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The Method Of Science And Its Application To Metaphysics


1. No one meditating on the present condition of the intellectual world can fail to be arrested by the evidences of its deep-seated unrest. _Yeast is working everywhere. Ancient formulas and time-honored creeds are yielding as much to internal pressure as to external assault. The expansion of. knowledge is loosening the very earth clutched by the roots of creeds and churches. Rejoice over this or deplore it, the fact is unmistakable. Sects and parties, in the endeavor to sustain their positions, and to preserve at least their watchwords and the outward semblance of their creeds, nowadays snatch eagerly at compromises which a few years ago would have been scouted as heresies. Science is penetrating everywhere. and slowly changing men's conception of the world and of man's destiny. Doctrines which once were damnable are now fashionable, and heresies are appropriated as aids to faith. Ours is no longer the age described by Carlyle, destitute of faith, yet terrified at scepticism." It is an age clamorous for faith, and only dissatisfied with scepticism when scepticism is a resting-place instead of a starting-point, a result instead of a preliminary caution. The purely negative attitude of Unbelief, once regarded as philosophical is now generally understood to be only laudable in the face of the demonstrably incredible.

2. The great desire of this age is for a Doctrine which may serve to condense our knowledge, guide our researches, and shape our lives, so that Conduct may really be the consequence of Belief. We are growing impatient of futile compromises and half-beliefs we see that it will not do to believe, or pretend to believe, one theory of the universe, yet show, in every way wherein confidence can show itself, that our lives are ruled by another theory. In consequence of this desire, while thinking men appear, on a superficial view, to be daily separating wider and wider from each other, they are, on a deeper view, seen to be drawing closer together, — differing in opinion, they are approximating in spirit and purpose.

There is a conspicuous effort to reconcile the aims and claims of Religion and Science, — the two mightiest antagonists. The many and piteous complaints, old as Religion itself, against the growing infidelity of the age, might be disregarded were they not confirmed on all sides by the evidence that Religion is rapidly tending to one of two issues, — either towards extinction or towards trans-formation. Some considerable thinkers regard the former alternative as the probable and desirable issue. They argue that Religion has played its part in' the evolution of Humanity, — a noble part, yet only that of a provisional organ, which, in the course of development, must be displaced by a final organ. Other thinkers — and I follow these — consider that Religion will continue to regulate the evolution; but. that to do this in the coming ages, it must occupy a position similar to the one it occupied in the past, and express the highest thought of the time, as that thought widens with the ever-growing experience. It must not attempt to imprison the mind in formulas which no longer contain the whole of positive knowledge. It must not attempt to force on our acceptance, as explanations of the universe, dogmas which were originally the childish guesses at truth made by barbarian tribes. It must no longer present a conception of the world and physical laws, or of man and moral laws, which has any other basis than that of scientific induction. It must no longer put forward principles which are unintelligible and incredible, nor make their very unintelligibility a source of glory, and a belief in them a higher virtue than belief in demonstration. In a word, this transformed Religion must cease to accept for its tests and sanctions such tests as would be foolishness in Science, and such sanctions as would be selfishness in Life. Instead of proclaiming the nothingness of this life, the worthlessness of human love, and the imbecility of the human mind, it will proclaim the supreme importance of this life, the supreme value of human love, and the grandeur of human intellect. Those who entertain this hope, and this view of a Religion founded on Science expressing at each stage what is known of the world and of man, believe — and I share the belief — that the present antagonism will rapidly merge in an energetic co-operation. The internecine warfare which has so long disturbed Religion and obstructed Science will give place to a Doctrine which will respect the claims of both, and satisfy the needs of both.

3. This future may be undetermined, but it will come. It will not come without contention. The ground will be contested inch by inch. The pathway of Progress will still, as of old, bear traces of martyrdom ; but the advance is inevitable. The signs of the advent are not few. Looking at them with some closeness, one observes that Science itself is also in travail. Assuredly some mighty new birth is at hand. Solid as the ground appears, and fixed as are our present landmarks, we cannot but feel the strange tremors of subterranean agitation which must erelong be followed by upheavals disturbing those land-marks. Not only do we see Physics on the eve of a re-construction through Molecular Dynamics, we also see Metaphysics strangely agitated, and showing symptoms of a reawakened life. After a long period of neglect and contempt, its problems are once more reasserting their claims. And whatever we may think of those claims, we have only to reflect on the important part played by Metaphysics in sustaining and developing religious conceptions, no less than in thwarting and misdirecting scientific conceptions, to feel assured that before Religion and Science can be reconciled by the reduction of their principles to a common Method, it will be necessary to transform Metaphysics, or to stamp it out of existence. There is but this alternative. At present Metaphysics is an obstacle in our path : it must be crushed into dust, and our chariot-wheels must pass over it ; or its forces of resistance must be converted into motive powers, and what is an obstacle become an impulse.

