Bertram Coghill Alan Windle.

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rules the heliocentric theory of the solar system is not
proved to a demonstration. Yet no one doubts that ex-
planation any more than anybody doubts the truth of
Gravitation, though physicists are still unable to show what
causes the results which are described under that name.

We may now proceed to consider an illustration of these

The fact that a buttercup, for example, has five or more


petals and numerous stamens is a fact which any person
with eyes can demonstrate for himself at the proper season
of the year, which no one will desire to dispute, and which
has no relation to any religious dogma. But it does not
carry us very far. Let us go a step farther and observe
some thousands of buttercups. We find that they all have
the same general characters, and we establish in our mind
the idea not only that there is a single flower called a butter-
cup but that there are uncounted millions of buttercups
every year. The next thing which we find is that there are
a lot of other flowers which certainly are not buttercups
but which have the same general characters. So that one
of the first tasks to which botanists have to apply, and
have applied, their minds is the arrangement of plants into
classes. Linnaeus tried to do this on an unnatural system —
a system admitted by its author to be unnatural, since it
grouped together in a wholly arbitrary manner plants
really quite unrelated. Nevertheless, even this system,
though non-natural, was a very useful one ; for it at least
effected this object, that it brought isolated facts into some
sort of concordance with one another and afforded an op-
portunity for a further sorting out to take place.

It became clear before long, however, if indeed it
was not clear from the first, that the Linnaean system
grouped together plants whose real characters were not
similar but widely opposed to one another, and this
because the lines on which it worked were non-natural :
and eventually there came into existence the so-called
"natural" classification, which we owe very largely to
the labours of de Jussieu in France and of Robert Brown
in England. This system, so we think at present, does
include in one group plants having common characteristics
and perhaps a closer genetic relationship with one another
than those of other groups. I ask my readers to note the
importance of those last few words. For a moment, however,
we may observe that in thus leaving the region of isolated
facts for that of the construction of classes — categories we
may call them for the time being — science has begun to enter
the fields of philosophy. It may be admitted that she has
not got far enough into them to come into any kind of



contact with the philosophers, still less with the theologians.
But let us return to the last few words of the sentence above
to which attention was called. Here we enter upon more
debatable ground. No one will deny that the sweet-pea has
certain characteristics which need not here be detailed.
No one will deny that the common horse-bean has similar
characteristics. No one will quarrel with their both being
placed in the same family of Papilionaceae. Few, if any,
will dispute the theory that the sweet-pea and the bean,
since they have not existed from the beginning of things,
may have had a common ancestor. The theory is often
expounded that all plants have come from a common
ancestor — even that all living things have come from a
common ancestor, if we may use so exalted a title for what is
postulated as the primeval living cell. Yes, but let us see
how far we are treading on rock in this matter and how far
on less certain ground. So far as the characters of the
plants are concerned there is no doubt. These are facts,
that is to say if there is any reality in the things which we
see, then the pea and the bean have the characteristics
which are set down concerning them in the manuals of
botany. In other words, we may give them the same
credence that we do to the whiteness of snow, the coldness
of ice, or any of the other natural facts which are made known
to us through our senses.

Further, when the botanists bring them into groups by
assembling them in the so-called Natural Orders we are
still confronted by easily ascertainable facts, and would be
wholly unjustified if we refused to admit them. But when
we come to the next series of questions we are on very differ-
ent ground. No person has ever seen or ever demonstrated
the common ancestor of the bean and the sweet-pea. How-
ever likely it may be that they have had a common ancestor,
the fact is still unproved ; the common ancestor remains a
matter of theory or hypothesis. And the same is still more
true of the hypothetical primeval cell. In the very nature
of things no one can possibly have seen this cell ; and as a
matter of fact up to the present, in spite of all the efforts of
men of science, no one has ever discovered any absolutely
irrefutable evidence in favour of what most people think


