Saturday, June 29, 2019

A Brief Look at Emergent Evolutionism

Lewis's Perelandra, although it has some indirect references to World War II, which was going on when it was written and published, is mostly a timeless narrative. But there is one aspect of it that is more timebound, and that is Weston's affirmation of emergent evolutionism. Emergent evolutionism was for a while in the twentieth century a very significant philosophical position. One can argue that it had already become less popular among scientists in the 1930s, and was fading out among philosophers when Perelandra was published in 1944, but it was still at the time found in a number of popular forms, and you can still find bits and pieces of it today. It shows up in science fiction stories, and in theologians who like Teilhard de Chardin, and in occasional New-agey contexts.

Emergent evolutionism, in the strict sense, is a purely naturalistic approach to the world, and particularly (although not exclusively) to the nature of life and mind. It involves a complete repudiation of anything supernatural, although you do get emergent evolutionists who are a bit more ambiguous (a fact that Lewis makes use of in Weston's fictional version of emergent evolutionism). It is, however, an explicitly nonreductive naturalism. It is essential to the theory that there are levels of being -- that life, for instance, does not reduce to particles in motion. Rather than reduction, we get emergence; given particles in motion interacting in certain ways we get a new, emergent quality, which is life, and is not predictable from the bare properties of particles in motion. Emergent evolutionism, however, if it is opposed to the reductionism of mechanistic views of life, is also opposed to views of life that are vitalistic. The emergent evolutionist is trying to carve a third path between mechanism and vitalism. Life is not strictly a distinct entity or force from particles in motion, but a resultant, an unanticipatable consequence of purely physical interactions; this emergent quality then has further effects (it is not a mere epiphenomenon). So if it's not reducible to particles in motion, but is wholly explained in terms of particles in motion, and it is not an epiphenomenon, what is this emergent quality? It is a new kind of relation or order among particles. A common analogy is borrowed from a poem by Robert Browning: "out of three sounds he frames not a fourth sound but a star". The harmonious chord is something new and beyond the individual notes that make it up. Likewise, a dog is just particles in motion, but these particles in motion have a set of relations that can't be broken down into lesser relations, but are new kinds of relations between the purely physical relations of particles in motion. This is not taken to be mere happenstance, though; there is a direction to evolution, a pressure, so to speak, in the direction of higher relations, just as you get mountains forming from continental plates pressing against each other. Life is a new kind of relation that evolves out of purely physical relations; mind is a new kind of relation that evolves out of purely vital relations; and (ultimately) deity is a new kind of relation that evolves out of purely psychological or social relations, or something like that.

When we have identified these features (naturalistic, nonreductive, nonvitalist, emergent, non-epiphenomenal, taking evolution to have a definite universal direction) we have pretty much laid out the unifying notion of emergent evolutionism. In practice, emergent evolutionists were a highly diverse group. They would share these qualities, but exactly what they would emphasize most would vary; obviously, more scientific emergent evolutionists would tend to conceive of the character of universal evolution along the lines of their own scientific specialty; they have have different accounts of how relations emerge; there was some disagreement over whether space itself is emergent and if so, how; and so forth. A number of people who clearly fall into the group also clearly came to the position independently. It was, so to speak, in the air. It's the kind of position you'd get from a group of highly educated people whose philosophical education consisted of a lot more Hegelianism and Spinozism than we get today, but who wanted something more explicitly and obviously scientific than either, in a sense that was determined by the scientific climate of the day. And the scientific climate of the day was in some ways very different from ours. In biology, evolution was definitely in, but Darwinism was in a slump, and widely seen as obviously not adequate to biological facts. Mechanism and vitalism had both been around for a while, and both had had some definite successes, and yet both were a bit of a disappointment; vitalist critiques of mechanism seemed to have a lot of bite, and perhaps to be unanswerable, but vitalism as a positive position seemed all over the place, and unable to present a serious alternative. Physics was in a state of, if not exactly chaos, reorganization, due to Einstein, with a lot of questions unanswered. And, of course, the world kept igniting into flames, and the idea of a valueless science, and a physical universe in which aesthetics and ethics didn't matter, seemed like a truly horrible and monstrous idea. (The kind of nihilism without despair that is fashionable among certain kinds of scientists today is the luxury of people whose bellies are full and don't have to worry at night about being exploded to smithereens and the destruction of everything they care about.) There were environmental causes in spades pushing in this direction, and yet plenty of room for widely different solutions.

