Popular Science Monthly/Volume 31/June 1887/Science and Pseudo-Science
IN the opening sentences of a contribution to the last number of this Review, the Duke of Argyll has favored me with a lecture on the proprieties of controversy, to which I should be disposed to listen with more docility if his Grace's precepts appeared to me to be based upon rational principles, or if his example were more exemplary.
With respect to the latter point, the duke has thought fit to entitle his article "Professor Huxley on Canon Liddon," and thus forces into prominence an element of personality which those who read the paper which is the object of the duke's animadversions will observe I have endeavored, most carefully, to avoid. My criticisms dealt with a report of a sermon, published in a newspaper, and thereby addressed to all the world. Whether that sermon was preached by A or B was not a matter of the smallest consequence; and I went out of my way to absolve the learned divine to whom the discourse was attributed from the responsibility for statements which, for anything I knew to the contrary, might contain imperfect, or inaccurate, representations of his views. The assertion that I had the wish or was beset by any "temptation to attack" Canon Liddon is simply contrary to fact.
But suppose that if, instead of sedulously avoiding even the appearance of such attack, I had thought fit to take a different course; suppose that, after satisfying myself that the eminent clergyman whose name is paraded by the Duke of Argyll had really uttered the words attributed to him from the pulpit of St. Paul's, what right would any one have to find fault with my action on grounds either of justice, expediency, or good taste?
Establishment has its duties as well as its rights. The clergy of a state Church enjoy many advantages over those of unprivileged and unendowed religious persuasions, but they lie under a correlative responsibility to the state, and to every member of the body politic. I am not aware that any sacredness attaches to sermons. If preachers stray beyond the doctrinal limits set by lay lawyers, the Privy Council will see to it; and, if they think fit to use their pulpits for the promulgation of literary, or historical, or scientific errors, it is not only the right, but the duty, of the humblest layman, who may happen to be better informed, to correct the evil effects of such perversion of the opportunities which the state affords them and such misuse of the authority which its support lends them. Whatever else it may claim to be, in its relations with the state, the Established Church is a branch of the civil service; and, for those who repudiate the ecclesiastical authority of the clergy, they are merely civil servants, as much responsible to the English people for the proper performance of their duties as any others.
The Duke of Argyll tells us that the "work and calling" of the clergy prevent them from "pursuing disputation as others can." I wonder if his Grace ever reads the so-called religious newspapers? It is not an occupation which I should commend to any one who wishes to employ his time profitably; but a very short devotion to this exercise will suffice to convince him that the "pursuit of disputation," carried to a degree of acrimony and vehemence unsurpassed in lay controversies, seems to be found quite compatible with the "work and calling" of a remarkably large number of the clergy.
Finally, it appears to me that nothing can be in worse taste than the assumption that a body of English gentlemen can, by any possibility, desire that immunity from criticism which the Duke of Argyll claims for them. Nothing would be more personally offensive to me than the supposition that I shirked criticism, just or unjust, of any lecture I ever gave. I should be utterly ashamed of myself if, when I stood up as an instructor of others, I had not taken every pains to assure myself of the truth of that which I was about to say; and I should feel myself bound to be even more careful with a popular assembly, who would take me more or less on trust, than with an audience of competent and critical experts.
I decline to assume that the standard of morality, in these matters, is lower among the clergy than it is among scientific men. I refuse to think that the priest who stands up before a congregation as the minister and interpreter of the Divinity is less careful in his utterances, less ready to meet adverse comment, than the layman who comes before his audience as the minister and interpreter of Nature. Yet what should we think of the man of science who, when his ignorance or his carelessness was exposed, whined about the want of delicacy of his critics, or pleaded his "work and calling" as a reason for being let alone?
No man, nor any body of men, is good enough, or wise enough, to dispense with the tonic of criticism. Nothing has done more harm to the clergy than the practice, too common among laymen, of regarding them, when in the pulpit, as a sort of chartered libertines, whose divagations are not to be taken seriously. And I am well assured that the distinguished divine, to whom the sermon is attributed, is the last person who would desire to avail himself of the dishonoring protection which has been superfluously thrown over him.
So much for the lecture on propriety. But the Duke of Argyll, to whom the hortatory style seems to come naturally, does me the honor to make my sayings the subjects of a series of other admonitions, some on philosophical, some on geological, some on biological topics. I can but rejoice that the duke's authority in these matters is not always employed to show that I am ignorant of them; on the contrary, I meet with an amount of agreement, even of approbation, for which I proffer such gratitude as may be due, even if that gratitude is sometimes almost overshadowed by surprise.
