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Book I Chapter 1 - § 7

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« on: January 06, 2023, 02:52:02 am »

§ 7. With the other two anti-metaphysical contentions referred to at the beginning of the last section we may deal much more briefly. (2) To the objector who maintains that Metaphysics, if possible, still is useless, because the sciences and the practical experience of life between them already supply us with a coherent theory of the world, devoid of contradictions, we may reply: (a) The fact is doubtful. For, whatever may be said by the popularisers of science when they are engaged in composing metaphysical theories for the multitude, the best representatives of every special branch of mathematical and experimental science seem absolutely agreed that ultimate questions as to first principles are outside the scope of their sciences. The scope of every science, they are careful to remind us, is defined by certain initial assumptions, and what does not fall under those assumptions must be treated by the science in question as non-existent. Thus Mathematics is in principle restricted to dealing with the problems of number and quantity; whether there are realities which are in their own nature non-numerical and non-quantitative[1] or not, the mathematician, as mathematician, is not called upon to pronounce; if there are such realities, his science is by its initial assumptions debarred from knowing anything of them. So again with Physics; even if reduced to pure Kinematics, it deals only with displacements involving the dimensions of length and time, and has no means of ascertaining whether or not these dimensions are exhibited by all realities. The notion that the various sciences of themselves supply us with a body of information about ultimate reality is thus, for good reasons, rejected by their soundest exponents, who indeed are usually so impressed with the opposite conviction as to be prejudiced in favour of the belief that the ultimately real is unknowable. (b) Again, as we have already seen, the results of physical science, and the beliefs and aspirations which arise in the course of practical experience and take shape in the teachings of poetry and religion, often appear to be in sharp antagonism. "Science" frequently seems to point in one direction, our deepest ethical and religious experience in another. We cannot avoid asking whether the contradiction is only apparent or, supposing it real, what degree of authority belongs to each of the conflicting influences. And, apart from a serious study of Metaphysics, this question cannot be answered. (c) Even on the most favourable supposition, that there is no such contradiction, but that science and practical experience together afford a single ultimately coherent theory of the world, it is only after we have ascertained the general characteristics of ultimate reality, and satisfied ourselves by careful analysis that reality, as conceived in our sciences, possesses those  characteristics, that we have the right to pronounce our theory finally true. If Metaphysics should turn out in the end to present no fresh view as to the nature of the real, but only to confirm an old one, we should still, as metaphysicians, have the advantage of knowing where we were previously only entitled to conjecture.

(3) The charge of unprogressiveness often brought against our science is easily disproved by careful study of the History of Philosophy. The problems of the metaphysician are no doubt, in a sense, always the same; but this is equally true of the problems of any other science. The methods by which the problems are attacked and the adequacy of the solutions they receive vary, from age to age, in close correspondence with the general development of science. Every great metaphysical conception has exercised its influence on the general history of science, and, in return, every important movement in science has affected the development of Metaphysics. Thus the revived interest in  mechanical science, and the great progress made in that branch of knowledge which is so characteristic of the seventeenth century, more than anything else determined the philosophical method and results of Descartes; the Metaphysics of Leibnitz were profoundly affected by such scientific influences as the invention of the calculus, the recognition of the importance of vis viva in dynamics, the contemporary discoveries of Leuwenhoeck in embryology; while, to come to our own time, the metaphysical speculation of the last half-century has constantly been revolving round the two great scientific ideas of the conservation of energy and the origin of species by gradual differentiation. The metaphysician could not if he would, and would not if he could, escape the duty of estimating the bearing of the great scientific theories of his time upon our ultimate conceptions of the nature of the world as a whole. Every fundamental advance in science thus calls for a restatement and reconsideration of the old metaphysical problems in the light of the new discovery.[2]

[1] As, for instance, all mental states are, according to certain psychologists, non-quantitative.

[2] The student will find Höffding's History of Modern Philosophy (English translation in 2 vols., Macmillan) particularly valuable for the way in which the author brings out the intimate historical connection between the development of Metaphysics and the general progress of science.

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