4. It is towards the transformation of Metaphysics by reduction to the Method of Science that these pages tend. Their object is to show that the' Method which has hitherto achieved such splendid success in Science needs only to be properly interpreted and applied, and by it the inductions and deductions from experience will furnish solutions to every metaphysical problem that can be rationally stated ; whereas no problem, metaphysical or scientific, which is irrationally stated, can receive a rational solution. I propose to show that metaphysical problems have, rationally, no other difficulties than those which beset all problems; and, when scientifically treated, they are capable of solutions not less satisfactory and certain than those of physics.

To one class of readers this announcement will perhaps seem extravagant, and the attempt absurd to another class the limitation to scientific Method will seem narrow and insufficient. But if I succeed in showing the first that solutions can thus be reached, and in showing the second that only thus can any solution be reached, the gain will be obvious ; not only will a vast region of speculative disorder be reduced to 'order, not only will one obstacle to the reconciliation between Religion and Science be removed, but we shall be in possession of a Method which will make Religion also the expression of Experience, and thus dissipate the clouds of mystery and incredibility which have so long concealed the clear heavens.

5. Should these pages fall into the hands of readers who on former occasions have given me their attention, they will doubtless feel some surprise at this announcement of my present aim. I may here seem to be unsaying what it has been the chief purpose of my labors to enforce. But it is not really so. I have indeed incessantly, for some thirty years, tried to dissuade men from wasting precious energies on insoluble problems ; that purpose still animates my efforts. But, although formerly I regarded problems as insoluble which I now hold to be soluble, there has been no other change than this, that I now see how problems which were insoluble by the Method then in use, are soluble by the Method of Science. This is not a retreat, but a change of front. Throughout my polemic against Metaphysics, the attacks were directed against the irrational Method, as one by which all problems whatever must be insoluble.

6. Descartes opened Modern Philosophy by his famous "Discourse on Method." It was a brilliant effort, but the consecration of experience has been wanting to it. History proves that it was not really capable of furnishing any satisfactory solutions.

Auguste Comte opened the new era by his great conception of Method, namely, the extension to cell inquiries even morals and politics — of those inductive principles which alone have been found fruitful in any inquiries. I shall not be supposed to underrate the value of the Positive Philosophy, as conceived by Comte, in pointing out a defect of that scheme which has often been pointed out by its opponents, namely, that it displays no effort to apply the positive Method to one great branch of speculation, — that of Metaphysics. He peremptorily excluded all research whatever in this direction, declaring meta-physical problems to be essentially insoluble, consequently idle and mischievous. Nor can there be any dispute that the speculations he had in view are inane, when pursued on the Method traditionally followed ; but an ex-tension of the principles of positivism may legitimately include even these speculations ; and Scientific Method, rightly interpreted, will find its employment there. It is surely more philosophical to bring metaphysical problems under the same speculative conditions as all other problems, than to exclude them altogether, since our ignoring them will not extirpate them. The problems exist, and form obstacles to Research. Speculative minds can-not resist the fascination of Metaphysics, even when forced to admit that its inquiries are hopeless. This fact must be taken into account, since it makes refutation powerless. Indeed, one may say, generally, that no deeply rooted tendency was ever extirpated by adverse argument. Not having originally been founded on argument, it cannot be destroyed by logic. The very mind which admits your evidence to be unanswerable will swing back to its old position the instant that the pressure of evidence abates ; and the opponent whom you left yesterday seemingly converted, is found to-day no less confident than of old. Con-tempt, ridicule, argument, are all vain against tendencies towards metaphysical speculation. There is but one effective mode of' displacing an error, and that is to replace it by a conception which, while readily adjusting itself to conceptions firmly held on other points, is seen to explain the facts more completely. The one permanent victory over a false Method is by philosophizing better. The disciples of Descartes were not drawn over to the side of Newton by arguments exposing the imperfections of their system, but by examples of the greater sweep and efficiency of the Newtonian system, interpreted on principles common to Descartes and Newton: the hypothesis of vortices gradually sank into neglect when the law of gravitation was seen to be equally consistent with the mathematical principles advocated by Descartes, and more competent to explain the phenomena.

7. No array of argument, no accumulation of contempt, no historical exhibition of the fruitlessness of its effort, has sufficed to extirpate the tendency towards metaphysical speculation. Although its doctrines have become a scoff (except among the valiant few), its Method still survives, still prompts to renewed research, and still misleads some men of science. In vain History points to the unequivocal failure of twenty centuries the metaphysician admits the fact, but appeals to History in proof of the persistent passion which no failure can dismay; and hence draws confidence in ultimate success. A cause which is vigorous after centuries of defeat is a cause baffled but not hopeless, beaten. but not subdued. The ranks of its army may be thinned, its -banners torn and mud-stained ; but the indomitable energy breaks out anew, and the fight is continued. Nay,— instructive fact !— even some great captains of Science, while standing on triumphal cars in the presence of applauding crowds, are ever and anon seen to cast lingering glances at those dark avenues of for-bidden research, and are stung by secret misgivings lest after all those avenues should not be issueless, but might some day open on a grander plain. They are not quite at ease in the suspicion that other minds confessedly of splendid powers can deliberately relinquish the certain glories of scientific labor for the nebulous splendors of Metaphysics. They are not quite at ease lest what to their unaided vision now appears a nebula may not one day by aided vision resolve itself into stars. This hesitation is comprehensible : it is due in some measure to an imperfect appreciation of the limits and possibilities of Research, and in many cases due to the fact that many minds well trained in Science are imperfectly trained in Philosophy ; hence a want of harmony in their conceptions leads them to follow implicitly in one direction the principles which they peremptorily reject in another.

