Metaphysical Conditions at the Poles

Do those adventurous men who go in search of the North Pole realize that when they shall have triumphed over all the physical difficulties which impede their way, they will have to face metaphysical difficulties yet more formidable ? So confusing to human thought are the ontological conditions which must prevail at the poles, that it seems as if the human mind would surely give way in trying to cope with them.

One does not, indeed, like to think of ice fields, zero, blubber, and the polar bears; yet these have been conquered by man and may again be conquered. But the fatal conditions of which I speak are of a kind such as man has never yet encountered; nor can he encounter them anywhere upon earth save at the poles. They will not assail his body; rather they must dissolve some of the fundamental intuitions, categories, and postulates of man’s thinking; and he who shall encounter them must run the risk of being reduced to mental imbecility.

Yet if there should be any man bold enough to take this risk, and mentally so strong as to survive it, and return to us and relate his experience, he might possibly contribute greatly to the elucidation of some of the most desperate puzzles that ever baffled the philosophers; or, on the other hand, he might, just as possibly, confound those philosophers worse than ever they were confounded before. For, should any of our Arctic adventurers reach the pole, he would come into such relations with time and space as no other man was ever in. It is well known by all who have read philosophical treatises that time and space are very treacherous things. Indeed we are assured that they are not things at all. One philosopher, whose luminous treatise lies before me as I write, favors his reader with the following remark: “Space and time are not actual realities, but subjective functions which synthesize the manifold sensational content.” Well, — it is hard to think so ill of them as that; still they are queer, and the more you think about them the queerer they seem. Nevertheless, man has struck up a practical modus vivendi with them, and manages to get along with them very well in this part of the world, and, indeed, finds them indispensable. But this modus vivendi is limited to regions away from the poles. Let a man reach one of the poles, and he will find that the “manifold sensational content ” with which he will undoubtedly be burdened there, will not “synthesize ” in the old familiar way at all.

Consider his situation. It is uncertain whether the pole has no longitude whatsoever, or has all the longitude there is. I have examined a geographical globe and cannot decide. On the one hand, all the meridians of longitude come in there; but on the other hand they reduce to a mere point at the pole; and a point is nothing. Suppose you were standing on the North Pole; either you would have a great deal too much longitude, or else you would have none at all. Whichever way it was, it would be extremely confusing to a rational being brought up as we have been. It would jar his notions of space. Even if there is longitude there it is not good for anything, for it is solely a matter of east and west, and there is no east or west at the North Pole, — all is south. Standing on that pole, look which way you might, all, all would be south. That iceberg at your right and that one at your left would both be south of you; both would be in the same direction, although in opposite directions. That just shows how space suffers some subtle, insidious change at the pole.

We may well believe that our adventurer would step off the pole as quickly as he could. Suppose he should take a few steps south in any direction. He would thus acquire a little bit of east and west and north; but his natural joy at this recovery would be brief. Looking back toward the pole, where, of course, he had planted the American Flag, he would see, let us say, an iceberg beyond the flag, on the other side of the pole. Which way would the flag be from him ? North, beyond question. But which way would the iceberg be from him ? Can you tell ? His line of vision would extend straight north until it reached the flag, and then continuing on in exactly the same direction it would be going south. The same direction would be the same as the opposite direction.

Or consider such an experiment as the following. Let our adventurer take his stand a very short distance from the pole, and then let him run around in a circle with the pole in the centre. At a distance of two or three feet there will be enough east and west to answer the requirements of the experiment. At every step he will pass over many meridians. If he is about three feet from the pole and goes at a comfortable trot, he will cross thirty or forty meridians a second. But at every step his time will change. If it is now noon, and he is on the meridian of London, he will, in three or four seconds, be on the meridian of the Feejee Islands and it will be midnight. Suppose he is running toward the east. If it was Monday when he started on the London meridian, it will be Tuesday when he gets back there in six or eight seconds, and in six or eight more it will be Wednesday, and so on. In less than a minute he will have advanced a week.

In an hour he will have gained more than a year. In that short space of time he will have grown more than a year older, and will have projected himself so far into the future. And yet it will be the present. To be sure, the future is always the present when you get there; but our friend will get there faster than anybody else ever did. Let him keep on trotting in his circle for several hours a day, as many days as he can, and he will soon be many years in the future, far ahead of his age. Now if he could run up a century or two and then return home with them, he would have outstripped Rip Van Winkle. Perhaps it would be best that he should not try to bring the future home with him.

But before he leaves the pole I want him to do some running towards the west. He will lose time while running in this direction, and will be steadily retiring into the past. Soon it will be yesterday, soon last year; indeed, if time will permit, — and it does seem as if it would permit anything at the pole, — he may run back through the whole Christian era, through the ages of the ancient world, be granted

“ an equal date
With Andes and with Ararat,”

and with the primeval chaos.

Lest this should prove unwholesome if too long persisted in, let us stop him after he has gone back a few centuries, and have him reverse his steps, wind up his years again, and come down to date.. Then let us make one more supposition. Suppose he is thirty-five years old today. To-morrow he can easily be thirtysix years old. Then, running the other way, he can get back to thirty-five, and be at thirty-four the next day. Let him not try it. Such confusion of all time concepts would wreck his apperceptive field and unhinge his intellect.

It would be pleasant to understand these things, and such knowledge would be invaluable to the philosophers who, notwithstanding the bold face they put on when they talk of space and time, and the big words they use, really do not know very much about these “functions.” You may object that the conditions at the poles are so abnormal as to be of no value in constructing a rational system; but do you not know that nowadays philosophers have ceased to study the normal directly, and are feeling their way to it through the abnormal ? It is from the lunatic that we learn the laws of sanity; and the nature of pure religion is best observed by the study of hysterics. Therefore the philosopher may well desire to know what the metaphysical situation is at the poles. He can use such knowledge in his business. But if he wants it, let him be man enough to go there himself and collect it, and not send some poor mariner to face these appalling terrors.