I am unfeignedly astonished to find that the Duke of Argyll, who professes to intervene on behalf of the preacher, does really, like another Balaam, bless me altogether in respect of the main issue.
I denied the justice of the preacher's ascription to men of science of the doctrine that miracles are incredible, because they are violations of natural law; and the Duke of Argyll says that he believes my "denial to be well founded. The preacher was answering an objection which has now been generally abandoned." Either the preacher knew this or he did not know it. It seems to me, as a mere lay teacher, to be a pity that the "great dome of St. Paul's" should have been made to "echo" (if so be that such stentorian effects were really produced) a statement which, admitting the first alternative, was unfair, and, admitting the second, was ignorant.
Having thus sacrificed one half of the preacher's arguments, the Duke of Argyll proceeds to make equally short work with the other half. It appears that he fully accepts my position that the occurrence of those events, which the preacher speaks of as catastrophes, is no evidence of disorder, inasmuch as such catastrophes may be necessary occasional consequences of uniform changes. Whence I conclude, his Grace agrees with me, that the talk about royal laws "wrecking" ordinary laws may be eloquent metaphor, but is also nonsense.
And now comes a further surprise. After having given these superfluous stabs to the slain body of the preacher's argument, my good ally remarks, with magnificent calmness, "So far, then, the preacher and the professor are at one. ... Let them smoke the calumet." By all means: smoke would be the most appropriate symbol of this wonderful attempt to cover a retreat. After all, the duke has come to bury the preacher, not to praise him; only he makes the funeral obsequies look as much like a triumphal procession as possible.
So far as the questions between the preacher and myself are concerned, then, I may feel happy. The authority of the Duke of Argyll is ranged on my side. But the duke has raised a number of other questions, with respect to which I fear I shall have to dispense with his support—nay even be compelled to differ from him as much as or more than I have done about his Grace's new rendering of the "benefit of clergy."
In discussing catastrophes, the duke indulges in statements, partly scientific, partly anecdotic, which appear to me to be somewhat misleading. We are told, to begin with, that Sir Charles Lyell's doctrine respecting the proper mode of interpreting the facts of geology (which is commonly called uniformitarianism) "does not hold its head quite so high as it once did." That is great news indeed. But is it true? All I can say is that I am aware of nothing that has happened of late that can in any way justify it; and my opinion is, that the body of Lyell's doctrine, as laid down in that great work, "The Principles of Geology," whatever may have happened to its head, is a chief and permanent constituent of the foundations of geological science.
But this question can not be advantageously discussed, unless we take some pains to discriminate between the essential part of the uniformitarian doctrine and its accessories; and it does not appear that the Duke of Argyll has carried his studies of geological philosophy so far as this point. For he defines uniformitarianism to be the assumption of the "extreme slowness and perfect continuity of all geological changes."
What "perfect continuity" may mean in this definition, I am by no means sure; but I can only imagine that it signifies the absence of any break in the course of natural order during the millions of years, the lapse of which is recorded by geological phenomena.
Is the Duke of Argyll prepared to say that any geologist of authority, at the present day, believes that there is the slightest evidence of the occurrence of supernatural intervention, during the long ages of which the monuments are preserved to us in the crust of the earth? And if he is not, in what sense has this part of the uniformitarian doctrine, as he defines it, lowered its pretensions to represent scientific truth?
As to the "extreme slowness of all geological changes," it is simply a popular error to regard that as, in any wise, a fundamental and necessary dogma of uniformitarianism. It is extremely astonishing to me that any one who has carefully studied Lyell's great work can have so completely failed to appreciate its purport, which yet is "writ large" on the very title-page: "The Principles of Geology, being an Attempt to explain the Former Changes of the Earth's Surface by Reference to Causes now in Operation." The essence of Lyell's doctrine is here written so that those who run may read; and it has nothing to do with the quickness or slowness of the past changes of the earth's surface, except in so far as existing analogous changes may go on slowly, and therefore create a presumption in favor of the slowness of past changes.
With that epigrammatic force which characterizes his style, Buff on wrote, nearly a hundred and fifty years ago, in his famous "Théorie de la Terre," "Pour juger de ce qui est arrivé, et même de ce qui arrivera, nous n'avons qu'à examiner ce qui arrive." The key of the past, as of the future, is to be sought in the present, and only when known causes of change have been shown to be insufficient have we any right to have recourse to unknown causes. Geology is as much an historical science as archaeology; and I apprehend that all sound historical investigation rests upon this axiom. It underlay all Hutton's work, and animated Lyell and Scrope in their successful efforts to revolutionize the geology of half a century ago.
