The Theosophical Forum – August 1944

FALLACIES IN OUR THINKING — Henry T. Edge

The topics treated of in this book (1) may seem from the reviewer's point of view to be somewhat hackneyed, yet it is by constant repetition that new ideas of such importance seep into the public mind. The ground covered coincides largely with that covered in C. E. M. Joad's recent book on God and Evil reviewed in the June issue of The Theosophical Forum. The postulates and constructions used by the science of last century as a framework for physics no longer prove adequate for an interpretation of even the physical universe, and new ones have had to be sought in their place. While competent minds fully recognised that the system was merely temporary and provisional, yet this circumstance had been lost sight of; provisional hypotheses were mistaken for universal laws and became the basis for materialistic and mechanistic views of life in general. The consequence has been that the revolution in physics has meant a revolution in our general ideas and outlook, as has been the case with similar epochs in the past, such as those of Copernicus and Darwin. Sir James shows his usual perspicacity and ability to hold our interest, and has arranged his chapters so that both the expert and the layman may be catered for.

The book might well have been called a study of fallacies in our thinking, applicable not only to science but to everything else about which we speculate. Thus it deals largely with general principles, such as the relation of subject and object; the apparent antagonism of determinism and freedom; the difference between reality and appearance, or between an intelligent force and its physical manifestation; the war between atomism and continuity, whether in blocks of stone or in those other blocks which we carry on our shoulders; the relation of apprehension by the mind and perception by the senses; what knowledge, if any, is a priori, and what inferred; and the like. Science and philosophy are dancing coyly around each other like a pair of birds in the Spring: what they have in view seems to demand their co-operation.

The failure of mechanical explanation is fully admitted: it is impossible to separate organic Nature from its physical manifestation, for each implies the other, and they are comprised in a unity. "Forces" have no objective existence and are mere mental constructs, differing with the observer (as Relativity shows). The difficulties of attempts to formulate the behavior of a quantum are due to the fact that fundamental activities cannot be represented as occurring in time and space. A mechanical explanation explains x in terms of y, giving us an indeterminate equation whose terms cannot be evaluated. Under the heading of epistemology we learn that knowledge can be attained only by establishing a relation between the inner and the outer. The mind apprehends of itself without the aid of senses, number, quantity, sameness and difference, etc. — Plato's innate ideas.

Science has to cope with three worlds: the man-size world, the infinitely great world, and the infinitely small world. Some may say that the same laws are not applicable to all; but this is a mistake, and we should find it hard to define the limits which mark off a change of laws. The same laws apply throughout, but different features of these laws predominate in different cases; and some such features, slight enough to be ignored in the man-size world, may loom portentously great in the other worlds. This fact, says Sir James, is of tremendous importance to philosophy as a whole, for it provides a test for claims made by rationalists as to alleged a priori knowledge. Knowledge found to be true in the man-size world may prove to be untrue in one or both of the other worlds:

The a priorists have told us that the Creator could not make a world in such and such a way; we study the world of the electron or nebula and find that He has done so already. Thus the alleged a priori knowledge can only be empirical knowledge of the man-sized world.

Thus the proposition that the sum of the angles of a triangle equals 180° is true of triangles in the man-size world, but is found unworkable with triangles of astronomical size, so that this cannot be classed as a priori knowledge, apprehended by direct intuition.

Most controversy over Space and Time is due to overlooking the various senses in which these words can be used. The author enumerates conceptual space, perceptual space, physical space, absolute space; and the same with Time; and he defines each of these kinds. He goes on to speak of the Space-Time unity, and shows that while Space and Time taken separately are private and special to individual observers, the Space-Time unity, as conceived by Relativity, is public, common to all observers. An important point is the following:

Space and Time cannot contain the whole of reality, but only the messengers from reality to our senses.

To meet a possible objection from Theosophical students, we will observe here that it is physical Space and Time that are meant, so that there is no contradiction of any statement made by H. P. Blavatsky or others as to Space and Time used in other senses duly defined by the users.

