A Modern Theory of Ethics, by Olaf Stapledon

Chapter 7

Tendency in Physics and Biology

A. The Meaning of Tendency

IT is clear that the ethical theory which I have tentatively favoured in the preceding chapter demands a much fuller account of the nature of tendency than I have yet attempted. I shall therefore at this stage desert ethics for a while in order to discuss tendency in the physical, biological, and psychological spheres.

In this discussion two distinct points must be borne in mind, We must inquire more minutely whether there is any truth in the theory that conscious teleological behaviour involves prior unconscious teleological tendency. And further, if this is so, we must inquire whether, in order that unconscious teleological tendency may give rise to conscious striving, there must be cognition of the tendency as objective, or whether the unconscious tendency causes conation independently of cognition by simply occurring in consciousness as a conative act. But first let us consider the nature of tendency in general. A tendency is not an occult power residing in a thing and ‘forcing’ it to act in a particular manner. When we say that a thing tends to act in a certain manner, we mean usually no more than that it would act in that manner if it were not being prevented. From observation of many things of this kind we have induced that they do, as a matter of fact, always act in such a manner unless something hinders them; and therefore we conclude that this thing would so act if it could. One state of activity in the thing, or in the thing and its environment, issues in another state of activity, unless there are complicating circumstances. Thus to say that anything has a certain tendency is, in the first instance, merely to state a descriptive law of its behaviour, not to explain why it behaves. On the other hand, behaviour is in a sense partially explained if it can be shown to be the kind of behaviour that one might expect as the compromise of two or more known tendencies which are applicable to the particular situation, but discrepant with one another.

The tendencies of a thing are objective facts which we may discover; they are not mere conventions or matters of opinion. It is a fact that stones tend to fall, and that certain animals tend to reproduce their kind. Of course, we may make erroneous judgments about tendencies. We may mistakenly judge that a thing has tendencies which it has not, or that it has not tendencies which it has. Or a tendency about which we make judgments may turn out to be a very different kind of tendency from what we thought it to be.

Tendencies, then, are objective facts about things; and the sum of the tendencies of an existent may be said to constitute the nature of that existent. Or perhaps we should rather say that the tendencies of an existent are aspects of, or expressions of, its nature, which is itself unique, and not itself a sum of tendencies.

What kind of being can a tendency have while it is not active? Evidently its being is in some sense merely potential. A thing which tends to behave in a certain way, and is not so behaving, is a thing which would so behave were it not prevented. In the case of a stone supported on a table there may be said to be an inhibited tendency to fall; and this tendency may be said to express itself indirectly in changes in the structure of the stone and the table. But these changes do not themselves constitute the tendency to fall; they are merely a result of it. We need not here discuss the distinction in the physical sphere between kinetic and potential energy, beyond noting that the potential energy of a body is perhaps a hidden form of kinetic energy, which might issue in another, observable, form of kinetic energy were there not some resistant factor. Though the hidden kinetic energy does not itself constitute the tendency to issue overtly in another form, we may say that a tendency to issue overtly does inhere in the hidden kinetic energy. In fact it would issue if it were not prevented.

Perhaps, then, there is, after all, something more in the concept of ‘tendency’ than in the concept of merely descriptive law. To say that a thing would do so and so, if it were not prevented, does very often imply that while it is prevented it is actively tending, thrusting, straining, toward the ‘repressed’ activity. There is, indeed, no implication of conscious striving. But clearly in practice we often mean by tendency something which, though not necessarily conscious, is conceived at least in terms of the experience of physical resistance to our volition. To say that a thing tends to do so and so, then, is to mean, not merely that certain events would occur, were it not for certain other events, but further that the thing is a dynamic thing, that its nature is to act freely in this way, and that while it is prevented it is in a state of tension.

Possibly physical science ought to avoid this obviously anthropomorphic concept of effort, and should mean by a tendency only a descriptive law. For physical tendencies are known only through their issue in overt activity of some sort; so that a tendency is simply an account of the possibility of action. But in psychology, and therefore in biology, which should not fear the help of psychology in this respect, we should frankly admit that the concept of tendency does involve tension. We should mean by a tendency a particular factor in the active nature of a thing, in virtue of which its behaviour is such as to be capable of generalization under a certain law; and in virtue of which, when such behaviour is impossible, the thing remains in a state of tension, directed, though vainly, toward such behaviour.