to have been the probable explanation of species. "It is
ridiculous to ask for any such evidence 1 ' This may be
admitted, but what remains is that without such evidence
the thing before us is not a Fact but a Theory or Hypothesis.
It may be a well-established Theory or it may not. It
may be held by every man of science or it may not. It
still remains a Theory and, as such, is in a wholly different
category from that of the ascertained and demonstrable
fact. It may become a demonstrated Fact some day or it
may not. Considering the finite nature of man's knowledge
and the constant increase in his acquaintance with facts in
the nature of things the latter is the more likely event.
The Theory may hold the field for a long time and serve a
most useful purpose while it does, as did the old chemical
theory of the elements ; and like that theory it may turn
out to have been wholly untrue, even though at one time it
was the teaching of all men of science. A person cannot
refuse to believe a true scientific fact, such as that human
beings have osseous backbones, and still retain a reputation
for sanity. But, when he considers all that has happened
even in recent years, perhaps especially in recent years,
in the history of science, he can be pardoned if he suspends
his opinion on any theory of science, and particularly if he
suspends it when that theory appears to conflict with any-
thing which he believes on higher grounds. He can and he
may do this, when he would be insane if he asked leave to
suspend his decision on the backbone question. More
especially may he venture to suspend his opinion when he
finds that men of science are not all of one mind on the
point in question ; indeed, under those circumstances, it
would seem to be prudent for the ordinary person to suspend
his judgement.

Thus a man who would refuse to believe in the Law of
Gravitation would certainly be taking up a position very
hard of justification, whereas if he contented himself with
stating that Natural Selection was a very unsatisfactory
explanation of the origin of species he may at least shelter
himself behind the patent fact that men of science hold very
widely divergent opinions as to the real value of that
doctrine. When we are confronted with a difficulty of the


kind indicated in the preceding pages it will always be well
for us to ask ourselves, " Are we dealing with a Fact or a
Theory ? ' It is quite safe to say that, if there be any
difficulty for us to deal with, it is caused by a Theory and not
by a Fact : and, that being the case, it will then be necessary
for us to make careful enquiries as to what facts the Theory
is based upon, and how far it is really deducible from them
before we yield our assent to it.

The points on which emphasis has just been laid will
come up for consideration in specific cases more than once
in these pages : meantime it will clear the way to have
them briefly laid down in these preliminary observations.

It is part of the purpose of this book to state quite
definitely and unhesitatingly what are the dicta of the
Church in connection with scientific matters. They will
be found, by those ignorant of the real state of the
case, to be quite startlingly few in number. On the
point with which we have been dealing nothing can be
more specific or clear than the teaching contained in the
Encyclical of Pope Leo XIII entitled " Providentissimus
Deus " :

" There can never," it states, " be any real discrepancy
between the theologian and the physicist ' (by which he
means what is commonly called the man of science), " as
long as each confines himself within his own lines, and
both are careful, as St. Augustine warns us, ' not to make
rash assertions, or to assert what is not known as known.'
If dissension should arise between them, here is the rule
also laid down by St. Augustine for the theologian : ' What-
ever they can really demonstrate to be true of physical
nature, we must show to be capable of reconciliation with
our Scriptures : and whatever they assert in their treatises
which is contrary to these Scriptures of ours, that is Catholic
faith, we must either prove it as well as we can to be en-
tirely false, or at all events we must, without the slightest
hesitation, believe it to be so.' To understand how just
is the rule here formulated we must remember, first, that
the sacred writers, or to speak more accurately, the Holy
Ghost ' who spoke by them, did not intend to teach men
these things (that is to say, the essential nature of the


things of the visible universe), things in no way profitable
unto salvation.' Hence they did not seek to penetrate
the secrets of nature, but rather described and dealt with
things in more or less figurative language, or in terms
which were commonly used at the time, and which in many
instances are in daily use at this day, even by the most
eminent men of science.

