Popular Science Monthly/Volume 1/October 1872/Man as the Interpreter of Nature

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MAN AS THE INTERPRETER OF NATURE.[1]
By WILLIAM B. CARPENTER, LL. D., F. R. S.

IT has been customary with successive occupants of this chair to open the proceedings of the meetings over which they respectively presided with a discourse on some aspect of Nature in her relation to man. But I am not aware that any one of them has taken up the other side of the inquiry—that which concerns man as the "Interpreter of Nature;" and I have therefore thought it not inappropriate to lead you to the consideration of the mental processes by which are formed those fundamental conceptions of matter and force, of cause and effect, of law and order, which furnish the basis of all scientific reasoning, and constitute the Philosophia prima of Bacon. There is a great deal of what I cannot but regard as fallacious and misleading philosophy— "oppositions of science, falsely so called"—abroad in the world at the present time. And I hope to satisfy you that those who set up their own conceptions of the orderly sequence which they discern in the phenomena of Nature as fixed and determinate laws, by which those phenomena not only are, but always have been, and always must be, invariably governed, are really guilty of the intellectual arrogance they condemn in the systems of the ancients, and place themselves in antagonism to those real philosophers by whose grasp and insight that order has been so far disclosed. For what love of the truth, as it is in Nature, was ever more conspicuous than that which Kepler displayed in his abandonment of each of the conceptions of the planetary system which his imagination had successively devised, so soon as it proved to be inconsistent with the facts disclosed by observation? In that almost admiring description of the way in which his enemy Mars, "whom he had left at home a despised captive," had "burst all the chains of the equations, and broke forth from the prisons of the tables," who does not recognize the justice of Schiller's definition of the real philosopher—as one who always loves truth better than his system? And when at last he had gained the full assurance of a success so complete that (as he says) he thought he must be dreaming, or that he had been reasoning in a circle, who does not feel the almost sublimity of the self-abnegation with which, after attaining what was in his own estimation such a glorious reward of his life of toil, he abstains from claiming the applause of his contemporaries, but leaves his fame to after-ages in these noble words: "The book is written; to be read either now or by posterity, I care not which. It may well wait a century for a reader, as God has waited 6,000 years for an observer."

And when a yet greater than Kepler was bringing to its final issue that grandest of all scientific conceptions, long pondered over by his almost superhuman intellect—which linked together the Heavens and the Earth, in the nexus of a universal attraction, establishing the truth for whose utterance Galileo had been condemned, and giving to Kepler's Laws a significance of which their author had never dreamed—what was the meaning of that agitation which prevented the philosopher from completing his computation, and compelled him to hand it over to his friend? That it was not the thought of his own greatness, but the glimpse of the grand universal order thus revealed to his mental vision, which shook the soul of Newton to its foundations, we have the proof in that comparison in which he likened himself to a child picking up shells on the shore of the vast ocean of truth—a comparison which will be evidence to all time at once of his true philosophy and of his profound humility.

Though it is with the intellectual representation of Nature which we call science that we are primarily concerned, it will not be without its use to cast a glance in the first instance at the other two principal characters under which man acts as her interpreter—those, namely, of the artist and of the poet.

The artist serves as the interpreter of Nature, not when he works as the mere copyist, delineating that which he sees with his bodily eyes, and which we could see as well for ourselves, but when he endeavors to awaken within us the perception of those beauties and harmonies which his own trained sense has recognized, and thus impart to us the pleasure he has himself derived from their contemplation. As no two artists agree in the original constitution and acquired habits of their minds, all look at Nature with different (mental) eyes; so that, to each, Nature is what he individually sees in her.

The poet, again, serves as the interpreter of Nature, not so much when by skilful word-painting (whether in prose or verse) he calls up before our mental vision the picture of some actual or ideal scene, however beautiful, as when, by rendering into appropriate forms those deeper impressions made by the Nature around him on the moral and emotional part of his own nature, he transfers these impressions to the corresponding part of ours. For it is the attribute of the true poet to penetrate the secret of those mysterious influences which we all unknowingly experience; and, having discovered this to himself, to bring others, by the power he thus wields, into the like sympathetic relation with Nature, evoking with skilful touch the varied response of the Soul's finest chords, heightening its joys, assuaging its griefs, and elevating its aspirations. While, then, the artist aims to picture what he sees in Nature, it is the object of the poet to represent what he feels in Nature; and to each true poet Nature is what he individually finds in her.