There is no antagonism whatever, and there never was, between the belief in the views which had their chief and unwearied advocate in Lyell and the belief in the occurrence of catastrophes. The first edition of Lyell's "Principles," published in 1830, lies before me, and a large part of the first volume is occupied by an account of volcanic, seismic, and diluvial catastrophes which have occurred within the historical period. Moreover, the author over and over again expressly draws the attention of his readers to the consistency of catastrophes with his doctrine:
Lyell quarreled with the catastrophists, then, by no means because they assumed that catastrophes occur and have occurred, but because they had got into the habit of calling on their god Catastrophe to help them when they ought to have been putting their shoulders to the wheel of observation of the present course of Nature, in order to help themselves out of their difficulties. And geological science has become what it is chiefly because geologists have gradually accepted Lyell's doctrine and followed his precepts.
So far as I know anything about the matter, there is nothing that can be called proof, that the causes of geological phenomena operated more intensely or more rapidly at any time between the older Tertiary and the oldest Palæozoic epochs than they have done between the older Tertiary epoch and the present day. And if that is so, uniformitarianism, even as limited by Lyell, has no call to lower its crest. But, if the facts were otherwise, the position Lyell took up remains impregnable. He did not say that the geological operations of Nature were never more rapid, or more vast, than they are now; what he did maintain is the very different proposition that there is no good evidence of anything of the kind. And that proposition has not yet been shown to be incorrect.
I owe more than I can tell to the careful study of the "Principles of Geology" in my young days; and, long before the year 1856, my mind was familiar with the truth that "the doctrine of uniformity is not incompatible with great and sudden changes," which, as I have shown, is taught totidem verbis in that work. Even had it been possible for me to shut my eyes to the sense of what I had read in the "Principles," "Whewell's "Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences," published in 1840, a work with which I was also tolerably familiar, must have opened them. For the always acute, if not always profound, author, in arguing against Lyell's uniformitarianism, expressly points out that it does not in any way contravene the occurrence of catastrophes.
The reader who has followed me through this brief chapter of the history of geological philosophy, will probably find the following passage in the paper of the Duke of Argyll to be not a little remarkable:
I should think he did; for, as I have shown, there was nothing in it that Lyell himself had not said six-and-twenty years before, and enforced three years before; and it is almost verbally identical with the view of uniformitarianism taken by Whewell, sixteen years before, in a work with which one would think that any one who undertakes to discuss the philosophy of science should be familiar.
Thirty years have elapsed since the beginner of 1856 persuaded himself that he enlightened the foremost geologist of his time, and one of the most acute and far-seeing men of science of any time, as to the scope of the doctrines which the veteran philosopher had grown gray in promulgating; and the Duke of Argyll's acquaintance with the literature of geology has not, even now, become sufficiently profound to dissipate that pleasant delusion.
If the Duke of Argyll's guidance in that branch of physical science, with which alone he has given evidence of any practical acquaintance, is thus unsafe, I may breathe more freely in setting my opinion against the authoritative deliverances of his Grace about matters which lie outside the province of geology.
And here the duke's paper offers me such a wealth of opportunities that choice becomes embarrassing. I must bear in mind the good old adage "non multa sed multum." Tempting as it would be to follow the duke through his labyrinthine misunderstandings of the ordinary terminology of philosophy, and to comment on the curious unintelligibility which hangs about his frequent outpourings of fervid language, limits of space oblige me to restrict myself to those points, the discussion of which may help to enlighten the public in respect of matters of more importance than the competence of my Mentor for the task which he has undertaken.
I am not sure when the employment of the word Law, in the sense in which we speak of laws of Nature, commenced, but examples of it may be found in the works of Bacon, Descartes, and Spinoza. Bacon employs "law" as the equivalent of "form," and I am inclined to think that he may be responsible for a good deal of the confusion that has subsequently arisen; but I am not aware that the term is used by other authorities, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in any other sense than that of "rule" or "definite order" of the coexistence of things or succession of events in Nature. Descartes speaks of "règles, que je nomme les lois de la nature." Leibnitz says "loi ou règle générale," as if he considered the terms interchangeable.
The Duke of Argyll, however, affirms that the "law of gravitation" as put forth by Newton was something more than the statement of an observed order. He admits that Kepler's three laws "were an observed order of facts and nothing more." As to the law of gravitation, "it contains an element which Kepler's laws did not contain, even an element of causation, the recognition of which belongs to a higher category of intellectual conceptions than that which is concerned in the mere observation and record of separate and apparently unconnected facts." There is hardly a line in these paragraphs which appears to me to be indisputable. But, to confine myself to the matter in hand, I can not conceive that any one who had taken ordinary pains to acquaint himself with the real nature of either Kepler's or Newton's work could have written them. That the labors of Kepler, of all men in the world, should be called "mere observation and record," is truly wonderful. And any one who will look into the "Principia," or the "Optics," or the "Letters to Bentley," will see, even if he has no more special knowledge of the topics discussed than I have, that Newton over and over again insisted that he had nothing to do with gravitation as a physical cause, and that when he used the terms attraction, force, and the like, he employed them, as he says, "mathematicè" and not "physicè."