Let us, however, for the moment leave this matter and briefly consider the relation between tendency and environment. There are two ways of using the word ‘tendency’. Either we may say (a) that an isolated stone has inherently, a tendency to fall, or we may say (b) that, while an isolated stone has in itself alone no tendency to fall, ‘a stone near a planet’ has such a tendency; or, better, that in the complex ‘stone-near-planet’ there arises a tendency for the two members to approach each other. If we adopt the first sense we fall into difficulties. For, applying the principle consistently, we must say that an isolated stone has tendencies to behave in every manner of which a stone is capable in all conceivable situations. Thus it has a tendency ‘to choke a man who attempts to swallow it’, and a tendency ‘to disappoint a man who mistakes it for a mushroom’. But these complicated activities are not in any important sense the outcome of special tendencies in isolated stones. They are the outcome of total situations composed of a stone and a man in a certain mood. Every situation, every complex of existents, gives rise to some activity or other, or issues in a new kind of situation. But if the original situation is further complicated by some conflicting factor, the activity will be different. Yet the original situation may be said to have a tendency to act in the manner in which it would act in isolation. On the other hand, it cannot reasonably be said to have a tendency to act in manners in which it cannot act without the co-operation of an additional factor. We may significantly use the word ‘capacity’ to describe those situations in which, though the thing (whatever it be) has no intrinsic tendency to act in a certain manner. it would so act with the co-operation of certain other factors. Thus, though stones do not tend to choke men, they have the capacity of choking men when they interact in a certain manner with the human body.

The isolated stone, then, has no inhibited or repressed tendency to choke a man or to fall. But in the complex ‘stone-near-planet’ there is a tendency for the two members to approach, even when the tendency is resisted by an intervening table. On the other hand a bomb which is already timed to explode may be said to have a tendency to explode, even though it should be the only thing in the universe. If it were in the centre of the earth and therefore under immense pressure, it would still have a tendency to explode, but a tendency repressed by another factor. But we should not say that a bomb has, in its own nature, a tendency to perform acts more complicated than simple explosion. It has, for instance, no tendency to kill a certain despot, or change the course of history, though, indeed, it has the capacity of doing so in co-operation with a certain kind of environment. We can allow only that a thing has tendencies toward those activities which it can perform of its own nature, without the co-operation of an environment.

B. Biological Tendencies

Unfortunately, however, common usage is opposed to this principle, and there is good reason in its favour. We say that a bird has a tendency to build a nest, and that a man has in his own nature a tendency to eat. Clearly both these activities involve an environment, though in somewhat different manners. In general when we say that an organism has a tendency to behave in a certain manner, we mean that it responds to a certain kind of stimulus (external or internal to the organism) with a certain kind of activity which is possible only in a certain kind of environment. Sex tendencies involve for their normal functioning a partner, and social tendencies involve society. This usage certainly conflicts with our conclusions about the tendencies of the isolated stone. Should we insist that these so-called tendencies of organisms are in truth only capacities? Or is there something peculiar to the nature of organisms which justifies us in supposing that they themselves have tendencies whose functioning demands an environment?

There surely is good reason for saying that an organism’s own nature involves an environment while a stone’s does not.68 Our observation of organisms suggests that their behaviour is regulated in relation to certain ends, such as the preservation and perpetuation of the race. For each species there seems to be a certain normal way of life which involves a certain normal environment. In order to make this point clear let us briefly consider the case of sexual perversion in pigeons.69 Males kept in isolation from females have shown homosexual behaviour; and an individual kept in complete solitude has satisfied its sexual impulses on the human hand. In what sense can we say that pigeons have a ‘tendency’ toward normal sexual intercourse and that the abnormal behaviours are ‘perversions’? If we apply to the pigeon the same principles as we applied to the stone, we must deny that the pigeon itself has any sex tendencies, normal or abnormal. Tendencies emerge from the conjunction of the pigeon and an environment. One kind of environment creates one tendency, and others create other tendencies. Thus normal and abnormal behaviour are set on an equal footing.

