Popular Science Monthly/Volume 50/April 1897/The Stability of Truth II

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THE primal motive of science is to regulate the conduct of life. This is in a sense its ultimate end, for it is the first and the last function of the senses and the intellect. If science has any message to man, it is expressed in these words of Huxley: "There can be no alleviation of the sufferings of mankind except in absolute veracity of thought and action and a resolute facing of the world as it is, with all the garment of make-believe thrown off."

"Still, men and nations reap as they have strewn." The history of human thought is filled with the rise of philosophic doctrines, laws, and generalizations not drawn from human experience and not sanctioned by science. The attempt to use these ideas as a basis of human action has been one of the most fruitful sources of human misery. It is true that wrong information may sometimes become the basis of right action, as falsehood may secure obedience to a natural law which might otherwise be violated. But in the long run men and nations pay dearly for every illusion they cherish. For every sick man healed at Denver or Lourdes, ten well men will be made sick. Faith cures and patent medicines feed on the same victims. For every Schlatter who is worshiped as a saint, some equally harmless lunatic will be burned as a witch.

And now a word as to the positive side of scientific belief.

I was walking not long ago in the garden with a little girl, to whom I told James Whitcomb Riley's story of the "goblins that get you if you don't watch out"—a story supposed to be peculiarly attractive to children. "But there isn't any such thing as a goblin," said the practical little girl, "and there isn't ever going to be any such thing." Mindful of the arguments of Berkeley and Balfour, I said to her in the spirit of philosophic doubt, "Maybe there isn't any such thing as anything, Barbara?" "Yes, there is," she said, "such a thing as anything," and she looked about her for unquestioned reality; "there is such a thing as anything; there is such a thing as a squash."

And in this conclusion of the little girl the reality of the objective world, the integrity of science, and the sanity of man are alike bound up. And for its evidence, if we are not confined to Balfour's arguments in a circle, we may look to the facts of organic evolution, of which the existence of man is a part.

Each living being is a link in a continuous chain of life, going back in the past to the unknown beginnings of life. Into this chain of life, as far as we know. Death has never entered, because only in life has the ancestor the power of casting off the germ cells by which life is continued. Each individual is in a sense the guardian of the life-chain in which it forms a link. Each link is tested as to its fitness to the conditions external to itself in which it carries on its functions. Those creatures unadapted to the environment, whatever it may be, are destroyed, as well as those not adaptable; and this environment by which each is tested is the objective universe. It is not the world as man knows it. It is not the world as the creature may imagine it. It is the world as it is.

Nature has no pardon for ignorance or illusions. She is no respecter of persons. Her laws and her penalties consider only what is, and have no dealings with semblances. By this experience we come to know what reality is, that there is an external world to the demands of which our senses, our reason, our powers of action are all concessions. The safety of each chain of life is proportioned to the adaptation of its links to these conditions. This adaptation is in its essence obedience. The obedience of any creature is conditioned on its response in action to sensations or knowledge. Sense perception and intellect alike stand as advisers to its power of choice. The power of choice involves the need to choose right. For wrong choice leads to death. Death ends the chain of which the creature is a link, and the life of the world is continued by those whose choice has not been fatal. That "the sins of the fathers are visited on the children" is, in the long run, the expression of Infinite Mercy, "the goodness and severity of God." Severity of condition and stress of competition are met in life by the survival of those adequate to meet these conditions. Thus "in creatures sore bestead by the environment" when instinct and impulse fail, reason rises to insure safety. At last with the civilized man reason comes to be a chief element in guiding the choice of life.

