Spirit of ice and snow,
Goddess, whose hands are laid
Upon the brows of men who needs must go
Seeking Thy loneliness, immortal Maid,
Within the fastness of Thy frozen place;
Dost Thou their toil behold?
Thine heart is dull with cold,
Cold is Thy shrine, and colder Thine embrace!
Whence do the deep spells rise,
Which draw men still to Thee?
Thou hast no warmth of summer in Thine eyes,
Like her who called across the Ægean Sea
Grave wayfarers to quaff her foaming wine,
Thou hast but frozen dew,
Thy worshippers are few,
But these, Thy chosen ones, hold Thee divine.
Thine is no wealth of flowers,
Thine are no feasts of youth,
But the deep passion of enduring hours,
And endless seeking after endless truth,
Are the strong chains which bind men to Thy seat,
Who, grappling with Thy strength,
Conquer Thy might at length
Or, failing, sleep contented at Thy feet.
Within the last thirty or forty years certain aspects of nature, inextricably associated with the familiar world of the senses, have more and more forced themselves upon the attention of men of science, and dragged them somewhat unwillingly into the presence of the most obstinate of our metaphysical problems, the great twin mysteries of time and space. Philosophers, indeed, long ago confronted them, but these aspects of nature are now seen to fall within the province of physics, and must somehow be incorporated into its account of the external world, its description of the extensions, durations, motions and boundaries of that world. Thus a more lively awareness of time has lately appeared in the thought of our age, together with new interpretations of space, and we have come, or suppose ourselves to have come, to closer quarters with these concepts, and have at least more vividly perceived their paramount, indeed overwhelming significance in the grand scheme of things. Metaphysics, once regarded as the queen of the sciences, advances a new claim to the throne, from which, according to Kant, she had unjustly in his day been deposed. ‘My soul is on fire’, wrote St. Augustine of time, ‘to understand this most intricate enigma,’ and it has been borne in upon us, as upon him, that until we can attain to some clear comprehension of the true nature of time and space, all the doors leading to any fuller knowledge than we already possess of the world’s structure are firmly locked. In a word, they are seen to be in science, as in theology and philosophy, the guardians or warders of all the mysteries.
Yet what can we possibly discover about them or say about them? We speak of days, and nights, and months, and years, but what is it that we thus divide? We speak continually of ‘Here’ and ‘Now’, but where is ‘Here’, which goes about with us wherever we go, and when is ‘Now’, which is always slipping away to make room for another ‘Now’? Has it, for instance, occurred to you that if there were no spectators of the moving scene of nature there would be no ‘Heres’ and no ‘Nows’? ‘Here’ is ‘here’ for someone; ‘Now’ is ‘now’ for someone. Nature, which is everywhere at once, has no ‘Heres’ and no ‘Nows’. For us space and time appear to contain all things: everything lies within space, and everything happens in time. Nothing lies outside, or is independent of them. They provide the framework of the world in which we live. Yet, familiar as they are, if you allow yourself to meditate upon time and space you enter a region of bewilderment, giddiness overtakes you, and what mental powers you possess shrink and fail before them. There they are perpetually present, the terrifying apparition of time, never beginning, never ending, ‘the moving image of eternity,’ in Plato’s inspired phrase, and that other not less terrifying spectre, the abyss of space. Remove everything in thought, all the worlds, there remains the vast void, which refuses to go. Time and space provide the setting of our little lives, and in this horizonless expanse the whole history of mankind shrivels to nothingness, becomes a mere flicker, a momentary flash of lightning in an unfathomable night. And yet how serenely this earth of ours glides, silently and without a ripple through the uncharted gulf. ‘The great universe’, it has been said, ‘seems to sleep in its arms like a child in its cradle.’ In the divine stillness of that limitless ocean it is at home. An ocean of what? Of nothing, it seems, nothing at all. How far does this emptiness extend through which the universe journeys, and whither can we suppose it to be journeying?
We may labour with words, but to what purpose amid these incomprehensibles? We can see that time and space are unlike anything else with which we have any acquaintance. There is nothing with which to compare them. Whatever they may be, they appear to include all material things with which our immaterial minds are somehow associated; yet this we may say with confidence, that things themselves in any sense of the word they cannot be. No tool of any kind bites on them. No rude hands can be laid upon these immortals. No chemical analysis can tell you their composition, no biology unfold their ancestry or relate the story of their evolution. There cannot be material bodies without the space they occupy, but we can imagine space which contains no bodies. Time, too, without events—sometimes called ‘duration’—we can indeed imagine, yet of empty, eventless time we could not be conscious. Of neither space nor time do our senses give us the slightest information. They cannot be seen, heard or depicted; space is not seen, nor time; there is nothing to see; and travel fast or slow, you approach no nearer the terminus of either; and if time flows it is a flowing without anything that flows.
