Jacques Maritain Center : The First Principles of Knowledge

Chapter V.
Metaphysical and Physical Certitude.




Some years ago, what has been briefly laid down about metaphysical and physical certitude would have been much more readily taken for granted than it will be to-day, when so many are boasting that they have changed the prevalent ideas on the subject. It will be the endeavour of this chapter to show that the change is not for the better, and to recommend a return to the old way of thinking.

I. Starting from the examination of metaphysical truth, we must carefully guard against a prejudice, with which some seek to discredit the cause; the notion, namely, that those who hold some principles to be in a real sense a priori and beyond mere experience of facts, are thereby committed to the assertion of innate ideas.{2} This is not so. They allow that all human knowledge is started by experience, internal or external; but they further contend -- and here they differ from pure empiricists- that while some truths might have been different, other truths are perceived to be founded on absolute necessity, and are therefore valid for all places and for all times, nay, even beyond all place and time. In the latter case, though our knowledge has its origin in single experiences, yet no sooner have the ideas been grasped, than they are seen to imply universal principles.

1. To understand against what manner of teaching we have to contend, it will be well to examine the three meanings, which Mr. Huxley,{3} in his little work on Hume, thinks it possible to attach to it necessary truth."

(a) The first interpretation is founded "on the convention which underlies the possibility of intelligible speech, that terms shall always have the same meaning." This is what Mr. Bain, an expounder of the philosophy which Mr. Huxley substantially adopts, has called "the principle of consistency,"{4} which he thus formulates: "It is a fundamental requisite of reasoning, as well as of communication by speech, that what is affirmed in one form of words shall be affirmed in another." The need of this rule no one will deny, if he wishes to secure intelligible communication between men, whose principal means of intercourse is by speech. But, while needful, the rule holds a very secondary place in the philosophy of the subject; for, deeper than consistency of speech, is consistency of thought, and deeper than any mere consistency of thought is its correspondence to the reality of things. Now this correspondence, neither Mr. Huxley nor Mr. Bain attempts to defend; they reject the definition of truth, as "conformity of mind to thing," inasmuch as they both proclaim that idealism cannot indeed be proved, but neither can it be disproved.

On the matter of this all-important consistency of thought with things Mr. Bain{5} has to content himself with making three postulates, one for objects of present consciousness, another for objects of memory, and a third for objects of expectation in the future. On the first point "we must assume that we feel what we do feel; that our sensations and feelings occur as they are felt. Whether or not we call this an irresistible belief, an assertion whose opposite is inconceivable, we assume it and proceed upon it in all that we do. Calling its negative unthinkable does not constitute any reason for assuming it: we can give no reason better than that we do assume it." Secondly, belief in memory is also, and more especially, taken as a practically needful assumption for which we can assign no reason in justification. And thirdly, to crown the whole work of assumption, and to do away with all solid motive for trust that our thoughts represent things, the two first postulates are supplemented by a third, and not only supplemented by it, but made in some sort to rest on it for support; at least there is a reciprocal dependence between the three. " What has uniformly been in the past," says the third postulate, "will be in the future; what has never been contradicted in any known instance, there being ample means and opportunities of search, will always be true." For this postulate, "we can give no reason or evidence:" indeed it is "an error to give any reason or justification," instead of treating it as "begged from the outset." At all events, "if there be a reason it is practical and not theoretical theoretically or rationally considered, the postulate" involves a hazard peculiar to itself, and any belief as to the future which we adopt on its authority is "a perilous leap." Nay, experience is even positively against the postulate, testifying to us that "nature is not uniform in everyting," by the "establishment of exceptions to uniformity." So situated, "we go forth in a blind faith until we receive a check. Our confidence grows with experience, yet experience has only a negative force; it shows us what has never been contradicted, and on that we run the risk of going forward on the same course." Furthermore the curious fact is noted, that, although without justification for itself, "this assumption is ample justification of the inductive operation, as a process of real inference. Without it we can do nothing, with it we can do anything."

The passages thus quoted have an immediate bearing on physical truth, in relation to which we shall presently consider them; but they have also a connexion with metaphysical truth, on which account they have been thus early introduced. The connexion is this: we are speaking of metaphysical truth, another name for which is necessary truth. Now the first meaning assigned by Mr. Huxley to necessary truth is "consistency of language." Even if we suppose this consistency of language to be backed by a corresponding consistency of thought, we may not suppose, without inquiry, that behind the consistency of thought there is secured a solid basis of objective reality. Investigation shows us that such foundation is not secured; as well because of Mr. Huxley's own assertion that idealism cannot be disproved, as because of Mr. Bain's futile attempt to rest the objective reality of thought, for past, present, and future, on three postulates, of which he gives a most lame account. They are three postulates in the worst sense of question-begging. We conclude, therefore, that the first of the three suggested meanings of necessary truth is quite inadequate. To repeat once more and emphasize the main burden of complaint, the school to which Mr. Huxley has attached himself, does not make any provision for a knowledge of necessary truth about things. Just as Mill declares that he cannot extend the principle of contradiction to things in themselves, nor absolutely make of it more than an empirical law of our thought, so Mr. Bain similarly stops short of reality. "Were it admissible," he writes, "that a thing could be and could not be, our faculties would be stultified. That we should abide by a declaration once made is indispensable to all understanding between man and man. The law of necessity in this sense is not the law of things, but an unavoidable accompaniment of the use of speech." So explained, the law is quite empty of reality.

Yet inadequate as it is, Mr. Bain does not allow it its full force. He mentions as being outside the range of consistency in speech or of "truths of implication," the axioms that "things equal to the same thing are equal to one another," and that "the sums of equals are equals; "also the principle that "every event must have a cause." These several propositions, he maintains, are reached inductively, are "not necessary," and "may be denied without self-contradiction." So much for necessary truth when described in Mr. Huxley's words, as "the convention underlying the possibility of intelligible speech, that terms shall always have the same meaning."

