§5. Fallibilism, Continuity, and Evolution
168. How do we know then on the whole that the past ever existed, that the future ever will exist? How do we know there ever was or ever will be anything but the present instant? Or stop: I must not say we. How do I know that anybody but myself ever existed or even I myself exist except for one single instant, the present, and that all this business is not an illusion from top to bottom? Answer: I don't know. But I am trying the hypothesis that it is real, which seems to work excellently so far. Now if this is real, the past is really known to the present. How can it be known? Not by inference; because as we have just seen we can make no inference from the present, since it will be past before the inference gets drawn.
169. Then we must have an immediate consciousness of the past. But if we have an immediate consciousness of a state of consciousness past by one unit of time and if that past state involved an immediate consciousness of a state then past by one unit, we now have an immediate consciousness of a state past by two units; and as this is equally true of all states, we have an immediate consciousness of a state past by four units, by eight units, by sixteen units, etc.; in short we must have an immediate consciousness of every state of mind that is past by any finite number of units of time. But we certainly have not an immediate consciousness of our state of mind a year ago. So a year is more than any finite number of units of time in this system of measurement; or, in other words, there is a measure of time infinitely less than a year. Now, this is only true if the series be continuous. Here, then, it seems to me, we have positive and tremendously strong reason for believing that time really is continuous.
170. Equally conclusive and direct reason for thinking that space and degrees of quality and other things are continuous is to be found as for believing time to be so. Yet, the reality of continuity once admitted, reasons are there, divers reasons, some positive, others only formal, yet not contemptible, for admitting the continuity of all things. I am making a bore of myself and won't bother you with any full statement of these reasons, but will just indicate the nature of a few of them. Among formal reasons, there are such as these, that it is easier to reason about continuity than about discontinuity, so that it is a convenient assumption. Also, in case of ignorance it is best to adopt the hypothesis which leaves open the greatest field of possibility; now a continuum is merely a discontinuous series with additional possibilities. Among positive reasons, we have that apparent analogy between time and space, between time and degree, and so on. There are various other positive reasons, but the weightiest consideration appears to me to be this: How can one mind act upon another mind? How can one particle of matter act upon another at a distance from it? The nominalists tell us this is an ultimate fact — it cannot be explained. Now, if this were meant in [a] merely practical sense, if it were only meant that we know that one thing does act on another but that how it takes place we cannot very well tell, up to date, I should have nothing to say, except to applaud the moderation and good logic of the statement. But this is not what is meant; what is meant is that we come up, bump against actions absolutely unintelligible and inexplicable, where human inquiries have to stop. Now that is a mere theory, and nothing can justify a theory except its explaining observed facts. It is a poor kind of theory which in place of performing this, the sole legitimate function of a theory, merely supposes the facts to be inexplicable. It is one of the peculiarities of nominalism that it is continually supposing things to be absolutely inexplicable. That blocks the road of inquiry. But if we adopt the theory of continuity we escape this illogical situation. We may then say that one portion of mind acts upon another, because it is in a measure immediately present to that other; just as we suppose that the infinitesimally past is in a measure present. And in like manner we may suppose that one portion of matter acts upon another because it is in a measure in the same place.
171. If I were to attempt to describe to you in full all the scientific beauty and truth that I find in the principle of continuity, I might say in the simple language of Matilda the Engaged, »the tomb would close over me e'er the entrancing topic were exhausted« — but not before my audience was exhausted. So I will just drop it here.
Only, in doing so, let me call your attention to the natural affinity of this principle to the doctrine of fallibilism. The principle of continuity is the idea of fallibilism objectified. For fallibilism is the doctrine that our knowledge is never absolute but always swims, as it were, in a continuum of uncertainty and of indeterminacy. Now the doctrine of continuity is that all things so swim in continua.
