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Evolutionary Naturalism

Among the new tendencies in science which Professor Roy Wood Sellars enumerates in his Evolutionary Naturalism (1922) as “declaring themselves within the last two decades” is“the admission of creative synthesis in nature with accompanying critical points and new properties.” And he says: “The extent to which this recognition of evolutionary synthesis has come to the front of late is surprising” (pp. 296–297).

I may perhaps be allowed to enter a reminder that the title of a chapter in my Introduction to Comparative Psychology (1894) was “Selective Synthesis in Evolution.” I there urged that such selective synthesis is illustrated alike in inorganic organic and mental evolution; that there is again and again “an apparent breach of continuity by which I mean not a gap or hiatus in the ascending line of development but a point of new departure”; that for example “there does not appear to be a gradual and insensible change from the physical properties of the elements to the physical properties of the compound but at the critical moment of the constitution of the compound there seems to be a new departure”; and so on. Synthesis with new properties at critical turning-points was the burden of my evolutionary contention.
I no longer use the expression “selective synthesis” because Lewes's “emergence” (1875) is I think less ambiguous. To label the underlying concept I have therefore substituted “emergent evolution.” If “evolutionary naturalism” be regarded as preferable I raise no protest. What needs emphasis is that however it be named as a frankly naturalistic interpretation it must stand or fall. In Mr. Alexander's phrase it must be accepted “with natural piety.” On these terms I sought to treat it in the chapter to which I have alluded. But there and elsewhere I said that an activity which is selective and synthetic is disclosed throughout the operations of nature. That in the sense intended I should now more clearly distinguish as a separate issue. The two issues are (1) as to the validity of the naturalistic interpretation; and (2) as to the validity of the supplementary concept of Activity in terms of which the course of evolutionary advance may be explained philosophically. On the first issue Mr. Sellars and I with perhaps some difference in detail are in substantial agreement. With regard to the second we differ. He sees no need and feels no call for explanation save in the accredited meaning of this word as it is used in the universe of scientific discourse. He recognises no activity other than that which can be naturalistically interpreted subject to the canons of critical realism.
I am not sure how far I am at one with Mr. Sellars in this matter of critical realism. I am not sure whether my acknowledgment of a physical world does or does not seriously differ from his realistic affirmation. But I think that in our several conclusions there is at any rate much in common though perhaps Mr. Sellars may not endorse the stress I lay on vision. He distinguishes the content of perception from the external existent itself which he speaks of as the object of perception. He urges that “we can no longer believe that we can literally inspect or intuit the very external existent itself.” He does not “doubt the existence of physical things co-real with the percipient”; he does doubt whether such things can ever form part of the content of perception; for “reflection has discovered that the objective content with which we at first clothe these acknowledged realities is intra-organic” (p. 27). In other words he claims that the content of perception is interpretative of an entity affirmed as the object of this content. But to “affirm” is not to “intuit” this object (p. 48).
It may be noted that in one passage Mr. Sellars speaks of “realistic affirmations” and in another passage (on the same page 27 cf. pp. 32–145) he speaks of “these acknowledged realities.” I venture to suppose therefore that his affirmation and my acknowledgment are so far equivalent. It may also be noted that while distinguishing the content of perception from its object he speaks of objective content. He also says with the emphasis of italics: “Our basic principle will be that an entity is made an object by the knower that it is not an object in its own right. It is however an existent of its own peculiar kind in its own right. Being known that is being an object happens to entities and does not affect them for it is a function of the knower” (p. 23). I have sought to avoid such ambiguity—not I think of thought but of expression—as I find in Mr. Sellars's exposition by earmarking the word “objective” to qualify the -ed aspect of that which Mr. Sellars calls “content” reserving the word “thing” for that the existence of which in its own right I acknowledge. But even so the trouble is that what I thus seek to distinguish as a thing is so far as known at all an object of acknowledgment or objective to acknowledging. Hence it may be said that the distinction of thing and object cannot be sustained. What can one say in reply? My answer may sound paradoxical. It is in brief that the thing is never an object of perception; it is an object of contemplation (cf. § VII.). In the perceptual experience of a cow or a rabbit there are this that and the other objects of perception; but in “such an animal” (cf. § XVII.) there are no objects of contemplation. At the level of perception there is neither acknowledgment nor affirmation. Unless one is careful to distinguish the content of contemplation within which the acknowledged physical existent has place from the content of perception within which it has no place we are not in a position to take further steps towards the solution of the problems of epistemology on evolutionary lines. Then we can see in what manner the object of contemplation under acknowledgment or affirmation is interpretative of the object of naïve perception on a lower plane of mental development.
How far Mr. Sellars would accept some such position I do not know. I state it in order to clear the ground; not in a spirit of antagonism to his views. Indeed my present aim is to lay stress on lines along which some measure of agreement may be reached rather than on those along which there must still remain some divergence. In the matter of acknowledgment or affirmation or knowledge-claim we have much in common. Furthermore with differences of expression we are if I mistake not at one in sundry consequent conclusions; (1) that all objective content of knowledge perceptual or contemplative is within the person concerned—is intraorganic as he puts it—or in other words that “all knowledge arises and exists only in the consciousness of individuals” (p. 303); (2) that we have no “penetrative intuition of physical reality” (pp. 50–52) or as I phrase it in view of current English discussion we have no direct apprehension of the external world as existent in its own right; (3) that what is perceived is not the physical existent itself but “a mental substitute for the thing to which the organism is reacting” (p. 61) (I take “mental” to be here equivalent to “contentual”); (4) that the objective world at any rate for visual experience is one of