Popular Science Monthly/Volume 2/December 1872/Aims and Instruments of Scientific Thought II

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I WANT, in the next place, to consider what we mean when we say that the uniformity which we have observed in the course of events is reasonable as well as exact.

No doubt the first form of this idea was suggested by the marvellous adaptation of certain natural structures to special functions. The first impression of those who studied comparative anatomy was, that every part of the animal frame was fitted with extraordinary completeness for the work that it had to do. I say extraordinary, because at the time the most familiar examples of this adaptation were manufactures produced by human ingenuity; and the completeness and minuteness of natural adaptations were seen to be far in advance of these. The mechanism of limbs and joints was seen to be adapted, far better than any existing iron-work, to those motions and combinations of motion which were most useful to the particular organism. The beautiful and complicated apparatus of sensation caught up indications from the surrounding medium, sorted them, analyzed them, and transmitted the results to the brain in a manner with which, at the time I am speaking of, no artificial contrivance could compete. Hence the belief grew among physiologists that every structure which they found must have its function and subserve some useful purpose; a belief which was not without its foundation in fact, and which certainly (as Dr. Whewell remarks) has done admirable service in promoting the growth of physiology. Like all beliefs, found successful in one subject, it was carried over into another, of which a notable example is given in the speculations of Count Rumford about the physical properties of water, to which the President has already called your attention. Pure water attains its greatest density at a temperature of about 39½° Fahr.; it expands and becomes lighter whether it is cooled or heated, so as to alter that temperature. Hence it was concluded that water in this state must be at the bottom of the sea, and that by such means the sea was kept from freezing all through; as it was supposed must happen if the greatest density had been that of ice. Here, then, was a substance whose properties were eminently adapted to secure an end essential to the maintenance of life upon the earth. In short, men came to the conclusion that the order of Nature was reasonable in the sense that every thing was adapted to some good end.

Further consideration, however, has led men out of that conclusion in two different ways: First, it was seen that the facts of the case had been wrongly stated. Cases were found of wonderfully complicated structures that served no purpose at all; like the teeth of that whale of which you heard in Section D the other day, or of the Dugong, which has a horny palate covering them all up and used instead of them; like the eyes of the unborn mole, that are never used, though perfect as those of a mouse until the skull-opening closes up, cutting them off from the brain, when they dry up and become incapable of use; like the outsides of your own ears, which are absolutely of no use to you. And when human contrivances were more advanced it became clear that the natural adaptations were subject to criticism. The eye, regarded as an optical instrument of human manufacture, was thus described by Helmholtz—the physiologist who learned physics for the sake of his physiology, and mathematics for the sake of his physics, and is now in the first rank of all three. He said, "If an optician sent me that as an instrument, I should send it back to him with grave reproaches for the carelessness of his work, and demand the return of my money."

The extensions of the doctrine into physics were found to be still more at fault. That remarkable property of pure water, which was to have kept the sea from freezing, does not belong to salt-water, of which the sea itself is composed. It was found, in fact, that the idea of a reasonable adaptation of means to ends, useful as it had been in its proper sphere, could yet not be called universal, or applied to the order of Nature as a whole.

Secondly, this idea has given way because it has been superseded by a higher and more general idea of what is reasonable, which has the advantage of being applicable to a large portion of physical phenomena besides. Both the adaptation and the non-adaptation which occur in organic structures have been explained. The scientific thought of Dr. Darwin, of Mr. Herbert Spencer, and of Mr. Wallace, has described that hitherto unknown process of adaptation as consisting of perfectly well-known and familiar processes. There are two kinds of these: the direct processes, in which the physical changes required to produce a structure are worked out by the very actions for which that structure becomes adapted—as the backbone or notocord has been modified from generation to generation, by the bendings which it has undergone; and the indirect processes, included under the head of Natural Selection—the reproduction of children slightly different from their parents, and the survival of those which are best fitted to hold their own in the struggle for existence. Naturalists might give you some idea of the rate at which we are getting explanations of the evolution of all parts of animals and plants—the growth of the skeleton, the nervous system and its mind, of leaf and flower. But what, then, do we mean by explanation?

