Fred Rothwell Emile Boutroux.

The contingency of the laws of nature online

. (page 7 of 13)
Online LibraryFred Rothwell Emile BoutrouxThe contingency of the laws of nature → online text (page 7 of 13)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


principles, applied to science, are liable to warp and
hinder observation.

Biology, however, is at all events dominated and
controlled by the two following ideas. In the first
place, life is the realisation of a t)rpe, and, as such, is
a connecting link between the parts : when one organ
is given, the connected organ should also be given, even
though it is in a rudimentary state. The living being is



Digitized by



Google



94 CONTINGENCY OF THE LAWS OF NATURE

a whole. Afterwards, life is one common activity and
the organs are constructed so as to be able to contribute
thereto : there is correlation between their functions,
and, consequently, between their forms. According to
this view, the living being is a harmonious system.

True, these two principles are implied in biology, but
they do not transcend the range of experience, and it
is this science that has revealed them. Unity is here
conceived as a constant relation of juxtaposition, and
harmony only as a reciprocal influence.

The conjunction or link, moreover, is regarded as
absolute neither in the law of connections nor in that of
correlations ; the more so as each of these laws, taken
absolutely, might injure the other. The conservation
of the type might necessitate the existence of organs
otherwise useless ; the conservation of the individual
might necessitate derogations from the typical form.

And so life, regarded as a totality and a harmony,
as a static and dynamic unity, is not the object of
a notion a prion. The relation connecting it with
physical properties is given by experience and shares its
characteristics.

But, even if this relation is not necessary in theory,
may it not be maintained, from the standpoint of
experience itself, that it is necessary in fact ? Is there
not life everywhere in nature ; and does the immobility
of inorganic matter difFer from torpor and sleep ? Since
this matter is transformed into living substance, must it
not actually share in vital properties ?



Digitized by



Google



LIVING BEINGS 95

Doubtless this theory may be upheld if we pervert
the definition of life, and reduce it, for instance, to the
idea of simple growth and conformation, properties
actually inherent in so-called brute bodies. Considered
as a whole, however, both in its form and in its matter,
life, or the creation of a hierarchical order between parts,
does not appear in the purely physical world. This
world offers us nothing analogous to a cell. Shall we be
told that life is there found in a state of potentiality, and
that it is only awaiting favourable conditions to become
manifest ? It is precisely manifested life, however, with
which we are here dealing. For while manifestation may
be a matter of indifference to the logician, who considers
only concepts, it is the main thing to the naturalist, who
considers things themselves.

Nevertheless, for the appearance of life to be regarded
as necessary in fact, is it not sufficient that this appearance
always comes about if certain conditions are realised ?

Here we are considering none but purely physical
conditions. It would be arguing in a circle to deduce
life, even heterogenetically, from actually organised
matter. To maintain this doctrine, one must be able
to affirm that the conditions amid which life constantly
appears — if it is true that life thus possesses invariable
antecedents — are purely physical, both as regards their
elements and their mode of combination. Nor is this all.
As a state of things, in itself purely physical, may be the
more or less distant result of an extraneous intervention,
which, after effecting in the order of phenomena a



Digitized by



Google



96 CONTINGENCY OF THE LAWS OF NATURE

greater or less deviation, would have allowed things
to resume their normal course, it must be proved that
the conditions in which life has manifested itself have
been brought about, however far back we go in the
region of causes, by purely physical circumstances. A
laboratory experiment would not suffice to demonstrate
the physical origin of life, because we should have to
find out if the physical world, of itself, is capable of
creating conditions analogous to those set up by an
intelligent experimenter.

