Knowing Knowing and Known

In his work On the Soul, Aristotle points out that knowledge of powers depends on the knowledge of activities, and knowledge of activities depends on knowledge of the objects of the activities:

It is necessary for the student of these forms of soul first to find a definition of each, expressive of what it is, and then to investigate its derivative properties, &c. But if we are to express what each is, viz. what the thinking power is, or the perceptive, or the nutritive, we must go farther back and first give an account of thinking or perceiving, for in the order of investigation the question of what an agent does precedes the question, what enables it to do what it does. If this is correct, we must on the same ground go yet another step farther back and have some clear view of the objects of each; thus we must start with these objects, e.g. with food, with what is perceptible, or with what is intelligible.

A little thought will establish that this is entirely necessary. In order to have a general knowledge of the power or the activity, however, it will be sufficient to have a general knowledge of the object. But given that human knowledge proceeds from the general to the specific, it would be reasonable to believe that a detailed knowledge of the power or activity might require a somewhat equally detailed knowledge of the object.

We can see how this would happen by thinking about the example of eating and food. A general idea of both eating and food might be this: eating is taking in other bodies and using them for growth and for energy for other living activities, and food is what can be taken in and used in this way.

Both the idea of eating and the idea of food here are fairly general, and due to their generality they leave open various questions. For example, why is not possible to live off air? Air is a body, and in physics it is in some sense convertible with energy, so it would not seem unreasonable if it could provide the matter and energy that we need in order to grow and to live in other ways.

The general account does not of course assert that this is a possibility, but neither does it deny the possibility. So if someone thinks that the general account tells them all that needs to be known about eating and food, they will not be unlikely to conclude that living off air should be a possibility. If someone drew this conclusion it would be an example of impatience with respect to truth. The example is not very realistic, of course, even if there are a few people who actually draw this conclusion, but this lack of realism is not because of some flaw in the idea of the knowledge of activities depending on the knowledge of objects, but just because most people already accept that air is not a kind of food, even if they do not know why it is not. So they already have a somewhat more detailed knowledge of the object, and therefore also of the activity.

Something similar will result with other powers of the soul, and with powers in general. In the case of knowledge in particular, a general knowledge of knowing will depend on a general knowledge of the known or knowable, and a detailed knowledge of knowing will depend on a detailed knowledge of the known or knowable. And just as in the example above, a general knowledge does not necessarily lead someone into error, but it can leave open questions, and one who is impatient for truth might draw detailed conclusions too soon. In this case, a likely result would be that someone confuses the mode of knowledge and the mode of the known, although this would not be the only way to fall into error.

Sean Collins discusses the history of science and its relationship with philosophy:

In my post of March 6, I noted that we must distinguish between what science has been and what it ought to be, or what it is naturally ordained to be. It is therefore a mistake to take any current or past state of science and construe that as universal without any argument. It is a mistake, for example, to suppose that the Galilean paradigm of physics as “written in mathematical terms” is a universal truth, merely on the ground that physics has been that way for some time, and indeed with some fair degree of success. Or, again, I shall argue, it is a mistake to infer that science consists essentially, and by its permanent universal nature, in reasoning from artificial “paradigms,” even if the recent history of science suggests that.

But from this one might be inclined to draw either of two diametrically opposite inferences. One would be to suppose that history and science have nothing to do with each other, otherwise than accidentally. We should therefore try to find out what science is really supposed to be, and let it be that. But the opposite conclusion seems perhaps equally justifiable: namely that science is essentially historical, so that stages in its progress are precisely stages, and therefore ought not to be confused with the universal character of science itself.

Which is the right conclusion? Should we think that science and history have any real connection? To make the question suitably concrete, we should first recognize that this is really a question about humanity. It is humanity we are wondering about when we ask whether our knowledge has any essential relation with history. It is about the being called “man” himself that we must finally ask whether there is something essentially historical.

But then we can see, perhaps, that this is no small question, and it would scarcely do it justice to propose an answer to it in a few short paragraphs. For now, I will let it suffice to have asked the question. But I would also like to take note of some significant historical facts which suggest a direction in which to seek an answer. And after that I will propose what I think is an absolutely fundamental and critical principle on the way to finding an answer.

The signs I have in mind are these. Some 2500 years ago, Aristotle wrote his Organon, which laid out the delineations of “science.” Aristotle argued that science, in the strictest sense, must be knowledge from universal causes, that these causes must be expressed in self-evident principles, and that the principles must derive from the essences of things as expressed in their definitions. Historically, that view seemed to hold a very firm sway for a very long time, until something strange happened: there was a revolt. Francis Bacon, Galileo, and Descartes were primary agents of the revolt. The revolt was in large measure a backlash against entrenched stagnation, against which irrepressible spirits finally grew indignant. From that moment on, intellectual culture became bifurcated into “science” and “philosophy,” and that bifurcation remains to this day.

Those who remain in the camp of the “philosophers” often stake their claims on the basis of the original claims of Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics. They resist the intrusions of science on the alleged ground that only philosophy proceeds in a truly universal mode, seeking definitions by “genus and difference,” aiming at truly universal causes, and proposing its theses with complete certitude. Those, on the other hand, who decide to be “scientists” stake their claims on the basis of what they take to be reality itself. They notice the truly astonishing degree to which physical reality has a structure, a structure which reaches down deeply into the materiality of things. They see, all too well, that the discovery and appreciation of that structure absolutely demands a mode of thought which is not that of conventional philosophy. And they cannot, moreover, help but notice that conventional philosophers have often tended to either be completely ignorant of that structure, or worse yet, to not care about it, or to deny that it matters, or to deny that it really exists at all.

To describe this by a succinct approximation, we might say that the philosophical mindset tries to reason from characteristics of the mind: from its yearning for what transcends the murkiness of matter. The scientific mindset, by contrast, seeks to reason from the characteristics of physical reality, even possibly at the expense of the aspirations of human reason towards what is immaterial.

While one might agree that it does not “do justice” to the question in the sense of discussing it adequately, we can see from what has been said that one cannot fully separate science from history. If we ask, “what is the nature of science,” we are asking about the nature of human knowing. In order to answer this, we require knowledge of knowing. But since knowing knowing in a detailed way depends on knowing the known in a detailed way, the question of whether history is essentially involved in knowing knowing depends on whether knowing the known in a detailed way is an essentially historical process.

Human beings and especially the life of an individual human being are very small parts of reality. One consequence is that the single lifetime of an individual is not enough to come to a detailed knowledge of the physical world without an essential dependence on the work of others, which dependence implies a historical process. The “astonishing degree to which physical reality has a structure” is something that necessarily takes many human lifetimes to come to know, and is the collective work of the human race, not the work of an individual.

Speaking of Aristotle’s attitude towards matter in science, Collins says:

Aristotle, as I have noted, saw that materiality is a true principle of natural being. Henceforth, it was no longer necessary to shun matter, as the Platonists had, as if it were repugnant to philosophical endeavors. One could reason about the natural, physical world, and one could reason about it as physical.

Yet we are — no doubt inevitably — slow to grasp the implications of materiality. Even about this very historical fact, many of us tend to think in a quasi-Platonic way. And what I am about to assert will no doubt astonish some readers: even Aristotle himself continued to think in a somewhat Platonic way, despite his recognition of the principle of materiality. But anyone who is acquainted with the history of thought shouldn’t be entirely surprised at my assertion. It is common — ordinary, in fact — for great thinkers, who find themselves at the dawn of a new and fuller vision of the order of things, to have one foot remaining in the older vision, not entirely able to see the implications of their own new intuitions. If one assumes that thought ought to evolve, as opposed to merely changing in revolutionary fits, one should find this even perhaps a little reassuring.

So what do I mean when I say that Aristotle thinks in a semi-Platonic way? Briefly, I mean that, even despite himself in a way, he continues to seek the accounts, the logoi, of things in a way that would place them more in the order of the purely intellectual than the physical. For example, he seeks to understand what time is in a way that makes virtually no appeal to such physical evidence as we have nowadays through physical experimentation. (Of course! How could he make appeal to something that didn’t exist yet?) He supposes, rather inevitably, that simply thinking about time and motion from the relatively deficient point of view of something called  “common experience” will give him something like a sufficient account of what he is trying to understand. And in the end, his vision of an eternal first motion as the source of time, a motion perfectly circular and unchanging, deriving from the causality of a First Mover who could not directly be the source of any contingent effects — this is a vision which now, from the point of view of contemporary science as well as Christian theology, rightly strikes us as not yet a mature vision in its understanding of the role of matter in the order of the cosmos.