The philosopher's interpretation of Nature seems less individual than that of the artist or the poet, because it is based on facts which any one may verify, and is elaborated by reasoning processes of which all admit the validity. He looks at the universe as a vast book lying open before him, of which he has in the first place to learn the characters, then to master the language, and finally to apprehend the ideas which that language conveys. In that book there are many chapters, treating of different subjects; and, as life is too short for any one man to grasp the whole, the scientific interpretation of this book comes to be the work of many intellects, differing not merely in the range but also in the character of their powers. But while there are "diversities of gifts," there is "the same spirit." While each takes his special direction, the general method of study is the same for all. And it is a testimony alike to the truth of that method and to the unity of Nature that there is an ever-increasing tendency toward agreement among those who use it aright—temporary differences of interpretation being removed, sometimes by a more complete mastery of her language, sometimes by a better apprehension of her ideas—and lines of pursuit which had seemed entirely distinct or even widely divergent being found to lead at last to one common goal. And it is this agreement which gives rise to the general belief—in many, to the confident assurance—that the scientific interpretation of Nature represents her not merely as she seems but as she really is.

When, however, we carefully examine the foundation of that assurance, we find reason to distrust its security; for it can be shown to be no less true of the scientific conception of Nature than it is of the artistic or the poetic, that it is a representation framed by the mind itself out of the materials supplied by the impressions which external objects make upon the senses, so that, to each man of science, Nature is what he individually believes her to be. And that belief will rest on very different bases, and will have very unequal values, in different departments of science. Thus in what are commonly known as the "exact" sciences, of which astronomy may be taken as the type, the data afforded by precise methods of observation can be made the basis of reasoning, in every step of which the mathematician feels the fullest assurance of certainty; and the final deduction is justified either by its conformity to known or ascertainable facts—as when Kepler determined the elliptic orbit of Mars; or by the fulfilment of the predictions it has sanctioned—as in the occurrence of an eclipse or an occultation at the precise moment specified many years previously; or, still more emphatically, by the actual discovery of phenomena till then unrecognized—as when the perturbations of the planets, shown by Newton to be the necessary results of their mutual attraction, were proved by observation to have a real existence; or, as when the unknown disturber of Uranus was found in the place assigned to him by the computations of Adams and Le Verrier.

We are accustomed, and I think most rightly, to speak of these achievements as triumphs of the human intellect. But the very phrase implies that the work is done by mental agency, and the coincidence of its results with the facts of observation is far from proving the intellectual process to have been correct. For we learn, from the confessions of Kepler, that he was led to the discovery of the elliptic orbit of Mars by a series of happy accidents, which turned his erroneous guesses into the right direction; and to that of the passage of the radius vector over equal areas in equal times by the motion of a whirling force emanating from the sun, which we now regard as an entirely wrong conception of the cause of orbital revolution. It should always be remembered, moreover, that the Ptolemaic system of astronomy, with all its cumbrous ideal mechanism, did intellectually represent all that the astronomer, prior to the invention of the telescope, could see from his stand-point the earth with an accuracy which was proved by the fulfilment of his anticipations. And in that last and most memorable prediction, which has given an imperishable fame to our two illustrious contemporaries, the inadequacy of the basis afforded by actual observation of the perturbations of Uranus required that it should be supplemented by an assumption of the probable distance of the disturbing planet beyond, which has been shown by subsequent observation to have been only an approximation to the truth.

Even in this most exact of sciences, therefore, we cannot proceed a step without translating the actual phenomena of Nature into intellectual representations of those phenomena, and it is because the Newtonian conception is not only the most simple, but is also, up to the extent of our present knowledge, universal in its conformity to the facts of observation, that we accept it as the only scheme of the universe yet promulgated which satisfies our intellectual requirements.

When, under the reign of the Ptolemaic system, any new inequality was discovered in the motion of a planet, a new wheel had to be added to the ideal mechanism—as Ptolemy said, "to save appearances." If it should prove, a century hence, that the motion of Neptune himself is disturbed by some other attraction than that exerted by the interior planets, we should confidently expect that not an ideal but a real cause for that disturbance will be found in the existence of another planet beyond. But I trust that I have now made it evident to you that this confident expectation is not justified by any absolute necessity of Nature, but arises entirely out of our belief in her uniformity; and into the grounds of this and other primary beliefs, which serve as the foundation of all scientific reasoning, we shall presently inquire.

There is another class of cases, in which an equal certainty is generally claimed for conclusions that seem to flow immediately from observed facts, though really evolved by intellectual processes; the apparent simplicity and directness of those processes either causing them to be overlooked or veiling the assumptions on which they are based. Thus Mr. Lockyer speaks as confidently of the sun's chromosphere of incandescent hydrogen, and of the local outbursts which cause it to send forth projections tens of thousands of miles high, as if he had been able to capture a flask of this gas, and had generated water by causing it to unite with oxygen.

