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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 54/February 1899/Mivart's Groundwork of Science


IF books like this by Professor Mivart, who holds that "the groundwork of science must be sought in the human mind," help to teach that the greatest service of science to mankind is not "practical," but intellectual, they are worthy the consideration of the thoughtful, even if this consideration should lead some of the thoughtful to distrust Mivart's groundwork, or to doubt whether it is firm enough for any superstructure.

Many, no doubt, think the desire to know a sufficient groundwork for science, believing that they wish to know in order that they may rightly order their lives; but the school to which Mivart belongs tells them all this is mere vulgar ignorance, since the groundwork of science is, and must be, something known, rather than a humble wish to know.

According to Mivart, the groundwork of science consists of truths which can not be obtained by reasoning, and can not depend for their certainty on any experiments or observations alone, since whatever truths depend upon reasoning can not be ultimate, but must be posterior to, and depend upon, the principles, observations, or experiments which show that it is indeed true, and upon which its acceptance thus depends. The groundwork of science must therefore be composed, he says, of truths which are self-evident; and he assures us that, if this were not the case, natural knowledge would be mere "mental paralysis and self-stultification."

He would tell the wayfarer who, having been lost among the mountains, comes at last upon a broad highway winding around the foothills and stretching down over the plain to the horizon, that an attempt to go anywhere upon this road is "mere paralysis," unless he knows where it begins and where it ends. He would have told the ancient dwellers upon the shores of the Nile that their belief that they owed to the river their agriculture, their commerce, their art and science, and all their civilization, was mere self-stultification, because they knew nothing of its sources in the central table-land.

May not one believe, with Mivart, that the scientific knowledge which arises in the mind by means of the senses through contact with the world of Nature, thus arises by virtue of our innate reason, and yet find good ground for asking whether physical science may not have something useful and important to tell us about the mechanism and history of this innate reason itself? Is proof that our reason is innate, or born with us, proof that it is ultimate or necessary or beyond the reach of improvement and development by the application of natural knowledge? May not this reason itself prove, perhaps, to be a mechanical phenomenon of matter and motion, and a part of the discoverable order of physical causation; and may not science some time tell us how it became innate, and what it is worth?

Questions of this sort are easy to ask but hard to answer; for many hold our only way to reach an answer to be to find out by scientific research and discovery. While this method may be too slow for a priori philosophers, may it not be wise for those who, being no philosophers, know of no short cut to natural knowledge, to admit that, while they would like to know more, they have not yet learned all there is to learn? If this suspension of judgment is indeed self-stultification, the case of many students is hard, though they may not really find themselves so helpless as they are told that they must be; for he who is told by the learned faculty that he is paralyzed need not be greatly troubled if he finds his powers for work as much at his command as they were before.

The modern student has heard so many versions of the story of the two-faced shield that he is much disposed to suspect that many of the questions which have so long divided "philosophers" may be only new illustrations of the old fable, and he asks whether there need be any real antagonism between those who attribute knowledge to experience and those who attribute it to our innate reason.

There are men of science who, seeing no good reason to challenge Plato's belief that experience, creating nothing, only calls forth the "ideas" which were already dormant or latent in the mind, do nevertheless find reason to ask whether exhaustive knowledge of our physical history may not some time show how these dormant "ideas" came to be what they are. They ask whether errors may not be judgments which lead us into danger and tend to our physical destruction, and whether it may not be because a judgment has, in the long run, proved preservative in the struggle for existence that we call it true. May not, for example, the difference between the error that the stick half in water is bent and the truth that the stick in air is straight, some time prove to be that the savage who has rectified his judgment has speared his fish, while he who has not has lost his dinner?

So long as we can ask such questions as this, how can we be sure that because a judgment is no more than might have been expected from us, as Nature has made us, at our present intellectual level, it is either necessary or ultimate or universal? Things that are innate or natural are not always necessary or universal, for while reason is natural to the mind of man, some men are unreasonable, and a few have been even known to be illogical.

It therefore seems clear that another view of the groundwork of science than that set forth by Professor Mivart is possible, for many believe that this groundwork is to be found in our desire to know what we do not yet know, rather than in things known; and they believe they wish to know in order that they may learn to distinguish truth from error, and walk with sure feet where the ignorant grope and stumble.

Many books are profitable and instructive even if they fail to convince; and the question which a prospective student of Mivart's book is likely to ask is whether it is consistent with itself; for if the author has not so far made himself master of his subject as to state his case without palpable contradiction, no one will expect much help from him. It is a remark of Aristotle, in the Introduction to the Parts of Animals, that while one may need special training to tell whether an author has proved his point, all may judge whether he is consistent with himself, and the attempt to learn whether Mivart's book is consistent may not greatly tax our minds.

He tells us that many men of science are "idealists"; and he says that idealism, being mere self-stultifying skepticism, must be refuted and demolished before we can begin our search for the groundwork of science or be sure that we know anything. It would have surprised Berkeley not a little to be told that his notions are the very essence of skepticism, for the good bishop tells us again and again that his only motive in writing is to make an end of idle skepticism, once for all, that they who are no philosophers, but simple, honest folks, may come by their own and live at ease.

There is little ease, and less justice, even at this late day, for the man of science who insists that he is neither an idealist nor a materialist nor a monist, but a naturalist; and that it will be time enough to have an opinion as to the relation between mind and matter when we find out; but many will, no doubt, be pleased to hear that the crime of which they are now suspected is no longer "materialism," but "idealism," for the public attaches no odium to the idealist, whatever may be Professor Mivart's verdict. Still all must feel an interest in the exposure of the weakness of idealism, since we have been told, by many shrewd thinkers, that Berkeley's statement of the case, while inconclusive, is unanswerable; although they hold that it is lack of experimental evidence which stands in the way of either its acceptance or its refutation.

Mivart begins his treatment of idealism by a simple and satisfactory summary, pages 36-38, of Berkeley's Principles, but he forgets it on the next page, for it is no exaggeration to assert that the "idealism" which he refutes is a mere parody on that which he has just given his readers, and something that no sane man would dream of holding.

For example, he admits, on page 38, that nothing "can be more absurd than the criticism of those persons who say that idealists, to be consistent, ought to run up against lamp-posts, fall into ditches, and commit other like absurdities." On page 47 he undertakes to show, "by the natural spontaneous judgment of mankind," that external material bodies exist "of themselves, and have a substantial reality in addition to that of the qualities we perceive; because the spontaneous judgment of mankind accords with what even animals learn through their senses. A wide river is an objective obstacle to the progress of a man's dog, as well as to that of the dog's owner."

One who compares the extract from page 38 with this from page 47 can, so far as I can see, reconcile them only by one of these hypotheses: 1, that Mivart holds a wide river to afford proof of reality which is not afforded by a ditch; or, 2, that the dog which does not run against lamp-posts affords evidence of the reality of Nature which is not afforded by a man in the same circumstances; or, 3, that "nothing can be more absurd than the criticism of these persons" who reason like Professor Mivart.

While sometimes right and sometimes wrong, like the rest of us, the apostle of tar water was no fool, although the groundwork of Mivart's science, in the book before us, is the assertion that idealists idiotically deny everything which they have not perceived, and hold that the external world has no existence.

It is hard to see how words could be clearer than those in which Berkeley repudiates all nonsense of this sort. "I do not argue," says he, "against the existence of any one thing that we apprehend, either by sense or by reflection. That the things I see with my eves and touch with my hands do exist, really exist, I make not the least question. I am of a vulgar cast, simple enough to believe my own senses, and to take things as I find them. To be plain, it is my opinion that the real things are the very things that I see and feel, and perceive by my senses. I can not for my life help thinking that snow is white and fire hot. And as I am no skeptic with regard to the nature of things, so neither am I as to their existence. That a thing should be really perceived by my senses, and at the same time not really exist, is to me a plain contradiction. Wood, stone, fire, water, flesh, iron, and the like things, which I name and discourse of, are things I know. Away, then, with all that skepticism, all those ridiculous philosophical doubts! I might as well doubt of my own being as of the being of those things I actually see and feel."

Mivart lays great stress upon the opinion of men in general as a refutation of idealism; and as Berkeley also says he is content to appeal to the common sense of the world, it may be well to ask what the verdict of "plain, untutored men "is, even if we doubt whether such a jury is the highest tribunal.

"Ask the gardener," says Berkeley, "why he thinks yonder cherry tree exists in the garden, and he shall tell you, because he sees it and feels it."

Mivart holds it one thing to see, and quite another matter to know that we see, for he says that while we see and feel the "qualities" of things by those "lower faculties" which we share with the "brutes," we perceive the "substance" in which these qualities inhere, by certain "higher faculties," winch, whether represented in the brutes by latent potencies or not, have been "given" to man in their completeness, and not slowly and gradually built up from low and simple beginnings in the brutes. The question we are to ask the gardener is, therefore, something to this effect: Whether he thinks the cherry tree exists because he sees it and feels it, or because, when he sees it and feels it, he knows that he does so?

If he weighs his words will he not ask how he can know that he does see it and feel it unless he knows that he does so? I, myself, am no philosopher; but, to my untutored mind, Mivart's distinction between things perceived by sense, and things perceived by sense, seems a mere verbal difference of accent and emphasis, rather than a fundamental distinction.

As most men use the word, "mind" implies consciousness of that sort which Mivart calls self-consciousness, and while there is no reason why those who choose should not so use the word as to include unconscious or "subconscious" or "consentious" cerebration, most plain, untutored men prefer to use words as their neighbors do.

If long waiting on Nature has given to the old gardener more shrewdness than we commonly find in those whose pursuits are less leisurely, he may say that, while he knows the tree is there because he has planted it and tended it and watched it grow, it now falls on his eyes day after day, without attracting his notice, unless something about it which calls for his skill catches his eye, and commands his attention.

If we see reason to believe that this difference is a matter of words and definitions; rather than a real difference in kind; if we fail to find any sharp dividing line between unperceived cerebration and "mind," is not this, in itself, enough to lead even Macaulay's schoolboy to ask whether mind may not be a slow and gradual growth from small beginnings, and a co-ordinated whole, to the common function of which all its parts contribute, rather than a "gift" of "lower faculties" and "higher faculties"?

We must ask, however, whether mechanical explanations of mind are in any way antagonistic to the conviction that it is a gift. May not one study the history of the mechanism of mind, and the way this mechanism works, in a spirit of profound and humble gratitude to the Giver of all good gifts?

Is the lamentable prevalence, among plain untutored men, of the notion that mechanical explanations of Nature are inconsistent with belief that all Nature is a gift, to be laid to the charge of the men of science?

Is it not rather the poisonous fruit of the ill-advised attempts of "philosophers" like Professor Mivart to teach that a gift can not be a gift at all unless it is an arbitrary interruption to the law and order of physical Nature?

  1. The Groundwork of Science. A Study of Epistemology. By St. George Mivart, M. D., Ph. D., F. R. S. New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1898.