The living matter, too, whose appearance is thus to
be explained, is not simply some particular non-organised
organic product, such as urea, ethers, sugars, alcohols,
acetic acid, formic acid, etc. ; it is the simple active
body, the element capable of assimilation and of dis-
assimilation, protoplasm, that creates for itself both
envelope and form, becomes a cell, grows and develops,
and produces other cells. For manifestly the living
being possesses the faculty of creating products which
are not living like itself, and of doing acts partially and
even wholly physical or mechanical ; just as the physical
and chemical world produces a multitude of purely
mechanical phenomena. The whole of a cause is not
necessarily found in its effects. Even though the organic
product, the origin of which had been explained physi-
cally, happened to be one of those to whose formation
life, as such, contributes nothing, and which are but a
distant and purely mechanical consequence of the vital
impulsion, it would be illegitimate to extend this



Digitized by



Google



LIVING BEINGS 97

physical explanation to all physiological acts without
exception.

Finally, these difficulties overcome, it remains to be
shown that, the cell being given, all living beings are
also implicitly given, i.e. all spring from the cell by a
law of necessity ; that the most complex structures and
functions find their all-sufficient reason in this elementary
organism.

Now, all these demonstrations would seem to transcend
the range of experience. How are we to trace back or
connect, by a necessary link, the physical conditions of
living beings, mainly superior beings, to the phenomena
of the purely physical world ? How are we to prove
that physical phenomena are nowhere turned aside from
their proper course by superior intervention ? Manifestly,
from the point of view of complexity, there is considerable
disproportion between the highest inorganic bodies and
even the most elementary organised bodies. Besides, this
singular physical complication coincides with the presence
of new qualities of quite a different order and certainly
more perfect. Is it not probable that the revolution
which has taken place in unorganised matter in the form-
ing of these unexpected combinations has actually been
determined by superior essences ; that life has itself laid
down its physical conditions ? According to this doctrine,
there would indeed be a relation of cause and effect
between physical conditions and life, but it is life that
would be the cause.

Moreover, it is unnecessary to state that the influence

7



Digitized by



Google



98 CONTINGENCY OF THE LAWS OF NATURE

of life makes itself felt suddenly, whereas progress comes
about intermittently. The action of the superior
principle may be more or less imperceptible to the man
who considers moments of evolution very near each
other. It may seem, then, that the physical forces are
acting alone. It may also be conceived that, in certain
cases, the superior principle leaves to the physical forces,
so to speak, the task of completing, by themselves, what
it has once prepared, when these forces are adequate to
this object. In such cases, the passing from the con-
ditions to the conditioned would be purely physical, even
though life, as such, were a special principle.

If this is so, the elements, which form the matter of
life, are exclusively physical and chemical forces ; but these
materials do not remain raw or unelaborated : they are
ordered, harmonised, disciplined, as it were, by superior
intervention. According to this view, life is a genuine
creation.

Still, if life is not chained down to physical agents,
does it not in a way contain necessity within itself ?
Does it not obey special so-called physiological laws,
which leave no room — or but little — for contingency ?

Is there not exact correspondence between the physio-
logical and the physical phenomena ? Consequently, is
there not, within the living world, some principle of
conjunction analogous to that in the physical world ?
And, although life may not be a physical phenomenon,
is not that element of contingency which it recognises



Digitized by



Google



LIVING BEINGS 99

exactly measured by that which the purely physical world
admits ?

No doubt it is probable that every physiological
modification is connected with some fixed physical
modification. Still, while it is difficult to compare with
one another the physical phenomena, from the standpoint
of quantity, and we are compelled, when seeking a
scientifically determinable element, to gauge or measure
its mechanical conditions, is it not even more difficult
to find a physiological unity of measurement, which will
enable us to set up a correspondence between the living
and the physical world, as regards the respective relations
of the phenomena of both orders ? How arc we to
reduce the diversity of forms and vital functions to one
and the same specific unity ? And yet the respective
variations of two quantities must have been measured,
for us to be able to regard the one as a function of
the other.

Moreover, is not life frequently a struggle against
physical forces ; and could this phenomenon be conceived
if the vital functions were no more than the simple trans-
lation of the physical phenomena into another language ?