Yet this confidence is entirely based on the assumption that a certain line which is seen in the spectrum of a hydrogen-flame means hydrogen also when seen in the spectrum of the sun's chromosphere; and, high as is the probability of that assumption, it cannot be regarded as a demonstrated certainty, since it is by no means inconceivable that the same line might be produced by some other substance at present unknown. And so, when Dr. Huggins deduces, from the different relative positions of certain lines in the spectra of different stars, that these stars are moving from or toward us in space, his train of reasoning is based on the assumption that these lines have the same meaning—that is, that they represent the same elements—in every luminary. That assumption, like the preceding, may be regarded as possessing a sufficiently high probability to justify the reasoning based upon it; more especially since, by the other researches of that excellent observer, the same chemical elements have been detected as vapors in those filmy cloudlets which seem to be stars in an early stage of consolidation. But, when Frankland and Lockyer, seeing in the spectrum of the yellow solar prominences a certain bright line not identifiable with that of any known terrestrial flame, attribute this to an hypothetical new substance which they propose to call Helium, it is obvious that their assumption rests on a far less secure foundation, until it shall have received that verification which, in the case of Mr. Crooke's researches on Thallium, was afforded by the actual discovery of the new metal, the presence of which had been indicated to him by a line in the spectrum not attributable to any substance then known.

In a large number of other cases, moreover, our scientific interpretations are clearly matters of judgment; and this is eminently a personal act, the value of its results depending in each case upon the qualifications of the individual for arriving at a correct decision. The surest of such judgments are those dictated by what we term "common-sense," as to matters on which there seems no room for difference of opinion, because every sane person comes to the same conclusion, although he may he able to give no other reason for it than that it appears to him "self-evident." Thus, while philosophers have raised a thick cloud of dust in the discussion of the basis of our belief in the existence of a world external to ourselves—of the Non-Ego, as distinct from the Ego—and while every logician claims to have found some flaw in the proof advanced by every other, the common-sense of mankind has arrived at a decision that is practically worth all the arguments of all the philosophers who have fought again and again over this battle-ground. And I think it can be shown that the trustworthiness of this common-sense decision arises from its dependence, not on any one set of experiences, but upon our unconscious coordination of the whole aggregate of our experiences—not on the conclusiveness of any one train of reasoning, but on the convergence of all our lines of thought toward this one centre.

Now, this "common-sense," disciplined and enlarged by appropriate culture, becomes one of our most valuable instruments of scientific inquiry; affording in many instances the best, and sometimes the only, basis for a rational conclusion. Let us take as a typical case, in which no special knowledge is required, what we are accustomed to call the "flint implements" of the Abbeville and Amiens gravel-beds. No logical proof can be adduced that the peculiar shapes of these flints were given to them by human hands; but does any unprejudiced person now doubt it? The evidence of design, to which, after an examination of one or two such specimens, we should only be justified in attaching a probable value, derives an irresistible cogency from accumulation. On the other hand, the improbability that these flints acquired their peculiar shape by accident becomes to our minds greater and greater as more and more such specimens are found; until at last this hypothesis, although it cannot be directly disproved, is felt to be almost inconceivable, except by minds previously "possessed" by the "dominant idea" of the modern origin of man. And thus what was in the first instance a matter of discussion has now become one of those "self-evident" propositions which claim the unhesitating assent of all whose opinion on the subject is entitled to the least weight.

We proceed upward, however, from such questions as the common-sense of mankind generally is competent to decide, to those in which special knowledge is required to give value to the judgment; and thus the interpretation of Nature by the use of that faculty comes to be more and more individual; things being perfectly "self-evident" to men of special culture which ordinary men, or men whose training has lain in a different direction, do not apprehend as such. Of all departments of science, geology seems to me to be the one that most depends on this specially-trained "common-sense;" which brings as it were into one focus the light afforded by a great variety of studies— physical and chemical, geographical—and biological and throws it on the pages of that Great Stone Book on which the past history of our globe is recorded. And while Astronomy is of all sciences that which may be considered as most nearly representing Nature as she really is, Geology is that which most completely represents her as seen through the medium of the interpreting mind; the meaning of the phenomena that constitute its data being in almost every instance open to question, and the judgments passed upon the same facts being often different according to the qualifications of the several judges. No one who has even a general acquaintance with the history of this department of science can fail to see that the geology of each epoch has been the reflection of the minds by which its study was then directed; and that its true progress dates from the time when that "common-sense" method of interpretation came to be generally adopted which consists in seeking the explanation of past changes in the forces at present in operation, instead of invoking the aid of extraordinary and mysterious agencies, as the older geologists were wont to do whenever they wanted—like the Ptolemaic astronomers—"to save appearances." The whole tendency of the ever-widening range of modern geological inquiry has been to show how little reliance can be placed upon the so-called "laws" of stratigraphical and paleontological succession, and how much allowance has to be made for local conditions. So that, while the astronomer is constantly enabled to point to the fulfilment of his predictions as an evidence of the correctness of his method, the geologist is almost entirely destitute of any such means of verification. For the value of any prediction that he may hazard—as in regard to the existence or non-existence of coal in any given area—depends not only upon the truth of the general doctrines of geology in regard to the succession of stratified deposits, but still more upon the detailed knowledge which he may have acquired of the distribution of those deposits in the particular locality. Hence no reasonably-judging man would discredit either the general doctrines or the methods of geology, because the prediction proves untrue in such a case as that now about to be brought in this neighborhood to the trial of experience.

