Popular Science Monthly/Volume 11/October 1877/Editor's Table
|←Correspondence||Popular Science Monthly Volume 11 October 1877 (1877)
THE recent publication of Dr. Carpenter's little volume entitled "Mesmerism, Spiritualism, etc., Historically and Scientifically Considered," has given a renewed impulse to the discussion of this subject, and called out the strongest champions of the doctrines assailed. We have been accused of unfairness in not opening the columns of the Monthly for the spiritualists to present their side of the question; and so we print two replies to Dr. Carpenter, one English and the other American, by distinguished representatives of the spiritualist party. In The Popular Science Supplement, No, V., appears the answer to him made by Mr. A. R. Wallace, in the Quarterly Journal of Science; and in our present number the reader will find an original contribution, to the same purpose, by Dr. J. R. Buchanan, well known for the last thirty years as an eminent investigator and expositor of the so-called spiritualist phenomena. Dr. Buchanan is one of those who objected to our editorial course on this question as one-sided and unjust. Not liking this imputation, we offered him space in our pages to answer Dr. Carpenter. He accepted the offer, and we fulfill our promise. How far his article is to be regarded as a reply to the reasoning of Dr. Carpenter, or as convicting him of error, will probably be a contested question with different classes of readers; hut he has, at all events, given us his very decided opinion of that gentleman, his book, and his backers. We fear, however, that the critic has forgotten, for once, that denunciatory epithets, however profuse and peppery, are not arguments. Dr. Buchanan seems to have vividly remembered all the hard hits that he and his coadjutors have received from scientific writers, and is bent upon using the opportunity to get even with them. This is laudable enough, within judicious limits; yet incontinence of vituperation is a symptom of weakness. Besides, something is due to self-respect; and if we thought Dr. Carpenter was the silly, narrow-minded, muddle-headed, pretentious, and insolent imbecile that Dr. Buchanan intimates, we would try and find better occupation than troubling ourselves about his obsolete trash.
Dr. Buchanan opens his batteries against the materialists, but might he not as well have left this to some irate theologian? This polemical dash cannot be effective against Dr. Carpenter, who is certainly no materialist, either by his own avowal, by the tenor of his writings, or their common interpretation. On the contrary, he is a religious man, who has written copiously and cogently against materialism. The term materialism, skillfully used, is no doubt a good controversial weapon for popular effect, but in the hands of Dr. Buchanan it loses its edge, as he seems to regard all science which limits itself to the investigation of Nature in its ordinary aspects as materialistic.
We cannot here go into this controversy, but may briefly refer to what we regard as one of its primary issues. At the threshold of the subject we encounter the questions. What is Nature? What are the limits of its laws? and, What weight, or logical force, is to be allowed to the conception of the laws of Nature? When observation, experiment, and reason, have concurred in establishing a principle which may be always verified and found to be constant, what is the degree of firmness with which it is to be held? Science recognizes the laws of Nature as so fixed and fundamental that the well trained mind must be under an overwhelming predisposition in regard to them. Hence, when marvelous stories are told of the violations of these laws, the tendency of such minds must be to put them aside as unworthy of attention. They cannot be entertained as against the demonstrated uniformities of the natural world. Much in regard to Nature is, of course, unknown; what we understand may be as but a few drops to the ocean in relation to what we do not understand; yet some things are known, and with so high a degree of certainty that we can rest in them with profound assurance that no future extension of knowledge can falsify them.
Dr. Carpenter maintains, and we think rightly, that there is a strong bias in scientific minds in favor of the inflexibleness of natural laws which the spiritualists do not share. His language is, that "it is quite legitimate for the inquirer to enter upon this study with that 'prepossession' in favor of the ascertained and universally admitted laws of Nature, which believers in spiritualism make it a reproach against men of science that they entertain." Both our critics resent this imputation upon "believers in spiritualism." Mr. Wallace declares it to be "unfounded and totally false;" and Dr. Buchanan affirms spiritualists to be "the foremost of all men in insisting on the universal inviolability of all the laws of Nature, extending their infrangible power not only over all physical phenomena, but throughout the equally extensive psychic realm."
