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(1) - Metaphysics - Buckle         (2) - Physics & Reality - Jeans         (3) - Quantum Magic / Mystery - Penrose         (4) - Physics & the Cosmos - Smolin

`Method employed by Metaphysicians' - Ch. III of Buckle's `History of Civilization ~ ' - [mid 19th Cent.]


"If we now inquire into the means of discovering the laws of the human mind, the metaphysicians are ready with an answer;  and they refer us to their own labours as supplying a satisfactory solution.

It therefore becomes necessary to ascertain the value of their researches, to measure the extent of their resources, and, above all, to test the validity of that method which they always follow, and by which alone, as they assert, great truths can be elicited.

The metaphysical method, though necessarily branching into two divisions, is, in its origin, always the same, and consists in each observer studying the operations of his own mind.  This is the direct opposite of the historical method *;  the metaphysician studying one mind, the historian studying many minds.

Now, the first remark to make on this is, that the metaphysical method is one by which no discovery has ever yet been made in any branch of knowledge.  Every thing we at present know, has been ascertained by studying phenomena, from which all casual disturbances having been removed, the law remains as a conspicuous residue. l25

And this can only be done by observations so numerous as to eliminate the disturbances, or else by experiments so delicate as to isolate the phenomena.

One of these conditions is essential to all inductive science;  but neither of them does the metaphysician obey.

To isolate the phenomenon is for him an impossibility;  since no man, into whatever state of reverie he may be thrown, can entirely cut himself off from the influence of external events, which must produce an effect on his mind, even when he is unconscious of their presence.

As to the other condition, it is by the metaphysician set at open defiance;  for his whole system is based on the supposition that, by studying a single mind, he can get the laws of all minds;  so that while he, on the one hand, is unable to isolate his observations from disturbances, he, on the other hand, refuses to adopt the only remaining precaution, he refuses so to enlarge his survey as to eliminate the disturbances by which his observations are troubled.l26


125 The deductive sciences form, of course, an exception to this ; but the whole theory of metaphysics is founded on its inductive character, and on the supposition that it consists of generalized observations, and that from them alone the science of mind can be raised.

126 These remarks are only applicable to those who follow the purely metaphysical method of investigation.  There is, however, a very small number of metaphysicians, among whom M. Cousin is the most eminent in France, in whose works we find larger views, and an attempt to connect historical inquiries with metaphysical ones ; thus recognizing the necessity of verifying their original speculations.  To this method there can be no objection, provided the metaphysical conclusions are merely regarded as hypotheses which require verification to raise them to theories.  But instead of this cautious proceeding, the almost invariable plan is, to treat the hypothesis as if it were a theory already proved, and as if there remained nothing to do but to give historical illustrations of truths established by the psychologist.  This confusion between illustration and verification, appears to be the universal failing of those who, like Vico and Fichte, speculate upon historical phenomena a priori.


This is the first and fundamental objection to which metaphysicians are exposed, even on the threshold of their science.

But if we penetrate a little deeper, we shall meet with another circumstance, which, though less obvious, is equally decisive.

After the metaphysician has taken for granted that, by studying one mind, he can discover the Laws of all minds, he finds himself involved in a singular difficulty as soon as he begins to apply even this imperfect method.

The difficulty to which I allude is one which, not being met with in any other pursuit, seems to have escaped the attention of those who are unacquainted with metaphysical controversies.

To understand, therefore, its nature, it is requisite to give a short account of those two great schools, to one of which all metaphysicians must necessarily belong.

In investigating the nature of the human mind, according to the metaphysical scheme, there are two methods of proceeding, both of which are equally obvious, and yet both of which lead to entirely different results.

According to the first method, the inquirer begins by examining his sensations.  According to the other method, he begins by examining his ideas.

These two methods always have led, and always must lead, to conclusions diametrically opposed to each other.

Nor are the reasons of this difficult to understand.  In metaphysics, the mind is the instrument, as well as the material on which the instrument is employed.

