Henri Bergson.

Creative evolution online

. (page 4 of 34)
Online LibraryHenri BergsonCreative evolution → online text (page 4 of 34)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


natural systems which we call living beings must be assimilated to the
artificial systems that science cuts out within inert matter, or whether
they must not rather be compared to that natural system which is the
whole of the universe. That life is a kind of mechanism I cordially
agree. But is it the mechanism of parts artificially isolated within the
whole of the universe, or is it the mechanism of the real whole? The
real whole might well be, we conceive, an indivisible continuity. The
systems we cut out within it would, properly speaking, not then be
_parts_ at all; they would be _partial views_ of the whole. And, with
these partial views put end to end, you will not make even a beginning
of the reconstruction of the whole, any more than, by multiplying
photographs of an object in a thousand different aspects, you will
reproduce the object itself. So of life and of the physico-chemical
phenomena to which you endeavor to reduce it. Analysis will undoubtedly
resolve the process of organic creation into an ever-growing number of
physico-chemical phenomena, and chemists and physicists will have to do,
of course, with nothing but these. But it does not follow that chemistry
and physics will ever give us the key to life.

A very small element of a curve is very near being a straight line. And
the smaller it is, the nearer. In the limit, it may be termed a part of
the curve or a part of the straight line, as you please, for in each of
its points a curve coincides with its tangent. So likewise "vitality" is
tangent, at any and every point, to physical and chemical forces; but
such points are, as a fact, only views taken by a mind which imagines
stops at various moments of the movement that generates the curve. In
reality, life is no more made of physico-chemical elements than a curve
is composed of straight lines.

In a general way, the most radical progress a science can achieve is
the working of the completed results into a new scheme of the whole, by
relation to which they become instantaneous and motionless views taken
at intervals along the continuity of a movement. Such, for example, is
the relation of modern to ancient geometry. The latter, purely static,
worked with figures drawn once for all; the former studies the varying
of a function - that is, the continuous movement by which the figure is
described. No doubt, for greater strictness, all considerations of
motion may be eliminated from mathematical processes; but the
introduction of motion into the genesis of figures is nevertheless the
origin of modern mathematics. We believe that if biology could ever get
as close to its object as mathematics does to its own, it would become,
to the physics and chemistry of organized bodies, what the mathematics
of the moderns has proved to be in relation to ancient geometry. The
wholly superficial displacements of masses and molecules studied in
physics and chemistry would become, by relation to that inner vital
movement (which is transformation and not translation) what the position
of a moving object is to the movement of that object in space. And, so
far as we can see, the procedure by which we should then pass from the
definition of a certain vital action to the system of physico-chemical
facts which it implies would be like passing from the function to its
derivative, from the equation of the curve (_i.e._ the law of the
continuous movement by which the curve is generated) to the equation of
the tangent giving its instantaneous direction. Such a science would be
a _mechanics of transformation_, of which our _mechanics of translation_
would become a particular case, a simplification, a projection on the
plane of pure quantity. And just as an infinity of functions have the
same differential, these functions differing from each other by a
constant, so perhaps the integration of the physico-chemical elements
of properly vital action might determine that action only in part - a
part would be left to indetermination. But such an integration can be no
more than dreamed of; we do not pretend that the dream will ever be
realized. We are only trying, by carrying a certain comparison as far as
possible, to show up to what point our theory goes along with pure
mechanism, and where they part company.