It is obvious that Dr. Buchanan here uses terms to suit himself, as he gives to the phrase "laws of Nature" a meaning very different from its established scientific significance. In its scientific sense, the term "Nature" designates that sphere of phenomena, material and mental, of which we have constant experience, which is accessible to the human faculties, and which by its order becomes a subject of methodical knowledge; while the laws of Nature are the uniformities of action that are coextensive with this sphere. To this tract Dr. Buchanan annexes a "psychic realm," meaning thereby, not the common sphere of mind which is already embraced by the term "Nature," but a super-mundane, extra-material, preternatural, or spiritual world, above and beyond the sensuous order. This supernal region he claims to bring under the operation of the laws of Nature, and therefore to make it a part of Nature, which we hold is simply to confuse all distinctions and confound the natural with the supernatural. Dr. Buchanan cannot do this in the name of science, for science itself has only come into existence by marking off the natural from the supernatural, and it belongs by its very essence and origin to one term of this contrasted relation. We cannot undo the great work of science, and cancel all that has been gained in the intellectual progress of mankind, by going back to primitive times when the natural and the supernatural were all mixed up, and nothing was known or suspected of such things as the laws of Nature. It was then believed that, there exists an upper sphere inhabited by gods who interfered as they chose with earthly matters; the spiritualists now believe in a corresponding ghost realm, inhabited by disembodied spirits, who have still the power of meddling with the course of terrestrial affairs.
This ultra-material realm, it is claimed, is manifested by material effects. But it is not by those effects which occur regularly and uniformly, and to which we give the name of laws, that it is the office of science to trace out. These are not attributed to spiritual agencies. The spirits are never alleged to be the causes of cohesion, refraction, digestion, gravity, or any of the matter-of-course operations that go on around us. They are only disclosed to us by striking, wonderful, exceptional, or miraculous manifestations; that is, the common order of Nature gets along without them, and they are only known by breaking through it. In Nature we see with our eyes; in the "psychic realm" men are said to see with the backs of their heads. In Nature tables remain at rest upon the floor' forever unless some definite terrestrial force is applied to move them; in the "psychic realm" they travel about or rise to the ceiling without the intervention of any earthly cause. In Nature a bouquet will not pass through the woody barrier of a door, or the resisting masonry of a wall; in the "psychic realm" "a large bunch of hollyhocks, asters, laurels, and other shrubs and flowers," is mysteriously spirited into a house without coming through the usual openings in the usual way by which material bodies are transferred. In Nature, if a man unguardedly loses his balance in a window, he falls to the earth; but in the "psychic realm" Mr. Home "floats in the air by moonlight out of one window and in at another at a height of seventy feet from the ground." In Nature, if we wish to go to a house, we must walk there or get a conveyance to be carried, and then can only get inside by the opening of some passage of entrance; but in the "psychic realm" buxom Mrs. Guppy "sails through the air all the way from Highbury Park to Lamb's Conduit Street, and is brought by invisible agency into a room of which the doors and windows were closed and fastened, coming plump down in the midst of a circle of eleven persons who were sitting in the dark shoulder to shoulder."
Can those who believe these things be said to maintain the laws of Nature? Certainly not, in any such sense as that which science affirms. The spiritualists say that these apparently miraculous effects are not really miraculous, but are simply the consequences of higher laws of Nature by which the lower ordinances of the material sphere are overcome. But it is clear that before the man of science can accept such astounding propositions he must give to the winds all those laws of the natural world which he has been accustomed to regard as of demonstrated constancy. In life, by all his resources, the most gifted man cannot suspend the operation of gravity upon a single particle of matter by an infinitesimal fraction. But when he dies we are taught that his ghost can come back, and suspend the action of gravity, in a way to excite the astonishment of whole circles. And this miraculous prerogative, we are told, is, itself, but an exemplification of natural law. But, assuming the truth of the spiritualist's view, we have simply come to an end of natural law. If the wonders alleged be true, where is the basis of trust in the regular course of Nature? If the uniformities of phenomena that science assumes to have discovered can, as a matter of fact, be disturbed by the capricious incursions of unseen beings, then there are no such uniformities; and the conception of law, instead of being the most fundamental conviction of the scientific mind, is an illusion to be abandoned. Anxiety about the constancy of these laws is, however, the last thing that troubles scientific men, and their repose of mind upon this subject sufficiently accounts for their general indifference to the claims of spiritualism.