Nonetheless, there were two figures who tended to serve as reference points for vocabulary and the like, Samuel Alexander and C. Lloyd Morgan, both of whose versions were particularly influential because they were published as Gifford Lectures.

Samuel Alexander was born in Sydney, Australia, to a Jewish family, and attended the University of Melbourne; he then headed to England to attend Oxford, where he did extraordinarily well. He joined the faculty of Owens College (now the University of Manchester), and delivered the Gifford Lectures for Glasgow in 1917-1918, which were published in two volumes as Space, Time, and Deity (Vol. I, Vol. II) in 1920. Alexander argues that Space and Time are intimately linked, and that Space in particular should not be seen as a static thing, but as something in some way generated by or through Time. If you try to think of all of Space spread out in one now, you actually dissolve the idea of Space. Relations are spatiotemporal connections of spatiotemporal complexes, and qualities are essentially spatiotemporal processes. Mind is one such process, but it is so specific a process that it takes on a very different character from other such processes. When you get minds you get a bunch of new relations: primary qualities, secondary qualities, and most notably tertiary qualities or values like beauty or truth. And with that one begins to touch on the question of deity, which is the value of being such as to be worshiped. Alexander draws a very strict distinction between God as being and God as quality; the latter is really what he is most interested in. Deity is just the next higher stage after mind; it is what begins to emerge when you have a lot of minds. Alexander dismisses any attempts to say that maybe we should not conceive this religiously, in terms of worshipfulness, by saying that it's just an empirical fact that people treat higher-than-mind in this way; in other words, shying back from calling it God is just quibbling over words. As the world evolves, deity evolves. God, the being coming about, is spiritual (i.e., mental), but deity itself is something different from the barely spiritual/mental, presupposing it but going beyond it as, so to speak, a new way for mind (and life, and material existence) to be. The minds/lives/bodies that are organized in a deity-way Alexander calls God's body, and God is the world to the extent that it is organized in a higher-than-mind way. It's worth noting that on Alexander's view, deity is a set of spatiotemporal processes, and thus spatially located; but because the universe is infinite, the deity that evolves is a kind of spatiotemporally infinite organization of spatiotemporal processes. But this divine infinite is in fact an ideal of a process; when we talk about God as actual, we really mean the universe insofar as it is evolving toward full deity. God the quality, deity, is infinite; but God the actual being is a finite thing beginning to have deity, and is infinite only in that its evolutionary tendency is unlimited. So Alexander.

C. Lloyd Morgan was born in London and studied under T. H. Huxley; he was a scientist who became famous first in the field of animal ethology and then in the field of psychology. He gave the Gifford Lectures for St. Andrews in 1921 and 1922, which were published as Emergent Evolution in 1923. Morgan is somewhat more careful than Alexander to emphasize that emergent qualities are in fact ways things are related to other things; as things evolve, you get new relations that are supervenient on other relations. Some of these supervenient relations are effective: they make a causal difference in how events obtain. Since Morgan doesn't think spatiotemporal relations are effective, he diverges from Alexander in largely not treating them as central to emergent evolution (which is not, of course, to say that they are not relevant to a great many things that are more central). When we use words like 'mind' sometimes we mean the relatedness (mentality, we could perhaps call it) and sometimes what has it; Morgan is careful to insist that emergent evolutionism is specifically the thesis that the former emerges as a new thing. Minds in a substantive sense are not emergent qualities, or in any way emergent, but physical beings that have the emergent quality of mind. Because he doesn't start with spatiotemporal qualities as emergent effective relations, he does not see the evolution toward deity as a purely universal tendency; deity is not that toward which everything is evolving but that toward which mentality is evolving. And because he doesn't think it is universal, that God is the end toward which everything evolves, he thinks that this evolution, while tending toward God, does not do so in a straight march come what may. But the direction is there, and tending toward deity in at least some lines of change. Morgan is more willing than Alexander to take God to be in some sense the effective source of all this, that emergent evolution is dependent on God; his analogy is that the evolution of the universe depends on God as the development of the University of St. Andrew depends on minds. In a way, it's a dependence that can only be seen by stepping back and looking at the whole process, sub specie eternitatis, as Morgan likes to say. Deity itself is a supervenient relation arising among the best minds.

Again, there were many different emergent evolutionisms, some associated with significant names (C. D. Broad, Roy Wood Sellars, William Morton Wheeler, etc.) but Alexander and Morgan ended up being the primary reference points for common vocabulary and discussion topics.