With greater power to know and hence to choose safely, greater complexity of conditions become possible, and the multifarious demands of modern civilization finds some at least who can meet them fairly well. To such the stores of human wisdom must be open. To others right choice in new conditions is possible only through following the footsteps of others. The multitudes of civilized men, like the multitudes of animals, are saved to life by the instinct of conventionality. The instinct to follow those whose footsteps are secure is one of the most useful of all impulses to action. In the same connection we must recognize authority as a most important source of knowledge to the individual. But its value is proportioned to the ability of the individual to use the tests wisdom must apply to the credentials of authority. But instinct, appetite, impulse, conventionality, and respect for authority all point backward. They are the outcome of past conditions. "New occasions bring new duties." New facts and laws must be learned if men are to remain adequate to the life which their own institutions, their self-realization, and their mutual help have brought upon them. To the wise and obedient the most complex life brings no special strain nor discomfort. It is as easy to do great things as small, if one knows how. But to the ignorant, weak, and perverse, the growth of civilization becomes an engine of destruction. The freedom of self-realization involves the freedom of self-perdition. Hence appears the often discussed relation of "Progress and Poverty" in social development. Hence it comes that civilization, of which the essence is mutual help or altruism, under changing conditions seems to become one vast instrument for the killing of fools.

In the specialization of life, conditions are constantly changing. Every age is an age of transition, and transition brings unrest because it impairs the value of conventionality. With the lowest forms of life there is no safety save in absolute obedience to the laws of the world around them. This obedience becomes automatic and hereditary because the disobedient leave no chain of descent to |maintain their disobedience. All instincts, appetites, impulses to action, even many conditions of the nature of illusions, point toward such obedience. Whether we regard these phenomena as variations selected because useful, or as inherited habits, their relation is the same. They survive as guarantees of future obedience because they have brought obedience in the past. And so with the most enlightened man, the same necessity for obedience exists, and the instincts, appetites, and impulses of the lower animals remain in him, or disappear only as reason is adequate to take their place. And in any case there is no alleviation for the woes of life, "save the absolute veracity of action; the resolute facing of the world as it is."

The intense practicality of all this must e recognized. The truths of science are approximate, not absolute. They must be stated in terms of human consciousness, and they can never be dissevered from possible human action. Knowledge which can only accumulate without being woven into conduct has never been a boon to its possessor. As food must be formed into tissue, so must perception go over into action. In the lower forms, we have the devices, chiefly automatic, by which sensation transmitted to the sensorium reappears as motion. In like manner we find in man, besides these reflex transfers, and the reflex connections formed by habit, that science becomes changed to art and knowledge to power. Power and effectiveness are conditioned on accuracy. Every failure in the sense organ, every form of deterioration of the nerves, shows itself in reduction of power. Reduced effectiveness shows itself through the processes of natural selection, as reduction is safety in life. Thus the degeneration of the nervous system through excesses, through precocious activity, or through the effect of stimulants shows itself in untrustworthy perceptions, in uncontrolled muscles, and in the lack of security in life. Incidentally all these are recorded by fall in social standing. With the reduction of the accuracy of recognition of reality the person ceases to hold his place as a man among men.

Similar failure comes with any cause impairing the recognition of the reality of external things. The sober mind is necessary to safety in life. In general all civilized men are well born. They come of good stock. For the lineage of perversity, insanity, and even stupidity is never a long one. The perverse, insane, and the stupid live through the tolerance of others. They can not maintain themselves, and, in spite of charity and the sense of conventionality, the mortality caused by the fool-killer is something enormous. It is an essential element in race progress. It grows with increased civilization, because of increasing complexity of condition. It is the chief compensating influence for the life-saving which has been made possible for scientific research. As Prof. H. H. Powers has said, "There is in civilization not a single vice that race progress can spare." "The fool-killer," Dr. Bailey tells us, "the fool-curer, and the fool-preventer are alike servants of the living God."

The recent "recrudescence of superstition"—a striking accompaniment of an age of science—is in a sense dependent on science. Science has made it possible. The traditions of science are so diffused among the people at large that fools find it safe to defy them. Those who take dreams for realities; those whose memory impressions and motor dreams are uncontrolled through defective will; those who mistake subjective sensations produced by disease or disorder for objective conditions—all these are sooner or later dropped from existence, taking with them the whole line of their possible successors. The condition of mind which is favorable to mysticism, superstition, and revery is unfavorable to life, and the continuance of such conditions leads to death. On the billboard across the street I saw just now the advertisement of a lecture on the "ethical value of living in two worlds at once." Whoever thus lives in two worlds is certain soon to prove inadequate for either.