The means by which the science must be worked out, being thus the same as the object upon which it works, there arises a difficulty of a very peculiar kind.  This difficulty is, the impossibility of taking a comprehensive view of the whole of the mental phenomena;  because, however extensive such a view may be, it must exclude the state of the mind by which, or in which, the view itself is taken.

Hence we may perceive what, I think, is a fundamental difference between physical and metaphysical inquiries.

In physics, there are several methods of proceeding, all of which lead to the same results.  But in metaphysics, it will invariably be found, that if two men of equal ability, and equal honesty, employ different methods in the study of the mind, the conclusions which they obtain will also be different.

To those who are unversed in these matters, a few illustrations will set this in a clearer light.

Metaphysicians who begin by the study of ideas, observe in their own minds an idea of space.  Whence, they ask, can this arise?  It cannot, they say, owe its origin to the senses, because the senses only supply what is finite and contingent;  whereas the idea of space is infinite and necessary.  It is infinite, since we cannot conceive that space has an end;  and it is necessary, since we cannot conceive the possibility of its non-existence.  Thus far the idealist.

But the sensualist, as he is called, 127 he who begins, not with ideas, but with sensations, arrives at a very different conclusion.


127 This is the title conferred by M. Cousin upon nearly all the greatest English metaphysicians, and upon Condillac and all his disciples in France, their system having "le nom merite de sensualisme." Cousin, Histoire de la Philosophae, II.série, vol. ii. p. 88.

He remarks, that We can have no idea of space, until we have first had an idea of objects; and that the ideas of objects can only be the results of the sensations which those objects excite.  As to the idea of space being necessary, this, he says, only results from the circumstance that we never can perceive an object which does not bear a certain position to some other object.  This forms an indissoluble association between the idea of position and the idea of an object ; and as this association is constantly repeated before us, we at length findourselves unable to conceive an object without position, or, in other words, without space. l28  As to space being infinite, this, he says, is a notion we get by conceiving a continual addition to lines, or to surfaces, or to bulk, which are the three modifications of extension.

On innumerable other points, we find the same discrepancy between the two schools.

The idealist, l29 for example, asserts that our notions of cause, of time, of personal identity, and of substance, are universal and necessary;  that they are simple;  and that, not being susceptible of analysis, they must be referred to the original constitution of the mind. l30

On the other hand, the sensationalist, so far from recognizing the simplicity of these ideas, considers them to be extremely complex, and looks upon their universality and necessity as merely the result of a frequent and intimate association. l31


128 This is very ably argued by Mr James Mill in his Analysis of the Phenomena of the Human Mind, vol. ii. pp 32, 93-95, and elsewhere.  Compare Essay concerning Human Understanding, in Locke's Works, vol. i. pp. 147, 148, 154, 157, and the ingenious distinction, p. 198, " between the idea of the infinity of space, and the idea of a space infinite."  At p. 208, Locke sarcastically says, "But yet, after all this, there being men who persuade themselves that they have clear, positive, comprehensive ideas of infinity, it is fit they enjoy their privilege ; and I should be very glad (with some others that I know , who acknowledge they have none such) to be better informed by their communication."

129 I speak of idealists in opposition to sensationalists ; though the word idealist is often used by metaphysicians in a very different sense.

130 Thus, Dugald Stewart (Philosophical Essays, Edin. 1810 p. 33) tells us of "the simple idea of personal identity." And Reid (Essays on the Powers of the Mind, vol i. p. 354) says, "I know of no ideas or notions that have a better claim to be accounted simple and original than those of space and time"  In the Sanscrit metaphysics, time is "an independent cause."

131"As Space is a comprehensive word, including all positions, or the whole of synchronous order, so Time is a comprehensive word, including all successions, or the whole of successive order."  Mill's Analysis of the Mind, vol. ii. p. 100; and on the relation of time to memory, vol. i. p. 252.  In Jobert's New System of Philosophy, vol. i, p. 33, it is said that "time is nothing but the succession of events, and we know events by experience only."


