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William Kingdon Clifford.

The scientific basis of morals : and other essays, viz. : right and wrong, the ethics of belief, the ethics of religion online

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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 generation.

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 made 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 colors
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 represents
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 underground 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 individual 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-fiber 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 defense of the proposition that the element
of nervous structure and function is a sensori-motor process. In
structure, this is two fibers or bundles of fibers going to the same
gray corpuscle; in function it is a message traveling up one fiber or
bundle to the corpuscle, and then down the other fiber or bundle. 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 versâ.

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 relations 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 differences of these elements. The solid
made of molecules, 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 behavior 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 uniformity.

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 representations 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 feelings and perceptions in me at
another time. The whole process relates to me and my perceptions, to
things contained in my mind. But when I infer that you are 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 inference,
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 uniformity 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 imperfect
dream, it is true, things melt into one another unexpectedly and
unaccountably; we fly, remove mountains, 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 metaphysical speculation, but a scientifically established fact.

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 consciousness, no feeling
in the case except my feelings. The man I see in waking life is more
than a bundle of phenomena; his body and its actions are phenomena,
but these phenomena are merely the symbols and representatives 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 existence 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 Red 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 triumphantly. '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-consciousness. 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 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 simultaneity
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
considering, 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
æsthetics, or, as it is sometimes 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
may be 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 succession 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 impression 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 processes. 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 represent;
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 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 consistent 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 character 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 toward 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 inquiry.

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 any one 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 forever.

Again, it is sometimes said that moral questions have been
authoritatively settled by other methods; that we 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 condemnation: 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, because the rule of uniformity does not hold good. Whenever
a man exercises his will, and makes a voluntary choice of one out of
various possible courses, an event occurs whose relation to contiguous
events cannot be included in a general statement applicable to all
similar cases. There is something wholly capricious and disorderly,
belonging to that moment only; and we have no right to conclude
that if the circumstances were exactly repeated, and the man himself
absolutely unaltered, he would choose the same course.

It is clear that if the doctrine here stated is true, the ground is
really cut from under our feet, and we cannot deal with human action
by the scientific method. I shall endeavor to show, moreover, that in
this case, although we might still have a feeling of moral approbation
or reprobation toward actions, yet we could not reasonably praise or
blame men for their deeds, nor regard them as morally responsible. So
that, if my contention is just, to deprive us of the scientific method
is practically to deprive us of morals altogether. On both grounds,
therefore, it is of the greatest importance that we should define
our position in regard to this controversy; if, indeed, that can be
called a controversy in which the practical belief of all mankind
and the consent of nearly all serious writers are on one side.

Let us in the first place consider a little more closely the connection
between conscience and responsibility. Words in common use, such as
these two, have their meanings practically fixed before difficult
controversies arise; but after the controversy has arisen each party
gives that slight tinge to the meaning which best suits its own view
of the question. Thus it appears to each that the common language
obviously supports their own view, that this is the natural and primary
view of the matter, and that the opponents are using words in a new
meaning and wrestling them from their proper sense. Now this is just
my position. I have endeavored so far to use all words in their common
every-day sense, only making this as precise as I can; and, with two
exceptions, of which due warning will be given, I shall do my best
to continue this practice in future. I seem to myself to be talking
the most obvious platitudes; but it must be remembered that those who
take the opposite view will think I am perverting the English language.

There is a common meaning of the word 'responsible,' which though
not the same as that of the phrase 'morally responsible,' may throw
some light upon it. If we say of a book, 'A is responsible for the
preface and the first half, and B is responsible for the rest,'
we mean that A wrote the preface and the first half. If two people
go into a shop and choose a blue silk dress together, it might be
said that A was responsible for its being silk and B for its being
blue. Before they chose, the dress was undetermined both in color
and in material. A's choice fixed the material, and then it was
undetermined only in color. B's choice fixed the color; and if we
suppose that there were no more variable conditions (only one blue
silk dress in the shop), the dress was then completely determined. In
this sense of the word we say that a man is responsible for that part
of an event which was undetermined when he was left out of account,
and which became determined when he was taken account of. Suppose
two narrow streets, one lying north and south, one east and west,
and crossing one another. A man is put down where they cross, and
has to walk. Then he must walk either north, south, east, or west,
and he is not responsible for that; what he is responsible for is the
choice of one of these four directions. May we not say in the present
sense of the word that the external circumstances are responsible for
the restriction on his choice? We should mean only that the fact of
his going in one or other of the four directions was due to external
circumstances, and not to him. Again, suppose I have a number of
punches of various shapes, some square, some oblong, some oval, some
round, and that I am going to punch a hole in a piece of paper. Where
I shall punch the hole may be fixed by any kind of circumstances;
but the shape of the hole depends on the punch I take. May we not say
that the punch is responsible for the shape of the hole, but not for
the position of it?

It may be said that this is not the whole of the meaning of the word
'responsible,' even in its loosest sense; that it ought never to be
used except of a conscious agent. Still this is part of its meaning;
if we regard an event as determined by a variety of circumstances,
a man's choice being among them, we say that he is responsible for
just that choice which is left him by the other circumstances.

When we ask the practical question, 'Who is responsible for
so-and-so?' we want to find out who is to be got at in order that
so-and-so may be altered. If I want to change the shape of the hole
I make in my paper, I must change my punch; but this will be of
no use if I want to change the position of the hole. If I want the
color of the dress changed from blue to green, it is B, and not A,
that I must persuade.

We mean something more than this when we say that a man is morally
responsible for an action. It seems to me that moral responsibility
and conscience go together, both in regard to the man and in regard
to the action. In order that a man may be morally responsible for an
action, the man must have a conscience, and the action must be one in
regard to which conscience is capable of acting as a motive, that is,
the action must be capable of being right or wrong. If a child were
left on a desert island and grew up wholly without a conscience, and
then were brought among men, he would not be morally responsible for
his actions until he had acquired a conscience by education. He would
of course be responsible, in the sense just explained, for that part
of them which was left undetermined by external circumstances, and
if we wanted to alter his actions in these respects we should have
to do it by altering him. But it would be useless and unreasonable
to attempt to do this by means of praise or blame, the expression of
moral approbation or disapprobation, until he had acquired a conscience
which could be worked upon by such means.


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Online LibraryWilliam Kingdon CliffordThe scientific basis of morals : and other essays, viz. : right and wrong, the ethics of belief, the ethics of religion → online text (page 3 of 10)