Since, then, though omnipresent, they refuse to submit to laboratory methods, to be touched, handled or in any fashion made the subject of experiment, things or substances they clearly are not, nor yet the properties pertaining to things. How, then, can the insubstantial come into contact with, or have any relations with the substantial objects which surround us? How came material things to enter this shadowy framework?
The same insuperable problem meets us when we try to understand how thought can lay hold on substance. For the world of our understanding thoughts and the world of solid things are like two rivers, which flow side by side, yet seemingly never meet. ‘Like can only act upon like’, as Anaxagoras said. Neither we nor anyone else, declared Kant, can explain how this harmony between thought and things, ‘as if nature had been arranged expressly to suit our powers of comprehension’—described by Leibniz as ‘a pre-established harmony’—has been brought about. By some kind of natural magic the objects seen by the eye, the sounds heard by the ear, become those ghostly yet real things we call ideas. A modus vivendi somehow exists between the mind and the external world which baffles the philosophers.
Consider a little further, and you perceive that these curiosities, space and time, appear to have certain resemblances to each other, and also certain; most interesting differences. Space possesses what we call three directions or dimensions, length, breadth and height. Everywhere, you may say, in space three ways meet. And time, also, has for us, though not for nature, three phases, three successive dimensions, past, present and future. Setting aside the very troublesome enquiry into the nature and meaning of ‘dimension’, let us note that the dimensions of space form an intimate society; they are simultaneous and never found apart from each other, while those of time, on the other hand, are never found together. When the future puts in an appearance to become the present, the former present vanishes into the past. Past, present and future are most unfriendly and avoid each other, save for a nodding acquaintance during the period described by philosophers as ‘the specious present’, a peculiar feature of our perception. During this span of perception, estimated to last a few seconds, which intervenes between past and future, and varies in duration with different individuals, the flow of time is, as it were, arrested. We hold together what has just taken place with what is now present to us. We have standing ground, or what Professor James called ‘a saddleback, on which we sit perched, and from which we look in two directions’, momentarily, in the flowing stream. Does this stream flow to meet us, do you think, as we face it, or does it carry us onwards with it as it goes? If time flows at all, in what direction does it flow? Certainly not north, south, east or west. Does the future that is to be come towards us, or does the past flow forwards, swallowing the present and growing as it goes? Are we standing at a stationary point awaiting time’s coming, as we await the arrival of an incoming train, or are we ourselves in the train, moving through unmoving scenery, for ever there? Is it conceivable that the future already exists? If that were so, if its contents were already determined, it could hardly be the result of the past, or caused by the past, and the whole idea of causation becomes unintelligible. As distinguished from space, which is for us stationary, time seems to move in one or other direction, unless, indeed, we are in some fashion deceived, and the whole scene of events that ever were or will be is unmoving, and it is we who break up into fragments, into days and years, the eternal ‘Now’. ‘What would happen’, asks Maeterlinck, ‘if time stopped?’ ‘Nothing,’ he says; ‘we should have no suspicion that it had stopped. There is no time; there are only imaginary measurements of a thing existing only in our imaginations.’
There is still, however, another way of regarding time, its ‘before and after’ aspects, not so easily dismissed, since they are not the equivalents, as we might carelessly think, of ‘past and future’. As we have already observed, past, present and future are constructions of the mind, and have no meaning, apart from us and our experience, in the physical world. There, however, in the outer world you may speak of an earlier and later occurrence, of a succession of events, one taking place before or after another. Professor McTaggart spoke of the Past, Present and Future, or subjective series, as the A series, the ‘Before and After’ aspect as the B series, and concluded after a long and difficult argument that there is also a C series, independent of both, of which the A and B series were misrepresentations due to ourselves. I would set forth this argument if I could persuade myself that I fully understood it.
Let us avoid confusing ourselves, and note briefly two among the theories of time, of which the first is usually called the theory of absolute time, something which exists quite apart from us, and from the events which take place in it, something independent of all other things, which flows majestically and steadily along, which has moments, to which moments events, when they occur, can be assigned. For the most part philosophers reject absolute time. Hume held that space was merely ‘the manner in which objects exist’, and nothing in itself. Berkeley described it as ‘the absence of resistance’. So, too, thinkers, like Kant and Leibniz, held that time has no independent existence, and is merely the relation between phenomena or events. For Kant both space and time were subjective; they were the forms of our sensibility, which make experience possible for us, experience, however, of phenomena or appearances only, not of the reality which underlies them. So, too, for Leibniz, space and time were not independent things, but the order or arrangement of co-existing and successive events. Space, he held, is the order of co-existing events or phenomena, as time is the order of successive phenomena. Neither is, in fact, real, both are mental structures. They are right, yet time is something deeper than the mere relationship of events to each other, or our way of seeing them. It is, as is space, a component or factor in the scheme of nature. And we must bear in mind that time in itself—though often confused with our awareness of time—plays a part of its own in the Cosmos.