We have thus considered man's function as the scientific interpreter of Nature in two departments of natural knowledge, one of which affords an example of the strictest and the other of the freest method which man can employ in constructing his intellectual representation of the universe. And, as it would be found that in the study of all other departments the same methods are used either separately or in combination, we may pass at once to the other side of our inquiry—namely, the origin of those primary beliefs which constitute the groundwork of all scientific reasoning.

The whole fabric of geometry rests upon certain axioms which every one accepts as true, but of which it is necessary that the truth should be assumed, because they are incapable of demonstration. So, too, the deliverances of our common-sense derive their trustworthiness from what we consider the "self-evidence" of the propositions affirmed. This inquiry brings us face to face with one of the great philosophical problems of our day, which has been discussed by logicians and metaphysicians of the very highest ability as leaders of opposing schools, with the one result of showing how much can be said on each side.

By the intuitionalists it is asserted that the tendency to form these primary beliefs is inborn in man, an original part of his mental organization; so that they grow up spontaneously in his mind as its faculties are gradually unfolded and developed, requiring no other experience for their geneses than that which suffices to call these faculties into exercise. But, by the advocates of the doctrine which regards experience as the basis of all our knowledge, it is maintained that the primary beliefs of each individual are nothing else than generalizations which he forms of such experiences as he has either himself acquired or has consciously learned from others, and they deny that there is any original or intuitive tendency to the formation of such beliefs, beyond that which consists in the power of retaining and generalizing experiences.

I have not introduced this subject with any idea of placing before you even a summary of the ingenious arguments by which these opposing doctrines have been respectively supported; nor should I have touched on the question at all, if I did not believe that a means of reconcilement between them can be found in the idea that the intellectual intuitions of any one generation are the embodied experiences of the previous race. For, as it appears to me, there has been a progressive improvement in the thinking power of man; every product of the culture which has preceded serving to prepare the soil for yet more abundant harvests in the future.

Now, as there can be no doubt of the hereditary transmission in man of acquired constitutional peculiarities, which manifest themselves alike in tendencies to bodily and to mental disease, so it seems equally certain that acquired mental habitudes often impress themselves on his organization, with sufficient force and permanence to occasion their transmission to the offspring as tendencies to similar modes of thought. And thus, while all admit that knowledge cannot thus descend from one generation to another, an increased aptitude for the acquirement, either of knowledge generally or of some particular kind of it, may be thus inherited. These tendencies and aptitudes will acquire additional strength, expansion, and permanence, in each new generation, from their habitual exercise upon the materials supplied by a continually-enlarged experience; and thus the acquired habitudes produced by the intellectual culture of ages will become "a second nature" to every one who inherits them.[2]

We have an illustration of this progress in the fact of continual occurrence, that conceptions which prove inadmissible to the minds of one generation in consequence either of their want of intellectual power to apprehend them or of their preoccupation by other habits of thought, subsequently find a universal acceptance, and even come to be approved as "self-evident." Thus the first law of motion, divined by the genius of Newton, though opposed by many philosophers of his time as contrary to all experience, is now accepted by common consent, not merely as a legitimate inference from experiment, but as the expression of a necessary and universal truth; and the same axiomatic value is extended to the still more general doctrine that energy of any kind, whether manifested in the "molar" motion of masses, or consisting in the "molecular" motion of atoms, must continue under some form or other without abatement or decay; what all admit in regard to the indestructibility of matter being accepted as no less true of force—namely, that as ex nihilo nil fit, so nil fit ad nihilum.[3] But, it may be urged, the very conception of these and similar great truths is in itself a typical example of intuition. The men who divined and enunciated them stand out above their fellows, as possessed of a genius which could not only combine but create, of an insight which could clearly discern what reason could but dimly shadow forth. Granting this freely, I think it may be shown that the intuitions of individual genius are but specially-exalted forms of endowments which are the general property of the race at the time, and which have come to be so in virtue of its whole previous culture. Who, for example, could refuse to the marvellous aptitude for perceiving the relations of numbers, which displayed itself in the untutored boyhood of George Bidder and Zerah Colburn, the title of an intuitive gift? But who, on the other hand, can believe that a Bidder or a Colburn could suddenly arise in a race of savages who cannot count beyond five? Or, again, in the history of the very earliest years of Mozart, who can fail to recognize the dawn of that glorious genius, whose brilliant but brief career left its imperishable impress on the art it enriched? But who would be bold enough to affirm that an infant Mozart could be born among a tribe whose only musical instrument is a tom-tom, whose only song is a monotonous chant?

Again, by tracing the gradual genesis of some of those ideas which we now accept as "self-evident"—such, for example, as that of the "Uniformity of Nature"—we are able to recognize them as the expressions of certain intellectual tendencies, which have progressively augmented in force in successive generations, and now manifest themselves as mental instincts that penetrate and direct our ordinary course of thought. Such instincts constitute a precious heritage, which has been transmitted to us with ever-increasing value through the long succession of preceding generations; and which it is for us to transmit to those who shall come after us, with all that further increase which our higher culture and wider range of knowledge can impart.

