Bertram Coghill Alan Windle.

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for our acceptance by authority, scholastic philosophy
teaches that before believing them we must convince our-
selves by our own individual reason that the authority is
trustworthy. And when there is question, not of truths
to be believed on authority, but of such truths as can be
tested and verified by examining the intrinsic evidence for
them in the light of our own reason — for such truths it
teaches that human authority is the weakest of all motives
of assent. Aquinas himself, the prince of scholastics, has
laid down this principle in unambiguous terms — 'locus
ab auctoritate quae fundatur super rationc humana est in-

1 The Catholic reader will remember that the necessity of supernatural
grace for the making of an act of faith leaves such act still conditioned by
the laws of rational assent.


firmissimus.' How absurd it is, then, to represent scholastic
philosophy as teaching that the ultimate criterion of truth
is ' Revelation as interpreted by the Church.' " 1 The
Scholastic Philosophy is a method of dealing with facts.
Whether it is the best method or not is a question on which
general agreement has never been reached and probably
never will be reached. It is the traditional method of the
Catholic world, no doubt ; but that is not to say that the
Catholic Church stands or falls by it.

This at least may be said, that all its instructed opponents
allow that the scholastic is a distinct, clear-cut, complete
method of Philosophy, a method, moreover, capable of
application, as any true system of philosophy must needs be,
to every new discovery which may be made in any branch
of learning.

A remarkable fact, which will appear in later sections of
this book, is that in certain cases ancient thinkers seem to
have arrived at the same conclusions as modern science
though by very different roads — the one by that of pure
thought, the other by the slow and painful but, to most of
us at any rate, more convincing path of observation and
experiment. If eventually the fact emerges that pure
reason can untie and has untied a knot long before science
has accomplished that task, it at least permits us to look
not with less respect on the work of science but with more
upon the cogitations of the philosophers. This is not a
manual of philosophy, nor has the author of this book any
title to speak for philosophers, but it seemed necessary, in
view of the many misconceptions and misunderstandings
which have been woven around the subject, to make these
few observations ; to which this may be added for the sake
of those readers, if any, who are wholly unfamiliar with the
Scholastic Philosophy and its value. Catholic Philosophy,
by which is meant the Scholastic Philosophy, has been
belittled and sneered at usually by those very imperfectly
acquainted with its scope and work ; and the general and
uninstructed reader is led to conceive that as a subject of
real importance it has long ago disappeared, behind a cloud
of unextinguishable laughter, from the consideration of

1 " Philosophy and Sectarianism," pp. 9, 10.


really scientific minds. " What is to be said," it is asked,
" of a philosophy which concerns itself with such trifles as
the question of how many angels could dance on the end
of a needle ? " " What is to be said," we might reply, " of
a subject like Mathematics, which concerns itself with such
a thing as the Fourth Dimension, as to the very existence of
which we have no knowledge, a thing, moreover, which, if
it did exist, would turn everything we know to confusion
and chaos ? " The fact is that all great sciences, like
Mathematics and Philosophy, must have their explorers
into remote and undiscovered districts which appear to be
grotesque and fantastic to the ignorant or half-informed.
The Fourth Dimension is a fascinating and most scientific
subject to those who are capable of understanding it, and
the philosophic problem mentioned above is not a mere
joke but an abstract example of the vast philosophical
subject of the relations between matter and spirit, the
extended and the unextended.

With all this, however, no historian can deny, nor do Catho-
lics attempt to do so, that an epoch arrived when Scholasticism
fell into a state of serious decadence. " There were vexa-
tious and inexcusable faults of method ; the endless multi-
plication of distinctions and sub-distinctions and divisions
and classifications, on the plea of clearness ; until finally
all thought became mystified and muddled in an inextric-
able maze of scheme, systems, and departments ! Nothing
could have been better calculated to foment those abuses
than the dialectic formalism that poisoned all the philo-
sophical writings of the sixteenth century." 1 The same
learned author may with advantage be quoted on another
all-important point, namely, the disregard of new scientific
discoveries which marked the hide-bound philosophers of
the period of the decadence ; their fatal obsession by Aris-
totle in his worst as well as in his best moments, to which
allusion was made in the last chapter. All these things
explain why the new learning, disgusted at the attitude
taken up by the scholastics of the day, clamoured for the
complete abolition of the system which they so much
misunderstood since it had been so much abused. " No-

