Popular Science Monthly/Volume 18/January 1881/Criticisms Corrected III

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CRITICISM would be greatly diminished in bulk if there were excluded from it all that part devoted to disproving statements which have not been made; and were this course pursued, the work "On Mr. Spencer's Formula of Evolution," by Malcolm Guthrie, would disappear bodily. It is little else than a misstatement of certain fundamental views of mine, and then an elaborate refutation of the views as misstated.

Let me first show by brief extracts from "First Principles" what these views are. In a chapter on "Ultimate Scientific Ideas," after showing how the hypothesis that matter consists of solid atoms commits us to alternative impossibities of thought, I have shown how the hypothesis of Boscovich, that matter consists of centers of force without extension, is unthinkable. In the course of the argument I have pointed out that though Boscovich's hypothesis can not be realized in thought, yet, on the other hand, the hypothesis of extended atoms itself implies an imaginary separableness of each atom into parts, and again of these into parts, and so on without limit until unextended centers of force are reached: the consciousness of force being that which alone perpetually emerges. And I have ended by saying that "matter, then, in its ultimate nature, is as absolutely incomprehensible as space and time." In the second part of the work, in chapters treating of "The Indestructibility of Matter," "The Continuity of Motion," and "The Persistence of Force," I have at some length elaborated the view that force is the ultimate component of thought into which our conceptions of external existences are resolvable. Summing up the first of these chapters, I have said, "Thus, then, by the indestructibility of matter, we really mean the indestructibility of the force with which matter affects us." At the close of the second of these chapters I have argued that "the continuity of motion, as well as the indestructibility of matter, is really known to us in terms of force;. . . that which defies suppression in thought, is really the force which the motion indicates." And then in the third chapter, having shown how the truths that matter is indestructible and motion continuous, can be known to us only as corollaries from the truth that force is persistent—that force is that "out of which our conceptions of matter and motion are built"—I have gone on to say that, "by the persistence of force, we really mean the persistence of some power which transcends our knowledge and conception." Throughout all which arguments the implication is that I hold matter and motion to be conditioned manifestations of this unknown power. Being aware of the perversity of critics, I have, in the "Summary and Conclusion," again endeavored to bar out misinterpretation. Here is one of the sentences it contains: "Over and over again it has been shown in various ways that the deepest truths we can reach are simply statements of the widest uniformities in our experience of the relations of matter, motion, and force; and that matter, motion, and force are but symbols of the unknown reality. A power of which the nature remains for ever inconceivable, and to which no limits in time or space can be imagined, works in us certain effects. These effects have certain likenesses of kind, the most general of which we class together under the names of matter, motion, and force." In which sentences it is distinctly stated that I have throughout regarded matter, under the form present to consciousness, as a symbol—a certain conditioned effect wrought in us by the unknown power; and I have gone on to say that "the interpretation of all phenomena in terms of matter, motion, and force is nothing more than the reduction of our complex symbols of thought to the simplest symbols; and when the equation has been brought to its lowest terms the symbols remain symbols still."

It will scarcely be believed, and yet it is true, that notwithstanding all this Mr. Guthrie ascribes to me the vulgar conceptions of matter and motion; argues as though I really think they are in themselves what they seem to our consciousness; and proceeds to criticise my views on this assumption. He ignores the conspicuous fact that matter and motion are both regarded by me as modes of manifestation of force, and that force, as we are conscious of it when by our own efforts we produce changes, is the correlative of that universal power which transcends consciousness. And then he ends the criticisms forming the second part of his work by saying, "If this is not materialistic I do not know what is." He does not do this by inadvertence, though there would be little excuse even then; but he does it deliberately and with his eyes open. His next chapter begins:

"It will have been observed that in the preceding part of this criticism I have employed the term 'matter in motion,' and have avoided the use of the word 'force,' although it appears so prominently in the pages of Mr. Spencer's work. This has not been accidental, but by design, indicating as it does one of my main criticisms of Mr. Spencer.

"I can logically take up one of two positions. The first recognizes matter, whose properties are merely those of extension, which are capable of being described in terms of geometry and arithmetic. I can also recognize as the sole active properties of matter its modes and rates of motion—the motion, that is to say, of ultimate units, atoms, molecules, or masses, also capable of measurement.