And now, having studied the working action of the human intellect in the scientific interpretation of Nature, we shall examine the general character of its products; and the first of these with which we shall deal is our conception of matter and of its relation to force.

The psychologist of the present day views matter entirely through the light of his own consciousness: his idea of matter in the abstract being that it is a "something" which has a permanent power of exciting sensations, his idea of any "property" of matter being the mental representation of some kind of sensory impression he has received from it; and his idea of any particular kind of matter being the representation of the whole aggregate of the sense-perceptions which its presence has called up in his mind. Thus, when I press my hand against this table, I recognize its unyieldingness through the conjoint medium of my sense of touch, my muscular sense, and my mental sense of effort, to which it will be convenient to give the general designation of the tactile sense; and I attribute to that table a hardness which resists the effort I make to press my hand into its substance, while I also recognize the fact that the force I have employed is not sufficient to move its mass. But I press my hand against a lump of dough, and, finding that its substance yields under my pressure, I call it soft. Or, again, I press my hand against this desk, and I find that, although I do not thereby change its form, I change its place; and so I get the tactile idea of motion. Again, by the impressions received through the same sensorial apparatus, when I lift this book in my hand, I am led to attach to it the notion of weight or ponderosity; and, by lifting different solids of about the same size, I am enabled, by the different degrees of exertion I find myself obliged to make in order to sustain them, to distinguish some of them as light, and others as heavy. Through the medium of another set of sense-perceptions, which some regard as belonging to a different category, we distinguish between bodies that feel "hot" and those that feel "cold;" and in this manner we arrive at the notion of differences of temperature. And it is through the medium of our tactile sense, without any aid from vision, that we first gain the idea of solid form, or the three dimensions of space.

Again, by the extension of our tactile experiences, we acquire the notion of liquids, as forms of matter yielding readily to pressure, but possessing a sensible weight which may equal that of solids; and of air, whose resisting power is much slighter, and whose weight is so small that it can only be made sensible by artificial means. Thus, then, we arrive at the notions of resistance and of weight as properties common to all forms of matter; and, now that we have got rid of that idea of light and heat, electricity and magnetism, as "imponderable fluids," which used to vex our souls in our scientific childhood, and of which the popular term "electric fluid" is a "survival," we accept these properties as affording the practical distinction between the "material" and the "immaterial."

Turning, now, to that other great portal of sensation, the sight, through which we receive most of the messages sent to us from the universe around, we recognize the same truth. Thus it is agreed, alike by physicists and physiologists, that color does not exist as such in the object itself; which has merely the power of reflecting or transmitting a certain number of millions of undulations in a second; and these only produce that affection of our consciousness, which we call color, when they fall upon the retina of the living percipient. And if there be that defect, either in the retina or in the apparatus behind it, which we call "color-blindness" or Daltonism, some particular hues cannot be distinguished, or there may even be no power of distinguishing any color whatever. If we were all like Dalton, we should see no difference, except in form, between ripe cherries hanging on a tree and the green leaves around them; if we were all affected with the severest form of color-blindness, the fair face of Nature would be seen by us as in the chiaro-scuro of an engraving of one of Turner's landscapes, not as in the glowing hues of the wondrous picture itself. And, in regard to our visual conceptions, it may be stated with perfect certainty, as the result of very numerous observations made upon persons who have acquired sight for the first time, that these do not serve for the recognition even of those objects with which the individual had become most familiar through the touch until the two sets of sense-perceptions have been coordinated by experience.[4] When once this coordination has been effected, however, the composite perception of form, which we derive from the visual sense alone, is so complete that we seldom require to fall back upon the touch for any further information respecting that quality of the object. So, again, while it is from the coordination of the two dissimilar pictures formed by any solid or projecting object upon our two retinæ that (as Sir Charles Wheatstone's admirable investigations have shown) we ordinarily derive through the sight alone a correct notion of its solid form, there is adequate evidence that this notion also is a mental judgment based on the experience we have acquired in early infancy by the consentaneous exercise of the visual and tactile senses.

Take, again, the case of those wonderful instruments by which our visual range is extended almost into the infinity of space or into the infinity of minuteness. It is the mental, not the bodily, eye that takes cognizance of what the telescope and the microscope reveal to us. For, we should have no well-grounded confidence in their revelations as to the unknown, if we had not first acquired experience in distinguishing the true from the false by applying them to known objects; and every interpretation of what we see through their instrumentality is a mental judgment as to the probable form, size, and movement of bodies removed by either their distance or their minuteness from being cognosced by our sense of touch.

The case is still stronger in regard to that last addition to our scientific armamentum which promises to be not inferior in value either to the telescope or the microscope; for it may be truly said of the spectroscope that it has not merely extended the range of our vision, but has almost given us a new sense by enabling us to recognize distinctive properties in the chemical elements which were previously quite unknown. And who shall now say that we know all that is to be known as to any form of matter, or that the science of the fourth quarter of this century may not furnish us with as great an enlargement of our knowledge of its properties, and of our power of recognizing them, as that of its third has done?

