Popular Science Monthly/Volume 30/April 1887/Scientific and Pseudo-Scientific Realism

975441Popular Science Monthly Volume 30 April 1887 — Scientific and Pseudo-Scientific Realism1887Thomas Henry Huxley


By Professor T. H. HUXLEY,

NEXT to undue precipitation in anticipating the results of pending investigations, the intellectual sin which is commonest and most hurtful to those who devote themselves to the increase of knowledge is the omission to profit by the experience of their predecessors recorded in the history of science and philosophy. It is true that, at toe present day, there is more excuse than at any former time for such neglect. No small labor is needed to raise ones' self to the level of the acquisitions already made; and able men who have achieved thus much know that, if they devote themselves body and soul to the increase of their store, and avoid looking back with as much care as if the injunction laid on Lot and his family were binding upon them, such devotion is sure to be richly repaid by the joys of the discoverer and the solace of fame, if not by rewards of a less elevated character.

So, following the advice of Francis Bacon, we refuse inter mortuos quœrere vivun (to seek what is living among the dead); we leave the past to bury its dead, and ignore our intellectual ancestry. Nor are we content with that. We follow the evil example set us, not only by Bacon, but by almost all the men of the Renaissance, in pouring scorn upon the work of our immediate spiritual forefathers, the school-men of the middle ages. It is accepted as a truth which is indisputable that, for seven or eight centuries, a long succession of able men—some of them of transcendent acuteness and encyclopedic knowledge—devoted laborious lives to the grave discussion of mere frivolities and the arduous pursuit of intellectual Will-o'-the-wisps. To say nothing of a little modesty, a little impartial pondering over personal experience might suggest a doubt as to the adequacy of this short and easy method of dealing with a large chapter of the history of the human mind. Even an acquaintance with popular literature which had extended so far as to include that part of the contributions of Sam Slick which contains his weighty aphorism that "there is a great deal of human nature in all mankind," might raise a doubt whether, after all, the men of that epoch, who, take them all round, were endowed with wisdom and folly in much the same proportion as ourselves, were likely to display nothing better than the qualities of energetic idiots, when they devoted their faculties to the elucidation of problems which were to them, and indeed are to us, the most serious which life has to offer. Speaking for myself, the longer I live the more I am disposed to think that there is much less either of pure folly or of pure wickedness in the world than is commonly supposed. It maybe doubted if any sane man ever said to himself, "Evil, be thou my good," and I have never yet had the good fortune to meet with a perfect fool. When I have brought to the inquiry the patience and long-suffering which become a scientific investigator, the most promising specimens have turned out to have a good deal to say for themselves from their own point of view. And, sometimes, calm reflection has taught the humiliating lesson that their point of view was not so different from my own as I had fondly imagined. Comprehension is more than half-way to sympathy, here as elsewhere.

If we turn our attention to scholastic philosophy in the frame of mind suggested by these prefatory remarks, it assumes a very different character from that which it bears in general estimation. No doubt it is surrounded by a dense thicket of thorny logomachies and obscured by the dust-clouds of a barbarous and perplexing terminology. But suppose that, undeterred by much grime and by many scratches, the explorer has toiled through this jungle, he comes to an open country which is amazingly like his dear native land. The hills which he has to climb, the ravines he has to avoid, look very much the same; there is the same infinite space above, and the same abyss of the unknown below; the means of traveling are the same, and the goal is the same.

That goal for the school-men, as for us, is the settlement of the question how far the universe is the manifestation of a rational order; in other words, how far logical deduction from indisputable premises will account for that which has happened and does happen. That was the object of scholasticism, and, so far as I am aware, the object of modern science may be expressed in the same terms. In pursuit of this end, modern science takes into account all the phenomena of the universe which are brought to our knowledge by observation or by experiment. It admits that there are two worlds to be considered, the one physical and the other psychical, and that though there is a most intimate relation and interconnection between the two, the bridge from one to the other has yet to be found; that their phenomena run, not in one series, but along two parallel lines.

To the school-men the duality of the universe appeared under a different aspect. How this came about will not be intelligible unless we clearly apprehend the fact that they did really believe in dogmatic Christianity, as it was formulated by the Roman Church. They did not give a mere dull assent to anything the Church told them on Sundays, and ignore her teachings for the rest of the week; but they lived and moved and had their being in that supersensible theological world which was created, or rather grew up, during the first four centuries of our reckoning, and which occupied their thoughts far more than the sensible world in which their earthly lot was cast.