1 De Wulf, 147.


where," he writes, 1 "was the culpable ignorance of the
scholastics regarding contemporary thought so disastrous
as in the domain of the natural sciences. Great discoveries
were everywhere revolutionising physical and mechanical
astronomy, physics, chemistry and biology, and the mathe-
matical sciences as well. The geocentric system of Ptolemy
gave place to the heliocentric system of Copernicus ; and
Galileo's telescope had begun to reveal the secrets of the
heavens. But the paths of the stars careering through the
immensities of space gave the theory of solid celestial spheres
its death blow ; the displacement of the sun-spots on the
solar disc revealed a rotatory movement in the sun itself ;
the moon displayed its mountains and plains, Jupiter its
satellites, Venus its phases, Saturn its ring. In 1604, a
hitherto unknown star was discovered in the sign of the
Scorpion. Later on it was shown to evidence that the
magnificent comet of 1618 was not an atmospheric will-o'-
the-wisp but a heavenly body moving through the inter-
planetary regions of space. Then Kepler formulated the
laws of the elliptical motion of the planets, and Newton
inferred from Kepler's laws the law of universal gravitation
which unified all astronomical phenomena. In another
department, Torricclli invented the barometer and dis-
covered the weight of the air ; heat and cold were registered
by the thermometer not as distinct and contrary properties
but as different degrees of one and the same property of
matter ; light was decomposed and water analysed ; La-
voisier laid the first foundations of modern chemistry. At
the same time Descartes, Newton, Leibnitz, and others
devoted their genius to mathematical researches ; and,
enriched by their contributions, those sciences made rapid
and giant strides. Man's scientific conception of the uni-
verse was reconstructed on altogether new lines, and many
of the scientific theories which the medieval mind had in-
corporated in its synthetic view of the world were now
finally and completely discredited. To mention only a few :
There was an end of the idea that circular motion is the
most perfect, and of the theory that the heavenly bodies

1 p. 148 seq.


are exempt from generation and corruption. If there are
spots on the sun, the immutability of the heavenly bodies
becomes a respectable myth. Nor were the new mechanics
long about exploding the theory of the locus naturalis of
bodies. In short, there was much that needed to be recon-
structed or modified.

"Now, the traditional astronomical, physical, and chemical
theories were bound up with the principles of general
metaphysics and cosmology by ties that were centuries old,
though often indeed of a frail and fanciful character. Were
not the principles dependent upon the theories, and did not
the overthrow of the ancient science involve the ruin of the
ancient philosophy ? Not necessarily ; and that for this
reason : amid the debris of the demolished science there
remained untouched quite sufficient data to support the
constitutional doctrines of scholasticism. It is sufficiently
obvious that philosophers and scientists alike should have
closely watched and studied the scientific progress of the
time in order to be able to pronounce upon the possibility
or impossibility of adapting the new discoveries to the
traditional philosophy. That is certainly what the princes
of scholasticism would have done had they lived at such a
critical turning point in the history of the sciences. We are
aware from well-known and oft-quoted texts that they never
meant to give all the scientific theories of their own time
the value of established theses, but rather of more or less
probable hypotheses whose disproof and rejection would in
no wise compromise their metaphysics. So, for example,
St. Thomas, when speaking of the movements of the planets,
makes use of these significant words : ' Licet enim talibus
suppositionibus factis apparentia salvarentur, non tamen
oportet dicere has suppositiones esse veras, quia forte
secundum aliquem alium modum, nondum ab hominibus
comprehensum, apparentia circa Stellas salvantur.' x And
his disciple, Giles of Lessines, gives frequent expression to
the same view. But, unfortunately, the reverse of all this
was what actually took place. The deplorable attitude of

