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from too confidently contrasting the morals of the old world and the new.'

' Even at Rome, in the worst of times ... all the relations of life
were adorned in turn with bright instances of devotion, and mankind
transacted their business with an ordinary confidence in the force of con-
science and right reason. The steady development of enlightened legal
principles conclusively proves the general dependence upon law as a guide
and corrector of manners. In the camp, however, more especially, as the
chief sphere of this purifying activity, the great qualities of the Roman
character continued to be plainly manifested. This history of the Caesars
presents to us a constant succession of brave, patient, resolute, and faithful
soldiers, men deeply impressed with a sense of duty, superior to vanity,
despisers of boasting, content to toil in obscurity and shed their blood at the
frontiers of the empire, unrepining at the cold mistrust of their masters, not
clamorous for the honours so sparingly awarded to them, but satisfied in the
daily work of their hands, and full of faith in the national destiny which
they were daily accomplishing.'

1 Finlay, ' Greece under the Romans.'


and administered a mighty empire so that it was loved
and worshipped to the furthest corner of it. It is to
these men and their common action that we must attri-
bute the morality which found its organized expression
in the writings of the Stoic philosophers. ( From these
three cases we may gather that Eight is a thing which
must be done before it can be talked about, although
after that it may only too easily be talked about with-
out being done/? Individual effort and energy may in-
sist upon getting that done which was already felt to
be right ; and individual insight and acumen may point
out consequences of an action which bring it under
previously known moral rules. There is another dis-
pute of the Eabbis that may serve to show what is meant
by this. It was forbidden by the law to have any deal-
ings with the Sabgean idolaters during the week pre-
ceding their idolatrous feasts. But the doctors discussed
the case in which one of these idolaters owes you a bill ;
are you to let him pay it during that week or not?
The school of Shammai said ' No ; for he will want all
his money to enjoy himself at the feast.' But the
school of Hillel said, ' Yes, let him pay it ; for how can
he enjoy his feast while his bills are unpaid ? ' The
question here is about the consequences of an action ;
but there is no dispute about the moral principle,
which is that consideration and kindness are to be
shown to idolaters, even in the matter of their idolatrous

It seems, then, that we are no worse off than any-
body else who has studied this subject, in finding our
materials ready made for us ; sufficiently definite mean-
ings given in the common speech to the words right and


wrong, good and bad, with which we have to deal ; a
fair body of facts familiarly known, which we have to
organize and account for as best we can. But our
special inquiry is, what account can be given of these
facts by the scientific method ? to which end we cannot
do better than fix our ideas as well as we can upon the
character and scope of that method.

Now the scientific method is a method of getting
knowledge by inference, and that of two different kinds.
One kind of inference is that which is used in the phy-
sical and natural sciences, and it enables us to go from
known phenomena to unknown phenomena. Because a
stone is heavy in the morning, I infer that it will be
heavy in the afternoon ; and I infer this by assuming a
certain uniformity of nature. The sort of uniformity
that I assume depends upon the extent of my scientific
education ; the rules of inference become more and more
definite as we go on. At first I might assume that all
things are always alike ; this would not be true, but it
has to be assumed in a vague way, in order that a thing
may have the same name at different times. Afterwards
I get the more definite belief that certain particular
qualities, like weight, have nothing to do with the time
of day ; and subsequently I find that weight has nothing
to do with the shape of the stone, but only with the
quantity of it. The uniformity which we assume, then,
is not that vague one that we started with, but a
chastened and corrected uniformity. I might go on to
suppose, for example, that the weight of the stone had
nothing to do with the place where it was ; and a great
deal might be said for this supposition. It would, how-
ever, have to be corrected when it was found that the


