Popular Science Monthly/Volume 50/March 1897/The Stability of Truth I

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WITHIN the last few years three notable assaults have been made on the integrity of science. Two of these have come from the hostile camp of mediæval metaphysics, another from the very front of the army of science itself. Salisbury, Balfour, and Haeckel agree in this, that "belief" may rest on foundations unknown to "knowledge," and that the conclusions of science may be subject to additions and revisions in accordance with the demands of "belief." To some considerations suggested in part by Balfour's Foundations of Belief and Haeckel's Confession of Faith of a Man of Science I invite your attention to-day.

The growing complexity of civilized life demands with each age broader and more exact knowledge as to the material surroundings and greater precision in our recognition of the invisible forces or tendencies about us. We are in the hands of the Fates, and the greater our activities the more evident become these limiting conditions. The secret of power with man is to know its limitations. To this end we need constantly new accessions of truth as to the universe and better definition of the truths which are old. Such knowledge, tested and placed in order, we call science. Science is the gathered wisdom of the race. Only a part of it can be grasped by any one man. Each must enter into the work of others. Science is the flower of the altruism of the ages, by which nothing that lives "liveth for itself alone," The recognition of facts and laws is the province of science. We only know whit lies about us from our own experience and that of others, this experience of others being translated into terms of our own experience and more or less perfectly blended with it. We can find the meaning of phenomena only from our reasoning based on these experiences. All knowledge we can attain or hope to attain must, in so far as it is knowledge at all, be stated in terms of human experience. The laws of Nature are not the products of science. They are the human glimpses of that which is the "law before all time."

Thus human experience is the foundation of all knowledge. Even innate ideas, if such ideas exist, are derived in some way from knowledge possessed by our ancestors, as innate impulses to action are related to ancestral needs for action.

But is human experience the basis also of belief as it is of knowledge?

One of the questions of the day is this: Is "to believe" more than "to know"? Shall a sane man extend belief in directions where he has no knowledge and in lines outside the reach of his power to act? Can belief soar in space not traversable by "organized common sense"? If such distinction is made between "knowing" and "believing," which of the two has precedence as a guide for action? Is belief to be tested by science? Or is science useful only where belief is indifferent to the subject-matter? If belief is subordinate to the tests of science, to be accepted or rejected in the degree of its accord with human experience, then it is simply an annex to science, a footnote to human experience, and the authority of the latter is supreme. If, however, truth comes to us from sources outside of human experience, it must come in some pure form, free from human errors. As such it must claim the first place. In this event the progress of science will be always on a lower plane than the progress of belief.

In a recent address before the British Association for the Advancement of Science, the Marquis of Salisbury made in brief this contention: The central thought of modern science is evolution, the change from the simple to the complex. This implies not only the fundamental unity of all life, but the fundamental unity of all matter and perhaps of all force as well. In spite of the claims of scientific men, even the fact of organic evolution is far from demonstration; while of inorganic evolution, the development of the chemical elements, science can tell us nothing. Wherefore the marquis, in view of the failure of science to keep up with the progress of belief, grows jocose and patronizing. His advice to his scientific associates might be stated in the words of Thackeray, that "we should think small beer of ourselves and pass around the bottle."

More recently another English statesman, Mr. Arthur J. Balfour, has discussed the Foundations of Belief. He has shown that the methods of science can not give us absolute truth. Its methods are "of the earth, earthy." Its claim of trust in the infallibility of its own processes has no higher authority than the claim of infallibility made at times by religious organizations. For as only the senses and the reason can be appealed to in support of the claims of the senses and the reason, the argument of science is of necessity reasoning in a circle. Science can give us no ground solid enough to bear the weight of belief. Belief must exist, and it may therefore rest on the innate needs of man and the philosophy which is built on these needs in accordance with the authority which the human soul finds sufficient.

Balfour calls attention to the fact that human experience is not in its essence objective. It consists only of varying phases of consciousness. These phases of consciousness at best only point toward truth. They are not truth itself. They vary with the varying nerve cells of each individual creature on whom phases of consciousness are impressed, and again with the changes in the cells themselves. The tricks of the senses are well known in psychology, as is also the failure of the senses as to material outside their usual range. Life is at best "in a dimly lighted room," and all the objects about us are in their essence quite different from what they seem. This essence is unknown and unknowable. We are well aware that we have no power to recognize all phases of reality. The electric condition of an object may be as real as its color or its temperature, and yet none of our senses respond to it. Our eyes give but an octave of the vibrations we call light, and our ears are dull to all but a narrow range in pitch of sound.

