HERE can be little doubt that among primitive folk the conception of purpose would be freely employed in all matters of social life and intercourse, and in this connection would stand in no need of explanation, since it is that in terms of which explanations are themselves given. A's purposes are related to B's purposes; sometimes they run parallel or converge to a given end; often they run counter or diverge; and neither A nor B has the smallest hesitation in referring his neighbour's deeds to purposes like those by which he is actuated. This requires neither explanation nor logical justification; it is naively accepted as part of the given conditions of tribal life. But there are other actions natural occurrences as we call them which also in like manner aid or frustrate his own endeavours. Must not they, too, be expressions of a purpose or purposes? Just in so far as they have any meaning, that assuredly for him is their meaning. Familiar events, the orderly processes of nature, are by such people accepted as they come; there is no need of interpretation. And so far as any such need is dimly felt, the interpretation is always in relation to human endeavour. In early ages and for primitive folk, the meaning of this earth was, to be the home of man; the sim and moon existed to give him light or to mark his times and seasons. Bird and beast, flower, shrub and tree, directly or indirectly, ministered to his needs, and afforded him food or shelter. This was their end or purpose as seen from the brighter side. But there was also the darker side. The earth which was his home presented also obstacles to the attainment of his wishes. From the same sky which gave him warmth and radiance came the lightning flash and thunderbolt. The lion and the wolf were the appointed enemies of his race and ravishers of his flocks and herds. Among the plants or trees with wholesome fruits were bushes with noxious berries. All, however, so far as interpreted at all, was, at this stage of thought, interpreted in terms of meaning directly or indirectly centred in man. Not indeed centred wholly in the individual; for man is a social being; he has friends and enemies; he is a member of a tribe at variance with other tribes. The darkening of the moon during an eclipse no doubt forbodes disaster; but the impending disaster may fall on friend or foe. An interpreter was needed to read the sign and to indicate what is thereby signified. Hence arose the medicine man and the astrologer, who were specialists in such matters.
But as these events were more fully studied by a class of the community specially set aside for their interpretation, they were seen to be interconnected among themselves as well as connected with man's life and struggle in the world and with his foes. Herein lay the germs of that distinction between diverse interpretations which still contend for predominance on the one hand the interpretation in terms of purpose, on the other hand that in terms of natural law. But sharp and well-defined as this distinction has grown in these our latter days, at first it only implied somewhat diverse aspects of a continuous line of advance. The observed interconnection among phenomena served chiefly to show how subtle, and how wide in range, was the influence of natural events on human destiny. This may be seen in the close relations which obtained between astrology and astronomy.
The early interpretation of nature, when the initial stages of unification of natural events had been reached, was not only anthropocentric but geocentric.
The earth was the stable pivot of a universe the conception of which was taking form in the minds of men—the central point around which sun, moon, planets, and otherwise fixed stars circled in courses which seemed part of the abiding constitution of things. But they were still regarded as fulfilling a purpose. Astronomy, beginning to interpret in terms of natural law, was still closely linked with astrology, interpreting in terms of the earlier conceptions of meaning. The constellations exercised a subtle influence, malign or favouring, on human life an influence which the astrologer alone could rightly interpret. The sun, moon, and five known planets, for example, influenced in turn the successive hours of the day and night; and after the one which, so to speak, had charge of the first hour, the day was called. Our weekday names are thus a legacy bequeathed to us by astrology. But it was an astrology containing the germs, or more than the germs, of a scientific knowledge which had already been attained, it is said, not less than four thousand years before Christ. For the order of influence was the order of orbital sweep; and (interchanging the Sun and Earth in accordance with the geocentric conception) this order was already known correctly Saturn, Jupiter, Mars, the Sun, Venus, Mercury, the Moon. Now Saturn, with amplest sweep, influences the first hour of the first day, giving it his name—Saturday. The others in due order cast their spell over the succeeding hours, so that, as there are seven in all, Saturn again influences the eighth, fifteenth, and twenty-second hours, Jupiter the twenty-third, Mars the twenty fourth, and the Sim the first hour of the next day, giving us Sunday. The Sun again influences the eighth, fifteenth, and twenty-second hours, Venus the twenty-third, Mercury the twenty-fourth, and the Moon the first hour of Monday. We thus get a clue to the order of succession; for the Sun is third in sequence after Saturn; the Moon third in sequence after the Sun. Applying this rule of succession to the list of luminaries, we have in due order the remaining days of the week—Mardi (Tuesday), Mercredi (Wednesday), Jeudi (Thursday), and Vendredi (Friday).