For the most part, we learn history from the colorless compendiums or partisan briefs of mere scholars, who have too little acquaintance with practical life, and too little insight into speculative problems, to understand that about which they write. In historical science, as in all sciences which have to do with concrete phenomena, laboratory-practice is indispensable, and the laboratory practice of historical science is afforded, on the one hand, by active social and political life, and, on the other, by the study of those tendencies and operations of the mind which embody themselves in philosophical and theological systems. Thucydides and Tacitus, and, to come nearer our own time, Hume and Grote, were men of affairs, and had acquired, by direct contact with social and political history in the making, the secret of understanding how such history is made. Our notions of the intellectual history of the middle ages are, unfortunately, too often derived from writers who have never seriously grappled with philosophical and theological problems: and hence that strange myth of a millennium of moonshine to which I have adverted.

However, no very profound study of the works of contemporary writers who, without devoting themselves specially to theology or philosophy, were learned and enlightened—such men, for example, as Eginhard or Dante—is necessary to convince one's self that, for them, the world of the theologian was an ever-present and awful reality. From the center of that world, the Divine Trinity, surrounded by a hierarchy of angels and saints, contemplated and governed the insignificant sensible world in which the inferior spirits of men, burdened with the debasement of their material embodiment and continually solicited to their perdition by a no less numerous and almost as powerful hierarchy of devils, were constantly struggling on the edge of the pit of everlasting damnation.[1]

The men of the middle ages believed that through the Scriptures, the traditions of the fathers, and the authority of the Church, they were in possession of far more, and more trustworthy, information with respect to the nature and order of things in the theological world than they had in regard to the nature and order of things in the sensible world. And, if the two sources of information came into conflict, so much the worse for the sensible world, which, after all, was more or less under the dominion of Satan. Let us suppose that a telescope powerful enough to show us what is going on in the nebula of the sword of Orion, should reveal a world in which stones fell upward, parallel lines met, and the fourth dimensions of space was quite obvious. Men of science would have only two alternatives before them. Either the terrestrial and the nebular facts must be brought into harmony by such feats of subtile sophistry as the human mind is always capable of performing when driven into a corner, or Science must throw down its arms in despair, and commit suicide either by the admission that the universe is, after all, irrational, inasmuch as that which is truth in one corner of it is absurdity in another, or by a declaration of incompetency.

In the middle ages, the labors of those great men who endeavored to reconcile the system of thought which started from the data of pure reason with that which started from the data of Roman theology produced the system of thought which is known as scholastic philosophy; the alternative of surrender and suicide is exemplified by Avicenna and his followers when they declared that that which is true in theology may be false in philosophy, and vice versa; and by Sanchez in his famous defense of the thesis "Quod nil scitur" (That nothing is known).

To those who deny the validity of one of the primary assumptions of the disputants—who decline, on the ground of the utter insufficiency of the evidence, to put faith in the reality of that other world, the geography and the inhabitants of which are so confidently described in the so-called[2] Christianity of Catholicism—the long and bitter contest which engaged the best intellects for so many centuries may seem a terrible illustration of the wasteful way in which the struggle for existence is carried on in the world of thought, no less than in that of matter. But there is a more cheerful mode of looking at the history of scholasticism. It ground and sharpened the dialectic implements of our race as perhaps nothing but discussions, in the result of which men thought their eternal no less than their temporal interests were at stake, could have done. When a logical blunder may insure combustion, not only in the next world but in this, the construction of syllogisms acquires a peculiar interest. Moreover, the schools kept the thinking faculty alive and active, when the disturbed state of civil life, the mephitic atmosphere engendered by the dominant ecclesiasticism, and the almost total neglect of natural knowledge, might well have stifled it. And, finally, it should be remembered that scholasticism really did thrash out pretty effectually certain problems which have presented themselves to mankind ever since they began to think, and which, I suppose, will present themselves so long as they continue to think. Consider, for example, the controversy of the Realists and the Nominalists, which was carried on with varying fortunes, and under various names, from the time of Scotus Erigena to the end of the scholastic period. Has it now a merely antiquarian interest? Has Nominalism, in any of its modifications, so completely won the day that Realism may be regarded as dead and buried without hope of resurrection? Many people seem to think so, but it appears to me that, without taking Catholic philosophy into consideration, one has not to look about far to find evidence that Realism is still to the fore, and indeed extremely lively.[3]

