SANTAYANA: Reason in Science

Reference: The Story of Philosophy

This paper presents Chapter XI Section 1.3 from the book THE STORY OF PHILOSOPHY by WILL DURANT. The  contents are from the 1933 reprint of this book by TIME INCORPORATED by arrangement with Simon and Schuster, Inc.

The paragraphs of the original material (in black) are accompanied by brief comments (in color) based on the present understanding.



3. Reason in Science

The Life of Reason is “a name for all practical thought and action justified by its fruits in consciousness.” Reason is no foe of the instincts, it is their successful unison; it is nature become conscious in us, illuminating its own path and goal. It “is the happy marriage of two elements—impulse and ideation—which, if wholly divorced, would reduce man to a brute or a maniac. The rational animal is generated by the union of these two monsters. He is constituted by ideas which have ceased to be visionary and actions which have ceased to be vain.” Reason is “man’s imitation of divinity.” 

Reason is the successful unison of instincts, a happy marriage of impulse and ideation, that is justified by its fruits in consciousness.

The Life of Reason bases itself frankly on science, because “science contains all trustworthy knowledge.” Santayana knows the precariousness of reason, and the fallibility of science; he accepts the modern analysis of scientific method as merely a shorthand description of regularities observed in our experience, rather than “laws” governing the world and guaranteed unchangeable. But even so modified, science must be our only reliance; “faith in the intellect … is the onIy faith yet sanctioned by its fruits.” So Santayana is resolved to understand life, feeling like Socrates that life without discourse is unworthy of a man; he will subject all “the phases of human progress,” all the pageant of man’s interests and history, to the scrutiny of reason.

Science contains all trustworthy knowledge, and it forms the basis of the Life of Reason. Science is formed out of regularities that are observed in our experience. Therefore, science is not infallible. This makes reason precarious. But reason is all we have to understand life.

He is modest enough nevertheless; he proposes no new philosophy, but only an application of old philosophies to our present life; he thinks the first philosophers were the best; and of them all he ranks highest Democritus and Aristotle; he likes the plain blunt materialism of the first, and the unruffled sanity of the second. “In Aristotle the conception of human nature is perfectly sound: everything ideal has a natural basis, and everything natural an ideal development. His ethics, when thoroughly digested and weighed, will seem perfectly final. The Life of Reason finds there its classic explication.” And so, armed with the atoms of Democritus and the golden mean of Aristotle, Santayana faces the problems of contemporary life.

In natural philosophy I am a decided materialist-apparently the only one living. … But I do not profess to know what matter is in itself. … I wait for the men of science to tell me. … But whatever matter may be, I call it matter boldly, as I call my acquaintances Smith and Jones without knowing their secrets.

The Life of Reason finds its classic explication in the plain blunt materialism of Democritus, and in the unruffled sanity of Aristotle.

He will not permit himself the luxury of pantheism, which is merely a subterfuge for atheism; we add nothing to nature by calling it God; “the word nature is poetical enough; it suggests sufficiently the generative and controlling function, the endless vitality and changeful order of the world in which I live.” To be forever clinging to the old beliefs in these refined and denatured forms is to be like Don Quixote, tinkering with obsolete armor. Yet Santayana is poet enough to know that a world quite divested of deity is a cold and uncomfortable home. “Why has man’s conscience in the end invariably rebelled against naturalism and reverted in some form or other to a cultus of the unseen?” Perhaps “because the soul is akin to the eternal and ideal”; it is not content with that which is, and yearns for a better life; it is saddened by the thought of death, and clings to the hope of some power that may make it permanent amid the surrounding flux. But Santayana concludes, bluntly: “I believe there is nothing immortal. . . . No doubt the spirit and energy of the world is what is acting in us, as the sea is what rises in every little wave; but it passes through us; and, cry out as we may, it will move on. Our privilege is to have perceived it as it moved.” 

We add nothing to nature by calling it God, yet a world divested of deity is a cold and uncomfortable home. It is because we do not understand the true nature of the divine.

Mechanism is probably universal; and though “physics cannot account for that minute motion and pullulation in the earth’s crust of which human affairs are a portion,” the best method in psychology is to suppose that mechanism prevails even in the inmost recesses of the soul. Psychology graduates from literature into science only when it seeks the mechanical and material basis of every mental event. Even the splendid work of Spinoza on the passions is merely “literary psychology,” a dialectic of deduction, since it does not seek for each impulse and emotion its physiological and mechanical ground. The “behaviorists” of today have found the right road, and should follow it unfrightened.

Psychology graduates from literature into science only when it seeks the mechanical and material basis of every mental event.

So thoroughly mechanical and material is life that consciousness, which is not a thing but a condition and a process, has no causal efficacy; the efficacy lies in the heat with which impulse and desire move brain and body, not in the light which flashes up as thought. “The value of thought is ideal, not causal”; that is, it is not the instrument of action but the theatre of pictured experience and the recipient of moral and esthetic delights.

Is it the mind that controls the bewildered body and points out the way to physical habits uncertain of their affinities? Or is it not much rather an automatic inward machinery that executes the marvelous work, while the mind catches here and there some glimpse of the operation, now with delight and adhesion, now with impotent rebellion? … Lalande, or whoever it was, who searched the heavens with his telescope and could find no God, would not have found the human mind if he had searched the brain with a microscope. … Belief in such a spirit is simply belief in magic. …The only facts observed by the psychologist are physical facts. … The soul is only a fine quick organization within the material animal; … a prodigious network of nerves and tissues, growing in each generation out of a seed.

The causal efficacy lies in the heat with which impulse and desire move brain and body, not in the light which flashes up as thought. 

Must we accept this buoyant materialism? It is astounding that so subtle a thinker and so ethereal a poet as Santayana should tie to his neck the millstone of a philosophy which after centuries of effort is as helpless as ever to explain the growth of a flower or the laughter of a child. It may be true that the conception of the world as “a bisectible hybrid,” half material and half mental, is “the clumsy conjunction of an automaton with a ghost”; but it is logic and lucidity personified alongside of Santayana’s conception of himself as an automaton automatically reflecting on its own automatism. And if consciousness has no efficacy, why was it evolved, so slowly and so painfully, and why does it survive in a world in which useless things so soon succumb? Consciousness is an organ of judgment as well as a vehicle of delight; its vital function is the rehearsal of response and the coordination of reaction. It is because of it that we are men. Perhaps the flower and its seed, and the child and its laughter, contain more of the mystery of the universe than any machine that ever was on land or sea; and perhaps it is wiser to interpret nature in terms of life rather than try to understand her in terms of death.

But Santayana has read Bergson too, and turns away from him in scorn.

Bergson talks a great deal about life, he feels that he has penetrated deeply into its nature; and yet death, together with birth, is the natural analysis of what life is. What is this creative purpose that must wait for sun and rain to set in motion? What is this life that in any individual can be suddenly extinguished by a bullet? What is this elan vital that a little fall in temperature would banish altogether from the universe?

Santayana doesn’t believe in consciousness to have causal efficacy. He believes it to be part of a mechanism as well. He looks at Bergson’s “elan vital” to be something imaginary. To Santayana, it is mechanism all the way.


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