In short, is there not an infinite disproportion, especially
in superior beings, between the physiological changes
and the corresponding physical changes ; for instance,
between the physiological transition from life to death
and the physical conditions of this transition ? If every
malady is a modification, not only physiological but also
physical, is this modification, which is disorder from the



Digitized by



Google



100 CONTINGENCY OF THE LAWS OF NATURE

standpoint of life, also disorder from the standpoint
of matter ?

We cannot argue from the correspondence existing
between the vital and the physical phenomena, and say
that the former possess the degree of necessity that sub-
sists in the law of the latter. If the order of the vital
phenomena is necessary, it is in themselves that the
reason and measure of this necessity abide.

The essential laws of life seem to be, like the physical
and mathematical laws, an appropriate expression of the
formula : Nothing is lost^ nothing created.

The law of organic correlations presupposes, between
the partial functions and the total function, a relation
analogous to that between concurrent forces and a
determinate resultant. If one of the concurrent forces
is modified, the resultant can remain the same only
through correlative modifications experienced by the
other concurrent forces. In physiology, likewise, if
a partial function is modified, the rest will also be
modified, so that the total function remains possible.
The law of correlations may therefore be reduced to
a simpler law : the permanence of the total function
throughout all the changes which the partial functions
may undergo.

The total function, however, is not only an end in
itself, it is also the means by which there is realised
either a certain form or a certain organised matter.

Now, organic form and matter would also appear to
have a law of their own.



Digitized by



Google



LIVING BEINGS loi

With form there is connected the law of relations.
This law, which has for its corollary the balancing of the
Organs, presupposes, between the partial forms and the
total form called the type, a connection analogous to that
between partial volumes and a determinate total volume.
If one of the partial volumes is modified, the total volume
is capable of remaining the same only if the other partial
volumes are correspondingly modified. In physiology,
likewise, if one organ is modified, the rest will be, not
suppressed, but modified also, so that the type may be
preserved. Thus, the law of relations is reducible to the
permanence of the form or of the type.

What connection have these two laws to each other ?

If the law of relations were absolute, Le. if form existed
for itself, this law, in certain cases, might go against
the law of correlations, by necessitating the presence of
organs otherwise useless. But, if form exists only as
the result of functions, if the law of relations is sub-
ordinated to that of correlations, the organs must tend
to follow the variations of the functions, to decrease in
proportion as these weaken, to atrophy when they dis-
appear. Now, this is exactly what happens ; and so we
may grant that the law of relations, after all, comes under
that of correlations.

In short, the production of organised matter seems to
be subject to a law analogous to that of crude matter.
There would seem to exist a determinate quantity of
living matter, which quantity remains invariable, through-
out the vital vortex. Perhaps, indeed, assimilation and



Digitized by



Google



I02 CONTINGENCY OF THE LAWS OF NATURE

disassimilation balance each other in a sufficiently large
totality. The wider the bases on which statistics work,
the more constant, the nearer to equality, are the averages
they give for births and deaths. Even in the case of
the individual, old age and youth under normal con-
ditions seem to balance each other : decadence comes
along and restores the equilibrium which growth had
broken.

This law, regarded absolutely, still seems radically
distinct from that of correlations, because it may imply
or exclude functions otherwise useless, or else necessary
from the standpoint of general action. But, if we admit
that organised matter exists only by virtue of the
organising act itself, the law regarding its production
also comes under the law of correlations.

In a word, the first of these three laws is the best
established and the most permanent ; and if perchance
the other two seem to oppose it and exist for them-
selves, we may admit that these divergencies, in the final
analysis, are due to lack of unity and homogeneity in
the total function ; to the blend, in more or less unequal
proportions, of diverse modes of organisation.

The supreme law of the living world would seem,
then, to be the permanence of the total functions, i.e.
of the degree of organisation, and consequently the
permanence of the types and of organic matter itself ; in
a word, the conservation of life.

Can it be maintained that this law does not imply the
absolute necessity of biological phenomena, by pleading



Digitized by



Google



LIVING BEINGS 103

that the conservation of vital energy does not prejudice
the mode in which this energy is employed ?