The other day I happened to meet with a report of a sermon recently preached in St. Paul's Cathedral. From internal evidence I am inclined to think that the report is substantially correct. But, as I have not the slightest intention of finding fault with the eminent theologian and eloquent preacher to whom the discourse is attributed, for employment of scientific language in a manner for which he could find only too many scientific precedents, the accuracy of the report in detail is not to the purpose. I may safely take it as the embodiment of views which are thought to be quite in accordance with science by many excellent, instructed, and intelligent people:

The preacher further contended that it was yet more difficult to realize that our earthly home would become the scene of a vast physical catastrophe. Imagination recoils from the idea that the course of Nature—the phrase helps to disguise the truth—so unvarying and regular, the ordered sequence of movement and life, should suddenly cease. Imagination looks more reasonable when it assumes the air of scientific reason. Physical law, it says, will prevent the occurrence of catastrophes only anticipated by an apostle in an unscientific age. Might not there, however, be a suspension of a lower law by the intervention of a higher? Thus, every time we lifted our arms we defied the laws of gravitation, and in railways and steamboats powerful laws were held in check by others. The Flood and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah were brought about by the operations of existing laws, and may it not be that in His illimitable universe there are more important laws than those which surround our puny life—moral and not merely physical forces? Is it inconceivable that the day will come when these royal and ultimate laws shall wreck the natural order of things which seems so stable and so fair? Earthquakes were not things of remote antiquity, as an island off Italy, the Eastern Archipelago, Greece, and Charleston bore witness. ... In presence of a great earthquake men feel how powerless they are, and their very knowledge adds to their weakness. The end of human probation, the final dissolution of organized society, and the destruction of man's home on the surface of the globe, were none of them violently contrary to our present experience, but only the extension of present facts. The presentiment of death was common; there were felt to be many things which threatened the existence of society; and, as our globe was a ball of fire, at any moment the pent-up forces which surge and boil beneath our feet might be poured out.—Pall Mall Gazette, December 6, 1886.

The preacher appears to entertain the notion that the occurrence of a "catastrophe"[4] involves a breach of the present order of Nature—that it is an event incompatible with the physical laws which at present obtain. He seems to be of opinion that "scientific reason" lends its authority to the imaginative supposition that physical law will prevent the occurrence of the "catastrophes" anticipated by an unscientific apostle.

Scientific reason, like Homer, sometimes nods; but I am not aware that it has ever dreamed dreams of this sort. The fundamental axiom of scientific thought is that there is not, never has been, and never will be, any disorder in Nature. The admission of the occurrence of any event which was not the logical consequence of the immediately antecedent events, according to these definite ascertained, or unascertained, rules which we call the "laws of Nature," would be an act of self-destruction on the part of Science.

"Catastrophe" is a relative conception. For ourselves it means an event which brings about very terrible consequences to man, or impresses his mind by its magnitude relatively to him. But events which are quite in the natural order of things to us, may be frightful catastrophes to other sentient beings. Surely no interruption of the order of Nature is involved if, in the course of descending through an Alpine pine-wood, I jump upon an ant-hill and in a moment wreck a whole city and destroy a hundred thousand of its inhabitants. To the ants, the catastrophe is worse than the earthquake of Lisbon. To me, it is the natural and necessary consequence of the laws of matter in motion, A redistribution of energy has taken place, which is perfectly in accordance with natural order, however unpleasant its effects may be to the ants.

Imagination, inspired by scientific reason, and not merely assuming the airs thereof, as it unfortunately too often does in the pulpit, so far from having any right to repudiate catastrophes and deny the possibility of the cessation of motion and life, easily finds justification for the exactly contrary course. Kant, in his famous "Theory of the Heavens," declares the end of the world and its reduction to a formless condition to be a necessary consequence of the causes to which it owes its origin and continuance. And, as to catastrophes of prodigious magnitude and frequent occurrence, they were the favorite asylum ignorantiœ (asylum of ignorance) of geologists not a quarter of a century ago. If modern geology is becoming more and more disinclined to call in catastrophes to its aid, it is not because of any a priori difficulty in reconciling the occurrence of such events with the universality of order, but because the a posteriori evidence of the occurrence of events of this character in past times has more or less completely broken down.