" Ordinary speech primarily and properly describes what
comes under the senses ; and somewhat in the same way
the sacre<3 writers — as the Angelic Doctor also reminds us
— ' went by what sensibly appeared,' or put down what
God speaking to men, signified in the way men could under-
stand and were accustomed to. The unshrinking defence
of the Holy Scriptures, however, does not require that we
should equally uphold all the opinions which each of the
Fathers or the more recent interpreters have put forth in
explaining it ; for it may be that, in commenting on pas-
sages where physical " (i.e. scientific) " matters occur, they
have sometimes expressed the ideas of their own times,
and thus made statements which in these days have been
abandoned as incorrect. Hence, in their interpretations,
we must carefully note what they lay down as belonging
to faith, or as intimately connected with faith — what they
are unanimous in. For ' in those things which do not come
under the obligation of faith, the Saints were at liberty to
hold divergent opinions just as we ourselves are,' according
to the saying of St. Thomas. And in another place he says
most admirably : ' When philosophers are agreed upon a
point, and it is not contrary to our faith, it is safer, in my
opinion, neither to lay down such a point as a dogma of
faith, even though it is perhaps so presented by the philo-
phers, nor to reject it as against faith, lest we thus give to
the wise of this world an occasion of despising our faith.'
The Catholic interpreter, although he should show that
those facts of natural science which investigators affirm to
be now quite certain are not contrary to the Scripture
rightly explained, must nevertheless always bear in mind,
that much which has been held as proved certain has on
further examination turned out not to be so."

There are several conclusions which may be drawn


from what has been said in this chapter, perhaps the most
important of them being the wisdom of the advice which
recommends the defenders of religion, in the popular phrase
of the day, to " wait and see." Careful thought and con-
sideration of the facts will often lead to a better apprecia-
tion of the exact bearings of the opinion of one side and
those of the other.

I shall conclude this long but essential chapter with a
lengthy quotation from Fr. Hull, whose authority as a
theologian will excuse me for preferring his statement to
anything which I could myself construct. Writing as to
the proper policy of the Church confronted with a new idea
and having stated that it consists in suspending judgement
until the matter has been thoroughly thrashed out, whilst
at the same time taking such steps as are necessary to pre-
vent the consciences of less educated Catholics from being
wounded, he proceeds : " Down to a generation or two ago
it was the general belief of Christians that the deluge of
Noah covered the whole earth, and that it is so described
in the most explicit terms in the Bible. Certain new con-
siderations, mainly drawn from Geology, led specialists to
the contrary conclusion that the deluge was by no means
universal, but was a comparatively local phenomenon ;
widespread enough to cover the area occupied by mankind
at that time, but not much more. The view at first found
considerable opposition in theological circles ; partly be-
cause the restriction of the area of the flood was not as yet
demonstrated beyond question, and partly because it ran
eounter to the literal text of the Scripture as universally
understood by its interpreters. Fortunately the view did
not attain such sudden publicity as to cause a widespread
sensation, and so no crisis arose. The partial-deluge view
gradually came to look more and more feasible, and the
possibility of interpreting Scripture accordingly became
more and more evident. The new view gradually filtered
down from learned circles to the man in the street, so that
nowadays the partiality of the deluge is a matter of common-
place knowledge among all educated Christians, and is
even taught to the rising generation in elementary schools.

" But suppose this denial of the universality of the deluge


had been suddenly sprung upon the world in general, and
bruited about in the streets and squares of every city.
It would come as a shock, not only to theologians of the
conservative school but also and above all to the faithful
laity, who would look upon it as a sudden tactic of unbelief,
and the upsetting of their simple faith in the word of God.
Suppose, moreover, that those who embraced and pro-
pagated the new view were most of them men prone to be
enamoured of ' progress ' and impatient of authority, while
its opponents were men of unquestionable orthodoxy and
edifying Catholic spirit. Before long a crisis would
certainly arise. The cry would go forth that infidelity was
spreading and the faith in danger. In such an emergency
the Church authorities would feel the necessity of a remedy ;
and this remedy might easily take the form of condemning
the new doctrine — not precisely because it was ascertained
to be false or contrary to divine truth, but because its
psychological effects on the minds of the faithful were
practically destructive of their faith. In other words, the
doctrine would have to be discountenanced for the time,
not as false but as rash or unsafe, and its propagation as

