Growth of Knowledge

Epigraph to Book I

Though but an atom midst immensity,
  Still I am something, fashioned by Thy hand

I hold a middle rank 'twixt heaven and earth --
  On the last verge of mortal being stand

Close to the realms where angels have their birth
  Just on the boundaries of the spirit land!

The chain of being is complete in me --
  In me is matter's last gradation lost,

And the next step is spirit -- Diety!
  I can command the lightning, and am dust!

-- Bowring's translation of Dershavin

Henry George
The Science of Political Economy

Book I, The Meaning of Political Economy

Chapter VII
Of Sequence, Consequence and Laws of Nature

Showing the Proper Meaning of Sequence and of Consequence, And Why We Speak of Laws of Nature

Coexistence and succession -- Sequence and consequence -- Causes in series; names for them -- Our direct knowledge is of spirit -- Simplest perception of causal relation -- Extensions of this -- The causal search unsatisfied till it reaches spirit -- And finds or assumes intent -- Early evidences of this -- Why we must assume a superior spirit -- Evidences of intent -- The word nature and its implication of will or spirit -- The word law -- The term "law of nature." 01

Whether all our knowledge of the relations of things in the external world comes to us primarily by experience and through the gates of the senses, or whether there is some part of such knowledge of which we are intuitively conscious and which belongs to our human nature as its original endowment, are matters as to which philosophers are, and probably always will be, at variance. But into such discussions, mainly verbal as they are, it is needless for us to enter. For what concerns us here the distinctions made in ordinary perceptions and common speech will suffice.


In the phenomena presented to him, man must early notice two kinds of relation. Some things show themselves with other things, and some things follow other things. These two kinds of relation we call relations of coexistence and relations of succession or sequence. Since what continues is not so apt to attract our attention as what changes, it is probable that the first of these two relations to be noticed is that of succession. Light comes with the appearance of the luminous bodies of the firmament, and darkness with their disappearance. Night succeeds day, and day night; spring the winter, and summer the spring; the leaf, the bud; and wind and rain the heavy threatening cloud. The approach to fire is followed by a pleasant sensation as we get close enough to it, and by a most painful sensation if we get too close. The eating of some things is succeeded by satisfaction; the eating of other things by pain.


But to note the relation of things in succession does not content man. The essential quality of reason, the power of discerning causal relations, leads him to ask why one thing follows another, and in the relation of sequence to assume or to seek for a relation of con-sequence.


Let us fix in our minds the meaning of these two words. For even by usually careful writers one of them is sometimes used when the other is really meant, which brings about confusion of thought where precision is needed.


The proper meaning of sequence is that which follows or succeeds. The proper meaning of consequence is that which follows from. To say that one thing is a sequence of another, is to say that the one has to the other a relation of succession or coming after. To say that one thing is a consequence of another, is to say that the one has to the other a relation not merely of succession, but of necessary succession, the relation namely of effect to cause.


Now of the sequences which we notice in external nature, some are variable, that is to say, they do not always follow what is given as the antecedent, while some are invariable, that is to say, they always follow what is given as the antecedent. As to these invariable sequences, which we properly call consequences, we give a name to the causal connection between what we apprehend as effect and what we assume as cause by calling it a law of nature. What we mean by this term is a matter too important to be left in the uncertainty and confusion with which it is treated in the standard economic works. Let us therefore, before beginning to use the term, try to discover how it has come into use, that we may fully understand it.


When, proceeding from what we apprehend as effect or consequence, we begin to seek cause, it in most cases happens that the first cause we find, as accounting for the phenomena, we soon come to see to be in itself an effect or consequence of an antecedent which to it is cause. Thus our search for cause begins again, leading us from one link to another link in the chain of causation, until we come to a cause which we can apprehend as capable of setting in motion the series of which the particular result is the effect or consequence.


In a series of causes, what we apprehend as the beginning cause is sometimes called "primary cause" and sometimes "ultimate cause;" while "final cause," which has the meaning of purpose or intent, lies deeper still. This use of seemingly opposite names for the same thing may at first puzzle others as at first it puzzled me. But it is explained when we remember that what is first and what last in a chain or series depends upon which end we start from. Thus, when we proceed from cause towards effect, the beginning cause comes first, and is styled the "primary cause." But when we start from effect to seek cause, as is usually the case, for we can know cause as cause only when it lies in our own consciousness, the cause nearest the result comes first, and we call it the "proximate cause;" and what we apprehend as the beginning cause is found last, and we call it the "ultimate" or "efficient cause," or, at least where an intelligent will is assumed, as the all-originator, the "final cause;" while those which lie between either end of the chain are styled, sometimes "secondary," and sometimes "intermediate causes."


