(a) What Scientists Do — Having formed some idea as to the nature of reason, we must now consider the scope and limitations of actual human reasoning. In our day reason's most spectacular achievement is natural science. How does the scientist go about his work? What sort of truth can he tell us?
It may be objected that these questions concern science more than philosophy. But philosophy is concerned with every subject, or a special aspect of every subject. Certainly it has much concern with science. Some modern philosophers go so far as to define philosophy as "the logic of the sciences" Without agreeing with this limitation of philosophy, we must agree that philosophy at any rate involves a study of the logical basis and structure of science.
What, then, does the scientist do? All human activity springs from complicated motives. The guiding motive of any particular scientific worker probably includes, along with sheer intellectual curiosity, such ulterior motives as the will to shine in his profession, the will to serve the community, and (in capitalistic societies) the urgent need to secure a livelihood by selling his skilled labour as dearly as possible.
For one reason or another a scientist's attention is directed to a particular science, such as physics or biology, and to some highly specialised field of study within his chosen science, such as the breaking-point of metals, or the inheritance of characters in cereals. Most scientific work to-day is very highly specialised. All the more obvious fields of research have already been at least roughly and often minutely mapped, and a subtle technique, appropriate to a special field, equips the worker for enterprises which formerly would have been quite impossible.
Let us consider the form of that technique so far as it is common to all sciences. Let us take as an example the formulation of the law of gravity. When things are let go; they fall. How fast do they fall in varying circumstances? Does their weight make any difference to their speed? Pioneering, the scientific mind made a vast number of observations of falling bodies, and devised a mathematical formula which would enable the behaviour of future failings to be predicted. It was found that they moved, and might be expected to move, with an acceleration of thirty-two feet per second every second. The colour, temperature, odour, etc., of the falling bodies were found to be irrelevant. Their weight and shape were relevant only in relation to air-resistance, and irrelevant to gravitation itself.
We may summarise the nature of all scientific enquiry as follows. Whatever his ulterior motives, the scientist's immediate aim is to describe how things happen in his particular field of enquiry. He wants his description to be as simple and handy as possible, and as coherent as possible with other scientific descriptions. He seeks some principle, or preferably some precise mathematical formula, in terms of which he can explain his problem, or rather describe his data. But first he must procure clear and significant data. He therefore analyses the crude facts, distinguishing between those that seem relevant and those which seem irrelevant. He discovers how to make crucial observations and, if possible, experiments, to help him to get a clear view of what actually happens. Whenever possible he measures the significant factors in his data. Factors which seem not to be significant for his purpose he simply ignores. He imagines hypothetical descriptions, or hypothetical laws, and tries these out; until at last he discovers one which compendiously describes the whole mass of data, and enables him to predict the future course of events.
(b) Philosophical Problems Arising out of Natural Science — This procedure confronts the philosopher with a number of problems. What precisely is a scientific law? Clearly, as' we have already seen, it is not a law with binding force. There is no "must" about it. At most it describes how events are observed to happen. But if this is so, by what right do we use the law for prediction of future events? Thus we raise the problems of the validity of inductive reasoning, the nature of causation, of probability, and the issue between determinism and indeterminism.
Another very difficult problem is raised. How far is the method of analysis reliable? How far can we discover the truth about natural events by analysing them, and ignoring all those aspects which seem irrelevant? Thus we come once more upon the question of the scope and danger of abstraction. We also encounter the issue between pluralism and monism. Which is the more significant and useful view, that the world consists of many independent things in relation, or that it consists of one thing, and is a seamless whole, such that nothing can be truly said about its parts without reference to the whole? Some, but not all, of these problems we shall discuss in this chapter.
(c) Scientific Laws — We have already seen that scientific laws are not binding laws. There is no necessity in them. For all we know, they may be violated at any moment. They are at best descriptive. Some philosophers hesitate even to allow that they are descriptions, in the ordinary sense of the word, for the following reasons.
The observations from which a law is derived are, of course, erratic. Instruments that measure time and space are never perfectly accurate. The manipulating and observing experimenter himself introduces further complications. Strictly, the law derived from the observations does not describe the actual data but a simplified principle to which the data, taken as a whole, approximate. The law, in fact, is a sort of graph, near which all the past data fall, and all future data may be expected to fall.
The Logical Positivists, bearing this in mind, insist that a scientific law is not really a proposition about a set of data; for it is not a proposition at all but only a formula by means of which propositions about actual events may be constructed. They say this because they are anxious not to attribute semi-mystical "principles" to nature. Rightly they seek to avoid thinking of abstractions, such as gravity, as mysterious "things" or "spirits" controlling nature. Rightly they insist that a scientific law is more like a rule of grammar than a sentence. It is a human dodge for simplifying description. Other dodges might work equally well.
