The Scientific Basis of National Progress/III

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[ 157 ]

New Truth, and its General Relation to Human Progress.

The great source of the success of applying science to trade, and of the beneficent effect of science upon human welfare in general, is simply the influence of demonstrable truth. We know that if we have once discovered all the principles, laws, and conditions of some scientific phenomenon, or of some improved process or result in a manufacture, the reproduction of exactly the same conditions will hereafter enable us to invariably produce the same result. In this respect science differs from dogma, the truth or falsity of which cannot be demonstrated; it also differs from empiricism, because when empirically working a process we are ignorant of the principles or laws which are operating, whilst with a scientific knowledge we understand those laws, and can direct them to our particular purposes. In the process of electro-plating for example, we understand the laws of the phenomena, and can direct them so as to obtain silver of a hard or soft quality, brittle or tough, crystalline silver, &c., according to our wish; but if we had only an empirical knowledge of the subject we could not thus vary the process. [ 158 ]

The highest test of truth is verified prediction; if we calculate beforehand that an eclipse of the Sun will occur at a certain hour and minute, and that eclipse occurs accurately at the predicted moment, we may rest assured that our knowledge upon that point is true and complete. If we say that a piece of clean iron, immersed in a solution of blue vitriol, will become covered with a layer of metallic copper, and we find upon trial that this result invariably occurs when we fulfil those conditions, we may be certain that our knowledge of this phenomenon and its conditions is also of a definite and certain character. Similarly, when we become able to predict with certainty the conditions of the Sun's surface, we shall probably also be able to predict severe winters, famines, &c., and therefore be prepared to suggest precautions to be taken against them. Even now the new truth necessary for this purpose is beginning to be evolved by means of scientific research.[20]

Amongst the great axioms and principles of science, possessing great certainty, and which enable us to predict, are, 1st. the general truth known as the Principle of Causation, that every effect has a cause; that the same cause, acting under the same conditions, always produces the same effect; and that causation acts through all time and all space:—2nd. the great truth, that every phenomenon requires time; and every substance occupies space:—3rd. the Principles of Conservation and Persistency of Matter [ 159 ] and Energy; that out of nothing, nothing comes; and out of everything, everything proceeds; that all the future states of the Universe are implicitly contained in and will be evolved out of the present state of the Universe; that we have no experience and possess no verified knowledge either of creation or annihilation of Matter or Energy; that we cannot absolutely create or destroy even an idea;[21] and that Matter and Energy appear to be eternal:—4th. the Principle of Convertibility and Equivalency of the different forms of Energy, according to which the various forces known as mechanical power, heat, light, electricity, magnetism, chemical action, &c., being modes of motion, are convertible into each other in equivalent quantities and without addition or loss. These and other great principles constitute the basis of physical and chemical science, by obeying which, we have been enabled to evolve all the wonderful practical realities of science of the present day.[22] To these great principles may be added the more concrete truth called the "Law of Progress," the essential idea of which is time, a time-rate; which regulates the speed of increase of civilization, and is evidently connected with the great truth that every phenomenon occupies time.

The Principle of Gravitation, demonstrated by Newton, explains a vast number of facts relating to the motions of the Heavenly bodies:—the [ 160 ] Undulatory Theory of Light, largely developed by the labours of Fresnel, renders equally clear and systematic an almost endless number and variety of optical phenomena; Oersted's law of Electro-magnetism similarly explains and renders consistent a multitude of facts respecting the movements of magnets and electric conductors, which would otherwise be confusing to remember and impossible to satisfactorily explain. And the great mental value of these comprehensive ideas to mankind, consists largely in relieving the memory and diminishing mental confusion, by co-ordinating a large number of different facts and apparently inconsistent phenomena by means of a general conception which embraces the whole of them. Thus a knowledge of the Principle of Gravitation informs us that both the ascent of a balloon in the air, and the descent of a stone in water, are alike due to the same force of gravity; and that of Chemical Affinity proves to us that the apparently unlike phenomena of slow rusting of iron and vivid combustion of phosphorus are essentially alike and due to the same cause.

All bodies, whether living or dead, and all forms of energy, appear to be absolutely subject to the great laws of Causation, Progress, Conservation, &c., no one can escape them; the man who transgresses the Law of Progress by being too much in advance of his epoch, is punished as certainly as he who lags behind it; all must advance together, and at approximately the prescribed rates. [ 161 ]

The real source of all that is good in new scientific knowledge arises from its verified and verifiable character, its high degree of certainty, and its capacity of withstanding all the tests which can be applied to it. By the term "scientific knowledge" in this case I mean that only that which has been verified, and I purposely exclude all matters of hypothesis, mere opinion or belief. Scientific research is the chief basis of national progress, not only because it is continually disclosing new truths to us, but also because the truths it reveals are frequently of the most definite kind.