(b) Let us try the second interpretation of necessary truths; now they are "propositions the negation of which implies the dissolution of some association, memory, or expectation, which is in fact indissoluble." Fastening on the word "association" we have one of the terms round which so much of the present controversy gathers; nor is it possible intelligently to conduct the discussion unless we understand the large part played in the philosophy of our English empiricists by association. In this matter Mr. Huxley often follows so closely the footsteps of Mill, that it is better at once to recur to the more original author, though Hume most deserves to be called the prime offender .{6}

Mill, however, is not such an out-and-out associationist as it might, from some of his utterances, appear. It is true that not only in intellectual processes, but even in volitional, he attributes very much to association. Denying free will, and yet clinging to what might easily be taken as a remnant of the belief in freedom, after a manner which it puzzles even his friend, Mr. Bain, to regard as other than an inconsistency,{7} he was alarmed, at one period of his life, lest his early educators should not have formed in him associations of right conduct sufficiently strong to keep him always on the line of rectitude. But it is on the intellectual side of association that we are at present considering his views; and here he distinctly departs from his father's teaching, that judgment is mere association.{8}

He declares that belief is a new element of a special kind, though he nowhere goes so far, as does Mr. Bain, in the assertion of spontaneous beliefs, exceeding all warrant for their formation. According to Mr. Bain:{9} "it may be granted that contact with actual things is one of the sources of belief, but it is not the only nor the greatest source. Indeed so considerable are the other sources as to reduce this seemingly preponderating consideration to comparative insignificance." Mill rather adheres to the view, that in producing belief the force of association is at least preponderant, as will be manifest in instances now to be adduced.{10}

He divides indissoluble associations into those which we cannot so much as conceive to be reversible, and those which he fancies he can conceive to be reversible; but not even the former will he pronounce absolutely irreversible. For "it is questionable," he holds, "if there are any natural inconceivabilities, or if anything is inconceivable to us for any other reason, than because nature does not afford us the combinations necessary to make it conceivable." More strongly still, passing from the phrase, "questionable," to "can only be," he says, "If we have any associations which are in practice indissoluble, it can only be because the conditions of our existence deny us the experience which would be capable of dissolving them."

After such declarations we are not surprised to find how ready Mill is to allow the possibility of dissolution in associations which, be says, are to us at present, not alterable in any form that we can conceive. Apparently forgetful of his admission that judgments are more than associations of ideas, he takes, as test cases, the three primary principles of identity, contradiction, and excluded middle; and about them he avers,{11} "I readily admit that these three principles are universally true of all phenomena. I also admit, that if there are any inherent necessities of thought, these are such. I express myself in this qualified manner, because whoever is aware how artificially modifiable, the creatures of circumstance, and alterable by circumstances, most of the supposed necessities of thought are, (though real necessities to a given person at a given time), will hesitate to affirm of any such necessities that they are an original part of our mental constitution. Whether the three so-called fundamental laws are laws of thought by the native structure of the mind, or merely because we perceive them to be universally true of observed phenomena, I will not positively decide; but they are laws of thought now and invincibly so. They may or may not be capable of alteration by experience, but the conditions of our existence deny us the experience which would be required to alter them." This passage is the plain negation of all certitude; for if with regard to such self-evident truths as that "whatever is, is," and that "whatever is, cannot at the same time, and under the same respect, not be," we are unable to rely upon our clear mental insight when it tells us that these axioms are true for all intelligence and beyond all possibility of alteration; then we never can have any really solid foundation for a firm assent. Certitude even ceases to have a meaning.

To pass now to those metaphysical truths which Mr. Mill thinks to be conceivably alterable, under conditions of experience other than what this world affords; we will take his assertion, that to beings differently situated square-circle might be as rational as sweet-circle is to us. His argument is, that Just as to us the sensations sweet and circular may be derived together from one object, so to persons of another constitution, or in other surroundings, the sensations of square and circular might be derived together from one object. It is a revelation of the thorough unsoundness of Mill's philosophy, when he thus confounds sensations with intellectual perception of universal truths. So long as he looks only to chance association of sensations, he may fancy that any combination of these is possible; but if he would look to the mind's insight into the proposition, "a square cannot be circular," he would see that it included the truism, "a square cannot be not square:" for incontrovertibly that which consists of curved lines is not square, and a circle is wholly curvilinear. Mill proclaims very loudly against Hamilton that what is self- contradictory cannot be sound philosophy: let him take his words home to himself.

Another example he borrows from a barrister, and it is to this effect. Two and two might make five; for example, it would do so in any region in which, when two and two things were put together, a fifth always "interloped." Really the argument seems childish, for the fifth object would never appear without a sufficient cause; and even though the inhabitants of the strange land never could discover what the cause was, at least they would rationally infer its existence, and never could form the judgment, "two and two make five." Yet Mr. Huxley has accepted the suggestion, and gravely told an American audience, "every candid thinker will admit that there may be a world in which two and two do not make four, and in which two straight lines enclose a space." If so, neither "candid" thought, nor any other kind of thought, has much intrinsic value.

From the same barrister Mill, whom Mr. Huxley follows obsequiously, shows how two straight lines may be judged to enclose a space. Writing lately in the Nineteenth Century against the Duke of Argyll, Mr. Huxley is inconsistent with his earlier view; for he lays it down "that omnipotence itself could not make a triangular circle." But let us go to the more original fount of wisdom, the barrister, "Imagine," says the learned counsel for the non-necessary truth of mathematical axioms,{12} "a man who has never had experience of straight lines through any sense whatever, suddenly placed upon a railway, stretching out in a straight line in each direction. He would see the rails, which had been the first straight lines he had ever seen, apparently meeting, or at least tending to meet, at the horizon. He would thus infer, in the absence of other experience, that they actually did enclose a space when produced far enough. Experience alone could undeceive him." Far more faults could be found with this piece of sophistry, which many grave writers patronize, than it is worth while to enumerate; suffice it to say, briefly, that in the supposed case a man, ignorant of perspective, erroneously judges from appearances two lines, which really are parallel, to be convergent: but he never judges that parallel lines can converge, for the notion parallel is nowhere shown to have entered his head. Here the barrister's random shot misses its mark utterly. No man, without secretly changing the meaning of his words, could intelligently say parallel lines, if prolonged, may meet. Even one of the empiricist school, Mr. Bain, has the wisdom to depart from his colleagues in this particular instance: "that two straight lines cannot enclose a space," he confesses, "is implicated in the very essence of straightness, as defined by mathematicians: to deny it would be a contradiction." It is against the convention, to which Mr. Huxley is a party, that terms should keep the same meaning.