Whatever their true nature, it is now universally allowed that space and time are as much the concern of the man of science as of the metaphysician, and we face with him the perplexing situation, ‘How can physics in any manner grapple with aspects of nature which are clearly not physical, which are wholly unsubstantial?’ The method of science, as we know, is to analyse and measure. Now to analyse is to separate out the ingredients, the component parts, as for example, the oxygen and hydrogen of which water is composed. We can go further. Things unseen, like air, can be analysed and weighed. Of what then is space composed, or time—what are their ingredients? They have none. They are not, like the elements, atomic or molecular, they have no separable parts. Well, then, let us try measurement. To measure you need a point from which to begin your operation, and also a unit of measure. But where in time or space are you to fix your point of departure, and what unit in either case do you propose to apply? A yard of time has no meaning, and to measure distances in empty space containing no objects—if there be such a thing—is in fact impossible, for we have no means of determining any positions there. You cannot paint a portion of space red or green, or mark it in any way so as to distinguish it from any other portion. ‘In space’, as Maxwell said, ‘there are no milestones; one part is precisely like any other part, so that we cannot know where we are. We find ourselves in a waveless sea, without stars, without compass or sun, without wind and tide, and cannot say in what direction we move.’
If you are of a naturalistic turn of mind you are plunged in still deeper distress. For you have to determine the position in space and time not only of material objects, but of your ideas and sentiments. How are they to be either located or measured? If I say I have no great opinion of Hitler or Mussolini, or of anyone nearer home, where is that opinion, where am I to look for it, and what is its length and breadth? Or let us ask ourselves: Where are the objects we see in dreams? If you wish something easier, you might try this: How far away is the picture you see reflected in a mirror from the same picture on the wall? In a word, ‘How shall we represent in space an existence not in space, and in time an existence not in time?’ We speak, indeed, of weighty opinions, but how many millions of them will depress a balance to the extent of a pennyweight?
These are not such ridiculous questions as they sound. They indicate the initial embarrassments awaiting the man of science who desires to incorporate space and time into his sketch or model of the universe, not to speak of the still more formidable problems which arise when he reminds himself that the concepts and terms he employs, his dimensions, intervals and durations, are in every case coinages of his own mind, mere symbols of his own making, with which he endeavours to interpret the structure of reality, of which he is himself an inseparable part.
Space and time, we have seen, appear to have some superficial resemblances, and clearly are somehow associated with each other, an association which has suggested many ingenious ideas and phrases. Time, for instance, has been described as ‘fluid space’, and space as ‘motionless time’. When we speak of places as ‘near’ or ‘far away’ we mean points which it will take a shorter or a longer time to reach. We estimate space, that is, by the passage of time, and find them already associated in our minds. Yet there belong to each certain deep, distinguishing features, which cannot be overlooked. First, unlike space, for which we have no inner sense, time is appreciated by our minds in two ways. We have a double apprehension of it—a subjective and objective apprehension. There is, we are all aware, an inner, or private time, and an outer, or public time. Within ourselves we are conscious, in the succession of our thoughts, of the lapse of time. This inner, or psychological or soul time may, in relation to the outer, move slowly or quickly, and be more or less crowded with mental experiences, under, for example, the influence of certain stimulating drugs, like hashish, which startlingly magnifies durations and distances, or, as it is said, with drowning persons, before whose inner eye the scenes of their past lives flash by with inconceivable speed. With such variations in the appreciation of time everyone is familiar, as when we are bored or interested, happy or dejected, or lonely. In the society of some acquaintances, and I fear at some lectures, an hour seems quite interminable, on other occasions it flits past only too rapidly. ‘Time travels’, as Shakespere has it, ‘in divers paces with divers persons.’ However unconscious we may be of the passage of external or clock time, sitting it may be absorbed over a book, we are aware of the inner current of our thoughts and emotions. It is something felt. Upon this distinction between private and public time Bergson dwells in his Time and Free Will. The mind, he argues, has its own sense of the passage of time, of duration. But we substitute for this true time another, a concept due to the intrusion of space; we imagine an outer time, which science looks upon as measurable. We borrow, that is, from the outer world the notion of magnitude, a spatial idea, and confuse the inner subjective experience with the outer presentation, ‘its ghost’, as Bergson calls it. We mistake it for reality. But true duration has nothing to do with space. This independent, homogeneous time is, he thinks, a pure fiction.
Nevertheless, between this, our inner appreciation of time, and the outer or public, usually called ‘clock-time’, some correspondence appears to exist. We know that under hypnosis a suggestion made to a subject that he will do something, write a letter, or go out for a walk, after the lapse of say 11,470 minutes, or 850 minutes, will be fulfilled with surprising accuracy. The subject can give no account of the manner in which he performs the necessary calculation, and is, indeed, quite unaware that any suggestion, which he appears to obey automatically, has been made to him. The extraordinary precision of the correspondence between the inner time determination and external time is in these cases undisputed and unexplained.
