The Theosophical Forum – September 1937


We cannot be content as of old to accept a purely objective physical universe, the same for all observers; but must needs inquire into the nature of objectivity itself, regarding our own faculties of observation and ratiocination as a component element of objectivity, and subjecting those faculties to an analysis which we consider a necessary function of the scientist. Hence the great number of such books now appearing. (1) We concur with the author that the questions of logic, metaphysic, and epistemology, with which he deals, are old enough, even as applied to the philosophy of modern science; but writers on this subject did not command the general attention of the scientific world until the necessities of the situation compelled an inquiry. The kind of literature now appearing represents innumerable particular applications of the general principles laid down by the previous philosophers, and as reflected in many minds of individual scientists. The author's fertile and discursive mind leads him into much elaboration and detail; so much so that, if we attempt to follow him through, we feel the qualm of philosophic doubt and scepticism, and reality seems to fade away amid a welter of ideas that appear and disappear, chasing each other like phantoms. In a world where everything is a fallacy or an assumption, and nothing will "stay put," we shrink from the hopeless quest for the ever-fleeing truth and rush back with a grateful sigh to our familiar world of healthy and comfortable illusions — the only realities, as it might seem. In a word, and to quote from a very ancient philosopher:

The quality of Mind is to doubt;
That of Buddhi is to ascertain. — Uttara Gita

The function of the ratiocinative faculty is to analyse, and analysis means taking to pieces; and from the days when we dissected our sister's doll and found ourselves ruefully contemplating a heap of sawdust and rags, we have known that the more you dissect, the further away you get from the simple reality from which you set out. Professor Bridgman realizes that what science has to study is percepts, and that whether there can be such a thing as a pure object may be a matter for speculation but can hardly be settled by experience. Now the percept is a result of the interaction of faculty with some external exciting cause, a conjunction of what is within us with what is without. Hence it is of vital importance that, before turning our scrutinizing eye on the physical universe, we should first examine that eye and see how many motes and beams there may be in it obscuring our vision. This leads the author to consider the vast accumulation of hard-and-fast notions, unexamined assumptions, authoritative pronouncements accepted without question, and other such paraphernalia, with which we enter upon our inquiries. The impression conveyed to the mind of the reader is that the truth about anything is utterly simple and obvious, and that all obscurity arises from the confusion of our minds. Can it be that the effect of reasoning is to destroy truth and reality, to obfuscate the obvious?

But we are saved from despairing and pessimistic conclusions by our reflexion that this particular aspect of intelligence was not made to ascertain but to analyse (to 'doubt'); and that intelligence has another aspect whose function is to ascertain. Manas (mind), when it becomes enmeshed in physical materiality, acquires this dissecting quality. Its true function then is to arrange and classify, to build an external world in which a mortal man can live and act. Such a world is an illusion, you may say; well, a house may be found an illusion if we pull it to pieces, but it is useful to live in just the same.

Professor Bridgman has much to say on the meaning of "theory." It is a device constructed for the purpose of relating together certain data of observation; one theory may be made for one set of data, another theory for another, and the two may be inconsistent and need welding into a more comprehensive one. The truth of theories may be said to be tested by their workability in practice; but we have the familiar example of the predictability of eclipses by the Ptolemaic system. If a given theory will explain certain happenings, it is not necessarily the only theory that will explain them. Further, in view of the now admitted limitation to our power of exact measurement, a theory may suffice to explain the facts within the limits of our power of observing them — that is, explain them approximately; and yet it may not explain all the facts, and therefore (according to the criterion) not be true.

Another point made is that, whereas we had physical models of the universe, we are now making use of mathematical models where physical models fail; but these mathematical models of course cannot be pictured. But the author finds (after he has dissected deep enough) that mathematics is an empirical science, based on experience; its fundamental postulates are accepted as true because we have tried them and they work. The same disastrous process is applied to logic, which is "a game which we cannot even begin to play unless we make tacit assumptions which cannot be checked in practice." Induction and deduction fare equally badly, being structures without visible means of support; in fact all argument of whatever kind consists in begging the question and blinking our eyes to that fact.

It appears from much that is said in this book that those who seek naked truth about anything are giving a rather large order. But we knew this before. The naked truth being remarkably simple, and we being prevented from seeing it on account of the multitude of garments in which we clothe it, it follows that we must undergo an elaborate process of self-discipline in order to reach our goal. We are compact of illusions; we must take ourselves all to pieces. We cannot even report correctly what has happened in the physical world.

A clear-eyed recognition of what actually happens is hindered by most of the mental habits drilled into us by education. For I think it must be conceded that the major part of education at present consists in acquiring the intuitive ability to handle the conceptual instruments which the human race has evolved to meet the situations with which it is confronted, such, for example, as the all-embracing instrument of language, whereas it is just these conceptual instruments that enlarged experience is proving are faulty. It is often very difficult indeed to get away from unconscious verbal implications that we have accepted without analysis all our lives, particularly when, as in many cases, our success as social beings depends on the completeness with which these implications are ingrained into our conduct. Not only do verbal implications hinder us in giving an accurate account of situations, but it is often difficult to get rid of the inferences with which we unconsciously dress our direct observation, as an analysis of the circumstantial evidence of many court proceedings would bring out.

So when we find ourselves in a new situation we need a new set of mental pigeon-holes; and the ideas which physics has been wont to designate by such words as space, time, force, etc., are found no longer adequate. Newton's absolute time, independent of space, has for some purposes been abandoned; yet it is necessary to assume something as fixed, and one wonders what it is. The chapter headings are: Operations; Thought, Language; Logic; Mathematics; Mathematics in Application; Relativity; Mathematical Models and Probability; Wave Mechanics. In the Conclusion the author says:

The idea that thought is the measure of all things, that there is such a thing as utter logical rigor, that conclusions can be drawn endowed with inescapable necessity, that mathematics has an absolute validity and controls experience — these are not the ideas of a modest animal. . . . When will we learn that logic, mathematics, physical theory, are all only our inventions for formulating in compact and manageable form what we already know?"

And so we return to what was said at the beginning of this review — that the function of ratiocinative thought is not to ascertain but to analyse, and that its exclusive exercise will necessarily result in the presentment of an imaginary world, based on contradictions and on concepts which melt away under our lenses. But fortunately it is not by such methods that we rule our lives; otherwise we should resemble that proverbial centipede which, when asked how he managed all his legs, found himself unable to walk. It appears from many passages which we cannot quote that the author realizes how much of error is due to isolating parts of experience from experience in general and studying these parts as though they were complete in themselves; or, as Poe says, "The infinite series of mistakes which arise in the path of Reason through her propensity for seeking truth in detail." The word "physics" itself is redolent of mischief here, so long as it implies that there is a self-sufficient physical world, apart from the world in general. This physical world (the one that science has been living in) is no doubt real enough within its limits, and useful for many practical purposes; but if we venture beyond it we may have to admit that, from this larger view, it is only an abstraction from reality. Is Nature external to the observer, or is it part of the observer's mind; and if it is in part both of these, what are the proportions between the two components? Again, whose is the mind, mine or yours, or a kind of collective mind of humanity?

Self-knowledge is the key to all knowledge: behind percepts lie senses, and behind the senses lies mind, and behind mind lies buddhi or direct intuitive perception. And all of these are functions or organs of — what? The real Self. And knowledge which does not express itself in conduct is like science without a laboratory; it does not mean much.


1. The Nature of Physical Theory, by P. W. Bridgman, Hollis Professor of Mathematics and Natural Philosophy, Harvard University: Princeton University Press, 1936. $2.00. (return to text)

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