But surely there is an important difference between a mere formula and a formula that is a scientific law. The law, after all, is derived from events, and is predictive of events. As such, it is descriptive of nature, in the sense that it describes not particular events but a set of relations between certain kinds of events. In fact, it describes a complex universal character. Of course, if universals are nothing but the names we "give" them, then a scientific law is nothing but a complicated word. But if, as I have maintained, universals have real being as "distributive unities," then a scientific law is actually a description of a universal character inherent in a large class of events.
The fact that scientific laws can be true or false, that they can be tested in sense-experience, shows that they really are, in some sense, descriptive of nature. The fact that there may be different and equally good, or even better, ways of formulating laws raises no more difficulty than the fact that " It rains " and "Il pleut" are equally good descriptions of a certain kind of natural event. These statements are no less true, though less precise, than the statement that H2O, in drops of a certain size and frequency, is descending on the earth.
When Newton, in a flash of creative imagination, guessed that there was a connection between the laws descriptive of falling bodies and of the movements of the planets, he set about testing this hypothesis by further observations and calculations; and discovered that his original formula did, in fact, describe the principle common to both sets of events. When Einstein, intrigued by certain minute discrepancies between prediction and observation, devised a much more subtle formula to comprise much more than gravitation, he did not overthrow Newton's law. He merely invented a more exact "language" by which to describe more precisely what Newton's language had described less precisely. Both laws, however, are descriptive of nature. But Einstein's is the more precise and comprehensive description.
(d) Scientific Objects — So much for scientific "laws." What of scientific "objects," such as electrons, protons, neutrons, positrons? Are they to be regarded as real factors in nature or as mere formulae, useful for scientific prediction? Obviously very little is known about them. They are mere calculable potentialities for affecting our instruments. An electron, for instance, is (in this view) a very abstruse formula descriptive of a very subtle "permanent possibility of sensation." It is a mere system of probability. We can assign to it no quality known to us. The little that we do know of it is often self-contradictory. An electron is apparently to be conceived as at one and the same time a particle and a system of waves. Nevertheless, the logical status of scientific objects is at bottom the same as that of ordinary unperceived physical objects, such as the earth's metal core, or the stony centre of Cleopatra's Needle, or a man's own brain. If these are real factors in nature, so are electrons. The only difference is that our knowledge of scientific objects is reached by a much more indirect method, is far less detailed, and cannot be accurately conceived in terms of familiar sensory characters.
On the other hand, if scientific objects are mere. formulae, useful for prediction of perceptible events, but not to be regarded as objective entities, then ordinary unperceived physical objects must be regarded in the same way. Not only so, but perceived physical objects, too, though of course not pure sense data, must be regarded as mere formulae, useful in action, but no more.
This view we have rejected. In doing so we pledge ourselves also to a realistic view of scientific objects.
(e) Probability — It is fairly clear that scientific laws are compendious descriptions of past sensory experience, or at the very least formulae from which such descriptions can be derived; but by what right do we use them also for prediction of future sensory experiences?
It used to be said that the first assumption of all science was the "uniformity of nature," the conviction that, wherever and whenever events occur, the same fundamental physical laws must hold good of them. To-day it would rather be said that though the scientist hopes for and seeks regularity, he makes no assumption that it must exist. An immense amount of regularity has been discovered and is found to hold good from day to day. But we know no reason, inherent in the nature of things, why this regularity should continue. At any moment gravitation might cease, or the sky might roll back and reveal the Celestial City, or sheer chaos might supervene.
We have a strong expectation that none of these things will happen. The "probability" of their happening, we say, is infinitely small. What is this " probability"? Is it simply the degree of the intensity of our sense of expectation, or rather of the strength of our mental habit of expectation, which becomes more and more insistent the more often a familiar sequence of events is experienced? Or is probability in some manner objective in nature?
Sometimes probability can actually be calculated and assigned a percentage. In dice-throwing we can easily calculate the probability that the six will turn up so I many times out of so many throws. Put to the test of experience, the prediction proves the more accurate the greater the number of throws. If it were to fail completely, if the six were to turn up much more often than we expected, we should at once infer that some special influence was at work. Perhaps the dice might be biased, or the throw itself nicely calculated to turn up sixes.
If we knew all the relevant data for any particular throw (the centre of gravity of each of the dice, the initial position of both, the strength and direction of the movement, and so on) we could predict the result of that throw without leaving any more to probability than is left in all statements about the world of fact. As it is, we know only (let us say) that the dice are not appreciably biased, and that the throws are genuinely haphazard. Each side of the die, we say, has as good a chance of turning up as any other. Since there are six sides, each side has one chance in six for any particular throw. The probability is that, out of every six throws of one die, one throw will produce the coveted side with six dots on it. This statement is clearly not simply a statement about our expectation. Whatever anyone expects, the statement is in some sense true. Yet it is not in the ordinary sense a statement of fact. Actually the six might turn up six times in succession, or not at all in a score of throws. Then what is the statement about?
