As I Was Saying/Essay XXIII

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Essay XXII As I Was Saying
written by Gilbert Keith Chesterton
Essay XXIV

Essay XXIII: About Relativity

WHEN we hear one particular word such as "Relativity" repeated about a hundred times a week, and scattered over scores of newspapers and novels and ordinary publications, we may deduce with almost practical certainty that nobody who is using the word has any notion of what it means. I do not mean merely that few of them have read about Relativity in some new and technical sense, in which it may be found necessary for explaining an abstruse theory of Professor Einstein. I do not even mean that most people are unacquainted, as they naturally are, with the various forms of ancient scepticism, dating at least from the earliest Greek philosophers, to which the term "Relativity" might be reasonably applied. I mean that people do not consider even the common meaning of the word that has become so common. They do not realize even what they themselves mean, or have always meant, by the word considered as a part of the English language. It is as if there were suddenly a universal mania for talking about hats, without the faintest memory that they had ever had anything to do with heads; or as if everybody were extravagantly excited about cats, while nobody knew whether they were the same as crocodiles.

In the English language, as in any national language capable of normal logic, anything relative is relative to something positive. We describe it by saying it stands in a certain relation to something already known. This is so in the practical popular use of "relative" or "relation." You may say with gloom, "I'm going to stay with relations"; or you may say with complacency, "Admiral Sir Caradoc Valencourt Vere de Vere is a relative of mine"; or you may say in a Parliamentary manner (if you are in the House of Lords, as I assume that you are), "My noble relative will find it difficult to reconcile the baseness and trickery of his treatment of the pickled-onion problem with his professions as an Englishman and a Christian"; or you may say sardonically, "I suppose Mrs. Boulger-Buckett regards us as her poor relations." But in all these cases, however different the emotion, there is no difference in the reason, as it defines the nature of a relation. In all cases the other objects are regarded as being in various relations to a fixed object; and in this case the object is what is called the subject. In other words, for a large proportion of fallen humanity the fixed point is oneself; and this is reasonable, in so far as there is a fixed certainty of the reality of oneself. You do really know that you really exist; even in some wild mood in which Admiral Sir Caradoc Vere de Vere might seem to be only a beautiful dream; or Mrs. Boulger-Buckett one of those dark fancies that flit across the brain upon the borderland of nightmare. You therefore speak of them as relative to yourself; if only because you know more about yourself than you know about them. But when people begin to talk about universal relativity, as if everything were as relative as everything else, so that presumably the very notion of relativity is itself relative, only relative to nobody knows what, they are simply knocking the bottom out of the world and the human brain, and leaving a bottomless abyss of bosh. You say, with airy grace, that Sir Caradoc Vere de Vere is a relation of yours. You do not say he is a relation, as if it were a profession or a post or a position in itself. There is no such thing as a relation wandering about the world with nobody to be related to. And if your philosophy talks of relations in that sense, the philosopher will decide that they are very poor relations indeed.

A somewhat similar use has been made lately of the word "hypothesis." There has been a correspondence in _The Times_ about the nature of belief, or unbelief, or incidentally of make-believe. This was enriched by a somewhat pompous letter from a very superior person, who said he was entirely Modern; and proceeded to set forth as much as he could understand of the early sceptical sages of ancient Hellas, to whom I have referred; and proceeded to adorn the theme with things so exclusively modern as the exact meaning of dialectic in the dialogues of Plato. But his scepticism was much more archaic than Plato; indeed it was the sort of nihilistic nonsense that Socrates existed largely in order to chaff out of existence. The form it took here was the repeated suggestion that a Modern person cannot believe in anything except as a hypothesis. In other words, that he cannot believe in anything at all. For you cannot believe in a hypothesis; you can only give it a fair chance to prove itself a thesis that can be believed.

Now, even the Modern Man is not necessarily a madman; and this would hopelessly ruin and destroy every modern use of hypothesis; especially the whole scientific idea of a hypothesis holding the field. It would merely mean ensuring that what is called a working hypothesis would not work. For a man could not even construct a hypothesis if he could only construct it out of hypothetical things. There can be no hypothesis if there is nothing but hypothesis. Anybody can see that, if he will merely consider any actual example. For instance, the Darwinian theory of Natural Selection was a hypothesis; and it is still only a hypothesis. Popular science insists on repeating that it is a hypothesis that has been confirmed; with the result that responsible science is more and more treating it as a hypothesis that has been abandoned. But it can be quite rightly treated as a reasonable hypothesis, by anybody who believes in it, if he can support it with other things in which he believes; or preferably things in which everybody believes. He is quite entitled to say, "We suggest that a monkey, probably living in a tree, became the ancestor of a man, apparently living in a cave, by a process of adaptations beginning with slight varieties of feature in his family, by which it survived only in those cases where the features favoured the finding of food. It may not yet be finally confirmed by the fossils found in the rocks or the habits of the monkeys still found in the trees; but we still think it the most probable hypothesis and confidently await proof." But he could not even say that, if he were compelled to explain his suggestion in some such form as this: "We suggest that a monkey (if there are any monkeys) living in a tree (if there are any trees) became the ancestor of a man (if we may risk the speculative supposition that there is such a thing as a man) through certain variations enabling certain types to find food (granted the truth of the traditional dogma that food is favourable to life), and we look to the hypothetical fossils which may or may not be found in the hypothetical rocks which may or may not be found in the world; or to the behaviour of monkeys we cannot actually believe in, in trees we cannot actually believe in, and faintly trust to a larger hope that something may somehow make some sense out of the whole caboodle. But even if something does happen, by which this hypothesis seems to fit in better with all the other hypotheses, we can never believe it even at the end as anything except the hypothesis that it was at the beginning; because the good kind gentleman in _The Times_ tells us it would not be Modern."

This would be enough to show the futility of this relative and sceptical style of thinking, even for the pure purposes of thought. It is only because the reflection adds something to the fun of the thing, that I even refer to the unthinkable effects which such thought would have upon action. One thing is at least certain whatever our national or international views: that, in practice, over large parts of Europe that sort of scepticism has already perished under terrible tests. The world resounds with iron convictions, some sinister, some sublime, but all only too ready to bring forth the fruits of martyrdom or of murder. We also may yet suffer or defy; and I fear _The Times_ sceptic will discover that he is not so very Modern.