Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 2.djvu/189

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
This page has been validated.
177
AIMS, ETC., OF SCIENTIFIC THOUGHT.

know how to deal with as made up of known phenomena which I did know how to deal with. But to many of you possibly the liquid skin may seem quite as strange and unaccountable as the motion of camphor on water.

And this brings me to consider the source of the pleasure we derive from an explanation. By known and familiar I mean that which we know how to deal with, either by action in the ordinary sense, or by active thought. When, therefore, that which we do not know how to deal with is described as made up of things that we do know how to deal with, we have that sense of increased power which is the basis of all higher pleasures. Of course, we may afterward by association come to take pleasure in explanation for its own sake. Are we, then, to say that the observed order of events is reasonable, in the sense that all of it admits of explanation? That a process may be capable of explanation, it must break up into simpler constituents which are already familiar to us. Now, first, the process may itself be simple, and not break up; secondly, it may break up into elements which are as unfamiliar and impracticable as the original process.

It is an explanation of the moon's motion to say that she is a falling body, only she is going so fast and is so far off that she falls quite round to the other side of the earth, instead of hitting it; and so goes on forever. But it is no explanation to say that a body falls because of gravitation. That means that the motion of the body may be resolved into a motion of every one of its particles toward every one of the particles of the earth, with an acceleration inversely as the square of the distance between them. But this attraction of two particles must always, I think, be less familiar than the original falling body, however early the children of the future begin to read their Newton. Can the attraction itself be explained? Le Sage said that there is an everlasting hail of innumerable small ether-particles from all sides, and that the two material particles shield each other from this, and so get pushed together. This is an explanation; it may or may not be a true one. The attraction may be an ultimate simple fact; or it may be made up of simpler facts utterly unlike any thing that we know at present; and in either of these cases there is no explanation. We have no right to conclude, then, that the order of events is always capable of being explained.

There is yet another way in which it is said that Nature is reasonable; namely, inasmuch as every effect has a cause. What do we mean by this?

In asking this question we have entered upon an appalling task. The word represented by "cause" has sixty-four meanings in Plato, and forty-eight in Aristotle. These were men who liked to know as near as might be what they meant; but how many meanings it has had, in the writings of the myriads of people who have not tried to know what they meant by it, will, I hope, never be counted. It would