Berkeley, Principles of Human Knowledge

So any phenomenon that is like that may not seem

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Unformatted text preview: rfectly inert. See section 25. Hence, to try to explain the production of colours or sounds by shape, motion, size, and the like, has to be wasted labour. That is why attempts of that kind can always be seen to be unsatisfactory. (The same can be said in general, of any ‘explanation’ that assigns one idea or quality as the cause o f another. I need not say how many hypotheses and speculations we are spared by my doctrine, and how much simpler it makes the study of nature. 103. The great mechanical principle that is now in vogue is attraction, which seems to some people to provide a good enough explanation of a stone’s falling to the earth, or the sea’s swelling towards the moon. But how are we enlightened by being told this is done by attraction? Is it that this word signifies the kind of tendency ·that is involved·, telling us that the event comes from bodies’ pulling one another, rather than from their being pushed towards each other? But that tells us nothing about the manner of action, which (for all we know to the contrary) might as well be called pushing as pulling. Again, we see the parts 40 of steel hold firmly together, and this also is accounted for by attraction; but here as in the other examples I can’t see that this does more than merely to describe the effect. As for how the effect is produced, or the cause that produces it, the ‘explanation’ in terms of attraction does not even try to tell us that. 104. It is true that if we consider a number of phenomena together, and compare them, we may observe some likeness and conformity amongst them. For example, in Ÿthe falling of a stone to the ground, in Ÿthe rising of the sea towards the moon, and in Ÿcohesion and crystallization, there is a similarity because each involves bodies’ combining or approaching one another. So any phenomenon that is like that may not seem strange or surprising to a man who has accurately observed and compared the effects of nature. When we find an event strange or surprising, it is always something that is uncommon, a thing by itself, out of the ordinary course of our observation. We don’t find it strange that bodies tend towards the centre of the earth, because that is what we perceive every moment of our lives. But bodies’ having a similar gravitation towards the centre of the moon may seem odd and unaccountable to most men, because we see it only in the tides. But a scientist, whose thoughts take in a larger extent of nature, having observed that certain events in the heavens bear some likeness to ones on the earth, indicating that innumerable bodies tend to move towards each other, he gives this tendency the general name ‘attraction’, and thinks he has explained anything that can be shown to be an instance of it. Thus he explains the tides by the attraction of our earth-and-water globe towards the moon; he does not find that odd or anomalous, but sees it as only a particular example of a general rule or law of nature. 105. So if we consider how natural scientists differ from other men in respect of their knowledge of phenomena, we shall find that the difference consists, not in Ÿa more exact knowledge of the causes that produce phenomena (for that can only be the will of a spirit), but rather in Ÿa greater breadth of comprehension. Through this - ·that is, through the amount of data they take account of· - scientists can discover analogies, harmonies, and agreements among the works of nature, and can explain particular effects. Such ‘explaining’ consists in bringing events under general rules (see section 62) that are based on the analogy and uniformness observed in the production of natural effects. We like such rules, and try to find them, because they extend our view beyond what is ·temporally· present and ·spatially· near to us, and enable us to make very probable conjectures about things that may have happened at very great distances of time and place, as well as to predict things to come. This sort of striving towards omniscience is something that the mind likes greatly. 106. But we should proceed cautiously in matters like this, for we are apt to lay too great a stress on analogies, and - at the expense of truth - to indulge the mind in its eagerness to extend its knowledge into general theorems. For example, g ravitation, or mutual attraction, appears in many instances; and this leads some people to rush into calling it universal, maintaining that attracting and being attracted by every other body is an essential quality inherent in all bodies whatsoever. Whereas it appears that the fixed stars have no such tendency to move towards each other; and so far is gravitation from being essential to bodies that in some instances a quite contrary principle seems to show itself; as in the upward growth of plants, and the elasticity of the air. There is nothing necessary or 41 essential about any of this; it depends entirely on the will of the governing spirit, who causes certain bodies to stick together or ten...
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