Imitation of the living by the unorganized may, however, go a good way.
Not only does chemistry make organic syntheses, but we have succeeded in
reproducing artificially the external appearance of certain facts of
organization, such as indirect cell-division and protoplasmic
circulation. It is well known that the protoplasm of the cell effects
various movements within its envelope; on the other hand, indirect
cell-division is the outcome of very complex operations, some involving
the nucleus and others the cytoplasm. These latter commence by the
doubling of the centrosome, a small spherical body alongside the
nucleus. The two centrosomes thus obtained draw apart, attract the
broken and doubled ends of the filament of which the original nucleus
mainly consisted, and join them to form two fresh nuclei about which the
two new cells are constructed which will succeed the first. Now, in
their broad lines and in their external appearance, some at least of
these operations have been successfully imitated. If some sugar or table
salt is pulverized and some very old oil is added, and a drop of the
mixture is observed under the microscope, a froth of alveolar structure
is seen whose configuration is like that of protoplasm, according to
certain theories, and in which movements take place which are decidedly
like those of protoplasmic circulation.[12] If, in a froth of the same
kind, the air is extracted from an alveolus, a cone of attraction is
seen to form, like those about the centrosomes which result in the
division of the nucleus.[13] Even the external motions of a unicellular
organism - of an amoeba, at any rate - are sometimes explained
mechanically. The displacements of an amoeba in a drop of water would be
comparable to the motion to and fro of a grain of dust in a draughty
room. Its mass is all the time absorbing certain soluble matters
contained in the surrounding water, and giving back to it certain
others; these continual exchanges, like those between two vessels
separated by a porous partition, would create an everchanging vortex
around the little organism. As for the temporary prolongations or
pseudopodia which the amoeba seems to make, they would be not so much
given out by it as attracted from it by a kind of inhalation or suction
of the surrounding medium.[14] In the same way we may perhaps come to
explain the more complex movements which the Infusorian makes with its
vibratory cilia, which, moreover, are probably only fixed pseudopodia.

But scientists are far from agreed on the value of explanations and
schemas of this sort. Chemists have pointed out that even in the
organic - not to go so far as the organized - science has reconstructed
hitherto nothing but waste products of vital activity; the peculiarly
active plastic substances obstinately defy synthesis. One of the most
notable naturalists of our time has insisted on the opposition of two
orders of phenomena observed in living tissues, _anagenesis_ and
_katagenesis_. The r√іle of the anagenetic energies is to raise the
inferior energies to their own level by assimilating inorganic
substances. They _construct_ the tissues. On the other hand, the actual
functioning of life (excepting, of course, assimilation, growth, and
reproduction) is of the katagenetic order, exhibiting the fall, not the
rise, of energy. It is only with these facts of katagenetic order that
physico-chemistry deals - that is, in short, with the dead and not with
the living.[15] The other kind of facts certainly seem to defy
physico-chemical analysis, even if they are not anagenetic in the proper
sense of the word. As for the artificial imitation of the outward
appearance of protoplasm, should a real theoretic importance be attached
to this when the question of the physical framework of protoplasm is not
yet settled? We are still further from compounding protoplasm
chemically. Finally, a physico-chemical explanation of the motions of
the amoeba, and _a fortiori_ of the behavior of the Infusoria, seems
impossible to many of those who have closely observed these rudimentary
organisms. Even in these humblest manifestations of life they discover
traces of an effective psychological activity.[16] But instructive above
all is the fact that the tendency to explain everything by physics and
chemistry is discouraged rather than strengthened by deep study of
histological phenomena. Such is the conclusion of the truly admirable
book which the histologist E.B. Wilson has devoted to the development
of the cell: "The study of the cell has, on the whole, seemed to widen
rather than to narrow the enormous gap that separates even the lowest
forms of life from the inorganic world.[17]"

To sum up, those who are concerned only with the functional activity of
the living being are inclined to believe that physics and chemistry will
give us the key to biological processes.[18] They have chiefly to do, as
a fact, with phenomena that are _repeated_ continually in the living
being, as in a chemical retort. This explains, in some measure, the
mechanistic tendencies of physiology. On the contrary, those whose
attention is concentrated on the minute structure of living tissues, on
their genesis and evolution, histologists and embryogenists on the one
hand, naturalists on the other, are interested in the retort itself, not
merely in its contents. They find that this retort creates its own form
through a _unique_ series of acts that really constitute a _history_.
Thus, histologists, embryogenists, and naturalists believe far less
readily than physiologists in the physico-chemical character of vital
actions.