The case of the barrister may be put in the form of question and answer. Q. A. "By making a mistake, and fancying two lines to be convergent, which really are parallel." This is not a satisfactory conclusion. The view might have been given more speciously; but in its most specious form it would be dissolved by the words which Mill uses against Mansel: "I take my stand on the acknowledged principle of logic and morality, that when we mean different things,"e.g., parallel and convergent, "we have no right to call them by the same name." {13}

The result of an examination into Mill's conceived alteration in what most people call necessary truths of mathematics, is to show the futility of his suggestions, and to convince us that there is no need to abandon the old views. Neither are we more inclined to believe Professor Clifford, in his solemn assurances, that while for the present our laws of geometry are, perhaps, only approximately true, for the future we cannot guarantee them to be even approximations. The necessity we continue to assert for geometric truths, we assert also for all other truth which shows itself to the mind to be evidently unalterable: it must be judged by the clear insight we have into the terms and their connexion, not by a fanciful theory, which derives all knowledge from the chance combination of sense-impressions, with the surmise that there is no assignable limit to the modes in which such combinations could be altered; that all judgment is the effect of association, and that all associations are possibly variable.

(c) Mr. Huxley's third sense given to necessary truth is that it signifies" facts of immediate consciousness" -- "our sensations," he says elsewhere, "our pleasures and our pains, and the relations of these, make up the sum total of the elements of positive unquestionable knowledge." He does not exactly mean that there is no other knowledge: but that no other is beyond a question. Against the sufficiency of this view it has to be urged, that facts of consciousness are in themselves contingent, not necessary: and that what we regard as our chief necessary truths, though knowable to us only through facts of consciousness, are universal principles, not specially limited to facts of consciousness.

Moreover, facts of consciousness, as accounted for by the empiricist school, are made to appear in anything but the guise of necessary truths; rather they are reduced to a position of great confusion and uncertainty. Truism as it may appear to be, when we say "what we feel we feel," yet empiricism manages to obscure this act of self- consciousness. Mr. Bain, as we have seen, makes the matter one of a postulate for which no reason can be given. Mr. Spencer{14} declares that "a thing cannot at the same instant be both subject and object of thought," that "no man is conscious of what he is, but only of what he was a moment before; "man is not conscious of his present, but only of his immediately past state; man holds in memory what he never held in immediate perception. In the same spirit M. Comte had written: "In order to observe your intellect you must pause from activity; yet it is this very activity you want to observe." If you cannot effect the pause, you cannot observe, and if you effect it, there is nothing to observe." Which words Dr. Maudsley{15} approves, and supports them by the principle that "to persist in one state of consciousness would be really to be unconscious: consciousness is awakened by the transition from one physical or mental state to another."

We have not yet arrived at the stage for discussing consciousness, but the passages quoted are to our point, because they show, that unsatisfactory as it is itself to take "necessary truth" to mean "facts of consciousness," the school of empiricists double that unsatisfactoriness by the difficulties they throw in the way of all consciousness. On this ground alone Mr. Huxley, if he were true to his authorities, as he need not be, would be disqualified from saying "we have seen clearly and distinctly, and in a manner which admits of no doubt, that all our knowledge is knowledge of states of consciousness." Yet this is his assertion: and it agrees with his third meaning of necessary truth, which, at best, is quite insufficient.

Three descriptions of necessary truth having been passed in review and found wanting, it remains that we argue in behalf of that fuller sense of necessity which undoubtedly is required, if man's position as a genuinely intelligent being is to be vindicated.

2. Our argument shall begin from admissions made by adversaries, who, when thrown off their guard, speak not according to the exigencies of a false theory about associated ideas, but according to the intellectual insight which is theirs by nature.

(a) If no truth can with certainty be shown to be more than a de facto association under present experience, it ought to be impossible to arrive at any element of absolute morality. Yet adversaries do make it a point of absolute morality that truth itself is, at all costs, to be held sacred. Whereas they ought always to say what Mr. Leslie Stephen says at least once,{16} namely, that "if in some planet lying were as essential to human welfare as truthfulness is in this world, falsehood may be there a cardinal virtue; "nevertheless they do say with Mr. Mill just the opposite, that it is better for human kind to suffer eternal misery than compromise the truth. The passage{17} is well known in which Mill declares, that rather than call any being good, who is not good in the human meaning of the word, he would go down for ever into Hell. Hereby he asserts a very strong conviction as to the absoluteness of moral truth, not only in this world but in the next, not only in man but in the Supreme Being. This is more than we could logically expect from a man who professed to doubt, whether a changed experience might not render inconceivable thins now regarded as conceivable, and, on the other hand, render conceivable things now regarded as inconceivable; or, after Mill's own phraseology, dissociate the ideas of any present conceivability, and associate the ideas of any present inconceivability. If truth were indeed at its root, what mere empiricism makes it to be, it is impossible to show a valid reason why man should, in all cases, rather die than lie. Mr. Huxley can affirm "that the search after truth, and truth only, ennobles the searcher, and leaves no doubt that his life, at any, rate, is worth living." Only when you give truth, and goodness their foundation in some absolute necessary worth, are you able to show that between truth and untruth, right and wrong, the difference, is as between Heaven and Hell. No wonder, then, Mr. Bain is puzzled, on his own principles, to justify a worship of truth for truth's sake, and has to apply the theory about means getting mistaken for ends.{18} "Associations," he pleads, "transfer the interest of an end of pursuit to the means. The regard for truth is, and ought to be, an all- powerful sentiment, from its being entwined in a thousand ways with the welfare of human society. We are not surprised if an element, of such importance as a means, should often be regarded as an absolute end to be pursued irrespective of consequences, whether near or remote." Nevertheless, a more correct insight occasionally asserts itself in the mind of the empiricist, and be becomes, in relation to his own dull principles, splendide mendax.

