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Lecture VI: Psychology and Biology

In the previous lectures I have treated the phenomena of life just as if they had no relation to consciousness. So far as our direct means of judging go, most of the detailed phenomena occurring in the lives of animals and plants have no direct relation to consciousness, and it would only cause confusion if we tried to read consciousness into them. As, however, I have attempted to show, we can build up a useful, and at least fairly consistent, body of scientific knowledge with regard to life without taking conscious behaviour into account, just as we can build up a useful and at least fairly consistent body of scientific knowledge of what we call Inorganic Nature, without taking either life or conscious behaviour into account. It is now necessary, however, to consider conscious behaviour and what it implies.

As was so strongly emphasized by Johannes Müller, the behaviour of what we regard as an unconscious living organism is “blind.” What this means is that the behaviour displays no exercise of foresight or retrospect. To express the same thing otherwise, it displays no evidence of directly “learning” from experience. The organism maintains and reproduces its structure and activity as an organized whole; but assuming this, each step in its behaviour is an immediate response to the conditions existing at the moment. The response, it is true, is organic response, in which organic wholeness and persistence are manifested. None the less its immediateness or blindness seems to be equally evident. It is because of this immediateness or blindness that we do not attribute consciousness to the behaviour of a plant, or to that of the individual organs or cells in our own bodies. It is also because of the difficulty of distinguishing, in lower organisms, between simple organic behaviour and conscious behaviour that we are so often at a loss in trying to judge whether a lowly animal is conscious.

In the stage of embryonic development, it is true, an organism almost seems as if it were consciously reaching out towards the realization of an ideal. The steps in the development of an oak tree, or of a human being, seem, on the surface, to be somewhat similar to steps in the conscious realization of an ideal. But when we examine embryonic development more closely we find the same immediateness of organic response as in other cases of unconscious organic activity. The steps in development are simply immediate responses to the changes in environment of each part of the developing organism as growth proceeds. Thus the development of an imperfect embryo proceeds as far as possible, regardless of the fact that it cannot survive to maturity. This subject has already been discussed in Lectures II and IV.

What, now, is the essential difference between conscious behaviour and the “blind” immediateness of simple organic behaviour? The more I have thought about this question the more clear has it seemed to me to be that in conscious activity we have the manifestation of organic unity, not merely as regards space-relations, but also, and as an essential feature, as regards time-relations, so that the manifestation is progressive. This conclusion will, in fact, be the keynote of the present and three following lectures; and in the present lecture I shall endeavour to indicate generally the course of the argument, just as, in the first lecture, I tried to indicate generally the course of the argument in the succeeding four lectures.

Conscious behaviour has two aspects, which we can distinguish as receptive and responsive, or as perception and voluntary action. In reality, however, these two aspects are alike active, and they are inseparable. In both what we perceive and what we do, an essential controlling factor is what we call interest. We perceive things in their relation to our interest, narrow or wide; and equally we do things in our interest, narrow or wide. This is only a most ordinary statement of fact, and in particular it has no exclusive bearing on ethics or scientific observation. Even scientific observation is determined by personal interest in some form.

Now, interest implies both a past and a future. When we perceive something of interest to us we perceive it in relation to a past which is still present to us, will be present in the future, and has actively co-ordinated organic form in time as well as in space. Voluntary action is action determined with reference, not to a mere immediate present, but to an enduring organized whole of which both the past and the future are expressed in present action, so that the present is the fulfilment of the past, and the future the fulfilment of the present. Retrospect, foresight, and organization are alike expressed in both perception and voluntary action. This is what we imply when we say that in perception and voluntary action there is always expression of interest.

A conscious person is not a mere living organism the activities of which are accompanied by an impalpable something called consciousness. Perception is not mere physiological stimulation with consciousness of it superadded. Nor is voluntary action mere physiological reaction with consciousness of it superadded. In the mode of occurrence of physiological stimulation or excitation organic wholeness is certainly expressed; but in perception not merely organic wholeness but progressive continuity of interest is directly manifest in the visible and tangible form of the intelligent response. This response may be only in part immediate. The elements in it of both retrospection and anticipation, and so of progressive continuity in organic wholeness, are, however, evident; and it is impossible either to describe perception, or to reason coherently about it and about voluntary action if we neglect these elements. It is equally true, of course, that there is an element, and an essential element, of what is new, and neither anticipated, nor, so far as we can immediately judge, organically determined, in perception, just as in the purely organic phenomena of life there is always an element of what is apparently not organically determined, and is naturally described in merely physical terms of essential chaos.

