Popular Science Monthly/Volume 28/January 1886/Correspondence

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Messrs. Editors:

I READ the first few pages of the Bishop of Carlisle's essay on the "Uniformity of Nature," in the last number of this magazine, with a lively expectation that some of the fog and uncertainty left hanging around the question by the debaters of the "Metaphysical Society" was to be cleared up. But all such expectation ended before I had finished the article. The fog and uncertainty became more bewildering than ever. In fact, it seems to me the worthy bishop missed the mark entirely. He set out to tell us what was meant by the uniformity of Nature, and arrived at the conclusion that, outside of celestial mechanics, it, in effect, meant simply unchangeableness of the weather, uniformity in the direction of the wind, invariableness in the form and density of bodies, etc., and was therefore a principle of only a very limited application.

How absurd, in the first place, to go back to ciphering out by Newton and Laplace of the problems of the laws and motions of the heavenly bodies, for the origin of the practically universal belief in the uniformity of Nature! You might as well go back to them for the origin of our practical belief in density, gravity, inertia, or in the existence of the sun and moon themselves. The whole course of our lives is predicated upon our faith in the uniformity of Nature, upon the belief that fire burns, that cold freezes, that gravity is always operative. Would a man ever plant seed in the ground if he did not believe the laws which govern its growth and development were constant? Have the laws (no matter how ignorant we are of them) which govern steam, which govern all fluids and solids and gases, which govern contraction and expansion and condensation, ever been known to fail? The moment any uncertainty is discovered here, our whole philosophy of mechanics is in ruins. Because the weather is changeable, does the bishop therefore think that the laws which govern the formation of clouds, which determine the course of the winds, and the precipitation of moisture in the shape of rain and snow, are not uniform; that, given the same conditions, the same results will not follow? Would he pray for rain, or for the rain to cease? Would he pray for the postponement of an eclipse? Or would he say that, because man has changed the face of the earth, he has not done it under the rigid operation of natural law? that he has reversed the law of gravity, the laws of heat and cold, of wet and dry, of the tides and the seasons? Is it not true, rather, that he has done it by strictly following and obeying these laws? A belief in the uniformity of Nature does not mean a belief in the uniformity of appearances or of phenomena. The law is not disproved because some of the worlds are large and some small, some hot and some cold, some dense and some thin; or because some animals have two legs and some four or six, some feathers and some hair, or because some crows are white and some swans black, or because some fruit has the seed upon the outside and some on the inside. But show us a country where the trees are walking about, and the men are rooted to the ground, and our belief in the uniformity of Nature will at least receive a severe shock. Would not the same conditions that produce a white crow or a white negro once always produce a white crow or a white negro? This, then, is what we mean and must mean by the uniformity of Nature, that, given the same conditions, the same results will always follow. If this truth does not hold good at all times and in all places, then, indeed, is "the pillared firmament based upon rottenness." A breach in the uniformity of Nature means a breach of this law. If ice should fail to melt in the fire, or if water should flow uphill, or lead swim where a feather would sink, then would the uniformity of Nature be disproved. If the Bishop of Carlisle, or any other person, will make an axe-head swim upon water, as Elisha did, and under the same conditions that would send the iron to the bottom at all other times, then must we either give up the belief in the uniformity of Nature, or else believe in the existence of a set of laws which may be brought to bear upon material bodies by the human will, so as to reverse or annul the laws by which they are ordinarily governed. And the existence of such laws and of such power of the human will is an assumption which no sane man can accept.

If the sun should fail to rise tomorrow, it would be no breach of the uniformity of Nature. If the sun failed to rise, could it be from other than physical or natural cause; from the operation of laws which are uniform in their workings? If we are to believe what astronomers tell us about the disappearance of certain stars, then the sun of some world or worlds has failed to rise on the morrow. Have given the same conditions, and would not our sun disappear also? No; facts of this kind can not be relied upon to invalidate the principle of the uniformity of Nature. But if the sun stood still for a moment, and no ill-results befell the earth or its inhabitants, that would indeed invalidate the principle.

