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Civilisation: Its Cause and Cure Edward Carpenter

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Civilisation: Its Cause and Cure

by Edward Carpenter

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MODERN SCIENCE:
A CRITICISM

παντι λὁγω λὁγος ἱσος αντικεἱται

[Greek: panti logô; logos isos antikeitai.]

It is one of the difficulties which meet anyone who suggests that modern science is not wholly satisfactory, that it is immediately assumed that the writer is covertly defending what Ingersoll calls the "rib-story," or that he wishes to restore belief in the literal inspiration of the Bible. But, religious controversy apart, and while admitting that Science has done a great work in cleaning away the kitchen-middens of superstition and opening the path to clearer and saner views of the world, it is possible—and there is already a growing feeling that way—that her positive contributions to our comprehension of the order of the universe have in late times been disappointing, and that even her methods are only of limited applicability. After a glorious burst of perhaps fifty years, amid great acclamations and good hopes that the crafty old universe was going to be caught in her careful net, Science, it must be confessed, now finds herself in almost[Pg 80] every direction in the most hopeless quandaries; and, whether the rib-story be true or not, has at any rate provided no very satisfactory substitute for it. And the reason of this failure is very obvious. It goes with a certain defect in the human mind, which, as we have pointed out (note, p. 57), necessarily belongs to the Civilisation-period—the tendency, namely, to separate the logical and intellectual part of man from the emotional and instinctive, and to give it a locus standi of its own. Science has failed, because she has attempted to carry out the investigation of nature from the intellectual side alone—neglecting the other constituents necessarily involved in the problem. She has failed, because she has attempted an impossible task; for the discovery of a permanently valid and purely intellectual representation of the universe is simply impossible. Such a thing does not exist.

The various theories and views of nature which we hold are merely the fugitive envelopes of the successive stages of human growth—each set of theories and views belonging organically to the moral and emotional stage which has been reached, and being in some sort the expression of it; so that the attempt at any given time to set up an explanation of phenomena which shall be valid in itself and without reference to the mental condition of those who set it up, necessarily ends in failure; and the present state of confusion and contradiction in which modern Science finds itself is merely the result of such attempt.

[Pg 81]

Of course this limitation of the validity of Science has been recognised by most of those who have thought about the matter;[17] but it is so commonly overlooked, and latterly the notion has so far gained ground that the "laws" of science are immutable facts and eternal statements of verity, that it may be worth while to treat the subject a little more in detail.

The method of Science is the method of all mundane knowledge; it is that of limitation or actual ignorance. Placed in face of the great uncontained unity of Nature we can only deal with it in thought by selecting certain details and isolating those (either wilfully or unconsciously) from the rest. That is right enough. But in doing so—in isolating such and such details—we practically beg the question we are in search of; and, moreover, in supposing such isolation we suppose what is false, and therefore vitiate our conclusion. From these two radical defects of all intellectual inquiry we cannot escape. The views of Science are like the views of a mountain; each is only possible as long as you limit yourself to a certain standpoint. Move your position, and the view is changed.[18]

Perhaps the word "species" will illustrate our meaning as well as any word; and, in a sense, the word is typical of the method of Science. I[Pg 82] see a dog for the first time. It is a fox-hound. Then I see a second fox-hound, and a third and a fourth. Presently I form from these few instances a general conception of "dog." But after a time I see a grey-hound and a terrier and a mastiff, and my old conception is destroyed. A new one has to be formed, and then a new one and a new one. Now I overlook the whole race of civilised dogs and am satisfied with my wisdom; but presently I come upon some wild dogs, and study the habits of the wolf and the fox. Geology turns me up some links, and my conception of dog melts away like a lump of ice into surrounding water. My species exists no more. As long as I knew a few of the facts I could talk very wise about them; or if I limited myself arbitrarily, as we will say, to a study only of animals in England at the present day, I could classify them; but widen the bounds of my knowledge, the area of observation, and all my work has to be done over again. My species is not a valid fact of Nature, but a fiction arising out of my own ignorance or arbitrary isolation of the objects observed.

Or to take an instance from Astronomy. We are accustomed to say that the path of the moon is an ellipse. But this is a very loose statement. On enquiry we find that, owing to perturbations said to be produced by the sun, the path deviates considerably from an ellipse. In fact in strict calculations it is taken as being a certain ellipse only for an instant—the next instant it is supposed to[Pg 83] be a portion of another ellipse. We might then call the path an irregular curve somewhat resembling an ellipse. This is a new view. But on further enquiry it appears that, while the moon is going round the earth, the earth itself is speeding on through space about the sun—in consequence of which the actual path of the moon does not in the least resemble an ellipse! Finally the sun itself is in motion with regard to the fixed stars, and they are in movement too. What then is the path of the moon? No one knows; we have not the faintest idea—the word itself ceases to have any assignable meaning. It is true that if we agree to ignore the perturbations produced by the sun—as in fact we do ignore perturbations produced by the planets and other bodies—and if we agree to ignore the motion of the earth, and the flight of the solar system through space, and even the movement of any centre round which that may be speeding, we may then say that the moon moves in an ellipse. But this has obviously nothing to do with actual facts. The moon does not move in an ellipse—not even "relatively to the earth"—and probably never has done and never will do so. It may be a convenient view or fiction to say that it would do so under such and such circumstances—but it is still only a fiction. To attempt to isolate a small portion of the phenomena from the rest in a universe of which the unity is one of Science's most cherished convictions, is obviously self-stultifying and useless.

[Pg 84]

But you say it can be proved by mathematics that the ellipse would be the path under these conditions; to which I reply that the mathematical proof, though no doubt cogent to the human mind (as at present constituted in most people), is open to the same objection that it does not deal with actual facts. It deals with a mental supposition, i.e., that there are only two bodies acting on each other—a case which never has occurred and never can occur—and then, assuming the law of gravitation (which is just the thing which has to be proved), it arrives at a mental formula, the ellipse. But to argue from this process that the ellipse is really a thing in Nature, and that the heavenly bodies do move or even tend to move in ellipses, is obviously a most unwarrantable leap in the dark. Finally you argue that the leap is warranted because, by assuming that the moon and planets move in ellipses, you can actually foretell things that happen, as for instance the occurrences of eclipses; and in reply to that I can only say that Tycho Brahé foretold eclipses almost as well by assuming that the heavenly bodies moved in epicycles, and that modern astronomers do apply the epicycle theory in their mathematical formulæ. The epicycles were an assumption made for a certain purpose, and the ellipses are an assumption made for the same purpose. In some respects the ellipse is a more convenient fiction than the epicycle, but it is no less a fiction.