172. The doctrine of continuity rests upon observed fact as we have seen. But what opens our eyes to the significance of that fact is fallibilism. The ordinary scientific infallibilist — of which sect Büchner in his Kraft und Stoff affords a fine example — cannot accept synechism, or the doctrine that all that exists is continuous — because he is committed to discontinuity in regard to all those things which he fancies he has exactly ascertained, and especially in regard to that part of his knowledge which he fancies he has exactly ascertained to be certain. For where there is continuity, the exact ascertainment of real quantities is too obviously impossible. No sane man can dream that the ratio of the circumference to the diameter could be exactly ascertained by measurement. As to the quantities he has not yet exactly ascertained, the Büchnerite is naturally led to separate them into two distinct classes, those which may be ascertained hereafter (and there, as before, continuity must be excluded), and those absolutely unascertainable — and these in their utter and everlasting severance from the other class present a new breach of continuity. Thus scientific infallibilism draws down a veil before the eyes which prevents the evidences of continuity from being discerned.
But as soon as a man is fully impressed with the fact that absolute exactitude never can be known, he naturally asks whether there are any facts to show that hard discrete exactitude really exists. That suggestion lifts the edge of that curtain and he begins to see the clear daylight shining in from behind it.
173. But fallibilism cannot be appreciated in anything like its true significancy until evolution has been considered. This is what the world has been most thinking of for the last forty years — though old enough is the general idea itself. Aristotle's philosophy, that dominated the world for so many ages and still in great measure tyrannizes over the thoughts of butchers and bakers that never heard of him — is but a metaphysical evolutionism.
174. Evolution means nothing but growth in the widest sense of that word. Reproduction, of course, is merely one of the incidents of growth. And what is growth? Not mere increase. Spencer says it is the passage from the homogeneous to the heterogeneous — or, if we prefer English to Spencerese — diversification. That is certainly an important factor of it. Spencer further says that it is a passage from the unorganized to the organized; but that part of the definition is so obscure that I will leave it aside for the present. But think what an astonishing idea this of diversification is! Is there such thing in nature as increase of variety? Were things simpler, was variety less in the original nebula from which the solar system is supposed to have grown than it is now when the land and sea swarms with animal and vegetable forms with their intricate anatomies and still more wonderful economies? It would seem as if there were an increase in variety, would it not? And yet mechanical law, which the scientific infallibilist tells us is the only agency of nature, mechanical law can never produce diversification. That is a mathematical truth — a proposition of analytical mechanics; and anybody can see without any algebraical apparatus that mechanical law out of like antecedents can only produce like consequents. It is the very idea of law. So if observed facts point to real growth, they point to another agency, to spontaneity for which infallibilism provides no pigeon-hole. And what is meant by this passage from the less organized to the more organized? Does it mean a passage from the less bound together to the more bound together, the less connected to the more connected, the less regular to the more regular? How can the regularity of the world increase, if it has been absolutely perfect all the time?
175. . . . Once you have embraced the principle of continuity no kind of explanation of things will satisfy you except that they grew. The infallibilist naturally thinks that everything always was substantially as it is now. Laws at any rate being absolute could not grow. They either always were, or they sprang instantaneously into being by a sudden fiat like the drill of a company of soldiers. This makes the laws of nature absolutely blind and inexplicable. Their why and wherefore can't be asked. This absolutely blocks the road of inquiry. The fallibilist won't do this. He asks may these forces of nature not be somehow amenable to reason? May they not have naturally grown up? After all, there is no reason to think they are absolute. If all things are continuous, the universe must be undergoing a continuous growth from non-existence to existence. There is no difficulty in conceiving existence as a matter of degree. The reality of things consists in their persistent forcing themselves upon our recognition. If a thing has no such persistence, it is a mere dream. Reality, then, is persistence, is regularity. In the original chaos, where there was no regularity, there was no existence. It was all a confused dream. This we may suppose was in the infinitely distant past. But as things are getting more regular, more persistent, they are getting less dreamy and more real.
Fallibilism will at least provide a big pigeon-hole for facts bearing on that theory.