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)”
“Spac-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)”