C. E. (Constance E.) Plumptre.

Natural causation; an essay in four parts online

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3Ui (L-ssun in four parts




" Know, so far as is permitted thee, that Nature is in all things uniform;' 1
— Quoted from the Pythagorean Scriptures by Professor Clifford.

2b, Paternoster Square




* • •

1 1 * »- i

«. » » 4 •

C • • ..<•■•









the ISlemor)' of

my Father,

who was Unfailing- in his Encouragement and Sympathy,

and in
his Interest in my previous Works,
I dedicate this Volume.
March 29TH, 1888.



I HAVE grouped together the four Essays in this volume
under the one title, " Natural Causation," because they all
pertain to one great subject — Natural haw. But they
were not all written at the same time. • The second Essay,
that on " Philosophical Necessity," has been the longest
written, and originally appeared in the October number of
The Modern Review, 1880. It is reprinted herewith altera-
tions so slight as hardly to require mention. The other
three, though written at some intervals, appear in print
here for the first time.


— * —











" I seek after Truth, by which no man ever yet was injured."

Marcus Aurelius Antoninus.

It was, I think, the Italian philosopher Giordano Bruno,
who was the first to point to a fact that even now is scarcely
sufficiently recognised ; namely, that what are called the
olden ages, the ancient times, are in reality the early ages,
the youthful times ; and conversely, that what in modern
parlance are spoken of as recent ages, are in reality the
elder ages. The world in this latter part of the nineteenth
century, for instance, is older by three centuries than when
Bruno made the remark; and he, a somewhat violent
opponent of Aristotle, made it because he was rebuked for
his presumption in venturing to question the authority of
one who had lived so many centuries before himself — the
implication of course being that because Aristotle had lived

12 Natural Causation.

so much earlier than Bruno, therefore, and by that cause,
must his opinion be of proportionately greater value.

Now, in reality, the exact converse of this is the case. Other
things equal, a man of the mental calibre of an Aristotle,
born in the nineteenth century, would certainly write now
as he would not have been able to write then : his environ-
ment being different, his writings would be different. I
venture to call attention to this remark of Bruno, because
the fact to which he has pointed belongs to that class of
facts so unquestionably true as to have escaped attention ;
a certain amount of controversy, I think, being required
to enable a fact to be fully impressed upon the mind.
Doubtless, the implications to be drawn from this truth are,
like those from other truths, capable of being abused. I do
not wish to imply that, because a certain theory is the out-
come of a late development, it is to be accepted as neces-
sarily true and requiring no investigation. I only wish to
urge that there is a greater probability that a theory born
in such an age will be truer than one belonging to a cruder
stage in the history of thought.

The doctrine of Design, by which I mean special creation
of natural objects for the benefit of man, does not belong
exclusively to one particular religion, nor to one particular
nation ; but it does belong to a crude and undeveloped
period of man's knowledge. The doctrine of Evolution, on
the other hand, though dimly foreshadowed in some of the
earlier philosophies and religions, may yet rightfully be
called the outcome of the nineteenth century — a century
pre-eminent among other centuries for its scientific dis-
coveries, its scientific instruments, and for the accuracy of
its men of science ; a century, too, in which the means of

77/ c Doctrine of Design. 13

travel have been enormously developed, so that the reli-
gious and scientific theories of various nations can be dealt
with comparatively. And the comparative method —
scarcely possible prior to this century — has shown itself by
its results in all branches of science to be second to none.

It is the purport of the present essay upon Natural
Causation to examine — reverently indeed, but also impar-
tially — into the general arguments for and against the
doctrine of Design. Is man a creature altogether distinct
from other objects in Nature: Was the sun created in order
to provide him with light by day f Were the moon and
stars created solely to light him by night ? Is language
a divine gift ? Was the Christian religion supernaturally
revealed to him, and essentially and altogether distinct from
the religions of other nations r

In this short essay of four brief sections I do not, indeed,
propose to deal with all these questions. In the present section
it is my intention to deal generally with the subject as a
whole, and in the three succeeding sections to limit myself
to those particular aspects of the question that more pro-
foundly influence our future actions and daily life.