We were considering just now an explanation of a law of gases—the law according to which pressure increases in the same proportion in which volume diminishes. The explanation consisted in supposing that a gas is made up of a vast number of minute particles always flying about and striking against one another, and then showing that the rate of impact of such a crowd of particles on the sides of the vessel containing them would vary exactly as the pressure is found to vary. Suppose the vessel to have parallel sides, and that there is only one particle rushing backward and forward between them; then it is clear that if we bring the sides together to half the distance, the particle will hit each of them twice as often, or the pressure will be doubled. Now, it turns out that this would be just as true for millions of particles as for one, and when they are flying in all directions instead of only in one direction and its opposite; provided only that they interfere with each other's motion. Observe, now: it is a perfectly well-known and familiar thing that a body should strike against an opposing surface and bound off again; and it is a mere every-day occurrence that what has only half so far to go should be back in half the time; but that pressure should be strictly proportional to density is a comparatively strange, unfamiliar phenomenon. The explanation describes the unknown and unfamiliar as being made up of the known and the familiar; and this, it seems to me, is the true meaning of explanation.[1]

Here is another instance: If small pieces of camphor are dropped into water, they will begin to spin round and swim about in a most marvellous way. Mr. Tomlinson gave, I believe, the explanation of this. We must observe, to begin with, that every liquid has a skin which holds it; you can see that to be true in the case of a drop, which looks as if it were held in a bag. But the tension of this skin is greater in some liquids than in others; and it is greater in camphor-and-water than in pure water. When the camphor is dropped into water, it begins to dissolve and get surrounded with camphor-and-water instead of water. If the fragment of camphor were exactly symmetrical, nothing more would happen; the tension would be greater in its immediate neighborhood, but no motion would follow. The camphor, however, is irregular in shape; it dissolves more on one side than the other; and consequently gets pulled about, because the tension of the skin is greater where the camphor is most dissolved. Now, it is probable that this is not nearly so satisfactory an explanation to you as it was to me when I was first told of it; and for this reason: By that time I was already perfectly familiar with the notion of a skin upon the surface of liquids, and I had been taught by means of it to work out problems in capillarity. The explanation was therefore a description of the unknown phenomenon which I did not 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 not only be the height of presumption in me to attempt to fix the meaning of a word which has been used by so grave authority in so many and various senses; but it would seem a thankless task to do that once more which has been done so often at sundry times and in divers manners before. And yet without this we cannot determine what we mean by saying that the order of Nature is reasonable. I shall evade the difficulty by telling you Mr. Grote's opinion.[2] You come to a scarecrow and ask, "What is the cause of this?" You find that a man made it to frighten the birds. You go away and say to yourself: "Every thing resembles this scarecrow. Every thing has a purpose." And from that day the word "cause" means for you what Aristotle meant by "final cause." Or you go into a hair-dresser's shop, and wonder what turns the wheel to which the rotatory brush is attached. On investigating other parts of the premises, you find a man working away at a handle. Then you go away and say: "Every thing is like that wheel. If I investigated enough I should always find a man at a handle." And the man at the handle, or whatever corresponds to him, is henceforth known to you as "cause."

And so generally. When you have made out any sequence of events to your entire satisfaction, so that you know all about it, the laws involved being so familiar that you seem to see how the beginning must have been followed by the end, then you apply that as a simile to all other events whatever, and your idea of cause is determined by it. Only when a case arises, as it always must, to which the simile will not apply, you do not confess to yourself that it was only a simile and need not apply to every thing, but you say, "The cause of that event is a mystery which must remain forever unknown to me." On equally just grounds, the nervous system of my umbrella is a mystery which must remain forever unknown to me. My umbrella has no nervous system; and the event to which your simile did not apply has no cause in your sense of the word. When we say, then, that every effect has a cause, we mean that every event is connected with something in a way that might make somebody call that the cause of it. But I, at least, have never yet seen any single meaning of the word that could be fairly applied to the whole order of Nature.

