The Philosophy of Life
by Swami Krishnananda


Chapter 17: Samuel Alexander

Samuel Alexander holds that Space-Time constitutes the primordial reality from which everything evolves and of which everything is formed. The universe is not at rest, it is changing and evolving within Space-Time. In this universe of motion and change, order and regularity are brought about by the different categories which characterise all things and which are universal and necessary. Motion is the most important of these categories and in it all others,—existence, universality, relation, order, substance, causality, etc.,—are implied. The categories of Alexander are not the laws of the knowing mind alone, but belong to the constitution of all things objectively. However, qualities can be observed in things which cannot be directly deduced from space, time and the categories and which appear at different levels of evolution. Every succeeding stage of evolution brings forward an entirely new property, not abolishing however the qualities of the preceding stages. From matter and motion all things, even minds, evolve in a unique way at different stages, though this uniqueness distinguishes them from the properties of matter and motion. The qualities of the lower level are retained but new ones which did not exist previously are added in the higher levels. This is the theory of emergent evolution.

For Alexander the lowest and primordial level is Space-Time with the categories which forms the origin of all things. These are the necessary conditions of all knowledge, and in a sense a priori. Then emerge from this root the primary qualities (size, shape etc. of things), the secondary qualities (colour, sound, etc.), life (in its lower forms), mind (intellect) and Deity (Spirit) which appear successively with the qualities of the preceding stages but with entirely new ones in addition. Deity has not yet been evolved. We are still in the stage of mind. In one sense every succeeding stage is the Deity of the lower. When the Deity above the level of the mind emerges in the future there will be the prospect of the emergence of a still higher Deity. But we have no knowledge at present of the nature of levels higher than ours. Once a thing emerges we can say what conditions are necessary for its emergence, and that every time such conditions are provided such things will emerge. So, Alexander’s theory is one of determinism regarding the present and past, and indeterminism regarding the future.

There is no Deity existing prior to evolution and causing evolution at its will. Deity is not ready yet, it is still in the process of making. The whole universe is now striving to evolve Deity. Deity is neither the ground nor the cause of the universe. The origin of all things, even of Deity, is Space-Time with the categories. It is clear then that, according to Alexander, Space-Time has no creator, it is self-existent and is the cause of all other things which emerge from it. The God of religion is the whole universe thirsting for the evolution of Deity. Religious feelings and experiences are the action on our minds and bodies of the universe pressing forward towards Deity. Deity is not responsible for anything in the universe, for it is not yet born. There seems to be an endless evolution in inexhaustible time, and Deity itself is a creature of time.

Alexander’s system is seriously defective. Space-Time is not a self-existent continuum independent of all else but is relative to the condition and the position of its observers and reduces itself on ultimate analysis to simpler elements. Much light has been thrown on the nature of space, time and the categories, of matter, force and gravitation, after the advent of great scientists like Einstein, Jeans, Eddington, and others. All things are reducible to an indeterminable energy, and this energy becomes a mode of Space-Time. Space-Time is not absolute but relative and gets lost, in the end, in symbols and mathematical formulae, for Space-Time as Alexander understands it is incomprehensible without matter and motion. It becomes an abstract assumption made to account for concrete reality. Its existence hinges on finite bodies and is inextricable from their existence. Eddington had the courage to declare that the universe is ultimately coextensive with an omnipresent consciousness and that its stuff is this consciousness. Such a consciousness is not an emergent product of Space-Time, but is what determines even the existence of the Space-Time form. Though Space-Time is the necessary condition of all relative knowledge, it cannot determine the nature of Reality or be itself Reality.

That absolutely new qualities emerge in the different stages of evolution cannot be accepted. Where were the qualities before they were evolved? Who brought them about or made their existence possible? Nothing can emerge from nothing. The effect should be potential in the cause; else the effect cannot be. If consciousness is a by-product of Space-Time, it ought to have been inherent in Space-Time, which, then, would assume a spiritual character, and all things would be configurations of the universal consciousness. Matter, primary qualities, secondary qualities, mind and Deity become inseparable from consciousness. The nisus or the eternal urge of Alexander ought to be a spiritual drive or aspiration for the attainment of the consciousness of perfection. It cannot be an unconscious effort, for unconsciousness and perfection have nothing in common. The nisus is not the product of the universe, but its source, meaning and value.

If Deity is not yet evolved, religion does not exist. There cannot be a nisus for some nebulous probability whose nature and existence are yet undetermined. The spiritual experiences of the saints would then be unhealthy dreams and our hopes for eternal satisfaction would be a question of chance occurrence. Alexander wrongly attributes the process of the evolution of individual and phenomenal characters to the essential Reality. The natural limitations which mark out the province of the operations of human understanding in general are responsible for our ignorance of the basic Reality which is not a product of evolution. What is created in time is subject to change and destruction. If nothing eternal is ever possible, our secret aspirations are swept away in the movement of time and our deepest convictions get brushed aside in a groping towards something one knows not what. One cannot know that there is emergence of a thing if something does not relate that thing to what precedes it. The emergent products are not neat parcels packed in different boxes but form a continuity of unfoldment of a supreme creative spirit. There cannot be mere jumps without something that jumps. The Absolute is not Space-Time but the eternal Consciousness.

Alexander’s view that the God of religion is the whole universe with a nisus for Deity makes out that the universe is the body of Deity. But this Deity does not determine the universe; the universe determines it. If it is possible for the religious mind to have a sympathy with or a feeling for the whole, it must participate in universal existence and anticipate in its own being the existence of Deity. The Deity should be implied in the universal mind, and be a realisation of its potentiality. The Vedanta teaches that, to the individual, the universe appears as real and so it feels a meaning in evolution. But in fact the Supreme Being is logically prior to the individual, the universe and the fact of evolution. Alexander’s view is an empirical observation of the individual’s superficial experiences. Such a view is oblivious of the more profound truths which are hidden in these experiences and which alone can account for their consistency and significance. In cosmic creation there is a reversal of the order of individual experience. In the latter, reality begins with diversified sense-perceptions, while in the former it starts from unified consciousness. Reality need not be bound to what we know through sensations and ideas. The visible is rooted in an invisible essence which is the start as well as the finish of our efforts.

The future may be undetermined from the constricted point of view of the creatures that are being carried by the winds of perpetual change. But, if we can ascertain a standard of the behaviour of things by inference from observations of the past, why can it not be that such a determined order exists in the future, too, though we are unaware of it at present? The order of emergences in the universe is ruled by the law of an eternal presence which shines at the heart of all things, and the whole process of evolution is a long history of the self-realisation of this Divinity at different levels of the manifestation of consciousness. In the drama of life are enacted the various phases of spirit which masquerades in beings as the unseen seer of all thoughts and actions.