But if we take into account all the facts of the behaviour of pigeons, and of organisms in general, we cannot but suspect that, in some important sense, the normal behaviour is not only average, but ‘natural’, and that the abnormal behaviour is ‘unnatural’. We should justify this suspicion by saying that teleological explanations are irresistibly suggested by the behaviour of organisms, and that, in the case of the pigeon, the normal sexual behaviour serves the biological end of procreation, while the perversions serve no end at all. Thus it seems that the pigeon is such that it, of its own intrinsic nature, tends to behave in the normal sexual manner, although it cannot so behave without an appropriate environment. Its body, considered as a teleologically active substance, needs, for the fulfilment of its own intrinsic nature, a certain kind of environment.

Thus the organism’s capacity to reproduce its kind is, after all, not on the same footing as the stone’s capacity to choke a man or disappoint him, although in both cases an environment is necessary for the fulfilment of the capacity. The difference between the two cases lies in the fact that, while no teleological concept is implied in the behaviour of the stone, the behaviour of the organism cannot be even described coherently without teleological concepts. An artificial self-regulating machine, similarly, such as an automatically balancing aeroplane, cannot be coherently described without teleological concepts. In each case there is a complicated form and complicated functioning which is regulated in relation to an end, and is quite incomprehensible if the end is left out of account. Consequently, we are justified in saying that both organism and artificial machine do intrinsically ‘tend’ to fulfil certain ends, even though they cannot function without an appropriate environment.

Thus with regard to machines, we must alter our conclusion about the isolated bomb. For, since it would never have been what it is, had not a destructive purpose taken part in its making, clearly there is a sense in which, even in isolation it does ‘tend’ to destroy life, even if we are not justified in attributing to it a more specific tendency to kill the Czar of Russia or the British Prime Minister. Its nature is definitely regulated in relation to the end of destroying life.

We do not thus imply that, in the case of the machine, there is some mysterious ‘entelechy’ which, interrupting the mechanical behaviour of the parts, directs the whole to a teleological end. We merely observe that the machine, in functioning mechanically, functions also teleologically. Its mechanical parts are so disposed as to function teleologically. Similarly with the organism, in asserting it to have teleological tendencies we do no more than record an observable fact.

It may be that the teleological tendencies of organisms simply arise from a certain configuration of entities which, in other configurations, are manifested only as physical. It may be that, as Dr. Broad puts it, while artificial machines are externally teleological, organisms are in fact (as they certainly appear) internally teleological. Certainly it is very important to insist that while the teleological tendency of the machine is an expression of something more than its own physical nature, and this ‘more’ originates beyond the geometrical confines of the machine itself, in the case of organisms on the other hand the teleology certainly appears to be internal. Anyhow, even if we should, with Rignano, derive all biological tendencies from the tendency of the organism to maintain itself in physiological equilibrium, it remains true that, however they are produced, biological tendencies are, as a matter of fact, teleological, whether externally or internally. 70

Here, however, an important point arises. In the previous chapter we distinguished between physical and teleological activities, by pointing out that, while teleological activity observably involves reference to an end, physical activity does not. Teleological activity, we said, cannot be accounted for simply by reference to the preceding physical state; physical mechanical activity can. It is only because of this reference to a more or less remote future that teleological activity is opposed to physical mechanical activity. The biologist inevitably describes the bird’s straw-gathering and weaving in relation to the end of building a nest, and this in turn in relation to the end of parenthood. Now in some teleological activity the end is more remote and in some less. When great engineering or building projects are undertaken, the end is very remote, and a vast amount of intervening behaviour is explained with reference to this end. But in a sneeze the end is almost immediate. Explanation in terms of the immediately preceding state is more plausible in the latter case than in the former. The end is more obviously regulative in the former than in the latter. But if our theory of teleological activity is correct, there is a regulative end in each case, though in one case the activity obviously varies from time to time according to the exigencies of the situation, while in the other it is stereotyped. In fact, though up to a point it is mechanized, it is mechanized; in service of a certain biological end.

Physical activity is even more stereotyped, and consequently appears even less obviously teleological. But let us remind ourselves that it is as easy to describe the physical activity of electrons and protons, and of atoms, in terms of the immediately succeeding state, or ‘end’, as in terms of the immediately preceding state or ‘cause’. It is no more significant to say that the movement of an electron results from a mechanical impulsion than to say that in a given state it acts teleologically with reference to an immediate end. The distinction between teleological and mechanical activity is thus not absolute. All physical laws might be stated as low-grade teleological laws of the behaviour of very simple entities.