Again, on the other hand, in the mystic’s trance, such as is recorded of Socrates, the sense of time seems wholly to disappear. A charming old medieval story tells of a holy abbot, who, meditating in the fields, and entranced by the singing of a lark, fell into adoration of God’s glory and goodness. When he awoke and returned to his monastery he was recognised by no one. No abbot of his name had ruled there for three hundred years. So profound had been his ecstatic concentration that he had passed, we might say, into eternity, where time had no existence, and he was free of its fetters. Of such a state, where intensity of thought takes the place of duration, and brings time to a standstill, an immovable ‘Now’, most of us have in a far-off fashion tasted, when immersed in deep consideration of an absorbing problem or calculation. In such conditions the stream of time seems to be arrested and ceases to flow.
When we say, then, ‘Time flies’, do we mean inner or outer time? Is this subjective time the true time, or are we to regard the common or clock-time, by which, in concert with our neighbours, we carry on our affairs, as of superior reality or authority? And how are we to connect the one with the other? Eddington speaks somewhere of an ‘entropy clock’ within our minds, which enables us to correlate these inner phases of thought with the stream of external events. Whether or not we have such a calculating machine within us, this synchronisation of private and subjective time with outer and objective time is, in the opinion of some thinkers, the question above all others, of first and crucial importance.
The sidereal heavens, the atom and the mind all appear to have time-scales of their own. Their times do not correspond and cannot be imposed upon one another. Public or sidereal or clock-time, to which the interest of astronomers and man in general is confined, is not applicable to what may be called electronic time, since the measures of radio-active movements within the atom cannot be brought into any relation with astronomic time. To these it seems we have now to add a ‘biological time’,1 which governs the growth and the activities of the living organism. It is now known that a wound in such an organism heals more slowly, according to a determinable ratio, as the organism ages. That is to say, the principle of equal work in equal time, as exemplified in the measurement of sidereal motions, by the velocity of light, does not govern the operations of living things. Their chemistry has its own scale. An increase of temperature alters their appreciation of temporal intervals estimated by the clock, as less or greater intensity of feeling alters our estimate of time’s flow similarly measured. A connection seems thus to be established between mental—or psychological—and physiological time as measured by bodily processes.
There is another and very notable peculiarity of time—its irreversibility.
The moving finger writes, and having writ,
Moves on, nor all your piety nor wit
Can lure it back to cancel half a line,
Nor all your tears wash out a word of it.
There is for us no going back in time, no undoing of what has once been done. Fugit irreparabile tempus. In space I have a certain liberty, I can move about, but not in time. Again, if I move fifty miles east or west in space, the movement makes no impression upon me. I myself remain unchanged. I am the same person here as in London or the United States. Not so with time. If fifty years pass over my head I am utterly changed. One can easily imagine any number of movements in space, backwards, forwards, up and down, as in a lift or aeroplane, which would in no way alter the things moved. But time, with its ‘unimaginable touch’, in Wordsworth’s phrase, alters everything both in the organic and inorganic worlds. Growth, the growth of plants or animals, cannot proceed without the help of time, which, with its creative or destructive finger, is unceasingly and everywhere at work. Time walks, that is to say, hand in hand with change, with a succession of events, whose order is irreversible.
And what is change? It is the supreme fundamental feature, the governing principle of the universe, the terrible, unceasing restlessness, the continued Becoming, which is at the root of all our anxieties and woes. We cry out for peace, for rest, for a cessation of this perpetual and distressing flux, for the eternity of changeless Being, the goal of the mystic’s craving. But the universe, ceaselessly in movement, whose very soul is movement, knows nothing of such a word, or such a state. Time and change are its masters. Stars and mountains, seas and continents bow themselves before His omnipotent serene majesty, Time.
We cannot but allow to time, then, a higher or archangelic throne in the creation, a metaphysical rank and dignity above space. For space appears to be passive, time all-powerful and active, the charioteer of all the worlds.
Observe, however, this. Of the irreversibility of time no account is taken by the mathematicians. Geometry lies outside its domain, and all planetary movements, such as the earth’s motion round the sun, might be reversed without altering in any way the existing situation, or the calculations involved. In mathematics you have a science which is indifferent to time and is unaffected by its passage. In mathematics time is accordingly represented simply as a line, going either to right or left, with a different sign, + or -. In physics, on the other hand, this will not do. For physics deals with energies and actions, and where there is action there is motion, together with the time in which it takes place. Anything which moves in time takes time to move. So that time becomes for physics ‘the relation of motions’.
Again, although the total quantity of cosmic energy remains, according to that science, ever the same, there is a law, you remember, the famous Second Law of Thermodynamics, which, we are told, admits neither of doubt nor exception. This law asserts that the available energy is continually decreasing, and in this decrease we have a direction post which points one way only. Heat passes from a hot to a cold body, never from a colder to a hotter; and when all bodies in the universe reach the same temperature, which is, according to this supreme law, inevitable, its total energy will be for ever locked up, and the Cosmos lapse into a trance, the everlasting trance of death. This irreversible process, known as Entropy, foretells the end of the material universe, for movement and change will cease. Time’s irreversibility is the only physical criterion which enables us to distinguish the past from the future in the surrounding world; it is the arrow of which Eddington speaks, as showing the direction of time’s flight. The arrow points to a downward slope into the gulf of a final and irremediable stagnation. However regarded, time thus presents an inexorable countenance. Something of profound significance is taking place, of which it is the index, with which human destiny is inseparably associated.
