Popular Science Monthly/Volume 49/June 1896/Editor's Table
A RECENT writer in one of the magazines quotes John Stuart Mill as speaking in one of his letters to the historian Motley of "the fatal belief of your public that anybody is fit for anything." The trouble to which Mill refers is one that dates a long way back. It is not correct to say that in this community or anywhere else the belief prevails that anybody is fit for anything. Nobody thinks that anybody is fit to repair his watch, or to fit him with spectacles, or to cut him out a suit of clothes. We all believe in special training and special qualifications when it comes to matters like these; but what democratic communities, from Athens downward, have refused to believe is that any special qualifications are required for the art of political government. It is to be observed that it is political government only that is regarded as so simple and trivial a thing. To manage a bank, a railroad, a hotel, is allowed on all hands to require great skill and experience combined with no inconsiderable equipment of moral character; but to step into the Presidency and fill the office satisfactorily does not, it has been expressly stated, call for anything more than commonplace endowments. A little more seems, as a general thing, to be required of members of the Cabinet; but, broadly speaking, Mr. Mill's dictum, if we confine it—as doubtless he meant it to be confined—to politics, is true, that in this country "anybody is considered fit for anything."
What is the source of this most preposterous opinion? It is difficult to give any answer but one: the self-interest and vanity of the populace: self interest, because the unqualified office-seeker does not like to think he might be barred from office by lack of competency; vanity, because the voter who feels a sense of proprietorship in the Government does not like to think that he himself or any person he might recommend is not "good enough" for any office in the Government. Of course, it has to be admitted—though somewhat grudgingly—that offices requiring technical knowledge in connection with this or that branch of science can not be filled by persons destitute of such knowledge; but it is always a consolation to think that the most ignorant citizen could acceptably fill some higher office in which he would have power to make the men of science step round.
Fortunately, there are laws operating even in the political world which to some extent antagonize false theories. It may be sound democratic doctrine that any citizen is fit for any office; but when it has come to filling the offices, in some mysterious way conspicuously unfit individuals have not infrequently been ruled out. No one, of course, would venture to say that they were ruled out for lack of intellectual qualification; but they have been ruled out all the same, and left to wonder how it was that their candidature was not successful. In a few cases conspicuously fit candidates have been selected, to the great advantage of the public interests concerned.
The strongest proof, however, that there is a certain tendency in things to nullify wrong theories is the progress which this country has made in the matter of civil-service reform, and this in the teeth of the strongest opposition which could be made in the interest of the old, unregenerate idea that all offices were on a level with the abilities of the first comer, provided only he had the necessary certificates of political service, A powerful New York journal thought at one time to sneer the reform out of existence; but, the more it sneered, the more the idea seemed to gain in strength, and the more firmly it rooted itself in our system of government. This would seem to prove that the citizens of this country, however they might outwardly countenance the notion that anybody was fit for anything, felt in their hearts that the doctrine was a false and fraudulent one. That is precisely what it was and is; and the falsehood and the fraud have in many ways cost this country dear. It needs perhaps a little experience of administrative work in order to appreciate fully the difference in efficiency between a man in whom experience is united to intelligence and seriousness of purpose, and who is thus enabled to put a stamp of thoroughness on all he does, and one of mediocre or inferior intelligence who simply thinks he is big enough for any office, and that one way of doing a thing is about as good as another. It is always at the expense of the public that the latter type of official practices his crude and ignorant methods; but in general, though the shoe is sure to pinch, it is difficult, if not impossible, for the public to tell just where they are pinched or where the responsibility rests. We may set it down, however, for an unmistakable fact that, in so far as governmental methods are marked by inefficiency and lack of intelligence, the origin of the trouble lies in the idea to which we referred at the outset, that "anybody is fit for anything." The man who employs a blacksmith as a dentist when more skilled assistance is available has only himself to thank if he suffers a few unnecessary pangs; and precisely so in the public service: if we put into office men who lack the essential qualifications for their positions, we must take what we can get and, if not be thankful, at least have the sense to place the responsibility upon the right shoulders—that is, upon our own.
