Smuts’ Scientific World-Picture of Today

The Scientific World-Picture of Today, in ‘British Association for the Advancement of Science, Report of the Centenary Meeting’. London: Office of the BAAS, 1932. Smuts’ presidential address, outlining the new ideas in ‘Holism and evolution’ and their import. (Also available from JAMA.)

“Nineteenth-century science is … a system of purified, glorified commonsense. (3)”

“Space-time … does not seem to exist for the quantum, at least not in its lower multiples. Nay, more: [it] seems to defy the principles of causation and of the uniformity of nature, and to take us into the realm of chance and probability. … we are beginning to discern a new kind of order … very different from any type of law hitherto imagined in science, but none the less a rational order capable of mathematical formulation. (6)”

“Space-time finds its natural completion in organic evolution. For in organic evolution the time aspect of the world finds its most authentic expression. The world truly becomes process, where nothing ever remains the same or is a duplicate of anything else, but a growing, gathering stream of unique events rolls forever forward. (7)”

“The nature of living things is determined, not by the nature of their parts, but by the nature or principle of their organisation. … the quantum and life seem to have this in common, that they both behave as wholes.

… A whole is not a sum of parts, or constituted by its parts. Its nature lies more in its constitution than in its parts. The part in the whole is no longer the same as the part in isolation. … In the ultimate analysis of the world, both at the physical and the biological level, the part or unit element somehow becomes shadowy and incoherent, and the very basis of mechanism is undermined. It would almost seem as if the world in its very essence is holistic, and as if the notion of individual parts is a practical makeshift without final validity in the nature of things.
The general trend of the most recent advances in physics has thus been towards the recognition of the fundamental organic character of the material world. Physics and biology are beginning to look not so utterly unlike each other. Hitherto the great gulf in nature has lain between the material and the vital, between inorganic matter and life. This gulf is now in process of being bridged.  (9)”

“… The attack on mechanism, thus coming from physics itself, is therefore all the more deadly.Even inphysics, organisation is becoming more important than then somewhat nebulous entities which enter into matter.Interaction is more and more recognised to be not so much mechanical as organic or holistic, the whole in some respects dominating not only the functioning but the very essence of the entities forming it. The emergence of this organic view of nature from the domain of physics is thus a matter of first-rate importance, and must have very far-reaching repercussions for our eventual world-view.

… It must be admitted that up to a point mechanism has been useful as a first approximation and fruitful as a convention for research purposes. (10)”

“… the exchanges of physics, biology and psychology will become fruitful for the science of the future, and lay the basis for a new scientific monism.
A living individual is a psychological whole, in which the parts or organs are but differentiations of this whole for the purpose of greater efficiency, and remain in organic continuity throughout. They are parts of the individual, and not independent or self-contained units which compose the individual. It is only this conception of the individual as a dynamic organic whole which makes intelligible the extraordinary unity which characterises the multiplicity of functions in an organism, the mobile, ever-changing balance and interdependence of the numerous regulatory processes in it, as well as the operation of all the mechanisms by which organic evolution is brought about. This conception applies not only to individuals, but also to organic societies, such as a beehive or an ants’ nest, and even to social organisations on the human level.

… the concept of the organic whole must … be extended beyond the spatial limits of the organism so as to include its interaction with its environment. The stimuli and responses which render them mutually interdependent constitutes [with?] them one whole which thus transcends purely spatial aspects. It is this overflow of organic wholes beyond their apparent spatial limits which binds all nature together and prevents it from being a mere assemblage of separate interacting units. (11)”

“Mind is admittedly an active, conative [desiring to act], organising principle. It is for ever busy constructing new patterns of things, thoughts or principles out of the material of its experience. Mind, even more than life, is a principle of whole-making. It differentiates, discriminates and selects from its vague experience, and fashions and correlates the resulting features into more or less stable, enduring wholes. Beginning as mere blind tropisms [attending to stimuli], reflexes and conditioned reflexes, mind in its organic nature has advanced …

The free creativeness of mind is possible because … the world ultimately consists, not of material stuff, but of patterns, of organisations, the evolution of which involves no absolute creation of an alien world of material from nothing. (12)”

“… A serious lag has already developed between our rapid scientific advance and our stationary ethical development … . Science itself must help to close this dangerous gap in our advance which threatens the disruption of our civilization and the decay of our species. (13)”

“… commonsense recognizes three levels of matter, life and mind as together composing the world. But it places them so far apart and makes them so inherently different from each other , that relations between them appear unintelligible, if not impossible. … If matter is essentially immaterial structure or organisation, it cannot fundamentally be so different from organism or life, which is best envisaged as a principle of organisation; nor from mind, which is an active organiser. Matter, life and mind thus translate roughly into organisation, organism, organiser. (13) … the unintelligible trinity of commonsense (matter, life, mind) has been reinterpreted and transformed and put on the way to a new monism.”

