AmblesideOnline AO Parents' Review Articles

The Parents' Review

A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture

Edited by Charlotte Mason.

"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
Science and Religion. Part II.

by Mrs. Dowson, L.R.C.P. & S., I.
Volume 10, 1899, pg. 627

For many scientific men, and probably for a still greater number of the outsiders who follow them in their unscientific speculations about existence and knowledge, the mechanical theory is taken as giving a true or facsimile picture of the real concrete things of the universe. In spite of the obviously abstract or ideal character of their method they hold themselves justified in regarding the universe as a huge automatic machine made up of 'matter,' and 'motion,' and 'force,' or 'energy,' or whatever the chosen set of terms may be; and its parts, the concrete things, as appearing to us under disguises, so to speak, of qualities we perceive through our senses, such as hardness, yellowness, brightness and the like. The mechanical scheme is considered by such men as a means by which they penetrate through all this disguise and get to the reality underneath the sensible 'appearance.' Here lies the source of most of the trouble that physics brings into the field of controversy, either directly, or indirectly through biology; and its justification, so far as there is justification for it, probably consists in the fact that the mechanical theory enables us to predict what will happen under given conditions, for instance, of the astronomical bodies, or of our own arrangements of material on the surface of the earth. It is, however, hardly necessary to add that the same practical result would be attained by the application of this theory even if every bit of material were animated by a fairy, as long as the fairies were governed in accordance with one ordering, all-wise and constant purposive mind. This truth has been brought out in an example due to Mr. Stuart, formerly Professor of Mechanism in Cambridge. "Suppose," he says, "I were to put a stone on a piece of flat-ground and walk round it in that particular curve termed an ellipse, which a planet describes about the sun . . . Now, my motion might be very fairly described by the law of gravitation, but it is quite clear that no force from the stone to me, no law of gravitation, could logically be said to cause my motion in the ellipse." A description, however accurate (and scientific description is never quite accurate), of the universe as we perceive it through our senses can never answer the question of what lies or does not lie beyond our senses. If its changes are caused behind that manifesting veil, the fact and the manner of their being caused cannot be made known by a mere account of their appearance and way of changing; nor are we justified in saying that they are not thus caused, although we may reasonably say that our science does not show that they are or need be.

There is indeed, as we have already seen, an increasing recognition of the fact that problems of existence, cause, and purpose lie beyond the scope of physical science. There is a growing school of men who regard the mechanical theory, for example, as not only descriptive, but as descriptive in a purely symbolic way, the terms used in no fashion depicting reality but only abstract mental conceptions, and being employed when put together in a formula, for instance as in the law of gravitation, to enable us to sum up economically by a convenient sort of shorthand the changes perceived in our sense-impressions. Professor Pearson gives an excellent account of this, his own view of the subject, in his invaluable Grammar of Science. He writes as follows:--"Atom and molecule are intellectual conceptions, by aid of which physicists classify phenomena, and formulate the relationships between their sequences; . . . the geometry of motion . . . . is the conceptual mode in which we classify and describe perpetual change. Its validity depends not upon its corresponding absolutely to anything in the real world--a correspondence at once rebutted by the ideal character of geometrical forms--but upon the power it gives us of briefly resuming the facts of perception and of economizing thought. . . . Science is not a final explanation of anything. It is not a plan which lies in phenomena themselves. Science may be described as a classified index to the successive pages of sense-impression, but it in no wise accounts for the peculiar structure of that strange book of life . . . The whole object of physical science is the discovery of ideal elementary motions, which enable us to describe in the simplest language the widest ranges of phenomena; it lies in the symbolization of the physical universe, by aid of the geometrical motions of a group of geometrical forms. To do this is to construct the world mechanically; but this mechanism, be it noted, is a product of conception, and does not lie in the perceptions themselves." Of what produces those perceptions, of what other more or less scientific people would call the real things, Professor Pearson assures us that all science would dare to say is that they have "a capacity for producing sense-impressions," and even this cautious statement he whittles down until it becomes a meaningless concession to the obstinate questioner. For scientific men of this class the so-called reality underlying sense-impressions is held to be metaphysical, and therefore, in the scientific sense, unknowable, whether it be nominally dignified as matter, mind, will, motion, force, spirit, or what not; and the scientific descriptive scheme is looked at as purely symbolical, its laws, its force and motion, even its space and time, being considered to be made by the conceptual and ratiocinative power of the human mind, while the characters of the material with which it deals, which is the perceived routine of sense-impressions, are held to be what they are in consequence of the character of the perceptive power of that mind. Beyond the human mind science, we are told, cannot pass; its field is no "real and independent outer world," it is confined to the contents of the mind, fashioned after the pattern of the mind's working; and its results amount to the attainment of a symbolic description of those contents simplified by the aid of formulae which are themselves as much the product of the mind as are the formulae of mathematics, and which owe all their validity and necessity to that fact and not to any necessity lying in an outer world.