The article from the pen of Mr. Herbert Spencer which we publish in this number will, we believe, open the eyes of many of our readers to the fact that whatever the advantages of the metric system of measurement now so widely vised in Europe may be, there are very considerable objections to its introduction in countries where it has not yet been established. Mr. Spencer, as usual, states his case in a very comprehensive manner; and it would be difficult to add anything to the arguments he brings forward. He makes it very clear that the only valid claim that can be urged on behalf of the metric system is that, on account of its correspondence with the existing system of notation, values expressed therein admit of easier arithmetical treatment than values expressed according to other methods. He shows, however, that this is quite a limited advantage. Express your values in the metric or decimal system, and you can add or multiply them with great facility; but the difficulty lies in getting those particular fractional values expressed which we have most occasion to use in everyday life, and which it is the instinctive habit of our minds to deal with—such as thirds, fourths, sixths, eighths. It is needless, however, to repeat here what is so fully stated in Mr. Spencer's article. He admits the great convenience of the decimal system for the expression of strictly scientific values, as in giving the results of chemical analysis. In this case no other system than one which expresses results to the minutest fraction would be of any avail. But he objects, that this ready applicability to scientific measurements, which has led scientific men to advocate its universal employment, is no advantage for purposes of trade, where easy divisibility is of the first importance. The question is whether it is or is not desirable to introduce standards of measurement which can only be subdivided decimally, and banish our present standards, which admit of more convenient subdivision into well-known and definite aliquot parts.
We quite agree with the writer that such a change as this should not be hastily made, and we think he has done well in marshaling the difficulties and disadvantages with which it would be attended. The standards of measurement which every nation possesses are part of its history, and their long survival is at least prima facie evidence of their utility and convenience. If we take the particular instance which the word "metric" itself suggests, it seems to us we are better off with such familiar and convenient measures as the yard, the foot, the inch, and the subdivisions of the latter into halves, quarters, eighths, sixteenths, etc., than we should be with the metre divided into centimetres and millimetres—that is, into hundredths and thousandths. What the subject wants, however, is discussion from every point of view. The question is one in regard to which no single interest should have a decisive voice; yet there is always danger, when a change is mooted, that it will be carried through the vigorous insistence of those who want it, and to whom, perhaps, it would be advantageous, and the lack of contrary effort on the part of a much larger number to whom it would not be beneficial but who are not sufficiently alive to their interest in the matter.
Mr. Spencer hints at a possible change to be made in our system of notation involving the use of two additional digits and making twelve instead of ten the basic multiple of progression. He does not expect it can be introduced for generations to come. That if introduced it would have the specific advantages he mentions can not be doubted; but we agree with him that the practical difficulties in the way of the change are enormous, and that we must be content to regard it rather as a shadowy possibility for the future than as a scheme offering any promise of early fruition.
Dr. Romanes's assertion that "if a little knowledge of physiology and a little knowledge of psychology dispose men to atheism, a deeper knowledge of both and, still more, a deeper thought upon their relations to one another will lead men back to some form of religion," is sure of unquestioning welcome in certain quarters; but the earnest seeker after truth will care little to hear that George John Romanes or Francis Bacon '"thought thus," although he may care a great deal to learn what led these writers to their belief.
Tlie question which thoughtful men will wish to ask Romanes is whether his "religion" has any more basis in science than his "atheism"; whether either of them finds any warrant in our knowledge of Nature; whether both may not be equally outside its limits. Most modern thinkers and writers on the principles of science agree in the declaration that the mind of man has not yet attained to knowledge of causes; that it has done no more than to discover a little of the order of Nature.
While we may, if we choose, call the series of events which make up this order a series of effects, nothing seems more certain than that we have not yet succeeded in passing over from them to any reality behind them; that the reason why they occur in one order rather than another is a problem which is as yet absolutely unsolved.
Romanes quotes, with approval which all must share, Tyndall's declaration that "the passage from the physics of the brain to the corresponding facts of consciousness is unthinkable. Granted that a definite thought and a definite molecular action in the brain occur simultaneously, we do not possess the intellectual organ, nor apparently any rudiments of the organ, which would enable us to pass, by a process of reasoning, from the one phenomenon to the other. They appear together, but we do not know why." So far as our present knowledge of the powers of the human mind goes, we must agree with Romanes that Tyndall's assertion is most unquestionably true. Whether or not it is the whole truth is a different question, and we must ask whether we are any more able to pass from one physical event to another physical event, or from one mental event to another mental event, than we are able to pass from a physical to a mental event. Can we say of any of them anything more than that "they appear together, but that we do not know why"?