The supporters both of the doctrines of Design and Evo-
lution are alike in starting with an Infinite First Existence
that is above finite comprehension. The believer in Design
assumes an External Creator without beginning, without
end ; from whose will alone has sprung the entire creation.
The believer in Evolution starts with the assumption of an
infinite, eternal Matter, also without beginning or end,
constant in its quantity, changing alone its form, and which
is the cause and composition of every natural object.
There are two classes among the acceptors of the doctrine of

Natural C ' ait sat ion.

Evolution. One, which I certainly think is in the minority,
that is materialistic in the atheistic sense of the word,
seeing t in naked matter nothing more than that brute sub-
stance that matter is considered to be in the minds of most
religious people. But the other class, among which I
reckon myself, reverence Matter as something altogether
past finding out, in which is latent not only every form of
body, but every form of mind. In the words of the poet
Goethe, they look upon matter as the " living garment of
God," whose existence is not comprehensible to man. In
the words of Professor Tyndall, confessing their own
ignorance, they say, If you ask whence is this " Matter "
we have no answer. " But if the materialist is confounded
and science rendered dumb, who else is prepared with a
solution r To whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed ?
Let us lower our heads and acknowledge our ignorance,
priest and philosopher, one and all." *

But though alike in being obliged to postulate an Infinite
Eternal Existence wholly past finding out as the cause of
all things, here the believers in Design and Evolution part
company. He who believes in a Creator working from
without, creating something out of nothing, bringing by
His command myriads of worlds into existence and launching
them into their several places, commits himself to a series
of inconceivabilities instead of to one alone — the creation
of something out of nothing, when fully realised, being quite
as difficult of comprehension as the existence of the Creator
Himself. Moreover it vouchsafes us no interpretation (save
that of caprice) why some planets and stars should be so
much larger than others ; why some planets should have

* " Fragments of Science," 5th edition, p. 421.

The Doctrine of Design. 15

many moons, and others none ; still further, why certain
portions of the heavens should be crowded with stars and
constellations, and another portion by comparison well-nigh
empty. But the Nebular Hypothesis can, as it seems to
me, in a measure explain these difficulties.

If, as that hypothesis assumes, matter that was once
evenly diffused through space has, in obedience to under-
stood laws, undergone a process of concentration, and
afterwards, through the medium of other laws, broken up
into bodies of various sizes, then those spaces where the
matter in its diffused state had originally extended to, must
after the concentration of the matter be as proportionately
bare of stars as the other portions are crowded.

The doctrine of Evolution, then, unlike the doctrine of
Design, has only to start with its one mystery, viz., the
existence of Matter and its concomitant property Force.
How these came to exist it presumes not to say. But that
they do exist is a fact obvious to all. And, given their
existence, the entire universe, so far as we know it, be-
comes capable of interpretation. Let us take for instance,
as our first illustration, the genesis of the Solar System.

The great principle underlying the law of Evolution is,
that the homogeneous changes by slow and almost imper-
ceptible degrees into the heterogeneous, the simple into the
complex. And if the Nebular Hypothesis be true, that
hypothesis is but one embodiment among many of the
universality of that law. If we go further and ask, why *

* It must be remembered that the Evolution hypothesis presumes not
to discuss the Why in the teleogical sense. It simply relates to the
proximate or immediate causes ; not to the Efficient or First Cause, of
which it knows nothing.