From this remark I cannot even except an attempt recently made by Mr. Bain to give the word a universal meaning, though I desire to speak of that attempt with the greatest respect. Mr. Bain[3] wishes to make the word "cause" hang on in some way to what we call the law of energy; but, though I speak with great diffidence, I do think a careful consideration will show that the introduction of this word "cause" can only bring confusion into a matter which is distinct and clear enough to those who have taken the trouble to understand what energy means. It would be impossible to explain that this evening; but I may mention that "energy" is a technical term out of mathematical physics, which requires of most men a good deal of careful study to understand it accurately.

Let us pass on to consider, with all the reverence which it demands, another opinion, held by great numbers of the philosophers who have lived in the brightening ages of Europe: the opinion that, at the basis of the natural order, there is something which we can know to be unreasonable, to evade the processes of human thought. The opinion is set forth first by Kant, so far as I know, in the form of his famous doctrine of the antinomies or contradictions, a later form[4] of which I will endeavor to explain to you. It is said, then, that space must either be infinite or have a boundary. Now, you cannot conceive infinite space; and you cannot conceive that there should be any end to it. Here, then, are two things, one of which must be true, while each of them is inconceivable; so that our thoughts about space are hedged in, as it were, by a contradiction. Again, it is said that matter must either be infinitely divisible, or must consist of small particles incapable of further division. Now, you cannot conceive a piece of matter, divided into an infinite number of parts, while, on the other hand, you cannot conceive a piece of matter, however small, which absolutely cannot be divided into two pieces; for, however great the forces are which join the parts of it together, you can imagine stronger forces able to tear it in pieces. Here, again, there are two statements, one of which must be true, while each of them is separately inconceivable; so that our thoughts about matter also are hedged in by a contradiction. There are several other cases of the same thing, but I have selected these two as instructive examples. And the conclusion to which philosophers were led by the contemplation of them was, that on every side, when we approach the limits of existence, a contradiction must stare us in the face. The doctrine has been developed and extended by the great successors of Kant; and this unreasonable, or unknowable, which is also called the absolute and the unconditioned, has been set forth in various ways as that which we know to be the true basis of all things. As I said before, I approach this doctrine with all the reverence which should be felt for that which has guided the thoughts of so many of the wisest of mankind. Nevertheless, I shall endeavor to show that, in these cases of supposed contradiction, there is always something which we do not know now, but of which we cannot be sure that we shall be ignorant next year. The doctrine is an attempt to found a positive statement upon this ignorance, which can hardly be regarded as justifiable. Spinoza said, "A free man thinks of nothing so little as of death;" it seems to me we may parallel this maxim in the case of thought, and say, "A wise man only remembers his ignorance in order to destroy it." A boundary is that which divides two adjacent portions of space. The question, then, "Has space (in general) a boundary?" involves a contradiction in terms, and is, therefore, unmeaning. But the question, "Does space contain a finite number of cubic miles, or an infinite number?" is a perfectly intelligible and reasonable question which remains to be answered by experiment.[5] The surface of the sea would still contain a finite number of square miles, if there were no land to bound it. Whether or no the space in which we live is of this nature remains to be seen. If its extent is finite, we may quite possibly be able to assign that extent next year; if, on the other hand, it has no end, it is true that the knowledge of that fact would be quite different from any knowledge we at present possess, but we have no right to say that such knowledge is impossible. Either the question will be settled once for all, or the extent of space will be shown to be greater than a quantity which will increase from year to year with the improvement of our sources of knowledge. Either alternative is perfectly conceivable, and there is no contradiction. Observe especially that the supposed contradiction arises from the assumption of theoretical exactness in the laws of geometry. Now, the other case that I mentioned has a very similar origin. The idea of a piece of matter the parts of which are held together by forces, and are capable of being torn asunder by greater forces, is entirely derived from the large pieces of matter which we have to deal with. We do not know whether this idea applies in any sense to the molecules of gases even; still less can we apply it to the atoms of which they are composed. The word "force" is used of two phenomena: the pressure, which when two bodies are in contact connects the motion of each with the position of the other; and attraction or repulsion; that is to say, a change of velocity in one body depending on the position of some other body which is not in contact with it. We do not know that there is any thing corresponding to either of these phenomena in the case of a molecule. A meaning can, however, be given to the question of the divisibility of matter in this way. We may ask if there is any piece of matter so small that its properties as matter depend upon its remaining all in one piece. This question is reasonable; but we cannot answer it at present, though we are not at all sure that we shall be equally ignorant next year. If there is no such piece of matter, no such limit to the division which shall leave it matter, the knowledge of that fact would be different from any of our present knowledge; but we have no right to say that it is impossible. If, on the other hand, there is a limit, it is quite possible that we may have measured it by the time the Association meets at Bradford. Again, when we are told that the infinite extent of space, for example, is something that we cannot conceive at present, we may reply that this is only natural, since our experience has never yet supplied us with the means of conceiving such things. But, then, we cannot be sure that the facts will not make us learn to conceive them; in which case they will cease to be inconceivable. In fact, the putting of limits to human conception must always involve the assumption that our previous experience is universally valid in a theoretical sense; an assumption which we have already seen reason to reject. Now, you will see that our consideration of this opinion has led us to the true sense of the assertion that the order of Nature is reasonable. If you will allow me to define a reasonable question as one which is asked in terms of ideas justified by previous experience, without itself contradicting that experience, then we may say, as the result of our investigation, that to every reasonable question there is an intelligible answer, which either we or posterity may know.

