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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 86/February 1915/The Evanescence of Facts

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 86‎ | February 1915



IN looking over some old portfolios, I have lately dragged to light elaborate notes which relate and discuss various facts set forth by the laboratories of this and other lands. Yellow with age, but vivid with the interest and bursting with the importance with which the scientific environment of the day invested them for me, they have set me musing on the vanity of human interests, especially the vanity of scientific interests. I remember the sonorous periods which reverberate from university platforms, the mottoes flaunted on the title page of many a scientific journal, "To the solid ground of nature trusts the mind which builds for aye." The pride, the pomp and circumstance of war burn in a feeble flame when compared with the assurance which fills the bosom and exudes at the lips of the man of science when he contemplates the firmness of the pedestal upon which he stands, the rock of ages, the steel concrete foundation against which dash in vain the skepticism of the scoffer and the voluble waves of theory and ratiocination.

For is not this substructure the product of the unerring interpretation of vision, hearing, of smell and taste and feeling? Vision aided by spherical glasses, aberrations of light and obscurity of outline corrected by the proper means, sound amplified by vibrating plates and confined by hollow conduits, smell—well, there is some doubt about smell—it is a recessive—however, the solidity of the ground of nature as betrayed by the senses, that is, most of them, is such a contrast to the airy superstructure built by deductive reasoning and by the imagination, unrefined by submission to the crucial test of experiment, that it is not worth while to dwell on the fallaciousness of the senses.

However, to go back to my old notes, yellow with age, musty with the dust of the intervening years, like the moths and insects from Faust's old coat when Mephistopheles shook them out, they may sing:

Willkommen! Willkommen!

  Du alter Patron,
Wir schweben und summen
  Und kennen dich schon.

But I recognize them only as a particularly uninteresting and lousy lot of lowly organisms. I am not at all tempted to utilize them as foundation stones for the imposing edifice I was secretly longing to build when I took up the old portfolio. What is the matter with the facts? They seem just a little tarnished; the mind is not tempted to gild them over or rub them up, the imagination refuses to endow them with those winged words which carry newly quarried facts bright and shining to the work table of the appreciative student, unhaunted by any shade of historical perspective. Evidently the time to work a fact into the masonry of science, "the solid ground of nature" upon which her trusting and unsuspicious, non-historical, scientific children love to build, is when it is fresh and when the mortar will cling to it. Coat it over with the incrustations of criticism, the mould of age, and it must be fresh hewed to the point of losing its identity—its susceptibility of identification, I mean,—before it can be appreciated as a part of "the solid ground of nature"—made solid of course by eyes, not really myopic or hypermetropic when they have their errors of refraction properly corrected, made solid in a word by the unfailing, unerring use of sense—a veritable fact, not an old fact, of course, but a new one. It is true that an old fact is often not just the thing to trust to, but a new one, and new ones are so easy to find if you have not wasted your time with the old ones, lends that solidity of support which we love to contemplate in the hierarchical press of science. It unfortunately has come to look a little suspicious in the secular press, but a new fact, really approved by the hierarchy of science, unsmirched by any touch of the imagination and free of any suspicion of deductive birth, is a thing of beauty if not a joy forever. The old facts, though they continue to sing:

Du hast uns gepflanzt;
Zu Tausenden kommen
Wir, Vater, getanzt.

are, I must confess, a pretty "poor run of shad." It is true it does not seem just the way a fact should behave. Its vintage should improve with age. It is undeniable, however, that in really choice circles of science, the old facts are not looked on with favor.

The imagery of Shakespeare, the flowers of eloquence in Demosthenes, need no burnishing, no drapery to hide their age, but the atoms of Democritus and the spheres of Ptolemy need considerable correction, and the cloud of insect facts which swarm up from my old yellow sheets, if not simply disgusting, are at least uninspiring. Is it possible then they lack something? A fact, it is true, should lack nothing. It should stand alone unshamed in its nakedness—for is it not the truth? Is not the truth divine?

The concatenation of circumstance should have nothing to do with it. The contemporaneous adornment it borrows from its environment must be non-essential. I do not know how many facts can pass through this crucible of criticism unscorched. All that I can say is that I have never met with an old fact among the countless tons of them under which our library shelves groan which I am certain would not betray to the eager experimentalist of whom we are so proud many a crack and many a blemish. To the observant dilettante or to the ingenuous, earnest student—if one can be called such who flits often across the whole domain in which truth is sought, it is apparent that different tests are applied to the genuineness of the information acquired.

