Popular Science Monthly/Volume 17/October 1880/Criticisms Corrected I

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ONE way of estimating the validity of a critic's judgments is that of studying his mental peculiarities as generally displayed. If he betrays idiosyncrasies of thought in his writings at large, it may be inferred that these idiosyncrasies possibly, if not probably, give a character to the verdicts he passes upon the productions of others. I am led to make this remark by considering the probable connection between Professor Tait's habit of mind as otherwise shown and as shown in the opinion he has tacitly expressed respecting the formula of evolution.

Daily carrying on experimental researches, Professor Tait is profoundly impressed with the supreme value of the experimental method; and has reached the conviction that by it alone can any physical knowledge be gained. Though he calls the ultimate truths of physics "axioms," yet, not very consistently, he alleges that only by observation and experiment can these "axioms" be known as such. Passing over this inconsistency, however, we have here to note the implied proposition that, where no observation or experiment is possible, no physical truth can be established; and, indeed, that in the absence of any possibility of experiment or observation there is no basis for any physical belief at all. Now, "The Unseen Universe," a work written by him in conjunction with Professor Balfour Stewart, contains an elaborate argument concerning the relations between the universe which is visible to us and an invisible universe. This argument, carried on in pursuance of physical laws established by converse with the universe we know, extends them to the universe we do not know: the law of the conservation of energy, for example, being regarded as common to the two, and the principle of continuity, which is traced among perceptible phenomena, being assumed to hold likewise of the imperceptible. On the strength of these reasonings, conclusions are drawn which are considered as at least probable: support is found for certain theological beliefs. Now, clearly, the relation between the seen and the unseen universes can not be the subject of any observation or experiment; since, by the definition of it, one term of the relation is absent. If we have, then, no warrant for asserting a physical axiom save as a generalization of results of experiments—if, consequently, where no observation or experiment is possible, reasoning after physical methods can have no place—then there can be no basis for any conclusion respecting the physical relations of the seen and the unseen universes. Not so, however, concludes Professor Tait. He thinks that, while no validity can be claimed for our judgments respecting perceived forces, save as experimentally justified, some validity can be claimed for our judgments respecting unperceived forces, where no experimental justification is possible.

The peculiarity thus exhibited in Professor Tait's general thinking is exhibited also in some of his thinking on those special topics with which he is directly concerned as a Professor of Physics. An instance was given by Professor Clerk-Maxwell when reviewing, in "Nature," for July 3, 1879, the new edition (1879) of Thomson and Tait's "Treatise on Natural Philosophy." Professor Clerk-Maxwell writes: "Again, at page 222, the capacity of the student is called upon to accept the following statement: 'Matter has an innate power of resisting external influences, so that every body, as far as it can, remains at rest or moves uniformly in a straight line.' Is it a fact that 'matter' has any power, either innate or acquired, of resisting external influences?" And, to Professor Clerk-Maxwell's question thus put, the answer of one not having a like mental peculiarity with Professor Tait must surely be—No.

But the most remarkable example of Professor Tait's mode of thought, as exhibited in his own department, is contained in a lecture which he gave at Glasgow when the British Association last met there (see "Nature," September 21, 1876)—a lecture given for the purpose of dispelling certain erroneous conceptions of force commonly entertained. Asking how the word force "is to be correctly used," he says: "Here we can not but consult Newton. The sense in which he uses the word 'force,' and therefore the sense in which we must continue to use it if we desire to avoid intellectual confusion, will appear clearly from a brief consideration of his simple statement of the laws of motion. The first of these laws is: Every body continues in its state of rest or of uniform motion in a straight line, except in so far as it is compelled by impressed forces to change that state." Thus Professor Tait quotes, and fully approves, that conception of force which regards it as something which changes the state of a body. Later on in the course of his lecture, after variously setting forth his views of how force is rightly to be conceived, he says, "Force is the rate at which an agent does work per unit of length." Now let us compare these two definitions of force. It is first, on the authority of Newton emphatically endorsed, said to be that which changes the state of a body. Then it is said to be the rate at which an agent does work (doing work being equivalent to changing a body's state). In the one case, therefore, force itself is the agent which does the work or changes the state; in the other case, force is the rate at which some other agent does the work or changes the state. How are these statements to be reconciled? Otherwise put, the difficulty stands thus: force is that which changes the state of a body; force is a rate, and a rate is a relation (as between time and distance, interest and capital); therefore a relation changes the state of a body. A relation is no longer a nexus among phenomena, but becomes a producer of phenomena. Whether Professor Tait succeeded in dispelling "the widespread ignorance as to some of the most important elementary principles of physics," whether his audience went away with clear ideas of the "much-abused and misunderstood term" force, the report does not tell us.