1 This may thus be paraphrased: — "Though the hypothesis would
explain the appearances, that does not prove it to be true, for the real
explanation may be one not yet known to us."


the seventeenth-century peripatetics towards the science of
their day was just the opposite of what it ought to have
been. Far from courting or welcoming a possible alliance
between their cherished philosophy and the new scientific
discoveries they turned away in terror from the current
theories lest they should be compelled to abandon their
own out-of-date science. It is said that Melanchthon and
Cremonini refused to look at the heavens through a tele-
scope. And Galileo speaks of those Aristotelians who,
' rather than alter Aristotle's heavens in any particular,
obstinately deny the reality of what is visible in the actual
heavens.' The Aristotelian teaching they regarded as a
sort of monument from which not a single stone could be
extracted without upturning the whole. This it is that
explains the obstinacy with which they tried to defend the
discredited astronomy and physics of the thirteenth cen-
tury, and the ridiculous attitude of the ' Aristotelians ' in
their widespread university controversies with the Car-
tesians. Those philosophers were shortsighted ; they were
apparently unable to distinguish the essential from the
accessory ; they failed to realise the possibility of abandon-
ing certain arbitrary applications of metaphysics in the
domain of the sciences without abandoning the metaphysic
itself. Is it any wonder that they drew upon themselves
the ridicule of the scientists ? And these latter in turn
made the scholastic philosophy responsible for the errors
of medieval science, from which the former had been declared

" When we remember that for very many scholasticism
meant merely the old systems of astronomy and physics we
can understand at least to some extent why they should
treat it with such sarcasm. They were not long about dis-
crediting a system that defended such mistaken views. The
necessity of making a clean sweep of the past became more
and more apparent. And some, not satisfied with condemn-
ing all scholasticism en bloc, went even so far as to condemn
all philosophy. It is from this epoch of unparalleled progress
in the sciences of observation that we may date not only the
sharp distinction between common and scientific knowledge,
but also the divorce of the latter from philosophy. The


more moderate among the scientists, while repudiating
scholasticism with scorn, gave their adherence to some
system or other of modern philosophy ; for the latter had
always professed its respect from the very commencement
for the sensational scientific discoveries of the seventeenth
century. To sum up : The contest that arose in the seven-
teenth century between the peripatetics and the scientists
had no real bearing on the essential content of the scholastic
teaching, but regarded mere side issues and secondary
matters. The misunderstanding was indeed inevitable : it
was almost if not altogether irremediable, and unfortunately
it exists even still. The scholastics and the scientists of
those days were both alike responsible for it : the latter
would cut down the powerful oak tree of centuries on the
pretext that it bore some rotten timber under its spreading
foliage ; while the former stupidly contended that its hoary
head must not be touched at any cost — that by stripping it
of a few withered branches it would be deprived of its very
life." 1

1 I quote at length from de Wulf since he is a writer of the highest
authority, but it should be added that others take a less pessimistic view
of the so-called decadent period of scholasticism. For example, Duhem,
a first-rate authority, says (in his " Essai sur la notion de th6orie physique
de Platon a Galilee," 1908, p. 71) : " From the beginning of the fourteenth
to the beginning of the fifteenth century the University of Paris upheld
concerning scientific method a doctrine whose accuracy and depth far
surpass anything which the world heard on this subject until the middle of
the nineteenth century."


