The Philosophy of the Act

Essay 19 Mechanism and Contingency[1]

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SHOULD like to consider the relation of the contingent and the necessary, particularly in their relationship to sense qualities. Of course, the use of the term "sense quality" involves something of the abstraction which attaches to the sensation, in its assumption that we can take the sense quality out of its position. In one sense it is possible to do that in so far as we recognize that the sort of sensations that we have-the sensuous qualities that things have-might perfectly well have been different so far as the mechanical order of nature is concerned. That is, we are setting up a mechanical order of nature as the point of departure. We are holding that to be something independent of this sensuous experience. We are taking the history of the universe in terms of a mechanical order, and, if we do take the universe so, then the cropping-out of life and consciousness is quite arbitrary. That is, the actual character of life in itself, from the point of view of the mechanical statement of nature, is arbitrary, for the mechanical statement comes back just to the redistribution of physical particles as we find them in the universe; and the drawing of the lines around the physical objects, the movements, and changes, are nothing but arbitrary distinctions of these bodies from the world.

On the mechanical view of nature there are but two sets of objects: one of them is the universe as a whole and the other is the physical particle-, with their fields. of force. Groups of the latter class that we isolate are, from the standpoint of this theory of nature, arbitrary in their isolation. Separate physical objects are abstractions, and they arise out of the particular interest which the scientist takes. Now, if we put over against that the interpretation of relativity which Whitehead has presented,

(314) we get another kind of approach. For him not only is any organism a reality in itself but the world is a different world in relationship to that organism; and his theory of the time systems, which would allow for an indefinite number of different organizations of the same events in their relationship to the different organisms, gives an indefinite number of different universes from the point of view of our experience. It presents the possibility of regarding the world as determined by the organism instead of regarding the organism as entirely determined by the world. His phrase is "the world is patient of the organism." Any structure is an organism that has an epoch; that is, it has a period of time during which it must endure in order to be what it is. An iron atom would need only a fraction of a second in order to be an iron atom, but every structure as such must have such a period in order to be what it is. It endures in so far as the universe is patient of it. That patience represents the adjustment of the universe to that organism. But if there is one aspect of the universe that is real, the others are phenomenal aspects, are subjective affairs. That is the difference between the statement which Whitehead has worked out and the Einsteinian. In the Einsteinian statement these different aspects are subjective affairs depending on the frame of reference. The absolute that exists outside is made up of ultimate events with intervals. That is another world, a noumenal world of the Kantian type.

In contrast with this the statement of Whitehead says that the world is made up of a number of events, but these events may succeed one another in any number of different orders. If you are traveling on a railroad train, the events are the rapid succession of telegraph poles. If you stand outside, the events are the rapid succession of car windows. If there is an absolute motion, it is made up of the same events; in one case the car windows are stationary, and the telegraph poles are flying. But you have different successions. From the point of view of any one organism you have such a succession of events that is patient of that particular organism. That perspective of the world is its relationship to that particular organism, and the universe as a

(315) whole would be the organization of those perspectives with reference to one another. According to the Einsteinian doctrine, those perspectives lie within the experience of different individuals. The universe is made up of events which do not get into experience except in these relative points of view. Whitehead says that the world is made up of such perspectives. His view is Hegelian with this fundamental difference: in the Hegelian absolute the individual disappears as real, while from the standpoint of Whitehead every organism is real and has an aspect of the world which is, so to speak, private property, and that aspect of private property is not an "appearance" of the world. It has, however, a certain structure that is running through the world, and the universe as a whole answers to that particular organism; and these various structures are all possible.

By taking time seriously, as Bergson advises, and bringing it into the universe, we get another set of possibilities. We can have one event in one system succeeded by event A and, in another, simultaneous with A; so, while our universe has the same events, we have all these different systems. This view involves contingency as against the view of a fixed mechanical order of nature which has no place for the particular objects or, in Whitehead's terms, organisms as such. Their reality cannot be stated in terms of the universe as a whole. The universe as a whole is just a distribution of physical particles, and we cannot state the organism in terms of the universe as a whole. It is from the standpoint of such an abstract view of the world as made up of a number of things, and their fields of force, that life and values are contingent, though to write the history of the world in terms of the distribution of physical particles would be the ideal of physical science. In such a necessity there is no need for time, we would have to label the electrons and introduce out time variable, whereupon we might get another distribution, etc. There would be no animals, no day, "nor the sweet approach of eve or morn"; for contingency does not get into this particular order of things that is mechanically necessary and fixed, and the contingent thing is something that happens over and above

(316) it. The values of the world, commencing with its disagreeable phases, are there in the world. They are not contingent in the experience in which we are occupied. The question is of the relationship of those various experiences to one another in the universe as we take it as a whole.

But it is true, coming back to the analysis of necessity as presented in science, that we can get certain natural laws which are necessary; that is, a statement of the changes of mass particles or energy particles or whatever they are that in their very passing carry with them what Whitehead calls a causative future. The routes have certain inherent characters that persist. If they persist in their passage, then we have certain necessary relations; that is, necessary relations do remain in whatever time system we select. They represent certain types of succession. There is that sort of a structure of the world from the point of view of these true Aristotelian characters which is necessary, and over against these there are characters which are responsible for organisms; and their aspects of the world are contingent. There is no meaning to contingency if we start off with the sort of necessity that does obtain in the physical theory. Against such a view, take the situation as Aristotle presented it. The efficient cause is the least important of his causes, and it belonged to a field of reality in which the accident, in the sense of that which has no meaning in itself, is just there to be explained largely by the resistance which matter offers to the development of form. There is a certain amount of difference in the world, and Aristotle preserves it and makes use of it in his general theory of the universe. The source of efficient causes, the reasons why things are different is this: different forms have different histories. Of course, the species as such are always there. One can see what an insignificant part the whole mechanical theory plays in this view and how completely teleological it is.