This is the first important difference which is inevitably consequent on the adoption of different methods.  The idealist is compelled to assert, that necessary truths and contingent truths have a different origin.  The sensationalist is bound to affirm that they have the same origin. l32

The further these two great schools advance, the more marked does their divergence become.  They are at open war in every department of morals, of philosophy, and of art.

The idealists say that all men have essentially the same notion of the good, the true, and the beautiful.  The sensationalists affirm that there is no such standard, because ideas depend upon sensations, and because the sensations of men depend upon the changes in their bodies, and upon the external events by which their bodies are affected.

Such is a short specimen of the opposite conclusions to which the ablest metaphysicians have been driven, by the simple circumstance that they have pursued opposite methods of investigation.

And this is the more important to observe, because after these two methods have been employed, the resources of metaphysics are evidently exhausted. 133


132 This is asserted by all the followers of Locke ; and one of the latest productions of that school declares; that to say that necessary truths cannot be acquired by experience, is to deny the most clear evidence of our senses and reason.

133 To avoid misapprehension, I may repeat, that, here and elsewhere, I mean by metaphysics, that vast body of literature which is constructed on the supposition that the laws of the human mind can be generalized solely from the facts of individual consciousness.  For this scheme, the word " metaphysics" is rather inconvenient, but it will cause no confusion if this definition of it is kept in view by the reader.


Both parties agree that mental laws can only be discovered by studying individual minds, and there is nothing in the mind which is not the result either of reflection or of sensation.

The only choice, therefore, they have to make, is between subordinating the results of sensation to the laws of reflection, or else subordinating the result of reflection to the laws of sensation.

Every system of metaphysics has been constructed according to one of these schemes;  and this must always continue to be the case, because when the two schemes are added together, they include the totality of metaphysical phenomena.

Each process is equally plausible;  the supporters of each are equally confident;  and by the very nature of the dispute, it is impossible that any middle term should be found;  nor can there ever be an umpire, because no-one can mediate between metaphysical controversies without being a metaphysician, and no one can be a metaphysician without being either a sensationalist or an idealist;  in other words, without belonging to one of those very parties whose claims he professes to judge. 134


l34 We find a curious instance of this, in the attempt made by M. Cousin to found an eclectic school ; for this very able and learned man has been quite unable to avoid the one-sided view which is to every metaphysician an essential preliminary ; and he adopts that fundamental distinction between necessary ideas and contingent ideas, by which the idealist is separated from the sensationalist : "la grande division des idées aujourd'hui établie est la division des idées contingentes et des idées nécessaires,"  Cousin, Hist. de la Philosophie, II. série, vol. i. p. 82. M. Cousin constantly contradicts Locke, and then says he has refuted that profound and rigorous thinker ; while he does not even state the arguments of James Mill, who, as a metaphysician, is the greatest of our modern sensationalists, and whose views, whether right or wrong, certainly deserve notice from an eclectic historian of philosophy.

Another eclectic, Sir W. Hamilton, announces (Discussions on Philosophy, p 597) "an undeveloped philosophy, which, I am confident, is founded upon truth.  To this confidence I have come, not merely through the convictions of my own consciousness, but by finding in this system a centre and conciliation for the most opposite of philosophical opinions."  But at p. 589, he summarily disposes of one of the most important of these philosophical opinions as "the superficial edifice of Locke."


On these grounds, we must, 1 think, arrive at the conclusion, that as metaphysicians are unavoidably, and by the very nature of their inquiry, broken up into two completely antagonistic schools, the relative truth of which there are no means of ascertaining;  as they, moreover, have but few resources, and as they use those resources according to a method by which no other science has ever been developed,  we, looking at these things, ought not to expect that they can supply us with sufficient data for solving those great problems which the history of the human mind presents to our view.

And whoever will take the pains fairly to estimate the present condition of mental philosophy, must admit that, notwithstanding the influence it has always exercised over some of the most powerful minds, and through them over society at large, there is, nevertheless, no other study which has been so zealously prosecuted, so long continued, and yet remains so barren of results.