If all men sought healing from the blessed handkerchief of the lunatic, or from contact with old bones or old clothes; if all physicians used "revealed remedies," or the remedies Nature finds for each disease; if all business were conducted by faith; if all supposed "natural rights" of man were made the basis of legislation; if all the protean phases of that which Zangwill has cleverly called the "higher foolishness" were worked out in action—the insecurity of these beliefs would speedily appear. Not only civilization but civilized man himself would vanish from the earth. The safe shelter of the cave and hollow tree would be the cradle of the "new man" and the "new woman." The long and bloody road of progress through fool-killing would for centuries be traversed again. The fool lives in society only by sufferance of the sane; the weak, by the altruism of the strong. That is strong which endures. Might does not make right, but that which is right will justify itself by becoming might. What we call social virtues are the elements of race stability.

In the ordinary affairs of life it may be as safe to believe in mahatmas and magic, in cobolds and norns, as to have the vague notions of microbes and molecules, atoms and protoplasm, which form part of the mental equipment of the average modern man. But the difference appears when the knowledge is to be turned into action. Microbes and molecules become more real the more nearly one comes to deal with them. If one learns to use them they become as real as rocks or dollars and as capable of influencing human welfare. But those conceptions which are figments of ignorance and insanity become less real as we try to deal with them, and the action based on them is not safe nor effective.

So clearly is knowledge linked to action that in general among animals and men when action is not possible sensation is absent or not trustworthy. Objects too small to be touched are invisible to the eye. Objects beyond our reach, as the stars or the clouds, are not truthfully pictured. Accuracy of perception grows less as distance increases. The unfamiliar lends itself readily to illusions; the familiar is recognized chiefly by breaks in continuity. The real forces of Nature are hidden by their grandeur, by their immortality. Men see the form of the surface, but not the mighty tides that move beneath it. Again, the senses are less acute than the mechanism of sense organs would make possible. This is shown through occasional cases of hyperæsthesia or ultra sensitiveness. This occurs in abnormal individuals or in unusual conditions. It occurs normally in creatures whose lives in some sense depend on it. Thus some of the most remarkable exhibitions of "mind reading" may be paralleled by retriever dogs whose reason for existence is found in the hyperæsthesia of the sense of smell. Hyperæsthesia of any of the senses would be to most animals a source of confusion and danger rather than of safety.

Man's high development of the brain in large degree takes the place of acuteness of special senses. It is part of the function of the will to keep down the senses; and in his perception of external relations he is aided by the devices of science, which may be taken up or laid down at will. By means of instruments of precision any of the senses may be aided to an enormous degree, and at the same time the personal equation or individual source of error is largely eliminated. The use of instruments of precision is the special characteristic of the advance of science. No instrument of precision can give us the ultimate essence of any part of the universe. No scientific experiment can do away with the measure of human experience as the basis of intelligibility. At the same time we can throw large illumination into "the dimly lighted room" in which, according to Balfour, the phenomena of consciousness take place. By the simple process of photography, for example, we may reproduce the objects of our environment. That such pictures do express phases of reality admits of no doubt, for in the photographic camera all personal equation is eliminated. As to form of outline and reflection of light, the "sun paints true," and the paintings thus made by means of the action of nonliving matter produce on our senses impressions coinciding with those of the outside world itself.

How do we know this is true? Because belief in it adds to the safety of life. We can trust our lives to it. If it were an illusion it would kill, because action based on illusion leads to death.

One can trust his life, for example, to the message sent on a telegraph wire. All who travel by rail do this daily. One can trust his life to the reading of a thermometer. The chemist's tests will select for us foods among poisons. We may trust these tests absolutely. We may safely and sometimes wisely take poisons into our bodies if we know what we are doing. By the advice of a physician, trusting in the weigher's instruments of precision, poisons may do no harm. One grain of strychnine may be an aid to vital processes; a dozen may mean instant cessation of these processes. The balance advises us as to all this. All these instruments of precision belong to science. These are examples taken from thousands of the methods of organized common sense. By means of common sense, organized and unorganized, all creatures that can move are enabled to move safely. The security of human life in its relations to environment is a sufficient answer to the "philosophic doubt" of Berkeley and Balfour as to the existence of external Nature; for if all phenomena were within the mind, no one of them could be more dangerous than another. A dream of murder is no more dangerous than a dream of an afternoon pink tea, so long as its action is confined to the limits of the dream; but the relation of life to environment is inseparable and inexorable. Cause and effect are perfectly linked. This is a world of absolute verity, and its demand is absolute obedience. Life without concessions of conditions is the philosopher's dream.