"The second position recognizes matter and its activity or activities—matter as endowed with force or forces."

Thus it will be observed that having avowedly dealt with matter and motion as modes of force, I am "by design" criticised as though I had not so dealt with them. Having distinctly said what I mean by matter and motion, I am practically told that I shall not mean that, but shall mean what Mr. Guthrie means; and shall be dealt with accordingly. And then, further, it will be observed that of the two positions which Mr. Guthrie lays down as possible, and proceeds to argue upon as alternatives, one or other of which I must accept, both speak of matter and units of matter as though actually existing under the forms thought by us; and the last, speaking of "matter as endowed with force or forces," implies that whether in mass or in units, matter is a space-occupying something which is in the one case inert and in the other case made active by force with which it is "endowed" force which is added to the inert something. Spite of all the pains I have taken to show that I regard matter as itself a localized manifestation of force—spite of all the evidence that our idea of a unit of matter, or atom, is regarded by me simply as a symbol which the form of our thought obliges us to use, but which we can not suppose answers to the reality without committing ourselves to alternative impossibilities of thought, I am debited with the belief that matter actually consists "of space-occupying units, having shape and measurement." Though I have repeatedly made it clear that our ideas of matter, motion, and force are but the x, y, and z with which we work our equations, and formulate the various relations among phenomena in such way as to express their order in terms of x, y, and z though I have shown that the realities for which x, y, and z stand can not be conceived by us as actually existing thus or thus without committing ourselves to alternative absurdities; yet questions are put implying that I must hold one or other hypothesis concerning these actual existences, and I am supposed to be involved in all the difficulties which arise.


Another work devoted to the refutation of my views is that of Professor Birks—"Modern Physical Fatalism and the Doctrine of Evolution, including an Examination of Mr. H. Spencer's First Principles." Having dealt with the work of Mr. Guthrie, I can not pass by that of Professor Birks without raising the suspicion that I find some difficulty in dealing with it. Indeed, I do find a difficulty—a difficulty illustrated by that found in disentangling a skein of silk which has been pulled about by a child for half an hour. And just as the patience of a bystander would fail were he asked to look on until, by unraveling the tangled skein, its continuity was proved, so would the reader's attention be exhausted before I had rectified one tenth part of the meshes and knots into which Professor Birks has twisted my statements.

Abundant warrant for this assertion is furnished by the very first paragraph succeeding the one in which Professor Birks announces that he is about to take "First Principles" as representative of the "fatalistic theory." In this paragraph he represents me as asserting that ultimate religious ideas are "incapable of being conceived." He further says that ultimate scientific ideas are by me "pronounced equally inconceivable." Now, any clear-headed reader who accepted Professor Birks's version of my views would be led to debit me with the absurdity of saying that certain things which are put together in consciousness (ideas) can not be put together in consciousness (conceived). To conceive is to frame in thought; and as every idea is framed in thought, it is nonsense to say of any idea that it can not be conceived—nonsense which I have nowhere uttered. My statement is that "ultimate scientific ideas, then, are all representative of realities that can not be comprehended"; and the like is alleged of ultimate religious ideas. The things which I say can not be comprehended or conceived, are not the ideas, but the realities beyond consciousness for which the ideas in consciousness stand. In Professor Birks's statement, however, inconceivableness of the realities is transformed into inconceivableness of the answering ideas! Further, at the end of this first paragraph which deals with me, I am represented as teaching that religion "is equivalent to nescience or ignorance alone." This statement is as far removed from the truth as the others. I have argued at considerable length, and in such various ways that I thought it impossible to misunderstand me, that though the Power universally manifest to us through phenomena, alike in the surrounding world and in ourselves—the Power "in which we live and move and have our being"—is, and must ever remain, inscrutable; yet that the existence of this inscrutable Power is the most certain of all truths. I have contended that while, to the intellectual consciousness, this Power, though unknowable in nature, must be ever present as existing, it must be, to the emotional consciousness, an object to the sentiment we call religious; since, in substance if not in form, it answers to the creating and sustaining Power toward which the religious sentiment is in other cases drawn out. Yet though in the most emphatic way I have represented this unknown and unknowable Power as the object-matter of religion. Professor Birks represents me as saying that the unknowableness of it is the object matter of religion! Though I hold that an ultimate being, known with absolute certainty as existing, but of whose nature we are in ignorance, is the sphere for religious feeling, he says I hold that the ignorance alone is the sphere for religious feeling!