This mere statement of the facts, however, in which gross physical activity is stated in terms of ‘microscopic’ teleological activity, is not to be confused with the theory according to which the whole physical activity of the universe is the activity of a vast teleological machine whose end is so remote and ‘macroscopic’ as to be wholly beyond our detection.

C. Reducible and Emergent Tendencies

Tendencies may be classified as reducible and emergent.71 In every subject-matter of study we must discover the laws of the behaviour of the elements by observation of the elements themselves in relation. Having thus induced the principles which hold good in all observable cases, we may be able to deduce the behaviour of other, unobserved, systems. Thus by observation of mechanical systems we induce mechanical laws, and can predict the behaviour of other mechanical systems. Mechanical tendencies, then, are tendencies of elements within a mechanical system. And the behaviour of any such system can be deduced from observation of the behaviour of the same kinds of parts in other mechanical relations.

But there are wholes of which it is not possible, even in theory, to describe events simply in mechanical terms. We have accepted the view that in a living organism vital behaviour cannot even in theory be completely reduced to the purely mechanical tendencies of its atoms. It is for instance impossible in practice to describe the behaviour of organisms without using the principle of teleology; and this cannot have a place in pure mechanics. For though the laws of mechanics and of chemistry may be used by a purposeful being for the construction of a teleological system, they cannot themselves fully account for genuinely teleological behaviour, whether in an organism or in an artificial machine. This remains true even if the behaviour of electrons and protons be conceived as teleological behaviour toward an immediately succeeding end. For such ‘microscopic’ teleological behaviour obviously has no relation to the relatively ‘macroscopic’ ends of biological organisms.

It is, of course, possible that all the apparently teleological behaviour of living things could, if we knew more, be fully described in terms of the mechanistic physical sciences. Bearing in mind the vast periods of geological time, we should hesitate to deny the possibility that, by a unique but fortuitous concurrence of physical units, there may have been produced a system which, through purely chemical activity, necessarily maintained itself in equilibrium, and even proliferated into further systems. Such a system would be a sufficient starting point for biology; and natural selection might conceivably account for the whole of subsequent evolution. But though such an explanation is not wholly improbable, and may turn out to be the true one, to-day it is certainly no more plausible than the explanation in terms of genuine teleology. And though one extremely important factor in evolution has certainly been the mechanical impact of the environment on living things, a dispassionate study of biology does to-day strongly suggest that the organic itself, upon which the environment operates, is irreducibly teleological. In view of the countless delicate adaptations of life, and more particularly in view of the fact that the fundamental energy transformation of life seems very different from anything that normally occurs in the inorganic, the faith in a rigid mechanism which cannot be demonstrated appears farcical.

Moreover, the validity of teleological activity in nature seems to be confirmed by the fact that in our own consciousness genuine teleology does occur (namely, as conscious striving), together with the fact that conscious striving presupposes some teleological activity independent of consciousness — if the hormic principle is true. Thus the fact that we consciously seek food and shun danger shows that teleology is a genuine factor in our nature, and the hormic principle suggests that this teleological factor is more fundamental than consciousness.

I shall, then, assume that organisms are in part irreducibly teleological, and further that some of their teleological processes give rise to conscious conations, sometimes as ‘blind’ impulse, sometimes as explicit desire.

In certain kinds of material systems, then, here ‘emerge’ behaviour-tendencies which are not exhibited by the same kinds of parts when they occur in other relations. These tendencies are, in fact, tendencies of wholes, and not tendencies of parts in conflict.

There is, of course, no need to deny that the emergent tendency of the whole is determined by the nature of the parts in the special relation which constitutes the whole. It is merely denied that the tendencies of the whole can be logically deduced from the nature of the parts in isolation.

There is no need to ask here what tendencies are, as a matter of fact, strictly and logically emergent in the nature of wholes and what are theoretically reducible, although we in our ignorance cannot reduce them. Here I will only point out a consequence of this difference in the nature of tendencies. In the case of reducible tendencies the maximum possible fulfilment is the fulfilment of all the tendencies of the parts in isolation. But emergent tendencies, on the other hand, demand new kinds of fulfilment not demanded by the isolated nature of the parts. Thus in a whole in which there are both reducible and emergent tendencies there is in principle a possibility of greater fulfilment than in a whole in which the same reducible tendencies occur without any emergent tendencies.

