§7. The Triad in Physics


400. Metaphysical philosophy may almost be called the child of geometry. Of the three schools of early Greek philosophers, two, the Ionic and the Pythagorean, were all geometers, and the interest of the Eleatics in geometry is often mentioned. Plato was a great figure in the history of both subjects; and Aristotle derived from the study of space some of his most potent conceptions. Metaphysics depends in great measure on the idea of rigid demonstration from first principles; and this idea, as well in regard to the process as the axioms from which it sets out, bears its paternity on its face. Moreover, the conviction that any metaphysical philosophy is possible has been upheld at all times, as Kant well says, by the example in geometry of a similar science.

401. The unconditional surrender, then, by the mathematicians of our time of the absolute exactitude of the axioms of geometry cannot prove an insignificant event for the history of philosophy. Gauss, the greatest of geometers, declares that »there is no reason to think that the sum of the three angles of a triangle is exactly equal to two right angles."1) It is true, experience shows that the deviation of that sum from that amount is so excessively small that language must be ingeniously used to express the degree of approximation: but experience never can show any truth to be exact, nor so much as give the least reason to think it to be so, unless it be supported by some other considerations. We can only say that the sum of the three angles of any given triangle cannot be much greater or less than two right angles; but that exact value is only one among an infinite number of others each of which is as possible as that. So say the mathematicians with unanimity.

402. The absolute exactitude of the geometrical axioms is exploded; and the corresponding belief in the metaphysical axioms, considering the dependence of metaphysics on geometry, must surely follow it to the tomb of extinct creeds. The first to go must be the proposition that every event in the universe is precisely determined by causes according to inviolable law. We have no reason to think that this is absolutely exact. Experience shows that it is so to a wonderful degree of approximation, and that is all. This degree of approximation will be a value for future scientific investigation to determine; but we have no more reason to think that the error of the ordinary statement is precisely zero, than any one of an infinity of values in that neighborhood. The odds are infinity to one that it is not zero; and we are bound to think of it as a quantity of which zero is only one possible value. Phoenix, in his Lectures on Astronomy,2) referring to Joshua's commanding the sun to stand still, said that he could not help suspecting that it might have wiggled a very little when Joshua was not looking directly at it. We know that when we try to verify any law of nature by experiment, we always find discrepancies between the observations and the theory. These we rightly refer to errors of observation; but why may there not be similar aberrations due to the imperfect obedience of the facts to law?

403. Grant that this is conceivable and there can be nothing in experience to negative it. Strange to say, there are many people who will have a difficulty in conceiving of an element of lawlessness in the universe, and who may perhaps be tempted to reckon the doctrine of the perfect rule of causality as one of the original instinctive beliefs, like that of space having three dimensions. Far from that, it is historically altogether a modern notion, a loose inference from the discoveries of science. Aristotle 1) often lays it down that some things are determined by causes while others happen by chance. Lucretius,2) following Democritus, supposes his primordial atoms to deviate from their rectilinear trajectories just fortuitously, and without any reason at all. To the ancients, there was nothing strange in such notions; they were matters of course; the strange thing would have been to have said that there was no chance. So we are under no inward necessity of believing in perfect causality if we do not find any facts to bear it out.

404. I am very far from holding that experience is our only light; Whewell's views of scientific method seem to me truer than Mill's; so much so that I should pronounce the known principles of physics to be but a development of original instinctive beliefs. Yet I cannot help acknowledging that the whole history of thought shows that our instinctive beliefs, in their original condition, are so mixed up with error that they can never be trusted till they have been corrected by experiment. Now the only thing that the inference from experience can ever teach us is the approximate value of a ratio. It all rests on the principle of sampling; we take a handful of coffee from a bag, and we judge that there is about the same proportion of sound beans in the whole bag that there is in that sample. At this rate, every proposition which we can be entitled to make about the real world must be an approximate one; we never can have the right to hold any truth to be exact. Approximation must be the fabric out of which our philosophy has to be built.

405. I come now to another point. Most systems of philosophy maintain certain facts or principles as ultimate. In truth, any fact is in one sense ultimate — that is to say, in its isolated aggressive stubbornness and individual reality. What Scotus calls the hæcceities of things, the hereness and nowness of them, are indeed ultimate. Why this which is here is such as it is; how, for instance, if it happens to be a grain of sand, it came to be so small and so hard, we can ask; we can also ask how it got carried here; but the explanation in this case merely carries us back to the fact that it was once in some other place, where similar things might naturally be expected to be. Why IT, independently of its general characters, comes to have any definite place in the world, is not a question to be asked; it is simply an ultimate fact. There is also another class of facts of which it is not reasonable to expect an explanation, namely, facts of indeterminacy or variety. Why one definite kind of event is frequent and another rare, is a question to be asked, but a reason for the general fact that of events some kinds are common and some rare, it would be unfair to demand. If all births took place on a given day of the week, or if there were always more on Sundays than on Mondays, that would be a fact to be accounted for, but that they happen in about equal proportions on all the days requires no particular explanation. If we were to find that all the grains of sand on a certain beach separated themselves into two or more sharply discrete classes, as spherical and cubical ones, there would be something to be explained, but that they are of various sizes and shapes, of no definable character, can only be referred to the general manifoldness of nature. Indeterminacy, then, or pure firstness, and hæcceity, or pure secondness, are facts not calling for and not capable of explanation. Indeterminacy affords us nothing to ask a question about; hæcceity is the ultima ratio, the brutal fact that will not be questioned. But every fact of a general or orderly nature calls for an explanation; and logic forbids us to assume in regard to any given fact of that sort that it is of its own nature absolutely inexplicable. This is what Kant •P1 calls a regulative principle, that is to say, an intellectual hope. The sole immediate purpose of thinking is to render things intelligible; and to think and yet in that very act to think a thing unintelligible is a self-stultification. It is as though a man furnished with a pistol to defend himself against an enemy were, on finding that enemy very redoubtable, to use his pistol to blow his own brains out to escape being killed by his enemy. Despair is insanity. True, there may be facts that will never get explained; but that any given fact is of the number, is what experience can never give us reason to think; far less can it show that any fact is of its own nature unintelligible. We must therefore be guided by the rule of hope, and consequently we must reject every philosophy or general conception of the universe, which could ever lead to the conclusion that any given general fact is an ultimate one. We must look forward to the explanation, not of all things, but of any given thing whatever. There is no contradiction here, any more than there is in our holding each one of our opinions, while we are ready to admit that it is probable that not all are true; or any more than there is in saying that any future time will sometime be passed, though there never will be a time when all time is past.

406. Among other regular facts that have to be explained is law or regularity itself. We enormously exaggerate the part that law plays in the universe. It is by means of regularities that we understand what little we do understand of the world, and thus there is a sort of mental perspective which brings regular phenomena to the foreground. We say that every event is determined by causes according to law. But apart from the fact that this must not be regarded as absolutely true, it does not mean so much as it seems to do. We do not mean, for example, that if a man and his antipode both sneeze at the same instant, that that event comes under any general law. That is merely what we call a coincidence. But what we mean is there was a cause for the first man's sneezing, and another cause for the second man's sneezing; and the aggregate of these two events make up the first event about which we began by inquiring. The doctrine is that the events of the physical universe are merely motions of matter, and that these obey the laws of dynamics. But this only amounts to saying that among the countless systems of relationship existing among things we have found one that is universal and at the same time is subject to law. There is nothing except this singular character which makes this particular system of relationship any more important than the others. From this point of view, uniformity is seen to be really a highly exceptional phenomenon. But we pay no attention to irregular relationships, as having no interest for us.


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