Romanes tells us that our questions about the nature of the relation between material changes and mental changes admit of only seven possible answers, all of which he enumerates, and four of which we quote: I. The mental changes may cause the material changes (spiritualism). II. The material changes may cause the mental changes (materialism). III. There may be no causation either way, because the association may be only a phenomenal association—the two apparently diverse classes of phenomena being really one and the same (monism). VII. Whether or not there be any causation either way, the association may be one which is necessarily beyond the power of the human mind to explain.
The aim of Romanes's book is to show that six of these seven hypotheses are untenable, and that, since only seven are possible, the seventh, No. III, must be the truth; although it is clear that, if the human mind has as yet discovered nothing but the order of Nature, and has not attained to knowledge of causes, there must be still another point of view. We may declare that we know nothing whatever about the matter; not even enough to warrant the assertion that it is necessarily beyond the power of the human mind to explain. Romanes holds that this way of looking at the subject does not deserve to be regarded as an hypothesis at all; but while it may not be an hypothesis, it may nevertheless be that still more stubborn thing, a fact. Those who agree that it is a fact will feel no more vital interest in Romanes's monism than in materialism or idealism or spiritualism, for they will perceive that all these attempts to reach reality by means of our present knowledge of Nature are equally vain and premature; and they will also perceive that science gives no better warrant for the "religion" to which Romanes has been led than it gives for the "atheism" which he has outgrown. We hope his fascinating book will find many readers, for it will give them the pleasure which is found in all strong and vivid works of the imagination; although we refrain from detailed discussion of its ingenious arguments, for the reason that we are sure no thoughtful student can mistake it for a contribution to knowledge.
If certain enthusiastic students of Nature have been carried away into materialism by the triumphs which modern science has achieved through the use of the symbolism of matter and motion, they can not complain that there has been any lack of warning. The most profound and cautious thinkers of our century have never ceased to insist that our conceptions of matter and motion are nothing more than symbols; and that, so far as knowledge of any reality behind them is concerned, they might as well be called x and y. General recognition of this truth is now producing a reaction which seems, to these zealous believers, to di'ive them out of their materialism into some other system of philosophy; but before they rush from one extreme to another, they should ask themselves whether this revolution will bring them any nearer to the solid rock of certainty than they were before. No one who is familiar with the work of our greatest intellectual leaders can find anything novel in Romanes's declaration that "when we speak of matter in motion we do not at all know what it is that moves, nor do we know at all what it is that we mean by motion"; although we must ask the followers of Romanes whether we know anything more about the essence of mind than we know about the essence of matter, and whether we can say anything more of our mental changes than that "they appear together, but we do not know why."
Prof. Ostwald tells us in his address on "The Failure of Scientific Materialism" that "every scientific thinker, from the mathematician to the practicing physician, would sum up his view, in answer to the question how he supposes the world is intrinsically constituted, by saying that the universe is composed of atoms in motion, and that the atoms and the forces acting between them are the ultimate realities of which individual phenomena consist." Whatever the German frame of mind may be, we are disposed to believe that many Englishmen and Americans, if asked "What are the ultimate realities of which individual phenomena consist?" would answer that they do not know. We believe there would be no difficulty in finding many eminent men of science who have refused to have anything more to do with materialism than to make use of its symbols, so far as they have proved useful. So long ago as 1868, Huxley tells us that he shares with some of the most thoughtful men with whom he is acquainted the union of materialistic terminology with the repudiation of materialistic philosophy; that he individually is no materialist, but, on the contrary, believes materialism to involve grave philosophical error. Ostwald seems to have come, somewhat late in the day, to the point of view from which Huxley's most thoughtful acquaintances contemplated materialism in 1868; but, unlike Huxley, he proposes a substitute, and seeks to show that "the predicate of reality can be ascribed only to energy."
Since it is generally admitted that, whatever the unknown reality may be, our conception of energy is a projection into the external world of the feeling of resistance and effort which accompanies our own voluntary actions, the question whether "the predicate of reality can be ascribed to energy" leads us at once to the preliminary question whether volition is real or phenomenal. If the interminable discussion on the freedom of the will, which has exercised the most acute intellects of our race for many centuries, teaches anything, it teaches that science is not yet able to answer the question whether the "predicate of reality" is or is not to be ascribed to volition; and that, in the present state of our knowledge of Nature, Ostwald's substitute for materialism is no better and no worse than the system which he seeks to displace and supplant.