Now whether the study of planetary orbits was undertaken chiefly for an astrological purpose, or also, as is probable, for other and what seem to us more practical applications (but still, be it noted, for the purposes of human endeavour), we have here the beginnings (and more than the beginnings) of what we should now term scientific knowledge—of interpretation in terms of natural law. Science may, indeed, be said to have arisen as the middle term between the gaining of direct experience and its application to the varied needs of human life. So far as we know, man stands alone as interpreter of nature in this or in any other sense. The dumb beasts, with wonderful sagacity, utilise experience for the guidance of behaviour to practical ends. But for them the middle term, even if it can be said to exist with any definiteness, does not disengage itself from sensory experience on the one hand, and the resulting behaviour on the other hand. Man alone seeks to explain ; to analyse experience into its elements, and to rebuild these elements in the systematic unity of a scheme of thought; to read particular events in the light of general conceptions. These general conceptions enter into the framework of scientific knowledge. Every branch of science, involving broad generalisations from observed facts, arose in close touch with those human needs to which it could be applied. The end was essentially practical, or in any case purposive, with a distinct bearing on some special phase of human well-being. But as the middle term grew in importance and became an independent centre of human interest it ceased to be regarded only as a means of human ends; or, rather, it may be said to have been raised to the level of an end in and for itself. The knowledge gained in different fields was brought into relation; it was slowly organised into a consistent whole; it received a new application, still indeed in accordance with human needs—the intellectual needs of the inquiring spirit but related to these needs in a new way. The interpretation of nature in and for itself took shape as a worthy intellectual aim, but ever more and more in intellectual detachment from all other feelings and wishes and yearnings of the human heart. This is the interpretation in terms of natural law which tends in some degree to supplant the interpretation in terms of purpose. Each has its advocates; and each has progressively reached a higher level of refinement. Step by step and stage by stage have these two aspects of a philosophy of nature striven towards increasing range, unity, and universality, culminating in the opposing conceptions of theism and naturalism. The former may have begun by uncritically projecting human purpose on to the plane of nature; but as it became more refined the redundant crudities were removed. Many of those who still accept this explanation of the meaning of nature regard the world as an expression of purpose in relation to that of man, but freed from human imperfections and limitations, no longer capricious but the type of steadfast and beneficent influence; a purpose without variableness or shadow of turning, of which indeed we can only aspire to an imperfect and limited comprehension, but in relation to which human life attains its highest worth; a purpose which is the source of all that is revealed to us through the channels of human experience, and one which appeals not less, nay, more, to the poet and the artist than to the man of science and the philosopher. On the other hand, as we have seen, the procedure of naturalism has taken an opposite course. Instead of projecting purpose on to the plane of nature it has introjected the mechanical explanations of the external world into the life and eventually into the very soul of man. This type of interpretation was first applied to what we may term the inorganic periphery of natural knowledge in the starry heavens. By successive steps, however, it worked inwards towards the human centre. Man's bodily frame and its physiological functions were, in due time, interpreted in mechanical terms. His conscious experience, regarded as a byproduct of the processes occurring in some part of the brain, indirectly if not directly yields to a like method of analytic treatment. The central citadel of the soul is captured. And the newer method of interpretation, according to its most advanced exponents, is now, at least in its broad outlines, complete, and human purpose itself is explained as the conscious accompaniment of nerve-changes explicable in terms of a mechanism resulting from a prolonged process of rigidly determinate evolution.