Under the head of Relativity theory we find the usual statement as to the impossibility of synchronizing distant clocks. If I want to set my clock by a clock on Mars, I shall need to allow for the twelve minutes of time taken for light to travel before I can see the signal. But how do I know that twelve minutes must elapse? Because light travels 186,000 miles a second. How do I know that light travels 186,000 miles a second? Because I have estimated it by means of light signals. I have to assume what I am trying to prove; I am reasoning in a circle.

Philosophy, says the author, deals with qualities, science with quantities. This leads to conflicting conclusions from each: philosophy says heat and cold are incompatible; a body must be either hot or cold. Science says heat and cold are merely relative terms applied to a continuous scale of temperature. This instance illustrates the fallacy of thinking of the world as black and white without any half-tones; and the author proceeds to point out the logical fallacy of the "excluded middle term." A man, says logic, is either old or young; he cannot be both at the same time. But common sense asks, Just when did he leave off being young and begin to be old? As the transition must take place at some point, the youth of a man must pass away in the twinkling of an eye. This kind of logic (or you may choose to call it philosophy) is atomistic, it thinks in separate parts. But practical experience recognises no such separations, and deals in all kinds of half-tones and compromises; and even physics has now spewed atomism out of its mouth. Formal syllogistic logic is not a safe guide for practical policy: the "either-or" technique is not satisfying; a little of both is better. Zeno and his arrow are of course mentioned. By applying the either-or method he demonstrated the impossibility of motion. When we carve up the universe and reduce it to a bundle of paradoxes, it may after all be our tools that are at fault.

The question of causality is involved in this strife between atomism and continuity. There is no scientific justification, says Sir James, for dividing occurrences into detached events: changes are too continuous and too interwoven. The cause and the effect are one and inseparable; every event is connected with every other event. This is of course fully in accord with what we have been taught by Dr. G. de Purucker, who, while necessarily using the terms "cause and effect," has been so careful to guard us against a too mechanical view, and has always insisted on this interdependence of every part of the universe. Man's individual Karman, for instance, is not the end product of a single chain of linked causes and effects, but is the resultant up to date of an incalculable number of causes. A complete action includes within itself both cause and effect, though on our plane of consciousness these two halves, though in essence inseparable, seem sundered in time and in space.

Connected with this is the problem of actio in distans, a problem in which reasoners have tried to solve a difficulty created by themselves. For the problem is based on the assumption that things are separated, an assumption which, as we have seen, is not valid. In a word, we have cut the Gordian knot by the simple process of abolishing distans; what was never separated does not need to be reunited.

The question of Subject and Object, or of Perceiver and Perceived, is next brought up; and we see that it is impossible to set a boundary between the two: our senses can perceive objects; our minds can view our sense-perceptions; and we can use our mind to examine some of our mental processes. The two terms are relative to each other; the distinction is provisional and for convenience.

The destruction of scientific determinism does not overthrow science or the uniformity of Nature. Free-will is freedom to follow the laws of the universe of which we are an integral part. Einstein is quoted to the following effect:

Honestly I cannot understand what people mean when they talk about the freedom of the will. I feel that I will to light my pipe and I do it, but how can I connect this up with the idea of freedom? What is behind the act of willing to light the pipe? Another act of willing? Schopenhauer once said: Der Mensch kann was er will; er kann aber nicht wollen was er will. (Man can do what he wills; but he cannot will what he wills.)

The truth compels its own recognition, however long and winding the roads by which that recognition is reached. A universe is a living organism, comprising innumerable hosts of lesser organisms, each of which is a self-acting unit, living its own life in harmony with the general laws that direct the whole. Science has been studying the outside, but is learning that there can be no outside without an inside.

FOOTNOTE:

1. Physics and Philosophy. By Sir James Jeans. Cambridge, at the University Press; New York, the Macmillan Company. 1943. $2.75 (return to text)


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