This, to be sure, is not a criticism of Aristotle, as if to suggest that he should have thought something else; rather, it is merely an observation of how human thought inevitably takes time to  develop. Nor do I mean to suggest that what Aristotle saw was of negligible account. It belongs precisely to what I am calling the order of concretion to begin with the relatively abstract in our understanding of material things, and this is because matter is ordered to form more than vice versa. This can be illustrated in the design of artifacts, for in them also there is always a material and a formal element. Thus, for example, barring special circumstances, one does not ordinarily design a building by first looking at what materials to use; rather one considers what form and function they are to serve, and then one chooses materials accordingly. Though there are circumstantial exceptions to this principle, it remains a principle; and it is clear enough that a systematic disregard of it would make our thought chaotic.

Thus one can see that there is a philosophical justification for doing what Aristotle did. We might describe this justification in another way as well: it derives from the fact that the human mind must bear some proportion to the reality it is to know. For having understood something of the difference between the order of intellect and the order of physical being, we still suppose, rightly, that there must be a proportion between them. Yet this rather abstract statement leaves much in doubt. How is the human mind to fulfill its destiny to know physical reality? I shall trust my readers to be able to understand that the answer to that question could not look the same in the 4th century BC as it looks now….

It is possible that Collins is too generous to Aristotle here, perhaps for the sake of his readers and for the sake of his own intellectual tradition, in the sense that to some extent, it seems likely that some of Aristotle’s conclusions are “impatient” in the way we have discussed earlier. Nonetheless his basic assertion is correct. Knowing the nature of knowledge in detail requires more knowledge of the knowable thing than Aristotle could have had at the time. As Collins says, this is “merely an observation of how human thought inevitably takes time to develop.” And even if there is some intellectual impatience there, there is perhaps no more such impatience than is generally found in those who seek to understand reality.

 

Irreversible Change

Many plans for human society may be possible in the way that bringing back last Friday is impossible, and yet not be real human possibilities. It is easy for us to see this in the case of plans that correspond to things that have never existed, as for example the sort of plan proposed by people with socialist tendencies. For example, the Tradinista manifesto states:

8. Livelihood should not depend on the market.

Markets are not unjust in themselves, but they become vehicles of exploitation when people must sell their labor-power on the market in order to survive. So, while citizens should be free to engage in market exchange, the polity should ensure that no basic needs – food, clothing, shelter, healthcare, etc. – go unmet, guaranteeing a livelihood independent of the market.

Consider this as it stands. According to this, markets are “vehicles of exploitation” if I have no way to survive without selling my labor-power, that is, without getting a job. “The polity should ensure” that this does not happen. It must guarantee that if I prefer not to get a job, I do not need to get one, and that there remains a way for me to survive without one.

Let’s suppose we live in such a polity, and I declare that I don’t like jobs, and I have decided that I will not get one. What happens now? How does the polity ensure that I can survive, and that I do not need to get a job?

The tradinista response becomes somewhat confused when confronted directly with this question. They do not clearly state that they favor a Basic Income guarantee, but in fact this would be the only reasonable way to implement their requirement without making people who choose not to work into slaves, which would thereby nullify the idea that people are not obliged to work, as one can see after a little thought. We will look at this more closely below.

The problem with the manifesto is not that it favors a basic income. It might well turn out that the idea is reasonable, and that someday it can be implemented in some society. But there is indeed a problem with the claim that this belongs to the very essence of a just society. There is simply no proof, nor good reasons to believe, that this is workable or conducive to human welfare in the real world and in presently existing societies. Suppose the USA were to adopt the above statement from the tradinista manifesto as a constitutional amendment. If they are right that this belongs to the nature of a just society, such an amendment would be commendable.

First, some people may decide to stop working. I might do so myself, given my preference for the useless. “The polity” would be obliged to support these people. Whether given as money or in other forms, that support would be taken from taxes, which would mean that taxes would rise. This might make working for a living more uncomfortable for some others, and some of these might decide to stop working themselves. And so the process might well repeat until the whole of society is at the level of bare subsistence, and many would die, as a result of their borderline subsistence condition.

Now there is no guarantee that we would get this result. But there is no guarantee that we would not, so the tradinista proposal does not make sense as a condition for a just society, unless they view this consequence as acceptable.

All of this is in fact why St. Paul says, “For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.”

The tradinista site responds to this use of St. Paul:

“He who does not work, neither shall he eat.” In using this line against the Manifesto Milco puts himself in the tradition of those many who have imagined an apodictic Apostolic anathematization of Left politics; he also demonstrates how little he understands the philosophy embedded in the Manifesto.

Neither the Tradinista Collective nor any other Leftist thinkers imagine that human welfare might be decoupled from human labor. Indeed, in their relentless emphasis on the importance of the common worker, Leftists tend to emphasize just how essential work is to the maintenance and flourishing of society. Leftists do not differ from apologists of capital by devaluing labor – they differ in their view of how labor should be politically governed.

One of the basic insights of the Left, to which the Manifesto is much indebted, is that the absence or near-invisibility of explicit physical coercion does not therefore make the market an arena of authentic human freedom. The Manifesto’s authors take for granted that in labor relations, in debts, and in interactions with the agents of state power, a liberal illusion of free and equal treatment under the law often hides instances of oppression and corruption – instances which liberals can endorse only because their worldview allows them to be overlooked. Once however they are not overlooked, the formal or legal distinction of free and unfree labor becomes only one important distinction among many. To rely solely on that distinction, to “outsource” decisions about the relations of workers to the market, seems to the authors of the Manifesto to be a kind of ethical abdication – a fine illustration of the weakness of moral philosophy in our times.

This is virtually incoherent. Consider again the statement from the manifesto, that markets “become vehicles of exploitation when people must sell their labor-power on the market in order to survive.” What is the alternative? In the response above, they say in a roundabout way, although with much confusion, “yes, people will still have to work, or they won’t be able to survive.” But then either they are being paid for their work, and thus they are selling their labor, or they are not being paid. The implication of these alternatives is obvious: either you sell your labor for money, or you sell yourself into slavery. Your choice.

Chesterton’s argument is that the above sort of argument should only apply to things that have never existed, such as socialism. It should not apply to arrangements that have actually existed in the real world. Times are all alike, so if something has existed in the past, it can exist again.

The response to this is found in the last post. In many cases, neither the original arrangements nor the new arrangements came about by human planning. So we should not find it surprising if human planning cannot revert things to the original arrangement. In this sense, many changes in human society are in fact humanly irreversible.

Nothing New Under the Sun

Vanity of vanities, says the Teacher,
    vanity of vanities! All is vanity.
What do people gain from all the toil
    at which they toil under the sun?
A generation goes, and a generation comes,
    but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun goes down,
    and hurries to the place where it rises.
The wind blows to the south,
    and goes around to the north;
round and round goes the wind,
    and on its circuits the wind returns.
All streams run to the sea,
    but the sea is not full;
to the place where the streams flow,
    there they continue to flow.
All things are wearisome;
    more than one can express;
the eye is not satisfied with seeing,
    or the ear filled with hearing.
What has been is what will be,
    and what has been done is what will be done;
    there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
    “See, this is new”?
It has already been,
    in the ages before us.
The people of long ago are not remembered,
    nor will there be any remembrance
of people yet to come
    by those who come after them.

This view is one that maintains neither progress nor regress. While there is change, the change is cyclical, and thus overall things remain the same. This is much like Aristotle’s view of the eternity of the world, although Qoheleth presumably accepts the account of Genesis 1.

Since change implies becoming better or becoming worse, and not all changes are normally undone, it is very hard in practice to maintain such a view. Thus we saw in the post linked above that Aristotle in practice believed not only in the progress of the sciences, but that they had basically reached their perfection.

As a similar example, consider this post by P. Edmund Waldstein:

In his letter to Pliny the Younger on the proper procedure in the persecution of Christians the Emperor Trajan agrees with Pliny that no note is to be taken of libelli containing anonymous denunciations, for, “Nam et pessimi exempli nec nostri saeculi est.” (“They set a bad precedent and are not in the spirit of our age.”) Not of our age! How disappointing that a Roman emperor would sink to the level of that puppet of the contemporary self-congratulatory liberal establishment, the Prime Minister of Canada, who famously justified his cabinet selection with the moronic pseudo-reason “because it’s 2015.” I had thought that this species of idiocy only came into being after Vico, but apparently I was wrong.

