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The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
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Science and Religion, part 3

by Mrs. Dowson, L.R.C.P. & S., I.
Volume 11, 1900, pgs. 13-18


"Besides this, however, there is good work to be done in showing the confusion of thought underlying a belief that science or anything else can adequately interpret the meaning of the higher reality in terms of the lower."

"The process [of breaking things down to their mineral elements] is quite legitimate; it is necessary to systematic classification; it leads to no harm as long as we know what we are doing, and remember what we are losing on the way: but when we forget--when we begin to fancy that by its aid we penetrate the secret of being and attain to interpreting the fuiness of real things, then our judgment goes astray."


The British Association has held its annual meeting since the second of these papers was printed, and the President of the Mathematical and Physical Section has delivered an address bearing closely on the subject we have in hand. The position he takes up with regard to the proper work of physical science and its attitude towards great problems has many points of interest for us. He speaks plainly of its work as descriptive and not explanatory, except as a clear description of appearances can explain. He holds that physical science never touches the questions of causation and meaning. "A broken law," he says, "is merely a false description"; and "we can at least assert that meaning will only have true content when it is concerned with purpose and will. On the purely physical or descriptive view, the idea of cause is quite out of place . . . It would be a very real gain, a great assistance to clear thinking, if we could entirely abolish the word 'cause' in physical description: cease to say 'why' things happen unless we wish to signify an antecedent purpose, and be content to own that our laws are but expressions of 'how' they occur." He says also that "we think of a constitution of matter which shall enable us to explain all the various changes in terms of visible motions and accelerations" and "imagine a mechanical constitution of the universe"; not because we have discovered the universe to be itself mechanical, but because our sense of sight is the sense which makes mental pictures most definite. This opinion tells in favour of our contention that men of science who read the construction of their descriptive apparatus into the constitution of the universe are overstepping the boundaries imposed upon science by the limitations and the character of its method and scope.

We cannot, however, ignore the fact that there are other scientific men of eminence who hope to find, or even believe they are very near finding, in the atomic theory and the theory of the ether, a revelation of the deepest secrets of the physical world. The atomic theory has a long history. When men begin to think seriously about the constitution of things, some among them soon found themselves driven to regard matter as discontinuous in structure, that is, composed of parts. The smallest of these parts were called atoms. The atom of Democritus and Lucretius, although it was supposed to belong to a metaphysical theory of 'substance,' was at first not metaphysical; it was merely a piece of the apparent matter which, owing to its small size, could not be seen. When it came to be qualified by such terms as 'absolutely' hard, 'perfect' or 'simple,' it passed beyond the physics of matter; but in both states it was hopelessly inadequate, and an inexorable logic has disposed of it for-ever. Its place was taken by another kind of atom--the centre-of-force of Boscovich. This atom was supposed to be endowed with, or rather to be, mysterious powers of attraction and repulsion, seated, so to speak, at a mathematical point, having position but no size. For our latter-day descriptive science, this atom is too glaringly metaphysical, so it has been thrown into the dusty corner of historical oblivion.

We have now two or three rival theories before us; but all have one character in common--that of linking 'matter,' or material things, with the 'ethereal medium' that surrounds and penetrates them. Lord Kelvin's beautiful theory of Vortex-atoms may be taken as the best-known example. The Vortex-atom is a whirling portion of the non-material ether, and every material body is made up of enormous numbers of Vortex-atoms, differently grouped in the different kinds of bodies, and surrounded everywhere by the ocean of all-including ether of which they are made, if one may use the word without prejudice to the theory. The Vortex-atom is far superior to the hard atom of Democritus and to the Centre-of-force; but it is not equal to all that must be demanded of it. It is nonplussed by gravitation, and it refuses to submit to mechanical equations. Lord Kelvin himself says that his theory must remain a dream until it overcomes the difficulty of gravitation; and Pearson tells us that "the structure of the prime atom' and "the constitution of the ether" are the points on which "physical theory is at present chiefly at fault." Dr. Poynting, in his British Association address, sums up the situation thus:--"So, as we watch the weaving of the garment of Nature, we resolve it in imagination into threads of ether spangled over with beads of matter. We look still closer, and the beads of matter vanish; they are mere knots and loops in the threads of ether"; but he warns us not to fancy ourselves reading here the secret of "the garment of Nature." For, again, we must recollect that "the special molecular and ethereal machinery, which we have designed," is as it is "because our most highly developed sense is our sense of sight." The pattern is of our own making; it changes with us--we must not presume to say it is the 'real' pattern in the constitution of things.

Bearing all this in mind, we will now turn our attention from the Mechanical Theory of Nature to the Theory of Evolution--the second of the three important theories for our discussion.

The word evolution, which suggests to most minds the unfolding of a purpose and direction towards an end, has been emptied by the advanced guard of any meaning passing beyond mere description. Men who recognize the trend of physical science and the dependence of biology upon it, use the word as a name for their descriptive conception of the steps by which the 'mass' and 'energy' of the universe have come to be distributed as they are now. The position is a strong one; if it is maintained in the true scientific spirit, it seems likely to be favourable to great advances in the future. On our side, we can have no quarrel with such men; but they are only the advanced guard and they are still few; the main body far behind, and the undisciplined horde straggling after, continue to be a practical danger among us. What are we to say, for example, to men who mislead themselves and others by looking to science "to interpret"--to give meaning to--"the detailed phenomena of Life and Mind and Society in terms of Matter, Motion, and Force"?