That science should find itself faced by formidable, even insurmountable difficulties in its dealings with space and time is in no respect surprising, and their roots are easily laid bare. The physical world is her province. But no physical key will fit the wards of nature’s lock, with whose intricate mechanism are inter-woven motion and number, life and growth, volition, memory and thought, to which the laboratory methods of science are obviously inapplicable. In this shadowy land, with its immaterial and intangible inhabitants, science has but one resource, to inject them, as we may say, with substantiality, to give body to the bodiless, to make them what they are not, solid, measurable things. Or you may put the matter in another way, and say that science resorts to the device of substitution. For the immaterial she substitutes the material. When she meets, for example, with thought or volition they are replaced by molecular movements in the brain, susceptible, or supposed to be susceptible of measurement. For space and time a similar substitution is made. If you ask what time it is, science refers you to a machine called a clock. Immaterial things, like space and time, are in science represented by understudies—in modern relativity theory by rigid rods and synchronised clocks. And to our astonishment we hear of space as curved or warped in the vicinity of objects, as if it were itself an object or substance. At first, you remember, it was the ether which served as a medium or carrier for the various waves of radiant energy, a peculiar kind of substance which finally became so highly charged with violent contradictions as to become comic, so much of a music hall grotesque that it endangered the dignity of science, and was quietly withdrawn from the stage. Space stepped gently and without ostentation into the breach, space whose existence no one doubted, which might, if left undefined and no more inconvenient questions asked, be supposed capable of sustaining the part. So nothing was said, and the play proceeded.
Or take motion. We speak of speed, a velocity of so many miles an hour. But this speed or velocity, what is it? The qualities of substances are largely determined by their velocities. From a jet of water projected at high speed an axe will rebound without passing through it, as if it had encountered a steel bar. Yet of absolute velocity, as of empty space, science knows nothing, and can know nothing. All motions in the universe are relative to other motions, with which they can be compared. Nor could we be so much as aware that we were moving at all were we in a vacant void, out of relation with other moving bodies. Motion in itself can neither be perceived nor measured. Nor, again, can energy be measured save by comparison with other energies. With none of these things, absolute energies or motions, empty space or empty time, has science any acquaintance. So, in order that she may deal with it at all, space is converted into an extended substance, crowded with physical events. It is composed, we gather, of electric fields, and it is of these fields, or what they contain, and not of space itself that science is in fact invariably speaking.
And if you ask how time, since it is not in any sense a dimension of space, can possibly be substantialised, as in the famous formula space-time, you meet with a most ingenious contrivance. The time of the physicist is not the philosopher’s time. It has undergone a most interesting transformation. The physicist’s time is an imaginary quantity, measured by adopting the speed of light as a limiting or maximum velocity. For the invisible and immeasurable flow of time Relativity theory substitutes a physical equivalent, or what passes for an equivalent, a peculiar, selected velocity, that of light, to which no acceleration can be given, and by this arbitrary device, which speciously objectifies time, science obtains a measuring rod, a kind of footrule. Time’s true character is thus adroitly eluded and ignored. The problem is quietly dropped, and for measurement purposes a system of signalling installed. The signals employed are light signals, assumed to be the fastest possible. They must be so assumed, and for this reason. If a faster messenger than light were admitted to be possible, a speed, that is, greater than light’s, let us suppose an instantaneous intuition, an observer so equipped might become aware of an event before, from the scientific point of view, it had happened, before, that is, the light signal, the scientific messenger, reached him with the news that the event had taken place—a possibility science does not care to contemplate. On reflection we see that the peculiar paradoxes with which Relativity theory is beset—the local times which replace simultaneity, the bulge or curvature in space-time—these paradoxes are due to the fact that modern physics is not dealing with space and time at all, but solely with things masquerading in their room.