If “because it’s 2015” is a “moronic pseudo-reason,” the reason for this would be that time is an accidental feature: 2015 is just one year in history, just like the year 1015, and the year 3015. This suggests a view like that of Qoheleth: times are all alike, not ordered according to better and worse. But like Aristotle, P. Edmund betrays the fact that he does not really accept such a view: “I had thought that this species of idiocy only came into being after Vico, but apparently I was wrong.” If times are all alike, all species of idiocy should exist at all times. The instinct to assume that this is not the case results from the implicit belief that things do indeed change, and indeed become better and worse: it is just that P. Edmund implicitly believes that they become worse, not better, and in this case his implicit belief was not borne out by experience.

Qoheleth in fact knows that many people assume that things are becoming worse, and he rejects this view, precisely because of his position that things are circular.  Thus he says,

Do not say, “Why were the former days better than these?”
    For it is not from wisdom that you ask this.

It is not from wisdom to ask this, because the former days were just like these ones. There is nothing new under the sun.

But if this question is not according to wisdom, then just as St. Paul says, “I have been a fool! You forced me to it,” so the present discussion forces us to ask in what way former days were better than these, and why, and in what way worse, and why.

David Allen vs. Mark Forster

Mark Forster remarks on time management systems:

There’s a well-known quote about the evolution of fishing boats:

Every boat is copied from another boat… Let’s reason as follows in the manner of Darwin. It is clear that a very badly made boat will end up at the bottom after one or two voyages, and thus never be copied… One could then say, with complete rigor, that it is the sea herself who fashions the boats, choosing those which function and destroying the others.

Alain (Emile Chartier), 1908

It occurred to me that exactly the same could be said about time management systems or methods. The best will naturally rise to the top because the people promoting them will have better time management than those who don’t use them.

“One could then say, with complete rigor, that it is time herself who fashions the methods, choosing those which function and destroying the others.

If you want to know what the best time management system is then look at the most successful ones for the authors themselves. Using that criterion I think Getting Things Done (GTD) would still win the prize.

There may be a problem with this criterion, since people have different personalities and different systems may work better for them. In particular, my guess, based on Mark Forster’s blogging, is that he has much more of a problem with procrastination than David Allen (the author of Getting Things Done). And consequently Mark devotes a lot of attention to developing a system that might address procrastination in his personal situation. But procrastination is essentially a problem quite different from the problem of time management. We can see that by considering the comparison between budgeting time and budgeting money. If you earn $50,000 in spendable income per year, you can devise a reasonable budget that tells you how much you can spend in each category. Likewise, since you absolutely must live on 24 hours a day, you can devise a plan on how much time you can spend on various things during a day. That kind of planning, in each case, is budgeting. But nothing prevents you from creating a budget and then going and spending your money or your time on other things instead. Time management is therefore creating a reasonable budget with your 24 hours. Procrastination is simply what you do when you spend your time on something else instead.

This does not mean that it is impossible to devise a system for avoiding procrastination, but this is different from budgeting your time, and even if you do devise such a system, there will be no guarantee that you will in fact follow the system rather than doing something else, and thus no guarantee that you will actually avoid procrastination.

In terms of budgeting time as such, Forster’s system is objectively better than Allen’s system, because Forster’s system forces you to watch yourself and to decide how much you can really get done in a day. David Allen refuses to budget time in this way. Thus he says:

Reminders of actions you need to take fall into two categories: those about things that have to happen on a specific day or time, and those about things that just need to get done as soon as possible. Your calendar handles the first type of reminder. Three things go on your calendar: time-specific actions; day-specific actions; and day-specific information.

No More “Daily To-Do” Lists Those three things are what go on the calendar, and nothing else! I know this is heresy to traditional time-management training, which has almost universally taught that the “daily to-do list” is key. But such lists don’t work, for two reasons. First, constant new input and shifting tactical priorities reconfigure daily work so consistently that it’s virtually impossible to nail down to-do items ahead of time. Having a working game plan as a reference point is always useful, but it must be able to be renegotiated at any moment. Trying to keep a list in writing on the calendar, which must then be rewritten on another day if items don’t get done, is demoralizing and a waste of time. The “Next Actions” lists I advocate will hold all of those action reminders, even the most time-sensitive ones. And they won’t have to be rewritten daily.

Second, if there’s something on a daily to-do list that doesn’t absolutely have to get done that day, it will dilute the emphasis on the things that truly do. If I have to call Mioko on Friday because that’s the only day I can reach her, but then I add five other, less important or less time-sensitive calls to my to-do list, when the day gets crazy I may never call Mioko. My brain will have to take back the reminder that that’s the one phone call I won’t get another chance at. That’s not utilizing the system appropriately. The way I look at it, the calendar should be sacred territory. If you write something there, it must get done that day or not at all. The only rewriting should be for changed appointments.

The idea in Forster’s system is that the day is almost entirely planned out from the beginning, in that almost everything you are going to do is already on a list that already exists at the beginning of the day, the list having been created the previous day. Allen clearly wants nothing to do with such a system. You might have a list with two or three things on it, the things that “absolutely have” to get done that day, but not anything like a list of nearly everything that you are going to do.

Obviously we are talking here about detailed practical matters where there can be substantial differences in different cases, but I think that to a first approximation, Allen is simply giving bad advice here, basically like saying, “There’s no need for a budget. You never know what you might have to buy next. Just spend the money you have, and maybe set aside a small amount for some absolute essentials.” And indeed that can work to some extent, but it will often mean you don’t have money for things that you feel you need, because you already spent it on something else. The same kind of thing will happen if you refuse to budget your time.

Let us look for the source of the problem. Consider Allen’s statement that “constant new input and shifting tactical priorities reconfigure daily work so consistently that it’s virtually impossible to nail down to-do items ahead of time.” Again, this may be more or less true depending on the particular work a person is doing, but a large part of this is simply a necessary result of the way Allen deals with incoming work.

When you have some incoming item that requires action, Allen proposes this decision process:

Do It, Delegate It, or Defer It Once you’ve decided on the next action, you have three options:

1. Do it. If an action will take less than two minutes, it should be done at the moment it is defined.

2. Delegate it. If the action will take longer than two minutes, ask yourself, Am I the right person to do this? If the answer is no, delegate it to the appropriate entity.

3. Defer it. If the action will take longer than two minutes, and you are the right person to do it, you will have to defer acting on it until later and track it on one or more “Next Actions” lists.

The reason that things taking longer than two minutes are not done immediately is that this is a process for dealing with immediately incoming things. It would be extremely disruptive to try to take care of everything the instant it comes to your attention.

But I suggest that Allen’s first rule, that you should do anything that takes less than two minutes immediately, is the basic reason that he feels that his day is constantly being reconfigured. We do many more such things than we realize; working an eight hour office job, you might well be spending two hours every day on tasks that take less than two minutes each. Additionally, you might suppose a quick phone call will take less than two minutes, but it might end up taking 10 instead. In such a case, if the need for the call came up suddenly, and you did it immediately on account of Allen’s rule, you will begin to feel that your day is being disrupted. And it is, but it is the rule that is disrupting it.

Consider Forster’s response to whether you should respond immediately to an email that requires a one-word response:

Remember the degree of urgency of the response depends on the urgency of the request, not on how easy it is to respond. I would be fooling you if I said that I would never reply to an email like this the same day. But if I do I usually end up regretting it, because once I start responding to one email I tend to go on and respond to others. Also I find that a too rapid reply to an email can lead to emails batting back and forth all day. My advice is not to answer it today unless your colleague says it’s urgent.

Answering it immediately is like an impulse purchase. Sure, it won’t affect your budget in any significant way to spend $2 or $3 that you didn’t plan to spend. But unless you have some budgeted spending money, you are already starting down the wrong path, in terms of budgeting, as soon as you do it once. And if you find yourself doing it repeatedly, soon you will no longer be following your budget. In the same way, a one-word response is not going to ruin anyone’s plan for the day. But the feel that you need to deal with it right away, just because dealing with it doesn’t take that long, is already going down the wrong path, in terms of budgeting time.

Allen’s system would be improved by removing this rule completely, and not having anything done at the time it is processed as incoming, or it could be improved somewhat less by reducing the time: e.g. it could be processed immediately if it would take less than 30 seconds. But complete removal is better.

Nonetheless, Allen does have a point about trying to make a list that will include everything you are going to do that day, both because at least a few things might come up that really do need doing the same day, and because if you are already committed to a full day’s worth of work every day, it is very difficult to ever fit in anything new. These factors make it easy to overfill a day, and make it difficult to reduce your commitments once this has happened.