Now the only way in which we can hope to discover what to us is yet unknown is by reasoning to it from what to us is known. What we know most directly and immediately is that in us which feels and wills; that which to distinguish from our own organs, parts or powers we call the ego, or I; that which distinguishes us, ourselves, from the external world, and which is included in the element or factor of the world that in Chapter I we called spirit.


Man himself, in outward and tangible form at least, is comprehended in nature, even in what, when we make the distinction between subjective and objective, we call external nature. His body is but a part of the, to us, indestructible matter, and the motion which imbues it and through which he may modify external things, is but part of the, to us, indestructible energy which existed in nature before man was, and which will remain, nothing less and nothing more, after he is gone. As I brought into the world no matter or motion, but from the time of my first tangible existence as a germ or cell have merely used the matter and motion already here, so I take nothing away when I depart. Whether, when I am done with it, my body be cremated or buried or sunk in the depths of the sea, the matter which gave it form and the energy which gave it movement do not cease to be, but continue to exist and to act in other forms and other expressions.


That which really distinguishes man from external nature; that which seems to come into the world with the dawning of life and to depart from it with death, is that whose identity I recognize as "me," through all changes of matter and motion. It is this which not only receives the impressions brought to it through the senses, but by the use of the power we call imagination contemplates itself, as one may look at his own face in a mirror. In this way the ego or I of man may reason, not only upon the phenomena of the external world as presented to it through the senses, but also upon its own nature, its own powers, and its own activities, and regard the world, external and internal, as a whole, having for its components not merely matter and energy, but also spirit.


Whatever doubts any one may entertain or profess to entertain of the existence of what we have called spirit, can come only, I think, from a confusion in words. For the one thing of which each of us must be most certain is that "I am." And it is through this assurance of our own existence that we derive certainties of all other existence.


The simplest causal relation we perceive is that which we find in our own consciousness. I scratch my head, I slap my leg, and feel the effects. I drink, and my thirst is quenched. Here we have perhaps the closest connection between consequence and cause. The feeling of head or leg or stomach, which here is consequence, transmitted through sense to the consciousness, finds in the direct perceptions of the same consciousness, the cause -- an exertion of the will. Or, reversely, the conscious exertion of the will to do these things produces through the senses a consciousness of result. How this connection takes place we cannot really tell. When we get to that, the scientist is as ignorant as the savage. Yet, savage or scientist, we all know, because we feel the relation in such cases between cause and consequence.


Passing beyond the point where both cause and effect are known by consciousness, we carry the certainty thus derived to the explanation of phenomena as to which cause and effect, one or both, lie beyond consciousness. I throw a stone at a bird and it falls. This result, the fall of the bird, is made known to me indirectly through my sense of sight, and later when I pick it up, by my sense of touch. The bird falls because the stone hit it. The stone hit it because put in motion by the movement of my hand and arm. And the movement of my hand and arm was because of my exertion of will, known to me directly by consciousness.


What we apprehend as the beginning cause in any series, whether we call it primary cause or final cause, is always to us the cause or sufficient reason of the particular result. And this point in causation at which we rest satisfied is that which implies the element of spirit, the exertion of will. For it is of the nature of human reason never to rest content until it can come to something that may be conceived of as acting in itself, and not merely as a consequence of something else as antecedent, and thus be taken as the cause of the result or consequence from which the backward search began. Thus, in our instance, leaving out intermediate links in the chain of causation, and proceeding at once from result to ultimate cause, or sufficient reason, we say correctly that the bird fell because I hit it -- that is, because I exerted in an effective way the will to hit it.


But I know, by consciousness, that in me the exertion of will proceeds from some motive or desire. And reasoning from what I know to explain what I wish to discover, I explain similar acts in others by similar desires.


So, if one man brain another by striking him with a club, or bring about his death more gradually by giving him a slow poison, we should feel that we were being played with and our intelligence insulted if on asking the cause of death we were told it was because a club struck him, or because breath failed him. We are not satisfied until we know what will was exerted to put into action the proximate causes of the result. Nor does this completely satisfy us. After we k now the how, we are apt to ask the why -- the purpose or motive that prompted this exertion of will. It is not till we get some answer to this that we feel completely satisfied.


And thus, we sometimes make a still shorter cut in our causal explanation, by dropping will itself, and speaking of the desire which prompts to the exertion of will as the cause of an effect. I see another walk or run or climb a tree. From what I know of the causes of my own acts, I recognize in this an exertion of will prompted by desire -- the tangible manifestation of an intent; and say, he walks or runs or climbs the tree because he wants to get or do or avoid something. So when we see the bird fly, the fish swim, the mole or gopher burrow in the ground, we also recognize in their acts similar intent -- the exertion of will prompted by desire.