In other words—with regard to this "path of the moon" (as with regard to any other phenomenon[Pg 85] of Nature)—our knowledge of it must be either absolute or relative. But we cannot know the absolute path; and as to the relative, why all we can say is that it does not exist (any more than species exists)—we cannot break up Nature so; it is not a thing in Nature, but in our own minds—it is a view and a fiction.[19]

Again, let us take an example from Physics—Boyle's law of the compressibility of gases. This law states that, the temperature remaining constant, the volume of a given quantity of gas is inversely proportional to its pressure. It is a law which has been made a good deal of, and at one time was thought to be true, i.e., it was thought to be a statement of fact. A more extended and careful observation, however, shows that it is only true under so many limitations, that, like the ellipse in Astronomy, it must be regarded as a convenient fiction and nothing more. It appears that air follows the supposed law pretty well, but not by any means exactly except within very narrow limits of pressure; other gases, such as carbonic acid and hydrogen, deviate from it very considerably—some more than others, and some in one direction and some in the opposite. It was found, among other things, that the nearer a gas was to its liquefying point, the greater was the deviation from the supposed law, and the conclusion was jumped at that the law was true for[Pg 86] perfect gases only. This idea of a perfect gas of course involved the assumption that gases, as they get farther and farther removed from their liquifying point, reach at last a fixed and stable condition, when no further change in their qualities takes place—at any rate for a very long time—and Boyle's law was supposed to apply to this condition. Since then, however, it has been discovered that there is an ultra-gaseous state of matter, and on all sides it is becoming abundantly clear that the change in the condition of matter from the liquid state to the ultra-gaseous state is perfectly continuous—through all modifications of liquidity and condensation and every degree of perfection and imperfection of gasiness to the utmost rarity of the fourth state. At what point, then, does Boyle's law really apply? Obviously it applies exactly at only one point in this long ascending scale—at one metaphysical point—and at every other point it is incorrect. But no gas in Nature remains or can be maintained just at one point in the scale of its innumerable changes. Consequently, all we can say is that out of the innumerable different states that gases are capable of, and the innumerable different laws of compressibility which they therefore follow, we could theoretically find one state to which would correspond the law of compressibility called Boyle's law; and that, if we could preserve a gas in that state (which we can't), Boyle's law really would be true just for that case. In other words, the law is metaphysical. It has no real existence. It is a convenient view or fiction,[Pg 87] arising in the first place out of ignorance, and only tenable as long as further observation is limited or wilfully ignored.

This then is the Method of Science. It consists in forming a law or statement by only looking at a small portion of the facts; then, when the other facts come in, the law or statement gradually fades away again. Conrad Gessner and other early zoologists began by classifying animals according to the number of their horns! Political Economy begins by classifying social action under a law of Supply and Demand. When people believed that the earth was flat, they generalised the facts connected with the fall of heavy bodies into a conception of "up and down." These were two opposite directions in space. Heavy bodies took the "downward"; it was their nature. But in time, and as fresh facts came in, it became impossible to group animals any longer by their horns; "up and down" ceased to have a meaning when it was known that the earth was round. Then fresh laws and statements had to be formed. In the last-mentioned case—it being conceived that the earth was the centre of the universe—the new law supposed was that all heavy bodies tended to the centre of the earth as such. This was all right and satisfactory for a while; but presently it appeared that the earth was not the centre of the universe, and that some heavy bodies—such as the satellites of Jupiter—did not in fact tend to the centre of the earth at all. Another lump of ignorance (which had enabled the old [Pg 88]generalisation to exist) was removed, and a new generalisation, that of universal gravitation, was after a time formed. But it is probable that this law is only conceived of as true through our ignorance; nay it is certain that belief in its truth presents the gravest difficulties.

In fact here we come upon an important point. It is sometimes said that, granting the above arguments and the partiality and defectiveness of the laws of Science, still they are approximations to the truth, and as each fresh fact is introduced the consequent modification of the old law brings us nearer and nearer to a limit of rigorous exactness which we shall reach at last if we only have patience enough. But is this so? What kind of rigorous statement shall we reach when we have got all the facts in? Remembering that Nature is one, and that if we try to get a rigorous statement for one set of phenomena (as say the lunar theory) by isolating them from the rest, we are thereby condemning ourselves beforehand to a false conclusion, is it not evident that our limit is at all times infinitely far off? If one knew all the facts relating to a given inquiry except two or three, one might reasonably suppose that one was near a limit of exactness in one's knowledge; but seeing that in our investigation of Nature we only know two or three, so to speak, out of a million, it is obvious that at any moment the fresh law arising from increased experience may completely upset our former calculations. There is a difference between approximating to a wall and [Pg 89]approximating to the North Star. In the one case you are tending to a speedy conclusion of your labours, in the other case you are only going in a certain direction. The theories of Science generally belong under the second head. They mark the direction which the human mind is taking at the moment in question, but they mark no limits. At each point the appearance of a limit is introduced—which becomes, like a mirage in the desert, an object of keen pursuit; but the limit is not really there—it is only an effect of the standpoint, and disappears again after a time as the observer moves. In the case of gravitation there is for the moment an appearance of finality in the law of the inverse square of the distance, but this arises probably from the fact that the law is derived from a limited area of observation only, namely the movements (at great distances from each other) of some of the heavenly bodies.[20] The Cavendish and Schehallien experiments do not show more than that the law at ordinary distances on the earth's surface does not vary very much from the above; while the [Pg 90]so-called molecular forces compel us (unless we make the very artificial assumption that a variety of attractions and repulsions co-exist in matter alongside of, and yet totally distinct from, the attraction of gravitation) to suppose very great modifications of the law for small distances. In fact, as we saw of Boyle's law before—the Newtonian law is probably metaphysical—true under certain limited conditions—and the appearance of finality has been given to it by the fact that our observations have been made under such or similar conditions. When we extend our observation into quite other regions of space, the law of the inverse square ceases to appear as even an approximation to the truth—as, for instance, the law of the inverse fifth power has been thought to be nearer the mark for small molecular distances.

