Popular Science Monthly/Volume 6/February 1875/Editor's Table

From Wikisource
Jump to: navigation, search

EDITOR'S TABLE.

 
TYNDALL AND HIS REVIEWERS.

We print in full the masterly reply of Prof. Tyndall to the attacks of his critics, which is prefixed as a preface to a new edition of the Belfast discourse. It was not to be expected that he would remain passive under the unscrupulous assaults to which he has been subjected; nor that, when he did speak, he would make any half-way work with his assailants. Our readers will agree that they have got no more than they deserve; and we think that every competent reasoner must admit that Prof. Tyndall's rejoinder to the main charges against his address is conclusive.

In regard to the wisdom of opening and pursuing this important question, there can, we think, be no serious doubt. It can be condemned only by condemning the general desirableness of discussion, the analysis of opinions, and the comparison of conflicting views. It has been wisely said that of the three states of mind, or stages of conviction—the unanimity of the ignorant, the disagreement of the inquiring, and the unanimity of the wise—the second is at all events the parent of the third. He who drags people out of the slothfulness and stagnation of ignorant unanimity, even though thinking engenders discord and dispute, is doing a wholesome and necessary work. This is what Prof. Tyndall has very successfully accomplished. If to concentrate public attention upon a subject of great and acknowledged importance, to summon the most powerful minds to its re-examination, and to secure the keenest scrutiny into all its aspects and bearings, be the way to arrive at its clearer understanding, then has the author of the Belfast address done an eminent service to his generation. Such services are always useful, but they become of high and especial value when the problems brought forward are new, or are old problems which have acquired new meanings by a change of the circumstances in which they are considered. The critics of Prof. Tyndall tell us that he has raised a very old question, one which comes up alike in every age, which is no nearer a settlement now than it was thousands of years ago, and which is just as insoluble for modern science as for ancient theology. But it is not easy to understand how the mere calling up of an obsolete and hopeless question, that derives no new significance from the present state of knowledge, should have made so profound an impression upon the strongest minds, in widely-separated countries, and in this age of absorbing intellectual activity. A startling statement may arrest momentary attention, but, if empty and futile, why should its interest be so sustained? For three months after the delivery of Tyndall's address we were deluged with comments, dissections, exposures, and refutations by the daily and weekly press, and, had it been as vacant of vital meaning and pertinent application as many allege, its force would long before this have been spent, and the subject would have died away as a mere superficial and transient excitement. But things have gone quite differently. The interest has increased rather than declined, and to the rattle of newspaper musketry begins now to succeed the roar of the monthly and quarterly artillery. And this for the adequate reason that new elements are at work, old questions are reshaped, and appear in new relations, while the controversy takes on an aspect that it never presented before, and requires to be searched and sifted in all its issues and implications. The stage of uninquiring agreement has been passed, discussion has elicited a wide diversity of opinions, but the ultimate tendency cannot fail to be toward a more enlightened harmony of views. The critics of Prof. Tyndall of course differ with him, but their differences among each other are no less marked, and their positions are often mutually destructive of each other. It will be instructive to call attention to some of the indications of conflicting opinion and converging advancement, exemplified by the later and more carefully-considered criticisms.

We have now before us three-ably written articles, called out by Prof. Tyndall's address: one in Blackwood's Magazine for November, entitled "Modern Scientific Materialism;" another in the Penn Monthly for December, by R. C. Thompson, who aims to answer the question, "What would Tyndall be at?" and a third in the January International Review, entitled "Ideas in Nature overlooked by Dr. Tyndall," which was contributed to that periodical by Dr. McCosh.

