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The Method Of Science And Its Application To Metaphysics


11. WHAT is here proclaimed is the possibility of finding rational solutions to questions which have hitherto baffled effort. And this will be effected by invoking those principles only which are invoked in physical re-search. The probabilities which guide us, and the certainties on which we rest in Science, will guide us here. In such an attempt, precisely because it is a first attempt, there will assuredly be much imperfection ; but the reader's agreement is far less claimed in respect of any particular solutions here offered, than in respect of the conditions of the search. No one thinks of discrediting scientific Method because the particular conclusions of the physicist or biologist are often debatable and some-times false. All I claim is a recognition of the legitimacy of the attempt to apply the rational procedure of Science to every question which may rationally be asked. This is founded on the conception that under the two cardinal points of view — what is to be known, and how it can be known — the object and the logic - there is the same accordance between Metaphysics and Physics as between any two branches of inquiry, — Mathematics and Biology, for example. What is known, what is know-able, and what is unknowable in the one, and why these are so, having their counterparts in the other. The several sciences differ amongst each other by reason of the differences in their sensible data, and the complexity of the phenomena they investigate. With these differences necessarily arise different means of investigation, different tests, and different degrees of certainty. Each science has thus its special logic. The means and tests which suffice in Mathematics are no longer sufficiently comprehensive for Physics ; the logic of Biology is, in special characters, unlike that of Chemistry. Yet one Method, one Logic, rules throughout ; and this general Method may be applied to problems — social or metaphysical — which have hitherto been investigated in a quite different spirit, and under different tests. When so applied, it will reach results having scientific certainty, because conforming to the conditions of Science. More cannot lawfully be claimed. If after all efforts there still loom in the distance vast stretches of untrodden ground, and beyond these a region inaccessible to man, - this is equally true of all research. I do not claim a wider reach nor a higher validity for metaphysical conceptions than for scientific conceptions ; but I claim one equivalent reach and validity. To many minds this holds out promise of but a meagre result : impatient to pass beyond the limits of Experience, they will reject a solution which confines them within the human horizon. That which fascinates them is the hope of passing beyond this horizon. It will, therefore, be incumbent on me to show that such a hope is futile ; and per contra that every question which can be stated in terms of Experience is capable of an answer on the Experimental Method.

12. Not unfrequently in recent times have men professed to apply the Inductive Method to Metaphysics, and proclaimed that they were guided by it in their .speculations. Nay, even the very pretension of deducing metaphysical conclusions from the data of Experience has not been wanting. But to the best of my knowledge all such pretensions have been illusory, partly because the writers imperfectly understood the Method of Science, and mainly because they did not consistently apply it. The idea of applying such a procedure is one thing ; how it can be applied, is another. At this present moment I have a conviction that the Differential Calculus could be applied to Psychology, and will be in some future time ; but I have no distinct vision of how to make the beginning; because I cannot yet determine the co-ordinates, cannot put the questions in a calculable shape. It has been thus with philosophers who talked of applying Scientific Method to Metaphysics. Unless I deceive myself these pages will show how the problems may be presented in a soluble shape ; how they may be affiliated to all other soluble problems.

13. By way of preliminary I will ask permission to coin a term that will clearly designate the aspect of Metaphysics which renders the inquiry objectionable to scientific thinkers, no less than to ordinary minds, because it implies a disregard of experience ; by isolating this aspect in a technical term we may rescue the other aspect which is acceptable to all. The word Metaphysics is a very old one, and in the course of its history has indicated many very different things. To the vulgar it now stands for whatever is speculative, subtle, abstract, remote from ordinary apprehension ; and the pursuit of its inquiries is secretly regarded as an eccentricity, or even a mild form of insanity. To the cultivated it sometimes means Scholastic Ontology, sometimes Psychology, pursued independently of Biology; and sometimes, though more rarely, the highest generalizations of Physics. In spite of this laxity in its use, the term is so good a term; and has had godfathers so illustrious, that if possible it ought to be preserved. And it may be preserved if we separate it from its Method, and understand it in its primitive sense that which comes after Physics, and embraces the ultimate generalizations of Research. It thus becomes a term for the science of the most general conceptions. This is the Aristotelian view of it, adapted to modern thought. It is also in accordance with the scheme of Bacon, which represents Philosophy as a pyramid, having the history of Nature for its basis, an account of the powers and principles which operate in Nature (Physics) for its second stage, and an apex of formal and final causes (Metaphysics) for the third stage.* Let us only modify the Baconian conception by substituting "the highest generalization of Research," in lieu of the "formal and final causes," and we have a grand province to bear the ancient name.