Our readers will well remember the row occasioned last year when Prof. Huxley said that the evidence of the truth of evolution must be accepted as demonstrative. "We mark with interest the decisive indications that are accumulating in confirmation of Prof. Huxley's position. Another President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science has spoken upon the subject, under the responsibilities of his distinguished position, and in entire corroboration of the avowals of former presidents of that body for the last dozen years in relation to this question. His indorsement of evolutionary doctrine is emphatic and unqualified. Prof. Allen Thomson has been well known as an eminent cultivator of biology; but he comes forward now as a new authority, and will be listened to without the prejudice which attaches to the names of those men who have been in the thick of the fight for the last twenty years. The topic of the presidential address is the "Development of the Forms of Animal Life," and we here quote the opening passages, describing the remarkable change in the manner of viewing biological questions which has taken place during the last half century. President Thomson says:
"On the Continent of Europe, it is true, some bold speculators, such as Goethe, Oken, Lamarck, and Geoffroy St. Hilaire, had in the end of the last and commencement of this century broached the doctrine that there is in living beings a continuous series of gradations as well as a consistent and general plan of organization; and that the creation, therefore, or origin of the different forms of plants and animals must have been the result of a gradual process of development or of derivation one from another, the whole standing connected together in certain causal relations. But in Britain such views, though known and not altogether repulsive to a few, obtained little favor, and, by some strange process of reasoning, were looked upon by the great majority as little short of impious questionings of the supreme power of the Almighty.
"How different is the position of matters in this respect in our day!—when the cautious naturalist receives and adopts with the greatest reserve the statement of fixed and permanent specific characters as belonging to the different forms of organized beings, and is fully persuaded of the constant tendency to variation which all species show even in the present condition of the earth, and of the still greater liability to change which must have existed in the earlier periods of its formation—when the belief prevails that so far from being the direct product of distinct acts of creation, the various forms of plants and animals have been gradually evolved in a slow gradation of increasing complexity; and when it is recognized by a large majority of naturalists that the explanation of this wonderful relation of connection between previously-existing and later forms is to be found in the constant tendency to variation during development and growth, and the perpetuation of such variations by hereditary transmission through successive generations in the long but incalculable lapse of the earth's natural mutations. These, as you must all be aware, are in their essential features the views now known as Darwinism, which were first simultaneously brought forward by Wallace and Darwin in 1858, and which, after being more fully elaborated in the works of the latter and ably supported by the former, secured, in the incredibly short space of ten or twelve years, the general approval of a large portion of the scientific world. The change of opinion is, in fact, now such that there are few scientific works on natural history, whether of a special or more general character, in which the relation which the facts of science bear to the newer doctrines is not carefully pointed out; that, with the general public too, the words 'Evolution' and 'Development' have ceased to excite the feelings, amounting almost to horror, which they at first produced in the minds of those to whom they were equally unfamiliar and suspicious; and that even in popular literature and ephemeral effusions direct or metaphorical illustrations are drawn in such terms of the Darwinian theory as 'struggle for existence,' 'natural selection,' 'survival of the fittest,' 'heredity,' 'atavism,' and the like.
"It cannot be doubted that in this country, as on the Continent, the influence of authority had much to do with the persistence of the older teleological views; and, as has been well remarked by Haeckel, one of the ablest and keenest supporters of the modern doctrine, the combined influence more especially of the opinions held by three of the greatest naturalists and biologists who have ever lived, viz., Linnæus, Haller, and Cuvier, men unsurpassed in the learning of their time, and the authors of important discoveries in a wide range of biological science, was decidedly adverse to the free current of speculative thought upon the more general doctrines of biology. And if it were warrantable to attribute so great a change of opinion as that to which I have adverted as occurring in my own time to the influence of any single intellect, it must be admitted that it is justly due to the vast range and accuracy of his knowledge of scientific facts, the quick appreciation of their mutual interdependence, and above all the unexampled clearness and candor in statement of Charles Darwin."But while we readily acknowledge the large share which Darwin has had in guiding scientific thought into the newer tracts of biological doctrine, we shall also be disposed to allow that the slow and difficult process of emancipation from the thralldom of dogmatic opinion in regard to a system of creation, and the adoption of large and independent views more consistent with observation, reason, philosophy, and religion, has only been possible under the effect of the general progress of scientific knowledge and the acquisition of sounder methods of applying its principles to the explanation of natural phenomena."
President Thomson's address concludes with the following words: "I consider it impossible, therefore, for any one to be a faithful student of embryology, in the present state of science, without at the same time becoming an evolutionist. There may still be many difficulties, some inconsistencies, and much to learn, and there may remain beyond much which we shall never know; but I cannot conceive any doctrine professing to bring the phenomena of embryonic development within a general law which is not, like the theory of Darwin, consistent with their fundamental identity, their endless variability, their subjugation to varying external influences and conditions, and with the possibility of the transmission of the vital conditions and properties, with all their variations, from individual to individual, and, in the long lapse of ages, from race to race.