It is, to say the least, highly probable that this earth is a mass of extremely hot matter, invested by a cooled crust, through which the hot interior still continues to cool, though with extreme slowness. It is no less probable that the faults and dislocations, the foldings and fractures, everywhere visible in the stratified crust, its large and slow movements through miles of elevation and depression, and its small and rapid movements which give rise to the innumerable perceived and unperceived earthquakes which are constantly occurring, are due to the shrinkage of the crust on its cooling and contracting nucleus.

Without going beyond the range of fair scientific analogy, conditions are easily conceivable which should render the loss of heat far more rapid than it is at present; and such an occurrence would be just as much in accordance with ascertained laws of Nature as the more rapid cooling of a red-hot bar, when it is thrust into cold water, than when it remains in the air. But much more rapid cooling might entail a shifting and rearrangement of the parts of the crust of the earth on a scale of unprecedented magnitude, and bring about "catastrophes" to which the earthquake of Lisbon is but a trifle. It is conceivable that man and his works and all the higher forms of animal life should be utterly destroyed; that mountain-regions should be converted into ocean-depths and the floor of oceans raised into mountains; and the earth become a scene of horror which even the lurid fancy of the writer of the Apocalypse would fail to portray. And yet, to the eye of Science, there would be no more disorder here than in the sabbatical peace of a summer sea. Not a link in the chain of natural causes and effects would be broken, nowhere would there be the slightest indication of the "suspension of a lower law by a higher." If a sober scientific thinker is inclined to put little faith in the wild vaticinations of universal ruin which, in a less saintly person than the seer of Patmos, might seem to be dictated by the fury of a revengeful fanatic, rather than by the spirit of Him who bid men love their enemies, it is not on the ground that they contradict scientific principles, but because the evidence of their scientific value does not fulfill the conditions on which weight is attached to evidence. The imagination which supposes that it does, simply does not "assume the air of scientific reason."

I repeat that, if imagination is used within the limits laid down by science, disorder is unimaginable. If a being endowed with perfect intellectual and æsthetic faculties, but devoid of the capacity for suffering pain, either physical or moral, were to devote his utmost powers to the investigation of Nature, the universe would seem to him to be a sort of kaleidoscope, in which, at every successive moment of time, a new arrangement of parts of exquisite beauty and symmetry would present itself; and each of them would show itself to be the logical consequence of the preceding arrangement, under the conditions which we call the laws of Nature. Such a spectator might well be filled with that Amor intellectualis Dei (intellectual love of God), the beatific vision of the vita contemplativa (contemplative life.), which some of the greatest thinkers of all ages, Aristotle, Aquinas, Spinoza, have regarded as the only conceivable eternal felicity; and the vision of illimitable suffering, as if sensitive beings were unregarded animalcules which had got between the bits of glass of the kaleidoscope, which mars the prospect to us poor mortals, in no wise alters the fact that order is lord of all, and disorder only a name for that part of the order which gives us pain.

The other fallacious employment of the names of scientific conceptions which pervades the preacher's utterance, brings me back to the proper topic of the present paper. It is the use of the word "law" as if it denoted a thing—as if a "law of Nature," as Science understands it, were a being endowed with certain powers, in virtue of which the phenomena expressed by that law are brought about. The preacher asks, "Might not there be a suspension of a lower law by the intervention of a higher?" He tells us that every time we lift our arms we defy the law of gravitation. He asks whether some day certain "royal and ultimate laws" may not come and "wreck" those laws which are at present, it would appear, acting as Nature's police. It is evident, from these expressions, that "laws," in the mind of the preacher, are entities having an objective existence in a graduated hierarchy. And it would appear that the "royal laws" are by no means to be regarded as constitutional royalties: at any moment, they may, like Eastern despots, descend in wrath among the middle-class and plebeian laws, which have hitherto done the drudgery of the world's work, and—to use phraseology not unknown in our seats of learning—"make hay" of their belongings. Or perhaps a still more familiar analogy has suggested this singular theory; and it is thought that high laws may "suspend" low laws, as a bishop may suspend a curate.