And indeed the state of the great theories of Science in the present day—the confusion in which the Atomic theory of physics finds itself, the dismal insufficiency of the Darwin theory of the survival of the fittest; the collapse in late times of one of the fundamental theories of Astronomy, namely that of the stability of the lunar and planetary orbits; the cataclysms and convulsions which Geology seems just now to be undergoing; the appalling and indeed insurmountable difficulties which attach to the Undulatory theory of Light; the final wreck and abandonment of the Value-theory, the foundation-theory of Political Economy—all these things do not seem to point to very[Pg 91] near limits of rigorous exactness! An impregnable theory, or one nearing the limit of impregnability, is in fact as great an absurdity as an impregnable armour-plate. Certainly, given the cannon-balls, you can generally find an armour-plate which will be proof against them; but given the armour-plate, you can always find cannon-balls which will smash it up.

The method of Science, as being a method of artificial limitation or actual ignorance, is curiously illustrated by a consideration of its various branches. I have taken some examples from Astronomy, which is considered the most exact of the physical sciences. Now does it not seem curious that Astronomy—the study of the heavenly bodies, which are the most distant from us of all bodies, and most difficult to observe—should yet be the most perfect of the sciences? Yet the reason is obvious. Astronomy is the most perfect science because we know least about it—because our ignorance of the actual phenomena is most profound. Situated in fact as we are, on a speck in space, with our observations limited to periods of time which, compared with the stupendous flights of the stars, are merely momentary and evanescent, we are in somewhat the position of a mole surveying a railway track and the flight of locomotives. And as a man seeing a very small arc of a very vast circle easily mistakes it for a straight line, so we are easily satisfied with cheap deductions and solutions in Astronomy which a more extensive experience would cause us to reject. The man[Pg 92] may have a long way to go along his "straight line" before he discovers that it is a curve; he may have much farther to go along his curve before he discovers that it is not a circle; and much farther still to go before he finds out whether it is an ellipse or a spiral or a parabola, or none of these; yet what curve it is will make an enormous difference in his ultimate destination. So with the astronomer; and yet Astronomy is allowed to pass as an exact science![21]

Well then, as in Astronomy we get an "exact[Pg 93] science," because the facts and phenomena are on such a tremendous scale that we only see a minute portion of them—just a few details so to speak—and our ignorance therefore allows us to dogmatise; so at the other end of the scale in Chemistry and Physics we get quasi-exact sciences, because the facts and phenomena are on such a minute scale that we overlook all the details and see only certain general effects here and there. When a solution of cupric sulphate is treated with ammonia, a mass of flocculent green precipitate is formed. No one has the faintest notion of all the various movements and combinations of the molecules of these two fluids which accompany the appearance of the precipitate. They are no doubt very complex. But among all the changes that are taking place, one change has the advantage of being visible to the eye, and the chemist singles that out as the main phenomenon. So chemistry at large consists in a few, very few, facts taken at random as it were (or because they happen to be of such a nature as to be observable) out of the enormous mass of facts really concerned: and because of their fewness the chemist is able to arrange them, as he thinks, in some order, that is, to generalise about them. But it is certain as can be that he only has to extend the number of his facts, or his powers of observation, to get all his generalisations upset. The same may be said of magnetism, light, heat, and the other physical sciences; but it is not necessary to prove in detail what is sufficiently obvious.

[Pg 94]

But now, roughly speaking, there is a third region of human observation—a region which does not, like Astronomy (and Geology), lie so far beyond and above us that we only see a very small portion of it; nor, like Chemistry and Physics, so far below us and under such minute conditions of space and time that we can only catch its general effects; but which lies more on a level with man himself—the so-called organic world—the study of man, as an individual and in society, his history, his development, the study of the animals, the plants even, and the laws of life—the sciences of Biology, Sociology, History, Psychology, and the rest. Now this region is obviously that which man knows most of. I don't say that he generalises most about it, but he knows the facts best. For one observation that he makes of the habits and behaviour of the stars, or of chemical solutions—for one observation in the remote regions of Astronomy or Chemistry—he makes thousands and millions of the habits and behaviour of his fellowmen, and hundreds and thousands of those of the animals and plants. Is it not curious then that in this region he is least sure, least dogmatic, most doubtful whether there be a law or no? Or, rather, is it not quite in accord with our contention, namely that Science, like an uninformed boy, is most definite and dogmatic just where actual knowledge is least.

It will however be replied that the phenomena of living beings are far more complex than the phenomena of Astronomy or Physics—and that[Pg 95] is the reason why exact science makes so little way with them. Though man knows many million times more about the habits of his fellow-men than about the habits of the stars, yet the former subject is so many million times more complicated than the latter that all his additional knowledge does not avail him. This is the plea. Yet it does not hold water. It is an entire assumption to say that the phenomena of Astronomy are less complicated than the phenomena of vitality. A moment's thought will show that the phenomena of Astronomy are in reality infinitely complex. Take the movement of the moon: even with our present acquaintance with that subject we know that it has some relation to the position and mass of the earth, including its ocean tides; also to the position and mass of the sun; also to the position and mass of every one of the planets; also of the comets, numerous and unknown as they are; also the meteoric rings; and finally of all the stars! The problem, as everyone knows, is absolutely insoluble even for the shortest period; but when the element of Time enters in, and we consider that to do anything like justice to the problem in an astronomical sense we should have to solve it for at least a million years—during which interval the earth, sun, and other bodies concerned would themselves have been changing their relative positions, it becomes obvious that the whole question is infinitely complex—and yet this is only a small fragment of Astronomy. To debate, therefore, whether the infinite complexity of the movements[Pg 96] of the stars is greater or less than the infinite complexity of the phenomena of life, is like debating the precedence of the three persons of the Trinity, or whether the Holy Ghost was begotten or proceeding: we are talking about things which we do not understand.

