The Philosophy of the Present

Chapter 2 Emergence and Identity

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I have spoken of the present as the seat of reality because its character of a present sheds light upon the nature of reality. The past and the future that appear in the present may be regarded as merely the thresholds of a minute bit of an unbounded extension whose metaphysical reality reduces the present to a negligible element that approaches the world at an instant. This view of reality as an infinite scroll unrolling in snatches before our intermittent vision receives another variant in the picture of reality as a four-dimensional continuum of space-time, of events and intervals, forever determined by its own geometry, and into which we venture with our own subjective frames of reference, receiving momentary impressions whose present character is a function of our minds and not of any section of the ordered events in the universe. I have suggested that such an approach to reality does not answer to the scientific technique and method by which we seek for disclosures of the universe. Scientific procedure fastens upon that necessary conditioning of what takes place by what has taken place which follows from passage itself. In space-time relations, that is, in motion, this conditioning may reach the certainty of deduction, though even here we stand before the possibility that our conclusions may often rest upon statistical results which negate the final determination which we seek. There is evidence that the very effort to refine the technique to absolute precision defeats itself. Then there is the other branch of this determination of passage which we refer to under the caption of probability. Whatever our doctrine of probability,

(33) we assume that the happening of earlier events carries with it a probability as to the nature of later events, even if this probability can be reckoned only on a theory of chances. The basis of this determination of the future by the past is found in the fact that something is taking place which has a temporal spread-that reality cannot be reduced to instants-- and that earlier stages must be conditions of later phases. It is the undertaking of science to find out what it is that is going on.

Furthermore the study of passage involves the discovery of events. These cannot be simply parts of passage. These events have always characters of uniqueness. Time can only arise through the ordering of passage by these unique events. The scientist finds such events in his observations and experiments. The relation of any event to the conditions under which it occurs is what we term causation. The relation of the event to its preceding conditions at once sets up a history, and the uniqueness of the event makes that history relative to that event. The conditioning passage and the appearance of the unique event then give rise to past and future as they appear in a present. All of the past is in the present as the conditioning nature of passage, and all the future arises out of the present as the unique events that transpire. To unravel this existent past in the present and on the basis of it to previse the future is the task of science. The method is that of ideation.

I have indicated that we find in the living form an individual thing that maintains itself through the mutual determination of the form and its environment. The surrounding world is so related to the animal or plant by their sensitivity and response that the life process continues. Over against the animal the world is one of food, shelter, protection or their opposites. Over against the inanimate thing the surroundings do not exhibit characters that answer to the

(34) action of the thing in being what it is. A boulder is a definite thing with its own mass and form, but its relations to things about it do not give rise to qualities in them which through the contacts, weight, or momentum of the boulder conserve the boulder. The boulder has no environment in the sense in which the animal has an environment. The background of the inanimate object is that of conservation-in our present day formulation, of the conservation of energy. No transformation affects the reality of the physical system. We have reduced matter and mass, in terms of which this presupposition was earlier formulated, to energy, but the essential feature of the doctrine has been that reality does not lie in the form-for there may be endless transformation -- but in the matter, mass or energy. While, then, there has been a history of a stellar body, which may be traced in a causal series, science grasps the reality of the star only as it conceives of it as energy, which is unaffected whether the form of the body becomes a binary or a planetary system. The particular form of an inanimate body is irrelevant to "what it is." For such bodies the environment is as unessential as the object.

Plants and animals, however, present to science objects whose essential characters are found not in that which undergoes transformation but in the process itself and in the forms which the object assumes within that process. Since the process involves the interaction of animal or plant with surrounding objects, it is evident that the process of life as really confers characters upon the environment as it does upon the plant or the animal. However, plants and animals are physical objects as well as living objects. As physical objects their reality can be reduced to the whatever it is that is undergoing transformation, and their forms become unessential. As such they must be brought within the sweep of the physicist's and the chemist's doctrine. The life process

(35) is bound to disappear in the reduction of these processes to expressions of energy. The introduction of a vital force would help matters not at all; if it could be found it would inevitably be subject to the same reduction.