In no other department has there been so much movement, and so little progress.

Men of eminent abilities, and of the greatest integrity of purpose, have in every civilized country, for many centuries, been engaged in metaphysical inquiries;  and yet at the present moment their systems, so far from approximating towards truth, are diverging from each other with a velocity which seems to be accelerated by the progress of knowledge.

The incessant rivalry of the hostile schools, the violence with which they have been supported, and the exclusive and unphilosophic confidence with which each has advocated its own method, all these things have thrown the study of the mind into a confusion only to be compared to that in which the study of religion has been thrown by the controversies of theologians.l35


135 Berkeley, in a moment of candour, inadvertently confesses what is very damaging to the reputation of his own pursuits: "Upon the whole, I am inclined to think that the far greater part, if not all, of those difficulties which have hitherto amused philosophers, and blocked up the way to knowledge, are entirely owing to ourselves.  That we have first raised a dust, and then complain we cannot see."  Principles of Human Knowledge, in Berkeley's Works, vol. i. p, 74.  Every metaphysician and theologian should get this sentence by heart.  'That we have first raised a dust and then complain we cannot see.'

The consequence is that if we except a very few of the laws of association, and perhaps I may add the modern theories of vision and of touch, l36  there is not to be found in the whole compass of metaphysics a single principle of importance, and at the same time of incontestable truth.

Under these circumstances, it is impossible to avoid a suspicion that there is some fundamental error in the manner in which these inquiries have been prosecuted.

For my own part, I believe that, by mere observation of our own minds, and even by such rude experiments as we are able to make upon them, it will be impossible to raise psychology to a science;  and I entertain very little doubt that metaphysics can only be successfully studied by an investigation of history so comprehensive as to enable us to understand the conditions which govern the movements of the human race."


136 Some of the laws of association, as stated by Hume and Hartley, are capable of historical verification, which would change the metaphysical hypothesis into a scientific theory.  Berkeley's theory of vision, and Brown's theory of touch, have, in the same way, been verified physiologically; so that we now know, what otherwise we could only have suspected.




`The Methods of Science' - Ch. II of `The New Background of Science' - James Jeans - [mid 20th Cent.]


"It might conceivably have proved possible to picture the whole external world, completely and perfectly, in terms of familiar concepts such as waves, particles and mechanism;  indeed nineteenth-century physics aimed consciously and deliberately at such a representation, not sufficiently realising how great the odds were against its being possible.

Had the attempt succeeded, science was all ready to identify the representation with the reality.  Indeed, most scientists did this without waiting to see whether the representation could be made to fit all the facts of observation.  It was usual to assert at this time that all discrepancies were sure to be cleared up in time, and those who taught science seldom allowed any other possibility to enter the mental field of vision of their pupils.

Behind the scientists whole schools of philosophers, realists and materialists, were identifying reality with particles, waves and so forth out there in space.  The few others who urged that neither the known facts nor any possible facts could compel or warrant any such identification were felt to be valiant defenders of a lost cause.  Their voices passed almost unheeded, not because they could not prove their case, or because their opponents could prove a case against them, but because the probabilities at that time seemed overwhelmingly against them.

Our present observational knowledge shews *;  that no representation of this kind can fit the phenomena, so that the question of identification with reality does not arise.  The external world has proved to be farther removed from the familiar concepts of everyday life than nineteenth-century science had anticipated, and we are now finding that every effort to portray it brings us up immediately against concepts which we can neither picture, imagine, nor describe.  We have already seen that radiation cannot be adequately portrayed either as waves or as particles, or in terms of anything that we can imagine, and we shall soon find that the same is true also of matter.
...
The very real difficulties of modern physical science originate, in large degree, in the facts just cited.  Physical science set out to study a world of matter and radiation, and finds that it cannot describe or picture the nature of either, even to itself.

