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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 46/April 1895/The Personal Equation in Human Truth

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 46‎ | April 1895


WHETHER there is any such entity as absolute truth we leave for the metaphysician to determine. Out of a vast number of factors which may affect truth in general, we here select a few which are to-day deflecting and limiting human truth. There are factors inherent in the self at its present stage of development, or, more broadly speaking, certain psychical laws which man's present nature will not allow him to change or to evade. So long as the present intense struggle for existence continues, so long must the existence of the self be a constant menace to the full truth, and a partial truth is often worse than a lie.

Our own actions do not raise in us the same feelings as similar actions on the part of others. Egoistic emotion is more or less present with all. Egoistic emotion invariably warps the truth. We do a thing, and it seems all right; another does the same thing, and it seems all wrong. A man of high moral ideal found fault with his neighbor for working on Sunday about a suburban house. The following Sunday men came from the city with a view to purchasing some lots which the moral man was desirous of selling. He took the prospective buyers over the lots with great alacrity, showing the good points. The neighbor reproved the moral man, who became extremely angry. Laborers frequently denounce a trust with great bitterness of feeling, and yet they proceed to form a labor trust with the express purpose of making labor dear and shutting off competition. They refuse to let an outside workman mine coal, except at the risk of his life, although his children may be starving. Do the workmen experience the same feeling of indignation at their own conduct in forming a trust as they do toward other trusts? A woman was one day genuinely indignant because candidates lacking a certain characteristic had been elected members of her club. In less than a week she was trying to secure the admission of a friend who lacked precisely the same quality. No feeling of indignation at her own conduct ruffled that woman's brow this time. We frequently hear it said, "If I were to do as she is doing, how angry she would be!" There is one test which the majority of persons can apply to themselves. They have told another something in confidence, and have felt indignant because he betrayed that confidence. There are very few persons who have not at some one time in their life betrayed a confidential secret to some one else. Amusing as it seems, it is common to hear a person accuse himself of a breach of trust, saying, as he tells a secret, "This was told me in confidence." His egoistic emotion will not allow him to say, "I am not worthy of confidence," although he would unhesitatingly draw that conclusion in the case of another. His egoistic emotion prompts him to make the same kind of excuse that a murderer offered for his crime: "A person should expect to be murdered if he keeps so much gold about him." We occasionally hear some one remark, "I know of no person that has a higher ideal for others or a lower one for self."

It is confidently remarked that the egoistic emotions can not warp mathematical truths, for they are inflexible and unerring. Such a statement might do very well in schoolrooms, but it has no place elsewhere. A noted lawyer said: "I have a client who is a plaintiff in a damage suit. Now, a damage, if expressed at all, must be mathematically expressed. My client's damages amount to the sum of two and two, or four. But he can not possibly add his own two and two of damage without making the sum five. The defendant adds this same two and two and makes the sum three. If it were not for the fact that the emotions of self will not allow men to add units correctly, quite a percentage of my practice would be gone. If men were sure that selfish emotion would not prompt another man to take advantage of them when opportunity offered, a still larger percentage of my practice would be lost."

The undoubted fact that our own acts do not cause in us the same emotions as similar acts on the part of others is one of the strangest psychological truths. This legacy from unevolved man, from the times when brute might was the only right, has been handed down to us. This legacy is still a beam of varying size in every human eye. We shall probably long continue to excuse certain acts of our own and of our friends and to criticise our enemies severely for those same deeds. We see this tendency full-fledged in animals. A big, strong dog will take away a bone from a starving dog. A wealthy railroad president and wealthy directors will plan to wreck a rival road whose bonds and stock may constitute a large proportion of the investments of some orphans. These men would experience intense emotion if any one attempted to steal from a child of theirs. They will steal from the children of others without a qualm. The advance in intelligence has many times served to increase this tendency. Napoleon was a very intelligent man. The promoters of hydra-headed trusts are men of great sagacity. It is nevertheless true that, as a man acquires the habit of reflecting on his own actions, as he by an effort places himself in a neutral position, and from that changed point of view looks at his deeds with another's eyes, as he puts himself in the place of those whom his acts have inconvenienced or wronged, this brute legacy, so destructive of truth, will grow less and less. But only the possessor of a vivid imagination, either natural or acquired, can ever succeed in doing this. Children who are early taught to regard each act from the point of view of those affected by that act are placed in the royal road to overcome this tendency. A successful business man recently said that he did not wish his children thus taught, for such training would put them at a disadvantage in the struggle for existence.

