A Hypertext Edition of Charles Hoy Fort's Book
Edited and Annotated by Mr. X
THERE is no way of judging these stories. Every canon, or device, of inductive logic, conceived of by Francis Bacon and John Stuart Mill has been employed in investigating some of them, but logic is ruled by the fishmonger. Some of us will think as we're told to think, and be smug and superior, in rejecting the yarns: others will like to flout the highest authority, and think that there may be something in them, feeling that they're the ones who know better, and be just as smug and superior. Smug, we're going to be, anyway, just so long as we're engaged in any profession, art, or business, and have to make balance somewhere against a consciousness of daily stupidities. I should think that somebody in a dungeon, where it is difficult to make bad mistakes, would be of the least smug. Still, I don't know: I have noted [96/97] serene and self-satisfied looks of mummies. The look of an egg is of complacency.
There is no way of judging our data. There are no ways, except arbitrary ways, of judging anything. Courts of Appeals are of the busiest of human institutions. The pragmatist realizes all this, and says that there is no way of judging anything except upon the basis of the work-out. I am a pragmatist, myself, in practice, but I see no meaning in pragmatism, as a philosophy. Nobody wants a philosophy of description, but does want a philosophy of guidance. But pragmatists are about the same as guides on the top of a mountain, telling climbers, who have reached the top, that they are on the summit. "Take me to my destination," says a traveller. "Well, I can't do that," says a guide, "but I can tell you when you get there."
My own acceptance is that ours is an organic existence, and that our thoughts are the phenomena of its eras, quite as its rocks and trees and forms of life are; and that I think as I think, mostly, though not absolutely, because of the era I am living in. This is very much the philosophy of the Zeitgeist, but that philosophy, as ordinarily outlined, is Absolutism, and I am trying to conceive of a schedule of predetermined -- though not absolutely predetermined -- developments in one comprehensibly-sized existence, which may be only one of hosts of other existences, in which the scheduled eras correspond to the series of stages in the growth, say, of an embryo. There is, in our expressions, considerable of the philosophy of Spinoza, but Spinoza conceived of no outlines within which to think.
In anything like a satisfactory sense there is no way of judging our data, nor of judging anything else: but of course we have ways of forming opinions that are often somewhat serviceable. By means of litmus, [97/98] a chemist can decide whether a substance is an acid, or an alkali. So nearly is this a standard to judge by that he can do business upon this basis. Nevertheless there are some substances that illustrate continuity, or represent merging-point between acids and alkalis; and there are some substances that under some conditions are acids, and under other conditions are alkalis. If there is any mind of any scientist that can absolutely pronounce either for or against our data, it must be more intelligent than litmus paper.
A barrier to rational thinking, in anything like a final sense, is continuity, because of which only fictitiously can anything be picked out of a nexus of all things phenomenal, to think about. So it is not mysterious that philosophy, with its false, or fictitious, differences, and therefore false, or fictitious, problems, is as much baffled as it was several thousand years ago.
But if, for instance, no two leaves of any tree are exactly alike, so that all appearances are set apart from all other appearances, though at the same time all interrelated, there is discontinuity, as well as continuity. So then the frustrations of thought are double. Discontinuity is a barrier to anything like a finally sane understanding, because the process of understanding is a process of alleged assimilation of something with something else: but the discontinuous, or the individualized, or the unique, is the unassimiliable.
One explanation of our survival is that there is underlying guidance, or control, or organic government, which to high degree regularizes the movements of the planets, but is less efficient in its newer phenomena. Another explanation is that we survive, because everybody with whom we are in competition, is equally badly off, mentally.
Also, in other ways, how there can be survivals of [98/99] persons and prestiges, or highest and noblest of reputations, was illustrated recently. About April Fool's Day, 1930, the astronomers announced that, years before, the astronomer Lowell, by mathematical calculations of the utmost complexity, or bewilderingly beyond the comprehension of anybody except an astronomer, had calculated the position of a ninth major planet in this solar system: and that it had been discovered almost exactly in the assigned position.(1) Then columns, and pages of special articles, upon this triumph of astronomical science. But then a doubt appeared -- there were a few stray paragraphs telling that, after all, the body might not be the planet of Lowell's calculations -- the subject was dropped for a while. But, in the public mind, the impressions worked up by spreadheads enormously outweighed whatever impressions came from obscure paragraphs, and the general idea was that, whatever it was, there had been another big, astronomical triumph. It is probable that the prestige of the astronomers, instead of suffering, was boomed by this overwhelming of obscure paragraphs by spreadheads.