According to my reading of the best authorities upon the history of science, Newton discovered neither gravitation nor the law of gravitation; nor did he pretend to offer more than a conjecture as to the causation of gravitation. Moreover, his assertion that the notion of a body acting where it is not, is one that no competent thinker could entertain, is antagonistic to the whole current conception of attractive and repulsive forces, and therefore of "the attractive force of gravitation." What, then, was that labor of unsurpassed magnitude and excellence and immortal influence which Newton did perform? In the first place, Newton defined the laws, rules, or observed order of the phenomena of motion, which come under our daily observation, with greater precision than had been before attained; and, by following out with marvelous power and subtilty the mathematical consequences of these rules, he almost created the modern science of pure mechanics, In the second place, applying exactly the same method to the explication of the facts of astronomy as that which was applied a century and a half later to the facts of geology by Lyell, he set himself to solve the following problem: Assuming that all bodies, free to move, tend to approach one another as the earth and the bodies on it do; assuming that the strength of that tendency is directly as the mass and inversely as the squares of the distances; assuming that the laws of motion, determined for terrestrial bodies, hold good throughout the universe; assuming that the planets and their satellites were created and placed at their observed mean distances, and that each received a certain impulse from the Creator—will the form of the orbits, the varying rates of motion of the planets, and the ratio between those rates and their distances from the sun which must follow by mathematical reasoning from these premises, agree with the order of facts determined by Kepler and others, or not?
Newton, employing mathematical methods which are the admiration of adepts, but which no one but himself appears to have been able to use with ease, not only answered this question in the affirmative, but stayed not his constructive genius before it had founded modern physical astronomy.
The historians of mechanical and of astronomical science appear to be agreed that he was the first person who clearly and distinctly put forth the hypothesis that the phenomena comprehended under the general name of "gravity" follow the same order throughout the universe, and that all material bodies exhibit these phenomena; so that, in this sense, the idea of universal gravitation may, doubtless, be properly ascribed to him.
Newton proved that the laws of Kepler were particular consequences of the laws of motion and the law of gravitation—in other words, the reason of the first lay in the two latter. But to talk of the law of gravitation, alone, as the reason of Kepler's laws, and still more as standing in any causal relation to Kepler's laws, is simply a misuse of language. It would really be interesting if the Duke of Argyll would explain how he proposes to set about showing that the elliptical form of the orbits of the planets, the constant area described by the radius vector, and the proportionality of the squares of the periodic times to the cubes of the distances from the sun, are either caused by the "force of gravitation" or deducible from the "law of gravitation." I conceive that it would be about as apposite to say that the various compounds of nitrogen with oxygen are caused by chemical attraction and deducible from the atomic theory.
Newton assuredly lent no shadow of support to the modern pseudo-scientific philosophy which confounds laws with causes. I have not taken the trouble to trace out this commonest of fallacies to its first beginning; but I was familiar with it in full bloom, more than forty years ago, in a work which had a great vogue in its day—the "Vestiges of the Natural History of Creation"—of which the first edition was published in 1844.
It is full of apt and forcible illustrations of pseudo-scientific realism. Consider, for example, this gem serene: When a boy who has climbed a tree looses his hold of the branch, "the law of gravitation unrelentingly pulls him to the ground, and then he is hurt," whereby the Almighty is quite relieved from any responsibility for the accident. Here is the "law of gravitation" acting as a cause, in a way quite in accordance with the Duke of Argyll's conception of it. In fact, in the mind of the author of the "Vestiges," "laws" are existences intermediate between the Creator and his works, like the "ideas" of the Platonizers or the Logos of the Alexandrians. I may cite a passage which is quite in the vein of Philo:
And creation "operating by law" is constantly cited as relieving the Creator from trouble about insignificant details.