Pressure and cold will liquefy air, perhaps solidify it, if enough could be brought to bear, but solidified air would not be a miracle, unless performed without physical means, like the water and wine miracle in the New Testament; but if the air should fail to support combustion in any given case, under conditions in which it ordinarily supports it, that would be a miracle, and would disprove the uniformity of Nature. It is true that our belief in the uniformity of Nature does not rest upon the same basis as our belief in the principles of mathematics; for instance, that two parallel lines can never meet if indefinitely extended, or that the three angles of a triangle are equal to two right angles, but for my own part my belief in one is just as unshakable as my belief in the other. I do not know, from experience, that no particle of matter can be destroyed, and yet I believe it absolutely. We do not, any of us, know from experience that any calamity would befall the earth if the sun were to stand still for half an hour, yet does anybody doubt it?

I notice that all the divines who have spoken or written upon this subject withhold their belief in the principle of uniformity, in order to save that other cherished belief—the belief in the Biblical miracles. It is incredible what ducking and dodging they will be guilty of, what metaphysical fogs they will conjure up, and what enormous assumptions they will swallow, in order to keep their childish fables from being discredited. The Bishop of Carlisle says the scientific man "can well afford to be generous" and leave the theologians in undisturbed possession of their venerable old scarecrows; but science knows no generosity but the generosity of truth. A miracle is the suspension or annulment of natural law, and there is not the slightest proof, physical or metaphysical, that a natural law ever has been, or ever can be, suspended or annulled except by some other well-known natural law, which thus comes into play and keeps up the continuity of Nature; and the belief or assumption that there has been or can be is the worst kind of infidelity—infidelity toward the works of One in whom there is no variableness or shadow of turning.

John Burroughs.
West Park, New York, November 23, 1885.


Mssrs. Editors:

I notice, in your issue for November last, an editorial comment upon the attitude which Mr. St. George Mivart has assumed, in his recent article in the "Nineteenth Century," on "Modern Catholics and Scientific Freedom." Permit me to correct what seems to me an erroneous inference on your part in regard to this matter, to wit, that Mr. Mivart's opinion is Catholic opinion. So far from this being the case, Catholic opinion holds that Sir. Mivart, in the expression of such views as he puts forth in his late article, is treading upon rash and dangerous ground, and that the animus of his paper is without doubt heretical. Catholics can not safely follow him into the extremes to which he goes, nor is it to be supposed that Mr. Mivart's individual opinion is either an authentic or authoritative expression of Catholic views as regards Galileo or evolution, although it must be admitted that the utterances of a gentleman of Mr. Mivart's justly earned scientific and philosophical reputation merit the most respectful attention and careful consideration. While it can not be said that Mr. Mivart's paper contains any formal heresy, its tone is certainly doubtful and inconsistent with the spirit of the Church. He bases it upon a presumed mistake on the part of the Church in the so-called condemnation of Galileo. Mr. Mivart calmly takes this as a matter of course, and does not pretend to advance a single argument in favor of his position—an easy way, indeed, of "brushing aside" the objections of all opponents. In the eyes of Catholics and all impartial witnesses, the Chinch has never made any such mistake as Mr. Mivart strangely and surely, without due consideration of the facts of the case, imputes to her.

In the first place, a condemnation to be de fide must come ex cathedra from the Pope himself, and be promulgated in brief or bull as such. Secondly, the condemnation of no congregation alone is binding de fide; and, thirdly, there was not even such condemnation of the heliocentric system by the Congregation of the Index. Facts are facts, and the slip-shod assumption that a thing is such and such can not pass unchallenged, especially when an argument or theory is based upon a misrepresentation. A congregational condemnation requires a unanimous vote by the members of the Congregation, and in the case of Galileo only seven out of ten cardinals signed the paper condemning his doctrine. Furthermore, the heliocentric system was not a proved fact in Galileo's time, but merely a scientific probability with tremendous weight of scientific authority against it, and, in the then crude condition of physical knowledge, the action of the seven cardinals in condemning the new theory can be readily defended upon grounds of prudence.