When in the first sixteen lines specifically treating of my views these three cases occur, it may be imagined what an intricate plexus of misrepresentations, misunderstandings, and perversions fills the three hundred and odd pages forming the volume. Especially may it be anticipated that the metaphysical discussions, occupying five chapters, are so confused that it is next to impossible to deal with them. I must limit myself to giving a sample or two from this part of the work: one of them illustrating Professor Birks's critical fairness, and the other his philosophic capacity.

In his chapter on "The Reality of Matter," he says (page 111), "The sense of reality in things around us, Mr. Spencer has truly said, is one which no metaphysical criticisms can shake in the least"; and the rest of the ' paragraph is devoted to enlarging upon this proposition. The next paragraph begins—"'Permanent possibilities of sensation' is merely an ingenious phrase, to disguise and conceal a self-contradiction": sundry antagonistic criticisms upon this phrase being appended. And then the opening words of the paragraph which succeeds are quoted from "First Principles." Now, since the refutation of my views is the aim of the work; and since both the preceding and succeeding passages specifically refer to my work; and since no other name is mentioned—every reader, not otherwise better instructed, will conclude that as a matter of course the phrase "permanent possibilities of sensation" is mine; and that the criticisms upon it tell against me. Even were there evidence that this phrase, "permanent possibilities of sensation," expressed, or harmonized with, a doctrine entertained by me; yet, as the phrase is not mine, the quoting it as mine would have been a literary misdemeanor. What, then, must be said of it when, instead of standing for any view of mine, it stands for an opposite view? Mr. Mill's expression, quoted by Professor Birks as though it were my expression, belongs to a theory of knowledge entirely at variance with that set forth and everywhere implied in "First Principles"; and a theory which, where the occasion was fit, I have persistently combated (see "Principles of Psychology," Part VII, "General Analysis"). And yet Professor Birks tacitly makes me responsible for the incongruities which result from uniting this theory with the opposed theory.

From this sample of critical truthfulness let us pass now to a sample of critical acumen.

In arguing against Hamilton and Mansell in § 26, I have said: "It is rigorously impossible to conceive that our knowledge is a knowledge of appearances only, without at the same time conceiving a reality of which they are appearances; for appearance without reality is unthinkable." On page 121 of his work, Professor Birks, quoting the last five words of this sentence, continues, "This is true, when once the conception of distance has been gained by actual experience." And he then proceeds to comment upon visual impressions, illusive and other. Again, on page 135, when criticising my argument concerning the indestructibility of matter. Professor Birks says: "Matter, as knowable, is declared to be not the unseen reality, but the sensible appearances, or phenomenal matter alone. Phenomenal matter, it appears from daily and hourly experience, appears and disappears, perishes and is new-created continually. . . . The cloud vanishes, the star sets, or a mist blots it out, the drop evaporates, the ship melts into the yeast of waves, the candle is burned away and comes to an end. The substance may last in another form, but the phenomenon or appearance is gone. . . . Thus, by the theory, of Matter, the Noumenon, we know nothing, and therefore can not know that it is indestructible. Of Matter, the Phenomenon, we may know much. And one main thing we know of it, proved by hourly experience, is that it both may be and continually is destroyed. For an appearance is destroyed and perishes, when it ceases to appear." In which sentences, as in all accompanying sentences covering several pages, the implication is that Professor Birks identifies appearance in the philosophical sense with appearance in the popular sense! Everywhere his expressions and arguments make manifest the fact that Professor Birks thinks the meaning of phenomenon in metaphysical discussion is no wider than that implied by its derivation—something visible! Sounds, smells, tastes are in his view not phenomena; nor are touches, pressures, tensions. And hence it results that since when a pound of salt is dissolved in water it ceases to be visible, its existence, phenomenally considered, ends: its continued power of affecting our senses by its weight, to the same extent as before the solution, not being considered as a phenomenal manifestation of its existence!