Forster summarizes the system himself, and remarks on advantages and disadvantages:

Brief Summary

The book’s basic premise is that we get behind on our work because we don’t pay attention to the basic formula “One day’s outgoing work much on average equal one day’s incoming work”. The idea is that one day’s worth of incoming work is collected for action the following day in a dated “Task Diary”. A line is drawn at the bottom of the day’s list so that each day there is a finite amount of work to do. Tasks which arise during the day and have to be done that day may be added to the list “below the line” but the default is to add tasks to the next day’s list. If one falls more than a few day’s behind, then it is important to audit the outstanding work in order to cut it back so that one can keep up. There is also the concept of the “Current Initiative”, by which one project is focused on first thing every day. This is particularly suitable for backlogs, work on improving systems, and getting major projects up and running.

Advantages

By providing a finite amount of work to be done each day, the system enables you to know when your work for the day is finished. It makes it easy to diagnose what the matter is if you fall behind. It also introduces several important concepts which are made further use of in the subsequent Autofocus systems, such as little and often, recurring tasks, and so on.

Disadvantages

The two main disadvantages are that people are often reluctant to carry out a proper diagnosis when they fall behind. This considerably reduces the effectiveness of the system if it is constantly running behind. There is also a considerable effort needed to push through to completing a day’s work, which can lead to resistance building against the system.

Why are people “reluctant to carry out a proper diagnosis when they fall behind?” This may be partly because they feel tired because of feeling overworked, and so not wanting to put the effort into the diagnosis. Likewise, they do not want to admit that they are over-committed, and do not want to take anything away from their plans.

The “considerable effort” that is needed to do a day’s work of course should just be exactly the amount of effort that is in fact needed for a day’s work. But since as I said in the comment here, our commitments tend to increase to fill all available time, this tends to imply that “a day’s work” will tend to grow as much as it can, until you can barely fit it into a day, even if you are following the system correctly.

I am personally using a sort of hybrid system, adopting elements from both systems. The basic idea is to apply Do It Tomorrow, but to first restrict “a day’s work” to quite a bit less than I can actually do in a day, but not restricted to the degree that Allen is doing by saying that you should only schedule things which are absolutely essential for that day. In other words, rather than “diagnosing” the problem when I cannot finish, I run such a diagnosis even when I can finish, if the list is actually using all of my time. This is a lot like setting aside $500 from your salary and budgeting the rest of your money.

So what do I do with the $500, or in other words, with the additional time that this system appears to create? This is the part that which is assigned to a more GTD-like system. In addition to my lists for “today” and “tomorrow,” I also have a vague and indefinite list which is much like all of Allen’s lists. Whenever there is time left over — which should be, and in fact is, almost every day — I do some work from this list.

Forster notes that if you try to do everything you would like to do in theory, you will run into problems:

In yesterday’s article Overcommitment and what you can do to prevent it I drew attention to the formula given in Do It Tomorrow:

Backlog = (Average work coming in each day) – (average work going out each day)

In spite of all our efforts to ignore this rule there really is no way round it. However we can continue to fool ourselves by acting in much the same way as a chronic debtor continues to get further and further into debt. In other words we put things off into the future. In the same way that the debtor always believes that “something will come up”, so we believe in a magic fairytale day in which we have nothing else to do other than catch up with our work. Of course this day never arrives, and if by some amazing chance it actually did the sudden relaxation of tension probably would mean that we spent the whole day goofing off rather than working.

It’s interesting to see how this truth about workload plays out in various situations. How does it work with a “catch-all” list? Now the great advantage of a catch-all list is its completeness. You get everything on your mind down on paper so you no longer have the worry of trying to remember it all. There is however a problem with this. The work does not stop arriving just because you have written it all down. In fact writing it all down may make it less likely that you will get everything done, rather than more. This is because there is a certain natural selection going on with tasks, which means the stronger ones survive while the weaker ones go to the wall. The problem with writing everything down is that this natural selection is inhibited because the weaker tasks can’t take the natural path of dropping out of your memory and your life.

Anyway, as I said in yesterday’s article overcommitment is a systems failure, and the first step with any systems failure is to look at what is happening in our present system. How does this apply to a catch-all list?

Potential candidates to be tasks on our catch-all list come from a multitude of sources, e.g. our own “brilliant ideas”, our bosses, our clients, our colleagues, our families, our reading, social media, the tv, etc, etc, etc. On top of these existing tasks which need further work get re-entered on the list rather than deleted.

Let’s first of all look at the input procedure:

A potential task arrives on the scene from one of the above sources

A catch-all system is designed to catch everything. So the task is put on the list without further ado.

Another task arrives on the scene and is put on the list

and so on

No problem so far. The input procedure is doing exactly what it is designed to do.

What about the output procedure? That’s even simpler:

We do one task after another (according to the criteria of whatever system we are using to process the list)

But it’s here that we run into a problem: the time it takes to do a task is usually longer than it takes to write a task down. Since that means that tasks come in faster than it’s possible to do them, more and more tasks get pushed into the future.

So our problem with the existing system can be summed up as:

Potential work coming in each day is basically infinite

Work going out each day is finite

Therefore the list is potentially liable to expand infinitely

Fortunately in reality this doesn’t happen to quite that extent, but it’s easy to see what the present system is inevitably going to produce. Overcommitment.

My way of preventing this is to make the additional, non-daily list, into what Forster calls a “closed list.” Nothing can be added to it; things can however be subtracted from it, if they turn out to be unimportant or unnecessary by the time I get to them. Nothing ever goes on this in the first place if it is time sensitive in any way, or at least if it is really necessary that it be done within the next month or two; in any such situation I arrange things with Forster’s original system.

The fact that the list is closed means that I have still another list, an open list, to which the “potentially infinite” things are added. This open list becomes the new closed list when the original closed list is completed.

This might naturally lead to the problem that Forster is remarking upon: you can think of things to do faster than you can do them. And since it is currently taking me about two months to work through the closed list, there is no proof that this will not happen in the future. However, judging by the number of items on the open list, I seem to have reached a relatively stable equilibrium, for reasons much like the reasons that people do not in fact go infinitely into debt: there might be an infinite number of things you would like to buy in theory, but you do not even think of most of them, let alone buy them, since it would be immediately obvious that you will not be able to actually buy them. In a similar way I could potentially think of an infinite number of things to do, but there is no reason for me to bother, since there is already enough on those lists. And on the other hand, since I keep my “absolute” and time sensitive commitments below a true day’s worth, there is no difficulty in handling new things of this kind when they come up.

Some of the details here of course are related to facts about my personal circumstances, and thus the details might need to be modified to apply to other individuals. Nonetheless, overall I am finding that it has most of the advantages of both Do It Tomorrow and of Getting Things Done, while avoiding most of the disadvantages.

 

24 Hours

Arnold Bennett, in an essay called “How to Live on Twenty-Four Hours a Day,” speaks of the use of time as though it were a kind of money:

You have to live on this twenty-four hours of daily time. Out of it you have to spin health, pleasure, money, content, respect, and the evolution of your immortal soul. Its right use, its most effective use, is a matter of the highest urgency and of the most thrilling actuality. All depends on that. Your happiness—the elusive prize that you are all clutching for, my friends!—depends on that. Strange that the newspapers, so enterprising and up-to-date as they are, are not full of “How to live on a given income of time,” instead of “How to live on a given income of money”! Money is far commoner than time. When one reflects, one perceives that money is just about the commonest thing there is. It encumbers the earth in gross heaps.

If one can’t contrive to live on a certain income of money, one earns a little more—or steals it, or advertises for it. One doesn’t necessarily muddle one’s life because one can’t quite manage on a thousand pounds a year; one braces the muscles and makes it guineas, and balances the budget. But if one cannot arrange that an income of twenty-four hours a day shall exactly cover all proper items of expenditure, one does muddle one’s life definitely. The supply of time, though gloriously regular, is cruelly restricted.

Which of us lives on twenty-four hours a day? And when I say “lives,” I do not mean exists, nor “muddles through.” Which of us is free from that uneasy feeling that the “great spending departments” of his daily life are not managed as they ought to be? Which of us is quite sure that his fine suit is not surmounted by a shameful hat, or that in attending to the crockery he has forgotten the quality of the food? Which of us is not saying to himself—which of us has not been saying to himself all his life: “I shall alter that when I have a little more time”?

We never shall have any more time. We have, and we have always had, all the time there is. It is the realization of this profound and neglected truth (which, by the way, I have not discovered) that has led me to the minute practical examination of daily time-expenditure.