The fact is, neither one nor the other of these two theories, neither
that which affirms nor that which denies the possibility of chemically
producing an elementary organism, can claim the authority of experiment.
They are both unverifiable, the former because science has not yet
advanced a step toward the chemical synthesis of a living substance, the
second because there is no conceivable way of proving experimentally the
impossibility of a fact. But we have set forth the theoretical reasons
which prevent us from likening the living being, a system closed off by
nature, to the systems which our science isolates. These reasons have
less force, we acknowledge, in the case of a rudimentary organism like
the amoeba, which hardly evolves at all. But they acquire more when we
consider a complex organism which goes through a regular cycle of
transformations. The more duration marks the living being with its
imprint, the more obviously the organism differs from a mere mechanism,
over which duration glides without penetrating. And the demonstration
has most force when it applies to the evolution of life as a whole, from
its humblest origins to its highest forms, inasmuch as this evolution
constitutes, through the unity and continuity of the animated matter
which supports it, a single indivisible history. Thus viewed, the
evolutionist hypothesis does not seem so closely akin to the mechanistic
conception of life as it is generally supposed to be. Of this
mechanistic conception we do not claim, of course, to furnish a
mathematical and final refutation. But the refutation which we draw from
the consideration of real time, and which is, in our opinion, the only
refutation possible, becomes the more rigorous and cogent the more
frankly the evolutionist hypothesis is assumed. We must dwell a good
deal more on this point. But let us first show more clearly the notion
of life to which we are leading up.

The mechanistic explanations, we said, hold good for the systems that
our thought artificially detaches from the whole. But of the whole
itself and of the systems which, within this whole, seem to take after
it, we cannot admit _a priori_ that they are mechanically explicable,
for then time would be useless, and even unreal. The essence of
mechanical explanation, in fact, is to regard the future and the past as
calculable functions of the present, and thus to claim that _all is
given_. On this hypothesis, past, present and future would be open at a
glance to a superhuman intellect capable of making the calculation.
Indeed, the scientists who have believed in the universality and
perfect objectivity of mechanical explanations have, consciously or
unconsciously, acted on a hypothesis of this kind. Laplace formulated it
with the greatest precision: "An intellect which at a given instant knew
all the forces with which nature is animated, and the respective
situations of the beings that compose nature - supposing the said
intellect were vast enough to subject these data to analysis - would
embrace in the same formula the motions of the greatest bodies in the
universe and those of the slightest atom: nothing would be uncertain for
it, and the future, like the past, would be present to its eyes."[19]
And Du Bois-Reymond: "We can imagine the knowledge of nature arrived at
a point where the universal process of the world might be represented by
a single mathematical formula, by one immense system of simultaneous
differential equations, from which could be deduced, for each moment,
the position, direction, and velocity of every atom of the world."[20]
Huxley has expressed the same idea in a more concrete form: "If the
fundamental proposition of evolution is true, that the entire world,
living and not living, is the result of the mutual interaction,
according to definite laws, of the forces possessed by the molecules of
which the primitive nebulosity of the universe was composed, it is no
less certain that the existing world lay, potentially, in the cosmic
vapor, and that a sufficient intellect could, from a knowledge of the
properties of the molecules of that vapor, have predicted, say the state
of the Fauna of Great Britain in 1869, with as much certainty as one can
say what will happen to the vapor of the breath in a cold winter's day."
In such a doctrine, time is still spoken of: one pronounces the word,
but one does not think of the thing. For time is here deprived of
efficacy, and if it _does_ nothing, it _is_ nothing. Radical mechanism
implies a metaphysic in which the totality of the real is postulated
complete in eternity, and in which the apparent duration of things
expresses merely the infirmity of a mind that cannot know everything at
once. But duration is something very different from this for our
consciousness, that is to say, for that which is most indisputable in
our experience. We perceive duration as a stream against which we cannot
go. It is the foundation of our being, and, as we feel, the very
substance of the world in which we live. It is of no use to hold up
before our eyes the dazzling prospect of a universal mathematic; we
cannot sacrifice experience to the requirements of a system. That is why
we reject radical mechanism.