It is a logical statement about the implications of a hypothesis or definition. If the die is unbiased, and the throw is random, and if the accepted principles of dynamics still hold good, then no side has the advantage. The reasoning is "necessary" in this hypothetical sense. But there is no observable necessity in its application to any particular group of throws. Indeed, strictly it does not by itself apply to particular throws at all, since it is incomplete. In every particular case the issue is determined strictly by the dynamics of the situation. But the formula is useful, because over a large number of throws the idiosyncrasies cancel out. So long as the conditions hold good, the formula is a true description of a universal principle which has had instances and may have others.
On the face of it there is a great difference between the probability that a six will turn up in a particular throw and the probability that the laws of dynamics themselves, or any natural laws, will hold good. The one probability can be calculated, the other not. And in the one case possible interferences can at least be conceived and studied; in the other not. But the underlying principle is identical in both cases.:fn each, certain factors are known, others are not known. In the case of the die, what is demanded is prediction of a particular result, and for this prediction the known factors are insufficient. Only a general principle can be established. In the case of a natural law, a general principle is all that is demanded; and for this the knowledge that we have has proved adequate. But, of course, in both cases the great unknown makes certainty impossible.
(f) Determinism and Indeterminacy — In the nineteenth century the growth of rationalism combined with the success of science to suggest that all physical events were connected together in one great causal system. Every physical event was regarded as a necessary effect of preceding events and a cause of succeeding events. Mental events in human minds were thought either to be links of a non-physical kind in the causal chains or to be mere consequences of purely physical causation. They were supposed not to be themselves causally efficient.
Although in the physical sciences determinism was generally accepted, in the biological sciences a long- drawn-out war raged over it. The usefulness of organs and of modes of behaviour strongly suggested that in some way purpose was a controlling factor in biological causation. The determinists clung to the concept of mechanism, and declared that natural selection was enough to explain the process of evolution. The vitalists insisted that natural selection was negative, and that some positive and teleological or purposeful drive, some "entelechy," or "élan vital," was obviously at work.
Into this controversy we need not now enter. All that we need do is to try to see clearly what is at stake. The issue can be stated in terms of purely descriptive law, without any reference to underlying forces) whether physical or teleological. Are there, or are there not, some sequences of biological events which cannot even in theory, even if we had all the relevant data, be fully described by the formulae of physical mechanism, and which in fact involve a teleological infringement of the purely mechanical course? To use an analogy, are there points at which the stream, instead of taking the line of least physical resistance, actually gathers itself together and leaps over barriers? And are we justified in holding that these leapings can be described only by reference to a goal?
The issue of the controversy must be left to the scientists. Perhaps, like so many controversies, it will be decided not by the victory of one side but by the discovery that the alternatives have been wrongly conceived, so that neither is true and neither is false.
Let us note, however, that even if the teleological view is correct, determinism (though not, of course, mechanism) might still hold good. Particular events, though not determined solely by preceding physical events, might still be determined. They might still occur systematically in relation to determining factors. They might show a teleological bias that was constant and regular; and in relation to this bias prediction of future events might still be possible, in the manner in which a man's act may, up to a point, be predicted from knowledge of his purpose.
On the whole it is probably fair to say that though mechanical descriptive laws have proved increasingly useful in biological research, the issue between teleology and mechanism is not yet decided. The steady advance of biochemistry strongly suggests that in time all biological phenomena will be accounted for in terms of physical mechanism. On the other hand, it may also turn out that thoroughgoing mechanism in the abstract field of the biological sciences is not, after all, incompatible with teleology in more concrete studies.
Strangely, while the biological sciences have tended to provide increasing evidence of determinism and even of mechanical determinism, physics itself has been shaken by a serious attack of "indeterminacy." It would be folly on my part to pretend that I have more than a superficial understanding of this scientific controversy. Consequently the reader must take my comments on its philosophical aspect as .merely a starting-point for further study. If he wishes to pursue the matter he should read, not only the popular works of Eddington and Jeans, but the penetrating criticism of them in Professor Susan Stebbing's Philosophy and the Physicists.
The trouble seems to have had two sources. One, we are told, was the complete failure to find any reason why an electron should change its orbit at one time rather than another; the second source of difficulty lay in the discovery that in principle there was no possibility of knowing both the position and the velocity of an electron in its orbit. If one was known, the other was in principle unknowable.