IN a previous chapter something was said as to the
methodology of Science, but the question was scarcely
carried beyond the mere matter of the collection of facts.
It is clear that Science, were it to begin and end its labours
by the collection and registration of facts, would be a barren
and uninteresting study. The collection of facts would be
like the words in a dictionary — "fine, confused reading,"
without any interest until the hand of a master has welded
them into prose or verse ; or they would be like the heap of
bricks from which, after the plan of the architect, there will
arise the stately Elizabethan hall. But directly that Science
begins to build a house with her bricks or facts she leaves
the region of fact — more or less undoubted fact — as we shall
see, for the land of surmise. She, in her turn, begins to
philosophize and it is now that she comes into direct rela-
tions, or may come into them, with religious ideas. The
truth is, of course, that Science cannot be, and ought not
to be supposed to be, capable of being confined to the mere
collection of facts without any relation to one another ; for
while she is so confined she must needs be sterile. To
become the fertile mother which she ought to be, she must
needs attempt the task of considering the relation of one
fact to another. Yet the moment that she does begin to
consider the relation of one fact to another and still more
the relations of the facts of one branch of scientific study to
those of some other branch, she enters the domain of
philosophy; for she commences the rational study of one
or of some of the problems involved in our effort to explain
the universal order of things by their ultimate causes or



It may seem a grandiose way of alluding to some very
small deduction from facts, but in essence that is what it
is ; and when the deductions are really far-reaching it is
quite obvious that they may come into serious conflict, or
at least may appear to do so, with the findings of philosophy.

If, on the fullest consideration of all the facts of the case,
it should appear that the findings are wholly irreconcilable,
then one of three things must be the case : either the
scientific man or the philosopher or both must be wrong.

Or both ; for there is an all-important point too often
forgotten, which is that because an explanation explains
it is not, therefore, the true explanation. There may be
twenty plausible explanations of a set of facts of which
nineteen must be, and all the twenty may be, wholly wrong.
Enthusiastic writers of popular treatises on science often
seem to forget this important point. Because the doctrines
of protective colouring or of sexual selection, for example,
seem to explain, and as a matter of fact would explain a
number of facts, it is therefore assumed that they must be
true explanations. Which is a non sequitur. The more
facts which a theory explains and the more wide apart
from one another those facts are, the more likely it is to be
true ; but there is a considerable gulf set between extremely
likely and perfectly certain. Many enthusiasts seem to
take this gulf in their stride ; at least they neglect to inform
their followers that it has been passed. The wary traveller
in the Land of Theories will be on the look out for the gulfs
and will be quite clear, or should make himself so, that it,
passage is legitimate.

Substitute for the Philosopher in the above remarks the
Theologian — for it is obvious that the difference of opinion
is perhaps even more likely to arise between him and the
man of Science than in the former case — and again the
same three cases arise. In some at least it will be clear
that the third alternative is the real solution and that
neither party to the question has been wholly right and
neither wholly wrong. In a word, the opposition between
the two views comes to be recognised to be apparent rather
than real. " Sometimes," says an author already quoted, 1

1 Mozley, op. cit.


" Science seems to threaten the very formulation of a spirit-
ual existence, and some theory pushes forward into the
first ranks which seems to convert our very personality
into a development and form of matter. Men tremble at
the approach of the giant who comes with uplifted arm to
aim his blow ; but if they only stand their ground the spell
is broken, the descending stroke falls harmlessly upon us
and the spectre vanishes. We shake ourselves and feel
whole and untouched. All that is required in such cases is
distinctly to see that A is not B. The. theory of the correla-
tion of vital and physical forces, while it reduces some life
to the same head with material properties, does not touch
the spiritual being or self ; consciousness witnesses to that
ego as distinct from the mere living bodily organism. The
theory again that a living organism can develop itself from
inorganic matter deals with the origination of one fact,
while that which we are conscious of is another. The
material science, even granting its pretensions, only advances
as far as some facts which come under the head of life ;
it then stops upon the outer brink, and can only look from
thence upon an unsolved personal being."

The most serious opposition naturally arises when some
scientific theory challenges, or seems to challenge, a dogma
of Theology. Of course in this case the attitude of the
Catholic is perfectly clear, nor need he feel the least anxiety
of mind. Unless everything which he, on wholly different
grounds, believes to be true, is untrue, the theory which is
giving trouble will either prove to be false or will be shown
to be explicable in terms of the dogma. Those who have
read their Newman will not require to be reminded that
whilst implicitly all dogmatic truth is final, this does not
contradict the undoubted fact that there is a development
in our comprehension of the meaning of a dogma ; and that
our comprehension may be aided and our view as to the
exact significance of the dogma in some one or more of its
applications may be modified, indeed on various occasions
has been modified, by the discoveries of science.