* * * * *

But radical finalism is quite as unacceptable, and for the same reason.
The doctrine of teleology, in its extreme form, as we find it in Leibniz
for example, implies that things and beings merely realize a programme
previously arranged. But if there is nothing unforeseen, no invention or
creation in the universe, time is useless again. As in the mechanistic
hypothesis, here again it is supposed that _all is given_. Finalism thus
understood is only inverted mechanism. It springs from the same
postulate, with this sole difference, that in the movement of our finite
intellects along successive things, whose successiveness is reduced to a
mere appearance, it holds in front of us the light with which it claims
to guide us, instead of putting it behind. It substitutes the attraction
of the future for the impulsion of the past. But succession remains none
the less a mere appearance, as indeed does movement itself. In the
doctrine of Leibniz, time is reduced to a confused perception, relative
to the human standpoint, a perception which would vanish, like a rising
mist, for a mind seated at the centre of things.

Yet finalism is not, like mechanism, a doctrine with fixed rigid
outlines. It admits of as many inflections as we like. The mechanistic
philosophy is to be taken or left: it must be left if the least grain of
dust, by straying from the path foreseen by mechanics, should show the
slightest trace of spontaneity. The doctrine of final causes, on the
contrary, will never be definitively refuted. If one form of it be put
aside, it will take another. Its principle, which is essentially
psychological, is very flexible. It is so extensible, and thereby so
comprehensive, that one accepts something of it as soon as one rejects
pure mechanism. The theory we shall put forward in this book will
therefore necessarily partake of finalism to a certain extent. For that
reason it is important to intimate exactly what we are going to take of
it, and what we mean to leave.

Let us say at once that to thin out the Leibnizian finalism by breaking
it into an infinite number of pieces seems to us a step in the wrong
direction. This is, however, the tendency of the doctrine of finality.
It fully realizes that if the universe as a whole is the carrying out of
a plan, this cannot be demonstrated empirically, and that even of the
organized world alone it is hardly easier to prove all harmonious: facts
would equally well testify to the contrary. Nature sets living beings at
discord with one another. She everywhere presents disorder alongside of
order, retrogression alongside of progress. But, though finality cannot
be affirmed either of the whole of matter or of the whole of life, might
it not yet be true, says the finalist, of each organism taken
separately? Is there not a wonderful division of labor, a marvellous
solidarity among the parts of an organism, perfect order in infinite
complexity? Does not each living being thus realize a plan immanent in
its substance? - This theory consists, at bottom, in breaking up the
original notion of finality into bits. It does not accept, indeed it
ridicules, the idea of an _external_ finality, according to which living
beings are ordered with regard to each other: to suppose the grass made
for the cow, the lamb for the wolf - that is all acknowledged to be
absurd. But there is, we are told, an _internal_ finality: each being is
made for itself, all its parts conspire for the greatest good of the
whole and are intelligently organized in view of that end. Such is the
notion of finality which has long been classic. Finalism has shrunk to
the point of never embracing more than one living being at a time. By
making itself smaller, it probably thought it would offer less surface
for blows.

The truth is, it lay open to them a great deal more. Radical as our own
theory may appear, finality is external or it is nothing at all.