I am perplexed to picture to myself the state of mind which accepts these verbal juggleries. It is intelligible that the Creator should operate according to such rules as he might think fit to lay down for himself (and, therefore, according to law); but that would leave the operation of his will just as much a direct personal act as it would be under any other circumstances. I can also understand that (as in Leibnitz's caricature of Newton's views) the Creator might have made the cosmical machine, and, after setting it going, have left it to itself till it needed repair. But then, by the supposition, his personal responsibility would have been involved in all that it did, just as much as a dynamiter is responsible for what happens when he has set his machine going and left it to explode.The only hypothesis which gives a sort of mad consistency to the Vestigiarian's views is the supposition that laws are a kind of angels or demiurgoi, who, being supplied with the Great Architect's plan, were permitted to settle the details among themselves. Accepting this doctrine, the conception of royal laws and plebeian laws, and of these more than Homeric contests in which the big laws "wreck" the
little ones, become quite intelligible. And, in fact, the honor of the paternity of those remarkable ideas which come into full flower in the preacher's discourse must, so far as my imperfect knowledge goes, be attributed to the author of the "Vestiges."
But the author of the "Vestiges" is not the only writer who is responsible for the current pseudo-scientific mystifications which hang about the term "law." When I wrote my paper about "Scientific and Pseudo-Scientific Realism," I had not read a work by the Duke of Argyll, "The Reign of Law," which, I believe, has enjoyed, possibly still enjoys, a wide-spread popularity. But the vivacity of the duke's attack led me to think it possible that criticisms directed elsewhere might have come home to him. And, in fact, I find that the second chapter of the work in question, which is entitled "Law; its Definitions," is, from my point of view, a sort of "summa" of pseudo-scientific philosophy. It will be worth while to examine it in some detail.
In the first place, it is to be noted that the author of the "Reign of Law" admits that "law," in many cases, means nothing more than the statement of the order in which facts occur, or, as he says, "an observed order of facts "(p. 66). But his appreciation of the value of accuracy of expression does not hinder him from adding, almost in the same breath," In this sense the laws of Nature are simply those facts of Nature which recur according to rule" (p. 66). Thus "laws," which were rightly said to be the statement of an order of facts in one paragraph, are declared to be the facts themselves in the next.
We are next told that, though it may be customary and permissible to use "law" in the sense of a statement of the order of facts, this is a low use of the word; and indeed, two pages farther on, the writer, flatly contradicting himself, altogether denies its admissibility:
This is undoubtedly one of the most singular propositions that I have ever met with in a professedly scientific work, and its rarity is embellished by another direct self-contradiction which it implies. For, on the preceding page (67), when the Duke of Argyll is speaking of the laws of Kepler, which he admits to be laws, and which are types of that which men of science understand by "laws," he says that they are "simply and purely an order of facts." Moreover, he adds, "A very large proportion of the laws of every science are laws of this kind and in this sense."
If, according to the Duke of Argyll's admission, law is understood in this sense, thus widely and constantly, by scientific authorities, where is the justification for his unqualified assertion that such statements of the observed order of facts are not "entitled to the rank" of laws?
But let us examine the consequences of the really interesting proposition I have just quoted. I presume that it is a law of Nature that "a straight line is the shortest distance between two points." This law affirms the constant association of a certain fact of form with a certain fact of dimension. Whether the notion of necessity which attaches to it has an a priori or an a posteriori origin is a question not relevant to the present discussion. But I would beg to be informed, if it is necessary, where is the "compelling force" out of which the necessity arises; and, further, if it is not necessary, whether it loses the character of a law of Nature?
I take it to be a law of Nature, based on unexceptionable evidence, that the mass of matter remains unchanged, whatever chemical or other modifications it may undergo. This law is one of the foundations of chemistry. But it is by no means necessary. It is quite possible to imagine that the mass of matter should vary according to circumstances, as we know its weight does. Moreover, the determination of the "force" which makes mass constant (if there is any intelligibility in that form of words) would not, so far as I can see, confer any more validity on the law than it has now.
There is a law of Nature, so well vouched by experience that all mankind, from pure logicians in search of examples to parish sextons in search of fees, confide in it. This is the law that "all men are mortal." It is simply a statement of the observed order of facts that all men sooner or later die. I am not acquainted with any law of Nature which is more "constant and uniform" than this. But will any one tell me that death is "necessary"? Certainly there is no a priori necessity in the case, for various men have been imagined to be immortal. And I should be glad to be informed of any "necessity" that can be deduced from biological considerations. It is quite conceivable, as has recently been pointed out, that some of the lowest forms of life may be immortal, after a fashion. However this may be, I would further ask, supposing "all men are mortal" to be a real law of Nature, where and what is that to which, with any propriety, the title of "compelling force" of the law can be given?