It is a commonly held belief that whatever may be true of perception, mere sensation is something which exists in itself, independently of retrospect, anticipation, and organic relation to other conscious activity; also that perception is made up of what may be called agglomerations of sensations and their traces. I hope to discuss in the next lecture the development of this belief and its relations to the teaching of Kant. Meanwhile, however, I should like to point out, as Kant pointed out, that it is impossible either to imagine or experience sensation of this kind. Sensation has always quality, and quality has no meaning apart from the co-presence of previous sensations in contrast. Sensations are also localized, however vaguely, and this implies the spatial co-presence of other sensations. Any sensation has also within it what we may call an urge to definite action or rest: it is uncomfortable or comfortable, stimulating or restful, so that it holds within itself the future as well as the past.

We only deceive ourselves if we try to imagine separately existent sensations, or a conscious experience which is capable of being analyzed into separate and independent sensations. It was the great merit of Kant that he pointed out that separate independent sensations do not exist in our experience, and that it is futile to try to build up psychology on the assumption that they exist. He was nevertheless, as it seems to me, so carried away by the Newtonian “philosophy” that in his Critique of Pure Reason he tried to build up psychology on the assumption that what is given in perception, and implicitly given in the simplest of sensations, is only what may be called a Newtonian world of perception, this world of perception corresponding to what Newton had taken to be a self-existent physical world. In his subsequent Critiques, illuminating as they are, Kant could not get away from this assumption in the Critique of Pure Reason. The preceding lectures imply a definite break-away, not only from the Newtonian “philosophy,” but also from the limitations in Kant's account of the perceived world; and in the interpretation of conscious behaviour it seems to me that a still more definite and radical break-away is essential. In this break-away I am only following in the line of Kant's philosophical successors, and particularly Hegel.

Just as we obtain the clearest and most sharply defined biological conceptions through the study of highly developed organisms, so we can obtain the clearest psychological conceptions by the study of conscious behaviour in its most highly developed form in man. It is, therefore, round human conscious behaviour that the discussion in this and the succeeding lectures will be centred.

It is simply a fact of ordinary observation that in our perceptions and voluntary actions interest is always manifested. We set what we call values on the items of our interest, whether this interest be regarded as our mere individual interest or interest which we share with others; and our conscious actions are directed to the maintenance of these values. The values and interest are abiding and progressive, since in both the perception and maintenance of them retrospect and foresight are involved. A present perception thus contains within it perception of both the past and the future; and a present voluntary action is determined directly with reference to both the past and the future. The past and future are bound up in perception and voluntary action with the present, and grow along with it in interest and value. Hence history has constantly to be rewritten, and is constantly blossoming out into growing definition and in new directions. Hence also, our ideals for the future are constantly growing and expanding with present conscious experience, so that we are always defining the future.

It may be said that in the blind maintenance of its structure and activity an organism shows that spatial separation is an unreal thing, since the parts and activities of an organism and its immediate environment express unity and not essential separation. But in the development of interest and values separation in time, as well as in space, becomes unreal. What is past, and what is coming, seem indifferent to the mere living organism, but they are directly present in conscious behaviour, as belonging to the psychological or spiritual unity which embraces them.

The prediction which controls conscious behaviour is based directly on the presence of past experience. This presence is the presupposition of what we call memory. We can compare remembering to the reading of a written record which always opens itself at the place which our interest requires. Memory is more than a mere record which can be read or not at pleasure, and which can, like detailed memory, be blotted out by disease or accident, or through the lapse of time: for our past, whether it is definitely remembered or not, is embodied as such in our present conscious behaviour. The record may be dimmed and obscure; but what is essential in it—its import or interest—remains, and is embodied in present conscious behaviour. It is the same with national behaviour. Written records of the history of a nation may be missing or absent; but if we wish to understand the present behaviour of a nation we must attempt to understand the import of its past—the “tradition” which is embodied in that behaviour, and consequently in the behaviour of each individual born a member of it, whether or not he knows the details of its history. We mean something very real when we say metaphorically that the blood of a nation runs in our veins.