Likewise is reason to be discredited. The commonest things become unknown or impossible when viewed "in the critical light of philosophy." Balfour shows that the simple affirmation, "the sun gives light," loses all its meaning and possibility when taken out of the category of human experience and discussed in terms of philosophy. In like manner can any simple fact be thrown into the category of myths and dreams. A man can be led by the methods of metaphysics to doubt the existence of himself or of any object about him. For instance, take the discussion of "John's John" and of "Thomas's John," as given by Dr. Holmes. Is the real John the John as he appears to John himself? Or is he real only in the form in which Thomas regards him, or as he looks to Richard and Henry, whose interest in him is progressively less? All we know of the external universe is through the impressions made directly or indirectly on our nervous systems and through recorded impressions made on the systems of others; and a part of this external universe we ourselves are. All that we know of ourselves is that which is external to ourselves. Thus with all this, each man forms in his mind a universe of his own. "My mind to me a kingdom is," and this kingdom in all its parts is somewhat different from any other mental kingdom. It is continually changing. It was made but once, and will never be duplicated. When my vital processes cease, this kingdom will vanish "like the baseless fabric of a vision, leaving not a wreck behind." Our mind is the "stuff that dreams are made of"—and our bodies—what are they? Physically each man is an alliance of animals, each one of a single cell, each cell with its processes of life, growth, death, and reproduction, each one with its own "cell-soul" which presides over these processes. In the alliance of these cells, forming tissues and organs, we have the phenomena of mutual help and mutual dependence. In man we find the phenomena of animal life on a larger and more differentiated scale, but the fact of self grows faint as our study is continued. What is this vital force, and what have we to do with it and is it, after all, more than another name for the movement of molecules? And of what are our cells composed? Carbon, oxygen, hydrogen, nitrogen, we know by name, but what are these in essence, and how are they different one from another? Does matter really exist? Mathematicians have claimed that all relations of ponderable matter and force might exist if the atoms of matter were not realities, but simply relations. Each of these atoms possessed of attraction or weight may be a vortex ring or eddy in the ether, the ultimate units of which have vibration but not attraction. If, therefore, the body of man be an alliance of millions of animal cells, each cell formed of millions of eddies in an inconceivable and impossible ether; if all things around us are recognized only by their effect on the most unstable part of this unstable structure, then again "let us think small beer of ourselves and pass around the bottle."

Each fact or law must be expressed in terms of human experience, if it is expressed or made intelligible at all. To such terms, the word reality applies, and beyond such reality we have never gone. Apparently beyond it we can not go, at least in the only life we have ever known. Balfour's plea for "philosophic doubt" of the reality of the subject-matter of science is simply a rhetorical trick of describing the known in terms of the unknown. By the same process we may call a fishwife an "abracadabra" or an "icosahedron," and by the same process we can build out of the commonest materials "an occult science" or a new theosophy. The measure of a man is the basis of human knowledge, and whatever can not be brought to this measure is no part of knowledge. In converse fashion Balfour speaks of the unknown in terms of the known; of the infinite in terms of human experience. This gives to his positive foundations of belief an appearance of reality as fallacious as the unreality he assigns to the foundations of science. This appearance of reality is the base cf Haeckel's sneer at conventional religion as belief in a "gaseous vertebrate."

It is perfectly easy for science to distinguish between subjective and objective nerve conditions. It can separate those produced by subjective nervous derangements, or by conditions already passed, from those which are contemporary impressions of external things. It is perfectly easy for common sense to do the same. To be able to do so is the essence of sanity. The test of sanity is its livableness, for insanity is death. The borderland of spirit of which we hear so often of late, the land in which subjective and objective creations jostle each other, is the borderland of death. The continued existence of animals and men is based on the adequacy of their sensations and the veracity of their actions. The existence of any creature is, in general, proof of the sanity of its ancestry, or at least of the sanity of those who controlled the actions of its ancestors.

