Popular Science Monthly/Volume 78/April 1911/Reality and Truth

By Professor T. D. A. COCKERELL


REALITY may be conceived of as having three aspects, the knowable or scientific, the imaginable or metaphysic, and the unimaginable or metapsychic. These three elements of being are not in themselves distinct, but depend for their separation on the condition of the perceiving mind. They are so closely interwoven that every part of reality may be said to contain them all; every circle of thought being partly distinct, partly faint, partly broken.

The discussion of the metapsychic appears at first sight to be impossible. Since it is postulated that the content can not be material for thought, how can it be discussed? No creature, indeed, can contemplate its own metapsychic field, but it may contemplate that of others. Our best established science is metapsychic for many animals higher in the scale than the jelly fish. Were man the only living being, he might still afford variation enough for the study of metapsychics on a comparative basis; but with the great field of comparative psychology open before us, the material is more than abundant.

In all this, however, the reality which is described as metapsychic for the one being, is psychic for some other. There can be no doubt that some animals operate in part of our metapsychic field, having, for instance, sensations of smell altogether beyond us. We believe, however, that there is a vast field of reality unrealizable to any living being, and to complete the psychological scheme at the ultra-human end we postulate an all-knowing God. It is a curious question, what must be the psychology of one whose thought circles are all complete, in whose mind there are no attenuated ends of things, fading into the unknown and unknowable. Such a question may be raised, but can hardly be answered by us.

Intellectual progress consists in winning ground from the metaphysic for the scientific, from the metapsychic to the metaphysic. The transition from the third to the first must always be through the second, though its duration therein may be of the shortest. This statement denies, as I think we must deny, the immediacy of knowledge, though not of experience. Knowledge has structure, is built up of varieties of experience, is an organized thing. A single absolutely uniform and monotonous experience, no matter how long continued, could not be a basis for knowledge.

By what process is ground won from the metapsychic? How is the threshold of consciousness overstepped? The mind is a stage, upon which the actors come, and from which they go. Whence are they, and whither do they depart? We can describe in terms of science the accompanying phenomena, but the thing itself evades us. What wonder that mankind has always believed in supernatural, that is, metapsychical agencies!

Reality is a poor word for the totality of being, because it implies to us realizableness. It is only justifiable on the ground just stated, by postulating a being able to know the whole of it. Nevertheless, the practical thing for us is to recognize the continuity of the known into the unknown, without asking what the limits of the latter may be, supposing it to have any.

What is truth? Endless confusion has arisen from the double meaning which has been given to this word. There is practical truth, and abstract truth. The scientific man adheres to the former, the philosopher may talk about the latter.

Science tests things and finds them true, and is only willing to declare them so after examination. Truth then, is the objective side of knowledge, and without knowledge in this sense, there can be no truth. It would conduce to clearness, could we so restrict the meaning of the word, and I believe that in so doing we should have some support from ancient usage. Otherwise, how could we speak of a fact verified, made true, if the making true were not a process of the human mind, operating on preexisting reality?

This would leave us with abstract reality, metaphysical and metapsychical reality, but no abstract truth. Truth would be concrete, objective, scientific, something to tie to and act upon. Hence, said William James: "True ideas are those that we can assimilate, validate, corroborate and verify," but he added something to which one need not subscribe, namely, "False ideas are those which we can not." This last postulate would make all ideas false which are incapable of verification, surely an absurd use of the word false. I would rather say that false ideas are those which, having been put through legitimate tests for verification, have failed to pass the examination. False ideas, then, are those which we have tested and could not then verify. Of those which we can not test, or have not tested, it is impossible to say whether they are false or not. Thus we are left with three categories, the true, the false and the candidates for admission into the first group, liable to find themselves ultimately in the second.

The power of verification is apperceptive; we are reminded of Ehrlich's chain-theory to explain certain aspects of proteid metabolism. There must have been an Adam and Eve of knowledge, when two sensations first joined together as the charter members of the society for converting experience, a raw material, into beautiful and marketable truth. Since then the members of this society have closely scrutinized the newcomers, and many have been black-balled. The society is anything but infallible. Not unfrequently it has let in members which afterward had to be ejected with violence, greatly to the discomfort of all concerned. Still more often, I suspect, it has refused to admit worthy candidates who would have been a credit to it. Thus it has come about that many 60-called truths are not true at all, for the alleged process of verification was faulty; while supposed untruths may be destined in the fullness of time to be recognized as true.

At this point we must consider the pragmatic doctrine of truth, as expounded by James and others. Pragmatism says, try all things and hold fast to that which is good. Ask always, how does this work? Will it make a good member of the truth-makers' society? It is a doctrine of intellectual dynamics, of activity, of judgment based on knowledge. To this extent it is therefore a wind fanning the flame of intellectual activity, to the end of burning up the dross and extracting the gold. It is the scientific method invading the field of philosophy.

It has, however, a double aim. In testing an alleged truth by its consequences, it merely follows the scientific method of determining whether it will, as it should, articulate properly with pre-ascertained truth. It recognizes that for us, things are true which have endured the test. This, however, is only the beginning of its quest. It goes further, and asks what things, of those which may be called true, are worth while from a human standpoint. It is inclined to hold, indeed, that this very serviceability is in itself a test of truth. It is for this reason that Professor Schinz calls it "opportunism in philosophy."