“We shall never have any more time,” Bennett says, in the sense that we have 24 hours each day, never more and never less. The time is always the same; it is just a question of how that time is used. In principle, “balancing the budget” with respect to time should be just as easy as balancing the budget with respect to one’s income. Bennett illustrates this with an imaginary example:

“But,” someone may remark, with the English disregard of everything except the point, “what is he driving at with his twenty-four hours a day? I have no difficulty in living on twenty-four hours a day. I do all that I want to do, and still find time to go in for newspaper competitions. Surely it is a simple affair, knowing that one has only twenty-four hours a day, to content one’s self with twenty-four hours a day!”

To you, my dear sir, I present my excuses and apologies. You are precisely the man that I have been wishing to meet for about forty years. Will you kindly send me your name and address, and state your charge for telling me how you do it? Instead of me talking to you, you ought to be talking to me. Please come forward. That you exist, I am convinced, and that I have not yet encountered you is my loss. Meanwhile, until you appear, I will continue to chat with my companions in distress—that innumerable band of souls who are haunted, more or less painfully, by the feeling that the years slip by, and slip by, and slip by, and that they have not yet been able to get their lives into proper working order.

When someone says, “I cannot afford that,” typically this does not mean that it is literally impossible to buy it. He may have enough money in his wallet, or in his bank account. If he does not, he might easily save enough; or if even if this would be difficult, it might be possible to get a loan to manage the purchase. In the end, in most cases the person who says this really means that such actions would not be prudent, and that he would prefer to do other things with his money. The real issue is not the amount of money, but the person’s preferences, whether these be reasonable or unreasonable.

The same thing applies to time, but even more so, since everyone has the same amount of time. If we say, “I do not have time for that,” the real meaning is this: we prefer to do other things. And that preference must be rather strong, in fact, since the implication is that we prefer to do other things, not only sometimes, but all day, every day.

This does not necessarily imply anything blameworthy. A person can be quite reasonable in saying that he prefers to use his money for one thing rather than another, and he can be quite reasonable in saying that he prefers to use his time for one thing rather than another.

But what is not reasonable is to assert that we have a strong desire to do the thing that we say we do not have time for. If “we do not have time for that,” then our desire to do it must be relatively weak, in fact, since we let our desires to do other things take precedence over that desire, not only sometimes, but all day, every day.

 

The Actual Infinite

There are good reasons to think that actual infinities are possible in the real world. In the first place, while the size and shape of the universe are not settled issues, the generally accepted theory fits better with the idea that the universe is physically infinite than with the idea that it is finite.

Likewise, the universe is certainly larger than the size of the observable universe, namely about 93 billion light years in diameter. Supposing you have a probability distribution which assigns a finite probability to the claim that the universe is physically infinite, there is no consistent probability distribution which will not cause the probability of an infinite universe to go to 100% at the limit, as you exclude smaller finite sizes. But if someone had assigned a reasonable probability distribution before modern physical science existed, it would very likely have been one that make the probability of an infinite universe go very high by the time the universe was confirmed to be its present size. Therefore we too should think that the universe is very probably infinite. In principle, this argument is capable of refuting even purported demonstrations of the impossibility of an actual infinite, since there is at least some small chance that these purported demonstrations are all wrong.

Likewise, almost everyone accepts the possibility of an infinite future. Even the heat death of the universe would not prevent the passage of infinite time, and a religious view of the future also generally implies the passage of infinite future time. Even if heaven is supposed to be outside time in principle, in practice there would still be an infinite number of future human acts. If eternalism or something similar is true, then an infinite future in itself implies an actual infinite. And even if such a theory is not true, it is likely that a potentially infinite future implies the possibility of an actual infinite, because any problematic or paradoxical results from an actual infinite can likely be imitated in some way in the case of an infinite future.

On the other hand, there are good reasons to think that actual infinities are not possible in the real world. Positing infinities results in paradoxical or contradictory results in very many cases, and the simplest and therefore most likely way to explain this is to admit that infinities are simply impossible in general, even in the cases where we have not yet verified this fact.

An actual infinite also seems to imply an infinite regress in causality, and such a regress is impossible. We can see this by considering the material cause. Suppose the universe is physically infinite, and contains an infinite number of stars and planets. Then the universe is composed of the solar system together with the rest of the universe. But the rest of the universe will be composed of another stellar system together with the remainder, and so on. So there will be an infinite regress of material causality, which is just as impossible with material causality as with any other kind of causality.

Something similar is implied by St. Thomas’s argument against an infinite multitude:

This, however, is impossible; since every kind of multitude must belong to a species of multitude. Now the species of multitude are to be reckoned by the species of numbers. But no species of number is infinite; for every number is multitude measured by one. Hence it is impossible for there to be an actually infinite multitude, either absolute or accidental.

We can look at this in terms of our explanation of defining numbers. This explanation works only for finite numbers, and an infinite number could not be defined in such a way, precisely because it would result in an infinite regress. This leads us back to the first argument above against infinities: an infinity is intrinsically undefined and unintelligible, and for that reason leads to paradoxes. Someone might say that something unintelligible cannot be understood but is not impossible; but this is no different from Bertrand Russell saying that there is no reason for things not to come into being from nothing, without a cause. Such a position is unreasonable and untrue.

Deep Time

Earlier I quoted this passage from Aristotle:

The same parts of the earth are not always moist or dry, but they change according as rivers come into existence and dry up. And so the relation of land to sea changes too and a place does not always remain land or sea throughout all time, but where there was dry land there comes to be sea, and where there is now sea, there one day comes to be dry land. But we must suppose these changes to follow some order and cycle. The principle and cause of these changes is that the interior of the earth grows and decays, like the bodies of plants and animals. Only in the case of these latter the process does not go on by parts, but each of them necessarily grows or decays as a whole, whereas it does go on by parts in the case of the earth. Here the causes are cold and heat, which increase and diminish on account of the sun and its course. It is owing to them that the parts of the earth come to have a different character, that some parts remain moist for a certain time, and then dry up and grow old, while other parts in their turn are filled with life and moisture. Now when places become drier the springs necessarily give out, and when this happens the rivers first decrease in size and then finally become dry; and when rivers change and disappear in one part and come into existence correspondingly in another, the sea must needs be affected.

While Aristotle clearly has some empirical evidence for his claims, a large part of his motivation for saying these things is his opinion that the earth is eternal, which is primarily a philosophical position. From the sixteenth to the eighteenth century, however, geologists began to adopt similar opinions, this time because they found it necessary in order to explain the details of what they found in the rocks of the earth.

James Hutton begins his Theory of the Earth with a general account of the earth as a place intended to support plant and animal life:

When we trace the parts of which this terrestrial system is composed, and when we view the general connection of those several parts, the whole presents a machine of a peculiar construction by which it is adapted to a certain end. We perceive a fabric, erected in wisdom, to obtain a purpose worthy of the power that is apparent in the production of it.

We know little of the earth’s internal parts, or of the materials which compose it at any considerable depth below the surface. But upon the surface of this globe, the more inert matter is replenished with plants, and with animal and intellectual beings.

Where so many living creatures are to ply their respective powers, in pursuing the end for which they were intended, we are not to look for nature in a quiescent state; matter itself must be in motion, and the scenes of life a continued or repeated series of agitations and events.

This globe of the earth is a habitable world; and on its fitness for this purpose, our sense of wisdom in its formation must depend. To judge of this point, we must keep in view, not only the end, but the means also by which that end is obtained. These are, the form of the whole, the materials of which it is composed, and the several powers which concur, counteract, or balance one another, in procuring the general result.

The form and constitution of the mass are not more evidently calculated for the purpose of this earth as a habitable world, than are the various substances of which that complicated body is composed. Soft and hard parts variously combine to form a medium consistence, adapted to the use of plants and animals; wet and dry are properly mixed for nutrition, or the support of those growing bodies; and hot and cold produce a temperature or climate no less required than a soil: Insomuch, that there is not any particular, respecting either the qualities of the materials, or the construction of the machine, more obvious to our perception, than are the presence and efficacy of design and intelligence in the power that conducts the work.

Let us begin with some general sketch of the particulars now mentioned.

1st, There is a central body in the globe. This body supports those parts which come to be more immediately exposed to our view, or which may be examined by our sense and observation. This first part is commonly supposed to be solid and inert; but such a conclusion is only mere conjecture; and we shall afterwards find occasion, perhaps, to form another judgment in relation to this subject, after we have examined strictly, upon scientific principles, what appears upon the surface, and have formed conclusions concerning that which must have been transacted in some more central part.

2dly, We find a fluid body of water. This, by gravitation, is reduced to a spherical form, and by the centrifugal force of the earth’s rotation, is become oblate. The purpose of this fluid body is essential in the constitution of the world; for, besides affording the means of life and motion to a multifarious race of animals, it is the source of growth and circulation to the organized bodies of this earth, in being the receptacle of the rivers, and the fountain of our vapours.