(b)But not only in the matter of morals, where it may be suggested that grandness of sentiment may have gained a momentary victory over clear thought, but even in the region of cold clear thought itself, adversaries are betrayed into admissions of metaphysical principles strictly so called. It is all very well to refuse attention to these admissions. Mr. Leslie Stephen, in answer to very forcible difficulties urged by Mr. Balfour, may reply with lordly disdain, as he has done in Mind, that he simply steps over, metaphysical puzzles, and so reaches science; he may own to only one exception: believe anything is the same as to disbelieve its contradictory: this is all the dogmatism to which I can plead guilty." Well, that one article only is fatal to empiricism, and has proved too much for Mill's powers of defence: besides, there are many other articles of which Mr.Stephen can be "proved guilty," even though he does not "plead guilty."

All that is needful is, to employ a means of conviction, which the late Dr.Ward used to employ with good effect.{19} He used to urge upon men of the school of Hume, that really, throughout their polemics, they were relying on the absoluteness of those very metaphysical principles, which they were labouring to prove only relative and contingent. To verify the force of this contention we have only to take up their books. It is not without an assumption of his own absolute knowledge that Comte can say, "There is only one absolute principle, namely, that there is nothing absolute."

Hume himself, in a sense which requires more sifting than can be afforded here, refuses to admit the validity of the inference, whereby, from past changes in nature, belief in the constancy of the same sequences for the future is derived. Why this refusal? Because he sees in the inference none of the demonstrative force that he acknowledges in the sciences of quantity and number, in which "reason is incapable of variation; the conclusions which it draws from considering one circle are the same which it would form upon surveying all the circles in the universe." On the other hand, empirical investigations are declared to want this invariability: "All inferences from experience, therefore, are effects of custom, not of reason ." {20} He distinguishes a mathematical from a physical truth by saying that the former does not allow of any contradiction, whereas the latter might not be what de facto it is; and so far as facts are merely empirical, it is absurd to talk of them as demonstrable. He claims that his theory of causality upsets the common principle, that every event must have a cause, because upon this theory "we may easily conceive that there is no absolute and metaphysical; necessity that every beginning of existence should be attended with such an object."{21} Thus he requires for the establishment of a principle of human certitude, "absolute and metaphysical necessity," and rejects a most widely received axiom on the supposed defect of such necessity. Here is the tacit confession that every conclusion valid in reason must be drawn in virtue of some "absolute metaphysical necessity." Explicitly asked to make this confession, the empiricist would demur: implicitly, in the very act of using his reason, he yields his acknowledgment. He is constantly recurring to the phrases, "I see no necessary connexion," "I see no compelling evidence," "The conclusion is not inevitable," and on these pleas he considers himself justified in stopping short at a probable assent.

It takes up too much space to transpose long quotations into these pages; but whoever wants a further illustration of how empiricists tacitly suppose metaphysical principles, need only read Mill's Preface to his Logic. There it will be seen how absolute is the character which Mill gives to logic; how carefully he submits all sciences, under pain of becoming unscientific, to the jurisdiction of the logician; how little he thinks of repudiating all necessity, or allowing for a possible alteration of experiences. Only two sentences shall be quoted, in which the noteworthy words shall be italicized. "Logic points out what relations must subsist between the data and whatever can be concluded from them: between the proof and anything which it can prove. If there be any such indispensable relations, and if those can be precisely determined, every particular branch of science, as well as every individual in the guidance of his conduct, is bound to conform to these relations under penalty of making false inferences, which are not grounded on the reality of things."

Of course it may be possible to trim these utterances into some sort of conformity with Mill's metaphysics; but the process is one of mere torture on a Procustean bed.

3. It remains that we ground certitude upon its only satisfactory basis of metaphysical principles, which have absolute necessity and universal validity. We can know metaphysical truths in the strict sense of the phrase.

A modern paradox is the denial by adversaries at once of necessity, of free will, and of chance. Hume{22} had led the way, saying, "Necessity is something that exists in the mind, not in objects." "Necessity," Mr. Huxley repeats, is but "a shadow of the mind's throwing," an "intruder" that he "anathematizes;" he claims to be a necessarian without being a fatalist, because he regards necessity as having only a logical existence. Free will he equally repudiates, and he would laugh at chance as a factor in scientific calculations. Necessity, free will, chance -- these he does not recognize ; but he adds, "Fact I know and law I know."

One point, at any rate, is asserted here; and while we cannot agree with Mr. Huxley's denials, fortunately we can agree with his assertion of fact and law. We yield to none in putting fact and law at the foundation of all things, so far as God may be called (not indeed in the etymological sense) the first Great Fact, giving the law to all others. The substitution asked for in Faust, whereby "in the beginning was the Word," should give place to "in the beginning was the deed," has no point at all as directed against the reality of the Creator.

Next, what sort of a fact was this first fact? Not a chance fact, for that has no meaning: nor a free fact, for that is absurd in a first origin: but a necessary fact, for that alone will satisfy the requirements of sound reason. Necessity being thus at the root of all being, is therefore at the root of all truth ; the existence of the primal Being, its nature, its whole condition -- this was the one great original necessity. Hume,{23} therefore, is too sweeping in his assertion, when he says, that of no fact is the contradictory inconceivable. It is inconceivable that the prime fact of existence should be reversible.

Here, therefore, is the foundation of metaphysical truth: here is "fact and law," but bound up with the anathematized "necessity." For the nature of necessary Being inevitably gives rise to certain necessary truths about being, on account of the identity between truth and being. But now observe, as a matter of great importance, that for the individual investigation it is not requisite, that before perceiving a truth to be of metaphysical necessity, he should have set before himself the origin of all things and of all truth, as in the sketch just given. It is enough that the intellect should clearly contemplate some of the easier first principles, and judge by evidence and insight. "The same thing cannot be and not be, at the same time and under the same aspect:" "nothing can begin to be without a sufficient reason for its commencement:" "things, equal to the same thing, are equal to one another." The simple understanding of these terms and of their interrelations is metaphysical certitude, necessary, universal, beyond all contingency. Evidence and insight -- these are the things to insist upon, in opposition to the mere de facto experiences and associations, which Mill, at times, makes all in all. To set these latter in the place of supremacy is to yield to an utter scepticism, such as will presently be shown to be impossible. Mr. Huxley is fully aware into what an abyss the denial of insight into necessary objective truth, and the substitution of mere empiricism, inevitably conduct the speculator, who has logic and courage to follow his principles to their conclusions. Accepting Hume's principles, he boldly proclaims{24}that "for any demonstration which can be given to the contrary, the collection of perceptions which make up our consciousness may be only phantasmagoric generated by the ego, unfolding its successive scenes on the background of the abyss of nothingness."