True conceptions are hampered not only by those emotions which are popularly termed peculiarly egoistic, but by all emotion, which a searching investigation shows to rest upon a hidden foundation sunk deep in those feelings which affect the self for weal or woe. All emotion has a twofold aspect in regard to thought and the search for truth. On the one hand, emotion supplies all the interest we feel in any subject, and is thus absolutely necessary for all long-continued, earnest thought; on the other hand, there is thus a deflecting power necessarily at work in the center of every thought. The strong desire to prove a certain theory has led the most honest of men to look at certain facts through colored glasses. It is often dangerous to consult any medical specialist at first, because he will have a tendency to see unmistakable signs of the complaint which he treats. Only those truths in which we are interested, only those which strike our emotions, are fully operative; others pass us by without influencing our actions. The laws of life declare that those truths in which we have a selfish interest shall be the most numerous of all. Not only the lowest but the highest of life's truths, the truths of love and immortality, are emotional truths. Such truths are proverbially blind. Cold reason was never responsible for the lofty flights of love, or for the terrible alighting, which so frequently follows, on the hardest of ground. But any truth can never be a full truth to us until we have felt it. If there is such an entity as absolute truth roaming around loose, not affecting human feelings and actions, it might as well not be at large. All talk about veneration for truth in the abstract is merely talk. It is easy to prove this. Take some person whose self is not interested in the subject and talk to him about the truths of an echinoderm, a cephalopod, an amoeba, or a series of latent chemical reactions, and notice how soon he becomes bored. Prof. Sully rightly says: "Even the scientific man who shows the speculative feeling in so intense a form is often surprisingly narrow in the range of his intellectual interest. The general or abstract sentiment, a pleasurable interest in all or any new ideas, is in fact a kind of fiction."

We are now brought face to face with another fact. The thought limitations of any human being so circumscribe the truth that we can never be sure that we have the whole truth. Our thinking is principally for the sake of our doing, and that must be definite, concrete, limited. A shoemaker's business renders his conception of the human being a narrow one, and for that reason an unfair one. The shape of the head, the hand, the trunk, may be neglected by him. He may be unacquainted with the relation of the auricles to the ventricles in the heart; he may not know whether the stomach is above or below the diaphragm; he may not be able to distinguish between the sympathetic and the cerebro-spinal nervous system. It is evident that his view of the human body is narrow and unfair. Allow one skillful physician to question another equally skillful, and the first will easily show how narrow and unfair are the ideas of the other. Everything is related directly or indirectly to everything else. No mortal eye can detect all those relations. Some undetected one may be vital, must be vital, to knowing the full truth about anything. Prof. James has well emphasized the fact that the Infinite alone can have a fair, impartial, or fully truthful view of any single thing. The Infinite alone can see all these myriad relations. Every time a man neglects one aspect of a thing he is unfair to it; if he neglects ninety-nine, he is still more unfair. We pick up a book; we notice the type and paper. Do we know all the crude attempts by means of hieroglyphics to communicate thought? Do we know the history of the first attempts at making type? Do we know all the processes in the manufacture of the type before us? That type is a metal, taken from the mines, perhaps formed in the Devonian or even the Archæan period of geological time. Earth's metals have definite relations to the sun's spectra, to the spectra of the fixed stars, to the spectra of the chaotic nebulæ floating like evening clouds through the starlit depths of space. If we do not know these, we must confess that we understand but little of the relations involved in the production of a book.

We pick up a piece of metal that we call gold. A chemist tells us that we are rash in calling this gold, for he suspects that, if its molecular relations were understood, it would be clearly seen to be nothing but hydrogen. He says that the last analysis would probably show sulphur, iron, lead, oxygen, silver, copper—in fact, all the metals and all the so-called elements—to be one and the same substance with a different molecular arrangement. The physicist says he shall no longer place hard and fast lines of demarcation between heat, light, and electricity. The psychologist has ceased to view perception, memory, thought, emotion, and will as different forces. The metaphysician declares that we might as well stop writing treatises on special subjects, for all the sciences are merely various phases of one great underlying science, though our ignorance has not yet allowed us to see the intimate relations between all, just as the chemist's ignorance has not permitted him to see that gold, silver, and lead are the same substance.

We proceed practically in this way to untie this unpleasant Gordian knot of ignorance. In the case of the book we say: "We shall deliberately disregard those relations which do not vitally concern our immediate selfish interests. Our present aim is to read that novel, and we do not now care how long mankind groped in ignorance, when books were first printed, how the typemetal is prepared, whence it came, or what relations the spectroscope shows it to have in common with the sun, the stars, and the nebulæ."

Considerations like these show us how incomplete is human truth, how one-sided and partial, how trivial and superficial it would seem to a being of complete intelligence. So long as the struggle for existence continues, so long must human truth develop especially on its selfish side. Electricity will be investigated along the line of its utility to the self. Engineering skill will construct bridges with vast spans over which trains may roll laden with flour and corn and beef. In justice to the aspirations of the human soul, it may be said that many a one has been forced to expend its energies in routine struggles for bread when that soul would gladly have devoted its powers toward climbing the steps of a broader and higher truth. The octopian struggle for existence with its deadly tentacles has throttled many a one that would have gladly climbed to loftier heights of truth.