Hence, as will be shown from the quotation to be given
from Fr. Hull's book at the end of this chapter, the extreme
desirability of not being in a hurry to rush to the attack of


every or any new theory. But can a scientific fact ever
really come into conflict with a Catholic dogma ? To this
enquiry it may be quite confidently answered that, seeing
that God is at once the Author of Revelation and of Nature,
and that it is, therefore, impossible that there should be
any conflict between the two, it is utterly impossible that a
Fact of Science and a Dogma of Religion can come into
conflict with one another. But a Theory of Science may very
well conflict with a Dogma of Religion when the conditions
above alluded to arise. We must now, even at the risk
of some repetition, endeavour to make this matter of
Scientific Theory or Hypothesis clear, for it underlies every-
thing which will be dealt with in this book. Let us first
consider the genesis of a Hypothesis. In so doing, let us
not forget the attitude of Science, which is one of constant
expectancy of new facts and of new theories, and of readiness
to accept such theories as working hypotheses, though
without definitely committing herself to their truth.

In the first place, then, scientific observers are constantly
engaged in the revision of old facts and the search for new ;
and this brings us to the point as to the acceptance of what
is claimed to be a fact as really entitled to that name. Here
we are dealing not with what is called a theory, bat with
an isolated case. Properly speaking, a theory is something
which binds together a number of isolated facts and ex-
plains their relation to one another. But to the fact. It is
for example, an undeniable fact that human beings have
skulls. That is plain and obvious and incontrovertible. It is
a fact if there are any facts, if everything is not illusion.
But let us take another case. Huxley discovered a certain
substance in bottles containing dredgings from the deep
sea which he considered to be the simplest form of life and
named Bathybius Haeckelii. Now it will be observed that
he did not say, " My theory is that this is living substance."
He was quite clear that it was a living thing and he described
it as such, just as another man might describe a new butterfly
or a new bird. In this case, however, the fact turned out
not to be a fact. A mistake had been made and a chemical
compound accidentally formed had been taken for an
organised and living thing. Huxley, the most candid of


men, at once owned his mistake, a most unpleasant thing
to have to do, and the so-called fact disappeared save as
one of the curiosities of Science. Here was a case of mistake
as to what we may call a Central Fact ; with respect to Sub-
sidiary Facts there is far more reason for doubtfulness. In
a later section of this book it will be necessary to devote
a good deal of attention to the skulls of extinct races on
this earth. The first question — what we may call the Central
Fact — about each of these is "Is it a human skull ? "
Sometimes this question is not easy of resolution when asked
of the fragments which have alone come to hand. But
when it is answered, there are a whole series of other or
Subsidiary Facts to be determined, all of which will be dis-
cussed in their proper place. The first thing which has to
be settled is whether what appears to be what we have
described as a Central Fact is a fact at all.

With regard to thousands upon thousands of these there
is no kind of doubt possible. A group of these is brought
together by means of a theory or hypothesis. It is published :
it is submitted to scientific criticism. It may be shattered
by that criticism and disappear from view, as many a hypo-
thesis has done. Or it may survive and be accepted as a
working hypothesis, and as such may prove of inestimable
service to science, even though in the long run it may turn
out to have been at least partially and perhaps wholly
inaccurate. But all this time it remains what it has been
from the beginning — the idea of a man's mind ; and thus
wholly different from an objective fact.

In strict logic or under the strict laws of logic it is difficult
to see how anything in the nature of a Theory can ever be
said to be definitely and irrefutably proved.

Formal logicians, I believe, would tell us that by their

Online LibraryBertram Coghill Alan WindleThe church and science → online text (page 5 of 38)