The common-sense reaction to these troubles was simply to attribute them to our ignorance. If we knew enough, it was said, we should be able to predict the electron's leap; and we should be able to correlate its speed and its position.
But the eminent physicists pointed out that this was sheer assumption. We were so accustomed to discover system in nature that we irrationally took it as certain that system must hold throughout. When at last we stumbled upon a fundamental arbitrariness in physical events, we could not recognise it, but regarded it merely as a case of veiled determinism. Instead, we should have recognised that, after all, at bottom nature was not systematic. The ultra-microscopic events within the atom contained a factor of sheer arbitrariness. No doubt in the mass, in "macroscopic" physics, these arbitrary events average out and yield the systematic, predictable events from which the theory of determinism was derived. But when we look more minutely into the matter, determinism (they said) turns out to be illusory.
To enforce their argument the opponents of determinism cited the analogy of life-insurance. The actuary is able to predict that so many people of a given age will die each year, though the death of any individual is unpredictable. From a host of accidents a statistical law of probability emerges, by means of which prediction is possible.
Some have found in this supposed arbitrariness of physical nature an argument for free will in human beings. The bogey of physical determinism, they say, is destroyed. If physical events themselves are at bottom arbitrary, they cannot impose determinism on the mind. This, however, is a very unconvincing argument. A man's behaviour consists of physical events of the "macroscopic," not the microscopic, order; and therefore, even according to this theory, should be subject to the determinacy of "macroscopic" physics. Putting the matter very crudely, we may say that what the champions of free will must establish is not that the individual electrons in a brain have "free will" but that the single mind of the man has "free will."
But quite apart from the question of free will, what bearing have these arguments on the problem of determinism in physical nature? From the point of view of common sense the fact that there is system on the "macroscopic" physical plane seems to imply system. also on the ultra-microscopic plane, even if we cannot yet discover the laws of that system. The analogy of the actuary was misinterpreted. His generalisations would not hold good unless the individual deaths, though unpredictable, were as a matter of fact systematic. Generalisations about deaths from road accidents, diseases, and suicide would be impossible if the individual deaths were not in fact determinate instances of general principles — physical, biological, psychological, social. Similarly, if the behaviour of electrons was really indeterminate in detail it would prove indeterminate also in the mass. And whatever is the truth about the behaviour of individual electrons, it is certainly true that in the mass, or on the "macroscopic" scale, their behaviour is determinate in the only sense in which any matter-of-fact is ever determinate, namely, that in very many cases it can be predicted and subsequently verified with great precision. Of course, there is no discoverable logical necessity in their behaviour, or in any actual events. But science has established a huge system of exact statistical laws about their behaviour; and, though these laws are not necessary, they have an almost infinite degree of probability.
Much confusion arises from the ambiguity of the words "determined" and "determinism." If determinism involves logical necessity, then clearly we have no right to say that physical events are determined, since we know of no logical necessity in the sequence of events. Even if determinism involves merely causal necessity, we have now, according to Professor Stebbing, no right to attribute determinism to physical events, since in the microscopic foundations of physics causal laws have given place to statistical laws, necessity to probability. (But surely this is nothing new.) If, on the other hand, determinism involves merely determinate or systematic or regular behaviour, then the new developments of physics do not disprove determinism, since on the macroscopic level and even on the sub-atomic level there is an immense amount of regularity and predictability. It is important to emphasise this point since the works of Eddington and Jeans tend to give a different impression. As Professor Stebbing has pointed out, the new concepts of physical science do not show that there is anything indeterminate or arbitrary in physical nature. There is nothing lawless in the basic phenomena of physics.
The upshot seems to be that recent developments of physics have no special bearing on the philosophical problem of determinism. Independently of these developments it is recognised that all scientific laws are descriptive laws, not necessary laws. They describe observed regularities in the spontaneous course of events. At most they can only suggest a determinism which can never be proved. Sub-atomic physics does nothing to diminish the suggestion.
(g) The Value and Danger of Science — It is obvious that natural science has given man extensive knowledge and great powers. It is equally obvious that those powers have been used unwisely; and that the knowledge which science has given has in some important respects led not to wisdom but to blindness, folly, destruction, and grave peril to civilisation.
The method by which science went to work was that of attending to those aspects of the world which could most easily be observed with accuracy, and ignoring the rest. Roughly, it studied the movement of material things, and whatever was clearly related with movement. It ignored "secondary qualities," such as colour and sound, save as symptoms of movement. It also ignored mental facts, such as desiring.