Photons, electrons and protons have become about as meaningless to the physicist as x, y, z are to a child on its first day of learning algebra.  The most we hope for at the moment is to discover ways of manipulating x, y, z without knowing what they are, with the result that the advance of knowledge is at present reduced to what Einstein has described as extracting one incomprehensible from another incomprehensible.

Apart from this, science knows of only one way of proceeding so as to avoid a complete deadlock.  Dividing the world up into  (a) ourselves, (b) our experiments on the external world, and (c) the external world,  it can leave off concerning itself with (c), and can concentrate on (b), our knowledge of the world as disclosed by experiments which we ourselves perform.

The metaphysical argument ... will suggest one obvious advantage of this procedure;  it is that our knowledge of (c) can never consist of more than probabilities, whereas that of (b) will consist of certainties.  But there is an even more immediate gain.  However little we may be able to know the ultimate reality of external nature, and however unintelligible the imagined reality may be, the results of the experiments we perform on nature must necessarily be both knowable and expressible in terms of familiar concepts, since if the concepts had not previously been familiar, the experiments themselves would have made them so.
...
When we look into the future we see two possibilities.  It may be that nature goes on her way regardless of us, and that it is only our imperfect present knowledge which involves ourselves as well.  We can still only explore nature by stamping it with our own footprints and raising clouds of dust, so that our present pictures of nature shew our human stamp over it all.  In time we shall perhaps learn how to remove our own footprints from the picture and shall then see that nature has a real existence, as much outside ourselves and independent of ourselves as the Sahara.  The essentials of the Sahara are its particles of sand; the clouds we raise are transitory accidents.  In 1899 most scientists would have unhesitatingly averred that nature was like this.  Yet we shall see that up to the present science has hardly been able to find any solid ground behind the clouds.
...
Broadly speaking, these two conflicting alternatives represent objectivist and subjectivist views of nature, or again realist and idealist schemes of philosophy.
...
The naive science of an earlier day merely took it for granted that space and time existed in their own right, whether conscious minds were aware of them or not, and that matter had an existence of its own in space and time whether these were tenanted by conscious minds or not;  indeed, physics took these assumed realities as its sole object of study.  If they really existed, it may be thought that physics ought to have discovered and become conversant with them by now.  But, as we shall soon see, the more penetrating scrutiny of modern physics finds that these supposed ingredients of external reality are one and all inextricably interlocked with the perceiving mind.

On the other hand, the difficulties of the idealist position are almost too obvious to need description.  A being who had no means of communicating with his fellow-men could never know whether or not the nature he saw was a creation of his own mind;  he might well credit it with no more real existence in its own right than the objects he saw in a dream.

We, on the contrary, must somehow fit into our scheme of nature the fact that, broadly speaking, innumerable other minds all observe the same nature as we do.  Realism explains this very simply - and naturally by supposing that nature exists outside of, and independently of, all our minds - we all see the same moon because the moon is out there, outside ourselves, for us all to see.

Idealism cannot avail itself of this simple explanation;  it has to suppose that our minds are in some way all members of one body, and so are all attuned to perceive the same concepts.  They must be interconnected in some way - perhaps as the branches of a tree are interconnected, through having a common root - or perhaps again as the members of a shower of photons are interconnected;  in some aspects these appear as a crowd of distinct individuals, in others as a continuous progression of light.

We leave ... the findings of modern science, bearing in mind that they are a description, not of nature, but of human questionings of nature."





`The Emperor's New Mind' - Roger Penrose - (1990)


"The question touches upon deep issues of philosophy.  What does it mean to think or feel?  What is a mind?  Do minds really exist?  Assuming they do, to what extent are minds functionally dependent upon the physical structures with which they are associated?  Might minds be able to exist quite independently of such structures?  ... Are minds subject to the laws of physics?  What, indeed, are the laws of physics?
...
These are among the issues I shall be attempting to address ... I can at least state that my point of view entails that it is our present lack of understanding of the fundamental laws of physics that prevnts us from coming to grips with the concept of `mind' in physical or logical terms."
...
One tends to think of the discrepancies between quantum and classical theory as being very tiny, but in fact they also underlie many ordinary-scale physical phenomena.  The very existence of solid bodies, the strengths and physical properties of materials, the nature of chemistry, the colours of substances, the phenomena of freezing and boiling, the reliability of inheritance - these, and many other familiar properties, require the quantum theory for their explanations.