The difference between the physicist and the biologist evidently lies in the goals which their sciences contemplate, in the realities they are seeking. And their procedure answers to their goals. That of the physical scientist is reduction and that of the biologist is production. The biologist cannot investigate until he has got a life process going. He must, however, have physical means for this process and must therefore be a physicist as well as a biologist. If he reduces the reality of the life process to the means he is using he becomes a mechanist. If the life process appears to him a reality that has emerged out of the physical world, and his study is of the conditions under which it maintains itself, he is a teleologist. These two attitudes come into conflict with each other only if on the one hand he denies reality to the process because he can reduce to energy the objects that enter into it, and therefore refuses to recognize that the process that he is investigating is a reality that has arisen; or if, on the other hand, he states the physical and chemical things that enter into the process solely in terms of the process, and thus makes them Aristotelian qualities or adjectives. If he thus takes the position that all constituents of things are really potentialities of the thing which imply its pre-existence, then the biologist becomes an Aristotelian or, in a modern atmosphere, a "type" idealist; and, if he is consistent, surrenders the field of scientific research, and denies the possibility of emergence as well.

What I have wished to emphasize in this reference to the emergence of life is that it confers upon the world characters quite as genuine as those it confers upon living beings. This fact is recognized in the term environment. We are apt

(36) to use the term in a phenomenalistic fashion, to lodge the reality of the environment in its physical reduction to mass or energy, and to allow a real significance to the relation of the animal to his surroundings only in so far as these can be stated in physical and chemical terms. The reality of food, for example, is then found in the atoms or electrons and protons of which it is composed, and its nutritive character is a mere concession to our interest in an isolated group of happenings going on about us. As I have indicated, we cannot preserve this attitude without denying a fundamental reality to life. If life is a reality, its operation within form and environment must confer its characters within its whole field of operation. If an animal digests, there must exist a food which the animal digests. Another fashion in which to present the situation is in terms of the contrast between the conditions of that which takes place, and the conditioned occurrence. It has back of it also the distinction between things and events. The passing event solidifies into the thing as it becomes in the present the fixed conditions of later occurrences. Good digestion, health, and life itself are conditions for the varied activities which the future holds, and as such they are things that constitute some of our most precious possessions. They are, in especial, those contents to which varying characters or accidents are attached. In other words, they tend to become substances, being concreted by the fact that, having transpired, their conditioning nature, whatever it may be, is fixed. Thus the future is continually qualifying the past in the present.

The distinction which I indicated above between reduction and production falls in with that between our attitudes toward past and future respectively. The past we reduce to dependable conditions, and all the rich context of the future as it takes place, if it is to be comprehensible and serviceable, must be woven into this dependable web. Thus new things

(37) continually arise, the novelty of whose occurrence is worn down into the reliability of that which becomes familiar. But the thing is preeminently the physical thing of contact experience. We find here the fundamental relation between the future and the past in the present. The distance experience is the promise of contact experience. The something we can get hold of is the substance to which the qualities of sound, color, taste and odor belong. In the immediate perceptual world what we can handle is the reality to which what is seen and heard must be brought to the test, if we are to escape illusion and hallucination. The development of the distance receptors with their inner apparatus, the encephalon, has endowed the higher animals with a future which could become effective only in proportion as it was stretched out behind into the past in which the contact experiences that were promised or threatened by sight or sound were made specific by the finer adjustments of the hand in manipulation.