Is the reader willing to go this length? If not, the only remedy is to keep a firm foothold on metaphysical certitude; for assuredly there is error in the supposition of Mr. Carveth Read, that "to doubt the possibility of necessary cognitions is not the same thing as to doubt the possibility of actual and objective cognitions." If there are no "necessary cognitions," that is, cognitions of necessary truth, then there is no fixed basis whereon to found the cognition of contingent facts or laws. Some support must be found for the contingent outside of contingency, that is, in necessity.

It is satisfactory to find a confirmation of the doctrine, that metaphysical truth is to be judged by evidence and insight, rather than on a theory of empirical associations, in the better utterances of Mill himself. Already we have seen that he asserts "belief" to be something different from association of ideas. If he had seen only this much, he had seen enough to warn him against judging the validity of the three great axioms of metaphysics -- the principles of Identity, Contradiction, and Excluded Middle{25} -- almost solely on the ground of conceivability as regulated by association. But Mill goes beyond the mere proposition that belief is more than association: for when speaking of evidence in relation to belief, he says:{26} "Inasmuch as the meaning of the word evidence is supposed to be something which, when laid before the mind, induces it to believe; to demand evidence when the belief is insured by the mind's own laws, is supposed to be appealing to the intellect against the intellect. But this, I apprehend, is a misunderstanding of the nature of evidence. By evidence is not meant anything and everything which produces belief. There are many things which generate belief besides evidence. A mere strong association of ideas often causes a belief so intense, as to be unshakable by experience or argument. Evidence is not that which the mind does or must yield to, but that to which it ought to yield, namely, that by yielding to which its belief is kept in conformity to fact. To say that belief suffices for its own justification, is denying the existence of an outward standard, conformity of opinion to which constitutes its truth. A mere disposition to believe, even if supposed instinctive, is no guarantee for the truth of the thing believed." Agreeing with Mill that the mind must conform in its true beliefs to an outward standard, we have defended metaphysical truth on the ground that it has an outward standard in the objective evidence, which the mind perceives, and to which it conforms. But of evidence we must treat hereafter.

II. In passing from metaphysical to physical certitude, the transition is between two categories of Being, which Aristotle recognized under the names of necessary Being and contingent Being (tou ex anagkês huparkein and tou endechesthai huparkein). The ultimate possibilities of all things created are settled by metaphysical necessity, following inevitably, as is shown in Ontology, from the nature of the by First Being and His powers of creation. Yet when the possibilities come to be actualized in the world, there belongs to them a lower order of necessity, which we call physical, and which, resting upon conditions that need not have been fulfilled, may be called contingent. Contingent necessity may seem a paradox, but it is easily explainable. Physical necessity rests upon a double contingency, on God's free election to create at all, and on His further free election of one out of many eligible plans of creation. The de facto elements, their number and original collocations, were matters of choice. But the system once established has intrinsic laws of action, which according to some theories of matter could not be altered without putting a different set of substances in place of the actually existent, while other theories would not so rigorously identify mode of action with substance. These laws we can partially detect, not by intuition or a priori argument, but by arguing back from effects to causes.

1. The sum total of created things and of their forces is regarded as a constant: so that we speak of physical nature as of a fixed aggregate, not liable to increase or diminution of parts. If it be asked how this fact can be known, the answer is, that our only natural means of discovery is by very wide observation. Undoubtedly God, if He had liked, could have put us into a world where He frequently took away old agencies and introduced new, or suddenly altered previous arrangements. Or He could have framed a world, different parts of which were composed of quite diverse elements, such even that no inter-action could go on between some parts and others. No one need have been very much surprised, bad an old opinion proved to be true, and bad the heavenly bodies shown, that they rejected all kindredship with the physical constituents of our planet. Yet it would have been inconsistent with the essential Wisdom to have placed us in a creation, where the variability was so great, as to reduce us to absolute bewilderment, or to the position of dwellers in chaos, who could not familiarize themselves with their outer surroundings, or so accommodate themselves to their circumstances as to be able to continue the life of the race. There must then be some uniformity of nature,and it becomes urgent upon us to distinguish different uses of that phrase.

(a) The most radical meaning of all, is that like agencies, under like circumstances, will always have like effects. Messrs. Bain and Pollock, not admitting the principle of efficient causality, have agreed in maintaining, that for anything we can know to the contrary, the mere lapse of time may make an alteration. On this point Lewes rightly took the other side, and held, though in an imperfect manner, that the circumstance of time, as such, is irrelevant, and that the principle is an a priori truth. Time, as time, never alters anything; but alteration is due to the activities, which, in time, produce their effects. What is relevant as regards time is this: created things continue in their communicated existence only by virtue of the constantly supplied support of Him who originally gave them being: and on this score, a natural object has no intrinsic power of prolonging its own duration. But when we speak of like agencies having like effects, the presupposition is that they are preserved in their proper natures; else we could not call them like. The non-theistic school of philosophers will not approve of the mention of creation and conservation; but they must remember that questions of this sort necessarily drive us back into the theory of first origins; and that those who simply have no view as to the beginning of things, or as to the production of existant objects, must allow that they have a great and fatal deficit in their philosophy.