This veracity is gauged by the degree of coincidence of subjective impressions and objective truth. Whoever makes a fool's paradise or a fool's hell of the world about him is not allowed to live in it. This fact in all its bearings must stand as a proof that the universe is outside of man and not within him. In this objective universe which lies outside ourselves we find "the ceaseless flow of force and the rational intelligence that pervades it." No part of it can be fully understood by us, but in it we find no chance movement, "no variableness nor shadow of turning." That such a universe exists seems to demand some intelligence capable of understanding it, of stating its properties in terms of absolute truth as distinguished from those of human experience. Only an Infinite Being can be conceived as doing this, hence such knowledge must enter into our conception of the Infinite Being, whatever may be our theology in other respects. For to know an object or phenomenon in its fullness, "all in all," "we should know what God is and man is."

It is therefore no reproach to human science that it deals with human relations, not with absolute truths. "The ultimate truths of science," Dr. Schurman has said, "rest on the same basis as the ultimate truths of philosophy"—that is, on a basis that transcends human experience. This is true, for science has no "ultimate truths." There are none known to man. "The perfect truth," says Lessing, "is but for Thee alone." With ultimate truths human philosophy tries in some fashion to deal. To look at the universe in some degree through the eyes of God is the aim of philosophy. In its aim it is most noble. Its efforts are a source of strength in the conduct of human life. But its conclusions are not truth. They range from the puerile to the incomprehensible, and only science—that is, "common sense"—can distinguish the two. For this reason just in proportion as philosophy is successful it is unfit as a basis of human action. Human knowledge and action have limitations. The chief of these is that whatever can not be stated in terms of human experience is unintelligible to man. Whatever can not be thought can not be lived.

Philosophy has its recognized methods of procedure. These are laid down in the mechanism of the human brain itself. Science has found these methods untrustworthy as a means of reaching objective truth. The final test of scientific truth is this: Can we make it work? Can we trust our life to it? This test the conclusions of philosophy can not meet. In so far as they do so they are conclusions of science. As science advances in any field philosophy is driven away from it. The fact has been often noted that every great conclusion of science has been anticipated by philosophy, in most cases by the philosophy of the Greeks. But every conclusion science has shown to be false has been likewise anticipated. The Greeks taught the theory of development centuries before Darwin. But if Darwin's studies in life variation had led to any other result whatsoever, he would have been equally anticipated by the Greeks. In other words, every conceivable guess as to the origin and meaning of familiar phenomena has been exhausted by philosophy. Some of these guesses contain elements of truth. Which of these have such elements it is the business of Science to find out. Philosophy has no means of doing so. A truth not yet shown to be true is in science not a truth. It has no more validity than any other generalization not shown to be false. Helmholtz tells us that philosophy deals with such "schlechtes Stoff," such bad subject-matter, that it can give no trustworthy conclusions. Science alone can give the test of human life. The essence of this test is experiment.

The tests of philosophy are mainly these: Is the conception plausible? Has it logical continuity? Is it satisfying to the human heart? And in this connection the figurative word "heart" is best left undefined. In other words, its sources and its tests are alike subjective—intellectual or emotional. If we take from philosophy the "heart" element, the personal equation, it becomes logic or mathematics. Mathematics is metaphysics working through methods of precision. It is a most valuable instrument for the study of the relations and ramifications of knowledge, but it can give no addition to knowledge itself. Dr. William James defines metaphysics as "the persistent attempt to think clearly." This definition is good so far as it goes, but to think clearly is a function of science also. Metaphysics is rather the "attempt to think clearly" in fields where exact data are unattained or unattainable. In so far as philosophy is simply clear thinking it is a most valuable agency for testing the deductions of science. But, while it can reject false conclusions, it can add no new matter of its own.