This interpretation of the law of conservation seems
to be based on physiology scarcely hiore than on physics
or on mechanics. Things are never given except in a
determinate form, and their determinations and mode of
employment may be modified, according to the law of
conservation itself, only by the intervention of new
conditions of the same order, which would lower the
average, did they not originally form part of the same
system.

The problem of the necessity of laws, so diverse in its
applications, remains identical in its general form. In
physiology, as in physics or mathematics, we are compelled
to state it as follows : Is the permanence of the given
quantity necessary ? Now, as regards life, what answer
are we to give to this question ?

We cannot rely on the definition of life itself to affirm
that there is necessarily maintained the same amount of
vital energy throughout the universe ; for this defini-
tion leaves indeterminate the number of living beings
and permits of a very large number of degrees of
organisation.

;Nor can we invoke a rational synthetic principle,
eiiabling us to build up physiological science a prioriy for
tl le impossibility of such a structure is evident ; and the
t( rms composing this principle, though apparently meta-
physical, would never, from a scientific point of view, be
anything more than experimental data.



Digitized by



Google



104 CONTINGENCY OF THE LAWS OF NATURE

It only remains for us to consiilt eiq>erience itself, and
see if it realty guarantees the permanence of the amount
of life. This does not appear to be the case.

Vital energy— even reduced to such experimental data
as the complexity of organism, or division of labour,
anatomical form, and the properties of organised matter
— is a thing almost impossible to calculate. Into this
concept there enters an idea of quality, of perfection,
which does not seem amenable to number. Indeed,
one could not say that the amount of vital energy
would remain constant, if, the same number of cells
being retained, complex organisms all made way for
rudimentary ones.

Besides, while a great number of facts really manifest
the permanence of functions and organisms, it must also
be recognised that other ^ts seem to imply more or less
profound physiological variations. Is it not in the power
of man to modify, more or less, certain vegetable and
animal species and produce in them permanent varieties ?
Does not the possibility of even an artificial education
show that functions and organs, in their essence, do not
imply absolute immobility, and that consequently the
amount of life, while remaining sensibly the same in its
totality, does not remain so necessarily ?

And if we consider living beings left to themselves,
does it not seem as though, in certain facts, such as the
existence of rudimentary and actually useless organs, the
disappearance of certain species, the increasing perfection
of the fossils in soils of ever more recent formation, we



Digitized by



Google



LIVING BEINGS 105

were brought in contact with a force making for change,
decay, or progress, remaining deep within nature herself,
alongside of and at the root of the force making for
conservation ?

This variability exists, we shall be told, but it does not
imply any contingency whatsoever ; it leaves necessity still
subsisting. Not that it has its origin and basis in the
laws of the inorganic kingdom : the latter supplies only
the materials and conditions of organic development, and
this development has its cause in the distinctive nature
of living beings themselves. Self-modification, however,
so far as the nature of the organism will allow, by setting
itself in harmony with the environment in which the
organism has to live, and preserving, accumulating within
this latter, and even handing over to its descendants the
modifications that have thus come about, is a law inherent
in aU organisms. In living beings, there is an hereditary
power of habit and of adaptation. They are subject
both to permanence and to change, a necessary change
determined by an immutable law of accommodation, and
are fixed in habit, which also is fatality. These two laws
explain all organic variations that have been or may be
realised. They assign to each of them a constant ante-
cedent ; so that the greatest transformations would seem
fully determined, if we but knew all the circumstances
in which they take place. Thus, necessity has sway
both in the living and in the inorganic world. The
only diflference is that in the latter the fundamental
law is one of essential identity, and in the former one



Digitized by



Google



io6 CONTINGENCY OF THE LAWS OF NATURE

of radical change ; in the one a static, in the other a
dynamic law.

Is it admissible that a radical variability should be one
with a necessary concatenation ?