On page 60, the Duke of Argyll asserts that the law of gravitation "is a law in the sense not merely of a rule but of a cause." But this revival of the teaching of the "Vestiges" has already been examined and disposed of; and, when the Duke of Argyll states that the "observed order," which Kepler had discovered, was simply a necessary consequence of the force of "gravitation," I need not recapitulate the evidence which proves such a statement to be wholly fallacious. But it may be useful to say once more that, at this present moment, nobody knows anything about the existence of a force of gravitation apart from the fact; that Newton declared the ordinary notion of such force to be inconceivable; that various attempts have been made to account for the order of facts we call gravitation, without recourse to the notion of attractive force; that, if such a force exists, it is utterly incompetent to account for Kepler's laws, without taking into the reckoning a great number of other considerations; and, finally, that all we know about the "force" of gravitation, or any other so-called "force," is that it is a name for the hypothetical cause of an observed order of facts.
Thus, when the Duke of Argyll says, "Force, ascertained according to some measure of its operation this is, indeed, one of the definitions, but only one, of a scientific law " (p. 71), I reply that it is a definition which must be repudiated by every one who possesses an adequate acquaintance with either the facts or the philosophy of science, and relegated to the limbo of pseudo-scientific fallacies. If the human mind had never entertained this notion of "force," nay, if it substituted bare, invariable succession for the ordinary notion of causation, the idea of law, as the expression of a constantly observed order, which generates a corresponding intensity of expectation in our minds, would have exactly the same value, and play its part in real science, exactly as it does now.
It is needless to extend further the present excursus on the origin and history of modern pseudo-science. Under such high patronage as it has enjoyed, it has grown and flourished, until, nowadays, it is becoming somewhat rampant. It has its weekly "Ephemerides," in which every new pseudo-scientific mare's-nest is hailed and belauded with the unconscious unfairness of ignorance; and an army of "reconcilers," enlisted in its service, whose business seems to be to mix the black of dogma and the white of science into the neutral tint of what they call liberal theology.
I remember that, not long after the publication of the "Vestiges, a shrewd and sarcastic countryman of the author defined it as "cauld kail made het again." A cynic might find amusement in the reflection that, at the present time, the principles and the methods of the much-vilified Vestigiarian are being "made het again"; and are not only "echoed by the dome of St. Paul's," but thundered from the castle of Inverary. But my turn of mind is not cynical, and I can but regret the waste of time and energy bestowed on the endeavor to deal with the most difficult problems of science, by those who have neither undergone the discipline, nor possess the information which are indispensable to the successful issue of such an enterprise.
I have already had occasion to remark that the Duke of Argyll's views of the conduct of controversy are different from mine; and this much-to-be-lamented discrepancy becomes yet more accentuated when the duke reaches biological topics. Anything that was good enough for Sir Charles Lyell, in his department of study, is certainly good enough for me in mine; and I by no means demur to being pedagogically instructed about a variety of matters with which it has been the business of my life to try to acquaint myself. But the Duke of Argyll is not content with favoring me with his opinions about my own business; he also answers for mine; and, at that point, really the worm must turn. I am told that "no one knows better than Professor Huxley" a variety of things which I really do not know; and I am said to be a disciple of that "Positive Philosophy" which I have, over and over again, publicly repudiated in language which is certainly not lacking in intelligibility, whatever may be its other defects.
I am told that I have been amusing myself with a "metaphysical exercitation or logomachy" (may I remark incidentally that these are not quite convertible terms?), when, to the best of my belief, I have been trying to expose a process of mystification, based upon the use of scientific language by writers who exhibit no sign of scientific training, of accurate scientific knowledge, or of clear ideas respecting the philosophy of science, which is doing very serious harm to the public. Naturally enough, they take the lion's skin of scientific phraseology for evidence that the voice which issues from beneath it is the voice of Science, and I desire to relieve them from the consequences of their error.
The Duke of Argyll asks, apparently with sorrow that it should be his duty to subject me to reproof:
To which I may fitly reply by another question: What shall we say to a controversialist who attributes to the subject of his attack opinions which are notoriously not his; and expresses himself in such a manner that it is obvious he is unacquainted with even the rudiments of that knowledge which is necessary to the discussion into which he has rushed?
What line of my writing can the Duke of Argyll produce which confounds the organic with the inorganic?
As to the latter half of the paragraph, I have to confess a doubt whether it has any definite meaning. But I imagine that the duke is alluding to my assertion that the law of gravitation is nowise "suspended" or "defied" when a man lifts his arm; but that, under such circumstances, part of the store of energy in the universe operates on the arm at a mechanical advantage as against the operation of another part. I was simple enough to think that no one who had as much knowledge of physiology as is to be found in an elemental primer, or who had ever heard of the greatest physical generalization of modern times—the doctrine of the conservation of energy—would dream of doubting my statement; and I was further simple enough to think that no one who lacked these qualifications would feel tempted to charge me with error. It appears that my simplicity is greater than my powers of imagination.
