage the hope of a future life for man’s soul. Yet it may be found, after all, that it leaves the question very much where it was. It may perhaps be said that it favours the old disposition to attribute immoratality to those lower forms of mind with which the human mind is found to be continuous. Yet there is nothing inconsistent in the supposition that a certain stage of mental development qualities a mind for immortality, even though this stage has been reached by a very gradual process of development. And if, as might be shown, the modern doctrine of evolution is susceptible of being translated into terms of Leibnitz’s hypothesis of indestructible monads, which include all grades of souls, then it is clearly not contradictory of the idea of immortality.

Very interesting is the bearing of the doctrine of evolution on that aesthetico-religious sentiment towards the world which has taken the places of older religious emotions in so many minds. First of all by destroying the old anthropocentric view of nature, according to which she is distinct from and subordinated to man, this doctrine favours that pantheistic sentiment which reposes on a sense of ultimate identity between ourselves and the external world. In a sense it may be said that the new doctrine helps to restore the ancient sentiment towards nature as our parent, the source of our life. It is well to add, however, that the theory of evolution, by regarding man as the last and highest product of nature, easily lends support to the idea that all things exist and have existed for the sake of our race. This seems, indeed, to be an essential element in any conception we can form of a rationally evolved universe.

A reference must be made, in closing this article, to the optimistic aspect of the doctrine of evolution. That there is a tone of optimism in much of the more popular exposition of the doctrine of evolution needs not be proved. There is no doubt, too, that both in Mr Darwin’s and Mr Spencer’s theories there are ideas which tend to support a cheerful and contented view of things. The idea of the survival of the fittest, and of evolution as a gradual process of adaptation to environment, lend themselves to this kind of thought. Indeed, Du Bois Reymond, in the lecture on Leibnitz already referred to, seriously argues that the doctrine evolution a scientific equivalent to that philosopher’s remarkable conception of the best of all possible worlds. On the other hand, as the present writer has elsewhere shown, Mr Darwin’s doctrine of evolution contains elements which are fitted to tone down our estimate of the value of the world viewed as the seat of conscious sentient life. The pain involved in the renewed struggle for existence is a large drawback from the gains of human progress and of organic development as a whole. More than this, the principle of natural selection appears almost to

favour a pessimist view of the world, in so far as it implies the tendency of organic forms to multiply down to the limits of bare existence.

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