For example, the claim is made in the name of evolutionary philosophy that all matter is one in essence, therefore all the chemical elements, some seventy in number, must be the same in substance. In this case all must be derived from the same primitive stuff, and the hypothetical basis of all ponderable matter has been called protyl. As a working theory this is most ingenious. But is it science? Is it worthy of belief? Certainly Science knows nothing as yet of the identity of these elements. In a general way Science is finding out that the processes of Nature are more complex than man supposed, while the elements on which these processes rest, matter and force, are more simple. How far can this generalization go? To every test human experience has devised each chemical element remains the same, its atoms unchangeable as well as indestructible. Therefore, to speak of them as forms of one substance is to go beyond knowledge. Science does not teach this. But to philosophy this offers no difficulty. It is still plausible to suppose that by some combination of primitive units these variant atoms are formed. Such an idea would have logical continuity, and, as we are becoming used to the notions of primal unity, we find such an idea satisfying to our consciousness. If this is true, somewhere, somehow, lead will be resolved into its primal elements, and these elements may be united in the form of gold. Then will the dream of the alchemist become fact. But Science must make this objection: "Not until then." Such transmutation is as yet no part of knowledge. We certainly do not know that lead can be changed into that which is transmutable into gold. We do not know it, I say; but may we believe it? Is the foundation of belief less secure than that of knowledge? Can we trust Philosophy to tell us what to believe while we must look to Science to tell us what we know?

This brings us to the question of definitions. If knowledge and belief are of like rank, both must rest on science, and the results of philosophy must come to science only as hints or suggestions as to lines of research.

If knowledge implies stability and belief does not, the relation of the two is also clear. In that case belief would be a word of light meaning, expressive of whim or of the balance of opinion. Such weight as it has would be drawn from its association with prejudice. Belief would then be the pretense of knowledge as compared with knowledge itself. Among its paths life can not march with courage and effectiveness. It is not for such beliefs as this that the martyrs have lived or died. Their inspiration was the positive belief of science or the negative belief of the falsity of the ideas that tyranny or superstition had forced upon them.

To avoid a discussion foreign to my purpose, I wish, if possible, to separate the word belief—as used in this paper—from the word religion. The essence of belief is the categorical statement of propositions. These may be built into a creed, which word is the Latin synonym of belief.

Religion implies rather a condition of the mind and heart—an attitude, not a formula. Faith, hope, charity do not rest on logic or observation. Religion implies a reverent attitude toward the universe and its forces, a kindly feeling toward one's fellow mortals and immortals. "Pure religion and undefiled" has never formulated a "creed," has never claimed for itself orthodoxy. It has no stated ritual and no recognized cult of priests. Much that passes conventionally as religious belief among men has no such quality or value. It is simple the débris of our grandfathers' science. While religion and belief become entangled in the human mind, so as not to be easily separable, the one is not necessarily a product of the other. In the higher sense no man can follow or inherit the religion of another. His religion, if he has any, is his own. Only forms can be transferred, realities never; for realities in life are the product of individual thought and action.

As the third of these efforts to discredit science I have placed Prof. Haeckel's recent address. The Confession of Faith of a Man of Science. This remarkable work is an eloquent plea for the acceptance of the philosophic doctrine of monism as the fundamental basis of science. This doctrine once adopted, we have the basis for large deductions, which forestall the slow conclusions of science; for monism brings the necessity for the belief in certain scientific hypotheses resting as yet on no foundations in human experience, incapable as yet of scientific verification, but which are a necessary part of the monistic creed. The primal conception of monism is, first, "that there lives one spirit in all things, and that the whole cognizable world is constituted and has been developed in accordance with one common fundamental law." This involves the essential oneness of all things, matter and force, object and spirit. Nature and God. This philosophical conception of monism and pantheism can not be made intelligible to us, because it can be stated in no terms of human experience. But it has certain necessary derivatives, according to Haeckel, and these are intelligible, because their subject-matter is available for scientific experiment.

First among these postulates, called by Haeckel "Articles of Faith," comes "the essential unity of organic and inorganic Nature, the former having been evolved from the latter only at a relatively recent period." This involves the "spontaneous generation" of life from inorganic matter. It also resolves "the vital force," or the force which appears in connection with protoplasmic structures, into properties shown by certain carbon compounds under certain conditions. Life is thus, in a sense, an emanation of carbon, "the true maker of life," according to Haeckel "being the tetraedral carbon molecule."

This "Article of Faith" implies also the unity of the chemical elements, each of which is a product of the evolution of the primal unit of matter. Force and matter are likewise one, because neither appears except in the presence of the other. The inheritance of acquired characters is also made a corollary of monistic belief.