What we know as pain is the necessary signal of warning of bad results, of bad relations. Without pain life conditioned by environment would be impossible. We need such stimulus to veracity. Those dangers which are painless are the hardest to avoid; the diseases which are painless are the most difficult to cure. Misery in general is only Nature's protest against personal degradation. The way out of misery is the way into life.

In this relation must science recognize the value of ideals? The ideal in the mind tends always to go over into, action. The noble ideal discloses itself in a noble life. It is part of the wisdom of each generation, its science as well as its religion, to form the ideals of the rest. History is written in these ideals before it is come to the stage of life. An ideal is not a dream; a dream is fleeting. An ideal has the will behind it. The persistence of a lofty ideal is the central axis of the life worth living.

An old parable of the conduct of life shows man in a light skiff in a tortuous channel beset with rocks, borne by a falling current to an unknown sea. He is kept awake by the needs of his situation. As his boat bumps against the rocks he must bestir himself. If this contact were not painful he would not heed it. If it were not hurtful he would not need to heed it. Had he no power to act, he could not heed it if he would. But with sensation, will, freedom to act, narrow though the limits of freedom be, his safety rests in some degree in his own hands. That he has secured safety thus far is shown by his continued existence. He may choose his course for himself—not an easy thing to do, unless he scans most carefully the nature of the rocks and waves and his control of the boat itself. He may follow the course of others with some degree of the safety they have attained. He may follow his own impulses, in man's case inherited from those who found them safe guides to action. But in new conditions neither conventionality nor impulse nor desire will suffice. He must know what is about him in order that he may know what he is doing. He must know what he is doing in order to do anything effectively. Ignorant action is more dangerous than no action at all. The "sealed orders" under which live the lower animals and our "brother organisms the plants" are in a measure inadequate for man. With the power of movement and the "knowledge of good and evil," he has no choice but to accept the conditions. He must shape his own life. He must make his ideals into actuality. And thus it comes that there is "no alleviation for the sufferings of man except through absolute veracity of thought and action, and the resolute facing of the world as it is." For wisdom is only knowing what should be done next, and virtue is doing it. And thus it comes that it is well for man "not to pretend to know or to believe what he really does not know or believe"; for there is no safety in life, either for ourselves or others, if we guide our conduct by any influence less wise or potent than that developed from the co-ordination of human wisdom. We may play at philosophy, if we have pleasure in doing so. We may find intellectual strength through exercise of the mind even on its own products. But we must guide our lives by science. The appetites, impulses, passions, illusions, if you choose, which have proved safe in the past development of life, science would not destroy. But they must be subordinate to the will and intellect. And this subordination of the lower to the higher motives in life is the culmination of evolution, as it has been the ideal of those whose strivings for better relations of man to man and of man to Nature have been worthy of the name of religion.

The will is the soul of man in action. The intellect is its guide. If the life of man is hemmed in by the Fates, the human will is one of the Fates, and must take its place by the side of the rest of them. The man who can will is a factor in the universe.

As knowledge is in its essence only a guide to action, and as knowledge, being human, can be approximate only—not reality but a movement toward reality—we are brought to the oft-quoted words of Lessing:

"It is not the truth in man's possession that makes the worth of the man. Possession makes him selfish, lazy, proud. Not through possession, but through long striving, comes the ever-growing strength. If God should hold in his right hand all truth and in his left hand only the ceaseless struggle to reach after truth, and he should say to me. Choose; I would fall in humbleness before his left hand and say:

"'Father, give; the perfect truth is but for thee alone.'"

  1. President's address, California Science Association meeting, Oakland, December, 1895.