We were quite prepared for it, as we mentioned last month; so it was no surprise to us to read the following in The Herald and Presbyter of a recent date, the reference therein being to Röntgen's discovery: "For one thing, it corroborates, so far as any material experiment can, Paul's doctrine of the spiritual body as now existing in man. It proves, as far as any experiment can prove, that a truer body, a body of which the phenomenal body is but the clothing, may now reside within us, and which (sic) awaits the moment of its unclothing, which we call death, to set it free." We are further told in the same article that the discovery in question "makes clear to the unscientific mind what Stuart (sic) and Tait announced, that matter in one state has no power to exclude matter in another and more refined state," and that we must therefore now be prepared to believe "that two particles of matter can and do occupy the same space at the same time."
A very few remarks on this piece of special pleading must suffice on the present occasion.
1. "Paul's doctrine of the spiritual body." Why this doctrine should be called Paul's it is hard to understand, seeing that it is encountered in every quarter of the globe among nations and tribes of almost every grade of civilization. In the Odyssey Ulysses talks to the "spiritual body" of Achilles in the nether world, a body which was "set free" when the natural body of the hero was slain. It is difficult, therefore, to see why Paul rather than Homer should be mentioned as having his "doctrine" confirmed by the discovery of the X rays.
2. Paul's doctrine, however, was not that there may be a spiritual body within—but, after all, why within more than without?—the natural body, but that there is such a body; whereas Röntgen. according even to the writer we are quoting, only proves that there may be one. A thousand proofs, however, that a thing may be does not advance us one whit toward proving that it is. Moreover, Röntgen's discovery does not point any more in the direction of a spiritual body within our bodies than it does in the direction of a spiritual body within cats, or dogs, or sheep, or trees, or stones.
3. Strictly speaking, Röntgen's discovery proves nothing about bodies in general that has not been known for centuries. That light can pass through solid bodies even of great thickness and density has been the common experience of mankind ever since the first transparent substance was discovered. Rontgen has merely discovered that substances which are not penetrable by ordinary
light rays are penetrable by other rays produced by electrical discharges in a very attenuated gaseous medium. How we are to derive any confirmation of the existence of a spiritual body from the action of these rays which could not equally have been drawn from the action of ordinary light rays in traversing such dense substances as glass and various crystals, is a question which it would probably puzzle the Herald and Presbyter to answer.
4. As to the possibility of two particles of matter occupying the same space at the same time, any one who chooses to indulge that pleasing and profitable fancy can do so; but how it can help in the present emergency we do not see. Any difficulty which there may have been about admitting the doctrine of a spiritual body has not arisen in the least from our ordinary conceptions of matter, because we know perfectly well, and have known for so long that the memory of man runneth not to the contrary, that one form of matter may be permeated by another form—the metals by gases, for example—in varying volumes. The trouble has not been to find room for the spiritual body in the natural body, but to find something more than a mere assertion of its existence at all or anywhere. This, unfortunately, is a difficulty which some persons can not be brought to understand: give them leave to think that what they want to believe is not impossible, and presto, they consider it proved. We have no objection in the world to the theory, whether Paul's, or Homer's, or Plato's, of a spiritual body; but we do think it a little hard that because a laborious experimenter like Röntgen has brought to light a new property of radiant energy—while, like a well-trained man of science, he only affirms what he has been able to demonstrate—others should rush in and insist that, without being aware of it, he has bolstered up some doctrine of theirs for which not one scintilla of evidence can be given. As this kind of thing, however, evidently can not be helped, we can only hope, as we said before, that in some mysterious way it may serve a useful purpose. It is better, on the whole, that each successive advance of science should be acclaimed as a confirmation of orthodoxy than denounced as a new manifestation of impiety; and certainly better far the treatment given to Röntgen and his tubes and screens than that meted out to Galileo and his telescope.
- Mind and Motion and Monism. By the late George John Romanes. Longmans, Green &, Co. 1895.
- See translation in Popular Science Monthly for March, 1896.
- Collected Essays, I, iii, 155.