In conclusion, I would like to call your attention to a flagrant fallacy in Mr. Mivart's paper—a blunder, indeed, which it seems strange that a man of his logical acumen should make: In answering a possible objection, namely, that the question in hand is not within the province of the supreme ecclesiastical authority's defining power—"that is, outside the depositum fidei"—he says: "What is or is not within the supreme authority's province to decide must be known tu that authority. An infallible authority must know the limits of its revealed message. If authority can make a mistake in determining its own limits, it may make a mistake in a matter of faith." Now, the gist of the first half of Mr. Mivart's paper is taken up by the extended assumption that ecclesiastical authority did make a mistake in determining its own limits in the case of Galileo. Therefore it must logically follow, according to Mr. Mivart's proposition, that (supreme?) ecclesiastical authority may make a mistake in a matter of faith. Again he says: "Men of science may have a truer perception of what Scripture must be held (since it is inspired) to teach than may be granted to ecclesiastical authorities"; that "God has taught us (in the instance of Galileo) that it is not to ecclesiastical congregations, but to men of science, that he has committed the elucidation of scientific questions, whether such questions are or are not treated of by Holy Scripture, etc."; that "it must be admitted that men of science so succeeded, and that ecclesiastical authority so failed, in interpreting the true and inspired meaning of God's written word." It is the duty of men of science, therefore, to point out the limits of infallible authority, is Mr. Mivart's assertion. Certainly this is a contradiction to his former proposition, that "an infallible authority must know the limits of its revealed message." Moreover, in the concluding portion of his article, Mr. Mivart coolly tells us up to what limits ecclesiastical authority infallibly extends, and weighs it in the balance against scientific probability with an implied inference in favor of the latter. Mr. Mivart never learned such logic from Catholic sources. He poses in the exact attitude of the objector he so cogently answered in the beginning. Therefore does his own reply rebound upon himself—an infallible authority must certainly determine its own limits.

While respecting Mr. Mivart's attainments to the utmost. Catholics can not do such violence to their faith and their reason as to follow him upon the rash ground whither, no doubt, some hasty and inconsiderate motive has hurried him.

Yours respectfully,
Condé B. Pallen.
St. Louis, October 27, 1885.


Mssrs. Editors:

At Orange Heights, in Central Florida, on Sunday, October 11th, a stiff breeze was blowing from the north, as it had blown for some forty-eight hours previously. Masses of clouds, with which the air was laden, were scudding by like ships under full sail. Several times during the day I had noted that an upper current was bearing the higher clouds in an exactly opposite direction. During the afternoon the upper current gradually settled down, until it squarely opposed its adversary, presenting the singular spectacle of two cloud-laden currents of air rushing rapidly together from opposite directions. My point of observation being on an eminence, commanding an extensive view of the surrounding country, I had a fine opportunity to watch the progress of events. For perhaps half an hour these two air-currents flowed swiftly together without apparent result; but presently there appeared in the west, scarcely a mile distant, and just where the two currents came together, a heavy mass of clouds, which constantly increased in density and blackness. The south wind grew constantly more persistent, and although its antagonist showed no signs of weakening, it was gradually crowded out of its course toward the west, and for a quarter of an hour the direction of the two currents was squarely at right angles. Then the great cloud-nucleus, which bad so far remained stationary, began slowly to rotate, the east wind passing across the north side, and thence around toward the south; the south wind passing up the east side, and thence around toward the west.

As soon as the rotary motion was established, a progressive motion began. In a few minutes the whole mass had moved out of sight in a northerly direction, and the south wind had full sway. When it was reported next day that buildings and their occupants had been injured by a "cyclone," a few miles to the northward, I was perhaps the only person to whom the news was not unexpected. Fortunately, the aerial monster made its first descent in the pinewoods before attaining great velocity, and was torn and dissipated by the forest before it could rebound.

It seems unfortunate that the terms "tornado" and "cyclone," whose primary meanings afford no clew by which they may be distinguished, are popularly used in exactly the opposite sense from that in which the Signal Service and scientific writers use them.

Charles B. Palmer.
Orange heights, Florida, October 18, 1885.