Now, all these hypotheses are possibly true, but none of them are as yet conclusions of science. They meet the conditions required by philosophy. They are plausible. They have the merit of logical continuity, and, excepting to those persons biased by early subjection to contrary notions, they satisfy the "human heart." There should be no natural repugnance to monism or to pantheism, difficult as it is to associate the idea of truth and reality with either or with the opposite of either. Speaking for myself, I feel no repugnance to them. They lend themselves to poetry; they appeal to the human heart. In Haeckel's own words, referring to something else, "such hereditary articles of faith take root all the more firmly, the further they are removed from the rational knowledge of Nature and enveloped in the mysterious mantle of mythological poesy." The present resistance to them may in time be turned into superstitious reverence for them; for, of all the philosophic doctrines brought down as lightning from heaven for the guidance of plodding man, these seem most attractive, and least likely to conflict with the conclusions of science.

But can we give them belief? Let us pass by the doctrine of monism, with which science can not concern itself. What of the corollaries? Spontaneous generation, for example, has been the basis of many experiments. Like the transmutation of metals, it seems reasonable to philosophy. The one idea has been the Will-o'-the-wisp of biology as the other has of chemistry. We know absolutely nothing of how, if ever, non-life becomes life. So far as we know, generation from first to last has been one unbroken series—"all life from life." We have no reason to believe that spontaneous generation exists under any conditions we have ever known. We have likewise reason to believe that if it exists at all we have no way of recognizing it. The organisms we know have all had a long history. Even the smallest shows traces of a long ancestry, a long process of natural selection, and of many concessions to environments. We know of no life that does not show such concessions. We know no creature that does not show homologies with all other living beings whatsoever. So far as this fact goes, it tends to show that all life is one. If this is true, spontaneous generation, whatever it may be, is not one of the ever-present phenomena of life.

If life does now appear without living parentage, if organisms fresh from the mint of creation now appear from inorganic matter, they are so simple that we can not know them. They are so small that we can not find them. They would be made, we may suppose, each of a small number of molecules. If there is truth in the calculations of Lord Kelvin and others, that a molecule is as small in a drop of water as a marble in comparison with the earth, then we may not look for these creatures. If we can not find them, we do not know that they exist. If we do not know that they exist, shall we "believe" that they do? Is it not better, as Emerson suggests, that we should not "pretend to know and believe what we do not really know and believe?

It may be that the existence of life in a world once lifeless renders spontaneous generation a "logical necessity." But the "logical necessity" exists in our minds, not in Nature. Science knows no "logical necessity," for the simple reason that we are never able to compass all the possibilities in any given case.

If we are to apply philosophic tests to the theories of reincarnation, we may find them equally eligible as articles of belief. They are plausible, to some minds at least; they have logical continuity. They are satisfying to the human heart, at least this is claimed by their advocates. Their chief fault is that they can be brought to no test of science and have no basis in inductive knowledge. In other words, their only reality is that of the vapors of dreamland. If plausibility and acceptability serve as sufficient foundations for belief, then belief itself is a frail and transient thing, no more worthy of respect than prejudice, from which indeed it could not be distinguished. Some such idea as this seems to be present in the mind of Mr. Gladstone. In a recent article, quoting in part the language of the honest Bishop Butler, he ascribes to certain doctrines "a degree of credibility sufficient for purposes of religion, and even a high degree of probability." In other words, religion, which deals with human hopes and fears, has less need of certainty than science, which is ultimately concerned with human action.

Haeckel makes the same distinction clearly enough. He uses the term "belief" for "hypotheses or conjectures of more or less probability" by which "the gaps empirical investigation must leave in science are filled up. . . . These," he says, "we can not indeed for a time establish on a secure basis, and yet we may make use of them in the way of explaining phenomena, in so far as they are not inconsistent with the rational knowledge of Nature. Such rational hypotheses," he says, "are scientific articles of faith." It is not clear, however, that so large a name as faith need be taken for working hypotheses confessedly uncertain or transient. The word "make-believe," used by Huxley in some such connection, might well be applied to hypothetical "articles of faith," until given a basis by scientific induction. But it seems to me that it is not necessary for the man of science to say "I believe," in addition to "I know." He should put off the livery of science when he enters the service of the Delphian oracles.