The first thing that strikes attention in perusing these papers is their substantial agreement in regard to the doctrine of Evolution. Dr. McCosh says: "Two great scientific truths have been established in this century. One is the doctrine of the conservation of energy.... the other great doctrine is that of development, acknowledged as having an extent which was not dreamed of till the researches of Darwin were published." The writer in the Penn Monthly is less explicit, but he assumes the principle, and would have no quarrel with it under a theistic interpretation. In fact, it is this which he contends for, and, without denying the process, is only inclined to belittle it. Of man he says: "His animal nature may or may not have owed its existence to the same process of Evolution that has brought forth each higher species from that below it. We think the question not worth a half of one per cent, of the ink and paper that have been wasted upon it. The motive of many, if not of most, of the denials might fairly be traced to a certain Neoplatonist contempt of the animal creation, which has no right to shelter itself behind the Bible. Moses's story of the origin of our animal nature is humbling enough; not less so if we construe his words as declaring its direct creation from the dust, than if we suppose that it passed through more elevated forms of existence before it attained its uprightness of stature and dignity of position. If Mr. Darwin teaches us the reality of our kinship on one side with the lower forms of life, and stirs in our hearts the feelings that that kinship should excite, he will not the less, but the more, fit us to claim a higher kinship with Him who giveth grace to the humble." Friend Thompson may be unhesitatingly "counted in" on the Evolution question, for he has evidently "conquered his prejudices" on the point of a low animal ancestry, and when this is done all the rest is comparatively easy. The writer in Blackwood's Magazine, so far from finding difficulty with the doctrine, takes to it admiringly. He says: "We have no quarrel with the evolutionary hypothesis in itself. It is an inspiring conception to look upon Nature in all its departments as intimately linked together from 'primordial germ' to the most fully-developed organism—from its rudest speck to its subtlest symmetry of form, or most delicate beauty of color. The idea of growth and vital affinity is, we readily grant, a higher idea than that of mere technic after the manner of men. There is no call upon us to defend the imperfect analogies by which past generations may have pictured to themselves the works of Nature."

This is a large concession, and indicates an immense step forward in man's view of the nature of the surrounding world. And it well illustrates the three phases of opinion to which we have referred, for there was first a long unanimity of ignorance, then a stormy and obnoxious conflict, and this has led to a new and more intelligent basis of agreement. But, while there is a virtual accord among our writers as to the doctrine itself, they disagree radically as to its interpretations, and show us that there must be a good deal of warm work yet before old beliefs are brought into consistency with the new theory. The writer in the Penn Monthly refuses to modify his notions about breaks and new beginnings in the order of things. He says: "If there be one word more intolerable than another to science, it is beginning. To disprove supposed beginnings, to show that they were the outcome of what went before, is the scientist's vocation. The category of cause and effect becomes, through long practice, his first law of thought, the groove of all his mental operations. With whatever fact he is brought face to face, his first impulse is to apply that category 'to account for the fact,' as he calls the process. And when he speaks of causes he comes to mean only secondary causes, those that are themselves effects. On the other hand, this word beginning seems to us to embrace in it all that the metaphysician, the theist, and the Christian, have to fight for against the naturalist." But this conception of the government of the world, "all that the theist and the Christian have to fight for," the writer in Blackwood regards as a very derogatory view of the divine working. He says of scientific men: "It is impossible for them, or for any, to conceive too grandly of Nature, or of the unbroken harmony and continuity of its movements. The very magnificence of its order is only a further illustration of Divine wisdom; for surely the very thought of a Divine mind implies the perfection of wisdom, or, in other words, of order, as its expresssion. The more, therefore, the order of Nature is explained, and its sequences seem to run into one another with unbroken continuity, only the more and not the less loftily will we be able to measure the working of the Divine mind."

Again, these writers come into sharp collision over the question of the atomic theory. There has been much complaint that Prof. Tyndall did not take up for discussion some special scientific topic which he had made his own; yet he did exactly this thing. His discourse is a monograph on that part of physical philosophy which he has been compelled during all his scientific life to study, that is, the evidence and import of the doctrine of the atomic or molecular constitution of matter. This is a problem which scientific men cannot evade: they are driven to it by the very exigencies of mental action; as Dr. McCosh well observes: "We seem to be obliged by a sort of necessity of thought or speech to fall back on some such conception. If every thing we see in the world be composite, and capable of analysis and division, we have to think and talk of something indivisible and undecomposable, which we may call particles, molecules, or atoms." But if the idea is thus fundamental and deals with the very essence and core of scientific philosophy, Prof. Tyndall certainly did not go out of his sphere in considering it. And though he is condemned, there appears to be no common ground for censure. His critics are as much at variance with each other as they are with him. The writer in the Penn Monthly attacks the atomic theory at the outset as if it were some sort of a religious enemy which must be got out of the way; and he scouts it as an unprovable hypothesis, bad metaphysics, and which explains nothing. On the other hand, the writer in Blackwood declares it to be "a perfectly valid theory, resting on its own evidence," and adequate to explain the physical origin of the universe; while Prof. Clerk Maxwell, according to Dr. McCosh, "discovers, in the very nature and properties of a molecule, a proof of design," thus making the atomic theory a help to religion by furnishing evidence of the existence of God.