The physicist concludes he has something material because when his electrons are fired through a tube he can see the flash or hear them ring a bell and so count them. The physiologist or the biochemist concludes a certain organic juice is present because he can perceive the effects of its diastase or the serologist can see the clouding or clearing of the fluid in his test tube. The geologist draws certain conclusions from the scar on the hillside or river bank, the archeologist from the presence or absence of certain forms of the architrave or of certain metals in the implements he finds. Such evidence for the establishment of facts as is satisfactory to the sociologist or psychologist or archeologist is scorned by the astronomer and the physicist, while the statistician is still more intolerant. "Chacun à son métier" with a shrug of the shoulder is the answer given to extraneous criticism by the delver in each domain for hidden facts, yet in a certain tacit way it is felt that the physicist in the making of a flash or in the ringing of a bell, and the statistician in counting them, has really the better grasp on reality, until along comes some king of physicists like Lodge or Crookes or some skilful fencer like Bergson, some iconoclast like Driesch, and shows that these things are not physical at all, but are knots in the ether or metaphysical entirely, or the Lord knows what, and the dilettante says (to himself, if prudent): "Well, what is the test of Reality anyhow, what is a fact? It seems to depend on the method"; and he goes his way with his own private opinion of the claim that the methods of science are something sacrosanct and apart from other demonstrations of the grounds of belief.

Truth is eternal, of course, but whether there are some truths which are not facts or some facts which are not truths may be left to the logicians, and other former inhabitants of the fanes of science, discredited dwellers in the temples of truth. The mantle of the sophist, the glamor of the logician clothes other forms and illuminates the halls of other shrines. Other prophets are now accustomed to have their dictum greeted as if: "A fonte relatum Hammonis." The same befitting solemnity, the same sepulchral dignity, again clothes the dispenser of new truths as of old shone around the prophets with the oriflamme of truth. The modern prophet, however, draws his inspiration not from the gushing fountains of the imagination set playing by some Pagan or Christian divinity, but from the solid foundation of facts laid down by the erring and unfailing senses, aided of course usually by the microscope and the stethoscope, but solid fact nevertheless. No deduction need apply; no fiery imagination can play around a fact. The supreme tragedy of nature, Huxley reminded Spencer, was one of his theories killed by a fact. Reason indeed must play a minor role in the new theocracy. Man indeed has been accustomed to lean upon it but:

Ein wenig besser würd er leben
Hättest du ihm nicht den Schein
Des Himmels Licht gegeben
Er nennt's Vernunft und braucht's allein
Nur thierischer als jedes Thier zu sein.

When the fact comes to be builded into a structure of any use to mankind, of course the "light of Heaven" must be employed, but not for a fact alone. That shines by its own effulgence. It would appear, I confess, that the fact should shine for the babe as well as for the sage, but after all sight and hearing and smell (that Judas of the senses—why is it always necessary to reckon with this atavistic weakling?), need interpretations; certain conclusions, not of course deductively but inductively—mark the difference—must be drawn from those peripheral stimuli which ring a bell in the caves of thought. This is entirely different from the circuitous ratiocinations which formerly disfigured the face of science. Pure science is direct induction, as distinguished from the impure science in which the heavenly beacon plays too conspicuous a part. Truth is apt to be lost if we get too far from the peripheral stimuli; just how far, it is at present inconvenient to determine. At any rate, it is now universally recognized that the sources of knowledge are entirely different from former sources of knowledge, so elongated in degree that the difference is fundamental. Without this appreciation of the difference between an interpretation of external peripheral stimuli, revealed to us by the senses, and the conclusions arrived at by the philosopher who sat in his tub or by the deductive sage who constantly contemplated his umbilicus, one is apt to lose sight of the glory of modern science. One method we readily believe was fallacious, the other we know to be unfailing.

This change in the methods of science began when the old method had advanced about as far along its old paths as we have along the new ones. The change (it is uncertain whether we are to reckon its inception from Roger Bacon or Lord Bacon) gradually became so emphasized that under Cuvier at the French Academy even discussion was frowned upon. It is true that France is no longer the exclusive home of science or even the chief home of science. Science finds a favorite residence amidst the fogs of Germany, where, owing to the idiosyncrasies of etymology, discussion is a tiresome, but alas, not a neglected occupation. Indeed, there is well-founded suspicion that science has advanced as much by discusssion as by direct observation, but there seems to be a smell of heresy about this. At least the phenomenon is familiar. The cash-register method of Cuvier, whereby facts were supposed to be recorded but not discussed, presents some flaws in its title of supremacy. Possibly this is because there is really some incompleteness in application. The interposition of the function of the cerebral cortex seems to a certain extent unavoidable. In so far then we are, even with Cuvier's classical conception, obliged to accept some modification. "Das Ding an sich" is essentially a figment of the reasoning faculties of the German mind, and the attempt to grasp it in the interest of pure science has always been somewhat of a failure.

In musing over these old notes then, I am led far astray in an attempt to explain just why the old facts do not present that alluring aspect to me which they once did. True in the words of the poet I may well question:

Are they still such as once they were?
Or is the dreary change in me?

Indubitably the "warped and broken board" of the poet's simile does not take the painter's dye as it did when fresh sawed from the mill. The chill of age we know brings the carping criticism to the front which the blush of youth hides behind its inexperience, but I never heard that wisdom was the latter's handmaiden rather than the servant of the former. Nevertheless, it is well to compare the inspiration of the recent revelation with that of the discovery of the old knowledge and the force of the suggestions I have shadowed forth in my musings will not appear entirely negligible.