weight varies slightly in different latitudes. On the
other hand, I should find that this variation was just
the same for my stone as for a piece of iron or wood ;
that it had nothing to do with the kind of matter. And
so I might be led to the conclusion that all matter is
heavy, and that the weight of it depends only on its
quantity and its position relative to the earth. You see
here that I go on arriving at conclusions always of this
form ; that some one circumstance or quality has
nothing to do with some other circumstance or quality.
I begin by assuming that it is independent of everything ;
I end by finding that it is independent of some definite
things. That is, I begin by assuming a vague uni-
formity. I always use this assumption to infer from
some one fact a great number of other facts ; but as iny
education proceeds, I get to know what sort of things
may be inferred and what may not. An observer of
scientific mind takes note of just those things from
which inferences may be drawn, and passes by the
rest. If an astronomer, observing the sun, were to
record the fact that at the moment when a sun-spot
began to shrink there was a rap at his front door, we
should know that he was not up to his work. But if he
records that sun-spots are thickest every eleven years,
and that this is also the period of extra cloudiness in
Jupiter, the observation may or may not be confirmed,
and it may or may not lead to inferences of importance ;
but still it is the kind of thing from which inferences
may be drawn. There is always a certain instinct
among instructed people which tells them in this way
what kinds of inferences may be drawn ; and this is the
unconscious effect of the definite uniformity which they


have been led to assume in nature. It may subsequently
be organized into a law or general truth, and no doubt
becomes a surer guide by that process. Then it goes
to form the more precise instinct of the next genera-

What we have said about this first kind of inference,
which goes from phenomena to phenomena, is shortly
this. It proceeds upon an assumption of uniformity in
nature ; and this assumption is not fixed and m-ade once
for all, but is a changing and growing thing, becoming
more definite as we go on.

If I were told to pick out some one character which
especially colours this guiding conception of uniformity
in our present stage of science, I should certainly reply,
Atomism. The form of this with which we are most
familiar is the molecular theory of bodies ; which repre-
sents all bodies as made up of small elements of uniform
character, each practically having relations only with
the adjacent ones, and these relations the same all
through namely, some simple mechanical action upon
each other's motions. But this is only a particular
case. A palace, a cottage, the tunnel of the under-
ground railway, and a factory chimney, are all built of
bricks ; the bricks are alike in all these cases, each
brick is practically related only to the adjacent ones,
and the relation is throughout the same, namely, two
flat sides are stuck together with mortar. There is an
atomism in the sciences of number, of quantity, of
space ; the theorems of geometry are groupings of indi-
vidual points, each related only to the adjacent ones by
certain definite laws. But what concerns us chiefly at
present is the atomism of human physiology. Just as


every solid is built up of molecules, so the nervous
system is built up of nerve-threads and nerve-corpuscles.
We owe to Mr. Lewes our very best thanks for the
stress which he has laid on the doctrine that nerve-fibre
is uniform in structure and function, and for the word
neurility, which expresses its common properties. And
similar gratitude is due to Dr. Hughlings Jackson for
his long defence of the proposition that the element of
nervous structure and function is a sensori-motor
process. In structure, this is two fibres or bundles of
fibres going to the same grey corpuscle ; in function it
is a message travelling up one fibre or bundle to the
corpuscle, and then down the other fibre or bundle. 1
Out of this, as a brick, the house of our life is built.
All these simple elementary processes are alike, and each
is practically related only to the adjacent ones ; the
relation being in all cases of the same kind, viz., the
passage from a simple to a complex message, or vice

The result of atomism in any form, dealing with any
subject, is that the principle of uniformity is hunted
down into the elements of things ; it is resolved into the
uniformity of these elements or atoms, and of the rela-
tions of those which are next to each other. By an
element or an atom we do not here mean something
absolutely simple or indivisible, for a molecule, a brick,
and a nerve -process are all very complex things. We
only mean that, for the purpose in hand, the properties
of the still more complex thing which is made of
them have nothing to do with the complexities or the

1 Mr. Herbert Spencer had assigned a slightly different element. ' Prin-
ciples of Psychology/ vol. i., p. 28.


differences of these elements. The solid made of mole-
cules, the house made of bricks, the nervous system
made of sensori-motor processes, are nothing more than
collections of these practically uniform elements, having
certain relations of nextness, and behaviour uniformly
depending on that nextness.