Consider the most complex and the most harmonious organism. All the
elements, we are told, conspire for the greatest good of the whole. Very
well, but let us not forget that each of these elements may itself be an
organism in certain cases, and that in subordinating the existence of
this small organism to the life of the great one we accept the principle
of an _external_ finality. The idea of a finality that is _always_
internal is therefore a self-destructive notion. An organism is composed
of tissues, each of which lives for itself. The cells of which the
tissues are made have also a certain independence. Strictly speaking, if
the subordination of all the elements of the individual to the
individual itself were complete, we might contend that they are not
organisms, reserve the name organism for the individual, and recognize
only internal finality. But every one knows that these elements may
possess a true autonomy. To say nothing of phagocytes, which push
independence to the point of attacking the organism that nourishes them,
or of germinal cells, which have their own life alongside the somatic
cells - the facts of regeneration are enough: here an element or a group
of elements suddenly reveals that, however limited its normal space and
function, it can transcend them occasionally; it may even, in certain
cases, be regarded as the equivalent of the whole.

There lies the stumbling-block of the vitalistic theories. We shall not
reproach them, as is ordinarily done, with replying to the question by
the question itself: the "vital principle" may indeed not explain much,
but it is at least a sort of label affixed to our ignorance, so as to
remind us of this occasionally,[21] while mechanism invites us to ignore
that ignorance. But the position of vitalism is rendered very difficult
by the fact that, in nature, there is neither purely internal finality
nor absolutely distinct individuality. The organized elements composing
the individual have themselves a certain individuality, and each will
claim its vital principle if the individual pretends to have its own.
But, on the other hand, the individual itself is not sufficiently
independent, not sufficiently cut off from other things, for us to allow
it a "vital principle" of its own. An organism such as a higher
vertebrate is the most individuated of all organisms; yet, if we take
into account that it is only the development of an ovum forming part of
the body of its mother and of a spermatozoon belonging to the body of
its father, that the egg (_i.e._ the ovum fertilized) is a connecting
link between the two progenitors since it is common to their two
substances, we shall realize that every individual organism, even that
of a man, is merely a bud that has sprouted on the combined body of both
its parents. Where, then, does the vital principle of the individual
begin or end? Gradually we shall be carried further and further back, up
to the individual's remotest ancestors: we shall find him solidary with
each of them, solidary with that little mass of protoplasmic jelly which
is probably at the root of the genealogical tree of life. Being, to a
certain extent, one with this primitive ancestor, he is also solidary
with all that descends from the ancestor in divergent directions. In
this sense each individual may be said to remain united with the
totality of living beings by invisible bonds. So it is of no use to try
to restrict finality to the individuality of the living being. If there
is finality in the world of life, it includes the whole of life in a
single indivisible embrace. This life common to all the living
undoubtedly presents many gaps and incoherences, and again it is not so
mathematically _one_ that it cannot allow each being to become
individualized to a certain degree. But it forms a single whole, none
the less; and we have to choose between the out-and-out negation of
finality and the hypothesis which co-ordinates not only the parts of an
organism with the organism itself, but also each living being with the
collective whole of all others.

Finality will not go down any easier for being taken as a powder. Either
the hypothesis of a finality immanent in life should be rejected as a
whole, or it must undergo a treatment very different from pulverization.

* * * * *

The error of radical finalism, as also that of radical mechanism, is to
extend too far the application of certain concepts that are natural to
our intellect. Originally, we think only in order to act. Our intellect
has been cast in the mold of action. Speculation is a luxury, while
action is a necessity. Now, in order to act, we begin by proposing an
end; we make a plan, then we go on to the detail of the mechanism which
will bring it to pass. This latter operation is possible only if we know
what we can reckon on. We must therefore have managed to extract
resemblances from nature, which enable us to anticipate the future. Thus
we must, consciously or unconsciously, have made use of the law of
causality. Moreover, the more sharply the idea of efficient causality is
defined in our mind, the more it takes the form of a _mechanical_
causality. And this scheme, in its turn, is the more mathematical
according as it expresses a more rigorous necessity. That is why we have
only to follow the bent of our mind to become mathematicians. But, on
the other hand, this natural mathematics is only the rigid unconscious
skeleton beneath our conscious supple habit of linking the same causes
to the same effects; and the usual object of this habit is to guide



Online LibraryHenri BergsonCreative evolution → online text (page 4 of 34)