3dly, We have an irregular body of land raised above the level of the ocean. This, no doubt, is the smallest portion of the globe; but it is the part to us by far most interesting. It is upon the surface of this part that plants are made to grow; consequently, it is by virtue of this land that animal life, as well as vegetation, is sustained in this world.

Lastly, We have a surrounding body of atmosphere, which completes the globe. This vital fluid is no less necessary, in the constitution of the world, than are the other parts; for there is hardly an operation upon the surface of the earth, that is not conducted or promoted by its means. It is a necessary condition for the sustenance of fire; it is the breath of life to animals; it is at least an instrument in vegetation; and, while it contributes to give fertility and health to things that grow, it is employed in preventing noxious effects from such as go into corruption. In short, it is the proper means of circulation for the matter of this world, by raising up the water of the ocean, and pouring it forth upon the surface of the earth.

The account here is much like that of Genesis 1, distinguishing the various parts of the “heavens and the earth,” and explaining their form in relation to plants, animals, and human beings.

After going on to discuss some of the efficient causes involved in the changes of the earth, he raises a problem:

But to proceed in pursuing a little farther our general or preparatory ideas. A solid body of land could not have answered the purpose of a habitable world; for, a soil is necessary to the growth of plants; and a soil is nothing but the materials collected from the destruction of the solid land. Therefore, the surface of this land, inhabited by man, and covered with plants and animals, is made by nature to decay, in dissolving from that hard and, compact state in which it is found below the soil; and this soil is necessarily washed away, by the continual circulation of the water, running from the summits of the mountains towards the general receptacle of that fluid. The heights of our land are thus levelled with the shores; our fertile plains are formed from the ruins of the mountains; and those travelling materials are still pursued by the moving water, and propelled along the inclined surface of the earth. These moveable materials, delivered into the sea, cannot, for a long continuance, rest upon the shore; for, by the agitation of the winds, the tides and currents, every moveable thing is carried farther and farther along the shelving bottom of the sea, towards the unfathomable regions of the ocean.

If the vegetable soil is thus constantly removed from the surface of the land, and if its place is thus to be supplied from the dissolution of the solid earth, as here represented, we may perceive an end to this beautiful machine; an end, arising from no error in its constitution as a world, but from that destructibility of its land which is so necessary in the system of the globe, in the economy of life and vegetation.

The immense time necessarily required for this total destruction of the land, must not be opposed to that view of future events, which is indicated by the surest facts, and most approved principles. Time, which measures every thing in our idea, and is often deficient to our schemes, is to nature endless and as nothing; it cannot limit that by which alone it had existence; and, as the natural course of time, which to us seems infinite, cannot be bounded by any operation that may have an end, the progress of things upon this globe, that is, the course of nature, cannot be limited by time, which must proceed in a continual succession. We are, therefore, to consider as inevitable the deduction of our land, so far as effected by those operations which are necessary in the purpose of the globe, considered as a habitable world; and, so far as we have not examined any other part of the economy of nature, in which other operations and a different intention might appear.

We have now considered the globe of this earth as a machine, constructed upon chemical as well as mechanical principles, by which its different parts are all adapted, in form, in quality, and in quantity, to a certain end; an end attained with certainty or success; and an end from which we may perceive wisdom, in contemplating the means employed.

But is this world to be considered thus merely as a machine, to last no longer than its parts retain their present position, their proper forms and qualities? Or may it not be also considered as an organized body? such as has a constitution in which the necessary decay of the machine is naturally repaired, in the exertion of those productive powers by which it had been formed.

This is the view in which we are now to examine the globe; to see if there be, in the constitution of this world, a reproductive operation, by which a ruined constitution may be again repaired, and a duration or stability thus procured to the machine, considered as a world sustaining plants and animals.

If no such reproductive power, or reforming operation, after due inquiry, is to be found in the constitution of this world, we should have reason to conclude, that the system of this earth has either been intentionally made imperfect, or has not been the work of infinite power and wisdom.

His point is that water, time and weather tend to destroy the land and in particular the soil, which is necessary for plants and animals. So unless there is some means to bring about new land and new soil, the whole system will necessarily come to an end. According to him, if this is the case, it means that “we should have reason to conclude, that the system of this earth has either been intentionally made imperfect, or has not been the work of infinite power and wisdom.” I would simply respond that infinite power and wisdom could easily have reasons for the system of the earth to be imperfect in this particular way. However, he is not trying to establish by this argument that there is in fact such a system to renew the land and soil. Rather, he is trying to make it less surprising when we verify from experience that there is such a system, and this verification does not depend on this argument.

A careful investigation of the presently existing land and soil, he says, indicates the passage of vast periods of time:

Now, if we are to take the written history of man for the rule by which we should judge of the time when the species first began, that period would be but little removed from the present state of things. The Mosaic history places this beginning of man at no great distance; and there has not been found, in natural history, any document by which a high antiquity might be attributed to the human race. But this is not the case with regard to the inferior species of animals, particularly those which inhabit the ocean and its shores. We find, in natural history, monuments which prove that those animals had long existed; and we thus procure a measure for the computation of a period of time extremely remote, though far from being precisely ascertained.

In examining things present, we have data from which to reason with regard to what has been; and, from what has actually been, we have data for concluding with regard to that which is to happen hereafter. Therefore, upon the supposition that the operations of nature are equable and steady, we find, in natural appearances, means for concluding a certain portion of time to have necessarily elapsed, in the production of those events of which we see the effects.

It is thus that, in finding the relics of sea-animals of every kind in the solid body of our earth, a natural history of those animals is formed, which includes a certain portion of time; and, for the ascertaining this portion of time, we must again have recourse to the regular operations of this world. We shall thus arrive at facts which indicate a period to which no other species of chronology is able to remount.

In what follows, therefore, we are to examine the construction of the present earth, in order to understand the natural operations of time past; to acquire principles, by which we may conclude with regard to the future course of things, or judge of those operations, by which a world, so wisely ordered, goes into decay; and to learn, by what means such a decayed world may be renovated, or the waste of habitable land upon the globe repaired.

He proceeds to argue that the land which currently exists, at least most of it, was formed in water:

The solid parts of the globe are, in general, composed of sand, of gravel, of argillaceous and calcareous strata, or of the various compositions of these with some other substances, which it is not necessary now to mention. Sand is separated and sized by streams and currents; gravel is formed by the mutual attrition of stones agitated in water; and marly, or argillaceous strata, have been collected, by subsiding in water with which those earthy substances had been floated. Thus, so far as the earth is formed of these materials, that solid body would appear to have been the production of water, winds, and tides.

But that which renders the original of our land clear and evident, is the immense quantities of calcareous bodies which had belonged to animals, and the intimate connection of these masses of animal production with the other strata of the land. For it is to be proved, that all these calcareous bodies, from the collection of which the strata were formed, have belonged to the sea, and were produced in it.

We find the marks of marine animals in the most solid parts of the earth; consequently, those solid parts have been formed after the ocean was inhabited by those animals which are proper to that fluid medium. If, therefore, we knew the natural history of those solid parts, and could trace the operations of the globe, by which they had been formed, we would have some means for computing the time through which those species of animals have continued to live. But how shall we describe a process which nobody has seen performed, and of which no written history gives any account? This is only to be investigated, first, in examining the nature of those solid bodies, the history of which we want to know; and, 2dly, In examining the natural operations of the globe, in order to see if there now actually exist such operations, as, from the nature of the solid bodies, appear to have been necessary to their formation.

But, before entering more particularly into those points of discussion, by which the question is to be resolved, let us take a general view of the subject, in order to see what it is which science and observation must decide.

In all the regions of the globe, immense masses are found, which, though at present in the most solid state, appear to have been formed by the collection of the calcareous exuviae of marine animals. The question at present is not, in what manner those collections of calcareous relics have become a perfect solid body, and have been changed from an animal to a mineral substance; for this is a subject that will be afterwards considered; we are now only inquiring, if such is truly the origin of those mineral masses.

That all the masses of marble or limestone are composed of the calcareous matter of marine bodies, may be concluded from the following facts:

1st, There are few beds of marble or limestone, in which may not be found some of those objects which indicate the marine origin of the mass. If, for example, in a mass of marble, taken from a quarry upon the top of the Alps or Andes, there shall be found one cockle-shell, or piece of coral, it must be concluded, that this bed of stone had been originally formed at the bottom of the sea, as much as another bed which is evidently composed almost altogether of cockle-shells and coral. If one bed of limestone is thus found to have been of a marine origin, every concomitant bed of the same kind must be also concluded to have been formed in the same Manner.