That all the doctrines above mentioned are necessarily included in monism may perhaps be doubted. Monism would still flourish were all these theories disproved. For human philosophies have wonderful recuperative power. Their basis is in the structure of the brain itself, and external phenomena are only accessory to them.

If monism is purely a philosophic conception, it can have no necessary axioms or corollaries, except such as are involved in its definition. These could not be scientific in their character, because they could in no way come into relation with the realities of human life. If, however, monism be a generalization resting in part on human experience, then it must be tested by the methods of science. Until it is so tested, however plausible it may be, it has no workable value. There is no gain in giving it belief, or in calling it truth. Still less should we stultify ourselves by pinning our faith to its postulates as to the matters yet to be decided by experiment, and to be settled by human experience only. Haeckel says, for example: "The inheritance of characters acquired during the life of the individual is an indispensable axiom of the monistic doctrine of evolution. . . . Those who with Weismann and Galton deny this entirely exclude thereby the possibility of any formative influence of the outer world upon organic form." Here we may ask. Who knows that there is any such formative influence? What do we know of this or any other subject beyond what in our investigations we find to be true? When was monism a subject of special revelation, and with what credentials does it come, that one of the greatest controversies in modern science should be settled by the simple word? "Roma locuta est; causa finita est" is a dictum no longer heeded by science.

The great bulk of the arguments in favor of the heredity of acquired characters, as well as most of those in favor of the opposed dogma, the unchanged continuity of the germ-plasm, are based on some supposed logical necessity of philosophy. All such arguments are valueless in the light of fact. Desmarest's suggestion to the contending advocates of Neptunism and Plutonism was, "Go and see." When they had seen the action of water and the action of heat, the contest was over, for argument and contention had vanished in the face of fact. To believe without foundation is to discredit knowledge. Such "Confessions of Faith" on Haeckel's part lead one to doubt whether in his zeal for belief he has even known what it is to know. In fact, if we may trust his critics, much of Haeckel's scientific work is vitiated by this mixture of "believe" and "make-believe." The same confusion is shown in this remarkable passage which President White quotes from John Henry Newman: "Scripture says that the sun moves and the earth is stationary, and science that the earth moves and the sun is comparatively at rest. How can we determine which of these opposite statements is the very truth till we know what motion is? If our idea of motion is but an accidental result of our present senses, neither proposition is true and both are true; neither true philosophically; both true for certain practical purposes in the system in which they are respectively found."

Again, if we are to allow the revision of the generalizations of science by the addition of acceptable but unverified doctrines, we must allow the right of similar revision by rejection. Mr. Wallace, for example, would be justified in adding to the certainties of organic evolution his idea of the special creation of the mind of man. The old notion of the separate existence of the Ego, which plays on the nerve cells of the brain as a musician on the keys of a piano, would still linger in psychology. The astral body would hover on the verge of physiology, and a strong plea would go up for the reality of Santa Claus.

I have a scientific friend who finds it necessary to exclude by force, from his biological beliefs, all that is unpleasant in the theories of evolution. And he has the same right to do this that Prof. Haeckel has to insist that any scientific beliefs, for which science has yet no warrant, are a necessary part of the orthodoxy of science.

For Haeckel is not content to speak for himself, asking tolerance by tolerance toward others. His belief is no idiosyncrasy of his own. He speaks for all. Every honest, intelligent, courageous scientific man, he tells us, so far as he is truthful, competent, and brave, shares the same belief. His confession of faith is nothing if not orthodox. He says:

"This monistic confession has the greater claim to an unprejudiced consideration in that it is shared, I am firmly convinced, by at least nine tenths of the men of science now living; indeed, I believe, by all men of science in whom the following four conditions are realized: (1) Sufficient acquaintance with the various departments of natural science, and in particular with the modern doctrine of evolution; (2) sufficient acuteness and clearness of judgment to draw by induction and deduction the necessary logical consequences that flow from such empirical knowledge; (3) sufficient moral courage to maintain the monistic knowledge, so gained, against the attacks of hostile dualistic and pluralistic systems; and (4) sufficient strength of mind to free himself by sound, independent reasoning from dominant religious prejudices, and especially from those irrational dogmas which have been firmly lodged in our minds from earliest youth as indisputable revelations."

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