reference from this mental substitute one of psychic signs referred to acknowledged physical centres one in which colour for example is “indicative of physical conditions” (p. 189)—in short that as such it is made objective “by the selective activity of the percipient organism” (p. 44); (5) that “no datum [selective construct of the perceptual order] is like its external cause” (p. 193) but is a psychic sign thereof which determines the course of behaviour. To these may be added (6) that where we part company with some new realists is in their transference to the physical world as part of its intrinsic nature of much that belongs to the perceptual content as objectively meaningful for behaviour (cf. p. 48); and (7)—though on this head Mr. Sellars says little—that where we part company with many modern phenomenalists is in the acknowledgment or affirmation of a physical world towards which their attitude is I take it agnostic in that they hold that no such acknowledgment is necessary for adequate interpretation of the given facts since a phenomenalist treatment is all that is required for purposes of science (cf. Russell A. M. p. 98).
It may be that I exaggerate points of agreement and slur over matters on which we differ. Let me therefore be content to express a hope that there is not much in the critical epistemology that Mr. Sellars advocates which is subversive of that which I advocated some ten years before the twentieth century opened—not as a novel view but as one that needed due emphasis—namely that subject to the acknowledgment or as I then said assumption of a physical order our perceptual world must be interpreted in terms of mental “symbolism” (Animal Life and Intelligence p. 315. Mind N. S. Vol. I. pp. 75–76).
It seems then that in our outlook on evolutionary naturalism we are in the main not far apart; in accepting a physical system under acknowledgment or affirmation we have at any rate much in common; in sundry criticisms of new realism there is more of harmony than of discord. But in the acknowledgment or affirmation of Activity we part company. That which he accepts as the activity which we must “postulate” though we do not “intuit” (pp. 233–234) under physical affirmation embraces I think a good deal more than some of the members of the English school of philosophical criticism would allow to pass. So even here it is perhaps in regard to what is implied as I think by the activity he does accept that there is divergence of view.
There remains the concept of correlation. In so far as this is the antithesis of any form of animism or more generally of the thesis the supporters of which affirm “solidary” intersection of two disparate orders of being we are both on the same side of the fence. We are at one in believing that mind and consciousness in due course appear in that advance of events of which evolutionary naturalism seeks to give an interpretation. Some form of “double-knowledge theory” (p. 307) is pretty generally accepted. For Mr. Sellars however there is correlation of mind with consciousness. Mind is to be regarded as “a physical category.” “We should mean by it the nervous processes which find expression in intelligent conduct” (p. 300).
Whether this rather drastic transference of mind from the psychical to the physical “attribute” under what Mr. Sellars speaks of as “psycho-functional correlation” (p. 308) will win its way to wide acceptance and whether it will further his “purpose to achieve an adequate idea of mind which will harmonise the conclusions of behaviourism with those of the more traditional psychology” (p. 315) must remain open to question. A resolute effort is needed to re-orient one's old-fashioned notions; and I doubt whether Mr. Sellars himself has always been successful in helping one to do so. If mind be neural process to such process the adjective mental is properly applicable. On this understanding ought Mr. Sellars to speak of the “mental content of perception” (p. 76)? Ought he to say that “mental contents are intuited; the brain is not” (p. 54)? Are such statements as the following free from ambiguity? “Relating is something adventitious which supervenes upon the things by reason of the interest and capacity of the human mind. The mind brings them together ideally or mentally not physically” (p. 200). And so on. No doubt it may be said that such expressions are elliptical and must be re-read subject to psycho-functional correlation. So be it. At all events notwithstanding the inversion of current modes of expression the salient feature still is that correlation is the basis of interpretation where neural processes and conscious content are under discussion.
But Mr. Sellars is not prepared to affirm or acknowledge such unrestricted correlation as Spinoza advocated. His contention is that “the psychical is of the very texture of the functioning brain” subject I suppose to psycho-functional correlation. If then the psychical be novel “we have on our hands only the general question of the origin of the novel.” “Frankly it seems to me” he says “that there is novelty of an undeniable sort at every level of reality but that here only are we on the inside so to speak” (p. 319).
Here we agree. But can it confidently be asserted that only at a certain level of neural functioning or even that only in organic functioning does correlation obtain? If this question be regarded as too speculative let us ask: How far down “on the inside so to speak” does correlation extend in us? There is at any rate something to be said for the view that no limits can be set to its downward extension; that not only receptor-patterns but all the physico-chemical changes they involve have psychical correlates which if not directly still indirectly contribute to conscious “awareness”; that just as physical novelty involves the continuance of lower levels of physical existence so does psychical novelty involve a continuance of lower levels of psychical existence. I am not prepared to admit that such a view “builds too exclusively upon mental contents and on introspective psychology.” Nay rather I regard it as an acknowledgment which on broad philosophical grounds is contributory to a constructive theory of the world supplementary to its interpretation in terms of evolutionary naturalism.
Such a constructive theory is openly and avowedly a philosophical creed which purports to be supplementary to this or that policy of naturalistic interpretation. In credal terms certain acknowledgments are accepted in an attitude of belief. Of course in like attitude they may be rejected; or they may be relegated to the suspense account of strictly agnostic doubt poised between the “yes” of acceptance and the “no” of rejection as beyond the reach of positive evidence for or against them. In such credal terms I believe in a physical world at the base of the evolutionary pyramid and involved at all higher levels; I believe that throughout the pyramid there are correlated attributes and that there is one emergent process of psycho-physical evolution; and I believe that this process is a spatio-temporal manifestation of immanent Activity the ultimate Source of those phenomena which are interpreted under evolutionary naturalism.

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