Thus in time was built up the amazingly complex system of the physical sciences; and, along with this, industrial power. Meanwhile, with high confidence in his new explorative technique, man applied the concepts which had proved so useful in the study of lifeless matter to the study of living matter and of mind. By observation and analysis he strove to single out the determining factors of vital and of mental behaviour, with the expectation that these could be explained in terms of the laws of matter in motion. He succeeded at least to the extent of discovering many important and unexpected ways in which behaviour depended on obscure physical factors in the body or in the environment. It seemed clear that in time the dream of the materialist would be fulfilled, and everything would be thus explained.
I shall consider Materialism in more detail in a later chapter. Meanwhile, we must note that the theoretical and practical triumphs of physical science led to an unjustified confidence in it as a key to the metaphysical understanding of the universe.
(a) False Reasoning — How is it that false reasoning ever occurs? What happens in it? What are the influences that tend to vitiate reason? Is it true, as some say, that it is doomed to failure in all its more ambitious enterprises? Is it reliable only in the practical sphere?
Let us first try to see clearly what happens in false reasoning. In a sense all false reasoning springs from ignorance and rashness. This is true equally of false probability reasoning, in which a reasoner ignorant of certain relevant facts may rashly assert a conclusion as probable on insufficient evidence, and of false necessity reasoning, in which a reasoner ignorant of the precise meaning of a definition may rashly deduce consequences that are not,-after all, implied in the definition. In each case there is ignorance and a rash act of "jumping to conclusions."
The ignorance may be due either to the fact that (in probability reasoning) the reasoner has never come upon the relevant data, or has not understood their relevance; or (in necessity reasoning) to the fact that he has never come upon or never properly understood the definition.
But also the ignorance, and the rashness, too, may be due to psychological influences in his own mind. These influences may have induced him positively to ignore the relevant data, or to misinterpret the definition. One psychological influence that may have this effect is sheer haste. All reasoning, as we have seen, is undertaken to fulfil some need, practical or theoretical. If the need for a solution of the problem is very insistent, or is not restrained by the impulse for caution and thoroughness, hasty and inaccurate reasoning may occur.
This kind of psychological distortion of the reasoning process through haste and superficiality may be regarded as a special case of a large class of distortions due to the influence of desire.
(b) Reason and Desire — The wish may be father to the thought. Desire that a certain conclusion should be true, either for sheer haste or for the pleasantness of the conclusion, may blind the reasoner to facts which should induce him to reject it. Or again, the desire may persuade him to imagine a cogency in arguments that are in fact irrelevant or worthless. We all know in our own experience the temptation to allow this to happen. We know also the devastating discovery that we did on an earlier occasion unwittingly allow desire to vitiate our reasoning, even though at the time we refused to admit that this was so.
Still worse, psychologists assure us that we are constantly swayed by motives of which we have no consciousness; and that much of our reasoning, if not all, consists of finding plausible excuses for beliefs or actions that are needed by our unconscious nature.
That men are often swayed by unconscious prejudice is obvious to onlookers, though not to themselves. The psychologists have but extended our knowledge of this danger. Though there is good reason to be sceptical of some of the doctrines which particular psychological schools assert about the status and content of "the unconscious," we must, I think, recognise that all reasoning processes are in principle liable to be irrationally influenced by cravings which the reasoner will not or cannot bring into clear consciousness. This theory enables us to understand how our friends come to use fantastic arguments. And if this is the case with them it is probably so also with us.
Here we may note some of the more obvious ways in which "the unconscious" may exercise a distorting influence. Frustrated self-regard, frustrated sex, frustrated sociality, untoward parental relations, marital relations or social relations, repressed fear, hate, cruelty — all these may have a dire effect in misdirecting reason and forming false concepts.
Every particular reasoning process, then, may be to a greater or lesser extent distorted by "unconscious wishes." These wishes or needs may be peculiar to the individual or common to all members of his community or to all members of the human race. By every possible means we must guard against this danger in our own thinking. Two methods are possible. The first is to explore and bring into clear consciousness, so far as possible, our unconscious needs. The psychoanalysts assure us that we cannot do this without being analysed. I should myself have more faith in this method if it did not seem to me that in their own behaviour, speech, and writing the distorting influence of unconscious needs was sometimes painfully obvious. However, the psycho-analysts are no doubt in principle right. We cannot delve far into our unconscious needs without expert help. My only doubt is as to whether any really expert help is yet available. Some day, no doubt, it will be. Meanwhile, we can, I believe, do a good deal more than the psycho-analysts suppose in the way of knowing' our own motives. Anyhow, we can but try to know them as far as possible.
The second method of guarding against the irrational influence of unconscious needs is to formulate a logical technique so exact and reliable that errors introduced by irrational influences will be as patent as errors in arithmetic. The patient work of modern logicians is laying the foundations for such a technique, but at present the practical application of their technique is scarcely possible. They have, however, exposed many unexpected snares of thought, many sources of ambiguity and false reasoning.