I have tried to emphasize the distinction between psychological and merely biological phenomena. The recognition of this distinction seems to me to be essential to clear thinking and successful investigation in psychology, just as the distinction between life and mechanism is essential to clear thinking and successful investigation in biology.

If we follow psychological phenomena downwards in the animal scale we seem to lose sight of them by degrees, though in all higher animals they are evident at once, and even in what we call lower animals are coming more and more into view as careful study proceeds. It is difficult to imagine how a philosopher like Descartes could have persuaded himself that animals are mere unconscious machines. His beliefs were, however, singularly robust, and often had little regard for actual observation. This was shown, for instance, by the manner in which he disregarded Harvey's observations on the mode of action of the heart, and equally disregarded the mass of patient medical observation which supported the Hippocratic conception of life. No one could now look upon highly organized animals as unconscious; but in plants, even when they are highly organized, consciousness appears to us to be absent, and in the occurrence of different species in plants we seem to find no clear evidence of progressive evolution.

A not unnatural inference is that since consciousness is absent in lower organisms and plants, as well as in the inorganic world, and since higher have been evolved from lower organisms, psychological phenomena cannot really be different in kind from biological phenomena. Nevertheless, I have just pointed out that a very essential difference in kind does, as a matter of fact, exist between the phenomena which we interpret respectively as psychological and biological; also that this difference does not simply consist in the presence or absence of an invisible and impalpable something called consciousness, but implies a difference in actual visible and tangible behaviour—a difference in what we can see and feel. In observing psychological phenomena, what we see before us and feel are not mere inorganic bodies, not mere living organisms, but persons with all around them, both spatially and temporally, that expresses personality. We see them and what pertains to them just as plainly as we see mere living organisms or inorganic bodies; and it seems to me that the only possible attitude to take up towards those who imagine that they can be resolved into something else is the attitude which Hippocrates took up as regards life towards the philosophical atomists of his time: we must refer back to actual observations. If, moreover, we cannot as yet discover any evidence of conscious behaviour in lower organisms, this does not prove its absence.

In what we interpret as mere life or mere physical existence there seems to us to be no trace of what we interpret as conscious behaviour. We can thus attach no meaning to the idea that conscious behaviour may simply be a development of mere life or physical existence. It has been suggested that life automatically appears when chemical synthesis of albuminous material occurs, and this material attains a certain stage of complexity in its physico-chemical relations to surrounding matter; and that similarly when life has attained a certain stage of organic complexity, conscious behaviour automatically appears. The stage of complexity has been likened to that of a constellation. I must frankly confess that to me it seems that such ideas are not clearly thought out. In fact they convey to me no meaning whatever. It is very different, however, if we conclude that in spite of superficial appearances something of conscious behaviour must in reality be present behind what appears to us as the mere blind organic behaviour of lower organisms or plants, and what appears to be the mere mechanical behaviour of the inorganic world.

To this subject I shall return in the second course of lectures; but meanwhile I wish to refer to another aspect of the psychological interpretation of our experience. In connexion with the biological interpretation I pointed out that not only does organic determination extend out into the environment of an organism, but that when apparently separate centres of life or organisms are in near contact with one another, so that their environments coincide, these lives may manifest in themselves a wider life than that which would appear in connexion with each component organism if it were separate from the rest. In the case of conscious personality we see the same thing on the psychological plane, and exemplified in a very striking manner. The interests of associated persons become a common interest. This does not mean that the common interest is merely the algebraical sum of the more or less conflicting interests of the associated persons, but that there is an extended organized interest, and a corresponding perception and voluntary activity in which this extended interest is manifested.

It is only in fellowship with one another that persons display this extended interest with its corresponding set of perceptions and voluntary actions; but of its reality and extraordinary potency there can be no doubt. Although individual interest is still distinguishable, it may be completely overborne by the common interest. Individual perception and individual conscious activity are then merged in the wider perception and conscious activity, just as in any higher organism the forms and activities of the individual cells present in it display the organic manifestations of the unified life of the whole organism.