Nature is one; she is not, we may guess, less profound and wonderful in one department than another; but from the fact that we live under certain conditions and limitations we see most deeply into that portion which is, as it were, on the same level with us. In humanity we look her in the face; there our glance pierces, and we see that she is profound and wonderful beyond all imagination; what we learn there is the most valuable that we can learn. In the regions where Science rejoices to disport itself we see only the skirts of her garments, so to speak, and though we measure them never so precisely, we still see them and nothing more.

There is another point, however, of which much is often made as a plea for the substantial accuracy of the scientific laws and generalisations, namely that they enable us to predict events. But this need not detain us long. J. S. Mill in his "Logic" has pointed out—and a little thought makes it obvious—that the success of a prediction does not prove the truth of the theory on which it is founded. It only proves the theory was good enough for that prediction.

There was a time when the sun was a god going forth in his chariot every morning, and there was[Pg 97] a time when the earth was the centre of the universe, and the sun a ball of fire revolving round it. In those times men could predict with certainty that the sun would rise next morning, and could even name the hour of its appearance; but we do not therefore think that their theories were true. When Adams and Leverrier foretold the appearance of Neptune in a certain part of the sky, they made a brief prediction to an unknown planet from the observed relations of the movements of the known planets; that does not show, however, that the grand generalisation of these movements, called the "law of gravitation," is correct. It merely shows that it did well enough for this very brief step—brief indeed compared with the real problems of Astronomy, for which latter it is probably quite inadequate.

Tycho Brahé, excellent astronomer as he was, kept as we saw to the epicycle theory. He imagined that the moon's path round the earth was a fixed combination of cycle and epicycle. Kepler introduced the conception of the ellipse. Later on the motion of the perigee and other deviations compelled the abandonment of the ellipse and the supposition of an endless curve, similar to an ellipse at any one point, and maintaining a fixed mean distance from the earth, but never returning on itself or making a definite closed figure of any kind. Finally the researches of Mr. George Darwin have destroyed the conception of the fixed mean distance, and introduced that of a continually enlarging spiral. Certainly no four theories could[Pg 98] well be more distinct from each other than these; yet if an eclipse had to be calculated for next year it would scarcely matter which theory was used. The truth is that the actual problem is so vast that a prediction of a few years in advance only touches the fringe of it so to speak; yet if the fulfilment of the prediction were taken as a proof of the theory in each of these different cases, it would lead in the end to the most hopelessly contradictory results.

The success of a prediction therefore only shows that the theory on which it is founded has had practical value so far as a working hypothesis. As working hypotheses, and as long as they are kept down to brief steps which can be verified, the scientific theories are very valuable—indeed we could not do without them; but when they are treated as objective facts—when, for instance, the "law of gravitation"—derived as it is from a brief study of the heavenly bodies—has a universal truth ascribed to it, and is made to apply to phenomena extending over millions of years, and to warrant unverifiable prophecies about the planetary orbits, or statements about the age of the earth and the duration of the solar system—all one can say is that those who argue so are flying off at a tangent from actual facts. For as the tangent represents the direction of a curve over a small arc, so these theories represent the bearing of facts well enough over a small region of observation; but as following the tangent we soon lose the curve, so following these theories for any [Pg 99]distance beyond the region of actual observation we speedily part company with facts.[22]

To proceed with a few more words about the general method of Science. Science passes from phenomena to laws, from individual details which can be seen and felt to large generalisations of an intangible and phantom-like character. That is to say, that for convenience of thought we classify objects. How is this classification effected? It is effected through the perception of identity amid difference. Among a lot of objects I perceive certain attributes in common; this group of common attributes serves, so to speak, as a band to tie these objects together with—into a bundle convenient for thought. I give a name to the band, and that serves to denote any unit of the bundle by. Thus perceiving common attributes among a lot of dogs—as in an example already given—I give the name foxhound to this group of attributes, and thenceforth use the name foxhound to connect these objects by in my mind; again perceiving other common attributes among[Pg 100] other similar objects, I invent the word greyhound to denote these latter by. The concept foxhound differs from the objects which it denotes, in this respect that these latter are (as we say) real dogs with thousands and thousands of attributes each: one of them has a broken tooth, another is nearly all white, another answers to the name "Sally," and so on; while the concept is only an imaginary form in my mind, with only a few attributes and no individual peculiarities—a kind of tiny G.C.M. arising from the contemplation of a long row of big figures.

Now having created these concepts "foxhound," "greyhound," and a lot of other similar ones, I find that they in their turn have a few attributes in common and thus give rise to a new concept "dog." Of course this "dog" is more of an abstraction than ever, the concept of a concept. In fact the peculiarity of this whole process is that, as sometimes stated, the broader the generalisation becomes the less is its depth; or in other words and obviously, that as the number of objects compared increases, the number of attributes common to them all decreases. Ultimately as we saw at the beginning, when a sufficient number of objects are taken in, the concept ("dog" or whatever it may be) fades away and ceases to have any meaning. This therefore is the dilemma of Science and indeed of all human knowledge, that in carrying out the process which is peculiar to it, it necessarily leaves the dry ground of reality for the watery region of abstractions, which [Pg 101]abstractions become ever more tenuous and ungraspable the farther it goes, and ultimately fade into mere ghosts. Nevertheless the process is a quite necessary one, for only by it can the mind deal with things.

To dwell for a moment over this last point: it is clear that every object has relation to every other object in the world—exists in fact only in virtue of such relation to other objects; it has therefore an infinite number of attributes. The mind consequently is powerless to deal with such object—it cannot by any possibility think it. In order to deal with it, the mind is forced to single out a few of its attributes (the method of ignorance or abstraction already alluded to)—that is a few of its relations to other objects, and to think them first. The others it will think afterwards—all in good time. In thus stripping or abstracting the great mass of its attributes from our object, and leaving only a few, which it combines into a concept, the mind practically abandons the real article and takes up with a shadow; but in return for this it gets something which it can handle, which is light to carry about, and which, like paper-money, for the time and under certain conditions does really represent value. The only danger is lest it—the mind—carried away by the extensive applicability of the partial concept which it has thus formed, should credit it with an actual value—should project it on the background of the external world and ascribe to it that reality which belongs only to objects [Pg 102]themselves, i.e., to things embodying an infinite range of attributes.