As the term "verified truth" may appear vague, the questions may well be asked, what is truth? And how may we best detect it? And especially what is new truth? and how may it best be recognised? Truth may be conveniently defined as universal consistency; or that which perfectly conforms to facts, and agrees with the widest experience, when tested by means of all our intellectual powers, the reasoning faculty in particular. The usual modern criterion of it, is consistency with the fundamental axioms of logic, and with all the great principles of nature as established by means of scientific research, such as the universality of causation, the continuity of phenomena, the indestructibility of matter and energy, the convertibility and equivalency of forces, &c. All truth whatever is one in character by possessing the inseparable attribute of complete consistency. The truthfulness of scientific knowledge is proved by its agreement with universal experience and with the [ 162 ] fundamental logical axioms:—a thing either is or is not:—a thing cannot both be and not be:—a thing must either be or not be:—things equal to the same are equal to each other; &c. It is chiefly by means of knowledge of these axioms and of the above principles of science, and of their varied and numerous modes of operation and application, that the man of science "explains" the multitudinous phenomena of nature, predicts future events, and is enabled to discover new truths and develope new inventions in the arts. Unlike other persons; when he sees a new effect, or hears of a new phenomenon, he at once refers it to these principles, in order to test its correctness or to explain it.

With regard to the detection of truth, that is often a difficult and complex process. There exists no royal or easy method; usually it can only be recognised by means of laborious and critical examination of the whole of the evidence obtainable in the case; and even then we are often obliged to be satisfied with only an approximation, or it may be with even a mere probability. Frequently also the truthfulness or otherwise of a statement cannot be decided in any degree in consequence of the absence of suitable or sufficient evidence, and for that we may have to wait for ages. We are now waiting for evidence necessary to decide many questions respecting the human mind.

With regard to the question, what is new truth?; that also is a difficult one to solve. The forms in which different truths appear are so various, and those [ 163 ] also in which even the same truth may shew itself are so diverse, that it is often impossible to discriminate new truth from old ideas clothed in a new form of words. The newness of an idea is entirely a question of evidence, and to determine it, usually requires a complete knowledge of all the circumstances affecting the particular case.

New truth appears to be usually derived from new physical or mental experiences of phenomena external to our perceiving faculty; either by observing matter or its forces under new conditions or from a new aspect; and the knowledge comes to us either through the avenues of our feelings and senses, or by means of direct observations, by comparison of such impressions, or by inferences drawn from them. From the results of such mental operations, additional new truths are evolved by the more complex process of analysis, combination and permutation of ideas. New truths are also evolved from old ones by each of these latter methods; but sooner or later the implicit contents of our stock of old knowledge becomes exhausted when used for such a purpose, and we are then obliged to seek new experience.

As new truths may be acquired in the more direct manner, by acquisition of new experience; and less directly, by mental operations upon old ideas, other subjects of less fundamental and more concrete nature than the simple sciences, such as sociology, &c., are also sources of progress, when treated in these ways. [ 164 ]

Of all subjects, the simple sciences of physics and chemistry, are at the present time, apparently making the most rapid advance, and the chief reasons for this probably are, 1st. they treat of facts and principles which can be verified, and 2nd. because the more complex sciences, together with the arts and manufactures based upon them, can only improve in proportion as they are developed. All the essentially human subjects, such as sociology, politics, morality, religious worship, &c., are in this position, and are probably results partly of the operation of the great principles of nature acting through the body and mind of man.

The chief method of discovering new truth is that of observation, experiment, and study, and further mental treatment of the results. The most systematic methods also of evolving new truths are those employed by scientific men in making discoveries, and when any person arrives at a new idea, he usually (either consciously or unconsciously) employs them.

The acquisition of new knowledge must of necessity precede its diffusion. Immediately a new truth, especially an important one, is discovered, its influence begins to permeate the existing mass of knowledge in various directions, causing us to view many of our old ideas in a new aspect; giving rise also by comparison and inference, and by processes of combination, permutation and analysis of ideas, to a multitude of other new truths, usually less important ones, which themselves also affect previous knowledge in similar ways, [ 165 ] and by analogous treatment give rise to additional new conceptions.

But although we evolve truthful new conceptions from previous ones by these purely mental methods, there is a limit to the number capable of being evolved from a limited stock of ideas, because the number of combinations and permutations of such a stock, though usually large, are themselves limited. The number however is large in proportion to the degree of essential importance of the ideas, and is greatest when we employ those of the fundamental principles of nature, already referred to; for instance a greater number of new ideas have been evolved by means of appropriate mental processes from the law of gravitation and from that of electro-magnetism than from any minor truth in science. Persons therefore who are the least familiar with great demonstrable principles are usually the least able to conceive new truthful ideas of intrinsic importance, or to draw new verifiable inferences of much theoretical value.