It may be that through the use of these two methods human thinking may some day become far less unreliable than it is now. Meanwhile, we can at any rate to some extent guard against inaccurate reasoning and emotional distortion of reasoning by fostering in ourselves a strong devotion to clear thinking. The desire that is least likely to distort the thinking process is the desire for intellectual accuracy. Even this, as we have seen, may sometimes defeat its own end by creating an extravagant passion for scepticism or for hair-splitting analysis.
(c) Social and Economic Determinants of Thought — This principle of the irrational determination of thought is immensely important. Though it cannot be used to undermine reason in general, any particular process of reasoning may be invalidated by unconscious needs. We are at last beginning to suspect that the history of a community's thought is determined less by purely rational considerations than by other influences. On the whole, those ideas and values tend to survive which are emotionally satisfactory either to the community as a whole or (more often) to a dominant class within the community. Rationality, of course, has some influence, but its scope is limited and precarious. In the long run it has little power against the strong primitive urges of self-regard, sex, and herd-feeling. No doubt, flagrantly irrational ideas will not gain general acceptance unless they are either presented in times of extreme emotional excitement or so obscurely expressed that their irrationality is concealed. And, of course, ideas which, through obvious failure to correspond with facts, would lead to swift and dramatic disaster are also unacceptable. But apart from such extreme cases, the fate of ideas depends very largely on their power to give emotional satisfaction. This in turn depends partly on their actual or illusory satisfaction of primitive needs which may not be introspectable by the thinker himself.
On the other hand, we must recognise that there is a constant process of natural selection of ideas. On the whole, in the very long run, those ideas that tend to fit a community for survival triumph over those that tend towards the community's destruction. This process is not to be regarded as a triumph of rationality in human minds. It represents simply the nemesis that overtakes all folly in the long run. I shall have more to say on this subject under the headings of Ethical Scepticism and Economic Determinism.
There can be little doubt that in every age there occurs a fairly rigorous but not absolute economic determination of culture. The culture of any particular community at any moment of its history is an expression of the following influences:
Of these factors those which affect the dominant classes are generally far more important in determining culture than those which affect the masses. But the greater the divergence between the needs of the masses and those of the dominant classes the more will the culture of the dominant classes (and therefore of the masses themselves at second hand) be determined by the will of the dominant classes to maintain their power. That is to say, ideas which seem to the dominant classes "subversive," either socially or morally or intellectually or even aesthetically, will be severely repressed.
(a) Statement of the Theory — The subtlety and range of these irrational determinants of thought may seem to support a radical scepticism about the value of in. tellectual enquiry. If the distortions of thinking are so far-reaching and so secret, must we not recognise that all our thinking is wholly untrustworthy, save in the most simple practical spheres?
Other considerations have been thought to prove not merely that intellect is in fact so confused as to be worthless, but that in principle, in its very nature, it is doomed to failure. Human intellect, we are told, is a product of biological evolution. It occurred because of its survival value in practical situations. It is adapted only to practical purposes. When it is used in pursuit of more abstruse ends, such as metaphysical truth, it defeats itself. As well might the flippers of a seal be used for flying.
Moreover, it is said, we have no justification for assuming that reality is rational at all in its intrinsic nature. Why should it conform to the requirements of intellect? No doubt, in practical life, a great deal of system does appear in the world, but this is imposed by the mind, imposed upon a fundamentally irrational, non-systematic reality. The rationality of science is not in the last analysis objective; it is a sort of reflection which the object throws back to the rationalising mind, a reflection of the mind's own rationalising nature.
Further, it has been suggested that intellectual activity is not, properly speaking, a way of knowing at all. What it can do is simply to devise formulae for successful action. Physics and chemistry do not tell us anything about the nature of matter. They merely provide us with principles useful for the control of matter — in fact, for industry, medicine, war, and so on. This is the essence of Pragmatism.
All our concepts, it is said, even the most subtle and abstract, have their roots in the practical thinking of primitive savages. Intellectual curiosity, working with these barbaric tools, has, of course, wonderfully improved them; but at bottom they remain the same rude implements, and they can no more give us objective truth about things than the savage's spear can pierce the sun. Matter, mind, space, time, causation, freedom, necessity, and, indeed, the whole gamut of our concepts, are said to be utterly deceptive if we expect of them insight into reality, and not merely precepts for action.
Another charge that is brought against intellectual enquiry is that it is vitiated by its analytic method. Intellect has to study a complex whole by distinguishing its component parts and observing their relations with one another. In so doing, we are told, it dooms itself never to grasp the Whole as such. This criticism is related to the monistic view of the universe. If the only truth is the whole truth about the whole universe, it is impossible to build up the truth bit by bit out of "partial truths," which are not really true at all, save in relation to particular finite purposes. In this view the universe is conceived as organic. The analytical account of the parts of an organism and of their behaviour can never, it is said, give the truth about the organism as a whole, which cannot be analysed without being destroyed.
