Monday, 23 June 2014

A.E. Taylor and The Meaning of Law


I haven’t read H.G. Wells’s The New Accumulator but I note that A.E. Taylor in his Elements of Metaphysics makes reference to it in an interesting passage. He has been discussing The Meaning of Law and remarking how our natural span of attention may have implications for our sense of what is free and what is determined:

It is easy to point out some of the conditions upon which failure to detect actually existing individual deviations from uniformity may depend. Professor Royce has, in this connection, laid special stress upon one such condition, the limitation of what he calls the time-span of our attention. We are unable, as the student of Psychology knows, to attend to a process as a whole if its duration exceeds or falls short of certain narrow limits. Now, there seems no foundation in the nature of the attentive process for the special temporal limitations to which it is subject in our own experience, and we have no means of denying the possibility that there may be intelligent beings whose attention-span is much wider, or again, much more contracted, than our own. One can even conceive the possibility of a being with a power of varying the span of attention at will. Now, it is clear that if we could so vary our attention-span as to be able to take in as single wholes processes which are at present too rapid or too slow to be perceived by us in their individual detail, such a purely subjective change in the conditions of our own attention might reveal individuality and purpose where at present we see nothing but routine uniformity. In the same way, we can readily understand that a being with a much wider attention-span than our own might fail to see anything but purposeless routine in the course of human history. Supposing that we are placed in the midst of a universe of intelligent purposive action, it is clear that we can only hope to recognise the nature of that action in the case of beings who live, so to say, at the same rate as ourselves. A purposive adaptation to environment with consequent deviation from uniformity in reaction would necessarily escape our notice if it took place with the rapidity of the beat of a gnat's wing, or again, if it required centuries for its establishment.
Other similar subjective conditions which would necessarily cut us off from the recognition of purposive fresh adaptations widely dififerent from those which occur in our own life, are the limitations of our power of attending to more than a certain number of presentations simultaneously ; and again, the restriction of our sense-perception to a few types, and the impossibility of perceiving contents belonging to those types when they fall below or above the lower and upper " thresholds " of sensibility. These considerations do not, of course, positively prove that the routine uniformity of natural processes is only subjective appearance, but they are sufficient to show that there is no valid reason for taking it to be more, and in conjunction with our previous positive argument for the sentient individuality of all real existence, they suffice to bring our general interpretation of the physical order under Mr. Bradley's canon that "What must be and can be, that is''

Science establishes different forms of acuity and the mathematization of space and time. We have the differential calculus and cosmic and local time. These are our limited ways of expanding our attention span by stopping it, halting in a world of pure form as Plato understood. There is the poetic grasp of duration in the Bergsonian sense with its intense compression of meaning in the moment through metaphor that extends the local reference and packs it with a larger significance.

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