Let us pass now from these illustration of Professor Tait's judgment, as exhibited in his special department, to the consideration of his judgment on a wider question here before us—the formula of evolution. In "Nature," for July 17, 1879, while reviewing Sir Edmund Beckett's "Origin of the Laws of Nature," and praising it, he says of the author: "He follows, in fact, in his own way, the hint given by a great mathematician (Kirkman), who made the following exquisite translation of a well-known definition: 'Evolution is a change from an indefinite, incoherent homogeneity to a definite, coherent heterogeneity, through continuous differentiations and integrations.'[1] [Translation into plain English:] Evolution is a change from a nohowish, untalkaboutable all-alikeness to a somehowish and in-general-talkaboutable not-all alikeness, by continuous somethingelseifications and sticktogetherations."

Professor Tait, proceeding then to quote from Sir Edmund Beckett's book passages in which, as he thinks, there is a kindred tearing off of disguises from the expressions used by other authors, winds up by saying—"When the purposely vague statements of the materialists and agnostics are thus stripped of the tinsel of high-flown and unintelligible language, the eyes of the thoughtless who have accepted them on authority (!) are at last opened, and they are ready to exclaim with Titania, methinks, 'I was enamored of an ass.'" And that Mr. Kirkman similarly believes that his travesty proves the formula of evolution to be meaningless, is shown by the sentence which follows it: "Can any man show that my translation is unfair?"

One would have thought that Mr. Kirkman and Professor Tait, however narrowly they limited themselves to their special lines of inquiry, could hardly have avoided observing that in proportion as scientific terms express wider generalities, they necessarily lose that vividness of suggestion which words of concrete meanings have; and, therefore, to the uninitiated seem vague, or even empty. If Professor Tait enunciated to a rustic the physical axiom, "action and reaction are equal and opposite," the rustic might, not improbably, fail to form any corresponding idea. And he might, if his self-confidence were akin to that of Mr. Kirkman, conclude that where he saw no meaning there could be no meaning. Further, if, after the axiom had been brought partially within his comprehension by an example, he were to laugh at the learned words used and propose to say instead, "shoving and back-shoving are one as strong as the other," it would possibly be held by Professor Tait that this way of putting it is hardly satisfactory. If he thought it worth while to enlighten the rustic, he might, perhaps, point out to him that his statement did not include all the facts—that not only shoving and back-shoving, but also pulling and back-pulling, are one as strong as the other. Supposing the rustic were not too conceited, he might eventually be taught that the abstract, and to him seemingly vague, formula, "action and reaction are equal and opposite," was chosen because by no words of a more specific kind could be expressed the truth in its entirety. Professor Tait, however, and Mr. Kirkman, though the physical and mathematical terms they daily employ are so highly abstract as to prove meaningless to those who are unfamiliar with the concrete facts covered by them, seem not to have drawn any general inference from this habitual experience. For, had they done so, they must have been aware that a formula expressing all orders of changes in their general course—astronomic, geologic, biologic, psychologic, sociologic—could not possibly be framed in any other than words of the highest abstractness. Perhaps there may come the rejoinder that they do not believe any such universal formula is possible. Perhaps they will say that the on-going of things, as shown in our planetary system, has nothing in common with the ongoing of things which has brought the earth's crust to its present state, and that this has nothing in common with the on-going of things which the growths and actions of living bodies show us; although, considering that the laws of molar motion and the laws of molecular action are proved to hold true of them all, it requires considerable courage to assert that the modes of coöperation of the physical forces in these several regions of phenomena present no traits in common. But, unless they allege that there is one law for the redistribution of matter and motion in the heavens, and another law for the redistribution of matter and motion in the earth's inorganic masses, and another law for its organic masses—unless they assert that the transformation everywhere in progress follows here one method and there another—they must admit that the proposition which expresses the general course of the transformation can do it only in terms remote in the extremest degree from words suggesting definite objects and actions.