In § 46, when commenting on the mental confusion which metaphysical discussions often produce, I have ascribed this in part to the misleading connotations of the words "appearance" and "phenomenon"; and after illustrating this have said: "So that the implication of uncertainty has infected the very word appearance. Hence, philosophy, by giving it an extended meaning, leads us to think of all our senses as deceiving us in the same way that the eyes do; and so makes us feel ourselves floating in a world of phantasms. Had phenomenon and appearance no such misleading associations, little, if any, of this mental confusion would result. Or did we in place of them use the term effect, which is equally applicable to all impressions produced on consciousness through any of the senses, and which carries with it in thought the necessary correlative cause, with which it is equally real, we should be in little danger of falling into the insanities of idealism." This caution was intended for the general reader. That it might be needed by one who should undertake to deal with the work critically never occurred to me. Not only, however, does it seem that Professor Birks (who quotes the last three words of the paragraph) needs such a caution, but it further seems that the caution is thrown away upon him. For just those misinterpretations of the words above pointed out, are the misinterpretations he makes. After this I shall, I think, be absolved from examining further his metaphysical criticisms.

Of his criticisms upon various of the physical doctrines which this work contains, I will notice two only—the one because I wish to repudiate a view which, spite of abundant evidence to the contrary, he ascribes to me; and the other, because, based as his statement is on a fact which he misinterprets, it is desirable to give the right interpretation of it. On page 188, Professor Birks says: "The essence of the doctrine held by Mr. Grove, Dr. Tyndall, and Mr. Spencer, and which the last has made the foundation of his whole theory of physical fatalism, is that there is, every moment, an unchanging total of force, which never varies in amount, while it incessantly changes its form. The force, then, which persists, must be a present existence. But potential energy is nothing of the kind. It is the sum of trillions of trillions of future possibilities of force, ranging through trillions of trillions of different future intervals of time." Now, the tacit implication here is, that I accept the doctrine of potential energy. The men of science named, with many others who might be added, hold that the total quantity of force remains constant. Against these it is urged that energy in becoming potential ceases to exist; and that, therefore, the doctrine is untrue. And being represented as holding this doctrine in common with them, I am said to have based my general fabric of conclusions upon a fallacy. In the first place, I have to ask on what authority Professor Birks assumes that I hold the doctrine of potential energy in the way in which it is held by those named? And in the second place, I have to ask how it happens that Professor Birks, elaborately criticising my views step by step, deliberately ignores the passages in which I have repudiated this doctrine? In the chapter on "The Continuity of Motion" I have, at considerable length, given reasons for regarding the conception of potential energy as an illegitimate one, and have distinctly stated that I am at issue with scientific friends on the matter. Devoting, as Professor Birks does, his chapter entitled "The Transformation of Force and Motion," to the incongruities which result when the doctrine of the persistence of force is joined with the doctrine of potential energy, as commonly received, it was doubtless convenient to assume, spite of the direct evidence to the contrary, that I accept this doctrine, and am implicated in all the consequences. But there can be but one opinion respecting the honesty of making the assumption. Let me add that my rejection of this doctrine is not without other warrant than my own. Since the issue of the last edition of this work, containing the passages I have referred to, Mr. James Croll, no mean authority as a mathematician and physicist, has published in the "Philosophical Magazine" for October, 1876, page 241, a paper in which he shows, I think conclusively, that the commonly accepted view of potential energy can not be sustained, but that energy invariably remains actual. I learn from him that he had in 1867 indicated briefly this same view.

The remaining case, above adverted to as calling for comment, concerns my motive for suppressing a certain passage in the chapter on "Ultimate Scientific Ideas," and substituting another passage. Before proceeding to state the reasons for this substitution, and to disprove the inferences which Professor Birks draws from it, I may remark that it is usual in literary criticism to judge an author by the latest expression of his views. It is commonly thought nothing but fair that if he has made an error (I say this hypothetically, for in this case I have no error to acknowledge), he should be allowed the benefit of any correction he makes. Professor Birks, however, apparently thinks that, moved by the high motive of "doing God service," he is warranted in taking the opposite course—perhaps thinks, indeed, that he would fail of his duty did any regard for generous dealing prevent him from making a point against an opponent of his creed.