All this, after many alarms and excursions, is now recognised. Not long since, the Wyld Reader in Psychology at Oxford asked Professor Einstein, ‘What was his view as to the relationship between space-time and psychological time?’ and received the answer that ‘from his’ (Professor Einstein’s) ‘point of view as a physicist there was no relationship’. The truth is that, philosophically considered, we have stumbled upon a mare’s nest. The sensational advances in modern physics bring no light to our darkness, and leave the old enigmas of time and space precisely where they found them. It might have been foreseen that it would be so. If we assume phenomena, things as they appear, to be things in themselves, we are, as Kant pointed out, instantly involved in illusions. And sooner or later all physical enquiries come to their predestined end. If there be a world beyond the physical they cannot enter it. They cannot follow the ghost through the space-time wall. They can only point to the place where it disappeared, to some region beyond. In our day the space-time of science has ‘devoured matter’, and with this result physics reaches its inevitable end. Matter, with its various old familiar properties, has dissolved into radiant energy. Its atoms and molecules have been hotly pursued only to melt into electrons. These in turn evaporated into space-time, which marks the limit or final boundary of all our investigations—a world apparently condensed or crystallised out of nothing. The powers of science, apart from the applications of the knowledge gained, are exhausted. In the matter of explanation it can go no further. The ghost, matter, has disappeared through the wall. Physics, chemistry, biology have said all they have to say, and the rest is silence, the old silence under another name, or the old materialism. Space-time, that is to say, the wall itself, is now declared to be God, the Creator of all things, and how much wiser we have become. Unity or identity, the decision that all is one, the only goal with which the human intellect will rest satisfied, has on this line of enquiry been reached, ‘the infinite’, which, as Leibniz held, ‘is always latent in things’. And the conclusion appears to emerge, that nothing has in reality ever happened; all change, as Parmen-ides taught, is an illusion, and the whole of Being imperishable and immutable.
Yet when this result has been arrived at we meet with an instant contradiction. To this unchangeableness, this unity and identity, is opposed the Becoming, to which the finger of time, the arrow of entropy, so steadily points, a real past, and a real future, as marked by the flow of events. The universe is not static, it is in process. Now, in this material energy, though, as the Second Law of Thermodynamics teaches, with the passage of time it is continually decreasing, we have, in fact, what we may call the power-house of the universe. It is not wasted energy, but somehow, while its strength lasts, is translated into the building of life and mind. There it is, laying the foundations of things to be on higher levels of existence, destined, it may be, to supersede its own. For it is indeed possible that the passage of the whole, the running down of the material universe, may be towards a transformation of the material into a mental world, giving birth to a new state or states of being unlike the present. Above the stream of motion and of change a genius presides, the genius of the universe. ‘And there always remains in the abyss of things’, as Leibniz said, ‘slumbering parts, which have yet to be awakened, to grow in size and worth, and, in a word, to advance to a more perfect state. And hence no end of progress is ever reached.’ Even to-day the world we know contains what its past ages never contained, and history will not repeat itself. Time, moving on its irreversible career, is unceasingly at work, giving birth to thoughts unharboured in the past, and undertakings never paralleled.
There is here something more than appearance; there is a process and a prophecy. ‘It is impossible’, as Professor Whitehead wrote, ‘to meditate on time and the mystery of the creative passage of nature without an overwhelming emotion at the limitations of human intelligence.’ Suppose now we admit them—admit, I mean, the limitations of our minds—should we be inconsolable? Is there any cause for lamentation? Charles Lamb confessed that he enjoyed, now and again, a ramble in imagination ‘outside the diocese of the strict conscience’. I admit a similar schoolboy fancy for breaking bounds. Let us break them, and ask ourselves whether the satisfactions of a perfectly rational world, as polished and perfect as the circle drawn by Giotto’s unerring hand, would be all that fancy paints them. Beyond the bounds of comprehension may there not lie a romantic, delectable and quite inhabitable country? ‘Tis no doubt a philosophical impropriety, even impiety, to suggest that a defence of any kind can be offered for the inconceivable and astonishing, for the unbelievable and inexplicable. Yet why should we suppose things necessarily conformable to our notions of them, to the simplification our tender minds require? Why not expect the unexpected? May not our reason’s incapacity to surprise the secrets of nature be a hint that they form an inexhaustible procession, and be, too, since there is so much the more to look forward to, a blessing in disguise?
Those who would have life logical, a pretty geometrical design, a kind of finished garden city, to which no additions can be made, must, indeed, view its confusions and irregularities with uneasy apprehension. To pattern lovers, to neat minds, who prefer things in their proper places, ticketed and pigeon-holed, it no doubt presents a shocking spectacle, an inextricable tangle, a wilderness without ways, aflame with conflicting energies, swarming with creatures of a hundred million habits, involuted and convoluted to an indescribable complexity. Let it be so, and let us take a holiday from the requirements of a static logic, asking ourselves whether such a holiday might not benefit our spiritual health. Half-hours with the irrational, the magical, the surprising, have they not a tonic quality, a charm of their own, the charm of the medieval as contrasted with the modern garden city? Have you observed how much those irresponsible beings, the poets, are in love with such wild things, and how much they are in demand among children? They would not give a fig for logic. Perhaps nature speaks through them as clearly as through reason. ‘What shocks the virtuous philosophers’, said Keats, ‘delights the chameleon poet.’ Might one not be happy all one’s life long among miracles, with the mysterious and the incomprehensible? Would a world beyond understanding be utterly dismal, dreary, intolerable? More so than a perfectly understood world, geometrically exact, in which nothing lay round the next corner, all men were good and sensible and all governments unnecessary? I hardly think so. The illogical world remains eternally interesting. It seems, indeed, doubtful, whether what we call our newly acquired knowledge is more than a bringing what was already known into the clear light of consciousness. Doubtful also whether the present zone of human activities provides knowledge of the intellectual order. It seems rather a meeting of souls, a place of assembly, a public gathering, where friendships may be made, experiences compared, powers exercised and strengthened, possibilities of increased satisfaction explored, Becoming, in a very diversified universe, studied not in respect of intellectual requirements alone, but in all its range and opportunity. There appears something, however little, to be said for the world as a wonder or fairy-land, supernatural, full of marvels, with all the orthodox giants, dragons and enchantments, thrills, risks and adventures; for supposing nature clean beyond us, for believing the world the work of ever-active and inventive gods, whose ways and future designs are beyond knowing. Is there any need to be so much in love with logic, so hostile to the unique and amazing?
