on General System
Scientific-Philosophical Studies
Ludwig von Bertalanffy
Chapter 4, page 67
Vaihinger’s Als-Ob:
The Role of Fiction in Science

      Vaihinger’s Philosophie des Als-Ob has exerted a strong but per­haps insufficiently recognized influence on the development of modern thought. The story of the work is extraordinary. Vai­hinger wrote it in the 1870s but kept it in his desk for some thirty-five years, feeling that the times were not ripe for its reception.

      The leitmotif of this monumental work is the thesis that myth is a primeval form of the Als-Ob (As-If) concept. Our philosopher’s position regarding religion is determined by his emphasis on mythical thinking. In his terminology “symbolic” or “analogical” fiction is closely related to poetic metaphors on one side, and to myth on the other. According to Vaihinger’s interpretation of Kant, such moral concepts as Freedom, God, Immortality, and Human Dignity are fictions but nevertheless of immense impor­tance: for we have to act “as if” they were reality. According to Vaihinger, the myths of tradition are fictions based on the mythical experience of man and later invested in historical narratives. He demonstrates the Als-Ob character of the original experience as well as of its concrete manifestation.

      Primitive man, but also the artist and poet, looks at things as if they were all living. Thus he sees demons and gods in the forces of nature and even in objects of everyday use. Mythical experience is not a primitive precursor of scientific thought, for the latter is still bound to myths and personifications. On the other hand, the scientific mind tends to eliminate this mythical experience from its description of the world and thereby subjects our intellectual operations to a great internal tension.

      Let us illustrate the role of mythical empathy and of scientific reasoning by the most important category of scientific thought, causality. Primitive man conceives of the relation between cause and effect in a thoroughly anthropomorphic way. If two events in a temporal sequence are connected in a regular way, a “force" in the preceding is assumed to produce the succeeding. In Vai­hinger’s interpretation, “force” is a personificative fiction: we ascribe intuitively a potentiality to “act” by analogy with our own acting and volition. Nietzsche has expressed this very clearly: “One has to venture the hypothesis that, wherever ‘effects’ are observed, will acts upon will; that all mechanical processes, insofar as forces are active, mean force and action of will.” Thus, the concepts of force, cause, and effect are analogies taken from our own immediate experience.

      Science, however, tends to eliminate this anthropomorphic con­cept. According to Hume, we never observe any such mysterious action of forces, but only a regular temporal sequence of phe­nomena. Thus scientific thinking tends to replace the mythical picture of things interacting by secret forces by the abstract scheme of a regular succession divested of inner life, but made serviceable for science. The concept of “cause” merely means that succeeding events are unequivocally determined by events at a previous point in time or, in other words, that there is a lawful connection in the temporal sequence of events. Based on our insights derived from atomic physics, this rigid and deterministic causality had to be replaced by a statistical one; the behavior of individual, ultimate elements remains undetermined and only the average behavior of a large number of them can be described. “Force” has been trans­muted from an active cause to a mere expression of certain quan­titative relations.

      These considerations become important for the practice of science if we apply them to another category, that of “purposive­ness” or “teleology.” Teleological considerations have an impor­tant place in biology. Even in everyday language we say that the eye is “for seeing,” the ear “for hearing.” We are surprised when we find in an organism organs which are apparently purposeless or even detrimental. In spite of this obvious use of teleological statements in biology, many biologists reject teleological concepts; they denounce them as “anthropomorphic.” Every purpose pre­supposes a purposefully acting being. If we admit that structures and processes in the organism are teleological, this would imply the admission of a mysterious and anthropomorphic vital principle.

      However, the same considerations which applied to the concept of “causality” also apply to that of “teleology.” The one and the other can and must be divested of its anthropomorphic character and origin. In fact, such a purification of the concept of teleology is not difficult. The “purposefulness” in the living world means only that many or most events are arranged so as to guarantee the maintenance of the organism, i.e., of “the whole” or “the system.” To consider them “teleologically” means that we investigate whether and in what way this maintenance is carried out. This is not an anthropomorphic interpretation of happenings in the living world, but a simple observation of an apparent and essential char­acteristic of living things.