We shift the picture; in modern science we get certain laws with the implication that the whole of the universe can be looked at under these laws. From that standpoint the Aristotelian substances, species, just happen; they are contingent. For

(317) Aristotle the values and meanings of the world are necessary things, and what answers to the mechanical view is contingent, just happens. For us there are living things, and there are sensitive things, and there are conscious things, and there are colors and sounds, but they just emerge from mechanical situations. Their contingency is plainly contingency over against this background of a certain sort of necessity, and that sort of necessity does, as I see it, attain the necessity which science gives to us. It may be decried as mechanical, as being abstract. It is possibly somewhat dependent upon a research science, but it does give us control.

In the mechanical theory the individual rebuilds the world. The contingency is definitely or distinctly determined over against this background of necessity. The scientist has succeeded in isolating the physical object which he could exactly define and in working out a mathematical technique by which he could break up this process of change, and through that he has attained his hold on nature. Then, having got that hold, it is possible to make application of it in building skyscrapers and airplanes. Our mechanical nature is a result of that sort of abstraction. Whitehead's Science and the Modern World gives one of the most illuminating histories, I think, of the development of science and philosophy through the Cartesian period. Not the chapters on God and the quantum theory, but the other chapters are the ones that give an enlightening presentation, especially this isolation of a causative future which can be dealt with. There is a field of causation which Renaissance science has set up. In dealing with the contingent, there is nothing but the theory of probability, but it is only legitimate to recognize that this particular sort of causation is something that has been, so to speak, wrung out of nature by the ingenuity of scientists who are passionately determined to get some universal laws. They sought for that which was necessary, that sort of uniformity in which one event necessarily follows another. It is a sort of necessity which takes place, whose values are contingent. What we term "causation" is the staternent of the situations within which

(318) these contingent events appear. Given a mechanical statement, the ideal of which is the distribution of the physical particles in the universe, we find that certain values appear. The theory of causation is the determination of the conditions under which they appear. We have to keep in mind this abstraction to find that which is uniform. Then we have that which we can depend upon. It is the stuff out of which we can get the ends that we are after. There is a certain sort of necessity there, abstracted from the particular ends. We want a general technique, a universal science, and we will take care of the application ourselves.

How legitimate is the contingency of the end over against the statement of the means? The means must be adaptable to any end; the end is contingent in so far as it is such a universal statement of the means. If the theory of building materials confined itself to cottages or skyscrapers, it would not be a satisfactory theory. We want to have our statement of the universe as uniform as it is possible. We want to be free from the determination of the ends, and we want to have a statement of the means which will be utilizable for any of them. There is no necessity of ends which is reliable from the point of view of any perspective, something necessary in the sense that the mere passage of events carries on essential characteristics as in the causative future. There is in the latter a causation which is highly valuable, and it is of definite importance from the point of view of our interpretation of the world that ends should be contingent so far as this sort of causation is concerned. Causation, then, becomes a statement of this particular order that will make possible any particular end, which is in so far contingent. That is the statement of the conditions under which this particular end can arise. The process of that end as stated in these abstract terms remains necessary; that is, the relationships that exist between the physical particles that make up the stones that get into the skyscrapers are necessary, although that distribution which we find at any one time will be a different distribution from the point of view of another perspective. It will be a skyscraper in one case, and it will be part of the mass of the planet in another

(319) case. The same laws obtain, but we do have an entirely different world because the order is an abstraction: it allows of different points of view.

What is the relationship of this sort of necessity and the probabilities, as we term them, under which certain things emerge? We spoke of that as causation, but it is evident that the causation is of a different character; and it is the relationship of these two kinds of causation that we want to consider, without confusing the two different lines of relation. They are evidently very different: the statement of the world in terms of physical particles in their fields of force which carry with them different distributions, and then this appearance in the form of perspectives in which the other contents of the world are related to mechanical necessity. I have connected this with the means and end relationship because it is the sort of relation in which the problem arises. I have so much money in the bank. I can utilize it for a vacation trip or put it in a bond. I have a world of economic realities, and I abstract from all the ends in order that I may utilize it. I want to look at it from every point of view. In other words, the ends must be contingent. I must get a statement of an economic world of means for which any end to which I put it is contingent. This is likewise true in technology, which is not an exact science. Now given a certain end, what will be the calculation of means which will achieve it? The physical scientist has simply generalized this sort of attitude which we take toward the world in giving us the most universal statement of nature. There is the necessity which lies in the whole statement of the means, and then there is that sort of selection of means which is fitted for the emergence of some sort of contingent ends or values. One lies in the field of probability, and the other in the field of necessity.

I have presented necessity as it appears in the continuity of nature, through the characters which continue in a passage where we have identified the characters that do appear in this continuum with the very passage of nature that carries with it the necessity that is involved in those characters. What the

(320) scientist's study of causality consists in, in this sense, is finding out those characters, those Aristotelian adjectives, that do inhere in the routes of passage and, consequently, involve the presence of their causative futures. We find this attitude to be taken not simply with reference to the processes which mechanical science studies. We also make use of it in studying the causal nature of other phenomena, other events, where we speak of the individual, for example, as determining his own future, as responsible for his own conduct. What we attempt to present is a series of events or a continuous event in which there are certain lasting characters in so far as we can identify these characters with the experience of the individual; so far as they persist, we find what we term causality of this type. The success in obtaining such characters, of course, is very varied. The expression of it to which I have just referred we discover in ourselves. In the very being of persistent characters in our conduct we are determining ourselves and other things about us.


  1. Taken from student notes.

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