The peculiar method of Science is now clear to us, and can be abundantly illustrated from modern results. Our experience consists in sensations, we feel the weight of heavy bodies, we see them fall when let go, we have sensations of heat and cold, light and darkness, and so forth. But these sensations are more or less local and variable from man to man, and we naturally seek to find some common measure of them, by which we can talk about and describe them exactly, and independently of the peculiarities of individual observers. Thus we seek to find some common phenomenon which underlies (as we say) the sensations of heat and cold, or of light and darkness, or something which explains (i.e., is always present in) the case of falling bodies—and to do this we adopt the method of generalisation above described, i.e., we observe a great number of individual cases and then see what qualities or attributes they have in common. So far good. But it is just here that the fallacy of the ordinary scientific procedure comes in; for, forgetting that these common qualities are mere abstractions from the real phenomena we credit them with a real existence, and regard the actual phenomena as secondary results, "effects" or what-not of these "causes." This in plain language is putting the cart before the horse—or rather the shadow before the man. Thus finding that a vast number of variously shaped and coloured bodies tend to fall towards the earth, we erect this[Pg 103] common attribute of falling into an independent existence which we call "attraction" or "gravitation"—and ultimately posit a universal gravitation acting on all bodies in Nature!—or finding that a number of different substances, such as water, air, wood, etc., convey to us the sensation we call sound, and that in all these cases the common element is vibration, we detach the attribute vibration, credit it with a separate existence, and speak of it as the cause of sound. But though we may thus think of the shadow as separate from the man, the shadow cannot be separate from the man; and though we may try to think of the falling or the vibration as separate from the wood or the stone, such falling and vibration cannot exist apart from these and other such materials, and the effort to speak of it as so existing ends in mere nonsense. More strange still is the fatuity, when, as in the case of the undulatory Theory of light or the Atomic theory of physics, the concepts thus erected into actualities are composed of purely imaginary attributes—of which no one has had any experience—an undulatory ether in the one case, a hard and perfectly elastic atom in the other. The total result is of course—just what we see—Science landing itself in pure absurdities in every direction. Beginning by detaching the attribute of falling from the bodies that fall—beginning that is by an abstraction, which of course is also a falsity—it generalises and generalises this abstraction till at last it reaches a perfectly generalised absurdity and thing without any[Pg 104] meaning—the law of gravitation.[23] The statement that "every particle in the universe attracts every other particle with a force proportional to the mass of the attracting particle and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between the two" is devoid of meaning—the human mind can give no definite meanings to the words "mass," "attract," and "force," which do not overlap and stultify each other. The law in every way baffles intelligence. Newton, who invented it, declared that no philosophic mind would suppose that bodies could thus act on one another "without the mediation of anything else by and through which their action might be conveyed;" scientific men to-day are fain to see that a material mediation of this kind would only make the law still more remote from our comprehension than it already is, while, on the other hand, an immaterial mediation or a fourth-dimensional mediation, such as some propose, would simply remove the problem out of the regions of scientific analysis.[24] Again, the[Pg 105] form of the law is declared to be the inverse square of the distance; but this is the law by the nature of space itself of any perfect radiation, and if true of gravitation involves the conclusion that that radiation of force (whatever its nature may be) takes place without loss or dissipation of any kind. This would make gravitation absolutely unique among phenomena. More than this, its propagation is supposed to be instantaneous over the most enormous distances of space, and to take place always unhindered and unretarded, whatever be the number or the nature of the bodies between! What can be more clear than that the law is simply metaphysical—a projection into a monstrous universality and abstraction, of partially understood phenomena in a particular region of observation—a Brocken-shadow on the background of Nature of the observer's own momentary attitude of thought?

Again, the undulatory theory of Light. Studying the phenomena of a vast number of coloured[Pg 106] and bright bodies, Science finds that it can think about these phenomena—can generalise and tie them into bundles best by assuming that the bodies are all in a state of vibration; a vibration so minute that (unlike the vibrations connected with Sound) it cannot be directly perceived. So far good. There is no harm in the assumption of vibration, as long as it is understood to be a mere assumption for a temporary convenience of thought. But now Science goes farther than this, and not only supposes a common attribute to all visible bodies, but credits this common attribute with a real existence independent of the visible bodies in which it was supposed to inhere—and makes this the cause of their visibility! Obviously now a common and universal medium is required for this common and universal assumed vibration (just as Newton required a medium for his universal "falling")—and so, hey presto! we have the Undulatory Ether. And having got it we find that to fulfil our requirements it must have a pressure of 17 million million pounds on the square inch, and yet be so rare and tenuous as not to hinder the lightest breath of air; that while it is thus rare enough to surpass all our powers of direct scrutiny, its vibrations must yet be capable of agitating and breaking up the solidest bodies; that it must pass freely through some dense and close structures like glass, and yet be excluded by some light and porous, like cork, and so on and on! In fact we find that it is unthinkable. Against this adamantine, impalpable Ether, as against[Pg 107] this instantaneous, untranslatable gravitation, Science bangs its devoted head in vain. Having created these absurdities by the method of "personification of abstractions"[25] or the "reification of concepts,"[26] it seriously and in all good faith tries to understand them; having dressed up its own Mumbo Jumbo (which it once jeered at religion for doing) it piously shuts its eyes and endeavours to believe in it.