This conclusion, however, needs qualification. It is possible that the necessary condition for the emergence of emergent tendencies in a system of a given kind might be a state of tension between the parts, such that few, if any, of the isolated tendencies were fulfilled. It is, in fact, possible that the emergent tendencies of the whole might emerge only from the conflict and tension of the parts. We should not, then, be able to say that in such a whole the emergence of tendencies made possible a greater amount of fulfilment, for there would be no means of balancing the fulfilment of emergent tendencies against the resistance of the tendencies of the parts. The tendencies of the whole and those of the parts would be incommensurable.

On the other hand, we should be justified in saying that, in this imaginary case, that which is fulfilled is something more complex than that which is not fulfilled; for the emergent tendencies occur only in the systematic whole, while the tendencies of the parts are characteristics of simpler entities.

Moreover, there is perhaps a sense in which the emergent fulfilment is, after all, a greater fulfilment of the parts themselves than would be any fulfilment of their isolated tendencies. For though the emergent tendencies cannot be reduced to a complex of the tendencies of the parts in isolation, they are determined by the nature of the parts themselves, united in the relation which constitutes them a whole. By coming together to form the whole, the parts have, so to speak, assumed a new nature, namely, the nature of the whole. For the whole is not something distinct from its parts; it is simply the parts themselves in relation. Consequently, the tendencies emergent in the whole are, in an important sense, tendencies of the parts, though not of the parts in isolation. Thus the emergent fulfilment of any part in the whole is the fulfilment of a more complex entity than the fulfilment of the, same part in isolation could possibly be. Having assumed a more complex nature, it attains a more complex fulfilment.

The theory of emergence may be expressed in either of two ways. We may suppose, on the one hand, that the special relation which constitutes the whole ‘evokes’ properties of the parts which are ‘latent’ and unobservable in the isolated element. Some, indeed, would claim that such an account denies the essential idea of emergence; but this is a mistake, for the ‘evoked’ property could not, even in theory, be discovered from knowledge of the parts in isolation. On the other hand, we may suppose that the emergent characters and tendencies simply come into being with the constitution of the whole. These two accounts are no more than alternative expressions of a single concept. In the former view the fulfilment of the emergent tendencies is seen obviously as an added fulfilment of the parts. In the latter view the emergent fulfilment is at least seen as the fulfilment of a more complex entity than the sum of the parts unsystematized. But further, even on this view, it is the parts themselves that have assumed the new nature in the special relation; and it is the parts themselves that are fulfilled. Each of them has, in a sense, assumed the nature of the whole, and is fulfilled in the fulfilment of the whole.

Thus even in our imaginary case in which the emergent tendencies can only emerge from a conflict of the isolated tendencies of the parts, it seems true that there is a greater fulfilment than would be possible without the emergence.

D. Organisms and Societies

As a matter of fact, when we consider one striking example of a whole in which there are emergent tendencies, namely, an organism, we find that; though there is of course much tension between the parts, and consequently repression of low order tendencies, there is also much low order free activity. Certainly in the case of an organism we are justified in saying that there is, in all, a far greater fulfilment than would be possible in (let us say) the same multitude of molecules adrift and disorganized. For in an organism, whatever tensions there be, the ground which makes possible the emergence of physiological and biological tendencies is the continual release of ‘pent-up’ physical energy through the combustion of food. Thus in an organism it is essential that there should be fulfilment even on the lowest plane; while on the higher planes there are many kinds of new and very complex fulfilments.