Now, this motive or intent or purpose or desire to bring about an end, which sets an efficient cause to work, was recognized by Aristotle, and the logicians and metaphysicians who so long followed him, as properly a cause and a beginning cause, and called in their terminology the "final cause." This term has now, however, become limited in its use to the idea of purpose or intent in the mind of the Supreme Being, and the "doctrine of final causes," now largely out of fashion, is understood to mean the doctrine which, as the last or final explanation of the existence and order of the world, seeks to discover the purpose or intent of the Creator. The argument from the assumption of what are now called final causes for the existence of an intelligent Creator is called the "teleological argument," and is by those who have the vogue in modern philosophy regarded with suspicion, if not with contempt. Nevertheless, the recognition of purpose or intent as a final or beginning cause is still to be found in that homely logic that fills the common speech of ordinary people with "becauses."


How early and how strong is the disposition to seek cause in the exertion of will prompted by desire is shown in the prattle of children, in folk-lore and fairy tales. We are at first apt to attribute even to what we afterwards learn are inanimate things the exertion of will and the promptings of desire such as we find in our own consciousness, and to say, not as figures of speech, but as recognitions of cause, that the sun smiles and the clouds threaten and the wind blows for this or that purpose or with this or that intent.


And in the earliest of such recognitions we find the moral element, which belongs alone to spirit. What mother has not soothed her child by threatening or pretending to whip the naughty chair or bad stone that caused her little girl or boy to stumble, and has not held the little thing in rapt silence with stories of talking animals and thinking trees? But as we look closer, we see that the power of reason is not in animals, nor volition in sticks and stones. Yet still seeking cause behind effect, and not satisfied that we have found cause until we have come to spirit, we find rest for a while by accounting for effects that we cannot trace to will in men or animals, on the assumption of will in supersensible forms, and thus gratify the longing of the reason to discover cause, by peopling rivers and mountains and lakes and seas and trees and seasons with spirits and genii, and fairies and goblins, and angels and devils, and special gods.


Yet, in and through this stage of human thought grows the apprehension of an order and co-relation in things, which we can understand only by assuming unity of will and comprehensiveness of intent -- of an all-embracing system or order which we personify as Nature, and of a great "I am" from whose exertion of will all things visible and invisible proceed, and which is the first or all-beginning cause. In every direction the effort of the reason to seek the cause of what it perceives, forces this upon the thoughtful mind.


The bird flies because it wants to fly. In this will or spirit of the bird we find an ultimate cause or sufficient reason to satisfy us so far as such action is concerned. But probably no man ever lived, and certainly no child, who, seeing the easy sweep of birds through the open highways of air, has not felt the wish to do likewise. Why does not the man also fly when he wants to fly? We answer, that while the bird's bodily structure permits of the gratification of a will to fly, the man's bodily structure does not. But what is the reason of this difference? Here we come to a sphere where we can no longer find the cause of result in the individual will. Seeking still for will, as the only final explanation of cause, we are compelled to assume a higher and more comprehensive will or spirit, which has given to the bird one bodily structure, to the man another.


Or take the man himself. The child cries because it wants to cry and laughs because it wants to laugh. But that its teeth begin to come at the proper age -- is it because it wants teeth? In one sense, yes! When its teeth begin to come it begins to need teeth; or rather will shortly begin to need teeth, to fit for its stomach the more solid food it will then require. But in another, and in what we are discussing, the real sense, no! The need for teeth when they begin to come is not a need of the child as it then is, but a need of the child as it will in future be; a totally different being so far as consciousness is concerned. The yet sucking child can no more want teeth, in the sense of desiring teeth, than the adult can want to have those teeth pulled out for the sake of the pulling. The coming of teeth is not pleasant, but painful -- seemingly more painful and probably more dangerous than is the pulling of teeth by modern dentistry. It is clearly not by the will of the child that we can explain the coming of teeth. Nor yet can we explain it by the will of the mother. She may desire that the child's teeth should come. But she cannot make her will effective in any larger degree than by rubbing the child's gums. Nor can the most learned physician help her further than by lancing them, should they seriously swell. To find a sufficient cause for this effect, we are compelled to assume a higher will and more comprehensive purpose than that of man; a will conscious from the very first of what will yet be needed, as well as of what already is needed.


The things that show most clearly the adaptation of means to ends, so that we can at once understand their genesis and divine their cause, are things made by man, such as houses, clothing, tools, adornments, machines; in short, what we call human productions. These, as evincing the adaptation of means to ends, have an unmistakable character. The coming upon a piece of clothing, or a brooch or ring, or tomahawk or bow, or the embers and fragments of a cooked meal, would have been as quick and even surer proof of the presence of man on his supposed desert island than were to Robinson Crusoe the footprints in the sand. For of all the beings that our senses give us knowledge of, man is the only one that in himself has the power of adapting means to ends by taking thought.


