If I had been asked fifteen years ago what I understood by the word materialism, I think I should have said that materialism is a theory about the nature of the universe, and I would have accepted as a matter of course the notion that this theory is in some sense nonmoral. I would have agreed that the scientist is an expert who can provide himself and others with insights and techniques, but that science could have nothing to say about whether these techniques should be used. In this, I would have been following the general trend of scientific philosophy associated with such names at Democritus, Galileo, Newton,97 Lavoisier, and Darwin. I would have been discarding the less respectable views of such men as Heraclitus, the alchemists, William Blake, Lamarck, and Samuel Butler. For these, the motive for scientific inquiry was the desire to build a comprehensive view of the universe which should show what Man is and how he is related to the rest of the universe. The picture which these men were trying to build was ethical and aesthetic.
There is this much connection certainly between scientific truth, on the one hand, and beauty and morality, on the other: that if a man entertain false opinions regarding his own nature, he will be led thereby to courses of action which will be in some profound sense immoral or ugly.
Today, if asked the same question regarding the meaning of materialism, I would say that this word stands in my thinking for a collection of rules about what questions should be asked regarding the nature of the universe. But I would not suppose that this set of rules has any claim to be uniquely right.
The mystic "sees the world in a grain of sand," and the world which he sees is either moral or aesthetic, or both. The Newtonian scientist sees a regularity in the behavior of falling bodies and claims to draw from this regularity no normative conclusions whatsoever. But his claim ceases to be consistent at the moment when he preaches that this is the right way to view the universe. To preach is possible only in terms of normative conclusions.
97 The name of Newton certainly belongs in this list. But the man himself was of a different kidney. His mystical preoccupation with alchemy and apocalyptic writings, and his secret theological monism indicate that he was not the first objective scientist but, rather, the "last of the magicians" (see J. M. Keynes, "Newton, the Man," Tercentenary Celebrations, London, Cambridge University Press, 1947, pp. 27-34). Newton and Blake were alike in devoting much time and thought to the mystical works of Jacob Boehme.
I have touched upon several matters in the course of this lecture which have been foci of controversy in the long battle between a nonmoral materialism and a more romantic view of the universe. The battle between Darwin and Samuel Butler may have owed some of its bitterness to what looked like personal affronts, but behind all this the argument concerned a question which had religious status. The battle was really about "vitalism." It was a question of how much life and what order of life could be assigned to organisms; and Darwin's victory amounted to this, that while he had not succeeded in detracting from the mysterious liveliness of the individual organism, he had at least demonstrated that the evolutionary picture could be reduced to natural "law."
It was, therefore, very important to demonstrate that the as yet unconquered territory—the life of the individual organism—could not contain anything which would recapture this evolutionary territory. It was still mysterious that living organisms could achieve adaptive change during their individual lives, and at all costs these adaptive changes, the famous acquired characteristics, must not have influence up-on the evolutionary tree. The "inheritance of acquired characteristics" threatened always to recapture the field of evolution for the vitalist side. One part of biology must be separate from the other. The objective scientists claimed, of course, to believe in a unity in nature—that ultimately the whole of natural phenomena would prove susceptible to their analysis, but for about a hundred years it was convenient to set up an impermeable screen between the biology of the individual and the theory of evolution. Samuel Butler's "inherited memory" was an attack upon this screen.
The question with which I am concerned in this concluding section of the lecture could be put in various ways. Is the battle between nonmoral materialism and the more mystical view of the universe affected by a change in the function assigned to the "acquired characteristics?" Does the older materialist thesis really depend upon the premise that contexts are isolable? Or is our view of the world changed when we admit an infinite regress of contexts, linked to each other in a complex network of metarelations? Does the possibility that the separate levels of stochastic change (in phenotype and genotype) may be connected in the larger context of the ecological system alter our allegiance in the battle?
In breaking away from the premise that contexts are al-ways conceptually isolable, I have let in the notion of a universe much more unified—and in that sense much more mystical—than the conventional universe of nonmoral materialism. Does the new position so achieved give us new grounds for hope that science might answer moral or aesthetic questions?
I believe that the position is significantly changed, and perhaps I can best make this clear by considering a matter which you as psychiatrists have thought about many times. I mean the matter of "control" and the whole related complex suggested by such words as manipulation, spontaneity, free will, and technique. I think you will agree with me that there is no area in which false premises regarding the nature of the self and its relation to others can be so surely productive of destruction and ugliness as this area of ideas about control. A human being in relation with another has very limited control over what happens in that relationship. He is a part of a two-person unit, and the. control which any part can have over any whole is strictly limited.
The infinite regress of contexts which I have talked about is only another example of the same phenomenon. What I have contributed to this discussion is the notion. that the contrast between part and whole, whenever this contrast appears in the realm of communication, is simply a contrast in logical typing. The whole is always in a metarelationship with its parts. As in logic the proposition can never determine the meta proposition, so also in matters of control the smaller context can never determine the larger. I have remarked (e.g., when discussing the phenomena of phenotypic compensation) that in hierarchies of logical typing there is often some sort of change of sign at each level, when the levels are related to each other in such a way as to create a self-corrective system. This appears in a simple diagrammatic form in the initiatory hierarchy which I studied in a New Guinea tribe. The initiators are the natural enemies of the novices, because it is their task to bully the novices into shape. The men who initiated the present initiators now have a role of criticizing what is now being done in the initiation ceremonies, and this makes them the natural allies of the present novices. And so on. Something of the same sort also occurs in American college fraternities, where juniors tend to be allied with freshmen and seniors with sophomores.
This gives us a view of the world which is still almost unexplored. But some of its complexities may be suggested by a very crude and imperfect analogy. I think that the functioning of such hierarchies may be compared with the business of trying to back a truck to which one or more trailers are attached. Each segmentation of such a system denotes a reversal of sign, and each added segment denotes a drastic decrease in the amount of control that can be exerted by the driver of the truck. If the system is parallel to the right-hand side of the road, and he wants the trailer immediately behind him to approach the right-hand side, he must turn his front wheels to the left. This will guide the rear of the truck away from the right-hand side of the road so that the front of the trailer is pulled over to its left. This will now cause the rear of the trailer to point toward the right. And so on.
As anybody who has attempted this will know, the amount of available control falls off rapidly. To back a truck with one trailer is already difficult because there is only a limited range of angles within which the control can be exerted. If the trailer is in line, or almost in line, with the truck, the control is easy, but as the angle between trailer and truck diminishes, a point is reached at which control is lost and the attempt to exert it only results in jackknifing of the system. When we consider the problem of controlling a second trailer, the threshold for jackknifing is drastically reduced, and control becomes, therefore, almost negligible.
As I see it, the world is made up of a very complex net-work (rather than a chain) of entities which have this sort of relationship to each other, but with this difference, that many of the entities have their own supplies of energy and perhaps even their own ideas of where they would like to go.
In such a world the problems of control become more akin to art than to science, not merely because we tend to think of the difficult and the unpredictable as contexts for art but also because the results of error are likely to be ugliness.
Let me then conclude with a warning that we social scientists would do well to hold back our eagerness to control that world which we so imperfectly understand. The fact of our imperfect understanding should not be allowed to feed our anxiety and so increase the need to control. Rather, our studies could be inspired by a more ancient, but today less honored, motive: a curiosity about the world of which we are part. The rewards of such work are not power but beauty.
It is a strange fact that every great scientific advance—not least the advances which Newton achieved—has been elegant.
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