Far be it from me to controvert these views, if any one likes to hold them. All I wish to remark is that such a conception of the nature of "laws" has nothing: to do with modern science. It is scholastic realism—realism as intense and unmitigated as that of Scotus Erigena a thousand years ago. The essence of such realism is that it maintains the objective existence of universals, or, as we call them nowadays, general propositions. It affirms, for example, that "man" is a real thing, apart from individual men, having its existence, not in the sensible but in the intelligible world, and clothing itself with the accidents of sense to make the Jack and Tom and Harry whom we know. Strange as such a notion may appear to modern scientific thought, it really pervades ordinary language. There are few people who would, at once, hesitate to admit that color, for example, exists apart from the mind which conceives the idea of color. They hold it to be something which resides in the colored object; and so far they are as much realists as if they had sat at Plato's feet. Reflection on the facts of the case must, I imagine, convince every one that "color" is—not a mere name, which was the extreme Nominalist position—but a name for that group of states of feeling which we call blue, red, yellow, and so on, and which we believe to be caused by luminiferous vibrations which have not the slightest resemblance to color; while these, again, are set afoot by states of the body to which we ascribe color, but which are equally devoid of likeness to color.

In the same way, a law of Nature, in the scientific sense, is the product of a mental operation upon the facts of Nature which come under our observation, and has no more existence outside the mind than color has. The law of gravitation is a statement of the manner in which experience shows that bodies, which are free to move, do, in fact, move toward another. But the other facts of observation, that bodies are not always moving in this fashion, and sometimes move in a contrary direction, are implied in the words "free to move." If it is a law of Nature that bodies tend to move toward one another in a certain way, it is another and no less true law of Nature that, if bodies are not free to move as they tend to do, either in consequence of an obstacle or of a contrary impulse from some other source of energy than that to which we give the name of gravitation, they either stop still or go another way.

Scientifically speaking, it is the acme of absurdity to talk of a man defying the law of gravitation when he lifts his arm. The general store of energy in the universe working through terrestrial matter is doubtless tending to bring the man's arm down; but the particular fraction of that energy which is working through certain of his nervous and muscular organs is tending to drive it up, and, more energy being expended on the arm in the upward than in the downward direction, the arm goes up accordingly. But the law of gravitation is no more defied in this case than when a grocer throws so much sugar into the empty pan of his scales that the weighted one kicks the beam.

The tenacity of the wonderful fallacy that the laws of Nature are agents instead of being, as they really are, a mere record of experience, upon "which we base our interpretations of that which does happen, and our anticipation of that which will happen, is an interesting psychological fact, and would be unintelligible if the tendency of the human mind toward realism were less strong.

Even at the present day, and in the writings of men who would at once repudiate scholastic realism in any form, "law" is often inadvertently employed in the sense of cause, just as, in common life, a man will say that he is compelled by the law to do so and so, when, in point of fact, all he means is that the law orders him to do it, and tells him what will happen if he does not do it. We commonly hear of bodies falling to the ground by reason of the law of gravitation, whereas that law is simply the record of the fact that, according to all experience, they have so fallen (when free to move), and of the grounds of a reasonable expectation that they will so fall. If it should be worth anybody's while to seek for examples of such misuse of language on my own part, I am not at all sure he might not succeed, though I have usually been on my guard against such looseness of expression. If I am guilty, I do penance beforehand, and only hope that I may thereby deter others from committing the like fault. And I venture on this personal observation by way of showing that I have no wish to bear hardly on the preacher for falling into an error for which he might find good precedents. But it is one of those errors which, in the case of a person engaged in scientific pursuits, does little harm, because it is corrected as soon as its consequences become obvious; while those who know physical science only by name are, as has been seen, easily led to build a mighty fabric of unrealities on this fundamental fallacy. In fact, the habitual use of the word "law," in the sense of an active thing, is almost a mark of pseudo-science; it characterizes the writings of those who have appropriated the forms of science without knowing anything of its substance.

There are two classes of these people: those who are ready to believe in any miracle so long as it is guaranteed by ecclesiastical authority, and those who are ready to believe in any miracle so long as it has some different guarantee. The believers in what are ordinarily called miracles—those who accept the miraculous narratives which they are taught to think are essential elements of religious doctrine—are in the one category; the spirit-rappers, table-turners, and all the other devotees of the occult sciences of our day are in the other; and, if they disagree in most things, they agree in this, namely, that they ascribe to science a dictum that is not scientific; and that they endeavor to upset the dictum thus foisted on science by a realistic argument which is equally unscientific.