      An important consequence for biological theory is the rejection of vitalism. The vitalistic doctrine essentially amounts to the opinion that life phenomena which are little understood at present would become more intelligible if one considered them to be “caused” by hypothetical and, essentially, soullike factors. It is obvious that such a hypothesis means the intrusion of mythical and anthropomorphic concepts into science. As an explanation, it is at the same level as a hypothetical “force of attraction” used in connection with gravitation. As Kroner said, the explanatory value of the concept of force in physics “does not consist in imagining some causes for the explanation of phenomena, but solely in the validity of the laws in which these concepts appear.”

      Science presents, and can only present, formal relations among phenomena. If the physicist states that the building material of the universe is “electricity,” this only means that the behavior of ulti­mate physical elements can be described by laws applicable to electrical phenomena. What electrons and quanta are “in them­selves,” the physicist cannot tell and is not interested in. This be­comes especially clear if we consider the dissolution of the concepts of matter and substance in modern physics. According to the world view of classical physics, tiny hard bodies called atoms were moving in empty space, representing ultimate reality. From them issued mysterious “forces,” physical and chemical, determining the play of these minute lumps of reality according to inexorable laws. The world view of modern physics is different. Through wave mechanics it has radically eliminated the classical concept of sub­stance. In modern physics, waves and oscillations are only expres­sions for periodic changes of some magnitude, whatever their nature. All that can be said about the processes in question de­pends on the form of these processes. The “nature” of the magni­tude which changes according to the wave formula has become irrelevant; it does not matter in or on what the process takes place. “Materialism” in the narrow sense, i.e., the assumption that there exists some “eternal, indestructible matter” composed of atoms as “rigid building blocks of reality” is definitely finished. Eddington expressed this humorously by quoting Through the Looking-Glass:

The slithy toves

Did gyre and gimble

In the wabe.

      For the modern physicist an atom is a bunch of slithy toves, and the electrons those things which undergo gyrations and transforma­tions that cannot be depicted visually. What interests the physicist-and that is the only thing that he may be interested in-is that in the “oxygen wabe” seven “slithy toves” gyre and gimble, while the “nitrogen wabe” has eight of them. This mathematical relation is of significance, but the essence of these electron toves is com­pletely irrelevant to his field of interest. Research ends with that something which changes according to the laws of nature.

      Here we are at the point where the road divides. For him who wants science and science only, any further question is meaning­less. Quod non est in formula non est in mundo. For science this is the only legitimate viewpoint. If, however, we want a further “understanding,” we have only one analogy which may allow us to conceive that something which is irrelevant for physics. This is the analogy with the only reality known to us directly, the reality of our own immediate experience.

      Each interpretation of reality is an audacious adventure of rea­son, to use Kant’s expression. There is only the alternative: Either we renounce any interpretation of the “essence” of things-which is the well-founded option of science-or, if we venture upon such an interpretation which is only possible if patterned after ourselves, we must remain conscious of its merely metaphorical character. For we have not the faintest proof that the “real” world is of the same nature as the minute corner given to us in our own internal experience. Such an interpretation, therefore, can have no other value than that of an analogy, a metaphor, an As-If according to Vaihinger.

      Nevertheless, this fiction is not without value for science. It permits a new approach to certain problems which transcend the limits of the individual sciences and concerns their relations. For this reason they are basically “philosophical” problems.

      The first of these problems concerns the dilemma of mechanism and vitalism in its “metaphysical” meaning. It may be formulated as follows: Either ‘‘there are" only the ultimate elements of physics, atoms and electrons, and their blind play produces all the phenomena of inanimate and of living nature; or else, there are particular factors, called entelechies or souls, which act in living nature and purposively direct the play of atoms. The dispute dis­appears, however, if we become aware of the metaphysical back­ground of both doctrines. For both are based upon the material­istic and deterministic view of old-fashioned classical physics. Only within this view can we speak of the “blind play of atoms” and ultimate building blocks of reality. But not only the blind atoms, also their directing entelechies are based upon materialistic physics.