After noting the unconsciousness thus betrayed by Mr. Kirkman and Professor Tait, that the expression of highly abstract truths necessitates highly abstract words, we may go on to note a scarcely less remarkable anomaly of thought shown by them. Mr. Kirkman appears to think, and Professor Tait apparently agrees with him in thinking, that when one of these abstract words, coined from Greek or Latin roots, is transformed into an uncouth-looking combination of equivalents of Saxon, or rather old English origin, what they regard as its misleading glamour is thereby dissipated and its meaninglessness made manifest. We may conveniently observe the nature of Mr. Kirkman's belief by listening to an imaginary addition to that address before the Literary and Philosophical Society of Liverpool in which he first set forth the leading ideas of his volume; and we may fitly, in this imaginary addition, adopt the manner in which he delights:

"Observe, gentlemen," we may suppose him saying, "I have here the yolk of an egg. The evolutionists—using their jargon—say that one of its characters is 'homogeneity'; and, if you do not examine your thoughts, perhaps you may think that the word conveys some idea. But, now if I translate it into plain English, and say that one of the characters of this yolk is 'all-alikeness,' you at once perceive how nonsensical is their statement. You see that the substance of the yolk is not all-alike, and that therefore all-alikeness can not be one of its attributes. Similarly with the other pretentious term, 'heterogeneity,' which, according to them, describes the state things are brought to by what they call evolution. It is mere empty sound, as is manifest if I do but transform it, as I did the other, and say instead 'not-all-alikeness.' For, on showing you this chick, into which the yolk of the egg turns, you will see that 'not-all-alikeness' is a character which can not be claimed for it. How can any one say that the parts of the chick are not-all-alike? Again, in their blatant language we are told that evolution is carried on by continuous 'differentiations'; and they would have us believe that this word expresses some fact. But, if we put instead of it 'somethingelseifications,' the delusion they try to practice on us becomes clear. How can they say that while the parts have been forming themselves the heart has been becoming something else than the stomach, and the leg something else than the wing, and the head something else than the tail? The like manifestly happens when for 'integrations' we read 'sticktogetherations': what sense the term might seem to have becomes obvious nonsense when the substituted word is used. For nobody dares assert that the parts of the chick stick together any more than do the parts of the yolk. I need hardly show you that now when I take a portion of the yolk between my fingers and pull, and now when I take any part of the chick, as the leg, and pull, the first resists just as much as the last, the last does not stick together any more than the first; so that there has been no progress in 'sticktogetherations.' And thus, gentlemen, you perceive that these big words which, to the disgrace of the Royal Society, appear even in papers published by it, are mere empty bladders, which these would-be philosophers use to buoy up their ridiculous doctrines."

There is a further curious mental trait exhibited by Mr. Kirkman, and which Professor Tait appears to have in common with him. Very truly it has been remarked that there is a great difference between disclosing the absurdities contained in a thing and piling absurdities upon it; and a remark to be added is that some minds appear incapable of distinguishing between intrinsic absurdity and extrinsic absurdity. The case before us illustrates this remark; and at the same time shows us how analytical faculties of one kind may be constantly exercised without strengthening analytical faculties of another kind—how mathematical analysis may be daily practiced without any skill in psychological analysis being acquired. For, if these gentlemen had analyzed their own thoughts to any purpose, they would have known that incongruous juxtapositions may, by association of ideas, suggest characters that do not at all belong to the things juxtaposed. Did Mr. Kirkman ever observe the result of putting a bonnet on a nude statue? If he ever did, and if he then reasoned after the manner exemplified above, he doubtless concluded that the obscene effect belonged intrinsically to the statue, and only required the addition of the bonnet to make it conspicuous. The alternative conclusion, however, which perhaps most will draw, is that not in the statue itself was there anything of an obscene suggestion, but that this effect was purely adventitious: the bonnet, connected in daily experience with living women, calling up the thought of a living woman with the head dressed but otherwise naked. Similarly though, by clothing an idea in words which excite a feeling of the ludicrous by their oddity, any one may associate this feeling of the ludicrous with the idea itself, yet he does not thereby make the idea ludicrous; and, if he thinks he does, he shows that he has not practiced introspection to much purpose.