Perhaps few things are more striking in the physiology of a higher organism than the manner in which the component cells seem ready to immolate themselves for the maintenance of the common life. Our skins are covered, for instance, by an epidermis which consists of nothing but the adherent dead bodies of millions of cells, constantly in process of dying. To take another instance, the phagocytic dust-collecting cells, whose function it is to collect and carry out by the bronchial tubes the dust-particles which enter the lungs, perish as they deliver their load of dust. Looking at this subject from a still wider standpoint, we see the individual organism constantly perishing, while the species survives, adapting itself, apparently blindly, in this process, to new conditions as they arise.

In the sphere of conscious activity we meet similar phenomena, but on a higher and far wider plane: for it is not the mere blind maintenance of a common organic unity that is concerned, but the conscious development of interest to which neither time nor space sets limitations. We have only to think of the mother who never considers her own safety when her child's life is in danger; of the miner who never thinks of his own danger when he is trying to rescue a comrade; of the soldier to whom his own life is as nothing when he is fighting his country's battles; of the naturalist whom no trouble or risk will prevent from exploring the fauna or flora of some savage country.

To conscious interest there is no limitation of either time or space. Perception reaches outwards into what, from the Newtonian standpoint, are the limitless depths of space, and inwards into what seems the almost equally limitless minuteness of atomic structure. It also reaches backwards into the depths of the Newtonian past, and forwards into the depths of the Newtonian future. When we think of what perception implies we see that in conscious behaviour we are not dealing with something which, like the behaviour of the “bodies” of the Newtonian world, can be regarded as simply existing here and now. The here and the now of conscious behaviour reach out over all other heres and nows.

We can of course treat the conscious behaviour of some particular person as if it were an event occurring at a particular time and place. But in doing so we abstract, or take away, the essence of what we are trying to describe. The perception or conscious action which we are trying to describe extends in every direction in space and in both directions in time. It is not confined to a here and now; and all that we can describe as being here and now is a rather empty abstraction.

When we consider the real nature of perception and conscious action we can easily see that they raise fundamental questions as to the validity of the Newtonian conception of physical reality; and these questions have, in fact, been raised by philosophers in forms which will be discussed in succeeding lectures. The physical world as conceived by Newton is a world which we perceive. This does not mean simply that electromagnetic waves and other disturbances are conveyed from all parts of it to our bodies, and then produce, directly or indirectly, various sensory disturbances. What it does mean is that the electro-magnetic disturbances, their sources, and our own bodies which react to them, are, together with Newtonian space and time, in a very real sense our own interpretations and so part of ourselves. Perception reaches out over them all, and we do not get away from ourselves when we travel in thought to the farthest-away star which photography can detect in the Newtonian universe, or to the remotest past in Newtonian time. This is the essence of what Kant pointed out in his Critique of Pure Reason.

In the preceding lectures I endeavoured to test the Newtonian interpretation in its application to organic phenomena, with a result which was altogether unsatisfactory. Its application to the phenomena of conscious behaviour has been found to be still more unsatisfactory in the present lecture. In fact it cannot be applied to conscious behaviour at all without first, by abstraction, mentally removing from conscious behaviour all that is really characteristic of it. In claiming that his conception of the visible and tangible universe represented reality itself, Newton, together with those who followed him, failed to realize that though this conception has been, and still is, extraordinarily useful in enabling us to predict inorganic phenomena, it nevertheless represents no more than our own hypothetical interpretation of only one aspect of what is actually present in our experience.

As was pointed out at the end of the first lecture, physicists themselves are no longer satisfied with the Newtonian conception, apart altogether from its failure when applied to the phenomena of life and conscious behaviour. They also realize that space and time cannot be regarded as independent of one another or of their contents. All this appears to be bringing physical conceptions nearer to those which are forced upon us by the consideration of conscious behaviour; but we are still in a stage of transition. Meanwhile the average civilized person of our times, confident in the practical success with which the Newtonian conception has been applied in so many directions, continues to attempt to apply it to what it cannot be applied to, and to suppose that such attempts constitute realism. Whatever else they may be, they certainly are not realism.

The psychological interpretation of our visible and tangible universe of experience is just as indispensable as the physical or biological interpretation, and in actual fact this is always conceded in practice. We do not regard one another as either walking automata or mere irresponsible living organisms; and our real reason for not doing so is simply that conscious behaviour cannot possibly be so interpreted. I have tried in this lecture to point out why this is the case, and why, therefore, those who maintain that conscious behaviour can be so interpreted are nothing but the victims of an impossible form of idealism.