Intellect, we are told, works with concepts which are mere abstractions from concrete reality. They are derived by attending to a particular character in its concrete setting and ignoring the setting. But characters have no existence without their setting. They are expressions of their setting. To hypostatise them in this manner is to falsify them. Any particular character, say the red of that rose, is not simply an example of redness, or even of any particular shade of red. It is the particular shade in relation to a particular background. Thus, it is said, even the fullest and most accurate description of a concrete thing or event, in which all its characters were duly enumerated, would be false throughout, not only in the sense that all knowledge save knowledge of the Whole must be false, but also in the sense that each item in the description would lack concreteness, and therefore the whole description would lack it.
Yet another argument in favour of irrationalism is based on the charge that intellect can only regard its objects from outside. It can never penetrate into them, and know them inwardly. Even the most seemingly penetrating scientific analysis is really quite external. Science, for instance, cannot tell us what an electron is in itself, but only how it affects the observer. Properly to know a thing, we are told, we must not merely stand over against it and observe its aspects, one after another; we must enter into it and be it. This, intellect can never do.
Along with this charge against intellect the claim is often made that there is another way of knowing which is not stultified by analysis and externality. This is said to be a direct, intuitive apprehension of reality. In support of this claim reference is made to immediate sense-experience as a genuine, though of course limited, "being-the-object" and therefore knowing it inwardly, in contrast with indirect, though more pretentious, intellectual knowledge. Instinctive action is also cited as an example of the superior kind of intuitive or inward knowing. The wasp which seals up food along with its eggs, for the future grubs, is said to know intuitively the future grubs' future needs. Similarly, we are told, aesthetic and moral intuitions, the intuitive sense of another person's character, and also the experiences of the mystics, are modes of knowing which are not subject to intellect's limitations.
(b) Objections to Irrationalism — Before considering the claim that there is another kind of knowing more penetrating than intellectual knowing, let us deal with the criticisms of intellectual knowledge itself, and particularly with the charge that it is in principle impotent.
The fact that intellect was evolved under the stress of biological evolution as a means of dealing with practical problems does not involve its incapacity in the realm of theory. Many activities which at the outset were ill-suited to the capacities of a species have subsequently developed to a high degree of efficiency. It is true, of course, that an organ which has become highly specialised for one purpose cannot easily be adapted to; another. The seal's flippers, of course, are of no use for flying. But they themselves developed from organs of terrestrial locomotion, and were once ill-adapted to swimming. Wings, too, have evolved from legs. Such arguments, however, are of little value, one way or the other. The important point is that, as we have seen, intelligent behaviour is essentially of the same type whether it is applied to practical or to theoretical problems, and that the problems themselves are essentially of the same type too. So long as intellect really does conform to the principles of its own nature, and does not commit sheer errors, it can give genuine information about the universe.
The Pragmatist's claim that intellect cannot afford insight into objective reality, that it can do no more than devise formulae for action, contains an important truth; but it goes too far. It is true that even the most abstract intellectual knowledge is in a sense a formula for action, even if it is so remote from practical life that no action can at present be based on it. But it is equally true that no intellectual knowledge is only a formula for action. To be useful in action a formula must work. And to work, it must be a generalisation about certain characteristics of the objective world. To that extent it really is, or rather affords, real knowledge of the objective world.
Of course, if "knowing" means only immediate acquaintance with, direct contact with, or mystical penetration into the object known, or into a "reality" behind appearances, intellect is incapable of yielding knowledge. But if the word "knowing " is given a more modest and more usual sense, and is allowed to include the discovery of any true information about the object, then clearly intellect can give knowledge. Starting with the immediate data of sense-experience, it constructs and verifies hypotheses, scientific laws, theories of "scientific objects," according to which future experience may be predicted. Such knowledge really is knowledge about reality, even though it is nor penetrating knowledge.
The identification of knowing and being, implied in the claim that to know anything one must be it, is merely a confusion of thought. It seems to be based on the mistaken notion that the only thing a man really knows is himself, because he is himself. As a matter 'of fact he knows almost nothing about himself, and what he does know is found not by being himself but by making himself an object of a knowing act in the ordinary way. In fact, to know himself he must be able in a manner to " stand outside" himself and "look" at himself. Similarly with sensation. We do not know a sensed object, such as a red patch, by simply being it. To know it we must, so to speak, hold it at arm's length, focus it, and contemplate it.