The word philosophy, originally signifying the love of wisdom, has come to have many diverse meanings. Quite commonly it is taken to signify a theory of the totality of existence, as, for example, in Haeckel's monistic philosophy. Since it appears that much of reality is metapsychic, a theory embracing the whole of it must be beyond the powers of the human mind, and, as is certainly the case with monism, we find ourselves in possession of nothing more than a point of view. It is, indeed, with the point of view that philosophy must concern itself, and he is a philosopher who has scrutinized and recognized as a whole the landscape visible from his peculiar point of vantage, without necessarily formulating any opinions concerning what is to him unknown. I would therefore say that one's philosophy is one's attitude toward experienceable reality, and inasmuch as every one must have some such attitude, all are to this extent philosophers. One's philosophy, as thus defined, may be consistent or inconsistent, limited or comprehensive, optimistic or pessimistic, active or sluggish, in almost infinite variety. It is obvious that its character determines to a tremendous extent one's personality or rather, personality is expressed, and its character for others determined, by the attitude taken.

I am not quite sure that the use of the word philosophy in this way, a way that allows us to speak of the pragmatic philosophy, is justified, but that is a minor matter, and may be overlooked in our quest for larger game. The important question is, supposing the world converted to this pragmatic philosophy, what would be the consequences, pragmatically speaking? Would pragmatism itself be pragmatically justified?

At the very outset, it must be obvious that a genuinely pragmatic attitude implies for most of us a noteworthy increase in intellectual activity. It is an attitude which obliges us to inquire, test and form judgments. The pragmatist asks cui bono? not in the indolent manner of the pessimist, but as the miner asks for the precious metal, and is determined to find it, no matter what the cost. The pragmatist is necessarily an optimist, for his quest implies from the start that the truth is good and serviceable, worthy to be sought. I think the psychologist and the sociologist might have something to say here about the possibility of a breakdown due to too much pragmatism. Are we not protected to a considerable extent by our very stupidity? Human judgment is a two-edged sword, which has often wounded those who used it. Do not our educational efforts indicate to us daily the limitations of the human mind?

It was the belief of William James that most people are capable of much more than they customarily put forth. He was supported in this by examples of heroic effort and achievement under conditions of stress, physical and mental. Our normal performance in these civilized days far exceeds that of our ancestors of a few hundred years back; ancestors who, biologically speaking, did not differ in any important particular from ourselves. The same peoples, living contemporaneously in different parts of the world, differ enormously in their intellectual performance, according to circumstances. It must be admitted, then, that the depths of the human mind have not been sounded, and that much still unsuspected may yet come forth. Whether we like it or not, education and democracy will place us in a position where we must either become more intelligent or go to smash. If we can stand the strain, all will be justified, and humanity will realize values unattainable by any living being at any previous stage in the history of the world. If we fail, the vision of such possibilities will at least remain as a permanent contribution to human welfare, and perhaps a spur to other and more successful efforts in a time far distant.

After all, the pragmatic position does not demand so much of the individual as might at first appear. We are social beings, and in particular our knowledge and judgments are social products. It is equally unnecessary and impossible for every one to form judgments about everything. A pragmatist need not in any way diminish his regard for authority, provided that this authority represents active inquiry and reasoned judgment. The usages of science suffice to indicate this, for in science there is no arbitrarily constituted authority, and yet the leaders receive their full share of respect. Were we all pragmatists, we should not individually undertake to decide the questions most important for us, but working together we should keenly strive to have them decided on a proper basis. In other words, pragmatism is not only not necessarily individualistic, but must have a socialistic trend if it is to be successful.

For any individual there can be no doubt that a certain ballast due to usage, custom, inertia, or what you will, is necessary. It must be so, also, with society as a whole, and neither for the individual nor for society is it possible to have a complete working philosophy, with all the machinery in view. Mallock once remarked that philosophy is like a coat which can not be buttoned up in front without splitting in the back, and this felicitous image certainly sets forth that inconsistency in the heart of things which has so far baffled all attempts to construct a universal logical system. The reason is, no doubt, that we work only in some, not all, of the dimensions of reality.

There is, therefore, danger in being too pragmatic. An excess of pragmatic zeal, under the best possible conditions, might possibly lead to the adoption of a too rigid system of values, logically deduced from the physics and metaphysics of the day, but in spite of everything, fatally incomplete. It is the sense of this that gives us pause from time to time, when our intellectual judgment bids us proceed. It has been shown so often that science may stand in her own light, that we have come to regard all things as possibly to be revised. This hesitation, this doubt on the part of those who have done their best for progress, is made the most of by those who cling without thought to the old, and all in all forms too great, not too small, a check on the advancement of the race.

The general outcome of our inquiry seems to be, that if we regard philosophy as an attitude of mind, the pragmatic philosophy may be welcomed as representing a changed emphasis, according well with the spirit and needs of our evolving democracy. At the same time, like every other good thing, it has its dangers, and in some hands it may even be disastrous. As a practical example of pragmatism, we may cite a recent case familiar to all—I mean Mr. Roosevelt s criticism of the Supreme Court. Lawyers had asked, what is written in the law? Mr. Roosevelt asked in truly Jamesian fashion, what difference does it make if this or that decision is rendered? To ask such a question is to find the answer ready at hand, intelligible to the least learned inquirer. The answer so obtained may even be used to interpret the law itself, having regard for its obvious spirit and intent, rather than the technicalities of some previous case. The pragmatism of nature is expressed through natural selection and the survival of the fittest. It is "the difference that it makes" that decides the fate of a new variation. In the long run, our human virtues and frailties must pass under the same law, but possessing conscious intelligence, we ourselves have a hand in the game hitherto played only by the gods. Having memory and foresight, we can even somewhat improve the ancient process, by considering "the difference" as made in the long run, instead of at the moment only, as is the manner of nature herself.