The Atomic Theory affords a good example of the "method of ignorance." When we try to think about material objects generally—to generalise about them—that is, to find some attribute or attributes common to them, we are at first puzzled. They present such an immense variety. But after a time, by dint of stripping off or abstracting all such attributes or qualities as we think we perceive in one body and not in another—as for example, redness, blueness, warmth, saltness, life, intelligence, or what not—we find an attribute left, namely resistance to touch, which is common to all material bodies. This quality in the body we call "mass," and since it is only known by motion, mass and motion become correlative attributes which we find useful to class bodies by, not because they represent the various bodies particularly well, but because they are found in all bodies; just as you might class people by their boots—not because boots are a very valuable method of classification, but simply because every[Pg 108] one wears boots of one kind or another. So far there is no great harm done. But now having by the method of ignorance thought away all the qualities of bodies, except the two correlatives of mass and motion, we set about to explain the phenomena of Nature generally by these two "thinks" that are left. We credit these "thinks" (mass and motion) with an independent existence and proceed to derive the rest of phenomena from them. The proceeding of course is absurd, and ends by exposing its own absurdity. Thinking of mass and motion as existing in the various bodies apart from colour, smell, and so forth—which of course is not the case—we combine the two attributes into one concept, the atom, which we thus assume to exist in all bodies. The atom has neither colour, smell, warmth, taste, life or intelligence; it has only mass and motion; for it came by the method of divesting our thought of everything but mass and motion. It is a projection of a "think" upon the background of nature. And it is an absurdity. No such thing exists in all the wide universe as mass and motion divested from colour, smell, warmth, life and intelligence. The atom is unthinkable. It is perfectly hard and it is perfectly elastic—which is the same as saying that it bends and it doesn't bend at the same time; it has form, and it hasn't form; it has affinities and yet is perfectly indifferent. To justify to men the ways of their Mumbo Jumbo has sorely exercised the votaries of the Atom. One philosopher says that it is mere matter, passive, exercising no[Pg 109] force but resistance; another says that it is a centre of force, without matter; a third suggests that it is not itself matter, but only a vortex in other matter! All agree that it is not an object of sense, and there remains no conclusion but that it is nonsense![27]

[Pg 110]

And so on in all directions. Human thought flying off at its tangents from Nature lands itself in infinite nothings afar off, poor ghostly skeletons and abstractions from Nature—which indeed is all right, for human thought as yet can only see ghosts and not realities; but let there be no mistake, let these ghosts not be mistaken for realities—for they are not even compatible with each other. The Atom that suits the physicist does not suit the chemist. The Ether that does for the vehicle of Light will not do for the vehicle of universal Gravitation.

It would be hardly worth while entering into these criticisms, were it not evident that Science in modern times, either tacitly or explicitly, has been seeking, as I said at the beginning, to enounce facts independent of Man, the observer. Seeing that the ordinary statements of daily life are obviously inexact and relative to the observer—charged with human sensation in fact—Science has naturally tried to produce something which should be exact and independent of human sensation; but here it has of course condemned itself beforehand to failure; for no statement of isolated phenomena or groups of phenomena can be exact except by the method of ignorance aforesaid, and no statement obviously can be really independent of human sensation. When a man says It is cold, his statement, it must be confessed, is deplorably human and vague. It—what is that? Is—do you mean is? or do you mean feels, appears? Cold—in what[Pg 111] sense? Cold to yourself, or to other people, or to polar bears, or by the thermometer? And so on. Science therefore steps in with an air of authority and sets him right. It says the temperature is 30° Fahrenheit, as if to settle the matter. But does this really settle the matter? Temperature—who knows what that is? What is the scientific definition of it? I find (Clerk-Maxwell's Theory of Heat, p. 2.) "the temperature of a body is a quantity which indicates how hot or how cold the body is." This sounds very much like saying, "the colour of a body is a quantity which indicates how blue, red, or yellow the body is." It does not bring us much farther on our way. But in the next paragraph Maxwell shows the object of his definition (which of course is only preliminary) by saying, "By the use, therefore, of the word temperature, we fix in our minds the conviction that it is possible not only to feel, but to measure, how hot a body is." That is to say he clearly maintains that it is possible to find an absolute standard of hotness or coldness—or rather of the unknown thing called temperature—outside of ourselves and independent of human sensation. When the man said he was cold he was probably just describing his own sensations, but here Science indicates that it is in search of something which has an independent existence of its own, and which therefore when found we can measure exactly and once for all. What then is that thing? What is temperature? say, what is it?

We cudgel our brains in vain. Perhaps the[Pg 112] remainder of the sentence will help us. "The temperature is 30° Fahrenheit." "The unknown thing is thirty degrees." What then is a degree? That is the next question. When the Theory of Heat went out from sensation and left it behind, one of its first landing places was in the expansion of liquids—as in thermometer tubes. Here for some time was thought to be a satisfactory register of "temperature." But before long it became apparent that the degree—Fahrenheit, Réaumur, or what-not—was an entirely arbitrary thing, also that it was not the same[28] thing at one end of the scale as the other, and finally that the scale itself had no starting point! This was awkward, so a move was made to the air thermometer, and there was some talk about an absolute zero and absolute temperatures; it was thought that the Unknown thing showed itself most clearly and simply in the expansion of air and other gases, and that the "degree" might fairly be measured in terms of this expansion. But in a little time this kind of thermometer—chiefly because no gas turned out to be "theoretically perfect"—broke down, absolute zero and all, and another step had to be made—namely, to the dynamical theory. It was announced that the Unknown thing might be measured in terms of mechanical energy, and Joule at Manchester proclaimed that[Pg 113] the work done by any quantity of water falling there a distance of 772 feet is capable of raising that water one degree Fahrenheit.[29] Here seemed something definite. To measure temperature by mass and velocity, to measure a degree by the flight of a stone, or the heat in the human body by the fall of a factory chimney—if rather roundabout and elusive of the main question—seemed at any rate promising of exact results! Unfortunately the difficulty was to pass from the theory to its application. The complicated nature of the problem, the "imperfection" of the gases and other bodies under consideration, the latent and specific heats to be allowed for, the elusive nature of heat in experiment, and the variable value of the degree itself—all render the conclusions on this subject most precarious; and the general equations connecting the Fahrenheit or other temperatures with a thermo-dynamic scale—while they become so unwieldy as to be practically useless—are themselves after all only approximate.

Finally, to give a last form to the mechanical theory of heat, the conception of flying atoms or molecules was introduced, and a number of neat generalisations were deduced from dynamical considerations. Of course it was inevitable, having once started with a mechanical theory, that one should arrive at the Atom some time or other—and (from what has already been said) it was also[Pg 114] inevitable that the result should be unsatisfactory. It is sufficient to say that the molecular theory of heat is not in accordance with facts. Such things as the law of Charles and the law of Boyle, which according to it should be strictly accurate and of general application, are known to be true only over a most limited range. This failure of the theory may be said to arise partly from its being pursued by the statistical method; but if, on the other hand, we were to try and follow out the individual movement of each molecule we should be landed in a problem far exceeding in complexity the wildest flights of Astronomy, and should have exchanged for the original difficulty about "temperature" a difficulty far greater.