Thus the emotions and the limitations of humanity deflect and narrow truth. There is also another powerful deflecting factor. This is called association or apperception by different schools. Each succeeding truth that comes to the mind is changed by the resultant force of preceding truths. A compass may point exactly north until it is brought near a bar of iron, when the direction of the needle is changed. This iron has an analogy to an idea already existing in the mind. To Turks and South Africans polygamy may not clash with a moral truth, because they have been brought up amid polygamous associations. Had we sprung from such ancestry and been reared in the same way, we should doubtless consider polygamy quite moral. The child of Catholic, Baptist, or Mohammedan parentage will commonly look at religion from the point of view of his early associations. When we hear a person, referring to a certain sect, saying, "I could never have belonged to this or that church," we may know that he would probably have been a Catholic, or Baptist, or a Mohammedan had he been born such. The truths of religion may not change, but our ways of apprehending them are largely determined by association.

Eminent German psychologists have said that we can not think as we will, but we must think as just those associations which happen to be present prescribe. When we come to view such statements as these in the light of what history has recorded, they furnish food for careful reflection. Had we been born in the times of religious persecution, should we not have joined the vast majority who believed in repressing heresy by lighted fagots? When every Christian nation from Scotland to Spain was torturing witches, should we have stood aloof from the councils of the wisest? At one time even the most intelligent in the Southern States were fighting for what early associations had taught the people to regard as the truths of slavery. The North, schooled differently, was fighting on the other side. History shows us that association has ever been a potent factor in our conception of truth, and association is often purely accidental.

All of the judges of the Supreme Court of the United States may be hearing the same testimony in a case, and yet these judges frequently express dissenting opinions, although no selfish end is to be gained by this course. This illustration shows the varying, even accidental, factors in the production of so-called truth. The truths of justice ought not to be less important than other truths, and yet here are judges, each equally desirous of awarding justice, expressing conflicting opinions from precisely the same data. (3ne part of the testimony will attach itself to some former experience in the case of a certain judge. That testimony may thereby become powerfully swayed by that association, and may therefore assume undue importance. Other testimony may not receive sufficient attention, because there was no associated factor to intensify the impression. A jury is especially exposed to such deflections. If there is a damage suit over injury to a child, any jurymen who have children will be peculiarly sensitive to testimony showing carelessness on the part of the one who occasioned the injury, and peculiarly deaf to testimony establishing the fact that the child's own fault was responsible for the harm. In general, less important truths with a powerful attachment to something in our own experience will completely overshadow those more important with no such association. No one can forecast how many truths will affect certain people until he knows what associated ideas these truths have to contend with.

The association of ideas goes so far as even to affect the way in which we perceive things. A passing bird may be perceived, or, as some people prefer to say, "apperceived," by a lady as an ornament to her bonnet; by a fruit-grower as an insect-killer; by a poet as a songster; by an artist as a fine bit of coloring and form. The housewife may apperceive old rags as something to be thrown away; a rag-picker, as something to be gathered up. A carpenter, walking in a forest, would see the trees as possible sticks of timber. A botanist would notice the shapes of the leaves. A hunter would have an eye for coverts for game. A fisherman would regard the stream flowing through the wood as a good place for trout. An ornithologist would have an ear for the birds. A man's profession can soon be detected by the way he perceives things. The truths of our world are determined by what we see, and we for the most part see only those things which we can join to something in our own line of experience. All other things do not exist for us. Their truths are not a part of our world. After we have perceived a thing, the brain probably never returns to its former state. Any new perception will feel the deflecting force of former perceptions. A butcher and a cloth manufacturer perceive a sheep in an entirely different way. If their perceptions have differed, it is impossible for two persons to see a new thing in precisely the same way. It is of the utmost importance for success in life that this truth be fully apprehended. Men succeed in proportion to their fullness of understanding their fellow-men and influencing them. Educated persons ought to expect different men to look at the same thing in different ways, and the intelligent should be constantly prepared to meet such cases. If psychology is to have practical worth, such truths as these must be emphasized. There will then he less surprise when people quarrel and go to law because they can not see the same thing in the same way. Many a business failure might have been averted had this trouble been adequately known in advance. Where a danger is philosophically foreseen, the risks incident to it may be diminished.

We need constantly to remember that human truth is a variable incomplete entity; that it differs according to whether it is your truth or my truth; that it is subject to the deflections of emotion, at the mercy of the association of ideas and of the education and personal training received in any community at any time.