23 JUNE 1888, Page 12


THE strength of the general belief in the continuousness of things which are not necessarily continuous was oddly illustrated on Monday. The Times of that day came out with a wrong date on some of its inner pages, and what was stranger still, with an impossible date, that of June 17th, which was a Sunday. The accident was of no consequence, the date on the front page being right, and was not in any way astonishing, there being no reason in the world why a misprint should not occur in a head-line as well as anywhere else ; but it attracted a curious amount of attention. A large number of copies will be kept, and we should not wonder if they were sold as curiosities, together with the copies in which the blunder has been corrected by cutting out the false date altogether, so leaving the day of the week without that of the month. So much notice of the pettiest of accidents seems a little foolish, but it is not really so silly as it looks. The human mind always gives a sort of gasp at the sight of a "miracle ;" and here was a sort of miracle, a visible break in a series of unbroken sequences so long, and confirmed by so much collateral evidence as to seem to constitute universal experi- ence. Owing, no doubt, to its prominence and its incessant repetition, a misprint in the head-line of a newspaper is the rarest of all possible printer's errors. The Times has not been misdated for a hundred years at least, 31,300 issues, and probably, if it lasts so long, will not be misdated again for a thousand years more. Moreover, the chance of such an occurrence is almost as limited in the case of any other news- paper, so limited that most men would say, and would not be rash in saying, that in all the newspapers of all the world, from the birth of newspapers till now, a similar blunder had never occurred. (It has occurred, as a matter of fact, at least once, but that, being unnoticed, has not affected the popular belief.) So universal, indeed, is the consensus of opinion that the date in a newspaper is necessarily right, that it is constantly accepted in Courts of Justice as indisputable evidence, say, as to a birth or marriage having occurred previous to the day named on the head-line. Nobody forges newspapers, and the plea that the date recorded was wrong, say, by a year, would not be suggested for fear of a smile of derision. Continuous and widely spread experience is taken as proof, though, in fact, the sense of certainty is nothing better than an impression formed because experience had, till a break in continuousness occurred, been entirely insufficient.

The incident is trivial, but it is interesting to notice the amazing hold which the continuousness of any occur- rence acquires over the mind, especially of those who are called practical people. It is in a certain way quite absolute, so much so that if we could imagine it sus- pended, which is difficult, we should be perplexed as to the possibility of human affairs going on. It is not too much to say, for example, that all business is conducted in England on what is really an impression derived from con- tinuity, and nothing else. For instance, the whole defence of the country, as at present organised, rests upon the " certainty " that next year many thousand lads, for the most part unconnected with each other, will, in the face of very powerful deterrent influences, feel an impulse leading them to enlist in the Army. There is no reason in the nature of things why the impulse should not fail in all the lads, as it does in any individual among them ; but we all believe it will not ; and if it did, we should grow excited and think the end of British predominance was at hand. That break in continuousness would startle statesmen into feverish activity ; yet there is no reason, no demonstrable reason, at all events, why it should not occur. So with the food-supply of London. The reason for believing that London will be fed is the reason for believing that a farmer, or miller, or grazier dealing with London will send up his goods for sale. That he may not, we all recognise ; but that he and all like him may not, we cannot realise ; and if such a thing occurred for one day, should at once assume some wonderful physical or economic arresting cause. Take a commoner illustration. There are shops which live entirely by casual sales, the accidental droppings-in of accidental customers. Nothing

is more possible than that nobody should drop in within a given time ; yet the shopkeeper, once successful, will risk all he is worth on provision for such casual custom, and will regard its failure on any one day as something which must have been due to some abnormal cause. Nothing can be more casual than the custom of a wandering dealer in flowers; yet he will buy roses with a certainty that accidental passers-by will ask for his roses, with as much certainty almost as if he could make them buy them. It is the same with the professions. A physician, or a lawyer, or a dentist in London really lives contented on a theory in his mind, that a certain number of persons will want his kind of services, will pick him out from crowds of com- petitors to render them, and will pay for them, a theory justified solely by the continuousness of the thing happening. It may be said that the world always wants goods, or flowers, or pro- fessional assistance, and that is true; but there is no reason why it should want them of particular persons, or on par- ticular days ; yet if one day passed over without business, the successful shopkeeper, or professional, or itinerant flower-man would feel as if the world had come to an end, and would, in his own mind, invent almost impossible obstacles to account for the wonderful occurrence. Or, not to multiply illustra- tions, let us take the greatest of all. What but continuous- ness induces us to believe that the human race will go on at all ? There is absolutely no known reason in Nature why all families should not produce only boys or girls, just as some families do now, and the race itself thus come to an end in a single generation. The speculator relies, he would say, if he is given to thinking, upon "the law of averages ;" but that very firm foundation of business is nothing on earth but an observed continuousness like the appearance of the right date at the top of the Times, and is just as liable some day to be broken. When it is broken, the observer will exclaim, "What a wonder !" never thinking that the real wonder is not the break in experience, but the continuousness without the break. Just think of the myriad caprices, fads, accidents, impulses as uncertain as wind, which in the aggregate give continuous fortune to a Court milliner who, if they all suddenly passed her by, as any one of them might, would feel as if the order of Nature were disturbed.

Sceptics say every day that human beings will always be incompetent to form an opinion about miracles because they are always expecting them ; but is that true, or the exact contrary? Of six average men known to the writer who on Monday were told that the Times was misdated, five disbelieved the statement and consulted the paper, and the sixth would not even do that. He disbelieved the statement at once, without seeking for any evidence at all. It seems to us that this is the instinctive state of mind, and not the credulous one, and that men, so far from expecting breaks in continuousness, are by nature stolidly certain that they will not happen. And that is natural, for when a break has never occurred, why should a man expect a break ? He does not expect the sun not to rise, and why should he expect that any other continuously recurrent phenomenon should stop ? As a matter of fact, in his daily life he does not expect it, but regulates his conduct entirely on the hypothesis that that which has always gone on will go on for ever. He looks to his Times to see the date with- out a hesitation or a fear. There is something in the old quia impossi bile as an argument, after all, for nothing in man leads him to believe in the impossible, or, indeed, in anything but the continuousness which, from year to year or age to age, has been his only experience, and the foundation of his action. He expects the Times to be rightly dated, and if he says it is wrongly dated, he is certainly not saying it under the influence of a proclivity. His proclivity is all the other way. That is not evidence that he is truthful in his statement as to the misdating, but it is evidence that the kindly explanation of his assumed untruthfulness which is just now so popular has very little reason in it. The disposition to believe the miraculous must come from something else than the usual habit of mind, for the usual habit of mind is to expect the usual. If not, why did almost everybody, when told that the Times was misdated, look at it before believing?