The Duke of Argyll may not be aware of the fact, but it is nevertheless true, that when a man's arm is raised, in sequence to that state of consciousness we call a volition, the volition is not the immediate cause of the elevation of the arm. On the contrary, that operation is effected by a certain change of form, technically known as "contraction " in sundry masses of flesh, technically known as muscles, which are fixed to the bones of the shoulder in such a manner that, if these muscles contract, they must raise the arm. Now, each of these muscles is a machine, in a certain sense, comparable to one of the donkey-engines of a steamship, but more complete, inasmuch as the source of its ability to change its form, or contract, lies within itself. Every time that, by contracting, the muscle does work, such as that involved in raising the arm, more or less of the material which it contains is used up, just as more or less of the fuel of a steam-engine is used up, when it does work. And I do not think there is a doubt in the mind of any competent physicist or physiologist that the work done in lifting the weight of the arm is the mechanical equivalent of a certain proportion of the energy set free by the molecular changes which take place in the muscle. It is further a tolerably well-based belief that this, and all other forms of energy, are mutually convertible, and therefore that they all come under that general law or statement of the order of facts called the conservation of energy. And, as that certainly is an abstraction, so the view which the Duke of Argyll thinks so extremely absurd is really one of the commonplaces of physiology. But this Review is hardly an appropriate place for giving instruction in the elements of that science, and I content myself with recommending the Duke of Argyll to devote some study to Book II, Chapter V, section 4, of my friend Dr. Fosters excellent "Text-Book of Physiology" (first edition, 1877, p. 321), which begins thus:
There is no more difficult problem in the world than that of the relation of the state of consciousness, termed volition, to the mechanical work which frequently follows upon it. But no one can even comprehend the nature of the problem who has not carefully studied the long series of modes of motion which, without a break, connect the energy which does that work with the general store of energy. The ultimate form of the problem is this: Have we any reason to believe that a feeling, or state of consciousness, is capable of directly affecting the motion of even the smallest conceivable molecule of matter? Is such a thing even conceivable? If we answer these questions in the negative, it follows that volition may be a sign, but can not be a cause of bodily motion. If we answer them in the affirmative, then states of consciousness become undistinguishable from material things; for it is the essential nature of matter to be the vehicle or substratum of mechanical energy.
There is nothing new in all this. I have merely put into modern language the issue raised by Descartes more than two centuries ago. The philosophies of the Occasionalists, of Spinoza, of Malebranche, of modern idealism and modern materialism, have all grown out of the controversies which Cartesianism evoked. Of all this the pseudo-science of the present time appears to be unconscious; otherwise it would hardly content itself with "making het again" the pseudo-science of the past.
In the course of these observations I have already had occasion to express my appreciation of the copious and perfervid eloquence which enriches the Duke of Argyll's pages. I am almost ashamed that a constitutional insensibility to the Sirenian charms of rhetoric has permitted me, in wandering through these flowery meads, to be attracted almost exclusively to the bare places of fallacy and the stony grounds of deficient information which are disguised, though not concealed, by these floral decorations. But, in his concluding sentences, the duke soars into a Tyrtæan strain which roused even my dull soul:
I have been living very much out of the world for the last two or three years, and when I read this denunciatory outburst, as of one filled with the spirit of prophecy, I said to myself: "Mercy upon us! what has happened? Can it be that X and Y (it would be wrong to mention the names of the vigorous young friends which occurred to me) are playing Danton and Robespierre; and that a guillotine is erected in the court-yard of Burlington House for the benefit of all anti-Darwinian Fellows of the Royal Society? Where are the secret conspirators against this tyranny, whom I am supposed to favor, and yet not have the courage to join openly? And to think of my poor oppressed friend, Mr. Herbert Spencer, 'compelled to speak with bated breath ' (p. 338) certainly for the first time in my thirty-odd years' acquaintance with him!" My alarm and horror at the supposition that, while I had been fiddling (or at any rate physicking), my beloved Rome had been burning, in this fashion, may be imagined.
I am sure the Duke of Argyll will be glad to hear that the anxiety he created was of extremely short duration. It is my privilege to have access to the best sources of information, and nobody in the scientific world can tell me anything about either the Reign of Terror or the Revolt. In fact, the scientific world laughs most indecorously at the notion of the existence of either; and some are so lost to the sense of the scientific dignity, that they descend to the use of transatlantic slang, and call it a "bogus scare." As to my friend Mr. Herbert Spencer, I have every reason to know that, in the "Factors of Organic Evolution," he has said exactly what was in his mind, without any particular deference to the opinions of the person whom he is pleased to regard as his most dangerous critic and devil's advocate-general, and still less of any one else.