14. But what is implied in this arrangement ? That since we are to rise to Metaphysics through Science, we must never forsake the Method of Science ; and further that, if in conformity with inductive principles we are never to invoke aid from any higher source than Experience, we must perforce discard all inquiries whatever which transcend the ascertained or ascertainable data of Experience. Hence the necessity for a new word which. will clearly designate this discarded remainder, — a word which must characterize the nature of the inquiries rejected. If then the Empirical designates the province we include within the range of Science, the province we exclude may fitly be styled the Metempirical.

The terms Empiricism, Empiricist, Empirical, although commonly employed by metaphysicians with contempt, to mark a mode of investigation which admits no higher source than Experience (by them often unwarrantably restricted to Sensation), may be accepted without demur, since even the flavor of contempt only serves to emphasize the distinction. There will perhaps be an equivalent contempt in the minds of positive thinkers attaching to the term Metempirical ; but since this term is the exact correlative of Empirical, and designates whatever lies beyond the limits of possible Experience, it characterizes inquiries which one class regards as vain and futile, another as exalted above mere scientific procedure. Nor is this the only advantage of the term ; it also detaches from Metaphysics a vast range of insoluble problems, leaving behind it only such as are soluble.

15. Thus whatever conceptions can be reached through logical extensions of experience, and can be shown to be conformable with it, are legitimate products, capable of being used as principles for further research. On the contrary, whatever lies beyond the limits of Experience, and claims another origin than that of Induction and Deduction from established data, is illegitimate. It can never become a principle of research, but only an object of infertile debate. The metempirical region is the void where Speculation roams unchecked, where Sense has no footing, where Experiment can exercise no control and where Calculation ends in Impossible Quantities. In short, Physics and Metaphysics deal with things and their relations, as these are known to us, and as they are believed to exist in our universe ; Metempirics sweeps out of this region in search of the otherness of things : seeking to behold things, not as they are in our universe, — not as they are to us, it substitutes for the ideal constructions of Science the ideal constructions of Imagination.

16. The reader may here ask how it is that great metaphysicians, like Descartes, Leibnitz, and Kant, who were also great scientific thinkers, failed to perceive that the Method they followed in Mathematics and Physics was equally applicable in Metaphysics ? The answer is simple. The traditional influence of metempirical conceptions, and the potency of certain prejudices, which Science confessed its inability to justify or eradicate, prevented. these philosophers from even conceiving the possibility of excluding metempirical data. Kant who, in his exposition of the relativity of knowledge, came so near a true conception of Method, not only missed the truth, and fell back upon the traditional prejudice of Innate Idθas, or β priori Forms of Thought, as the source of knowledge, but expressly declared that "the fountain of Metaphysic can in no sense be empirical, its axioms and principles must never be drawn from Experience, either inward or out-ward," — a declaration which ceases to be even plausible when his unwarrantable restriction of Experience to mere sensation is set aside. Nor is this all. Granting that Metaphysic could dispense with the inductions of Experience, all that it could effect for Philosophy would be the superfluous explanation of phenomena which lie outside the circle of Experience ; whereas Philosophy aims at an explanation of the world in which we have our being. Consider this : If abstract Science, which obtains its principles through concrete phenomena, is confessedly incapable of explaining concrete phenomena, but only capable of guiding us to their explanation, how much less hope can there be of an explanation of concrete phenomena from principles that do not pretend to an empirical basis ! Kant displayed great ingenuity in proving that, the empirical and metempirical worlds (by him called the phenomenal and noumenal) having nothing in common, no conclusions formed respecting the one could have any validity when extended to the other. Why, then, did he continue to coquet with Metempirics, after having struck such blows at its foundation ? I believe it was partly the consequence of the traditional conception that met-empirical knowledge was possible ; and partly the want of any clear conception of how the Method of Science could be applied to questions which insisted on an answer.