We thus shall find the greatest part of the calcareous masses upon this globe to have originated from marine calcareous bodies; for whether we examine marbles, limestones, or such solid masses as are perfectly changed from the state of earth, and are become compact and hard, or whether we examine the soft, earthy, chalky or marly strata, of which so much of this earth is composed, we still find evident proofs, that those beds had their origin from materials deposited at the bottom of the sea; and that they have the calcareous substance which they contain, from the same source as the marbles or the limestones.

2dly, In those calcareous strata, which are evidently of marine origin, there are many parts that are of a sparry structure, that is to say, the original texture of those beds, in such places, has been dissolved, and a new structure has been assumed, which is peculiar to a certain state of the calcareous earth. This change is produced by crystallisation, in consequence of a previous state of fluidity, which has so disposed the concreting parts, as to allow them to assume a regular shape and structure proper to that substance. A body, whose external form has been modified by this process, is called a crystal; one whose internal arrangement of parts is determined by it, is said to be of a sparry structure; and this is known from its fracture.

3dly, There are, in all the regions of the earth, huge masses of calcareous matter, in that crystalline form of sparry state, in which perhaps no vestige can be found of any organised body, nor any indication that such calcareous matter had belonged to animals; but as, in other masses, this sparry structure, or crystalline state, is evidently assumed by the marine calcareous substances, in operations which are natural to the globe, and which are necessary to the consolidation of the strata, it does not appear, that the sparry masses, in which no figured body is formed, have been originally different from other masses, which, being only crystallised in part, and in part still retaining their original form, leave ample evidence of their marine origin.

We are led, in this manner, to conclude, that all the strata of the earth, not only those consisting of such calcareous masses, but others superincumbent upon these, have had their origin at the bottom of the sea, by the collection of sand and gravel, of shells, of coralline and crustaceous bodies, and of earths and clays, variously mixed, or separated and accumulated. Here is a general conclusion, well authenticated in the appearances of nature, and highly important in the natural history of the earth.

The general amount of our reasoning is this, that nine-tenths, perhaps, or ninety-nine hundredths of this earth, so far as we see, have been formed by natural operations of the globe, in collecting loose materials, and depositing them at the bottom of the sea; consolidating those collections in various degrees, and either elevating those consolidated masses above the level on which they were formed, or lowering the level of that sea.

There is a part of the solid earth which we may at present neglect, not as being persuaded that this part may not also be found to come under the general rule of formation with the rest, but as considering this part to be of no consequence in forming a general rule, which shall comprehend almost the whole, without doing it absolutely. This excluded part consists of certain mountains and masses of granite. These are thought to be still older in their formation, and are said never to be found superincumbent on strata which must be acknowledged as the productions of the sea.

It should already be evident that insofar as his conclusion is valid, it is already clear that there would have to be a mechanism of what he calls the “reproduction” of the system of the world. If our present land was formed under water, it follows that there must be a means by which land can be taken from the water and raised above it.

There follow lengthy discussions, which I will omit, of the issues of exactly how geological strata are formed in the first place, and how they can be raised above the water.

Next he attempts to determine the constitution of the world at the time when the present land was forming under water:

We have been endeavouring to prove, that all the continents and islands of this globe had been raised above the surface of the ocean; we have also aimed at pointing out the cause of this translation of matter, as well as of the general solidity of that which is raised to our view; but however this theory shall be received, no person of observation can entertain a doubt, that all, or almost all we see of this earth, had been originally formed at the bottom of the sea. We have now another object in our view; this is to investigate the operations of the globe, at the time that the foundation of this land was laying in the waters of the ocean, and to trace the existence and the nature of things, before the present land appeared above the surface of the waters. We should thus acquire some knowledge of the system according to which this world is ruled, both in its preservation and production; and we might be thus enabled to judge, how far the mineral system of the world shall appear to be contrived with all the wisdom, which is so manifest in what are termed the animal and vegetable kingdoms.

It is not too difficult for him to show that things must have been very similar at the time:

We have already observed, that all the strata of the earth are composed either from the calcareous relicts of sea animals, or from the collection of such materials as we find upon our shores. At a gross computation, there may perhaps be a fourth part of our solid land, which is composed from the matter that had belonged to those animals. Now, what a multitude of living creatures, what a quantity of animal economy must have been required for producing a body of calcareous matter which is interspersed throughout all the land of the globe, and which certainly forms a very considerable part of that mass! Therefore, in knowing how those animals had lived, or with what they had been fed, we shall have learned a most interesting part of the natural history of this earth; a part which it is necessary to have ascertained, in order to see the former operations of the globe, while preparing the materials of the present land. But, before entering upon this subject, let us examine the other materials of which our land is formed.

Gravel forms a part of those materials which compose our solid land; but gravel is no other than a collection of the fragments of solid stones worn round, or having their angular form destroyed by agitation in water, and the attrition upon each other, or upon similar hard bodies. Consequently, in finding masses of gravel in the composition of our land, we must conclude, that there had existed a former land, on which there had been transacted certain operations of wind and water, similar to those which are natural to the globe at present, and by which new gravel is continually prepared, as well as old gravel consumed or diminished by attrition upon our shores.

Sand is the material which enters, perhaps in greatest quantity, the composition of our land. But sand, in general, is no other than small fragments of hard and solid bodies, worn or rounded more or less by attrition; consequently, the same natural history of the earth, which is investigated from the masses of gravel, is also applicable to those masses of sand which we find forming so large a portion of our present land throughout all the earth.

….

Therefore, from the consideration of those materials which compose the present land, we have reason to conclude, that, during the time this land was forming, by the collection of its materials at the bottom of the sea, there had been a former land containing materials similar to those which we find at present in examining the earth. We may also conclude, that there had been operations similar to those which we now find natural to the globe, and necessarily exerted in the actual formation of gravel, sand, and clay. But what we have now chiefly in view to illustrate is this, that there had then been in the ocean a system of animated beings, which propagated their species, and which have thus continued their several races to this day.

In order to be convinced of that truth, we have but to examine the strata of our earth, in which we find the remains of animals. In this examination, we not only discover every genus of animal which at present exists in the sea, but probably every species, and perhaps some species with which at present we are not acquainted. There are, indeed, varieties in those species, compared with the present animals which we examine, but no greater varieties than may perhaps be found among the same species in the different quarters of the globe. Therefore, the system of animal life, which had been maintained in the ancient sea, had not been different from that which now subsists, and of which it belongs to naturalists to know the history.

It is the nature of animal life to be ultimately supported from matter of vegetable production. Inflammable matter may be considered as the pabulum of life. This is prepared in the bodies of living plants, particularly in their leaves exposed to the sun and light. This inflammable matter, on the contrary, is consumed in animal bodies, where it produces heat or light, or both. Therefore, however animal matter, or the pabulum of life, may circulate through a series of digesting powers, it is constantly impaired or diminishing in the course of this economy, and, without the productive power of plants, it would finally be extinguished.

The animals of the former world must have been sustained during indefinite successions of ages. The mean quantity of animal matter, therefore, must have been preserved by vegetable production, and the natural waste of inflammable substance repaired with continual addition; that is to say, the quantity of inflammable matter necessary to the animal consumption, must have been provided by means of vegetation. Hence we must conclude, that there had been a world of plants, as well as an ocean replenished with living animals.

We are now, in reasoning from principles, come to a point decisive of the question, and which will either confirm the theory, if it be just, or confute our reasoning, if we have erred. Let us, therefore, open the book of Nature, and read in her records, if there had been a world bearing plants, at the time when this present world was forming at the bottom of the sea.

Here the cabinets of the curious are to be examined; but here some caution is required, in order to distinguish things perfectly different, which sometimes are confounded.

Fossil wood, to naturalists in general, is wood dug up from under ground, without inquiring whether this had been the production of the present earth, or that which had preceded it in the circulation of land and water. The question is important, and the solution of it is, in general, easy. The vegetable productions of the present earth, however deep they may be found buried beneath its surface, and however ancient they may appear, compared with the records of our known times, are new, compared with the solid land on which they grew; and they are only covered with the produce of a vegetable soil, or the alluvion of the present land on which we dwell, and on which they had grown. But the fossil bodies which form the present subject of inquiry, belonged to former land, and are found only in the sea-born strata of our present earth. It is to these alone that we appeal, in order to prove the certainty of former events.