But now, saying no more about the ethics of criticism, I pass to the substantial question. In the first place, I have to point out that in the passage suppressed I have not said that which Professor Birks alleges. He represents me as asserting that "gravitation is a necessary result of the laws of space" (p. 227). I have asserted no such thing. He says, "There can be no a priori necessity that every particle should act on every other at all at every distance" (p. 222). I have nowhere said, or even hinted, that there is any such a priori necessity. The notion that "gravitation results by a fatal necessity from the laws of space," which he ascribes to me (p. 229), is one which I should repudiate as utterly absurd, and one which is not in the remotest way implied by anything I have said. What I have said is that "light, heat, gravitation, and all central forces, vary inversely as the squares of the distances," and that "this law is not simply an empirical one, but one deducible mathematically from the relations of space." Now, what is here said to be "deducible mathematically from the relations of space"? Not a thing, or a force, but a law. What is the law here said to be knowable a priori? The law of variation of any or every central force. And what is alone included in the assertion of this a priori law? Simply this, that given a central force, and such is the law according to which it will vary. Nothing is alleged respecting the existence of any central force. Does Professor Birks contend that if I say that light, proceeding from a center, necessarily varies inversely as the square of the distance, I thereby say that the existence of light itself is known a priori as a result of space relations? When I assert that of the heat radiating in all directions from a point, the quantity falling on a given surface necessarily decreases as the square of the distance increases, do I thereby assert the necessary existence of the heat which conforms to this law? Why then do I, in asserting that the law of variation of gravity "results by a fatal necessity from the laws of space" simultaneously assert that "gravitation results by a fatal necessity from the laws of space"? Professor Birks, however, because I assert the first says I assert the second. My proposition. Central forces vary inversely as the squares of the distances, he actually transforms into the proposition. There is a cosmical force which varies inversely as the squares of the distances; and debiting me with the last as identical with the first, proceeds, after his manner, to debit me with various resulting absurdities.

Having thus shown that the passage in question contains no such statement as that which Professor Birks says it contains, I go on to show that I have not removed this passage because I have abandoned the belief it embodies. Clear proof is at hand. If Professor Birks will turn to the "Replies to Criticisms" contained in the third volume of my "Essays: Scientific, Political, and Speculative" (pp. 334-337), he will find that I have there defended the above proposition against a previous attack; and assigning, as I have done, justification for it, I have shown no sign of relinquishing it. Why, then, Professor Birks will ask, did I make the change in question? Had his mental attitude been other than it is, he might readily have divined the reason. Knowing, as he seemingly does, that this doctrine which he criticises had been already criticised in a similar manner (for otherwise he would scarcely have discovered the change I have made), he might have seen clearly enough that the passage was suppressed simply to deprive opponents of the opportunity of evading the general argument of the chapter by opening a side issue on a point not essential to its argument.

The chapter has for its subject, certain incapacities of the human mind—a subject, by the way, on which theologians are never tired of enlarging when it suits their own purpose, but on which an antagonist may not enlarge without exciting their anger. Various examples of these incapacities are given, to justify and enforce the conclusion drawn. Among these was originally included the example in question. Misrepresenting it as Professor Birks misrepresents it, another writer had before him similarly based on his misrepresentation sundry-animadversions. Though still regarding the statement I had actually made (not the one ascribed to me) as valid, I concluded that it would be best to remove the stumbling-block out of the way of future readers, and therefore decided to replace the illustration by another. The rest of the chapter remains exactly as it was, and its argument is not in the remotest degree affected by the substitution. Nevertheless, Professor Birks, wrongly describing the nature of the illustration, and wrongly attributing the removal of the illustration to change in my belief, also wrongly conveys the impression that the doctrine which the illustration contained had some vital connection with the general argument of the chapter and with the doctrine of the work; and by conveying this impression calls forth exultation from religious periodicals.

Were I to deal with Professor Birks's book page by page, a much larger book than his would be required to expose his misstatements, perversions, confusions. The above examples must suffice. I will add only that in one belief of his I cordially agree with him. At the close of his preface he says, "I think that those who take the pains to read my strictures, and compare them with the statements of the work to which they are a reply, will find the effort repaid by a clearer apprehension of the topics in debate." And I venture to join with this the expression of my belief that if readers follow Professor Birks's tacit suggestion, "a clearer apprehension of the topics in debate" will not result from acceptance of his criticisms.