17. Hegel, on the other hand, is urgent for treating Metaphysics and Science on the same Method. Unhappily he has a very erroneous view of the conditions of inquiry ; and in point of fact reverses the principle I am here pro-claiming, and instead of treating Metaphysics by the Method of Science, treats Science by the Method of Metaphysics. He separates the philosophical sciences into empirical and speculative. The empirical embrace those which 'furnish axioms, laws, theories, — the thought. of what is actual. So far he seems to be arguing on our side ; but he adds, "However satisfactory this knowledge may be in its own field, there are other subjects which it does not include, — Freedom, Mind, God." * And else-where (§ 37) he characterizes the tendency to prove everything by finite consideration as " Empiricism, which, instead of seeking truth in Thought itself, seeks it in groping amid Experience inward and outward" ; adding that consequent Empiricism excludes all knowledge what-ever of the Suprasensible. It is unnecessary to pause and consider under what aspects Hegel's view coincides with the strictly positive conception of Research ; all we have here to note is the retention of those very metempirical elements, which it is the aim of Science to exclude. In point of fact, when we see Hegel at work we find that the metempirical is not kept apart from the empirical, but dominates it ; and his inquiries in Physics no less than in Psychology are all vitiated by this.

18. Thus while metaphysicians have never really applied scientific Method, because they have never relinquished their faith . in the Metempirical, men of science have never thought that their Method could be applied to Metaphysics, because they imagined that Metaphysics was inseparable from Metempirics. It is this misapprehension we must rectify by showing that the problems rightly stated are empirical precisely in the degree that physical problems are so, and that both are in an equal degree metempirical when improperly stated. Scientific thinkers, viewing certain questions solely in the light in which metaphysicians were accustomed to place them, and seeing that to these no application of ordinary tests was applicable, declared — and the declaration rapidly became a' dogma — that "all such questions relate to mysteries beyond human ken. With this magisterial phrase they justified their neglect of problems they were unable to solve.

19. Such lavish humility is far from admirable. Such readiness to admit mysteries is misleading. We have no right by self-abasement to abase Humanity, and thus present our own incompetence as the standard of power. Particularly objectionable are these professions of humility when accompanied, and they often are, by exaggerated pretensions, so that the man who considers it almost a religious duty humbly to avow his eternal ignorance of Cause, Force, Mind, and the like, has no hesitation in expressing decided and precise opinions respecting their nature and modes of operation. It is thereby manifest that the ignorance on which he eloquently insists is your ignorance rather than his. Nay, even when this is not so, and he avows his ignorance sincerely, he is too apt to regard the avowal as an act of piety, -- a confession of his "nothingness."

Philosophy, thus boasting of its own impotence, is a tradition of that theological spirit which, terrified at the free exercise of Doubt, yet conscious of the necessity of Doubt for the activity of Reason, excommunicated the Intellect as an heresiarch, after having vilified this life as a theatre for Satan. There was a time when all knowledge was considered dangerous, except for theologians and lawyers; for. others it was of the nature of Magic. The tradition still lingers, and a vague horror hangs over all "prying into the mysteries of the universe." It may be noticed influencing audiences at almost every scientific lecture not addressed to students. Ludicrous, were it not painful, would be the eagerness of delight with which every acknowledgment of ignorance and incompetence is saluted by the listeners. Although they are seated there to learn what has been discovered respecting the processes of Nature, they are never so well pleased as when told that what has been discovered is nothing compared with the undiscoverable. Let but the lecturer say, — and he must often say it, — " Here Science pauses. Beyond this we cannot go. Beyond this lie mysteries before which the wisest philosopher is no better than a child," — immediately a round of applause bursts forth; numerous feet stamp approval; flattered Ignorance feels at ease, and shakes its head significantly. " Ah " you see, Science is vain there. In spite of its proud boasts, there are mysteries it cannot penetrate ! "