' Other instances might easily be multiplied. For
instance, the discovery two generations ago by geologists
of the extreme antiquity of man on the earth was popularly
regarded as an entire refutation of the Bible record, simply
because people believed that the date of Adam was fixed
by the Bible ; and I remember a young man who actually
became an infidel through reading a book of this kind.
Similarly in Italy, in the time of Galileo, it is quite likely
that a number of people, accustomed to understand the
miracle of Joshua in its literal terms, felt that the truth
of the Bible was gone when it became clear that Joshua
could not have caused the sun to stand still, because it was
standing still already. In such a contingency a strong and
assertive policy is required." 1

No doubt this will seem a hard saying to those outside
the Church. To many such it is simply incomprehensible
that any person or any body should concern itself respecting

1 "Galileo," Catholic Truth Society (is. 3d. net), p. 105 seq.


so nebulous and problematical a thing as the soul and its
future prospects. But if one is to understand anything
about any particular organisation, it is absolutely necessary
to try to comprehend its standpoint and first principles.

This book is written chiefly for the information of Catholics,
who will not require instruction in the first principles of
their religion. But it may also come under the eyes of non-
Catholics, who may be presumed to be seeking information
as to our ideas. It is as well for them to understand that
the central object, the raison d'etre of the Church, is the
salvation of souls. Bearing this cardinal fact in mind it is
clear that if at any time it appeared that the premature
brandishing in the face of the public of some doubtful and
disputable idea was endangering souls, it might be the
duty of the Church to forbid those of her children who were
not educated enough to appreciate the matter in all its
bearings, and to bring to bear upon it really valuable critic-
ism, favourable or unfavourable, to abstain from discussing
it. And further it might be her duty to instruct those who
were capable of discussing it to do so amongst themselves,
and, above all things, not to proclaim as absolute truth
what might turn out to be only partially true. All these
things might and very probably would be done, though
nobody now would attempt to defend the action of the
Holy Office at the time of and in the case of Galileo. The
modern attitude is summed up in the words of Leo XIII —
" we proclaim that every wise thought and every useful
discovery ought to be gladly welcomed and gratefully re-
ceived by us, whatever its origin may have been." On
these lines was founded the Institute of Catholic Philosophy
in the University of Louvain, from which has come forth
so much valuable constructive work, scientific as well as


WHEN any person not a professed physicist approaches
the question of the ultimate composition of the
Universe, he cannot fail to be impressed with the extreme
caution which authorities on that subject exhibit in dealing
with the hypotheses of the day ; with the hesitation which
they obviously feel in definitely and dogmatically commit-
ting themselves to any special view; nay even with the
scepticism which some of them express, not only as to present-
day theories but even as to the possibility of attaining to
any true knowledge of the real state of affairs. Thus, for
example, Poincare, a distinguished French man of science
recently dead, writes in very pragmatist language i 1 " Prin-
ciples are conventions and definitions in disguise. They are,
however, deduced from experimental laws, and these laws
have, so to speak, been erected into principles to which our
mind attributes an absolute value. . . . The fundamental
propositions of geometry, for instance Euclid's postulate,
are only conventions ; and it is quite as unreasonable to
ask if they are true or false as to ask if the metric system is
true or false. Only, these conventions are convenient. . . .
Whether the ether exists or not matters little : let us leave
that to the metaphysicians ; what is essential for us is that
everything happens as if it existed, and that this hypothesis
is found to be suitable for the explanation of phenomena.
After all, have we any other reason for believing in the
existence of material objects ? That, too, is only a con-
venient hypothesis." The same attitude has been com-
mented on and criticised by Schuster. 2 " Vagueness, which