Yet, so soon as man looks out, he finds in the world itself evidences of the same power of adapting means to ends that characterize his own works. Hence, recognizing in the sum of perceptible things -- exclusive of himself, or rather of his essential principle or ego, but inclusive, not merely of his bodily, but also of his mental frame -- a system or whole, composed of related parts, he personifies it in thought and calls it Nature.


Still, while we personify this, which is to our apprehension the greatest of systems, and give to it in our English speech the feminine gender, it is, I think, as sailors personify a ship, or engine-drivers a locomotive. That is to say, the general perception of the sum of related parts or system, that we call Nature, does not include the idea of the originating will, or first or final cause of all. That, we conceive of as something essentially distinct from Nature, though animating Nature, and give it another name, such as Great Spirit, or Creator, or God. Those who contend that Nature is all, and that there is nothing above or beyond or superior to Nature, do so, I think, by confounding two distinct conceptions, and using the word Nature as meaning what is usually distinguished by the word God.


We all, indeed, frequently use the word Nature to avoid the necessity of naming that which we feel to be unnamable, in the sense of being beyond our comprehension, and therefore beyond our power of defining. Yet I think that not merely the almost universal, but the clearest, and therefore best, perceptions of mankind, really distinguish what we call Nature from what we call God, just as we distinguish the ship, or other machine, that we personify, from the will which we recognize as exerted in its origination and being; and that at the bottom our idea is that of Pope:


All are but parts of one stupendous whole,
Whose body Nature is, and God the soul. 30

It is from this conception of Nature as expressing or as animated by the highest will, that we derive, I think, the term "law of Nature."


We come here to another instance of the application to greater things of names suggested by the less. In original meaning, the word law refers to human will, and is the name given to a command or rule of conduct imposed by a superior upon an inferior, as by a sovereign or state upon those subject to it. At first the word law doubtless referred only to human law. But when, later in intellectual development, men came to note invariable coexistences and sequences in the relations of external things, they were, of the mental necessity already spoken of, compelled to assume as cause a will superior to human will, and adapting the word they were wont to use for the highest expression of human will, called them laws of Nature.


Whatever we observe as an invariable relation of things, of which in the last analysis we can affirm only that "it is always so," we call a law of Nature. But though we use this phrase to express the fact of invariable relation, something more than this is suggested. The term itself involves the idea of a causative will. As John Stuart Mill, trained to analysis from infancy, and from infancy exempt from theological bias, says:


    The expression "law of Nature" is generally employed by scientific men with a sort of tacit reference to the original sense of the word law, namely, the expression of the will of a superior -- the superior, in this instance, being the Ruler of the universe.

Thus, then, when we find in Nature certain invariable sequences, whose cause of being transcends the power of the will testified to by our own consciousness -- such, for instance, as that stones and apples always fall towards the earth; that the square of a hypotenuse is always equal to the sum of the squares of its base and perpendicular; that gases always coalesce in certain definite proportions; that one pole of the magnet always attracts what the other always repels; that the egg of one bird subjected to a certain degree of warmth for a certain time brings forth a chick that later will clothe itself with plumage of a certain kind and color, and the egg of another bird under the same conditions brings forth a chick of a different kind; that at a certain stage of infancy teeth appear, and later decay and drop out; and so on through the list of invariable sequences that these will suggest -- we say, for it is really all that we can say, that these sequences are invariable because they belong to the order or system of Nature; or, in short, that they are "laws of Nature."


The dog and cow sometimes look wise enough to be meditating on anything. If they really could bother their heads with such matters or express their ideas in speech, they would probably say that such sequences are invariable, and then rest. But man is impelled by his endowment of reason to seek behind fact for cause. For that something cannot come from nothing, that every consequence implies a cause, lies at the very foundation of our perception of causation. To deny or ignore this would be to cease to reason -- which we can no more cease in some sort of fashion to do than we can cease to breathe.


Thus, whether civilized or uncivilized, man is compelled, of mental necessity, to look for cause beneath the phenomena that he begins really to consider, and no matter what intermediate cause he may find, cannot be content until he reaches will and finds or assumes intent. This necessity is universal to human nature, for it belongs to that quality or principle of reason which essentially distinguishes man from the brute. The notion that --


    The heathen in his blindness,
    bows down to wood and stone,

is of the real ignorance of pretended knowledge. Beneath the belief of the savage in totems and amulets and charms and witchcraft lurks the recognition of spirit; and the philosophies that have hardened into grotesque forms of religion contain at bottom that idea of an originating will which the Hebrew Scriptures express in their opening sentence: "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth."


To such recognition of will or spirit, reason, as it searches from effect for cause, must come before it can rest content. Beyond this, reason cannot go. Why is it that some things always coexist with other things? and that some things always follow other things? The Mohammedan will answer: "It is the will of God." The man of our Western civilization will answer: "It is a law of Nature." The phrase is different, but the answer one.