But, it may be said, Is not this view of the material universe open to the imputation that it is "evolved out of the depths of our own consciousness"—a projection of our own intellect into what surrounds us—an ideal rather than a real world? If all we know of matter be an "intellectual conception," how are we to distinguish this from such as we form in our dreams, for these, as our Laureate no less happily than philosophically expresses it, are "true while they last." Here our "common-sense" comes to the rescue. We "awake, and behold it was a dream." Every healthy mind is conscious of the difference between his waking and his dreaming experiences, or, if he is now and then puzzled to answer the question, "Did this really happen or did I dream it?" the perplexity arises from the consciousness that it might have happened. And every healthy mind, finding its own experiences of its waking state not only self-consistent, but consistent with the experiences of others, accepts them as the basis of his beliefs, in preference to even the most vivid recollections of his dreams.

The lunatic pauper, who regards himself as a king, the asylum in which he is confined as a palace of regal splendor, and his keepers as obsequious attendants, is so "possessed" by the conception framed by his disordered intellect that he does project it out of himself into his surroundings; his refusal to admit the corrective teaching of common-sense being the very essence of his malady. And there are not a few persons abroad in the world who equally resist the teachings of educated common-sense whenever they run counter to their own preconceptions, and who may be regarded as—in so far—affected with what I once heard Mr. Carlyle pithily characterize as a "diluted insanity."

It has been asserted over and over again of late years, by a class of men who claim to be the only true interpreters of Nature, that we know nothing but matter and the laws of matter, and that force is a mere fiction of the imagination. May it not be affirmed, on the other hand, that, while our notion of matter is a conception of the intellect, force is that of which we have the most direct—perhaps even the only direct—cognizance? As I have already shown you, the knowledge of resistance and of weight which we gain through our tactile sense is derived from our own perception of exertion; and in vision, as in hearing, it is the force with which the undulations strike the sensitive surface that affects our consciousness with sights or sounds. True it is that in our visual and auditory sensations we do not, as in our tactile, directly cognosce the force which produces them; but the Physicist has no difficulty in making sensible to us, indirectly, the undulations by which sound is propagated, and in proving to our intellect that the force concerned in the transmission of light is really enormous.

It seems strange that those who make the loudest appeal to experience as the basis of all knowledge, should thus disregard the most constant, the most fundamental, the most direct of all experiences; as to which the common-sense of mankind affords a guiding light much clearer than any that can be seen through the dust of philosophical discussion. For, as Sir John Herschel most truly remarked, the universal consciousness of mankind is as much in accord in regard to the existence of a real and intimate connection between cause and effect as it is in regard to the existence of an external world; and that consciousness arises to every one out of his own sense of personal exertion in the origination of changes by his individual agency.

Now, while fully accepting the logical definition of cause as the "antecedent or concurrence of antecedents on which the effect is invariably and unconditionally consequent," we can always single out one dynamical—antecedent the power which does the work—from the aggregate of material conditions under which that power may be distributed and applied. No doubt the term "cause" is very loosely employed in popular phraseology; often (as Mr. Mill has shown) to designate the occurrence that immediately preceded the effect—as when it is said that the spark which falls into a barrel of gunpowder is the cause of its explosion, or that the slipping of a man's foot off the rung of a ladder is the cause of his fall. But even a very slightly-trained intelligence can distinguish the power which acts in each case from the conditions under which it acts. The force which produces the explosion is locked up, as it were, in the powder; and ignition merely liberates it by bringing about new chemical combinations. The fall of the man from the ladder is due to the gravity which was equally pulling him down while he rested on it; and the loss of support, either by the slipping of his foot or by the breaking of the rung, is merely that change in the material conditions which gives the power a new action.

Many of you have doubtless viewed with admiring interest that truly wonderful work of human design, the Walter printing-machine. You first examine it at rest; presently comes a man who simply pulls a handle toward him, and the whole inert mechanism becomes instinct with life—the blank paper, continuously rolling off the cylinder at one end, being delivered at the other, without any intermediate human agency, as large sheets of print, at the rate of 15,000 in an hour. Now, what is the cause of this most marvellous effect? Surely it lies essentially in the power or force which the pulling of the handle brings to bear on the machine from some extraneous source of power, which we in this instance know to be a steam-engine on the other side of the wall. This force it is, which, distributed through the various parts of the mechanism, really performs the action of which each is the instrument; they only supply the vehicle for its transmission and application. The man comes again, pushes the handle in the opposite direction, detaches the machine from the steam-engine, and the whole comes to a stand; and so it remains, like an inanimate corpse, until recalled to activity by the renewal of its moving power.