What then becomes of the old facts? Peripheral stimuli, transmitted from without through the organs of special sense and interpreted by the cortical gray matter of the brain, have eventuated not only in records carved on stone and scratched on brass, but they have left their still more lasting impress on the social inheritance of countless generations of men—evidently from far beyond the period when historical records began to be preserved for us. The peripheral stimuli, direct observation, with as little interposition of gray matter, illuminated with as little of the heaven-bestowed light as possible, were the origin of these beliefs—these facts—just as are the red rods we see by the help of convex glasses which we now call tubercle bacilli.

The archeologists tell us that time plays curious pranks with the most resistant and stubborn materials. For many years the old story of the Phœnician sailors' discovery of glass beneath their camp fire on the sea sands of the shore was an attractive one, but evidently the manufacture of glass goes far back of the time when the Phœnicians were masters of the sea. In some of the material dug out of the soil, once pressed beneath the feet of men of the most remote antiquity, a streak of a little different color is noted. Carefully brushing away this mouldering matter, in the center is still found a thin streak of glass. The dust in which was encased this flint-like product of man's ingenuity was once glass too, but the whole has crumbled away to this mere sliver which alone serves to betray the nature of the whole. In this crumbling disintegration we may see an apt illustration of how those facts, yielded by direct observation to the cerebral cortex of primitive man, have ceased to preserve their recognizable outlines. In order to get some idea of what they were, the archeologist must go with the sociologist to the study of those remnants of primitive man still to some extent uncorroded by the pressure of the environment of civilization. Malay magic, the astounding beliefs unearthed by modern travelers, innumerable legends fantastic to the civilized mind, so devoid of point and so obscure of origin as to be not only incomprehensible but even devoid of interest, are the revelations which greet the inquirer. At first without a clue, this is simply a bewildering mass, confusion thrice confounded. Gradually, however, it becomes evident to the student that all this has arisen from the direct observation of an external environment, of an ever-pressing, an ever-intruding nature with which primitive man struggles. His method of the acquisition of facts, however, we find quite similar to that of Cuvier—observation, assertion, suppression of ratiocination, ignorance of logic—the true inductive method.

When Diogenes studied the universe from his tub and bade Alexander stand out of his sunshine, he probably did not realize that Alexander had pushed the forest back and had started the conquest of tropical nature and had given Diogenes time for the study of his umbilicus, given him the leisure for reflection. The savage has it not. So Diogenes and his tribe knew not direct observation and concluded they could get along without it—in spite of the Stagyrite, who was soon to make an abortive attempt to weld the two weapons being forged for man in his future search of the truth. Back and forth these two tendencies of man in his quest surged for thousands of years. Finally man, by availing himself of the invention of the convex glass found in the ruins of prehistoric Nineveh, by perfection in the accuracy of the measurement of the curves and angles studied by Euclid and his predecessors, by throttling those who to preserve their own autonomy had hitherto prevented it, brought about the bursting forth of a flood of external stimuli—new facts pressing on man, intruding on him like the primeval forest did on his primeval ancestor, fairly forcing him into Cuvier's attitude—record facts, never mind what they mean—there is no time for the study of the umbilicus at present.

And so again their evanescence becomes manifest. Crumbling disintegration sets in. Time with its mordant acid and alkalies encrusts the bright new glass. Back and forth vibrate the forces of the microcosm as well as those of the macrocosm, the spiritual tendencies and the intellectual methods of man. It is a universal law. Perhaps a static equilibrium means death—all things tend to that so far as we know. But will it never be possible to establish a unity of the two methods of seeking truth? Surely they are not wholly antagonistic—they are not essentially hostile forces like attraction and repulsion, like positive and negative electricity. Can we not have, now Cuvier is dead—peace to his ashes—a little pause—a little time for discussion, a little space for a contemplation of the umbilicus—a little space for logic and criticism in the Centralblatts and other cash registers?

It is the concatenation of circumstance, to repeat a former phrase, and not the fact itself which lends it charm. The naked truth no one ever saw, except the nymph who perished at the sight. The facts of sense, like those of the prophet, like those of the poet, like those of the philosopher, are relative, not real, and the results of such musings as I am indulging in can lead the seeker after truth only to the conclusion that each is but the facet of a whole of which our conception is the less complete and the narrower the more exclusively we tread the path illuminated solely by one aspect of the truth. He who knows nothing of the imagination, of the workings of logic, of the inspiration of the poet and the prophet, he who is ignorant of the past and finds no comfort in the speculations of the prophet as to the future, is badly equipped for the interpretation of the impression of the senses. No life is a rounded life without a touch of something more than that of materialism. The method of science which rests solely on that is fatally defective. It withers the powers of youth and it favors the approach of a premature intellectual sterility from which there is no escape but in the silence which falls upon those who have not heeded the warning in their youth.

Thus musing, the old yellow papers are cast aside for fresh tablets, but with the consideration that in science it does not matter much, since the evanescence of facts, not at once built into the structure which forms the woof and web of contemporaneous thought, is soon evident to the seeker after truth if he digs deep enough.