1 6 Natural Causation.

should the simple develop into the complex ? the answer
is that every active force produces more than one change ;
or, in other words, multitudinous effects arise from one

In 1755 the great philosopher Kant put forth the doc-
trine that the whole universe inconceivable ages ago
consisted of a gaseous chaos; and this theory was, as is
well known, further developed by Laplace and Herschel.
Well! assuming that the matter of which the sun and
planets consists was once in a diffused form, by the gravi-
tation of its atoms a gradual concentration would result.
But this would not be the only effect. At the same time
would also result contrast in density and temperature
between the interior and exterior of the mass. Rotary
movements would also arise, and their velocities would
vary according to their several distances from the centre.
In this way, it is held, the solar system has been evolved.
No one world has been separately created. And this in-
deed follows as a corollary from a doctrine accepted now
by all men of science, i.e., the Indestructibility of Matter.
Since matter is constant in its quantity and changes only
in its form, it follows that worlds have been moulded into
their present number, their present shape, out of matter
already existing.

The general nature of Laplace's theory is, I suppose
pretty well known, viz., that the solar system originally
consisted of a vast rotating spheroid which extended
beyond the region of Xeptune ; that as, in conformance

* For fuller explanation of this, see Mr. Spencer's admirable essay,
" Progress : its Law and Cause," in his " Essays, Scientific, Political, and
Speculative/' vol. i. Williams and Norgate.

The Doctrine of Design. 17

with known laws, the spheroid contracted, its rate of rota-
tion would be necessarily increased ; that through its cen-
trifugal force rings would be thrown off, which by contrac-
tion would in turn become rotating masses. These in
their turn would throw off other rings, which would in
like manner become rotating spheroids. And thus have
arisen planets and their satellites, while from the central
mass has been evolved the sun.

This a priori reasoning of Laplace has received singular
•confirmation from the practical experiments of Dr. Plateau.
Protecting so far as possible a mass of fluid from external
causes, and making it rotate with sufficient velocity, he
then shows that this mass breaks up naturally into de-
tached rings, which on their part concentrate into spheroids
which will turn on their axes in the same direction with
the central mass.

But Mr. Spencer has called attention to another fact
which upon the hypothesis of Design has no interpretation,
while it is a singular confirmation of the Nebular Hypo-
thesis, viz., that each set of satellites bears in miniature
the same relation to its planet, that the planets bear to the
sun ; thus showing that there must be a physical connection
in their origin.

" On progressing from the outside of the solar system
to its centre," he says,* " we see that there are four large
external planets and four internal ones which are com-
paratively small. A like contrast holds between the outer
and inner satellites in every case. Among the four satel-
lites of Jupiter the parallel is maintained as well as the

* " The Nebular Hypothesis," in the first volume of his "Collected
Essays," pp. 271, 272.


1 8 Natural Causation.

comparative smallness of the number allows ; the two
outer ones are the largest, and the two inner ones the
smallest. According to the most recent observations made
by Mr. Lassell, the like is true of the four satellites of
Uranus. In the case of Saturn, who has eight secon-
dary planets revolving around him, the likeness is still
more close in arrangement as in number. The three outer
satellites are large, the inner ones are small ; and the con-
trasts of size are here much greater between the largest,
which is nearly as big as Mars, and the smallest, which is
with difficulty discovered even by the best telescopes."

But the Nebular Hypothesis has another support to
which I should like to draw attention. It has been pointed
out by the writer* of the article on the Nebular Theory in
the new edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica that the
stupendous daily outpour of heat from the sun at the pre-
sent time is really, when properly studied, a profound
argument in support of the nebular theory. The amount
of the sun's heat has been estimated, and it is found
that our earth receives less than one two-thousand-millionth
part of the whole radiation. Now what supplies this
heat r

" The truth about the sun's heat," says the writer, " ap-
pears to be that the sun is really an incandescent body
losing heat; but that the operation of cooling is immensely
retarded owing to a curious circumstance due jointly to
the stupendous mass of the sun and to a remarkable law of
heat. It is of course well known that if energy disappears
in one form it reappears in another, and this principle
applied to the sun will explain the famous difficulty.

*R. S. Ball, LL.D.