If it is an unfounded assumption to maintain that
change, which is a sign of contingency in the inorganic
world, is but an illusion, and that the mathematical
formula which remains the same amid all the variety of
phenomena is the only reality, it is an equally unfounded
assumption to reduce change to necessity, when, matter
being scarcely anything and act becoming almost every-
thing, we dimly feel we should be releasing our hold on
reality itself, did we persist in regarding change as wholly
phenomenal. The formulae by whose aid we expect to
demonstrate the necessary concatenation of biological
phenomena are less exact than those which set forth the
conservation of a given amount of mechanical force.
Calculation applies but inadequately to measuring
flexibility and habit, and we do not see how, on such
foundations, we could establish a deductive science in-
dicating really necessary relations between facts. In
reality, these principles, which are made to appear as
necessary laws by flinging them violently into the mould
of mechanical and physical formulae, lack the conditions
requisite to constitute a positive law or a constant relation
between facts ; they express relations of another nature.

According to the law of adaptation, the living being
becomes modified in such a way as to be capable of
subsisting in the conditions in which it finds itself.



Digitized by



Google



LIVING BEINGS 107

Now, the concept " in such a way as to " is somewhat
indeterminate. From the positive point of view, there
may be several ways of realising an end set forth with
given materials ; the method is a matter of indifference,
provided the end is realised. True, according to the
number or nature of the conditions, the number of the
methods between which a choice may be made will be
increasingly restricted. But the expression "in such a
way as to " is less correct the more our jchoice is limited ;
it would lose all justification did it remain no more than
a possible expedient ; for then it would be simply by
virtue of the conditions stated that the phenomenon
would be realised : the idea of the result to be obtained
would no longer intervene as a determining condition.

If now, taking into account the considerable number
of means implied in all finality, we invoke, in explanation
of the preference given to some one of them, such con-
siderations as the principle of lesser activity, or the
instinct of beauty, or the general good, we leave the
ground of positive science to pass into that of metaphysics
or aesthetics, and are no longer in a position to allege
the authority of experience.

Nor is this all. The concept " in such a way as to "
sets up a bond between the conditions in which a living
being finds itself, on the one hand, and the continued
existence of this being in these conditions, on the other
hand, i.e. between things that are given and one thing that
is simply possible. Now, the ideal character of this second
term still prevents our admitting that the law of adaptation



Digitized by



Google



io8 CONTINGENCY OF THE LAWS OF NATURE

is a truly positive law, and implies necessity in the sense
in which the laws of physics or chemistry may imply it.

In short, the concept "exist" itself leaves room for
some degree of indetermination. A complex being has
several modes of existence, according as it develops such
or such of its faculties in greater or less degree. Harmony
itself may be interpreted in several ways, according as all
the faculties are placed on the same level, or certain are
placed above the rest. Which, of all these modes of
existence, is the one that will constitute the aim and
object of adaptation ?

Nor does the principle of hereditary habit satisfy the
conditions of a positive law. According to this principle,
purely accidental modifications may, under the influence
of certain circumstances, such as physical environment,
the struggle for life, sexual selection, and, in the last
analysis, the energy, continuity, or repetition of certain
acts, become at last essential and pass over from the
individual to the species. Without examining the nature
of the circumstances mentioned as determining habits,
and which are probably not all purely physical, it may
be remarked that habit is not a fact but rather a dis-
position to realise certain facts, and consequently can
find no place in the formula of a positive law.

In addition, habit is here regarded as bringing about
a modification in the very nature and essence of the
individual. Now, the real positive laws are relations
which spring, in the final analysis, from the nature of
things, considered as constant. They do not precede



Digitized by



Google



LIVING BEINGS 109

beings, but simply express the consequences of their
reciprocal action. Undoubtedly, in scientific demonstra-


1 2 3 4 5 7 9 10 11 12 13

Online LibraryFred Rothwell Emile BoutrouxThe contingency of the laws of nature → online text (page 7 of 13)