But, say the reasoners who deny that force is any thing else than a fiction of the imagination, the revolving shaft of the steam-engine is "matter in motion;" and, when the connection is established between that shaft and the one that drives the machine, the motion is communicated from the former to the latter, and thence distributed to the several parts of the mechanism. This account of the operation is just what an observer might give who had looked on with entire ignorance of every thing but what his eyes could see; the moment he puts his hand upon any part of the machinery and tries to stop its motion, he takes as direct cognizance, through his sense of the effort required to resist it, of the force which produces that motion as he does through his eye of the motion itself.

Now, since it is universally admitted that our notion of the external world would be not only incomplete, but erroneous, if our visual perceptions were not supplemented by our tactile, so, as it seems to me, our interpretation of the phenomena of the Universe must be very inadequate if we do not mentally coordinate the idea of force with that of motion, and recognize it as the "efficient cause" of those phenomena—the "material conditions" constituting (to use the old scholastic term) only "their formal cause." And I lay the greater stress on this point, because the mechanical philosophy of the present day tends more and more to express itself in terms of motion rather than in terms of force—to become kinetics, instead of dynamics.

Thus, from whatever side we look at this question—whether the common-sense of mankind, the logical analysis of the relation between cause and effect, or the study of the working of our own intellects in the interpretation of Nature—we seem led to the same conclusion—that the notion of force is one of those elementary forms of thought with which we can no more dispense than we can with the notion of space or of succession. And I shall now, in the last place, endeavor to show you that it is the substitution of the dynamical for the mere phenomenal idea which gives their highest value to our conceptions of that order of Nature, which is worshipped as itself a god by the class of interpreters whose doctrine I call in question.

The most illustrative, as well as the most illustrious example of the difference between the mere generalization of phenomena and the dynamical conception that applies to them, is furnished by the contrast between the so-called laws of planetary motion discovered by the persevering ingenuity of Kepler, and the interpretation of that motion given us by the profound insight of Newton. Kepler's three laws were nothing more than comprehensive statements of certain groups of phenomena determined by observation. The first, that of the revolution of the planets in elliptical orbits, was based on the study of the observed places of Mars alone; it might or might not be true of the other planets; for, so far as Kepler knew, there was no reason why the orbits of some of them might not be the eccentric circles which he had first supposed that of Mars to be. So Kepler's second law of the passage of the radius vector over equal areas in equal times, so long as it was simply a generalization of facts in the case of that one planet, carried with it no reason for its applicability to other cases, except that which it might derive from his erroneous conception of a whirling force. And his third law was in like manner simply an expression of a certain harmonic relation which he had discovered between the times and the distances of the planets, having no more rational value than any other of his numerous hypotheses.

Now, the Newtonian "laws" are often spoken of as if they were merely higher generalizations in which Kepler's are included; to me they seem to possess an altogether different character. For, starting with the conception of two forces, one of them tending to produce continuous uniform motion in a straight line, the other tending to produce a uniformly accelerated motion toward a fixed point, Newton's wonderful mastery of geometrical reasoning enabled him to show that, if these dynamical assumptions be granted, Kepler's phenomenal "laws," being a necessary consequence of them, must be universally true. And while that demonstration would have been alone sufficient to give him an imperishable renown, it was his still greater glory to divine that the fall of the moon toward the earth—that is, the deflection of her path from a tangential line to an ellipse—is a phenomenon of the same order as the fall of a stone to the ground; and thus to show the applicability to the entire universe of those simple dynamical conceptions which constitute the basis of the geometry of the "Principia."

Thus, then, while no "law" which is simply a generalization of phenomena can be considered as having any coercive action, we may assign that value to laws which express the universal conditions of the action of a force, the existence of which we learn from the testimony of our own consciousness. The assurance we feel, that the attraction of gravitation must act under all circumstances according to its one simple law, is of a very different order from that which we have in regard (for example) to the laws of chemical attraction, which are as yet only generalizations of phenomena. And yet, even in that strong assurance, we are required, by our examination of the basis on which it rests, to admit a reserve of the possibility of something different—a reserve which we may well believe that Newton himself must have entertained.

A most valuable lesson as to the allowance we ought to make for the unknown "possibilities of Nature" is taught us by an exceptional phenomenon so familiar that it does not attract the notice it has a right to claim. Next to the law of the universal attraction of masses of matter, there is none that has a wider range than that of the expansion of bodies by heat. Excluding water and one or two other substances, the fact of such expansion might be said to be invariable, and, as regards bodies whose gaseous condition is known, the law of expansion can be stated in a form no less simple and definite than the law of gravitation. Supposing those exceptions then to be unknown, the law would be universal in its range. But it comes to be discovered that water, while conforming to it in its expansion from 39 upward to its boiling-point, as also, when it passes into steam, to the special law of expansion of vapors, is exceptional in its expansion also from 39½° downward to its freezing-point; and of this failure in the universality of the law no rationale can be given. Still more strange is it that by dissolving a little salt in water we should remove this exceptional peculiarity, for sea-water continues to contract from 39 downward to its freezing-point 12° or 14° lower, just as it does with reduction of temperature at higher ranges.