The first thing we ought to do is, of course, to make such men understand that they need to learn how advanced modern physicists use these high-sounding terms. The metaphysical use of them still current among biologists comes of a use fast being abandoned by the physicists who started the fashion; biology should and will be corrected accordingly. Besides this, however, there is good work to be done in showing the confusion of thought underlying a belief that science or anything else can adequately interpret the meaning of the higher reality in terms of the lower. Dr. Ward says that the belief is often due "to a confusion between abstraction and analysis." The fact--for it seems to be a fact--puts into our hands a powerful weapon, not only of defence, but also of attack. Let us consider for a moment the difference between the two processes as applied to a living man. If a man can be successfully analysed into Matter, Motion or Force, or any other similar set of physical constituents, then we shall have a right to regard him as made up of them; but if we can bring him down to these terms only by abstracting, or taking away from him something, be it little or much, that belongs to him and without which he would not be man at all, then we must somehow reckon with what we have taken away before we can interpret him.

In the process of analysis, we mentally pull a thing to pieces and keep all the pieces; in abstraction we lose something at every step. If we can analyse a man into Matter and Motion, let us say, we can sort him out under these two heads without leaving anything of him unaccounted for, and we can, in imagination, build him up again without adding anything from another source, which, as Euclid says, is absurd. As a matter of fact, we can bring him under these heads only by abstraction, by previously taking away from him everything that will not be classified under them and leaving it out of consideration. Abstraction is a good servant, but an uncommonly bad master. We can take three things as different one from another as a man, an apple, and a pair of tongs; we can mentally strip them of all distinguishing qualities and powers, of all that enables the man, for example, to eat the apple and mend his fire with the tongs; we can bring all down to mineral constituents or even lower still, until at last we find apple, tongs, and man entirely indistinguishable, except by difference of quantity, mere quantity of 'energy' and 'mass.' The process is quite legitimate; it is necessary to systematic classification; it leads to no harm as long as we know what we are doing, and remember what we are losing on the way: but when we forget--when we begin to fancy that by its aid we penetrate the secret of being and attain to interpreting the fuiness of real things, then our judgment goes astray. We may even become capable of saying and believing, as Mr. Edward Clodd says and doubtless believes, that "the story of creation is the story of the evolution of gas into genius." Men may say this reasonably, of course, if they are quite prepared to see in gas everything necessary for genius, but the position brings with it a host of difficulties for the mechanical philosophizer. It is not our work to deal with these difficulties: the task lying ready to our hands is the work of pointing out inaccuracy in the use of scientific terms and conceptions, the confusion of abstraction with analysis, and, as a consequence, the treatment of a mere symbol, or else a small part of a thing, as if symbol and part were the complete real things of experience. We have to show the rashness and folly of building up a speculative scheme about real things on foundations so insecure, a task easy enough when the foundations themselves have been laid bare.

In the space at our disposal it is impossible to do more than sketch the outlines of some of the many illuminating principles which the habit of ignoring the mind in discussing such problems keeps out of view. Looking broadly at the facts of mind, we recognize at once two principles, which as Dr. Ward says, "lead us straight to the teleological factors of organic evolution," to those factors of purpose and direction which are either disregarded or rejected for different reasons by the advance guard of 'clear science,' and by those confused thinkers of whom we have just been speaking. One of these principles is self-conservation, the other is the so-called 'subjective' or 'hedonic' selection. They give to natural selection a holding ground, which, on mechanical principles, it must always be without.

The conservation of self by self pre-supposes the will to live and the pain of dying; it implies, therefore, activity prompted by feeling. It shows itself in reactions, often much exceeding the energy of the occasioning stimulus, whereby the injurious influence of changes of environment is avoided.

Subjective selection also implies activity prompted by feeling; it is the principle by which "special environments are singled out by different individuals from the general environment common to all" There is here nothing metaphorical; the individual positively selects what is pleasant, negatively selects what is painful. There is no sort of question that, in life of man, human selection plays a far more important part than any kind of mechanically-natural selection; every scientific evolutionist acknowledges the fact. Man, at all events, directs the course of things otherwise than as it would be if he let them alone; indeed we are often told that he is effecting the tremendous feat of weakening his own race by preserving the naturally unfit. Let us ask then, of the biologist, to consider how far mind goes along with life in general, how far down the scale this factor, so conspicuous in human development and human degradation, extends and has its influence over the course of things; and where we may say that it ceases to be accompanied in any degree by evidences of directive function.

It is a question the more advanced biologists, for the most part, ignore, and legitimately, if they confine themselves to bare superficial description; but naturalists and agnostics cannot ignore it, and do not ignore it. By a process of levelling-down, combined with a good deal of abstraction, the conclusion is reached that nowhere is there any true directive operation, nowhere any purpose being fulfilled. We have on our side, however, at least as good a right to choose the method of leveling-up, to work the principle of continuity from the top of the scale of life instead of from the bottom, and thus to interpret the unknown by the known. We shall have reason on our side, if we point to the necessary results of abstraction, and demand that real things shall be reckoned with in their totality when men speculate about the problems of existence, or try to find the meaning of life and man in terms of a machine. Only when, as individuals, we are taken by surprise, and have not had time or opportunity to arm ourselves with knowledge of the truth, need we be at a loss, in the present state of science, before those who wage guerilla warfare beneath its flag.


Proofread July 2011, LNL