Perhaps, also, the phenomenon of consciousness is something that cannot be understood in entirely classical terms.  Perhaps our minds are qualities rooted in some strange and wonderful feature of those physical laws which actually govern the world we inhabit, rather than being just features of some algorithm acted out by the so-called `objects' of a classical physical structure.  Perhaps, in some sense, that is `why' we, as sentient beings, must live in a quantum world, rather than an entirely classical one, despite all the richness, and indeed mystery, that is already present in the classical universe.  Might a quantum world be required so that thinking, perceiving creatures, such as ourselves, can be constructed from its substance?

Such a question seems appropriate more for a God, intent on building an inhabited universe, than it is for us!  But the question has relevance for us also.  If a classical world is not something that consciousness could be part of, then our minds must be in some way dependent on specific deviations from classical physics. ...

We must indeed come to terms with quantum theory - that most exact and mysterious of physical theories - if we are to delve deeply into some major questions of philosphy:  how does our world behave, and what constitutes the `minds' that are, indeed, `us'?

Yet, someday science may give us a more profound understanding of Nature than quantum theory can provide.   It is my personal view that even quantum theory is a stop-gap, inadequate in certain essentials for providing a complete picture of the world in which we actually live.  But that gives us no excuse;  if we are to gain something of the philosophical insights we desire, we must comprehend the picture of the world according to existing quantum theory."





`The Life of the Cosmos' - Lee Smolin - (1997)


"As long as we do not comprehend why it was probable that living things formed spontaneously as soon as conditions in earth's oceans allowed, our understanding of biology must be considered incomplete.  Similarly, any philosophy according to which the existence of stars and galaxies appears to be very unlikely, or rests on unexplained coincidence, cannot be satisfactory.
...
Whatever questions remain open, observations show us that the universe arose out of a state that it may never return to, and that each era in its evolution since then has been unique.
...
While beautiful to the educated eye, there is no escaping the fact that the central metaphor of Newtonian physics is a pessimistic one, as it provides an image of a dead world into which we do not fit.

But the failure of Newtonian physics to describe a world in which living things have a natural place is more than a philosphical issue.  It means the theory fails scientifically, just as much as it does for its inability to provide an explanation for the existence of stars.  For this reason it is important to appreciate that the science that gave rise to the dark metaphors of the clock universe, the universal heat death, link and the eternal return is now itself quite dead.  Instead, the science which is slowly growing up to replace the old Newtonian physics may offer an image of a universe that is hospitable, rather than hostile, towards life.
...
Certainly, the overthrow of Newtonian physics was not the only reason that the twentieth century saw the rise of these anti-metaphysical movements.  The problem of the uncertainty of scientific knowledge is not new;  that Newton was wrong could not have been a complete surprise to anyone who had read Berkeley and Hume, let alone Leibniz.  One cause of the growing skepticism about what philosphy can accomplish must simply be that the metaphysical ambition has been tried, and the results are not encouraging.  Although Hegel and the other grand metaphysicians continue to be read and studied, it seems clear beyond a doubt that their central project has failed.  Human beings cannot by pure thought alone arrive at the truth about Being - about what, if anything, is behind the appearances."



Note - just recently found (in `Road to Reality' 2006) - Sir Roger Penrose declaring that `The Life of the Cosmos' is a "remarkable book".  Right.



* Buckle regularly uses the phrase `historical method' to mean the scientific analysis which we refer to today.

* Jeans' spelling of `shew' for `show' was current in his day; folk also used `flee' and `fled' to refer to flying in aircraft.




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