      Modern physics resolves matter into dynamics. Its task is solely the statement of formal relations in an otherwise irrelevant some­thing; and its laws are statistical, valid for the average of a large number of elements. Consequently the mechanistic statement that material units and physicochemical forces are the ultimate reality is meaningless. Equally meaningless is the vitalistic statement that physicochernical elements or forces are directed by an entelechy. The world process is neither a blindly working machine nor one which is supervised by an entelechy. Rather, the ultimate physical events have a certain degree of freedom-defined by the Heisen­berg relation-which is accessible only to statistical laws. There is no objection to view the universe “as if” it were a process of organic becoming. Such a concept is irrelevant to science interested only in formal relationships of order, but it abolishes the dualism between metaphysical mechanism and vitalism.

      The problem of the relations between body and mind also ap­pears less hopeless from the viewpoint of Als-Ob philosophy. This problem may be formulated as follows: When light rays reach the retina of the eye, they cause certain physicochemieal reactions. These set up electrical phenomena of nerve excitation which are transmitted to the visual center of the cortex. Then the sensation of green or red appears; a phenomenon that has nothing in com­mon with physicochemical processes or the movements of atoms. It is now generally realized that classical attempts to resolve the psychophysical problem are unsatisfactory. Moving objects like atoms can cause phenomena of motion, not, however, the totally different phenomena of consciousness. To get around this hurdle, psychophysical parallelism assumed the psyche to be a mere epiphenomenon of a physical process. The main argument for psychophysical interaction and hence against psychophysical parallelism is our immediate experience which shows that we can “freely” move our body and so influence the outer world. If we understand the aim of science correctly, it is necessary to postulate that objective happenings should be explained by objectively studied relations. Psychological explanations in biology are there­fore not permitted, or are seen as only provisional.

      However, these arguments now take on a new appearance. Since the concept of “matter” in the old sense disappeared in physics, the psychophysical problem is no longer how “matter” acts upon “mind” and vice versa. Rather, what is left of matter is a “something irrelevant for physics”; and this residue may contain factors of a psychical nature which we can experience directly. Furthermore the “postulate of a closed causality of nature” cannot be considered as an a priori for biology if it is dispensable in physics, where it originated. Thus the main argument of the theory of psychophysical interaction may be validated without accepting its insuperable conceptual difficulties. If all processes are describ­able in terms of generalized laws, if not in terms of closed cau­sality, the most difficult transcendental problem in the observed universe could be eliminated. This, of course, is a new road for finding a solution rather than the solution itself. Unanswered questions remain. First, what is the definition of biological in­determinacy as compared with physical indeterminacy? Secondly, what is the nature of biological laws if they are complementing those of physics? However, these problems may be more accessible than the dilemmas resulting from classical concepts.

      The interpretation of the elements of the universe by analogical fiction in Vaihinger’s sense is probably the extreme limit of a scientifically justifiable statement. Metaphysics, however, has transgressed this limit at all times. It has not limited itself to the use of Als-Ob in a formal way for the elucidation of otherwise incomprehensible transcendencies. It has tried to understand being and becoming mythically or by analogy with the self. The great world-poems of Schopenhauer, Eduard von Hartmann, and Bergson are an interpretation of reality fundamentally different from the constructions of science. They are not statements of rational rela­tions that can be examined and verified by experiment and theory, but projections of one’s self into reality by way of empathic ex­perience. Whether or not such interpretation is permissible de­pends solely on the orientation of the critic. To him whose orienta­tion is merely intellectual, these world-poems mean nothing, they are fancies empty of scientific meaning or value. However, he who believes that the mysterious actions of nature can be experienced in the verses of Faust, in the hymns of Hölderlin, in the dithyrambs of Prometheus Unbound or in the prelude to Rheingold, will find that these world-poems have their value and retain it, even though they differ from the magnificent constructions of physics. They offer not scientific knowledge but spirited expressions of mythical feeling, metaphors and allegories of the ineffable.

      We do not believe such attitudes to be unjustified. It is true that, by logical necessity, science must eliminate emotional values and mythical thought. If, however, this attitude is taken to be the only valid one, then our unilaterally intellectual and technological civilization becomes meaningless. As Vaihinger aptly said,

The new century will have to fight for a new myth, a fight to which it is led by the recent renewal of metaphysics on the one hand, and on the other by the increasing clarity with which exact science must reject all metaphysics. Whether the twentieth century will renew the old myths of religion or will create a new myth-in any case it cannot remain without a myth.