The emergent evolutionism of Weston in Perelandra, as I mentioned above, is fictional. No emergent evolutionist in reality had exactly the Westonian view. But Weston's account is very definitely (as he says) a form of emergent evolutionism (although, as he also notes, he eventually takes a step that puts him at the border of what any emergent evolutionist could say). There are a few quirks to it that distinguish it from other emergent evolutionisms. The first is that Weston likes to borrow vocabulary from George Bernard Shaw. The most obvious case is his use of the term "Life-Force", which most emergent evolutionists would have avoided because it sounds like some kind of vitalism. I take that this quirk arises for characterization reasons. In Out of the Silent Planet, Weston (then very much not an emergent evolutionism) already sounds a lot like Shaw. Weston was partly modeled on J. B. S. Haldane and a few others; Haldane was not a fan of Shaw's ideas, but part of Lewis's deliberate point was that certain things that Haldane (and others with similar views) said did in fact sound very much like a modified version of things Shaw had said. After Weston finds his plans spoiled by a kind of life that he had not ever anticipated, he begins studying biology, a science that he, a physicist, had largely taken for granted before; he becomes impressed by the ideas of the emergent evolutionists who give a picture, like Shaw's Life-Force, that would look very broadly familiar, and that took physics seriously (both Alexander and Morgan try to incorporate the theory of relativity, for instance). It would be natural for him, as a matter of characterization, to carry over a Shavian vocabular in developing his ideas of emergent evolutionism.

The second big quirk in Weston's account is that he talks about the Devil. Perhaps there are emergent evolutionists somewhere who talk about the Devil, but I am very sure that there were no emergent evolutionists so bold as to say that the Devil is the process of evolution itself. This is perhaps also something of a (less direct) Shavian twist, but Weston's argument for it actually makes perfect sense in emergent evolutionist terms. Suppose we are evolving into God, as we have evolved the mentality for truth and goodness and the like. Evolution is not all truth and beauty and goodness, though; it also brings us falsehood and ugliness and evil. Like a good emergent evolutionist, and despite his Shavian expressions that sound vitalistic, Weston rejects anything dualistic (as emergent evolutionists held vitalism to be). So it makes sense that there would be an opposing pole of the one process, and Weston's proposal for how to understand it -- God is the next stage of emergent evolution, drawing us forward, and the Devil is the previous stage without the emergent qualities, insofar as it drove us to a new thing. The idea is that the emergence in emergent evolution is in fact driven by conflict; a more Hegelian idea, I think, than you find in either Alexander or Morgan, but nothing inconsistent with the key principles. It is also consistent development from Weston's view in Out of the Silent Planet.

The third quirk, which was not originally part of Weston's orthodox if a bit Shavian emergent evolutionism, but which Weston says he has only recently come to accept, is what begins to look like a transition out of a pure emergent evolutionism because it raises questions about whether he can really retain the naturalistic and nonvitalistic components of emergent evolutionism. Weston thinks he is literally chosen and guided by the Life-Force. He himself recognizes that this is a new thing; and, of course, this begins to stretch the notion of a purely naturalistic redefinition of God and the Devil, as well as raise the specter of vitalism. The naturalism is perhaps is easier to retain, and Weston himself lays out the basic features of how you'd do it: despite words like 'choice' or 'guidance', the Life-Force is not a person, and the choice or guidance is in reality just that Weston happens to be located at a point where the new relations are beginning to emerge, a central current of the evolutionary process. He takes himself to be a contributing factor to the emergence of God. Of course (as he with perfect consistency recognizes), this means that it's a point where the Devil is tending toward God; he is the martyr who will be reviled so that deity will emerge.

It's much harder to see how he can avoid the vitalism, because his way of naturalizing the choice and guidance of the Life-Force makes it sound like the Life-Force is literally a distinct force, which starts to look like vitalism. He never actively commits to a vitalistic account -- although, to be sure, this is in part because it is at this point that he literally becomes possessed by the Devil. And, of course, since it becomes clear at this point that the Devil has in fact been in a process of taking him over for a while now, or at least preparing him for it, it's perhaps only to be expected that his lines become a little blurred -- after all, thoughts are literally being put in his head by an independent force, so he's struggling to characterize in a non-dualistic way what is in fact a dualistic phenomenon.

All of this, incidentally, is Lewis making a point: in orthodox Christian theology, what would you call the attitude of a finite mind that takes itself to be tending naturally toward deity, if not Satanic or diabolical pride?

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