The inference of phenomena from phenomena, then,
is based upon an assumption of uniformity, which in the
present stage of science may be called an atomic uni-

The other mode of inference which belongs to the
scientific method is that which is used in what are called
the mental and moral sciences ; and it enables us to go
from phenomena to the facts which underlie phenomena,
and which are themselves not phenomena at all. If I pinch
your arm, and you draw it away and make a face, I infer
that you have felt pain. I infer this by assuming that
you have a consciousness similar to my own, and related
to your perception of your body as my consciousness is
related to my perception of my body. Now is this the
same assumption as before, a mere assumption of the
uniformity of nature ? It certainly seems like it at
first ; but if we think about it we shall find that there is
a very profound difference between them. In physical
inference I go from phenomena to phenomena ; that is,
from the knowledge of certain appearances or represen-
tations actually present to my mind I infer certain other
appearances that might be present to my mind. From
the weight of a stone in the morning that is, from my
feeling of its weight, or my perception of the process of
weighing it, I infer that the stone will be heavy in the
afternoon that is, I infer the possibility of similar feel-


ings and perceptions in me at another time. The whole
process relates to me and my perceptions, to things con-
tained in my mind. But when I infer that you are "7
conscious from, what you say or do, I pass from that
which is my feeling or perception, which is in my mind
and part of me, to that which is not my feeling at all,
which is outside me altogether, namely, your feelings and
perceptions. Now there is no possible physical infer-
ence, no inference of phenomena from phenomena, that
will help me over that gulf. I am obliged to admit
that this second kind of inference depends upon another
assumption, not included in the assumption of the uni- ^
formity of phenomena.

How does a dream differ from waking life ? In a
fairly coherent dream everything seems quite real, and
it is rare, I think, with most people to know in a dream
that they are dreaming. Now, if a dream is sufficiently
vivid and coherent, all physical inferences are just as
valid in it as they are in waking life. In a hazy or im-
perfect dream, it is true, things melt into one another
unexpectedly and unaccountably ; we fly, remove moun-
tains, and stop runaway horses with a finger. But there
is nothing in the mere nature of a dream to hinder it
from being an exact copy of waking experience. If I
find a stone heavy in one part of my dream, and infer
that it is heavy at some subsequent part, the inference
will be verified if the dream is coherent enough ; I shall
go to the stone, lift it up, and find it as heavy as before.
And the same thing is true of all inferences of phenomena
from phenomena. For physical purposes a dream is just
as good as real life ; the only difference is in vividness
and coherence.


What, then, hinders us from saying that life is all a
dream ? If the phenomena we dream of are just as good
and real phenomena as those we see and feel when we
are awake, what right have we to say that the material
universe has any more existence apart from our minds
than the things we see and feel in our dreams ? The
answer which Berkeley gave to that question was, No
right at all. The physical universe which I see and
feel, and infer, is just my dream and nothing else ; that
which you see is your dream ; only it so happens that
all our dreams agree in many respects. This doctrine
of Berkeley's has now been so far confirmed by the
physiology of the senses, that it is no longer a meta-
physical speculation, but a scientifically established