Thus, from our study of the mode in which we arrive at those conceptions of the orderly sequence observable in the phenomena of Nature which we call "laws," we are led to the conclusion that they are human conceptions subject to human fallibility, and that they may or may not express the ideas of the Great Author of Nature. To set up these laws as self-acting, and as either excluding or rendering unnecessary the power which alone can give them effect, appears to me as arrogant as it is unphilosophical. To speak of any law as "regulating" or "governing" phenomena is only permissible on the assumption that the law is the expression of the modus operandi of a governing power. I was once in a great city which for two days was in the hands of a lawless mob. Magisterial authority was suspended by timidity and doubt; the force at its command was paralyzed by want of resolute direction. The "laws" were on the statute-book, but there was no power to enforce them. And so the powers of evil did their terrible work, and fire and rapine continued to destroy life and property without check, until new power came in, when the reign of law was restored.

And thus we are led to the culminating point of man's intellectual interpretation of Nature—his recognition of the unity of the power of which her phenomena are the diversified manifestations. Toward this point all scientific inquiry now tends. The convertibility of the physical forces, the correlation of these with the vital, and the intimacy of that nexus between mental and bodily activity which, explain it as we may, cannot be denied, all lead upward toward one and the same conclusion; and the pyramid of which the philosophical conclusion is the apex has its foundation in the primitive instincts of humanity.

By our own remote progenitors, as by the untutored savage of the present day, every change in which human agency was not apparent was referred to a particular animating intelligence. And thus they attributed not only the movements of the heavenly bodies, but all the phenomena of Nature, each to its own deity. These deities were invested with more than human power; but they were also supposed capable of human passions and subject to human capriciousness. As the uniformities of Nature came to be more distinctly recognized, some of these deities were invested with a dominant control, while others were supposed to be their subordinate ministers. A serene majesty was attributed to the greater gods who sit above the clouds; while their inferiors might "come down to earth in the likeness of men." With the growth of the scientific study of Nature, the conception of its harmony and unity gained ever-increasing strength. And so, among the most enlightened of the Greek and Roman philosophers, we find a distinct recognition of the idea of the unity of the directing mind from which the order of Nature proceeds; for they obviously believed that, as our modern poet has expressed it—

All are but parts of one stupendous whole,

Whose body Nature is, and God the Soul."

The science of modern times, however, has taken a more special direction. Fixing its attention exclusively on the order of Nature, it has separated itself wholly from theology, whose function it is to seek after its cause. In this, science is fully justified, alike by the entire independence of its objects, and by the historical fact that it has been continually hampered and impeded, in its search for the truth as it is in Nature, by the restraints which theologians have attempted to impose upon its inquiries. But, when science, passing beyond its own limits, assumes to take the place of theology and sets up its own conception of the order of Nature as a sufficient account of its cause, it is invading a province of thought to which it has no claim, and not unreasonably provokes the hostility of those who ought to be its best friends.

For, while the deep-seated instincts of humanity and the profoundest researches of philosophy alike point to mind as the one and only source of power, it is the prerogative of science to demonstrate the unity of the power which is operating through the limitless extent and variety of the universe, and to trace its continuity through the vast series of ages that have been occupied in its evolution.

 
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  1. Inaugural Address of Dr. Carpenter before the British Association for the Advancement of Science, at Brighton, England, August 14, 1872, upon assuming the chair as president of that body.
  2. I am glad to be able to append the following extract from a letter which Mr. John Mill, the great Master of the Experimental School, was good enough to write to me a few months since, with reference to the attempt I had made to place "Common-Sense" upon this basis (Contemporary Review, February, 1872): "When states of mind in no respect innate or instinctive have been frequently repeated, the mind acquires, as is proved by the power of Habit, a greatly-increased facility of passing into those states; and this increased facility must be owing to some change of a physical character in the organic action of the Brain. There is also considerable evidence that such acquired facilities of passing into certain modes of cerebral action can in many cases be transmitted, more or less completely, by inheritance. The limits of this power of transmission, and the conditions on which it depends, are a subject now fairly before the scientific world; and we shall doubtless in time know much more about them than we do now. But so far as my imperfect knowledge of the subject qualifies me to have an opinion, I take much the same view of it that you do, at least in principle."
  3. This is the form in which the doctrine now known as that of the "Conservation of Energy" was enunciated by Dr. Mayer, in the very remarkable Essay published by him in 1845, entitled "Die organische Bewegung in ihrem Zus ammenhange mit dem Stoff-
  4. Thus, in a recently-recorded case in which sight was imparted by operation to a young woman who had been blind from birth, but who had, nevertheless, learned to work well with her needle, when the pair of scissors she had been accustomed to use was placed before her, though she described their shape, color, and glistening metallic character, she was utterly unable to recognize them as scissors until she put her finger on them; when she at once named them, laughing at her own stupidity (as she called it) in not having made them out before.