This something which is wanting shows itself in many curious opinions about a means of origination, which ultimately may be reduced to the illogical idea of chance. As theism is true, no apology is needed for using it to settle points, which otherwise cannot rationally be discussed: and we must consider the agnostic position as quite unfitted to give its occupiers the safety, which they vainly imagine that they possess in the word, ignoramus. On the plea that they do not know anything to the contrary, they speak of it as a possibility, that there might be a world where things spring into, and out of existence, as it were spontaneously and capriciously: in which case, as Professor Clifford suggested, it would be worth while trying to settle what objects were given to such vagaries; whether, for instance, buttons were prone to these pranks. The great mystery, what becomes of all the old pins, might be more hopefully investigated on the hypothesis of sudden ceasings to be. Wild as the notion may seem, it is contained in Mr. Bain's{27}solemn announcement: "That every event must be preceded by some other event is obviously not necessary in the sense of implication, and the opposite is not self-contradictory. There is nothing to prevent us from conceiving an isolated event. Any difficulty that we might have in conceiving something to arise out of nothing, is due to our experience being all the other way. If it were not for habit there could be no serious obstacle to our conceiving the opposite state of things to every event being chained to some other events, Thus to abolish the principle of efficient causality is to take away all genuine science; for in that case there could be no proof that uniformities would continue, not even, strictly, that they had existed in the past. To guard against this chaotic result, we state the first sense of nature's uniformity to be the a priori self-evident principle, that from like causes, under like circumstances, uniformly constant results may be relied upon to follow.

(b)The second sense of uniformity in nature is a posteriori, as the first was a priori. The first says, like agencies, under like conditions, will always have like effects; the second says, the sum total of physical agencies in the world is constant, neither matter nor its inherent forces suffer increase or decrease. This is not going as far as the Law of Conservation of Energy; but it is its foundation. The asserted uniformity cannot be verified in every separate detail; but it is what all observation of nature goes to establish.

(c)The third sense of uniformity is again a matter of observation. It is noticeable that in some climates, for instance, the dry and the rainy seasons are calculable almost to a nicety: whereas here in England, which has according to an American authority, "no climate but only specimens of all sorts of weather," we take it as a matter of no surprise that fair or wet weather should predominate in any of the four seasons. The laws are fixed for us, as for the most regular of climates; but whereas, for the latter, they result in obvious regularity, for us they result in apparent irregularity. Speaking of the uniformity of nature from this point of view, we have evidences of it in many recurrent phenomena, such as day and night, the seasons of the year, planetary conjunctions, secular variations like those effected by the precession of equinoxes, and lastly successive stages of animal life in one and the same. individual. Thus the universe on which we dwell, in many of its phenomena, does not, but in many also does, present us with detectable periodicities; and these we may fairly call uniformities of Nature.

But another physical universe is possible, where such recurrences would be so rare as to give to an observer, having the average life of man, no token of regularity. Uniformity would be there in the first sense of the word and in the second; matter and force would be constant, physical causes would keep rigorously to their laws; still the combinations would be so various as to present an appearance of chaos. Elementary laws would result in complicated effects, without discernible law of complication. Compared with such a possible world, ours we call uniform, because of its many observed recurrences.

2. If we hold by the several truths just enunciated, we shall be saved from the sad lot of empiricists, who have to take refuge in "a primitive instinct," or in an "unaccountable adaptation of our beliefs by the Creator of our faculties," in order to explain, why it is that we rely on our past experiences for knowing what nature will do in the future.{21} Our reliance is rationally grounded on the three uniformities above described; one a priori and quite necessary, the other two a posteriori and necessary only inasmuch as God cannot fail to give to His works their strict requisites for the purpose they are meant to serve. This is theism if you like' introduced into philosophy; but theism is itself philosophic, and so necessary to philosophy, that if you deny it, you have no stable basis for physical truth, but at best a hope, logically quite unjustifiable, that the course of things will go on with that orderliness, which hitherto you have known it to observe. Further than this the non-theist cannot advance: for him any time there may be "chaos come again." Mill{29} is quite open in his avowal that on his principles, there may be a planet where "events succeed one another at random, without any fixed law," and that "it is perfectly possible to imagine the present order of the universe brought to an end, and a chaos succeeding, where there is no fixed succession of events, and the past gives no assurance of the future." In the same spirit and on the same principles Mr. Huxley writes in his American Lectures: "Though we are quite certain about the constancy of nature at present, it by no means follows that we are justified in expanding this generalization into the past, and in denying absolutely that there may have been a time when events did not follow a fixed order, when the relations of cause and effect were not fixed and definite, and when external agencies interfered in the general course of nature." There are statements here fatal to physical science, which can be preserved from extinction only by holding on to principles we are advocating, not indeed as anything new, but as the common possession of unsophisticated mankind.

3.Wishing now to maintain the power of the human mind to reach physical certitude, we much need a distinction between two classes of efforts -- those more ambitious efforts which often do not get beyond probability, and those humbler efforts which often reach full assurance. Against the absolute certainty of the sun's rising tomorrow it may be urged, that even though our system were clearly explained as to its planetary movements, still there would remain elements of doubt. For instance, we are told that the whole system is travelling in space; that the stars are closing up behind our course and opening out before; and that it is not quite sure that we shall not come suddenly under perturbing influences as yet unsuspected. It is admitted that them danger is a minimum, as far as we can calculate: but nevertheless there is a particle of undispelled doubt, nay some would say far more than a particle. Well, give this theoretical doubt its due, and, after all that astronomers and even theologians who speak of providence, can bring forward to comfort the timid, suppose it to remain undissipated. The sun's movements are not the easiest of our physical inquiries. and it is precisely in our more complicated or our abstruser questions, as for instance whether the law of the inverse squares applies to gravity at minutest distances, that we may allow some truth to Mr. Huxley's declaration, "that our widest and safest generalizations are simply statements of the highest degree of probability."