I do not know whether the Duke of Argyll pictures himself as the Tallien of this imaginary revolt against a no less imaginary Reign of Terror. But if so, I most respectfully but firmly decline to join his forces. It is only a few weeks since I happened to read over again the first article which I ever wrote (now twenty-seven years ago) on the "Origin of Species," and I found nothing that I wished to modify in the opinions that are there expressed, though the subsequent vast accumulation of evidence in favor of Mr. Darwin's views would give me much to add. As is the case with all new doctrines, so with that of evolution, the enthusiasm of advocates has sometimes tended to degenerate into fanaticism, and mere speculation has, at times, threatened to shoot beyond its legitimate bounds. I have occasionally thought it wise to warn the more adventurous spirits among us against these dangers, in sufficiently plain language; and I have sometimes jestingly said that I expected, if I lived long enough, to be looked on as a reactionary by some of my more ardent friends. But nothing short of midsummer madness can account for the fiction that I am waiting till it is safe to join openly a revolt, hatched by some person or persons unknown, against an intellectual movement with which I am in the most entire and hearty sympathy. It is a great many years since, at the outset of my career, I had to think seriously what life had to offer that was worth having. I came to the conclusion that the chief good, for me, was freedom to learn, think, and say what I pleased, when I pleased. I have acted on that conviction, and have availed myself of the "rara temporum felicitas ubi sentire quæ velis, et quæ sentias dicere licet," which is now enjoyable, to the best of my ability; and though strongly, and perhaps wisely, warned that I should, probably come to grief, I am entirely satisfied with the results of the line of action I have adopted.
My career is at an end—
and nothing is left me, before I depart, but to help, or at any rate to abstain from hindering, the younger generation of men of science in doing better service to the cause we have at heart, than I have been able to render.
And yet, forsooth, I am supposed to be waiting for the signal of "revolt," which some fiery spirits among these young men are to raise before I dare express my real opinions concerning questions about which we older men had to fight, in the teeth of fierce public opposition and obloquy—of something which might almost justify even the grandiloquent epithet of a Reign of Terror—before our excellent successors had left school.
It would appear that the spirit of pseudo-science has impregnated even the imagination of the Duke of Argyll. The scientific imagination always restrains itself within the limits of probability.—Nineteenth Century.
- The Duke of Argyll speaks of the recent date of the demonstration of the fallacy of the doctrine in question. "Recent" is a relative term, but I may mention that the question is fully discussed in my book on "Hume," which, if I may believe my publishers, has been read by a good many people since it appeared in 1879. Moreover, 1 observe, from a note at page 89 of "The Reign of Law," a work to which 1 shall have occasion to advert by-and-by, that the Duke of Argyll draws attention to the circumstance that, so long ago as 1866, the views which I hold on this subject were well known. The duke, in fact, writing about this time, says, after quoting a phrase of mine, "The question of miracles seems now to be admitted on all hands to be simply a question of evidence." In science we think that a teacher who ignores views which have been discussed coram populo for twenty years, is hardly up to the mark.
- See also vol. i, p. 460. In the ninth edition (1853), published twenty-three years after the first, Lyell deprives eves the most careless reader of any excuse for misunderstanding him: "So in regard to subterranean movements, the theory of the perpetual uniformity of the force which they exert on the earth-crust is quite consistent with the admission of their alternate development and suspension for indefinite periods within limited geographical areas" (p. 187).
- A great many years ago ("Presidential Address to the Geological Society," 1869) I ventured to indicate that which seemed to me to be the weak point, not in the fundamental principles of uniformitarianism, but in uniformitarianism as taught by Lyell. It lay, to my mind, in the refusal by Hutton, and in a less degree by Lyell, to look beyond the limits of the time recorded by the stratified rocks. I said: "This attempt to limit, at a particular point, the progress of inductive and deductive reasoning from the things which are to the things which were this faithlessness to its own logic seems to me to have cost uniformitarianism the place as the permanent form of geological speculation which it might otherwise have held" ("Lay Sermons," p. 260). The context shows that "uniformitarianism" here means that doctrine, as limited in application by Hutton and Lyell, and that what I mean by "evolutionism" is consistent and thoroughgoing uniformitarianism.
- "Philosophy of the Inductive Sciences," vol. i, p. 670. New edition, 1847.
- At Glasgow in 1856.
- "Optics," query 31.
- The author recognizes this in his "Explanations."