I do not think that it is vanity, in itself, that is so necessary to human beings: it is compensatory vanity that one must have. Ordinarily, one pays little if any attention to astronomers, but now and then come consoling reflections upon their supposed powers. Somewhere in everything that one does there is error. Somebody is not an astronomer, but he classes himself with astronomers, as differentiated from other and "lower" forms of life, and mind. Consciousness of the irrationality, or stupidity, pervading his own daily affairs, is relieved by a pride in himself and astronomers, as contrasted with dogs and cats.
According to the Lowell calculations, the new planet was at a mean distance of about 45 astronomi- [99/100] cal units from the sun. But, several weeks after April Fool's Day, the object was calculated to be at a mean, or very mean, distance of 217 units. I do not say that an educated cat or dog could do as well, if not better: I do say that there is a great deal of delusion in the gratification that one feels when thinking of himself and astronomers, and then looking at a cat or a dog.
The next time anybody thinks of astronomers, and looks at a cat, and feels superior, and would like to keep on feeling superior, let him not think of a cat and a mouse. The cat lies down and watches a mouse. The mouse moves away. The cat knows it. The mouse wobbles nearer. The cat knows whether it's coming or going.
In April, 1930, the astronomers told that Lowell's planet was receding so fast from the sun that soon it would become dimmer and dimmer.
New York Times, June 1, 1930 -- Lowell's planet approaching the sun -- for fifty years it would become brighter and brighter.(2)
A planet is rapidly approaching the sun. The astronomers publish highly technical "determinations" upon its rate of recession. Nobody that I know of wrote one letter to any newspaper. One reason is that one fears to bring upon oneself the bullies of science. In July, 1930, the artist, Walter Russell, sent some views that were hostile to conventional science to the New York Times.(3) Times, Aug. 3rd -- a letter from Dr. Thomas Jackson -- a quotation from it, by which we have something of an idea of the self-apotheosis of these pundits, who do not know, of a thing in the sky, whether it is coming or going:(4)
"For nearly three hundred years no one, not even a scientist, has had the temerity to question Newton's laws of gravitation. Such an act on the part of a scientist would be akin to blasphemy, and for an [100/101] artist to commit such an absurdity is, to treat it kindly, an evidence of either misguidance or crass ignorance of the enormity of his act."
If we're going to be kind about this, I simply wonder, without commenting, what such statement as that for nearly three hundred years nobody had ever questioned Newton's laws of gravitation, is evidence of.
But in the matter of Lowell's planet, I neglected to point out how the astronomers corrected their errors, and that is a consideration of importance to us. Everything that was determined by their mathematics turned out wrong -- planet coming instead of going -- period of revolution 265 years, instead of 3,000 years -- eccentricity of orbit three-tenths instead of nine-tenths.(5) They corrected, according to photographs.
It is mathematical astronomy that is opposing our own notions.
Photographic astronomy can be construed any way one pleases -- say that the stars are in a revolving shell, about a week's journey away from this earth.
Everything mathematical cited by me, in this Lowell-planet controversy,
was authoritatively said by somebody one time, and equally authoritatively
denied by somebody else, some other time. Anybody who dreams of a mathematician's
heaven had better reconsider, if its angels there be more than one mathematician.
1. "Computations made at the Harvard Observatory today showed that `Planet X,' as the new sphere is called here, was found actually 6 degrees away from the spot where Professor Lowell predicted. Six degrees is equivalent to twelve times the diameter of the moon. The distance between the pointers in the Big Dipper is 5 degrees." "Predicted within 6 degrees." New York Times, March 15, 1930, p.11 c.1.
2. "Traveling toward the sun." New York Times, June 1, 1930, p. 19 c. 2.
3. "Artist challenges Newtonian theory." New York Times, July 21, 1930, p. 21 c. 8.
4. "Scientist and artist dispute Newton and Kepler findings." New York Times, August 3, 1930, s. 3, p. 2E c. 3-4. The quoted scientist was Dr. John E. Jackson, (not Thomas Jackson).
5. "Says Pluto's size is that of Mars," and, "Traveling toward the sun." New York Times, June 1, 1930, p. 19 c. 1-2. The erroneous eccentricity given by the Lowell Observatory was due to an error in the calculations made by Roger Lowell Putnam, who "had forgotten the definition of `eccentricity,' and thinking it was the ratio of the major and minor axes, was not surprised to have it come out .909." William Graves Hoyt. Planets X and Pluto. Tuscon, AZ: University of Arizona Press, 1980, 206.
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