It is asserted, for example, that, on a particular occasion, water was turned into wine; and, on the other hand, it is asserted that a man or a woman "levitated" to the ceiling, floated about there, and finally sailed out by the window. And it is assumed that the pardonable skepticism, with which most scientific men receive these statements, is due to the fact that they feel themselves justified in denying the possibility of any such metamorphosis of water or of any such levitation, because such events are contrary to the laws of Nature. So the question of the preacher is triumphantly put: How do you know that there are not "higher" laws of Nature than your chemical and physical laws, and that these higher laws may not intervene and "wreck" the latter?

The plain answer to this question is, Why should anybody be called upon to say how he knows that which he does not know? You are assuming that laws are agents—efficient causes of that which happens—and that one law can interfere with another. To us that assumption is as nonsensical as if you were to talk of a proposition of Euclid being the cause of the diagram which illustrates it, or of the integral calculus interfering with the rule of three. Your question really implies that we pretend to complete knowledge not only of all past and present phenomena, but of all that are possible in the future, and we leave all that sort of thing to the adepts of esoteric Buddhism. Our pretensions are infinitely more modest. We have succeeded in finding out the rules of action of a little bit of the universe; we call these rules "laws of Nature," not because anybody knows whether they bind Nature or not, but because we find it is obligatory on us to take them into account, both as actors under Nature, and as interpreters of Nature. We have any quantity of genuine miracles of our own, and, if you will furnish us with as good evidence of your miracles as we have of ours, we shall be quite happy to accept them and to amend our expression of the laws of Nature in accordance with the new facts.

As to the particular cases adduced, we are so perfectly fair-minded as to be willing to help your case as far as we can. You are quite mistaken in supposing that anybody who is acquainted with the possibilities of physical science will undertake categorically to deny that water may be turned into wine. Many very competent judges are already inclined to think that the bodies, which we have hitherto called elementary, are really composite arrangements of the particles of a uniform primitive matter. Supposing that view to be correct, there would be no more theoretical difficulty about turning water into alcohol, ethereal and coloring matters, than there is at this present moment any practical difficulty in working other such miracles; as when we turn sugar into alcohol, carbonic acid, glycerine, and succinic acid; or transmute gas-refuse into perfumes rarer than musk, and dyes richer than Tyrian purple. If the so-called "elements," oxygen and hydrogen, which compose water, are aggregates of the same ultimate particles or physical units, as those which enter into the structure of the so-called element "carbon," it is obvious that alcohol and other substances—composed of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen—may be produced by a rearrangement of some of the units of oxygen and hydrogen into the "element" carbon, and their synthesis with the rest of the oxygen and hydrogen.

Theoretically, therefore, we can have no sort of objection to your miracle. And our reply to the levitators is just the same: Why should not your friend "levitate"? Fish are said to rise and sink in the water by altering the volume of an internal air-receptacle, and there may be many ways Science, as yet, knows nothing of, by which we who live at the bottom of an ocean of air may do the same thing. Dialectic gas and wind appear to be by no means wanting among you, and why should not long practice in pneumatic philosophy have resulted in the internal generation of something a thousand times rarer than hydrogen, by which, in accordance with the most ordinary natural laws, you would not only rise to the ceiling and float there in quasi-angelic posture, but perhaps, as one of your feminine adepts is said to have done, flit swifter than train or telegram to "still-vexed Bermoothes," and twit Ariel, if he happens to be there, for a sluggard? We have not the presumption to deny the possibility of anything you affirm—only, as our brethren are particular about evidence, do give us as much to go upon as may save us from being roared down by their inextinguishable laughter.

Enough of the realism which clings about "laws." There are plenty of other exemplifications of its vitality in modern science, but I will cite only one of them.

This is the conception of "vital force" which comes straight from the philosophy of Aristotle. It is a fundamental proposition of that philosophy that a natural object is composed of two constituents—the one its matter, conceived as inert or even, to a certain extent, opposed to orderly and purposive motion; the other its form, conceived as a quasi-spiritual something, containing or conditioning the actual activities of the body and the potentiality of its possible activities.