Now surely it is no matter of exhilaration, but rather of deep regret, that we find ourselves in a universe of mystery, compelled to grope our way amid shadows, with terrible penalties affixed to each false step. To resign ourselves to this condition is one thing ; another to exult in it, and claim the exultation as an act of piety. Among the many strange servilities mistaken for pieties, one of the least lovely is that which hopes to flatter God by despising the world and vilifying human nature.*

20. There is no intention here of applauding the unthinking confidence which leads many minds to pursue inquiries beyond their powers, nor of underrating the lessons which dissuade us from such efforts. It is of supreme importance that we should ascertain the limits of Research. But these limits must be ascertained, not arbitrarily assigned. Before declaring any subject inaccessible, to others no less than to ourselves, we must clearly see the grounds why it is so ; and before attempting to reach one that is accessible, we must have some vision of the path by which it may be reached. Inaccessibility is relative, and science has answered questions which, to minds unfamiliar with its data and procedures, might seem hopelessly beyond human power ; which in-deed, in the absence of such data and procedures, would be beyond it. What, for example, could be more absurd than for one of the laity to attempt to measure and weigh stars many millions of millions of miles removed from his grasp, or to ascertain the velocity of Light, or of the translation of our solar system towards the constellation of Hercules ? Yet Geometry, Trigonometry, and Dynamics render these things possible. We believe the statements that the sensation of violet is produced by the striking of the ethereal waves against the retina more than seven hundred billions of times in a second, and that our sun and its planets are moving through space with a velocity of many millions of miles in a year; but these statements are accepted on trust by us who know that there are thinkers for whom they are irresistible conclusions ; the facts belong to mysteries penetrable only through a mathematical initiation.

21. It is thus also with Metaphysics. Its problems are inaccessible, and must remain so to minds which will not approach them through the only accessible path. But there is a path through which they may be accessible ; all depends on our selecting it. A few years since it would have been preposterous to speculate on the present chemical constitution of the sun's atmosphere ; it would have been one of the mysteries which no astronomer would consider investigable. Why ?, Simply be-cause there were no accessible data. The question was one wholly beyond the known paths. It was so obviously metempirical that even metaphysicians abstained from speculating on it. Suddenly the discovery of spectrum analysis placed an instrument in our hands by which the presence of gases and vapors in the sun's atmosphere could be ascertained as rigorously as their presence in our laboratories. The mystery submitted to demonstration. Newton's feat of interpreting celestial Mechanics by the laws of motion detected on our planet- (with the consequent reflected improvement in the definition of those very laws) was supplemented by the identification of the chemistry of the stars with that of our planet, and the consequent revelation of new substances in our earths and waters, which might otherwise have remained unsuspected. In like manner one may hope that the application of scientific Method to problems hitherto inaccessible may reflect light on questions of Science otherwise hopelessly obscure.

In saying that all depends on the selection of the right path, I may appear to be uttering a truism, the very difficulty being precisely this selection. It is, how-ever, only a truism to those who believe such a path may be found. The majority do not believe it, but insist that Metaphysics is essentially removed from any access through Experience. There is something gained, then, if we gain the admission that a pathway through Experience is possible. To effect this it may be requisite to show that unless some stringent proof be advanced in support of the assumption that the human mind is endowed with a special organ for the perception of met-empirical relations, there must be either a total abandonment of metaphysical Speculation or an adoption of the empirical Method. And I hope to show that there is no such special organ. Meanwhile let us here consider two favorite arguments for the continuance of the old speculations, with which metaphysicians vindicate their neglect of science.