But take the simpler case of letting a stone drop to the earth. Arrange your own circumstances, break off a piece of sandstone from a quarry which you know well; get out of the way of all scientific apparatus, on to the open plain, and there, relaxing your hold upon the stone, leave it to nature's forces. You may not know all about gravity; there may be many forces acting on the stone about which you are ignorant: still you have physical certainty that the stone will not stand in mid air. As to the possible unknown forces, you have sufficient experience to warrant the conclusion about what they will not do-that they will not arrest the fall to the ground. It is a physical certitude of this simple nature that we often want for purposes of daily life, and sometimes for such religious purpose as verifying a miracle. Unless he had in mind the grade of certitude, about which I spoke before, and of which his example would give a good illustration, it is hard to see what De Morgan, in his Logic, can have wanted to show, when he wrote:{30} "I know that a stone will fall to the ground when I let it go, and I know that a square number must (in a given case) be equal to the sum of odd numbers: and though when I think, I become sensible of more assurance for the second than for the first, yet it is only on reflexion that I can distinguish the certainty from what comes so near to it." Is not this only another case of playing fast and loose with the word certainty? "I know that the stone will fall:" and yet the knowledge is only what "comes near to certainty," but is distinguished from it. We should say that the certainty from which it is distinguished is not certainty in general, but that special sort of certitude which carries with it must instead of will or is; or that one is metaphysical, the other physical certainty. But both are full certainties.

4. There still remains the objection, what about miracles? If God can interfere at any moment with the course of nature, how determine in any case that He does not interfere? In reply we must say that the objection is not insuperable: in many instances we may be sure there is no miraculous, interposition. For God has sufficiently shown us, by experience and by reasons of fitness, that miracles do not come in capriciously, so as to make the whole of life a puzzle to us: but they are wrought only, occasionally and for proportionate ends.

Nec Deus intersit, nisi dignus vindice nodus Inciderit.

Surely there are trivial circumstances in our lives, where we can see that there is no adequate occasion for miracle, and where, in consequence, we may know that none will be performed. And as for Descartes' fear of a mischievous demon, who may be always tricking us, it belongs to God's providence to hold in check the limited powers which even the evil spirits, by natural endowment, possess.

Some may object to Divine providence as a factor introduced into philosophical considerations. But a factor it is in the world's physical course, and as St. Augustine long ago pointed out, if we neglect this factor, then actum est de philosophia. Those, however, who exaggerate the possibility of Divine interference seem not at all to realize what they are committed to, when, because of it, they have taken up the position, that never can we be quite certain of a physical fact or sequence. They fail to observe that they cannot at once hold this position, and at the same time claim to be sure that there are, or have been, a city of London, a man called Napoleon, and a plague known as the Black Death. When they speak of miracles as always possible, they forget all the ridiculous interferences, which, on their theory, it 's not incredible that God may work; for if no physical event is safe from the suspicion of miracle, then it is not certain that tomorrow all men will not be walking on their hands, all corn will not become poison, and all sand will not turn into gold. Really with the fullest allowance for large possibilities in the way of unsuspected miracles and for the inadequacy of our knowledge about any one of nature's ultimate laws, still we must not go the length of conceding our complete inability, to be certain of physical truths, past and present. As to the future, if any one likes to fancy an instantaneous arrival of the end of the world, it would be difficult to plead anything against him, except from the signs given in Scripture about what is to precede the consummation of all things terrestrial. and from the fact, that the immediate future of our universe is, to some degree, calculable from its known present. Conjectures are even made about the natural causes of a final period to be put to the order which now prevails.


(1) That the exaggerated manner in which some urge the association theory, leads to the denial of all immutable truth, cannot but be known to any one at all acquainted with our English writers on philosophy. To take a single specimen, we have Dr. Maudsley{a} telling us to give up as hopeless "infinite, absolute truth." If he means only that we cannot grasp truth in all its infinity, he is obviously right; but he means more and worse. He says, "Because each one has a certain specific nature as a human being, and because the external nature, in relation with which each one exists, is the same: therefore are inevitably formed certain general associations which cannot without great difficulty, or anywise, be dissociated. Such are what have been described as the general laws of association, in which all men agree -- those of cause and effect, of contiguity in time and space, of resemblance, of contrast; in all which ways, it is true, one idea may follow another, though also probably in other ways. The universality which is supposed to belong to the ideas of cause and effect, of the uniformity of nature, of time and space, has been supposed to betray an origin beyond experience," that is, beyond mere empirical association. "Nevertheless, it is hard to conceive how men, formed and placed as they are, could have failed to acquire them, and still more difficult to conceive, how they could even have been supposed to have any meaning outside human exberience, to have an absolute, not a relative truth." Thus the law of causality is true for men, with a mere relative truth, and has no absolute value for all intelligence; a theory which robs science of all its glory, and is made worse by what follows. "The belief in the uniformity of the laws of nature is a belief which is developed of necessity in the mind, in accordance with the laws of the nature, of which mind is a part and product. The uniformity of nature becomes conscious of itself, so to speak, in the mind of man: for in man, a part of nature and developing according to nature's laws, nature attains to self-consciousness. To declare that a theory is conceivable, is to declare that conception has limits based upon experience, not to limit the possibilities of nature." All thought thus becomes a sort of de facto pattern, worked out in the mind of man by his surroundings: whilst other surroundings would have worked out quite a different pattern, and no pattern has any absolute value. What is true of mere sensations is thus extended to the highest acts of intellect. Hence no fixed system of philosophy is possible; at best we can but have ideas suitable to our own age and Zeit-Geist, or spirit of the time. As Mr. Pollock{b} puts it, "Science makes it plainer, day by day, that there is no such thing as a fixed equilibrium, either in the world without or in the world within: so it becomes plain that the genuine and durable triumphs of philosophy are not in systems but in ideas." But what is the value of ideas, which condemn each other by refusing to fit into consistent system? Let us take the instance of a few "ideas," which have been framed to represent our condition as regards the knowledge of nature.

(2)Reid{c} has told us, far more piously than wisely, God hath implanted in our mind an original principle by which we believe the continuance of the course of nature, and of those connexions which we have observed in the past. Antecedent to all reason we have an anticipation that there is a fixed and steady course of nature." Brown,{d} in default of a belief in real causality, is also obliged to fall back on Providence, appealing to the instinctive tendency wherewith God has endowed us in view of the circumstances in which we are placed." Mr. Bain{e} leaves out all mention of a bountiful Provider, whose existence he would consider unverifiable, and points simply to blind tendency. He asserts that there is a primitive credulity, which every uncontradicted experience has on its side," "an initial believing impulse of the mind, which errs on the side of excess, and which, if nothing has happened to check it in a particular case, will be found strong enough for anything." Neither Mr. Bain's theory, nor any philosophy of Hume's school, will give to physical science a rational basis: and this is a serious consideration for those who may feel tempted to grasp at the simplicity of experience and association, when put forward as explanations of well-nigh everything that can be rationally explained.