It is a noteworthy circumstance, as showing the growth of a better state of mind, that the writers we are considering agree in abstaining from the charge of materialism, which has been so freely indulged in by others against Prof. Tyndall. They know that it cannot be maintained; but, while refraining from the imputation of "gross materialism," it is still implied that he must be some sort of a materialist. The writer in the Penn Monthly expressly acquits him of the charge as usually construed, by saying, "Prof. Tyndall is not a materialist of the school of De la Mettre and Holbach." He then puts the question, "In what sense, then, is Prof. Tyndall a materialist, if he be one at all?" and replies: "In the sense of being a naturalist;" and this term is again used in a vague and unusual sense. But it were better to have allowed Prof. Tyndall to explain his own position, which he has done in the most explicit manner. It is now generally understood, as the writer just quoted implies, that the term "materialism" is used with different significations, and Prof. Tyndall has qualified the form of it which he maintains as "scientific materialism." This consists simply in ascribing higher powers and possibilities to matter than hitherto, and not in sinking mind in matter, or in asserting the materiality of mind in the name of scientific authority. In an address, delivered before the mathematical and physical section of the British Association held in Norwich, in 1868,[1] Professor Tyndall took exactly the same ground that he assumed last August at Belfast; and passages from the discourse were widely quoted at the time as containing the most decisive disavowal and disproof of materialism in its usually accepted sense. Our reviewers should have reproduced the following portion; and, as they have not, we supply the omission:

"The relation of physics to consciousness being thus invariable, it follows that, given the state of the brain, the corresponding thought or feeling might be inferred; or, given the thought or feeling, the corresponding state of the brain might be inferred. But how inferred? It would be at bottom not a case of logical inference at all, but of empirical association. You may reply that many of the inferences of science are of this character; the inference, for example, that an electric current of a given direction will deflect a magnetic needle in a definite way; but the cases differ in this, that the passage from the current to the needle, if not demonstrable, is thinkable, and that we entertain no doubt as to the final mechanical solution of the problem. But 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 rudiment of the organ, which would enable us to pass, by a process of reasoning, from the one to the other. They appear together, but we do not know why. Were our minds and senses so expanded, strengthened, and illuminated, as to enable us to see and feel the very molecules of the brain; were we capable of following all their motions, all their groupings, all their electric discharges, if such there be; and were we intimately acquainted with the corresponding states of thought and feeling, we should be as far as ever from the solution of the problem, 'How are these physical processes connected with the facts of consciousness?' The chasm between the two classes of phenomena would still remain intellectually impassable. Let the consciousness of love, for example, be associated with a right-handed spiral motion of the molecules of the brain, and the consciousness of hate with a left-handed spiral motion. We should then know when we love that the motion is in one direction, and when we hate that the motion is in the other; but the 'why?' would remain as unanswerable as before.
"In affirming that the growth of the body is mechanical, and that thought, as exercised by us, has its correlative in the physics of the brain, I think the position of the 'materialist' is stated, as far as that position is a tenable one. I think the materialist will be able finally to maintain this position against all attacks, but I do not think, in the present condition of the human mind, that he can pass beyond this position. I do not think he is entitled to say that his molecular groupings and his molecular motions explain every thing. In reality, they explain nothing. The utmost he can affirm is the association of two classes of phenomena, of whose real bond of union he is in absolute ignorance. The problem of the connection of body and soul is as insoluble in its modern form as it was in the prescientific ages."

And so it turns out that he who has been buried under a mountain of execration for using science to drag the world into the abyss of materialism, is precisely the man who has demonstrated that no possible extension of science can ever lead one step toward that dread abyss. He has taught us that if science could attain perfection and predict the movements of all the atoms of Nature for thousands of years to come, as it now predicts eclipses, it would not be one whit nearer the solution or explanation of the mystery of the relation of mind and matter than it was in its infancy.

Referring to the admission in the foregoing passage, that "we cannot see any nexus between cerebral action and thought, or discover why a movement of the brain should lead to mental exercise," Dr. McCosh says, "But this was never intended to mean much." What right has Dr. McCosh to assume that Prof. Tyndall means less or other than what he says? His words are certainly not obscure, and we think they are weighty with meaning; so weighty, that it is only by an imputation of insincerity or equivocation that their effect can be escaped. Had they been generally heeded, or had Prof. Tyndall's reviewers been candid enough to make them widely known, we should have heard a great deal less vituperation of the Belfast address.