23. First, it is said that "a noble impulse moves the soul to rise above the sordid aims of Science, which is mainly anxious to satisfy our vulgar needs." This ascription of a nobler aim must be rejected, not only because of its unwarrantable self-complacency, but because of its misrepresentation of the true position of Science, which — as will hereafter appear (Prob. I. Chap. V.) — is purely that of an Ideal Construction. Science is n idealist, moving amid the world of realities as if they were but fleeting shadows, and as if the only permanent existences were Abstractions. But were this otherwise, and were the satisfaction of our commonest needs the only aim, the objection would be none the less misplaced. There is no greater vulgarity than that of despising the common needs of life as vulgar. It is the greatness of Science, that, while satisfying the spiritual thirst for knowledge, it satisfies the pressing desire for guidance in action; not only painting a picture of the wondrous labyrinth of Nature, but placing in our hands the Ariadne-thread to lead us through the labyrinth.

24. The second plea urges that, granting the study to be doomed to failure, the mere energy it evokes is so strengthening and ennobling that Metempirics must always be an admirable course of intellectual gymnastics. The answer to this is simple. Without denying that intellectual athletes may find in it an arena for the exercise and display of their powers, we may urge that there are other and nobler arenas than the Gymnasium, where the greatest powers may not only be freely exercised, but exercised for the welfare of mankind. The measureless region of scientific Research is not only capable of calling out every intellectual faculty, but is one in which no exercise is sterile.* Incapable of application to concrete phenomena and the practical needs, incapable of demonstration because incapable of verification, the most splendid achievements in the metempirical arena are sterile displays.

25. Although it is true that only those problems which are capable of solution can profitably employ mankind, the common assertion that metaphysical problems are incapable of solution is true when there is a tacit assumption that they can only be investigated on the Metaphysical Method. But the whole subject changes its aspect directly we institute the distinction between Metaphysics and Metempirics. Unless this distinction be clearly maintained, all problems whatever become hopeless, and we are incapable of explaining the simplest phenomenon; with this distinction, all problems what-ever become capable of solution, under empirical limits.

26. The objection will doubtless be raised that such a procedure as that of excluding all metempirical data, and rejecting all metempirical inquiry, is an obliteration of the characteristic peculiarity of Metaphysics, and an evasion of the difficulty. It will be urged that an empirical answer to speculative questions can never satisfy the mind yearning for insight into the world of things behind phenomena, — for knowledge of the otherness of things, — for glimpses of " the light that never was on sea or shore." This is so. But we must remember that whatever speculative curiosity may prompt, our real and lasting interest is in ascertaining the order of the things we know. A sublime aspiration after the otherness of things is sublimely irrational. To know things as they are to us, is all we need to know, all that is possible to be known : a knowledge of the Suprasensible, were it gained, would, by the very fact of coming under the conditions of knowledge, only be knowledge of its relations to us ; the knowledge would still be relative, phenomenal.

What Professor Tait says of Quaternions may here be made to illustrate the distinction between the empiricist and metempiricist, if we allow the pure mathematician to stand for the latter : " In the eyes of the pure mathematician Quaternions have one grand and fatal defect. They cannot be applied to space of n dimensions ; they are contented to deal with those three poor dimensions in which mere mortals are doomed to dwell. From the physical point of view this, instead of being regarded as a defect, is the greatest possible recommendation. It shows, in fact, Quaternions to be a special instrument so constructed for application to the Actual as to have thrown overboard everything which is not absolutely necessary, without the slightest consideration whether or not it was thereby being rendered useless for application to the Inconceivable."—Address before the Mathematical Section of the British Association, 1871.

( Originally Published 1874 )

Problems of Life and Mind:
The Method Of Science And Its Application To Metaphysics

The Method Of Science And Its Application To Metaphysics

The Method Of Science And Its Application To Metaphysics

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