(3) With metaphysical and physical truth alike overthrown, with the very principle of contradiction undermined, it is no wonder that we have philosophies in which contradictions abound.

Nor can the work of clearly pointing out these contradictions, be looked upon as a useless sort of criticism. Take the case of Mill for instance. Mr. Jevons, disgusted with the task of having to teach his system for several years, entered a protest by publishing a list of the inconsistencies which he had come across, many of which are undoubtedly to be found in the author. This is a most legitimate and effective way to discredit a philosophically discreditable writer, and serves the very good purpose of doing something to check the spread of ruinous principles. It is, then, somewhat difficult to see the force of the objections made by the Editor of Mind, when he says that Mill's inconsistencies are known; that no one is exactly a follower of Mill; and that those who admire him most and owe him most, take leave to dissent from him when they think good. All this may be true: and yet, since Mill has given to Hume's philosophy about as fair an appearance as any other author has succeeded in imparting to it, the labour is a worthy one, to show in detail the essentially contradictory character of a bad system. A list of Mill's inconsequences and contradictions should be kept as permanently on the bookshelves as his own works -- the antidote ever by the side of the poison. Perhaps it was because he rose up among a people who had long neglected philosophy, and whom he helped to rouse into inquisitiveness on the subject, that Mill's undoubted cleverness met with so much success in the propagation of irrational principles. But there is no reason why Englishmen should go on worshipping the god of unreason: especially when they remember Mill's wretched education from earliest years. He is always to be spoken of more in pity than in anger; but when we read Mr. J. Morley's extravagant praises of him, and profuse acknowledgments of indebtedness to him as a teacher, while we understand better Mr. Morley's position, we also understand the need of having the hollowness of the teacher sounded and made known to all.{f}

(4) The absolute certainty of any physical generalization has been denied by several authors of reputation. See Bacon, Nov. Oyg. Lib. I. a- 4I, 50; Lewes, Aristotle, P- 33, where we read: 11 To-morrow a new observation or a new analysis may displace all our astronomical theories; " and Mr. Venn, Logic of Chance, c. viii. That inductions which are now regarded as our safest may hereafter be upset, is the opinion of Mr. Huxley.

{1} Beginners may omit this chapter.

{2} See Mr. Bain's Mental Science, Bk. II. c. vi. n. 1.

{3} C. Vi. See also Mr. Bain, loc. cit. n. 7.

{4} Mental Scietice, loc. cit.

{5} Mental Science, loc. cit.; Inductive Logic, Bk. II. c.ii.; Deductive Logic, Appendix D.

{6} Treatise on Human Nature, Part I. §iv.

{7} His theory is, that though man's conduct is rigorously determined by character and circumstances, yet man can do something to improve his character. Modified fatalism holds that our actions are determined by our will, our will by our desires, and our desires by the joint influence of the motives presented to us and of our individual character; but that our character having been made for us and not by us, we are not responsible for it, nor for the actions it leads to, and should in vain attempt to alter them. The true doctrine maintains that not only our conduct, but our character, is in part amenable to our will; that we can by employing proper means improve our character." -- Examination, c. xxvi. p. 516. (2nd Ed.)

{8} See his note to James Mill's Analysis, c. xi. n. 98.

{9} Logic, Introduction, n. 7, Bk. VI. c. iii. n. 1.

{10} Examination, c. xxi. P. 417. (2nd Ed.)

{11} Examination, c. xxi. p. 417. (2nd Ed.)

{12} Quoted in Mill's Examination, ch. vi., p. 69.

{13} Examination, c. vii. p. 101.

{14} First Principles, Part 1. c. iii. § 20; Psychology, Part II c. 1. § 59.

{15} Physiology of the Mind, c. i. Mill controverts Comte's views about Psychology. (Logic, Bk. VI. c. iv. 2.) Of course Comte admits that somehow we do know our thoughts by reflexion. (Philosophie Positive, i. 35.) Mr. Huxley repudiates Comte's attack on self-introspection. (Hume, p. 52.)

{16} The Science of Ethics, C. iv.

{17} Examination, c. vii. in fine.

{18} Mental Science, Bk. II. c. i. n. 34.

{19} See the Preface to his Philosophy of Theism.

{20} Inquiry, Part 1. sec. v.; cf. Part 111. sec. xii.; Part I. sec. iv.

{21} Treatise, Part III. sec. xiv.

{22} Treatise, Part III. sec. xiv.

{23} Inquiry, Part III. sec. xii. ; cf. Part 1. sec. iv. in initio.

{24} Huxley's Hume, c. iii. P. 81.

{25} Examination, c. xxi.

{26} Logic, Bk. III. c. xxi. §i.

{27} Mental Science, Bk. II. c,. vi. n. 9.

{28} Examples from one who so speaks have already been given under the head of Metaphysical truth, for reasons there stated. See the present chapter under the headings I. 1.

{29} Logic, Bk. III. c. xxi. §i.

{30} De Morgan gives, us expressly his views on the grades of certitude. (Logic, chap. ix. in initio, p. 171.) Speaking of the knowledge we have of our own existence, and that two and two make four, he says: "This absolute and unassailable feeling we call certainty. We have lower grades of knowledge,which we usually call degrees of belief, but they are really degrees of knowledge," eg., man's belief that yesterday he was certain about two and two making four.

{a} Physiology of the Mind, c. v. P. 141. (2nd Ed.) Compare Hume, Treatise, Part III. sec. xii.

{b} See his Life of Spinoza, in fine, p. 408.

{c} Human Mind, c. vi. sec. xxiv. p. 198.

{d} Inquiry into the Relation of Cause and Effect, Part III. sec. v. p. 249.

{e} Logic, Appendix D, p. 273.

{f} See two articles on Mill in Mr. J. Morley's Miscellanies.

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