It was the peculiar advantage of Newtonian mechanics that its fundamental concept of mass was so closely correlated with the weight and volume of contact experience. It has always been easy for us to imagine the subdivision of perceptual objects into mass particles, and to translate inertia, force and momentum into the effort which contact experiences call out. In this mechanical doctrine the reliable conditions to which science has reduced the past have been made inherent in the mass particle, and the mass particle could be regarded as a refinement of the physical thing of the perceptual world. It is this peculiar agreement of the physical thing in science with the thing of perception that has given the so-called materialism of the doctrine its vogue. It is in no small degree to this correlation that we must attribute our instinctive tendency to ascribe the reality of life to the physical and chemical changes of inanimate things. The

(38) Aristotelian found no difficulty in recognizing life as a nature that could belong to things, for he had no scientifically schooled imagination that could exhibit to him subperceptual physical things accomplishing living processes. Democritus offered this latter hypothesis, though without its experimental verification. I wish, however, to insist that the essential fallacy in this materialism, lies not in its assumption of a massive character for ultimate physical things-for mass has already disappeared in energy-but in the assumption that it is possible to give an exhaustive account of any event that takes place in terms of the conditions of its occurrence. I will not say that we cannot conceive of a passage within which nothing happens, but I do make bold to say that every event by which it becomes possible to differentiate passage must have a unique character which cannot be resolved into the conditions under which the event happens. The attempt so to resolve it leads not so much to materialism as to identical equations and a changeless Parmenidean block of reality. If this is true there is, of course, nothing peculiar in the emergence of life or of consciousness so-called. They may have had more import than other unique occurrences but other events have been as genuinely unique as they and have been as genuinely involved in the process of reality.

The striking feature in the appearance of life is that the process that constitutes the reality of a living being is one that extends beyond the form itself and involves for its expression the world within which this form lives. The reality of the process thus belongs to the world in its relation to the living being. This is referred to in the terms, form and environment. It is an expression of relativity in terms of life. The world is evidently a different affair for the plant and for the animal, and differs for different species of plants and animals. They have different environments. That we may reduce all of these to the physical world of

(39) the conditions under which life can go on, which is the field within which so-called purely physical processes take place, does not wipe out these various environments as aspects of reality.

The doctrine of relativity at present connotes a similar relation between any moving object or group of objects moving with the same velocity and in the same sense, and the rest of the world within which this consentient set[1] is moving. The spatial, temporal and energic characters of objects vary with the velocity of their motion in relation to the world that is at rest in respect to this moving consentient set. But, unlike the living form and its environment, the consentient set which is moving may be regarded as at rest, while its environment will then be regarded as moving with like velocity and in an opposite sense. The effect of relativity is then to carry what I have termed the reduction of physical science still farther; for if the same reality may appear indifferently as the motion of one set with reference to another at rest or as the motion of the second set with reference to the first, which is now at rest, it is evident that the temporal character of the objects at rest, their endurance or passage, must in some way be equated with the temporal character of the same objects in motion. The point-track of the first situation becomes equal to the translation in the second situation. We pass inevitably into a continuum in which time becomes a dimension. What was motion has become the interval between events in space-time, which, regarded from different standpoints, may be either rest or motion. A simpler if cruder way of saying this is that the reality of motion does not lie in the change but in the relative positions of things, regarded as events, with reference to each other.


In the Newtonian world a boxlike space, conceivably filled with a stagnant ether, whose structure was irrelevant to time, was the absolute environment of all change, i.e., for the physical sciences, of all motion. The new absolute space-time is not the environment of anything for there is nothing going on there. There are only the events at intervals from each other. There is an ordered geometry of this continuum, and matter may be translated into this geometry in terms of curvature.

Something more has happened here than the disappearance of absolute space and time. These had already disappeared with the advent of a relational theory of space and time. It is no more possible to get evidence of an absolute motion from the standpoint of a relational theory than it is from the standpoint of relativity. What the Michelson-Morley experiment undertook to show was not the absolute motion of the earth through space, but its motion through the stagnant ether that was the accepted medium of light. But a new problem arose when Einstein proved that, by any system of measurement which could be instituted, the measurement of distances and times in a moving system from the standpoint of a system at rest would give a different result from that reached if the measurement took place within the moving system. The yardstick in the moving system would be shorter and the time measured would be longer. And this fell in with the transformations that Lorentz found necessary if Maxwell's electro-magnetic equations were to be rendered invariant. There was the same variation in the values of space, time and energy; and there appeared the constant value of light, which Einstein assumed for his measurement by signals. And this concurrent speculation by physicist and mathematician exactly accounted for the negative result of the Michelson-Morley experiment. On this new hypothesis,