The charge that analysis is essentially falsifying has no weight at all unless extreme monism is true. Of course, if reality is indeed a single substance in which all distinctions are illusory, if we cannot know anything unless we know the Whole, and know all about it, then intellectual activity is indeed futile. The theory of monism must be considered later. For the moment we may merely note that if monism is strictly true, and if intellectual knowledge is in principle radically fallacious, there is no reason to trust the arguments which lead to this conclusion, since they themselves are intellectual arguments, and therefore fallacious.
It is mistaken to suppose that all conceptual knowing must be false because of the nature of abstraction. No doubt a concept is formed by abstracting a particular character from all its many concrete occasions and ignoring its setting in those occasions; but this procedure is quite legitimate so long as we remember that what we are acquiring in abstract knowledge is abstract, so long as we do not suppose that our abstract knowledge of the object is the whole truth about it.
Similar is the charge that intellect itself imposes an illusory rationality on a fundamentally irrational reality. The charge is arbitrary. Clearly we do seem to discover some system in the world; and, short of complete subjectivism, there seems no reason to deny that such system as we do discover really does belong to the objective world. It does not, of course, follow that the world is systematic through and through.
Let us now consider the contention that there is another kind of knowing which is free from the disabilities of intellect, and is indeed the only true knowing, because it enters into the object. The case of instinctive action is really quite irrelevant. There is no reason whatever to suppose that the wasp knows that its eggs will hatch into hungry grubs, or that it knows what food it will want. As well might we suppose that when a child is terrified of the dark it knows why it fears. The truth is simply that the dark arouses fear in it. It may, of course, invent reasons for its fear; but the real cause of its fear is unknown.
Aesthetic and moral intuitions, and intuitions about personal character, are often cited as cases of the non-intellectual kind of knowing. They are, of course, at bottom cases of direct acquaintance with something, and so far indubitable. But the interpretation which is put upon them when they are described or even thought about is an intellectual structure, and open to error. Even the intuitive core of these experiences is partly the product of past intellectual operations of analysis and synthesis, now forgotten. And even if we grant that there are some factors in aesthetic and moral experience which are irreducible intuitions, these intuitions cannot be properly known without intellectual study of them; just as, if we would precisely know the qualities of sensation, we must make generalisations about their likenesses and differences in comparison with other sensations.
We have already seen that intellect itself is intuitive through and through. It operates on data which are given intuitively (such as sense-characters), and these it compares and contrasts and generalises about in successive acts of intuitive "vision." It may well be that there are kinds of intuitive experience other than intuitive sense-experience, and that these do afford peculiar insight into certain characteristics of reality. But this does not mean that reality is irrational in the sense that it is incoherent, unsystematic, arbitrary. It means only that reality is irrational in the sense that the ultimate data on which intellect works must be simply brute facts. Even if reality is systematic through and through, intellect knows no necessity in virtue of which it must be so. Its very rationality (in so far as it is rational) must be accepted simply as an irrational fact.
I shall not now discuss the claim that mystical experience affords some kind of intuitive knowledge of the whole of reality. It is enough to say that even if it does, even if mystical knowledge is the supreme kind of knowledge, this is no reason why ordinary intellectual knowledge should be deemed worthless as a means of knowing some kinds of facts about reality.
Let us now try to sum up and draw conclusions from our discussion of the scope and limitations of reason. Irrationalism came into vogue as a reaction against extreme Rationalism. It has been supposed that rationality was fundamental to the universe, that there must be a reason for everything, that in theory everything in the universe could be deduced from the rational nature of the universe as a whole, and that man, in spite of his ignorance and stupidity, was in essence a rational being, who would always act reasonably if only he could be led to see the reasonable course. When rationalism of this extreme kind had come to seem extravagant, the pendulum of culture, gathering momentum, began to swing toward an equally extravagant irrationalism. This I have criticised. All its arguments are either false, or effective only against the extravagant kind of rationalism.
We may conclude as follows. Reasoning can only work upon data given in intuitive experience. It cannot find any necessity in its ultimate data. Nor has it any foreknowledge that the data must be in any way systematic and amenable to intellectual study. Its task is to compare, distinguish, clarify, and relate,the data, and to discover temporal sequences of data, for the purpose of understanding, prediction, or control. Each act of comparing, and so on, is itself intuitive. Reasoning is a sequence of linked intuitions. The data upon which reasoning operates are of many kinds. There are intuitions of sense and of introspection, logical and mathematical intuitions, aesthetic and moral intuitions, and there may be many other kinds. The scope of some of these experiences is very restricted, of others much more comprehensive. We must not rule out the possibility of an intuitive experience of the whole universe, or of the relation between the experienced and the whole. Even such a datum of intuition might, if it occurred, afford matter for intellectual study, though the concepts derived from the sphere of normal experience might well prove wholly inadequate to the task.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00