Every inventor and student knows that he continually requires new materials of thought, and if he does not obtain them, an obstacle, like a wall of adamant, rises before his mind in all directions, and prevents his forming new ideas. That also which is true of each individual is true of the collection of individuals, mankind; if new truths are not obtained, the thoughts of men flow in circles, and mental progress ceases. The mental characteristics of sequestered communities in remote isolated districts, are examples of this [ 166 ] fact. The influence of printing, railways, telegraphs, postal communication and other scientific developments, in aiding mental progress, afford other illustrations. A multitude of facts of this kind, and many others, leads us to the conclusion that each new idea requires a cause to produce it, and that human knowledge is subject to the great law of causation; also that the creation of an idea out of nothing would be a miracle, a phenomenon without a cause. Our present knowledge was not created by us, but was originated by previous knowledge and experience, including of course inherited impressions. Even in what is termed the "noblest effort of the mind," an act of reasoning or inference, we do not create an idea, but only render explicit in a new form of words, ideas already implicitly contained in the words of the propositions employed, as may easily be rendered manifest by mechanical means in Jevons's "Logical Machine;" a proper inference never contains more than its data. In the so-called "creation" of ideas by the imagination also, the new ideas are evolved from old ones, and rendered explicit by mental processes of analysis, combination, permutation, &c. Our scientific inventions also, being mental conceptions, an unlimited number of them cannot be made by means of a limited stock of old knowledge. It was in consequence of this limit, viz., the impossibility of actually creating ideas out of nothing, that human knowledge was not more advanced by metaphysical speculations until science with its experiments and [ 167 ] observations came to its assistance. These various facts prove the statement made in the Preface of this book, that present knowledge only enables mankind to maintain its present state.

Not only the mental, but also the physical advance of mankind is essentially dependent upon the discovery of new truths. Men's physical actions are determined not alone by their inherited and acquired tendencies and the influence of external nature upon them, but also by their ideas; as a man thinks, so also to a large extent does he act. Nations who do not adopt new ideas do not either mentally or physically advance, but change only so far as their immediate surroundings change; the Chinese are a remarkable example of this; even the tendencies which men inherit, were largely produced in their ancestors by the influence of ideas. The great fact of the essential dependence of human progress upon new knowledge, is a truth, the importance of which to man cannot be over-estimated, and is one which statesmen, ministers of religion, and philanthropists should seriously study.

Much of the apparent advance of this nation however is not real. The great bulk of our newly published knowledge, even that which is scientific, and considered by the public to be new, consists, not of new truths, but of old ones dressed in new forms of expression:—

"The tale repeated o'er and o'er,
With change of place and change of name.
Disguised, transformed, and yet the same
We've heard a hundred times before."—Longfellow.

[ 168 ]

It falls to the lot of but comparatively few men to discover or evolve important new truths. The great majority of learned men also, have through all historic time been occupied, and are still, not in evolving new ideas, but in re-expressing old ones in different forms of words; the literary spirit, is in civilised nations, almost universal. In ordinary writings it is a rare circumstance to meet with an important and really new idea; it is usually in books written by men who are acquainted or imbued with the great principles and truths of science, that the newest demonstrable ideas are most frequently found. The difference between evolving new ideas, and re-expressing and permutating old ones; largely characterises the dissimilarity of the scientific and the literary and theological minds. All however are necessary to the welfare of mankind, the former to advance and the other to maintain the condition of man. If all were not necessary they would probably not exist.

There are two great artificial divisions of scientific knowledge also, upon the development of which national progress largely depends, viz., knowledge of inanimate matter and knowledge of man; the latter we have largely cultivated but the former we have greatly neglected:—and even our study of man has been largely one-sided and literary. It is far less important to know what is man, than to know what are the great principles which underlie the actions of all living creatures, and in obedience to which man is compelled to work out his destiny in the Universe and the infinite future. [ 169 ]

It is evident from this, that much of the mental activity around us is not progress, but rather a process of maintaining present state, a prevention of decline, a continually going round and round in conventional varied step, a kind of intellectual mill. Under these circumstances it is not the original discoverer, but he who in this occupation, can best express old ideas, in the most varied forms and choicest language, who is most generally considered to be the greatest intellectual chief.

Although originality even in literature and art is very imperfectly encouraged in this country, both art and literature are much more readily understood and appreciated than scientific research, and treated as if they were more important. Whilst most persons can understand and appreciate the gift of a work of art to a public art collection, few can understand or properly value the discovery and gift of a new scientific truth of far greater intrinsic value to the public stock of knowledge; the treatment received by Priestley and other discoverers in comparison with that of local donors, sufficiently illustrates this. Even publishers of lucrative newspapers prefer to give prizes and pay liberally for sensational tales, than to pay for articles on the public advantages of new scientific knowledge.

20 ^  See "Barometer Cycles," by Balfour Stewart, F.R.S.—Nature, Jan. 13, 1881, p. 237.

21 ^  See p. 165, et seq.

22 ^  It would I consider be an improvement in our educational arrangements, if a Professorial chair, solely devoted to teaching those laws and principles, existed in each Scientific College.