The gulf between these two ways of viewing physical science is important to us all, and we who care for religion may congratulate ourselves on the fact that the side we will call Professor Pearson's is the more clean-cut and attractive of the two. There is a consistency in barring out questions of substance, of explanatory cause, and of purpose, from a scheme professedly only descriptive; and in refusing to travel beyond the limit of perception when one's field of work is obviously within that limit; which gives, at least within the chosen field, an appearance of wholeness and sufficiency: whereas, on the other side, the attempts to proffer knowledge going behind the scenes of sense, and a pseudo-philosophy obtained by a pretence of carrying scientific methods into regions where they cannot be applied, exposes clefts and "ragged edges," and brings confusion even into the legitimate field and the legitimate method of science. "When Phenomenalism," says Mr. Bradley, "loses its head, and, becoming blatant, steps forward as a theory of first principles, then it is really not respectable. The best that can be said of its pretensions is that they are ridiculous."

The impasse in which we are landed when science is taken as an exponent of concrete reality, may be seen on comparing the statements of careful physicists about the inherently descriptive and symbolic character of physics, with the statements about mind of those physiologists who take physics as touching, so to speak, the inner secret of real things. Huxley, for example, says in the course of one of his discussions:--"It follows that our mental conditions are simply the symbols in consciousness of the changes which take place automatically in the organism; and that, to take an extreme illustration, the feeling we call volition is not the cause of the voluntary act, but the symbol of the state of the brain which is the immediate cause of the act. We are conscious automata." There is also a celebrated passage in Dr. Mercier's Nervous System and the Mind which well illustrates this point. "Let us try," he says, "to imagine an idea, say of food, producing a movement, say of carrying food to the mouth . . . What is the method of its action? Does it assist the decomposition of the molecules of the gray matter, or does it retard the process, or does it alter the directions in which the shocks are distributed? Let us imagine the molecules of the gray matter combined in such a way that they will fall into simpler combinations on the impact of an incident force. Now suppose the incident force, in the shape of a shock from some other centre, to impinge upon these molecules. By hypothesis it will decompose them, and they will fall into the simpler combination. How is the idea of food to prevent this decomposition? Manifestly it can do so only by increasing the force which binds the molecules together. Good! Try to imagine the idea of a beefsteak binding two molecules together. It is impossible. Equally impossible is it to imagine a similar idea loosening the attractive force between two molecules." Upon this amusing and significant passage Professor James comments thus:--"The fact is that the whole question of interaction and influence between things is a metaphysical question, and cannot be discussed at all by those who are unwilling to go into matters thoroughly . . . Popular science talks of 'forces,' 'attractions' or 'affinities,' as binding the molecules: but clear science, though she may use such words to abbreviate discourse, has no use for the conceptions, and is satisfied when she can express in simple 'laws' the bare space-relations of the molecules as functions of each other and of time." It is also in relation to this fallacious method of the biologist which Dr. Mercier and Huxley are here cited as displaying that Professor Pearson pertinently remarks:--"If we always remember that the physicists' fundamental conception of change of motion is that the change of motion of one particle is associated with its positive relative to other particles, and that force is a certain convenient measure of this change, then, I think, we shall be in a safer position to interpret clearly the numerous biological statements which involve an appeal to the conception of force . . . We shall be better able to appreciate the real substance which lies beneath the metaphysical clothing with which biological, like physical, statements are too often draped."

For the physicist who works with "clear science" the molecules of the brain are ideal concepts of the mind, and the "state of the brain," of which Huxley speaks, if it were known at all, would be known only in symbolic terms as a diagram constructed by the mind; while the binding of the molecules of a beefsteak is not even a symbolic term, it is a bit of the metaphysical quagmire into which he is too cautious to set a scientific foot. On the other hand, for the physiologist, who takes the symbols of physics as naively as a child takes the elves and gnomes of story-land, mind and its states--which form the only field and the essential conditioning power of knowledge for the physicist--are themselves only symbolic of those physical 'realities' which he supposes the physicist to have brought within the scientific realm; 'realities' of which he glibly talks in the very terms the careful physicist himself regards as purely descriptive and symbolic. The physiologist here, as Professor Pearson says, "takes his stand with the physicist who asserts the phenomenal existence of the concepts atom and molecule":--with the physicist, that is, who stands on the far side of the gulf which separates Professor Pearson and "clear science" from the crowd with great names and names unknown, who follow speculation and popular science to their most bitter end in the varying phases of Naturalism and Agnosticism that are their legitimate result.