But the case of organisms is complicated in another way. Organisms themselves are often units which combine into wholes wherein new characters and tendencies emerge. And in the case of social individuals it is clear that even the tendencies innately inherent in the isolated individual are tendencies which have in past generations emerged from social wholes. The social individual cannot fulfil his own private nature apart from society. Similarly within the economy of the individual’s own body, an organ that were to be excised from the rest of the body could not fulfil its own private nature in isolation from the body. For both the organ and the social individual himself have a teleological nature which necessitates, for its fulfilment, a certain environment. It might be said that, after all, then, the tendencies of these wholes are reducible to the tendencies of their parts, that, for instance, the nature of society is deducible from the nature of social individuals. And this is true in a sense; but it is only half the truth. It is true that society is nothing but the interaction of its members, and that the body is nothing but the interaction of its organs; but the social tendencies of individuals are themselves the outcome of the social relationships which have made individuals to be such as they are; and similarly with the organs and the body. In fact, in certain biological wholes some of the tendencies of the parts themselves are essentially tendencies of members in a whole. And these tendencies are preserved in the nature of the individual even when the individual is isolated from the whole.

Now the nature of a thing may express itself more fully or less fully. Even a bomb which explodes in, a desert expresses its nature (in a certain sense) less fully than one which explodes in a crowd. For the purpose of destruction has partly determined its nature. We must not say that a thunder-cloud which discharges its electricity harmlessly expresses its nature less fully than one which works destruction; for there is no reason to suppose the cloud to be a teleological machine whose end is the destruction of life. But though this distinction between the nature of the bomb and the nature of the thunder-cloud is important, it is in strictness only metaphorically true that the bomb expresses its own nature more fully in destruction. Actually what it expresses is the nature of its maker. But in the case of things which are internally teleological it is obviously true in all strictness that they express their own nature in teleological activity. Thus of a child we are justified in saying that it tends to grow up into an intelligent adult, and even into a good citizen. With the bomb metaphorically, and with the child literally, a character of the environment is needed to call forth the full nature of these existents. This is not to say that in the unexploded bomb there was an unexploding explosiveness, nor in the harmlessly exploding bomb an undestroying destructiveness, nor in the child an immature maturity. It means only that the nature of each of these existents is such that it is unintelligible save in relation to certain ends. The more exact attainment of these ends is therefore a fuller expression of, or fulfilment of, the nature and tendencies of the existent. The child whose mental growth is arrested is therefore strictly less fulfilled than one who reaches intellectual maturity.

The question as to greater and less fulfilment of tendencies is certainly obscure. It is clear, perhaps, that in relation to a single tendency there may be greater and less fulfilment. The organic tendency, for instance, which is the objective source of hunger, may be completely or only partially fulfilled. In other words the physiological equilibrium which is normal to the organism may be fully or only partially restored by a certain instance of nutritive activity.

But by what right can we compare the fulfilments of different tendencies of different existents? Is there any sense in asking whether there is greater fulfilment in the bursting of a bomb or in the gravitational approach of a stone to the earth? Such purely physical fulfilments can perhaps be compared in relation to the amount of physical energy released in each case. But, indeed, the concept of the conservation of energy itself assumes the equivalence of certain quantities of different ‘manifestations’ of energy.

With organisms, however, the situation is different. Within a single organism we must compare the fulfilment of different tendencies always with reference to the fulfilment of the organism as a whole. For these tendencies are observed to be teleological, and to have as their end the maintenance of the organism. But how are we to compare the fulfilment of the tendencies of different organisms? Clearly if both are intrinsically social and members of one society (which is a whole emergent in its members), we may compare them with reference to the fulfilment of this emergent whole. For we have agreed that the greatest possible fulfilment even of the individual itself is fulfilment through an emergent whole of individuals. But if the individuals to be compared are isolated, we cannot compare them thus. We may, however, regard them as potentially social, and compare them in respect of the part which each might play in an emergent social whole. And having decided which was capable of the greater social fulfilment, we might conclude that even the private fulfilment of this individual was in a sense a greater fulfilment than that of the other, since it would be the fulfilment of a potentially greater individual. This problem will concern us in more detail when we come to discuss comparative evaluation.

68 Even if we accept Prof. Whitehead's theory according to which every kind of physical object involves an environment, since it is a certain qualification of its environment, this distinction between organisms and non-teleological objects remains true. For while it is indifferent to the non-teleological object whether its qualification of the environment is of one kind or another, the nature of the teleological organism is to be expressed only in a certain very specific kind of qualification of its environment.

69 Tridon, Psycho-analysis and Behaviour, Chapter V.

70 Cf. E. Rignano, The Psychology of Reasoning, Chapter I

71 I continue to follow approximately the account of emergence given by Dr. Broad in The Mind and its Place in Nature, p. 59 et seq.

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