The Doctrine of Design. 1 9

" As the sun loses heat it contracts, and every pair of
particles are nearer each other than they were before. The
energy due to their separation is thus less in the contracted
state than in the original state, and as that energy cannot
be lost it must reappear in heat. The sun is thus slowly
contracting; but as it contracts it gains heat by the opera-
tion of the law just referred to, and thus the further
cooling and further contraction of the sun is protracted,
and the additional heat obtained is radiated away. In
this way we can reconcile the fact that the sun is certainly
losing heat with the fact that the change in the tempera-
ture has not been large enough to be perceived within
historic times.

" It can be shown that the sun is at present contracting, so
that its diameter diminishes four miles every century. This
is of course an inappreciable distance when compared with
the diameter of the sun, which is nearly a million of miles,
but the significance for our present purpose depends upon
the fact that this contraction is always taking place. A
thousand years ago the sun must have had a diameter forty
miles greater than at present, ten thousand years ago that
diameter must have been four hundred miles more than it
is now, and so on. We cannot perhaps assert that the
same rate is to be continued for many centuries, but it is
plain that the further we look into past time the greater
must the sun have been."

But perhaps the most comprehensible and obvious proof
of this theory is that in the case of Saturn ; Laplace
describes the well-known rings of Saturn as "extant wit-
nesses of my hypothesis." Saturn also possesses, what has
only of late years been discovered, a nebulous ring, through


Natural Causation.

which his body is beheld as through a mist. We can
imagine with what delight Laplace would have hailed this

Now have the supporters of the doctrine of Design any
interpretation of these facts to offer ? If the moon were
created in order to give the inhabitants of the earth light
by night, why (if the other planets are uninhabited) should
they have moons at all r Or say that the supporters of the
doctrine of Design are willing to concede that the other
planets may be inhabited, will they explain why the inner
moons should be the smaller ones r or why Uranus, which
is twice as far away from the sun as Saturn, should have
but half as many moons r Or why Mars, which is consider-
ably farther from the sun than we are, should have no
moons at all ? Upon the mechanical theory of the universe
all these perplexities are capable of solution ; but upon the
mechanical theory alone.

From the Solar System, considered in its general aspect,
let us turn to one of its members, our Earth.

I believe it is conceded now by all geologists — of what-
ever religious opinions — that our earth was at first a mass
either of molten or nebulous matter, probably the latter,
and that it took an immense period of time — in all likeli-
hood millions of years — before it cooled down sufficiently to
allow of life appearing upon it, and that when life did at
first appear, it was in the form of such vegetation as could
only flourish in a climate of very high temperature.

The five great main divisions of the organic history of the
earth are called the primordial, primary, secondary, ter-
tiary, and quaternary epochs. The first and longest is the
primordial epoch, or the era of the Tangle Forests. This

The Doctrine of Design. 2 1

epoch is probably longer than the four others put together.
Three systems of strata belong to this epoch, and the
approximate depth of these strata is computed to amount
to 70,000 feet. The primary epoch, or the era of Fern
Forests, has also three systems of strata belonging to it, and
the thickness of these strata is said to amount to about
42,000 feet. The secondary epoch, or the era of Pine
Forests, is also divided into three great periods, but the
average thickness of these three systems amounts only to
about 15,000 feet. The tertiary epoch, or era of Leafed
Forests, is also divided into three periods, but the thickness
of their strata is only about 3,000 feet, while the quaternary
epoch, or era of civilisation, in comparison with the length
of the four other epochs almost vanishes into nothing ;
though (as Professor Haeckel says), with a comical conceit,
we usually call its record the " history of the world. " *

It is needless to say that, although we can, in our present
state of geological knowledge, apply only relative and not
absolute measurements of time, still enormous thickness of
strata and enormous length of time go together. The time
devoted to the formation of the primordial epoch was
almost certainly longer than the time devoted to the four
succeeding epochs altogether. It seems probable that many
thousand millions of years were required to deposit masses
of strata amounting to 70,000 feet. In the first portion of
this primordial epoch nothing seems to have lived save that
lowest group of plants called Tangles or Algae ; but in the
two later strata belonging to this same primordial epoch
have been found remains of some animals which, like the
tangles, must have lived in water. They are called acrania,

* Haeckel's " History of Creation," vol. ii., p. 17, English edition.

