The Foundations of Normal and Abnormal Psychology/Part 1/XV

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The Foundations of Normal and Abnormal Psychology by Boris Sidis
The Chance Aspect of Life and Mind

The teleology of the biological process should, however, be somewhat limited. We are apt to overestimate the utility of organs and functions in the world of living beings. There may be organs which are of no use to the organism, and there may be functions which are indifferent and even positively harmful to life. It is questionable whether the thymus gland, the tonsils, the appendix are of any use to man, and it is quite certain that a number of physiological processes take place in the organism which are indifferent and even detrimental to the life existence of the individual.

"In every organism says Morgan, "there are parts of the body whose processes cannot be of vital importance to the individual. The rudimentary organs, so called, furnish many examples of structures whose presence may be of little or of no use to the individual; in fact as in the case of the appendix of man the organs may be a source of great danger to the individual. . . . Another example of the same thing is found in the rudimentary eyes of animals living in the dark, such as the mole and several cave animals, fishes, amphibia, and insects. There are still other organs which cannot be looked upon as rudimentary, yet whose presence can scarcely be considered as essential to the life of the individual. For instance, the electric organs in some of the rays and fish can hardly protect the animal from enemies, even when as highly developed as in the torpedo; and we do not know of any other essential service they can perform. Whether the same may also be said of the phosphorescent organs of many animals is perhaps open in some cases to doubt, but there can be little question that the light produced by most of the small marine organisms, such as noctilica, jellyfish, ctenophores, copepods, pyrosoma, etc., cannot be of use to these animals in protecting them from attack. In the case of certain bacteria it seems quite evident that the production of light can be of no use as such to them. The production of light may be only a sort of by-product of changes going on in the organism, and has no relation to outside conditions. In certain cases, as in the glowworm, it has been supposed that the display may serve to bring the sexes together; but since the phosphorescent organs are also present in the larval stages of the glowworm, and since even the egg itself is said to be phosphorescent, it is improbable, in these stages at least, that the presence of the light is of service to the organism.

While it is difficult to show that the wonderful patterns and magnificent coloration of many of the larger animals are not of service to the animal, however sceptical we may be on the subject, yet in the case of many microscopic forms that are equally brilliantly colored there can be little doubt that the coloration can be of no special service to them. We also see in other cases that the presence of color need not be connected with any use that it bears as such to the animal. For instance, the beautiful colors on the inside of the shells of many marine snails and of bivalve mollusks, can be of no use to the animal that makes the shell, because as long as the animal is alive this color cannot be seen from the outside. . . . The splendid coloring of the leaves in autumn is certainly of no service to the organism.

As an example of a change in the organism that is of no use to it may be cited the case of the turning white of the hair in old age in man and in several other mammals. The absorption of bone at the angle of the chin in man is another case of a change of no immediate use to the individual. We also find in many other changes that accompany old age, processes going on that are of no use to the organism, and which may in the end be the cause of its death."

We cannot help agreeing with Morgan that the teleology of the biological process is not always evident. A number of processes in the world of life are indifferent, useless, and even detrimental to the life existence of the organism. All the biological processes that lead to the decline of the organism are certainly not useful to the individual; neither are all the processes of a pathological character to which organisms are often subjected in their relations with and adaptation to the external environment. There is certainly no more flimsy, more superficial, and more specious reasoning than the one that ascribes a meaning, utility, and purpose to every organ, function, and physiological process found in the organism. The teleological speculations are often a matter of ingenious casuistry.

The evolutionist who works with the teleological concept of utility must assume spontaneous variation as an important factor in the development of life. In other words, out of a great number of many variations, harmful, indifferent, and useful, the ones that are useful in their adaptation to the external environment survive or are selected by the process of natural selection. This clearly requires the presence of a great number of variations which show no adaptations and therefore are not useful. The utility and adaptation manifested by the biological processes are due to the presence of an immense number of variations of biological processes which are useless, indifferent, and even harmful.

The struggle for existence with its survival of the fittest and the principle of spontaneous variations clearly indicate the presence of biological processes which are essentially purposeless. The theory of evolution, at least from a Darwinian standpoint, the most scientific of evolutionary hypotheses, is based on the empirical assumption that the unadapted variations far exceed in number the adapted or useful variations. Useful purposive biological processes are rare, few, and accidental, while the indifferent, the useless and the purposeless biological processes are by far the most common. The purposive processes are the accidental and the exceptional, while the purposeless processes are the rule. It is out of the purposeless that the purposive processes develop. The fully developed biological process, the fully developed organism is purposeful, because of its selection of the purposeful out of the great mass of purposeless biological processes and unadapted organisms.