8. Few researches can be conducted in any one line of inquiry without sooner or later abutting on some meta-physical problem, were it only that of Force, Matter, or Cause ; and since Science will not, and Metaphysics can-not solve it, the result is a patchwork of demonstration and speculation very pitiable to contemplate. Look where we will, unless we choose to overlook all that we do not understand, we are mostly confronted with a meshwork of fact and fiction, observation curiously precise beside traditions painfully absurd, a compound of sunlight and mist. Thus in various writings we come upon Laws which compel phenomena to obey their prescription, — Plans and Archetypal Ideas which shape the course of events, and give forms and functions to organ-isms, — Forces playing about like sprites amid Atoms that are at once contradictorily indivisible and infinitely divisible, — Bodies acting where they are not, and NonBeing (pure space) endowed with physical properties, among others that of resistance (since Forces in spite of their alleged independence of Matter are supposed to be diminished by the spaces they traverse) ; — these and many analogous phantoms, more or less credited, too frequently hover amid phenomena, and convert speculation into what Hegel in another connection sarcastically calls a " true witches' circle."

9. Why is this ? Mainly because men of science are generally trained either to ignore all metaphysical questions, or to regard them as " mysteries which must be accepted." Some of the first have their confidence shaken by the steadfast faith of the metaphysician that the mysteries can be unveiled. Some of the second are found expressing decided opinions on those very mysteries declared to lie beyond human ken. Both argue from meta-physical assumptions and traditions as from acceptable data. Both resemble those theologians who solemnly affirm God to be unknowable, yet nevertheless have no hesitation in assigning attributes to his nature, and purposes to his creations.

The continuance of metaphysical inquiry is, for the present at least, inevitable. The continuance of the metaphysical Method is a serious evil, and is evitable. It sustains and fortifies those theological conceptions which would be seen to be preposterous, were it not for the dialectical dexterity which presents them in a light assuredly no less rational than that in which many meta-physical conceptions are presented. It is this which causes the adhesion of so many eminent men of science to theological dogmas flagrantly at variance with their positive knowledge. Renouncing all hope of a rational solution, yet unable to release their minds from the pressure of certain problems, they fly to Faith for refuge. One of the sincerest of men and one of the most cautious of investigators, — Faraday, — when asked by a friend how he could believe the astounding propositions current in the religious sect to which he belonged, replied : "I prostrate my reason in this matter ; for if I applied the same process of reasoning which I use in matters of science I should be an unbeliever." It was in a less philosophical spirit that Pascal wrote: "Je trouve bien qu'on n'approfondisse pas le systθme de Copernic." Pascal carried even into Science his theological terror at the possible consequences of reasoning when a dogma seemed in peril; Faraday kept the two provinces and their two Methods distinct. It is remarkable that both these great men were not reassured by the certainty that no truth in one direction can really contradict another ; and Faraday might have been told that the legitimate application of those tests and sanctions which he regarded as sufficient in physical research, might, if applied to metaphysical or theological questions, make him an unbeliever in the doctrines of his sect, but not an unbeliever in the truths which replaced them.

10. It may be noted that Metaphysics refusing to adopt the Method of Science has received the protection of Theology, but only such protection as is accorded to a vassal, and which is changed into hostility whenever their conclusions clash, or whenever argument threatens to disturb the secular slumber of dogma. Treated as a vassal by Theology, it is treated by Science as a visionary. Is there no escape from this equivocal position ?

We have two cardinal facts to consider : first, that certain problems, though incessantly grappled with, have yielded no permanently accepted solutions ; secondly, that in spite of constant failure they press on our attention with ever-renewed solicitation. Here, then, is ample justification for the attempt to create a doctrine capable of embracing all that Metaphysics rationally may seek and all that Science finds, by the reduction of both to common principles and common tests. One Method, one Logic, one canon of Truth and Demonstration, must be applied to both. Which must it be ? Not the one hitherto employed in Metaphysics : its incompetence is manifest in the unprogressive nature of its results. There is, therefore, only the alternative of prolonging this uncertainty, or of adopting the Method which has been uniformly successful wherever rightly employed.

( Originally Published 1874 )

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