Mineralised wood, therefore, is the object now inquired after; that wood which had been lodged in the bottom of the sea, and there composed part of a stratum, which hitherto we have considered as only formed of the materials proper to the ocean. Now, what a profusion of this species of fossil wood is to be found in the cabinets of collectors, and even in the hands of lapidaries, and such artificers of polished stones! In some places, it would seem to be as common as the agate.

I shall only mention a specimen in my own collection. It is wood petrified with calcareous earth, and mineralised with pyrites. This specimen of wood contains in itself, even without the stratum of stone in which it is embedded, the most perfect record of its genealogy. It had been eaten or perforated by those sea worms which destroy the bottoms of our ships. There is the clearest evidence of this truth. Therefore, this wood had grown upon land which stood above the level of sea, while the present land was only forming at the bottom of the ocean.

Wood is the most substantial part of plants, as shells are the more permanent part of marine animals. It is not, however, the woody part alone of the ancient vegetable world that is transmitted to us in the record of our mineral pages. We have the type of many species of foliage, and even of the most delicate flower; for, in this way, naturalists have determined, according to the Linnaean system, the species, or at least the genus, of the plant. Thus, the existence of a vegetable system at the period now in contemplation, so far from being doubtful, is a matter of physical demonstration.

After establishing to his satisfaction that the previous system of the world was very similar to the present one, he begins to attempt to measure the periods of time involved:

We are investigating the age of the present earth, from the beginning of that body which was in the bottom of the sea, to the perfection of its nature, which we consider as in the moment of our existence; and we have necessarily another aera, which is collateral, or correspondent, in the progress of those natural events. This is the time required, in the natural operations of this globe, for the destruction of a former earth; an earth equally perfect with the present and an earth equally productive of growing plants and living animals. Now, it must appear, that, if we had a measure for the one of those corresponding operations, we would have an equal knowledge of the other.

The formation of a future earth being in the bottom of the ocean, at depths unfathomable to man, and in regions far beyond the reach of his observation, here is a part of the process which cannot be taken as a principle in forming an estimate of the whole. But, in the destruction of the present earth, we have a process that is performed within the limits of our observation; therefore, in knowing the measure of this operation, we shall find the means of calculating what had passed on a former occasion, as well as what will happen in the composition of a future earth. Let us, therefore, now attempt to make this estimate of time and labour.

The highest mountain may be levelled with the plain from whence it springs, without the loss of real territory in the land; but when the ocean makes encroachment on the basis of our earth, the mountain, unsupported, tumbles with its weight; and with the accession of hard bodies, moveable with the agitation of the waves, gives to the sea the power of undermining farther and farther into the solid basis of our land. This is the operation which is to be measured; this is the mean proportional by which we are to estimate the age of worlds that have terminated, and the duration of those that are but beginning.

But how shall we measure the decrease of our land? Every revolution of the globe wears away some part of some rock upon some coast; but the quantity of that decrease, in that measured time, is not a measurable thing. Instead of a revolution of the globe, let us take an age. The age of man does no more in this estimate than a single year. He sees, that the natural course of things is to wear away the coast, with the attrition of the sand and stones upon the shore; but he cannot find a measure for this quantity which shall correspond to time, in order to form an estimate of the rate of this decrease.

But man is not confined to what he sees; he has the experience of former men. Let us then go to the Romans and the Greeks in search of a measure of our coasts, which we may compare with the present state of things. Here, again, we are disappointed; their descriptions of the shores of Greece and of Italy, and their works upon the coast, either give no measure of a decrease, or are not accurate enough for such a purpose.

It is in vain to attempt to measure a quantity which escapes our notice, and which history cannot ascertain; and we might just as well attempt to measure the distance of the stars without a parallax, as to calculate the destruction of the solid land without a measure corresponding to the whole.

The description which Polybius has given of the Pontus Euxinus, with the two opposite Bosphori, the Meotis, the Propontis, and the Port of Byzantium, are as applicable to the present state of things as they were at the writing of that history. The filling up of the bed of the Meotis, an event which, to Polybius, appeared not far off, must also be considered as removed to a very distant period, though the causes still continue to operate as before.

But there is a thing in which history and the present state of things do not agree. It is upon the coast of Spain, where Polybius says there was an island in the mouth of the harbour of New Carthage. At present, in place of the island, there is only a rock under the surface of the water. It must be evident, however, that the loss of this small island affords no proper ground of calculation for the measure or rate of wasting which could correspond to the coast in general; as neither the quantity of what is now lost had been measured, nor its quality ascertained.

Let us examine places much more exposed to the fury of the waves and currents than the coast of Carthagena, the narrow fretum, for example, between Italy and Sicily. It does not appear, that this passage is sensibly wider than when the Romans first had known it. The Isthmus of Corinth is also apparently the same at present as it had been two or three thousand years ago. Scilla and Charibdis remain now, as they had been in ancient times, rocks hazardous for coasting vessels which had to pass that strait.

It is not meant by this to say, these rocks have not been wasted by the sea, and worn by the attrition of moving bodies, during that space of time; were this true, and that those rocks, the bulwarks of the land upon those coasts, had not been at all impaired from that period, they might remain for ever, and thus the system of interchanging the place of sea and land upon this globe might be frustrated. It is only meant to affirm, that the quantity which those rocks, or that coast, have diminished from the period of our history, has either been too small a thing for human observation, or, which is more probable, that no accurate measurement of the subject, by which this quantity of decrease might have been ascertained, had been taken and recorded. It must be also evident, that a very small operation of an earthquake would be sufficient to render every means of information, in this manner of mensuration, unsatisfactory or precarious.

Many other such proofs will certainly occur, where the different parts of those coasts are examined by people of observation and intelligence. But it is enough for our present purpose, that this decrease of the coasts in general has not been observed; and that it is as generally thought, that the land is gaining upon the sea, as that the sea is gaining upon the land.

To sum up the argument, we are certain, that all the coasts of the present continents are wasted by the sea, and constantly wearing away upon the whole; but this operation is so extremely slow, that we cannot find a measure of the quantity in order to form an estimate: Therefore, the present continents of the earth, which we consider as in a state of perfection, would, in the natural operations of the globe, require a time indefinite for their destruction.

But, in order to produce the present continents, the destruction of a former vegetable world was necessary; consequently, the production of our present continents must have required a time which is indefinite. In like manner, if the former continents were of the same nature as the present, it must have required another space of time, which also is indefinite, before they had come to their perfection as a vegetable world.

We have been representing the system of this earth as proceeding with a certain regularity, which is not perhaps in nature, but which is necessary for our clear conception of the system of nature. The system of nature is certainly in rule, although we may not know every circumstance of its regulation. We are under a necessity, therefore, of making regular suppositions, in order to come at certain conclusions which may be compared with the present state of things.

He concludes the chapter with with a projection for the future:

Let us suppose that the continent, which is to succeed our land, is at present beginning to appear above the water in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, it must be evident, that the materials of this great body, which is formed and ready to be brought forth, must have been collected from the destruction of an earth, which does not now appear. Consequently, in this true statement of the case, there is necessarily required the destruction of an animal and vegetable earth prior to the former land; and the materials of that earth which is first in our account, must have been collected at the bottom of the ocean, and begun to be concocted for the production of the present earth, when the land immediately preceding the present had arrived at its full extent.

This, however, alters nothing with regard to the nature of those operations of the globe. The system is still the same. It only protracts the indefinite space of time in its existence, while it gives us a view of another distinct period of the living world; that is to say, the world which we inhabit is composed of the materials, not of the earth which was the immediate predecessor of the present, but of the earth which, in ascending from the present, we consider as the third, and which had preceded the land that was above the surface of the sea, while our present land was yet beneath the water of the ocean. Here are three distinct successive periods of existence, and each of these is, in our measurement of time, a thing of indefinite duration.

We have now got to the end of our reasoning; we have no data further to conclude immediately from that which actually is: But we have got enough; we have the satisfaction to find, that in nature there is wisdom, system, and consistency. For having, in the natural history of this earth, seen a succession of worlds, we may from this conclude that there is a system in nature; in like manner as, from seeing revolutions of the planets, it is concluded, that there is a system by which they are intended to continue those revolutions. But if the succession of worlds is established in the system of nature, it is in vain to look for any thing higher in the origin of the earth. The result, therefore, of this physical inquiry is, that we find no vestige of a beginning,—no prospect of an end.

To the extent that one accepts the validity of Hutton’s arguments, one will accept that the earth has existed for unimaginably vast periods of past time. One might object to the conclusion that the earth will continue to exist for such periods, but in fact his argument is reasonable if it is understood as a probable argument.