 

 
SCIENCE AND SOCIAL REFORM.

It is well known that the ground taken in this periodical in regard to the scope and influence of science is, that both as a mental method, and by the actual knowledge it furnishes, it is destined in the future to exert a growing and powerful control over public questions which have hitherto been but little, if at all, affected by it. The frantic efforts made by many to keep science in its old physical grooves, and prevent its "encroachments" upon departments of thought thus far dealt with by non-scientific methods, are doomed to certain failure. An excellent exemplification of this tendency is now furnished by the woman question. It has latterly come into prominence in various aspects as a practical reform, and the most radical and momentous changes are demanded, both in the view to be taken of the feminine nature and capacities, and in the social and public regulations to which women have been amenable in the past. The promoters of this alleged reform are generally philanthropists, sentimentalists, and politicians, who, starting from existing and acknowledged evils in society by which women suffer, rush on to the advocacy of sweeping changes, as if society had but to swallow their panaceas, and its evils would disappear. That there is a scientific side of the subject of the greatest importance, these people never seem, to suspect. It is observable that into the literature of the movement science has, thus far, hardly intruded, and little disposition is evinced to seek its assistance. We cannot, however, expect that people will be very eager to turn their backs upon their own methods of thought; and our professed reformers have their own well-settled methods. In the present case, certain political assumptions are made, and certain beliefs postulated, regarding feminine character, and from these a reformatory policy is deduced and hotly urged for immediate adoption. This was the course of even so trained a thinker as Mr. Mill. He brought his resources of philosophy and logic to bear upon the subject, and gave to the reformers their text-book; but he went on as oblivious of science as if such a thing had never been heard of. And yet the fundamental questions of this important movement belong solely to scientific investigators. Politicians, philanthropists, and logicians, will grope blindly and strike wildly in treating it, until Science has instructed them in its phenomena and laws, and shown them what voice Nature has in the decision of their questions. Politicians do not seek this information, nor care for it, when it is thrust upon them; but, all the same, the question must finally be determined by it. As we have said again and again, the missing factor, in its current discussion, has been a scientific exposition of the peculiarities of the feminine nature, and this absent factor is at the foundation of the whole inquiry. But the discussion is already beginning to turn in the scientific direction. The appearance and large circulation of Dr. Clarke's books, and the perturbations and reactions they have produced, show that this bearing of the subject is beginning to be appreciated. We have recently published two excellent-contributions, written by ladies, which quietly assume the scientific point of view, and recognize its controlling importance. They even treat this delicate and serious subject in the light of the most advanced speculations, against which many have an intense repugnance, and thus testify that the question can only be settled on the basis of reason, fact, and natural law. Other essays have been sent us with varying merits, which we have been compelled to decline for want of room, and because we aim to represent that scientific side of the subject which fails to find expression in other magazines. And now we ask the careful attention of our readers to the article of Dr. Van De Warker, in the present Monthly, on "Women in Relation to the Professions and Skilled Labor." The mode of considering the subject adopted by this writer is what has long been wanted; and his facts and conclusions should be well pondered by those who are vehemently advocating "revolution" in the social and industrial relations of women. Philanthropy is an excellent thing if duly enlightened; measures of relief are desirable if wisely conformed to facts; and therefore the first thing is to hear what Science has to say as to the fundamental conditions upon which all genuine and permanent reform must depend.

 

 
AN ELECTRO-MEDICAL HUMBUG.

There appeared, in The Popular Science Monthly of February, 1873, an article entitled "Is Electricity Life?" taken from the English Belgravia Magazine. Its admission to our pages was an editorial inadvertence, the article having been glanced at in haste, and only the first portion of it read. Its object, however, was to puff a quackish device of magnetic chains and bands, to be worn for the cure of nervous diseases. They were first called "Pulvermacher's Rings," and, having now been revived as "The Voltaic Armadillo," they are advertised as indorsed by The Popular Science Monthly. The advertiser says that the most eminent medical men of Europe and America approve their use, but none of their names are given, the sole authority quoted being the foreign writer in this magazine. Now, the publication of that article was a blunder; and the article itself is worthless and absurd: and if all editors, who happen to have been, at some time, the victims of careless oversight will copy this paragraph, they may help to protect a great number of stupid people with "rheumatics" and "neurology" against being humbugged.

  1. This interesting discourse has been added as an Appendix to the last American edition of the Belfast Address.