We have, then, come somehow to the following conclusions: By scientific thought we mean the application of past experience to new circumstances, by means of an observed order of events. By saying that this order of events is exact, we mean that it is exact enough to correct experiments by, but we do not mean that it is theoretically or absolutely exact, because we do not know. The process of inference we found to be in itself an assumption of uniformity, and that, as the known exactness of the uniformity became greater, the stringency of the inference increased. By saying that the order of events is reasonable, we do not mean that every thing has a purpose, or that every thing can be explained, or that every thing has a cause; for neither of these is true. But we mean that to every reasonable question there is an intelligible answer, which either we or posterity may know by the exercise of scientific thought.

For I especially wish you not to go away with the idea that the exercise of scientific thought is properly confined to the subjects from which my illustrations have been chiefly drawn to-night. When the Roman jurists applied their experience of Roman citizens to dealings between citizens and aliens, showing by the difference of their actions that they regarded the circumstances as essentially different, they laid the foundations of that great structure which has guided the social progress of Europe. That procedure was an instance of strictly scientific thought. When a poet finds that he has to move a strange new world which his predecessors have not moved; when, nevertheless, he catches fire from their flashes, arms from their armory, sustentation from their footprints, the procedure by which he applies old experience to new circumstances is nothing greater or less than scientific thought. When the moralist, studying the conditions of society and the ideas of right and wrong which have come down to us from a time when war was the normal condition of man and success in war the only chance of survival, evolves from them the conditions and ideas which must accompany a time of peace, when the comradeship of equals is the condition of national success—the process by which he does this is scientific thought and nothing else. Remember, then, that it is the guide of action; that the truth which it arrives at is not that which we can ideally contemplate without error, but that which we may act upon without fear; and you cannot fail to see that scientific thought is not an accompaniment or condition of human progress, but human progress itself. And for this reason the question what its characters are, of which I have so inadequately endeavored to give you some glimpse, is the question of all questions for the human race.—Advance sheets from Macmillan.

  1. This view differs from those of Mr. J. S. Mill and Mr. Herbert Spencer, in requiring every explanation to contain an addition to our knowledge about the thing explained. Both those writers regard subsumption under a general law as a species of explanation. See also Ferrier's "Remains," vol. ii., p. 436.
  2. Plato, vol. ii. (Phædon).
  3. "Inductive Logic," chap. iv.
  4. That of Mr. Herbert Spencer, "First Principles." I believe Kant himself would have admitted that the antinomies do not exist for the empiricist.
  5. The very important distinction between unboundedness and infinite extent is made by Riemann, loc. cit.