22 Natural Causation.

or skull-less, and from them it is supposed fishes have been

Upon the hypothesis that the earth was solely made for
man, how can its supporters account for the fact that for
millions of years only the lowest forms of vegetable and
animal life existed ? Were the universe made for man, and
man to praise and glorify the Creator, how was it that for
untold millions of years not only did man not exist, but not
a creature sufficiently endowed with sentient life to be even
capable of happiness ? Regarded from the teleogical point
of view, whether that point of view be the happiness of the
creature or the glory of the Creator, these untold millions
of years must be regarded as gigantic waste.

But upon the hypothesis of Evolution all these seemingly
inexplicable difficulties become capable of solution. If the
nebular hypothesis be true, it follows as an a priori deduc-
tion from it that when this earth broke away from its central
mass, from which afterwards was evolved the sun, it must
have been in a nebulous or molten state ; and what a priori
the nebular hypothesis shows would be the case, geologists
a posteriori have shown has been the case. I believe all
geologists concur in saying that the original state of our
earth was one of incandescence. Again, if it be asked why
should so many years elapse before the earth should be the
habitat of life, the answer is, life could not appear till the
earth had parted with a certain portion of her heat, and
that this internal heat was at first of such an inconceivable
intensity that the counteraction of air and other external
influences were for a time inappreciable. When life at first
did appear it was, as I have said, only under such forms as
belong to a climate of exceedingly high temperature.

The Doctrine of Design. 23

There is still another difficulty quite inexplicable upon
the hypothesis of Design, viz., the alternate Glacial Epochs
in the north and south. In a remarkable paper published
in 1864, largely quoted from by Mr. James Geikie in his
" Great Ice Age," and also alluded to by Darwin in his
" Origin of Species," Mr. Croll has pointed out that glacial
periods, lasting for thousands of years, must have alter-
nated with equally prolonged periods of genial conditions.
The last glacial epoch must have begun some 240,000 years
ago, and terminated about 80,000 years ago, comprising
therefore a period of 1 60,000 years ; the cold being most
intense about thirty or forty thousand years after the
glacial epoch had commenced. Mr. Croll has attempted to
show that this glacial condition of climate is the result of
various physical causes, brought into operation by an
increase in the eccentricity of the earth's orbit. But as this
interpretation has not passed beyond the domain of theory,
1 will not dwell further upon it here ; but will content
myself with recommending Mr. Geikie's most interesting
work upon the " Great Ice Age " to any reader anxious for
a closer acquaintance with the subject. But, whatever the
interpretation, of the fact itself there is no doubt. As
Darwin has well said, " We have evidence of almost every
conceivable kind, organic and inorganic, that within a very
recent geological period Central Europe and Xorth America
suffered under an arctic climate. The ruins of a house
burnt by fire do not tell their tale more plainly than do the
mountains of Scotland and Wales, with their scored flanks,
polished surfaces, and perched boulders, of the icy streams
with which their valleys were lately filled." I need scarcely
say that during these alternate glacial epochs of such

24 Natural Causation.

immense duration, the parts affected by them must have
been as desolate, as absolutely devoid of life, as Greenland
is now. Has the hypothesis of Design any interpretation
to offer ?

We see then that the genesis of the solar system and
the formation of the earth are not difficult of explanation
through Natural Causation, while upon the hypothesis of
Design they are absolutely without explanation.

I turn now to a much more difficult, as well as a much
more vexed question : the origin and preservation of Life.

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