(41) not only was it shown that evidence of an absolute motion was meaningless, but the process of measurement itself was shown, when it involved moving objects, to be highly complex, and to call for more complex mathematics and the genius of Einstein, who showed that the accepted results of Newtonian mathematics were but first approximations to more exact formulations. Thus the reduction of the conditions under which the measurements of exact science are made has been carried back of the structure of the space and time that had hitherto been presupposed. And the same is true of matter. The two attitudes with reference to matter which lie back of our perception and our thought are indicated in the two definitions which Newton gave of mass-as quantity of matter, and as the measure of inertia. The first is not capable of scientific use, since it presupposes determination of density; but it indicates a prevalent attitude of mind, the assumption of something that has a nature within itself, that can be grasped in independence of the relations into which it enters with other objects. Inertia can be grasped only through the relations of a body to other bodies. The attempt to define mass in terms of inertia leads to a circle-mass is defined in terms of force and force defined in terms of mass. It is necessary to presuppose a system in order to define the objects that make up the system. But the conception of a physical thing simply as that which occupies a certain volume, even if it did not provide a determinable quantity of matter, at least appeared to offer to the mind the objects out of which the system was to be built up. We meet the same conception in the hypothetical body Alpha which was suggested as located beyond the gravitational field, and as providing a fixed physical entity from the standpoint of which the physical universe could be oriented. If now we state the "what it is" of a body in terms of energy, we are implying a sys-

(42) -tem as there in advance of the objects that make up the system. We have pushed our statement of the conditions which determine the nature of objects back of the perceptual object, and back of the subperceptual object of the Newtonian doctrine which merged so easily with perceptual experience. And we have lost the conception of an environment, such as that of the Newtonian space and Newtonian mass particles, within which the affairs of the physical universe can go on. For a space-time continuum does not provide such an environment. It is a metaphysical world of things in themselves, to which there may be a reference in the mathematical apparatus which we are obliged to use, but which does not provide us with an environment. It lacks the characters that are conferred upon an environment by an organism through its relationship to it, and has a nature out of which both organism and environment have arisen, and which may therefore be regarded as independent of them. The world of the physical and chemical sciences provides the conditions for life and the surroundings within which life may be lived. Evidently a world that lies beyond possible experience cannot be the environment of experience.

Nor can we regard two consentient sets moving with reference to each other as standing in the relation of form and environment, though the movement of one set confers upon the other a certain structure due to that movement. The fact that either set may be regarded as in motion, at least in so far as this change in structure is concerned, would make the conception of form and environment inappropriate. What we seek in the environment is a statement of the world out of which the emergent has arisen, and consequently the conditions under which the emergent must exist, even though this emergence has made a different world through its appearance. Newtonian matter in Newtonian space provided an original environment within which all

(43) changes took place, and Alexander presented space and time as such an environment out of which emerged matter, qualities, life, mind and deity. His philosophy was that of an emergent evolution, as the biologist Morgan presented it.[2] It had the historical sense which belonged to the period of evolution. Relativity does not belong to that period. its more profound reductions of the exact conditions of existence open no doors toward the past. The early attempt to give it a metaphysical formulation eliminates change. It reduces time to a dimension on a parity with those of space, and substitutes geometry for history. Whitehead has indeed undertaken to preserve motion and change within a relativistic universe. He would keep the different time systems as perspectives in nature, but that he has avoided the rigidity of the geometry of the space-time continuum I cannot see, nor can I see how the ingression of eternal objects into events so determined can open the door to the contingent.