1 As quoted by Lodge, " Continuity," p. 18.
? As quoted by Lodge, op. cit. t p. 17.



used to be recognised as our great enemy, is now being en-
shrined as an idol to be worshipped. We may never know
what constitutes atoms, or what is the real structure of the
ether; why trouble, therefore, it is said, to find out more about
them ? Is it not safer, on the contrary, to confine ourselves
to a general talk on entropy, luminiferous vectors, and un-
defined symbols expressing vaguely certain physical rela-
tionships ? What really lies at the bottom of the great
fascination which these new doctrines exert on the present
generation is sheer cowardice ; the fear of having its errors
brought home to it. ... I believe this doctrine to be fatal
to a healthy development of science. Granting the impos-
sibility of penetrating beyond the most superficial layers of
observed phenomena, I would put the distinction between
the two attitudes of mind in this way : One glorifies our
ignorance, while the other accepts it as a regrettable neces-

When, therefore, we approach the study of the questions
which have to be dealt with in this and the next chapter
we must ever bear in mind that we are not dealing with
certitudes of science but only with theories more or less
well established in some cases ; perhaps highly likely in
others ; in certain cases only tentatively advanced.

With this preliminary caution we may now proceed to
consider what is placed before us for acceptance by the
highest authorities on that subject with respect to the
Ether of Space or the Luminiferous Ether or simply the
Ether. 1

In the first place, why the Ether of Space ? Space is
often spoken of as " infinite," and no one can have read

1 For the sake of readers unfamiliar with the terminology of science it
may be well to point out that the entity with which we are dealing in this
chapter has nothing whatever to do with the fluid used as an anaesthetic for
operative purposes. Our subject has the prior right to the name, no doubt,
but for one person who has heard of the ether of space there must be
hundreds who have personally experienced the effects of the ether of the
pharmacist. Hence a very natural confusion. In the same way the
adjective " ethereal " has come to have a secondary significance which
has assumed so much greater importance than that which legitimately
attaches to it as to make it practically unusable in its proper way. Hence
" etheric " is sometimes used in its stead when the properties of the ether
of space are under consideration. It ought also to be pointed out that
the Theory of the Ether is selected as one of prominence at the present
day, though it cannot be said to be proved to universal satisfaction.


much poetry without having discovered that it is commonly
described as " empty." But empty it is not if the ether
really exists, for wherever space is — that is, throughout the
universe — there also is the ether. 1 Were it not so we should
be in a great difficulty as to how to explain the undoubted
occurrence of action at a distance. Matter, it is commonly
held, cannot act where it is not but only where it is. If
space is really empty how is it that the sun and moon
exercise influence over the earth ? " Technical action at a
distance is impossible. A body can only act immediately
on what it is in contact with ; it must be by the action of
contiguous particles — that is, practically, through a con-
tinuous medium, that force can be transmitted across space.
Radiation is not the only thing the earth feels from the
sun ; there is in addition its gigantic gravitative pull, a
force or tension more than what a million million steel rods,
each seventeen feet in diameter, could stand. What mechanism
transmits this gigantic force ? Again, take a steel bar itself
when violently stretched, with how great tenacity its parts
cling together ! Yet its particles are not in absolute contact,
they are only virtually attached to each other by means
of the universal connecting medium — the ether — a medium
that must be competent to transmit the greatest stresses
which our knowledge of gravitation and of cohesion shows
us to exist." 2 It must not for a moment be supposed that
the ether only exists in what is popularly called space.
Space for many people is a kind of ill-defined area which
begins somewhere about the point where our atmosphere
ceases. Of course such is not the case. The ether is omni-

Online LibraryBertram Coghill Alan WindleThe church and science → online text (page 6 of 38)