I am disposed to think that the prominence of this conception in Aristotle's theory of things arose from the circumstance that he was, to begin with and throughout his life, devoted to biological studies. In fact, it is a notion which must force itself upon the mind of any one who studies biological phenomena, without reference to general physics as they now stand. Everybody who observes the obvious phenomena of the development of a seed into a tree, or of an egg into an animal, will note that a relatively formless mass of matter gradually grows, takes a definite shape and structure, and finally begins to perform actions which contribute toward a certain end, namely, the maintenance of the individual in the first place, and of the species in the second. Starting from the axiom that every event has a cause, we have here the causa finalis (final cause) manifested in the last set of phenomena, the causa materialis (material cause) and formalis (formal) in the first, while the existence of a causa efficiens (efficient cause) within the seed or egg and its product, is a corollary from the phenomena of growth and metamorphosis, which proceed in unbroken succession and make up the life of the animal or plant.

Thus, at starting, the egg or seed is matter having a "form" like all other material bodies. But this form has the peculiarity, in contradistinction to lower substantial "forms," that it is a power which constantly works toward an end by means of living organization.

So far as I know, Liebnitz is the only philosopher (at the same time a man of science, in the modern sense, of the first rank) who has noted that the modern conception of Force, as a sort of atmosphere enveloping the particles of bodies, and having potential or actual activity, is simply a new name for the Aristotelian Form.[5] In modern biology, up till within quite recent times, the Aristotelian conception held undisputed sway; living matter was endowed with "vital force," and that accounted for everything. Whosoever was not satisfied with that explanation was treated to that very "plain argument"—"confound you eternally"—wherewith Lord Peter overcomes the doubts of his brothers in the "Tale of a Tub." "Materialist" was the mildest term applied to him—fortunate if he escaped pelting with "infidel" and "atheist." There may be scientific Rip Van Winkles about, who still hold by vital force; but among those biologists who have not been asleep for the last quarter of a century "vital force" no longer figures in the vocabulary of science. It is a patent survival of realism; the generalization from experience that all living bodies exhibit certain activities of a definite character is made the basis of the notion that every living body contains an entity, "vital force," which is assumed to be the cause of those activities.

It is remarkable, in looking back, to notice to what an extent this and other survivals of scholastic realism arrested or, at any rate, impeded the application of sound scientific principles to the investigation of biological phenomena. When I was beginning to think about these matters, the scientific world was occasionally agitated by discussions respecting the nature of the "species" and "genera" of naturalists, of a different order from the disputes of a later time. I think most were agreed that a "species" was something which existed objectively, somehow or other, and had been created by a Divine fiat. As to the objective reality of genera, there was a good deal of difference of opinion. On the other hand, there were a few who could see no objective reality in anything but individuals, and looked upon both species and genera as hypostatized universals. As for myself, I seem to have unconsciously emulated William of Occam, inasmuch as almost the first public discourse I ever ventured upon dealt with "Animal Individuality," and its tendency was to fight the Nominalist battle even in that quarter.

Realism appeared in still stranger forms at the time to which I refer. The community of plan which is observable in each great group of animals was hypostatized into a Platonic idea with the appropriate name of "archetype," and we were told, as a disciple of Philo-Judæus might have told us, that this realistic figment was "the archetypal light" by which Nature has been guided amid the "wreck of worlds." So, again, another naturalist who had no less earned a well-deserved reputation by his contributions to positive knowledge, put forward a theory of the production of living things which, as nearly as the increase of knowledge allowed, was a reproduction of the doctrine inculcated by the Jewish Cabala.

Annexing the archetype notion, and carrying it to its full logical consequence, the author of this theory conceived that the species of animals and plants were so many incarnations of the thoughts of God—material representations of Divine Ideas during the particular period of the world's history at which they existed. But, under the influence of the embryological and paleontological discoveries of modern times, which had already lent some scientific support to the revived ancient theories of cosmical evolution or emanation, the ingenious author of this speculation, while denying and repudiating the ordinary theory of evolution by successive modification of individuals, maintained and endeavored to prove the occurrence of a progressive modification in the Divine Ideas of successive epochs.