In the psychological process a similar state prevails. The general outcome may have purpose, but this is accomplished at the expense of a great number of processes which are accidental, meaningless, and purposeless. The sensations, feelings, emotions, and ideas that arise in our consciousness are spontaneous or accidental variations. They are the raw material for the guiding selective consciousness. Many of the psychic states as they arise in consciousness are rejected by the selective action of attention and are left to die a natural death as are the rejected variations by the process of natural selection. Man would have been a raving maniac, if he were to give expression to the various ideas that spring up spontaneously in his mind. The great number of ideas that throng in the antechamber of consciousness are in themselves purposeless. As Galton well puts it "Although the brain is able to do very fair work fluently in an automatic way, and though it will of its own accord, strike out sudden and happy ideas, it is questionable if it is capable of working thoroughly and profoundly without past or present effort. The character of this effort seems to me chiefly to lie in bringing the contents of the antechamber more nearly within the ken of consciousness, which then takes comprehensive note of all its contents, and compels the logical faculty to test them seriatim before selecting the fittest for a summons to the presence chamber." In another place he justly remarks: "The thronging of the antechamber is, I am convinced, beyond my control; if not, if the ideas do not come, I cannot create them nor compel them to come." It is certainly true we cannot call on our ideas to come at our bidding. They come and go unasked.

Mental activity in its rational aspects whether it be logical, moral, or aesthetic, is essentially selective in character. The logical process can draw only definite conclusions from given premises, the moral man or the ethical thinker can only regard definite relations and behavior as right or wrong, and the man who creates and enjoys the beautiful can only regard certain definite combinations as beautiful. Even in ordinary life where the process of selection is not so rigid as in the arts, sciences, and philosophy, still the process of attention to maintain rationality is a severe judge in the rejection of the unfit ideas. In a train of ideas few ideas that offer themselves are accepted as fit and utilized by the guiding thought. The stream of consciousness as it rushes along picks up objects that are intended for and help to reach the destination set out. Every idea, every thought as it presents itself to the guiding process is selected with respect to the purpose of the given stream of thought.

The thoughts that present themselves at any one moment are meaningless and purposeless, they are simply the accidental chance material which the given momentary, purposive thought selects as fit in order to succeed best in the achievement of its purpose. The ideas themselves as they present themselves are meaningless, purposeless, chance creations of the brain, like the phenomena of accidental variation. When the selective process of attention is rigid, more of the chance comers are rejected as not adapted for the purpose, more of the ideas rising to the antechamber of consciousness from the subconscious regions are found to be purposeless. A Kepler rejects a number of generalizations before he finds the formulae of his laws that answer his purpose in the coordination of his facts.

At the same time different minds, like different animals, differ in the spontaneous or accidental variations to which they can give rise. The dull mind has but few such variations, while the man of genius, like the endowed animal, has a mass of accidental variations from which to select in the adaptation to the purpose of the thought. The man of genius whether as artist or thinker requires a mass of accidental variations to select from and a rigidly selective process of attention. A great wealth of chance variation of thoughts to select from is the special endowment of the man of genius.

When the process of attention relaxes in the rigidity of its selective activity, more chance images and accidental variations of thoughts are presented to and accepted by consciousness; the selective thought does not hold on to its purpose, the stream of thought becomes constituted of relatively purposeless chance images and accidental ideas. Such states occur in day-reveries or under the influence of alcohol and various toxins as well as in the hypnoidal, hypnagogic, and hypnopagogic states. When the process of attention becomes completely relaxed as in sleep, fever, or in the acute forms of mental maladies, the chance images and accidental variations of ideas come and go without aim and purpose. Purposeless thought is as much the rule of mental life as purposeless accidental variations are the rule of organic life. Like the fully developed biological process, the fully developed mental state presents purpose in its selective activity. Purpose, however, arises out of chaos, out of chance variations. Our dreams, our unintentional errors in speech, writing and action are due to the many chance thoughts which either intrude themselves on consciousness in spite of the selective rigid process of attention, or are due to the momentary relaxation of the selective process. Chance thoughts, meaningless images and ideas, like accidental variations, form one of the most important factors in the evolution of purposive mental activity.

The so-called "psycho-analytic science" is erroneous, not only because of its fallacious "psychic causation," but also because it is based on the fallacy of regarding each and every mental state as purposive in character. This pseudo-psychology misses the fundamental fact that many psychic occurrences are like many biological occurrences, mere chance variations. These chance variations form the matrix out of which the purposive psychic process arises. Not purpose but chance is at the heart of mental life.