“… the iron determination of the older science, so contrary to direct human experience, so destructive of the free activity of life and mind, as well as subversive of the moral responsibility of the individual, has also been materially recast.  It was due to the Newtonian causal scheme which … has been profoundly shaken by recent developments. Relativity reduces substances to configuration or patterns, while quantum physics gives definite indications of indeterminism in nature. … This liberation of life and spirit from the iron rule of necessity is one of the greatest gains from the recent scientific advances. Nature is not a closed physical circle, but has left the door open to the emergence of life and mind. (15)”

“Piecing together these clues and conclusions we arrive at a world-picture fuller of mystery than ever. In a way it is closer to commence and kinder to human nature than was the science of the nineteenth century. Mechanism has practically disappeared, and the despotic rule of necessity has been greatly relaxed. In ever varying degrees the universe is organic and holistic through and through. Not only organic concepts, but also, and even more so, psychological viewpoints are becoming necessary to elucidate the facts of science. … it is a strange new universe, impalpable, immaterial, consisting not of material or stuff, but of organisation, of patterns or wholes which are unceasingly being woven to more complex or to simpler designs. (17)”


This reflects the ideas of Kant and Bergson and the logic of Whitehead.

See Also

My notes on science, and on rationality more generally.

Dave Marsay

9 Responses to Smuts’ Scientific World-Picture of Today

  1. Pingback: The End of a Physics Worldview (Kauffman) « djmarsay

  2. Pingback: The money forecast « djmarsay

  3. Pingback: Hercock’s Cohesion « djmarsay

  4. God bless the soul of this man

  5. Recent work by Stuart Kauffman on quantum physics (collapse of the wave function – decoherence and recoherence) identifies how potentials that illustrate where emergent properties can be sourced as identified in complexity theory – and in turn provide the legs for a new Holistic Science.

    • Dave Marsay says:

      Claudius, Thanks for the tip. I last looked at Kauffman in the 90s and thought it ‘good stuff’. Looking at a recent paper I see he has got much further, and seems very close to Smuts, Whitehead, Bohr and Heisenberg in his views, with some good insights.

      If I may draw an analogy with economics, he is saying that you shouldn’t just pay attention to fixed statistics or rely on fixed dogma. You have to pay attention to what is actually going on. I need to read it carefully, but in the introduction Kaufmann says “But only selection acting at the level of the Kantian wholes, reveals after the fact, the newly relevant features of the organism and the environment that constitute the task closure and the new “niche” of the now surviving organism.” This seems to suggest that there was nothing we could have done about the crash in advance: we just had to cope with it, pragmatically. Yet the conclusion says “we may be able to analyze the growth of the adjacent possible as the ever new niches enabled by the Kantian wholes living together”, in which case perhaps we (like the Chinese) could have recognized the emergence of the ‘adjacent possibility’ of a crash, and done something about it. The difference is not unimportant.

      I have some notes on Russell that put the issue in a wider setting, calling for a new science, not unlike the one that Smuts describes. I wonder what went wrong?

  6. A colleague describes our economic woes as being a function of economic behaviour being premised on rationality. He too stresses that our behaviour generally is rooted in habit and has little to do with present realities – so often our choices have no bearing on present conditions – but we post-rationalize. I think our biggest challenge is still mechanistic thinking that sees ‘the economy’ as a machine functioning according to certain laws – when actually from the perspective of cybernetic epistemology (Korzybski) is a collection of behaviours – in the main driven by at best a statistical aggregate of human subjectivity. James Quilligan now introduces the notion of the ‘commons’ – that which is real in economic dynamics but not quantifiable in monetary terms – as the next potential domain of emergence of a new economic organismic behaviour – hopefully thus becoming more ecoliterate. Slowly we edge towards Smuts’ dynamic vision of holism which encompasses s elegantly the other great tranformative thinkers you’ve quoted – and Kauffman’s contribution is of cardinal importance.

    • Dave Marsay says:

      Thanks. It seems to me that there are a lot of classic works that sought to express some much-needed insights, but which – like the term ‘holism’ – are not now understood. I agree that our economies need a new direction, but more generally, at least, we also seem to need to generate some ‘deeper’ understanding. Korzybski and Kauffman seem pieces of the puzzle, but do we have enough of the picture yet?

  7. This is a question on which complexity thinking is premised – that we don’t have enough of the picture – life is too dynamic to model – at best we can identify strands and attempt to engage creatively with that. My father, who was a parliamentary reporter when Smuts was Prime Minister told how often Smuts said: “Let things develop…” to the chagrin of his opposition who wanted hard and fast declarations. Nietschze said something particularly appropriate to your question when he said: “The will to system is a covert attempt to escape genuine existence….”

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