On the foundation of a supposed elevation of organization in the whole living population of any epoch as compared with that of its predecessor, and a supposed complete difference in species between the populations of any two epochs (neither of which suppositions has stood the test of further inquiry), the author of this speculation based his conclusion that the Creator had, so to speak, improved upon his thoughts as time went on; and that, as each such amended scheme of creation came up, the embodiment of the earlier divine thoughts was swept away by a universal catastrophe, and an incarnation of the improved ideas took its place. Only after the last such "wreck" thus brought about did the embodiment of a divine thought, in the shape of the first man, make its appearance as the ne plus ultra of the cosmogonical process.

I imagine that Louis Agassiz, the genial backwoodsman of the science of my young days, who did more to open out new tracks in the scientific forest than most men, would have been much surprised to learn that he was preaching the doctrine of the Cabala, pure and simple. According to this modification of Neoplatonism by contact with Hebrew speculation, the divine essence is unknowable—without form or attribute; but the interval between it and the world of sense is filled by intelligible entities, which are nothing but the familiar hypostatized abstractions of the realists. These have emanated, like immense waves of light, from the divine center, and, as ten consecutive zones of Sephiroth, form the universe. The farther away from the center, the more the primitive light wanes, until the periphery ends in those mere negations, darkness and evil, which are the essence of matter. On this, the divine agency transmitted through the Sephiroth operates after the fashion of the Aristotelian forms and, at first, produces the lowest of a series of worlds. After a certain duration the primitive world is demolished and its fragments used up in making a better; and this process is repeated, until at length a final world, with man for its crown and finish, makes its appearance. It is needless to trace the process of retrogressive metamorphosis by which, through the agency of the Messiah, the steps of the process of evolution here sketched are retraced. Sufficient has been said to prove that the extremest realism current in the philosophy of the thirteenth century can be fully matched by the speculations of our own time.—Nineteenth Century.

  1. There is no exaggeration in this brief and summary view of the Catholic cosmos. But it would be unfair to leave it be supposed that the Reformation made any essential alteration, except perhaps for the worse, in that cosmology which called itself "Christian." The protagonist of the Reformation, from whom the whole of the Evangelical sects are lineally descended, states the case with that plainness of speech, not to say brutality, which characterized him. Luther says that man is a beast of burden who only moves as his rider orders; sometimes God rides him, and sometimes Satan. "Sic voluntas humana in medio posita est, ceu jumentum; si insederit Deus, vult et vadit, quo vult Deus. . . . Si insederit Satan, vult et vadit, quo vult Satan; nec est in ejus arbitrio ad utrum sessorem currere, aut eum quærere, sed ipsi sessores certant ob ipsum obtinendum et possidendum"(Thus the human will is put in the middle, like a beast of burden; if God sits upon it, it wills and goes where God wills; ... if Satan sits upon it, it wills and goes where Satan wills. Nor is it within its discretion to run to either rider or to seek after him, but the riders themselves contend which shall get and possess it).—(De Servo Arbitrio, M. Lutheri Opera, edition 1546, tomus ii, p. 468.) One may hear substantially the same doctrine preached in the parks and at street-corners by zealous volunteer missionaries of Evangelicism any Sunday in modern London. Why these doctrines, which are conspicuous by their absence in the four Gospels, should arrogate to themselves the title of Evangelical, in contradistinction to Catholic, Christianity, may well perplex the impartial inquirer, who, if he were obliged to choose between the two, might naturally prefer that which leaves the poor beast of burden a little freedom of choice.
  2. I say "so-called," not by way of offense, but as a protest against the monstrous assumption that Catholic Christianity is explicitly or implicitly contained in any trustworthy record of the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth.
  3. It may be desirable to observe that, in modern times, the term "Realism" has acquired a signification wholly different from that which attached to it in the middle ages. We commonly use it as the contrary of Idealism. The Idealist holds that the phenomenal world has only a subjective existence, the Realist that it has an objective existence. I am not aware that any mediæval philosopher was an Idealist in the sense in which we apply the term to Berkeley. In fact, the cardinal defect of their speculations lies in their oversight of the considerations which lead to Idealism. If many of them regarded the material world as a negation, it was an active negation; not zero, but a minus quantity.
  4. At any rate, a catastrophe greater than the Flood, which, as I observe with interest, is as calmly assumed by the preacher to be an historical event as if Science had never had a word to say on that subject!
  5. "Les formes des anciens ou entéléchies no sont autre chose que les forces" (The forms of the ancients, or entelcchciæ, are nothing else than forces).—(Leibnitz, "Lettre au Père Bouvet," 1697.)