The result of all this has been that notwithstanding the talk about energy and atoms, Science has sadly to confess that it can still give no valid meaning to the word temperature: the unknown thing is still unknown, the independent existence round the corner still escapes us. By the very effort to arrive at something independent of human sensation, Science has, in a roundabout way, arrived at an absurdity. When the man said he was cold, his statement—deplorably vague as it certainly was—had some meaning; he was describing his feelings, or possibly he had seen some snow or some ice on the road; but when, in the endeavour to leave out the human and to say something absolute, Science declared that the temperature was thirty degrees, it committed itself to a remark which possibly was exact in[Pg 115] form, but to which it has never given and never can give any definite meaning.[30]

Similarly with other generalities of Science: the "law" of the Conservation of Energy, the "law" of the Survival of the Fittest—the more you think about them the less possible is it to give any really intelligible sense to them. The very word Fittest really begs the question which is under consideration, and the whole Conservation law is merely an attenuation of the already much attenuated "law" of Gravitation. The Chemical Elements themselves are nothing but the projection on the external world of concepts consisting of three or four attributes each: they are not more real, but very much less real than the individual objects which they are supposed to account for; and their "elementary" character is merely fictional. It probably is in fact as absurd to speak of pure carbon or pure gold, as of a pure monkey or a pure dog. There are no such things, except as they may be arrived at by arbitrary definition and the method of ignorance.

In the search for exactness, then, Science has been continually led on to discard the human and personal elements in phenomena, in the hope of finding some residuum as it were behind them[Pg 116] which should not be personal and human but absolute and invariable. And the tendency has been (hitherto) in all the sciences to get rid of such terms as blue, red, light, heavy, hot, cold, concord, discord, health, vitality, right, wrong, etc., and to rely on any less human elements discoverable in each case; as for instance in Sound, to deal less and less with the judgments and sensations of the ear, and to rely more and more on measurements of lengths of strings, numbers of vibrations, etc. Each science has been (as far as possible) reduced to its lowest terms. Ethics has been made a question of utility and inherited experience. Political Economy has been exhausted of all conceptions of justice between man and man, of charity, affection, and the instinct of solidarity; and has been founded on its lowest discoverable factor, namely self-interest. Biology has been denuded of the force of personality in plants, animals, and men; the "self" here has been set aside, and the attempt made to reduce the science to a question of chemical and cellular affinities, protoplasm, and the laws of osmose. Chemical affinities, again, and all the wonderful phenomena of Physics are emptied down into a flight of atoms; and the flight of atoms (and of astronomic orbs as well) is reduced to the laws of dynamics—which the student sitting in his chamber may write down on a piece of paper. Thus the idea, formulated by Comte, of a great scale of sciences arising from the simplest to the most complex, has tacitly underlain modern scientific work. It—Science—has[Pg 117] sought to "explain" each stage by reference to a lower stage—"blueness" by vibrations, and vibrations by flying atoms—the human always by the sub-human. Going out from humanity dissatisfied, it has wandered through the animal and vegetable kingdoms, through the regions of Chemistry and Physics, into that of Mechanics. "Here at last, in Mechanics, is something outside humanity, something exact in itself, something substantial," it has said. "Let us build again on this as on a foundation, and in time we shall find out what humanity is." This I say has been the dream of Modern Science; yet the fallacy of it is obvious. We have not got outside the human, but only to the outermost verge of it. Mass and motion, which in this process are taken to be real entities and the first progenitors of all phenomena, are simply the last abstractions of sensible experience, and our emptiest concepts. The material explanation of the universe is simply an attempt to account for phenomena by those attributes which appear to us to be common to them all—which is, as said before, like accounting for men by their boots:—it may be possible to get an exact formula this way, but its contents have little or no meaning.

The whole process of Science and the Comtian classification of its branches—regarded thus as an attempt to explain Man by Mechanics—is a huge vicious circle. It professes to start with something simple, exact, and invariable, and from this point to mount step by step till it comes to[Pg 118] Man himself; but indeed it starts with Man. It plants itself on sensations low down (mass, motion, etc.), and endeavours by means of them to explain sensations high up, which reminds one of nothing so much as that process vulgarly described as "climbing up a ladder to comb your hair." In truth Science has never left the great world, or cosmos, of Man, nor ever really found a locus standi without it; but during the last two or three centuries it has gone in this direction, outwards, continually. Leaving the central basis and facts of humanity as too vast and unmanageable, and also as apparently variable from man to man and therefore affording no certain consent to work upon, it has wandered gradually outwards, seeking something of more definite and universal application Discarding thus one by one the interior phases of sensation—as the sense of personal relationship, the sense of justice, duty, fitness in things or what-not (as too uncertain, or perhaps developed to an unequal degree in different persons, embryonic in one and matured in another), drifting past the more specialised bodily senses, of colour, sound, taste, smell, etc., as for similar reasons unavailable—Science at last in the primitive consciousness of muscular contraction and its abstraction "mass" or "matter" comes to a pause. Here in this last sense, common probably to man and the lowest animals, it finds its widest, most universal ground—its farthest limit from the Centre. It has reached the outermost shell, as it were, of the great Man-cosmos.

[Pg 119]

Even this shell is partially human; it is not entirely osseous, and so far not entirely exact and invariable; but Science can go no farther—and there, for the present, it may remain!

Some day perhaps, when all this showy vesture of scientific theory (which has this peculiarity that only the learned can see it) has been quasi-completed, and Humanity is expected to walk solemnly forth in its new garment for all the world to admire—as in Anderssen's story of the Emperor's New Clothes—some little child standing on a door-step will cry out: "But he has got nothing on at all," and amid some confusion it will be seen that the child is right.

NOTE

"I fear I have very imperfectly succeeded in expressing my strong conviction that, before a rigorous logical scrutiny, the Reign of Law will prove to be an unverified hypothesis, the Uniformity of Nature an ambiguous expression, the certainty of our scientific inferences to a great extent a delusion." (Stanley Jevons, Principles of Science, p. ix.)