But it is not in these early metaphysical precipitates that I am interested. What does stand out from relativistic physical theory is that the reduction of the conditions of change, or in this case motion, has been carried so far back that change or motion itself disappears. Nor do we reach a situation out of which the change arises -- except in so far as we set up a metaphysical realm which cannot be an environment within which the change takes place. On the contrary, space-time becomes a reality of which change is a subjective reflection. The same is true if we undertake to push back a theory of energy as the "what it is" of the physical object to the situations within which arise the objects which, as such, constitute the systems within which energy may be measured. Ostwald suggested such a doc-

(44) -trine as this-that is) he set up energy as a metaphysical entity which does not as such come within the range of physical stuff,-- an entity that can constitute an object in advance of the systems into which it can enter. Mass as quantity of matter offered such a conception, though it was not subject to exact definition. Still, it could be held in thought as the occupied volume, which exhibited itself in the resistance of inertia, and hence could be held in thought as a presupposition of the system of things. But an energy that can take various forms and still remain the same loses this empirical value. It can be presented in an object only in so far as a system of that type is already there. There must be an electro-magnetic system on hand to present an electron. To present a body whose content is so much energy in advance of the system is to posit a metaphysical realm which does not come within the range within which the scientist's hypotheses operate. This offers no difficulty as long as the hypotheses are occupied with the situations in which systems are already there. The "what it is" of the object can be defined in terms of the system. But the conception of energy as the nature of the physical thing does not provide us with an environment within which we can build up the system. Both the conceptions of relativity and of energy as the nature of the physical thing indicate that we have pushed our technique of exact measurement and our analysis beyond the point of historicity, i.e., we cannot go back to such a logical beginning as Alexander presented in his sweeping philosophy of emergence or evolution, or if we do we must reach it in some metaphysical realm which transcends scientific thought.

The striking fact is that these two phases of what I have called the reduction of the conditioning of passage-the conditions of measurement of that which is moving from the standpoint of that which is at rest-and the implica-

(45) -tions of accepting energy as the "what it is" of the physical object -- I refer to the Larmor and Lorentz transformations as the conditions of the invariance of the Maxwell equations -- should have come to the same conclusion at almost the same moment. The effect was to remove from the background of scientific thought an independent space and time within which a physical universe could be built up, and a matter which could be thought of in logical independence of the systems of things which were built up out of it. This background of historicity disappeared with relativity and the electro-magnetic theory of matter. For Newton space was the garment of God, and mass atoms were the preexistent building stones out of which the world was constructed. The influence of such conceptions as an absolute space and mass particles led to the search for reality in causal series running back to ultimate entities that were the exactly measurable conditions of present reality. It was not at all necessary that such an implied absolute beginning should have been presupposed in determinate thought, but the concepts carried with them a set of mind that found reality in the conditions which, spread out, constitute the absolute past. The disappearance of an absolute space and the relegation of mass to a more general conception of energy emphasize present scientific findings as the test and seat of reality. Does the hypothesis of the preceding causal conditions fit into the data of observation and the laboratory? As long as it accomplishes this function its consonance with an ordered picture of a mechanical process is of no importance. Any hypothesis such as a wave theory of matter is welcome. Its test lies in its functioning. The set of the scientific mind toward its reality is away from the past and toward a present which carries within it the test of actual findings.

Yet we cannot desist from setting up histories; indeed

(46) they become more fascinating. Compare for instance the excitement of Eddington's or Jeans' histories of stellar bodies with the monotony of a Newtonian mechanical structure or the Kantian or Laplacean hypotheses. But they carry with them no finality. We expect them to change with new problems and with new findings, and we should be greatly disappointed if they did not change. Nor do we expect them to become internally more consistent as in the case of the deciphering of an obscure manuscript. In scientific procedure there is no longer anything that conflicts with new pasts arising with emergent events.


  1. This term with much of the exposition that follows is borrowed from Whitehead, "Principles of Natural Knowledge," 2nd ed., chapter 3.
  2. Cf. Alexander, "Space, Time, and Deity," Book III and Lloyd Morgan, "Emergent Evolution," chapter 1

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