By way of a lesson in mental discipline, it may be not uninstructive here to note a curious kinship of opinion between these two mathematicians and two littérateurs. At first sight it appears strange that men, whose lives are passed in studies so absolutely scientific as those which Professor Tait and Mr. Kirkman pursue, should, in their judgments on the formula of evolution, be at one with two men of exclusively literary culture—a North American Reviewer and Mr. Matthew Arnold. In the "North American Review," vol. cxx., page 202, a critic, after quoting the formula of evolution, says, "This may be all true, but it seems at best rather the blank form for a universe than anything corresponding to the actual world about us." On which the comment may be, that one, who had studied celestial mechanics as much as the critic has studied the general course of transformations, might similarly have remarked that the formula, "bodies attract one another directly as their masses and inversely as the squares of their distances," was at best but a blank form for solar systems and sidereal clusters. With this parenthetical comment, I pass to the fact above hinted, that Mr. Matthew Arnold obviously coincides with the critic's estimate of the formula. In Chapter V. of his work "God and the Bible," when preparing the way for a criticism on German theologians as losing themselves in words, he quotes a saying from Homer. This he introduces by remarking that "it is not at all a grand one. We are almost ashamed to quote it to readers who may have come fresh from the last number of the 'North American Review,' and from the great sentence there quoted as summing up Mr. Herbert Spencer's theory of evolution, 'Evolution is, etc' Homer's poor little saying comes not in such formidable shape. It is only this: Wide is the range of words! words may make this way or that way." And then he proceeds with his reflections upon German logomachies. All of which makes it manifest that, going out of his way, as he does, to quote this formula from the "North American Review," he intends tacitly to indicate his agreement in the reviewer's estimate of it.

That these two men of letters, like the two mathematicians, are unable to frame ideas answering to the words in which evolution at large is expressed, seems manifest. In all four, the verbal symbols used call up either no images, or images of the vaguest kinds, which, grouped together, form but the most shadowy thoughts. If, now, we ask what is the common trait in the education and pursuits of all four, we see it to be lack of familiarity with those complex processes of change which the concrete sciences bring before us. The men of letters, in their early days dieted on grammars and lexicons, and in their later days occupied with belles-lettres, biography, and a history made up mainly of personalities, are by their education and course of life left almost without scientific ideas of a definite kind. The universality of physical causation, the interpretation of all things in terms of a never-ceasing redistribution of matter and motion, is naturally to them an idea utterly alien. The mathematician, too, and the mathematical physicist, occupied exclusively with the phenomena of number, space and time, or, in dealing with forces, dealing with them in the abstract, carry on their researches in such ways as may, and often do, leave them quite unconscious of the traits exhibited by the general transformations which things, individually and in their totality, undergo. In a chapter on "Discipline," in the "Study of Sociology," I have commented upon the uses of the several groups of sciences—abstract, abstract-concrete, and concrete—in cultivating different powers of mind; and have argued that while, for complete preparation, the discipline of each group of sciences is indispensable, the discipline of any one group alone, or any two groups, leaves certain defects of judgment. Especially have I contrasted the analytical habit of thought which study of the abstract and abstract-concrete sciences produces with the synthetical habit of thought produced by study of the concrete sciences. And I have exemplified the defects of judgment to which the analytical habit, unqualified by the synthetical habit, leads. Here we meet with a striking illustration. Scientific culture of the analytical kind, almost as much as absence of scientific culture, leaves the mind bare of those ideas with which the concrete sciences deal. Exclusive familiarity with the forms and factors of phenomena no more fits men for dealing with the products in their totalities than does mere literary study.

  1. A conscientious critic usually consults the latest edition of the work he criticises, so that the author may have the benefit of any corrections or alterations he has made. Apparently, Mr. Kirkman does not think such a precaution needful. Publishing, in 1876, his "Philosophy without Assumptions," from which the above passage is taken, he quotes from the first edition of "First Principles," published in 1862; though in the edition of 1867, and all subsequent ones, the definition is, in expression, considerably modified—two of the leading words being no longer used.