Yes, you answer, to his search after understanding belongs whatever dignity the human being possesses. No doubt. In knowledge, moreover, we acquire power, and the more of it the more ability to meet and master circumstances. Truth is certainly truth, and we need not be anxious about it, but in respect of any kind of final understanding, the lifting of the veil of Isis, would that be the crown of human happiness? ‘Did the Almighty,’ said Lessing, ‘holding in His right hand Truth, and in His left Search for Truth, deign to offer me the one I might prefer—in all humility but without hesitation, I should request—Search for Truth.’
Now, no one has ever set out on an expedition to explore Cloud-Cuckoo-Land. You assume, in other words, the existence of the thing for which you search. And science has always proceeded on the daring, the magnificent assumption that nature was intelligible, that it could be comprehended. Well now, is it? There’s a question. To believe it you must believe in the uniformity of nature, believe that what she has done yesterday she will do to-day, and for ever. For if nature is continually changing her ways, producing novelties, you can never come to an end of them, never exhaust her purposes or her mind. Or you must speak of these novelties never seen before, as ‘emergents’, life ‘emerges’ somehow out of matter, mind ‘emerges’ somehow from life. That is to say two and two make five, which is hardly human arithmetic.
With the postulate that nature is comprehensible, science has beyond denial achieved many and startling successes. But what kind of successes? Successes by the way. Look narrowly at their character. Mining for gold, we may say, for the explanation of things, science has come upon a great number of most fascinating and glittering pebbles—electricity, the spectrum, X-rays and α-rays and γ-rays, besides a hundred other curiosities. Has she found the gold of which she went in search? Has she, in fact, explained anything? It would be much nearer the truth to say that she has deepened all the old mysteries, making more marvellous what was already marvellous, leaving us dumbfounded, and her own adventurous spirits amazed. And, in the end, though in herself so glorious a witness to human powers, see what she has omitted from the account.
Galileo described a friend of his whose way of painting was peculiar. This was his method. He wrote upon the canvas in chalks, ‘Here I will have the Fountain with Diana and her Nymphs; there certain harriers; in this corner I will have a Huntsman with the head of a stag; the rest shall be Lanes, Woods and Hills.’ In the scientific account of the world you have a similar picture. History and philosophy, the rise of kingdoms, churches and poems, the scientific ideals and structures themselves, life and death, the passions and devotions of men are not so much as mentioned. ‘The universe is put into equations,’ wrote Maeterlinck, ‘as the history of France was put into madrigals.’ The places they are to occupy, as in the picture by Galileo’s friend, are left blank, indicated only by chalk marks. You do not recognise the scientific landscape as in any way resembling the world in which you live, any more than the words written on the canvas enable you to see Diana and her nymphs, or the Huntsman with his dogs. In this drifting mist of electrons, in this resolution of all things into aspects of space-curvatures, into equations, what have we more than chalk marks, and have we become more intelligible to ourselves as in bewilderment we contemplate them?
The treacherous colours their fair art betray,
And all the bright creation fades away.
All our natural human interests have utterly vanished. The mill grinds only what it is designed to grind, and of necessity only in its own manner of grinding. ‘Does it ever occur to a physician’, as Maeterlinck asks, ‘to heal his patients with the help of algebraic symbols?’