But there is a difference between dreams and waking
life, which is of far too great importance for any of us
to be in danger of neglecting it. When I see a man in
my dream, there is just as good a body as if I were
awake ; muscles, nerves, circulation, capability of
adapting means to ends. If only the dream is coherent
enough, no physical test can establish that it is a dream.
In both cases I see and feel the same thing. In both
cases I assume the existence of more than I can see and
feel, namely, the consciousness of this other man. But
now here is a great difference, and the only difference
in a dream this assumption is wrong ; in waking life it
is right. The man I see in my dream is a mere machine,
a bundle of phenomena with no underlying reality ;
there is no consciousness involved except my conscious-
ness, no feeling in the case except my feelings. The
man I see in waking life is more than a bundle of phe-


nomena ; his body and its actions are phenomena, but
these phenomena are merely the symbols and represen-
tatives in my mind of a reality which is outside my mind,
namely, the consciousness of the man himself which is
represented by the working of his brain, and the simpler
quasi-mental facts, not woven into his consciousness,
which are represented by the working of the rest of his
body. What makes life not to be a dream is the exist-
ence of those facts which we arrive at by our second
process of inference ; the consciousness of men and the
higher animals, the sub-consciousness of lower organisms
and the quasi-mental facts which go along with the
motions of inanimate matter. In a book which is very
largely and deservedly known by heart, ' Through the
Looking-glass/ there is a very instructive discussion
upon this point. Alice has been taken to see the Eed
King as he lies snoring ; and Tweedledee asks, ' Do you
know what he is dreaming about ? ' ' Nobody can guess
that,' replies Alice. ' Why, about you, he says trium-
phantly. ' And if he stopped dreaming about you,
where do you suppose you'd be? ' < Where I am now
of course,' said Alice. 'Not you,' said Tweedledee,
' you'd be nowhere. You are only a sort of thing in
his dream.' ' If that there King was to wake,' added
Tweedledum, 'you'd go out, bang! just like a candle.
Alice was quite right in regarding these remarks as
unphilosophical. The fact that she could see, think,
and feel was proof positive that she was not a sort of
thing in anybody's dream. This is the meaning of that
saying, Cogito ergo sum, of Descartes. By him, and by
Spinoza after him, the verb cogito and the substantive
cogitatio were used to denote consciousness in general,


any kind of feeling, even what we now call sub-con-
sciousness. The saying means that feeling exists in and
for itself, not as a quality or modification or state or
manifestation of anything else.

We are obliged in every hour of our lives to act
upon beliefs which have been arrived at by inferences
of these two kinds ; inferences based on the assumption
ip of uniformity in nature, and inferences which add to
this the assumption of feelings which are not our own.
By organizing the ' common sense ' which embodies the
first class of inferences, we build up the physical
sciences ; that is to say, all those sciences which deal
with the physical, material, or phenomenal universe,
whether animate or inanimate. And so by organizing
the common sense which embodies the second class of
inferences, we build up various sciences of mind. The
description and classification of feelings, the facts of
their association with each other, and of their simulta-
neity with phenomena of nerve-action, all this belongs
to psychology, which may be historical and comparative.
The doctrine of certain special classes of feelings is
organized into the special sciences of those feelings;
thus the facts about the feelings which we are now con-
sidering, about the feelings of moral approbation and
reprobation, are organized into the science of ethics, and
the facts about the feeling of beauty or ugliness are
organized into the science of aesthetics, or, as it is some-
times called, the philosophy of art. For all of these the
uniformity of nature has to be assumed as a basis of
inference ; but over and above that it is necessary to
assume that other men are conscious in the same way
that I am. Now in these sciences of mind, just as in the


physical sciences, the uniformity which is assumed in
the inferred mental facts is a growing thing which
becomes more definite as we go on, and each successive
generation of observers knows better what to observe


and what sort of inferences maybe drawn from observed
things. But, moreover, it is as true of the mental
sciences as of the physical ones that the uniformity is
in the present stage of science an atomic uniformity.
We have learned to regard our consciousness as made
up of elements practically alike, having relations of suc-
cession in time and of contiguity at each instant, which
relations are in all cases practically the same. The
element of consciousness is the transference of an impres-
sion into the beginning of action. Our mental life is a
structure made out of such elements, just as the working
of our nervous system is made out of sensori-motor pro-
cesses. And accordingly the interaction of the two
branches of science leads us to regard the mental facts
as the realities or things-in-themselves, of which the
material phenomena are mere pictures or symbols. The
final result seems to be that atomism is carried beyond
phenomena into the realities which phenomena repre-
sent ; and that the observed uniformities of nature, in
so far as they can be expressed in the language of
atomism, are actual uniformities of things in themselves.
So much for the two things which I have promised
to bring together ; the facts of our moral feelings, and j
the scientific method. It may appear that the latter
has been expounded at more length than was necessary
for the treatment of this particular subject ; but the
justification for this length is to be found in certain
common objections to the claims of science to be the