FOOTNOTES:

[17] See note, p. 119.

[18] Since the above was written there has certainly been a great change, and the dogmatic confidence in the verity of the scientific "laws" has now (1920) almost disappeared.

[19] Such fictions, however, are (I need not say) quite necessary as our only means of thinking out, however imperfectly, the problems before us (1920).

[20] It is not generally realised how feeble a force gravitation is. It is calculated (Encycl. Brit., Art. Gravitation) that two masses, each weighing 415,000 tons, and placed a mile apart, would exert on each other an attractive force of only one pound. If one, therefore, was as far from the other as the moon is from the earth, their attraction would only amount to 1/57,600,000,000th of a pound. This is a small force to govern the movement of a body weighing 415,000 tons! and it is easy to see that a slight variation in the law of the force might for a long period pass undetected, though in the course of hundreds of centuries it might become of the greatest importance.

[21] As another instance of the same thing, let me quote a passage from Maxwell's Theory of Heat, p. 31; the italics are mine: "In our description of the physical properties of bodies as related to heat we have begun with solid bodies, as those which we can most easily handle, and have gone on to liquids, which we can keep in open vessels, and have now come to gases, which will escape from open vessels, and which are generally invisible. This is the order which is most natural in our first study of these different states. But as soon as we have been made familiar with the most prominent features of these different conditions of matter the most scientific course of study is in the reverse order, beginning with gases, on account of the greater simplicity of their laws, then advancing to liquids, the more complex laws of which are much more imperfectly known, and concluding with the little that has been hitherto discovered about the constitution of solid bodies." That is to say that Science finds it easier to work among gases—which are invisible and which we can know little about—than among solids, which we are familiar with and which we can easily handle! This seems a strange conclusion, but it will be found to represent a common procedure of Science—the truth probably being that the laws of gases are not one whit simpler than the laws of liquids and solids, but that on account of our knowing so much less about gases it is easier for us to feign laws in their case than in the case of solids, and less easy for our errors to be detected.

[22] All our thoughts, theories, "laws," etc., may perhaps be said to touch Nature—as the tangent touches the curve—at a point. They give a direction—and are true—at that point. But make the slightest move, and they all have to be reconstructed. The tangents are infinite in number, but the curve is one. This may not only illustrate the relation of Nature to Science, but also of Art to the materials it uses. The poet radiates thoughts: but he sets no store by them. He knows his thoughts are not true in themselves, but they touch the Truth. His lines are the envelope of the curve which is his poem.

[23] See the report of the joint meeting of the Royal Society and the Royal Astronomical Society, November 6, 1919, when Einstein's theory was discussed.

[24] It is obvious that the Einstein theory, in which Time enters as a kind of fourth dimension in relation to Space, removes us at once out of the whole field of ordinary scientific reasoning and lands us, so to speak, in a new world. The nature of Space (or of the universal medium, whatever it is) in any region—its possible fundamental accelerations there, its "curvature" or non-Euclidean character, and so forth—is supposed, according to this theory, to vary with the amount of matter in, or density of, that region; and the movements of bodies are consequently supposed to take on the characters (accelerations, etc.,) which we ascribe to the action of Gravitation. Gravitation in fact in any region is the manifestation in Time of the attributes of the universal Medium in that region—which latter again is dependent on the degree of Matter present. Thus, Matter, Time, and Space are one phenomenon.

The whole Einstein theory, in fact, is a device to present these three Protean and variable elements of all material existence (Matter, Time and Space) as so far involved and interlaced in each other that they form always an absolute and complete unity. As such the theory is no doubt suggestive, and along the line of future speculation: but it awaits corroboration. If corroborated it will point the way to a new conception of the Universe.

[25] J. S. Mill.

[26] See Stallo's excellent Concepts of Modern Physics.

[27] See, for instance, the last new thing in this style—the Helmholtz molecule as improved upon by Sir William Thomson; it is described as follows: "A heavy mass connected by massless springs with a massless enclosing shell; or there may be several shells enclosing each other connected by springs with a dense mass in the centre (far more dense than the ether)." It is not, of course, seriously maintained that this nonsensical creation exists—but that if it did exist it would account for certain unexplained phenomena in the dispersion of light, etc.

Later still (1920) we have the following delightful verdict on the Structure of the Atom, given by Sir Ernest Rutherford—and which I commend to all lovers of clear thinking:—

"The Bakerian Lecture was delivered yesterday before the Royal Society by Sir Ernest Rutherford, whose subject was 'The Nuclear Construction of the Atom.' He said that during recent years much attention had been paid to the nature and structure of atoms. The atomic theory of matter had been definitely proved. The mass of the individual atoms, and the number in any given weight of matter, were now known with considerable accuracy. Not only was matter known to be made up of atoms, but electricity was also atomic in nature, and there was a definite unit of electrical charge which could not further be subdivided. The negative electron, which was a constituent of all atoms of matter, was probably nothing more than an isolated unit of negative electricity, and its small mass was electrical in origin. It had long been considered probable that the atom is an electrical structure, consisting of positive and negative particles, held in equilibrium by electric or magnetic forces. In recent years evidence had accumulated that an atom consists of a positively charged nucleus surrounded at a distance by a distribution of electrons to make it electrically neutral." (From The Morning Post of June 4, 1920.)

[28] The very fact alone that the degrees on a thermometer are equal space divisions shows that they must bear a varying relation to the total volume of liquid as that expands from one end of the tube to the other.

[29] A statement obviously applying—from what has been already said—at only one point in the scale.

[30] I am not, of course, here arguing against the use of thermometers or other instruments for practical purposes. This is certainly the legitimate field of Science. But (as in the case of prediction before mentioned) the exactness of results obtained is a very different matter from the truth of the generalities which are supposed to underlie these results. In using a thermometer you need not even mention the word "temperature."


[Pg 120]

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click here for the page with links to e-book and audio downloads of Civilisation: Its Cause and Cure by Edward Carpenter

eBook and audio downloads for Civilisation: Its Cause and Cure by Edward Carpenter include: pdf, Open eBook, OEB, ePub & audio book MP3