Whatever truth these metrical aspects of the world contain, how remote, how far away it lies from what we, striving, hoping creatures, value most! Science is the view of life where everything human is excluded from the prospect. It is of intention inhuman, supposing, strange as it may seem, that the further we travel from ourselves the nearer we approach the truth, the further from our deepest sympathies, from all we care for, the nearer are we to reality, the stony heart of the scientific universe. Let us put away from us, therefore, all thoughts of ourselves and all that most concerns us. ‘The free man’, says Spinoza, ‘thinks of nothing less than of death.’ He deceived himself. He desired not to think of it, and never ceased to think of it. Lay aside your humanity, advises this mathematically-minded philosopher, if you would arrive at the truth. God does not think as you think, and you should instruct yourself to think as God. He does not ask much of us, only that. Are atoms and molecules, then, are electro-magnetic energies more real than we who invented these terms, more fundamental than our friends and families, our loves and hates, our wars and religions? Does God think in dead things more truly than in us, and is He better represented in them than in our living souls? Are they to be subordinated to the metrical aspects, the constructions of the Euclidean understanding, or whatever it be that lies beyond them? So the noble company of the intellectuals desires us to believe. And this in utter ignorance of what in fact does lie beyond them. Tearing a page out of the book of nature, they puzzle over the meaning. But removed from its context nothing in man or nature is intelligible, or can be interpreted as having any meaning whatever. They place truth above the truth seeker and knowledge above the knower, without any information greater than yours or mine where these are to be found. Their interest even in truth, moreover, has its limits. From history, for example, since nothing can there be measured or analysed, from its imponderable elements, from the ideals and passions by which its course is swayed, from the thought of Socrates, the gospel of Christ, the rise and fall of empires, the Reformations and the Renaissances, the intellectual philosophies avert their eyes. Is there less of truth in them than in the neutrons and the positrons, in the influence of Aristotle or Buddha upon the world than in geology or biology, in the essences of the spirit than in the chemistry of the stars? Is 2 + 2 =4 the highest type of truth? God forbid.
There are truths of many kinds, of the senses, of inner and outer experience, of the heart as well as of the understanding. And truth of any and every kind derives its sole value and significance from its relation to ourselves, to human life and destiny. Nature has no values. Only when sentient creatures appear do values appear. If you set them and their appreciations aside, in effect you set everything aside, and reduce the universe to a whirlpool of nonsense. And if the world consists of selves, we are at once driven to regard their interests and values as supreme and above all mere events. Just as grammarians concerned only with their syntax and sentences pass by the inspirations of the poets, so the logicians and rationalists can make nothing of human motives, actions or ideals. They have nothing to tell us of the soul, the mother of logic and reason. Nor have they anything to say of chivalry or honour, of character or friendship, of heroism or justice, of beauty or sweetness, of magnanimity or refinement, of elegance or charm. Or what they have to say about such things and how they came into existence is merely laughable.
What kind of knowledge or truth is this which becomes paralysed in the region of the spirit? Surely inadequate, is it not, this landscape without the human figures, this play without Hamlet, when we come to talk of explanation and understanding? Something must be true, whether we know it or not. But understanding is a different matter. We appear to need a new logic and a new reason when we attempt to deal with life and mind. Certainly what we possess and employ will never account for existence, for growth and change, for the eternal and transcendent. The self is incomprehensible as the world is incomprehensible, because neither will await the erection of our logical scaffolding, because our minds cannot lay hold of change, and they are perpetually changing. ‘Whatever changes’, said Kant, ‘is permanent, and its conditions only change.’ What is this permanent which permits of the possibility of change? The universe and the self. Reason is, indeed, the eye of the soul, but as the eye is associated with the spatial sense, submerging us in its peculiar domain of visible things, so our logic, modelled upon and following spatial measures and concepts, finds there the limits of its travel. It is not the deepest thing in us, nor can it bring us to the heart of life. We are ourselves already at its heart, and our souls understand what logic baulks at. ‘If we consider the matter closely,’ as Mr. Belfort Bax has written, ‘we shall see that the conviction of the truth of a given philosophical formulation, or, in other words, the conviction of the adequacy of the formulation, as expressing in the terms of abstract thought the self-consistency of consciousness, rests in the last resort upon feeling—namely, the feeling of intellectual satisfaction it affords’.2
And whatever the soul may be, it is never found apart from a self, which, it seems to be frequently forgotten, is as necessary to thinking as to feeling or living. The only existent which includes all other existents is consciousness, the appanage of the self; and apart from the self, the centre of everything, there is neither consciousness nor thinking, neither desiring nor explaining, neither science nor logic, neither knowing nor being known. The attempt to derive the self from atoms and the void, from space and time, to deny it any constructive rôle in the system of nature, has not failed for lack of unceasing and desperate effort. It has failed because you cannot explain the self in terms of the not-self. The philosophies of the future will, I think, take another and more promising way. They will allow to the self its unique status, its standing as a factor, a primary factor and an organising factor in the universal whole. They will reinstate personality in its true place in the universe, and leave room for its expansion. They will abandon, too, the notion of a God who made the world, and then, being weary, went into retirement. God has not ceased to think. And when a God thinks he thinks to some purpose. The genius of the world will not flag in his inventiveness, or be content drowsily to repeat himself for the convenience of the men of science and the philosophers, who, breathless with running, cannot think comfortably, and would have him cease from his labours, in order that at their ease they might comprehend and judge the value of his completed design. He will not, I fear, accommodate them.
The world has a history, and man has a history. If they have had a past, which is certain, that they will have a future is equally certain; and certain, too, that it will contain no fewer unpredictable and surprising events.