sole judge of mental and moral questions. Some of the
chief of these objections I will now mention.

It is sometimes said that science can only deal with
what is, but that art and morals deal with what ought
to be. The saying is perfectly true, but it is quite con-
sistent with what is equally true, that the facts of art
and morals are fit subject-matter of science. I may
describe all that I have in my house, and I may state
everything that I want in my house ; these are two
very different things, but they are equally statements of
facts. One is a statement about phenomena, about the
objects which are actually in my possession ; the other
is a statement about my feelings, about my wants and
desires. There are facts, to be got at by common sense,
about the kind of thing that a man of a certain charac-
ter and occupation will like to have in his house, and
these facts may be organized into general statements
on the assumption of uniformity in nature. Now the
organized results of common sense dealing with facts are
just science and nothing else. And in the same way I
may say what men do at the present day, how we live
now, or I may say what we ought to do, namely, what
course of conduct, if adopted, we should morally approve ;
and no doubt these would be two very different things.
But each of them would be a statement of facts. One
would belong to the sociology of our time ; in so far as
men's deeds could not be adequately described to us
without some account of their feelings and intentions, it
would involve facts belonging to psychology as well as
facts belonging to the physical sciences. But the other
would be an account of a particular class of our feelings,
namely, those which we feel towards an action when it


is regarded as right or wrong. These facts may be
organized by common sense on the assumption of
uniformity in nature just as well as any other facts.
And we shall see farther on that not only in this sense,
but in a deeper and more abstract sense, ' what ought
to be done ' is a question for scientific enquiry.

The same objection is sometimes put into another
form. It is said that, laws of chemistry, for example,
are general statements about what happens when bodies
are treated in a certain way, and that such laws are fit
matter for science ; but that moral laws are different,
because they tell us to do certain things, and we may or
may not obey them. The mood of the one is indicative,
of the other imperative. Now it is quite true that the
word law in the expression ' law of nature,' and in the
expressions ' law of morals/ ' law of the land,' has two
totally different meanings, which no educated person
will confound ; and I am not aware that anyone has
rested the claim of science to judge moral questions on
what is no better than a stale and unprofitable pun.
But two different things may be equally matters of
scientific investigation, even when their names are alike
in sound. A telegraph post is not the same thing as a
post in the War Office, and yet the same intelligence
may be used to investigate the conditions of the one and
the other. That such and such things are right or
wrong, that such and such laws are laws of morals or
laws of the land, these are facts, just as the laws of
chemistry are facts ; and all facts belong to science, and
are her portion for ever.

Again, it is sometimes said that moral questions have
been authoritatively settled by other methods ; that we

L 2


ought to accept this decision, and not to question it by
any method of scientific inquiry ; and that reason should
give way to revelation on such matters. I hope before
I have done to show just cause why we should pronounce
on such teaching as this no light sentence of moral con-
demnation : first, because it is our duty to form those
beliefs which are to guide our actions by the two
scientific modes of inference, and by these alone ; and,
secondly, because the proposed mode of settling ethical
questions by authority is contrary to the very nature of
right and wrong.

Leaving this, then, for the present, I pass on to the
most formidable objection that has been made to a
scientific treatment of ethics. The objection is that the
scientific method is not applicable to human action,

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Online LibraryWilliam Kingdon CliffordLectures and essays by William Kingdon Clifford (Volume 2) → online text (page 10 of 22)