"I regard it, therefore, as no exaggerated representation of the present state of our knowledge to say that the ontogenetic development of the individual in the higher animals repeats in its more general character, and in many of its specific phenomena, the phylogenetic development of the race. If we admit the progressive nature of the changes of development, their similarity in different groups, and their common characters in all animals, nay, even in some respects in both plants and animals, we can scarcely refuse to recognize the possibility of continuous derivation in the history of their origin; and however far we may be, by reason of the imperfection of our knowledge of paleontology, comparative anatomy, and embryology, from realizing the precise nature of the chain of connection by which the actual descent has taken place, still there can be little doubt remaining in the mind of any unprejudiced student of embryology that it is only by the employment of such an hypothesis as that of evolution that further investigation in these several departments will be promoted so as to bring us to a fuller comprehension of the most general law which regulates the adaptation of structure to function in the universe."
We print the able and suggestive essay of Prof. Goldwin Smith on "The Decline of Party Government." He opens an interesting question, which, in one shape or another, is bound to force itself more and more upon thinking people. The customary short logic of the case is that we cannot have government without politics, and we cannot have politics without partisanship; this is, therefore, a necessary thing, which must hold the same ascendency in the future that it has held in the past, so that all ideas of doing without it are futile, and all inquiries respecting its decline superfluous. We do not suppose that political parties are to cease, or that partisans have the slightest occasion for anxiety respecting their continuance; but we do not believe that the future is to repeat the past in this matter. The progress and diffusion of science, the formation of scientific habits of thought, and an increasing faculty of observing and reasoning directly upon the facts of life, are going to interfere materially with the ideas and interests of politics. Thus far politics has been a blind and bungling art, necessary indeed, but so crude, loose, and wasteful in its practices, and so much a matter of rule-of thumb, and transient experience, and the manipulation of men, that all idea of far-reaching principles in the political sphere is currently scouted. Yet this is not the region of chaos, and there are laws in political phenomena, deeper than legislative enactments. These are to be gradually worked out into scientific expression, and in proportion as this is done political partisanship must undergo important modification. It may be, as Prof. Smith assumes, that partisanship must decline for lack of serious issues upon which multitudes of men can be kept in proper antagonism. But we calculate upon a growing dissatisfaction with the methods by which the most valid political questions are dealt with. The assertion of principles and the advocacy of measures must continue to be indispensable, and there cannot fail to be differences of opinion; but partisan ethics demands denial as well as affirmation, and denial as a matter of policy. It provides for opposition, and of course dreads acquiescence and agreement. As a work of dealing with serious questions, this policy cannot continue to command respect. Indeed, there is already a growing disgust in the community at the emptiness and futility and humbug of political partisanship. Men of honest purposes and fair discrimination will not go to the polls to vote unless overborne and swept along by a factitious excitement. We are told that good men should attend primary meetings, so as to rescue politics from the corrupt hands into which it has fallen. But it is a grave question whether it has not fallen into such hands by the necessary laws of partisanship. What is the chance of a plain, honest man, accustomed to open dealing, in a caucus or convention against the skilled intriguers, the practised wire-pullers, and the disciplined managers, who fill the air with their cries of "reform," and outdo everybody in their zeal to purify politics? The stealthy, long-headed calculator beats the man of inexperience at every tack and turn; and party politics is peculiarly the field where craft, manoeuvre, and strategy, have their unhindered way. This is being increasingly recognized, and there is coming with it a deepening distrust of partisan agency. To get everything decent out of politics as quickly as possible is now the open demand. Courts, schools, prisons—all the important agencies of society—must, it is admitted, be taken out of politics, if their purity and efficiency are to be maintained; and even the chief office-holder of the nation heads a crusade to get all the officeholders of the country out of politics.
Citizens may be expected to imitate this good example, and more and more get out of politics themselves.
The luck of successful research seems now with the astronomers. Last month we announced the brilliant discovery of oxygen in the atmosphere of the sun by Prof. Henry Draper; and we have now to chronicle the equally brilliant discovery of two satellites of Mars by Prof. Asaph Hall, of the Naval Observatory at Washington; and also of a third moon of Mars discovered ten days later by Profs. Henry Draper and E. H. Holden at the private observatory of the Drapers, at Hastings-on-the-Hudson. We publish an interesting article, by Prof. Daniel Kirkwood, on "Mars and his Satellites," giving an account of the growth of our knowledge of the planet and the particulars of Prof. Hall's discovery of his moons.
As Prof. Kirkwood remarks, the question whether Mars had a satellite, which has now been so remarkably resolved, has long interested astronomers. How they have regarded it may be illustrated by the following passage from the third edition of Mr. Chambers's admirable "Hand-book of Descriptive Astronomy," published this year: