Open main menu

Popular Science Monthly/Volume 56/January 1900/Professor Ward on Naturalism and Agnosticism

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 56‎ | January 1900


IN a recent advertisement. Professor Ward's work entitled as above was characterized as "one of the most important contributions to philosophy made in our time in England," and this was joined with the prophecy that it "may even do something to restore to philosophy the prominent place it once occupied in English thought." Along with laudatory expressions, I have observed in some notices reprobation of the manner adopted by Professor Ward in his attack upon my views—I might almost say upon me; and one of the reviewers gives examples of the words he uses—"ridiculous," "absurd," "blunder," "nonsense," "amazing fallacy," "our oracle."

When, some time ago, I glanced at one of the volumes, I came upon a passage which at once stamped the book by displaying the attitude of the writer; but, being then otherwise occupied, I decided not to disturb myself by reading more. Now, however, partly by the reviews I have seen, and partly by the comments of a friend, I have been shown that I can not let the book pass without remark. The assumption that a critic states rightly the doctrine he criticises is so generally made, that in the absence of proof to the contrary his criticisms are almost certain to be regarded as valid. And when the critic is a Cambridge Professor and an Honorary LL. D., the assumption will be thought fully warranted.

Let me set out by quoting some passages disclosing the kind of feeling by which Professor Ward's criticisms are influenced, if not prompted. In his preface he says:—

"When at length Naturalism, is forced to take account of the facts of life and mind, we find the strain on the mechanical theory is more than it will bear. Mr. Spencer has blandly to confess that 'two volumes' of his Synthetic Philosophy are missing, the volumes that should connect inorganic with biological, evolution."

Respecting the first of these sentences, I have only to remark that I have said (as in First Principles, § 62) and repeatedly implied, that force or energy in the sense which a "mechanical theory" connotes, can not be that Ultimate Cause whence all things proceed, and that there is as much warrant for calling it spiritual as for calling it material. As was asserted at the close of that work (p. 558), the "implications are no more materialistic than they are spiritualistic; and no more spiritualistic than they are materialistic"; and as was contended in the Principles of Sociology, § 659, "the Power manifested throughout the Universe distinguished as material, is the same Power which in ourselves wells up under the form of consciousness."

But it is to the second sentence I here chiefly draw attention. Whether or not there be a sarcasm behind the words "blandly to confess," it is clear that the sentence is meant to imply some dereliction on my part. Now in the programme of the Synthetic Philosophy, the division dealing with inorganic nature was avowedly omitted, "because even without it the scheme is too extensive"; and this undue extensiveness was so conspicuous that I was thought absurd or almost insane. Yet I am now tacitly reproached because I did not make it more extensive still—because an undertaking deemed scarcely possible was not made quite impossible. When blamed for attempting too much, it never entered my thoughts that I might in after years be blamed for not attempting more.

Repeated reference to First Principles as "the stereotyped philosophy" are manifestly intended by Professor Ward to reflect on me, either for having left that work during many years unchanged, or for implying that no change is needed. Much as I dislike personal explanations, I am here compelled to make them. If, in 1896, when the ten volumes constituting the Synthetic Philosophy were completed, I had done nothing toward revision of them, the omission would not have been considered by most men a reason for complaint. The facts, however, are, that in 1867 I issued a recast and revised edition of First Principles; in 1870 an edition of the Principles of Psychology, of which half was revised, and ten years later an enlarged edition of the same work; in 1885 a revised edition of the first volume of the Principles of Sociology; and now I have fortunately been able to finish a revised and enlarged edition of the Principles of Biology. Any one not willfully blind might have seen that when persisting, under great difficulties, in trying to execute the entire work as originally outlined, it was not practicable at the same time to bring all earlier parts of it up to date. Professor Ward, however, thinks that I should have sacrificed the end to improve the beginning, or else that I should have found energy enough to re-revise an earlier volume while writing the later ones; and my failure to do both prompts sarcastic allusions.[1]

In further illustration of the feeling Professor Ward brings to his task, I may quote the following passage, in which he interposes comments on my mode of writing:—

"By the persistence of Force [capital F], we really mean the persistence of some Power [capital P] which transcends our knowledge and conception. The manifestations, as recurring either in ourselves or outside of us, do not persist; but that which persists is the Unknown Cause [capitals again] of these manifestations."

The matter itself is trivial enough. It is worth noticing only as indicating a state of mind. Supposing even that capitals were in such cases inappropriate—supposing even that small initial letters would have been more appropriate; it is clear that only one having a strong animus would have gone out of his way to notice it.

After thus enabling the reader to judge in what temper the criticisms of Professor Ward are made, I may pass on.


As implied at the outset, my intention is not to discuss Professor Ward's own philosophy—the less so because I discussed a like philosophy nearly a generation ago. His position is that "Once materialism is abandoned and dualism found untenable, a spiritualistic monism remains the one stable position. It is only in terms of mind that we can understand the unity, activity, and regularity that nature presents. In so understanding we see that Nature is Spirit."

(Preface.) This was the position of Dr. Martineau in 1872 (and probably is now). He argued, that to account for this infinitude of physical changes everywhere going on, "Mind must be conceived as there," "under the guise of simple Dynamics." My criticisms on this view, given in an essay entitled "Mr. Martineau on Evolution," can not here be repeated. But I held then, as I hold now, that "the Ultimate Power is no more representable in terms of human consciousness than human consciousness is representable in terms of a plant's functions." Briefly the result is, that in saying "Nature is Spirit" (capital N and capital S!), Professor Ward implies that he knows all about it; while I, on the other hand, am sure that I know nothing about it.


And now, passing to my essential purpose, let me exemplify Professor Ward's controversial method. Specifying an hypothesis of the late Dr. Croll (who, he thinks, had "incomparably more right to an opinion on the question" than I have), he says, that it "at least recognizes a problem with which Mr. Spencer scarcely attempts to deal—I mean the evolution of the chemical elements. It thus suffices to convict Mr. Spencer's work of a certain incompleteness" (i., 190). Apparently the words "scarcely attempts" refer to a passage in the above-named essay, "Mr. Martineau on Evolution," where several reasons are given for thinking that the "so-called elements arise by compounding and recompounding." More than this has been done, however. The evolution of the elements, if not systematically dealt with within the limits of the Synthetic Philosophy, has not been ignored. In an essay on "The Nebular Hypothesis" (Essays, i., pp. 156-9), it is argued, that "the general law of evolution, if it does not actually involve the conclusion that the so-called elements are compounds, yet affords a priori ground for suspecting that they are such"; and five groups of traits are enumerated which support the belief that they originated by a process of evolution like that everywhere going on. But the point I here chiefly emphasize is that, having reflected upon me for omitting two volumes, Professor Ward again reflects upon me for having omitted something which one of these volumes would have contained. "Sir, you have neglected to build that house which was wanted! Moreover, you have not supplied the stairs!"

From a sin of omission let us pass to a sin of commission. Professor Ward quotes from me the sentence—"The absolutely homogeneous must lose its equilibrium; and the relatively homogeneous must lapse into the relatively less homogeneous."—First Principles, p. 429). Then presently he writes:—

"In truth, however, homogeneity is not necessarily instability. Quite otherwise. If the homogeneity be absolute—that of Lord Kelvin's primordial medium, say—the stability will be absolute too. In other words, if 'the indefinite, incoherent homogeneity,' in which, according to Mr. Spencer, some rearrangement must result, be a state devoid of all qualitative diversity and without assignable bounds, then, as we saw in discussing mechanical ideals, any 'rearrangement' can result only from external interference; it can not begin from within" (i., 223).

And then he goes on to argue that "Thus, the very first step in Mr. Spencer's evolution seems to necessitate a breach of continuity. This fatal defect, &c." (ibid.).

Observe the words "without assignable bounds"—without knowable limits, infinite. So that the law of the instability of the homogeneous is disposed of because it does not apply to an infinite homogeneous medium. But since infinity is inconceivable by us, this alleged case of stable homogeneity is inconceivable too. Hence the proposal is to shelve the law displayed in all things we know, because it is inapplicable to a hypothetical thing we can not know, and can not even conceive! Now let me turn to the essential point. This nominally-exceptional case was fully recognized by me in the chapter he is criticising. In § 155 of First Principles (p. 429), it is written:—

"One stable homogeneity only, is hypothetically possible. If centers of force, absolutely uniform in their powers, were diffused with absolute uniformity through unlimited space, they would remain in equilibrium. This, however, though a verbally intelligible supposition, is one that can not be represented in thought; since unlimited space is inconceivable."

So that this nominal exception which Professor Ward urges against me as a "fatal defect," was set forth by me thirty-seven years ago!

A somewhat more involved case may next be dealt with. Professor Ward writes:—

"Moreover, on the physical assumption from which Mr. Spencer sets out, viz., that the mass of the universe and the energy of the universe are fixed in quantity—which ought to mean are finite in quantity—there can be no such alternations [of evolution and dissolution] as he supposes" (i., 192).

After some two pages of argument, he goes on:—

"And so while all transformations of energy lead directly or indirectly to transformation into heat, from that transformation there is no complete return, and, therefore finally no return at all. This then is the conclusion to which Mr. Spencer's premises lead. Two eminent physicists who accept those premises may be cited at this point: 'It is absolutely certain,' they say, 'that life, so far as it is physical, depends essentially upon transformations of energy; it is also absolutely certain that age after age the possibility of such transformations is becoming less and less; and, so far as we yet know, the final state of the present universe must be an aggregation (into one mass) of all the matter it contains, i.e. the potential energy gone, and a practically useless state of kinetic energy, i.e. uniform temperature throughout that mass.… The present visible universe began in time and will in time come to an end'" (p. 194).

Mark now, however, that this opinion of "two eminent physicists," quoted to disprove my position, and tacitly assumed to have validity in so far as it serves that end, is forthwith dismissed as having, for other purposes, no validity. His next paragraph runs:—

"To this conclusion we are surely led from such premises. But again I ask what warrant is there for the premises? Our experience certainly does not embrace the totality of things, is, in fact, ridiculously far from it. We have no evidence of definite space or time limits; quite the contrary. Every advance of knowledge only opens up new vistas into a remoter past and discloses further depths of immensity teeming with worlds."

Thus the truth urged against me is that we can not know anything about these ultimate physical principles in their application to the ultra-visible universe. But, unhappily for Professor Ward's criticism, I entered this same caveat long ago. Demurring to that doctrine of the dissipation of energy to which he now demurs, I wrote:—

"Here, indeed, we arrive at a barrier to our reasonings; since we can not know whether this condition is or is not fulfilled. If the ether which fills the interspaces of our Sidereal system has a limit somewhere beyond the outermost stars, then it is inferable that motion is not lost by radiation beyond this limit; and if so, the original degree of diffusion may be resumed. Or supposing the ethereal medium to have no such limit, yet, on the hypothesis of an unlimited space, containing, at certain intervals. Sidereal Systems like our own, it may be that the quantity of molecular motion radiated into the region occupied by our Sidereal System, is equal to that which our Sidereal System radiates; in which case the quantity of motion possessed by it, remaining undiminished, it may continue during unlimited time its alternate concentrations and diffusions. But if, on the other hand, throughout boundless space filled with ether, there exist no other Sidereal Systems subject to like changes, or if such other Sidereal Systems exist at more than a certain average distance from one another; then it seems an unavoidable conclusion that the quantity of motion possessed, must diminish by radiation; and that so, on each successive resumption of the nebulous form, the matter of our Sidereal System will occupy a less space; until it reaches either a state in which its concentrations and diffusions are relatively small, or a state of complete aggregation and rest. Since, however, we have no evidence showing the existence or non-existence of Sidereal Systems throughout remote space; and since, even had we such evidence, a legitimate conclusion could not be drawn from premises of which one element (unlimited space) is inconceivable; we must be forever without answer to this transcendent question." (First Principles, § 182, pp. 535-6.)

See, then, how the case stands. After urging against me the argument of "two eminent physicists" as fatal to my conclusions, he thereupon expresses dissent from the premises of that argument; and the reasons he gives for dissenting are like those given by me before he was out of his teens!


It is not always easy to disentangle misrepresentations; especially when they are woven into a fabric. For elucidation of this matter there needs another section. It may fitly begin with an analogy. An astronomer who "saw reason to think" that the swarm of November meteors this year would be greater than usual, would be surprised if the occurrence of a smaller number were cited in disproof of his astronomical beliefs at large. It would be held that so undecided a phrase as "saw reason to think," not implying a definite deduction, did not implicate his general conceptions nor appreciably discredit them. Professor Ward, however, thinks a tentative opinion is equivalent to a positive assertion. In the course of the foregoing argument (p. 191) he represents me as saying that "there is an alternation of evolution and dissolution in the totality of things." He does not quote the whole clause, which runs thus:—"For if, as we saw reason to think, there is an alternation of evolution and dissolution in the totality of things, &c." Here, then, are two qualifying expressions which he suppresses; and not only does he here suppress them, but elsewhere he refers to this passage as not speculative, but quite positive. On p. 197 he says:—

"But of a single supreme evolution embracing them all we have no title to speak: not even to assume that it is, much less to say what it is; least of all to affirm confidently that it can be embraced in such a meaningless formula as the integration of matter and the dissipation of motion." [The italics are mine.]

So that a hypothetical inference (implied by "if"), drawn from avowedly uncertain data (implied by "reason to think"), he transforms into an unhesitating assertion. He does this in presence of my statement that respecting transformations of the Universe as a whole, no "legitimate conclusions" can be drawn, and that we must be forever "without answer to this transcendent question." Nay, he does it in presence of a still more specific repudiation of certainty. Section 182 begins:—

"But of a single supreme evolution embracing them all we have no title to speak: not even to assume that it is, much less to say what it is; least of all to affirm confidently that it can be embraced in such a meaningless formula as the integration of matter and the dissipation of motion." [The italics are mine.]

"Here we come to the question raised at the close of the last chapter—does Evolution as a whole, like Evolution in detail, advance toward complete quiescence? Is that motionless state called death, which ends Evolution in organic bodies, typical of the universal death in which Evolution at large must end?…

"To so speculative an inquiry, none but a speculative answer is to be expected. Such answer as may be ventured, must be taken less as a positive answer than as a demurrer to the conclusion that the proximate result must be the ultimate result" (p. 529). Instead of being a positive answer, it is intended to exclude a positive answer.

One more instance may be given to illustrate Professor Ward's mode of discrediting views which he dislikes. On p. 198 of his first volume occurs the sentence—

"At any rate such a conception is less conjectural and more adequate than Mr. Spencer's ridiculous comparison of the universe to a spinning top that begins by 'wabbling.' passes into a state of steady motion or equilibrium mobile, and finally comes to rest."

The reader who seeks a warrant for this representation will seek in vain. If, in the chapter of First Principles on "Equilibration," he turns to section 171, where the celestial applications of the general law are considered, he will find the Solar System alone instanced as having progressed toward a moving equilibrium; and the moving equilibrium even of this not compared as alleged. Neither in that section nor in any subsequent section of the chapter, is any larger celestial aggregate mentioned as progressing toward a moving equilibrium. Contrariwise, in the succeeding chapter on "Dissolution," it is said that "the irregular distribution of our Sidereal System" is "such as to render even a temporary moving equilibrium impossible" (p. 531). On pp. 533-4 it is contended that even local aggregations of stars, still more the whole Sidereal System, must eventually reach a diffused state without passing through any such stage. And had not conclusions respecting the changes of the Universe been excluded as exceeding the bounds even of speculation (p. 536), it is clear that still more of the Universe would no moving equilibrium have been alleged; but, had anything been alleged, it would have been the reverse. How, then, has it been possible, the reader will ask, for Professor Ward to write the sentence above quoted? If instead of vainly seeking through the sections devoted to "Equilibration" and "Dissolution" in relation to celestial phenomena, he turns back to some introductory pages he will find a clew. I have pointed out that in an aggregate having compounded motions, one of the constituent motions may be dissipated while the rest continue; and that in some such cases there is established a moving equilibrium. In illustration I have taken "the most familiar example"—"that of the spinning top"; and to remind the reader of one of the movements thus dissipated while the rest continue, I have used the word "wabbling"; there being no other descriptive word. What then has Professor Ward done? That mode of establishing an equilibrium which the spinning top exemplifies, he represents as extended by me to celestial phenomena, though no such comparison is made nor any such word used. Nay, he has done so notwithstanding my assertion that a moving equilibrium of our sidereal system is negatived, and regardless of the implied assertion that still more would be negatived a moving equilibrium of the Universe, could we with any rationality speculate about it. Actually in defiance of all this, he says I compare the motion of the Universe to that of a "wabbling" top. Having constructed a grotesque fancy, he labels it "ridiculous" and then debits me with it.

I can not pursue further this examination of Professor Ward's criticisms: other things have to be done. Whether what has been said will lead readers to discount the laudatory expressions I quoted at the outset, it is not for me to say. But I think I have said enough to warn them that before accepting Professor Ward's versions of my views, it will be prudent to verify them.


Postscript.—I said that I did not propose to discuss Professor Ward's own philosophy, and I contented myself with quoting his summary of it—"Nature is Spirit." It occurs to me, however, that as showing the point of view from which his criticisms are made, it may not be amiss to give readers a rather more specific conception of his philosophy, by reproducing a laudatory quotation he makes. Here it is:—

"If 'rational synthesis' of things is what we seek, it is surely more reasonable to say with Lotze: 'What lies beneath all is not a quantity which is bound eternally to the same limits and compelled through many diverse arrangements, continuously varied, to manifest always the very same total. On the contrary, should the self-realization of the Idea[!] require it, there is nothing to hinder the working elements of the world being at one period more numerous and yet more intense; at another period less intense as well as fewer'" (i., 218). [The italics are mine.]

It is worth remarking that on the opposite page some of my views are characterized as "astounding feats of philosophical jugglery"!


  1. Candor often brings penalties, as witness the announcement "stereotyped edition." When another thousand of a work has been ordered, the printers do not always refer to the author for correction of the title-page, but, as a matter of course, put "second edition," or "third edition," as the case may be. When my attention has been drawn to such matters, however, I have directed that the words "stereotyped edition" shall be put on the titlepage if the printing is from plates, and if the work is unaltered: objecting to a usage which betrays readers into the false belief that new matter is forthcoming. I did not perceive that an antagonist might transform the words "stereotyped edition" into an assertion that the work needed no changes. Experience should have warned me that adverse interpretations are inevitable wherever they are possible. To the question—"Why did you stereotype?" the obvious reply is—"From motives of economy."