Popular Science Monthly/Volume 47/October 1895/Editor's Table
IT is a very long-time since the discovery was first made that the processes of human thought are only valid within limits; and it might be supposed that all the consequences which could properly be deduced from that fact had long ago been drawn and reduced to their true value. Yet every now and again it seems to strike some thinker with new force that the human mind is not all-comprehending; and it is a singular thing that, when this happens, we are nearly always asked to take back some view or doctrine which we had previously discarded, or at least laid aside, as destitute of proof and not in harmony with the general body of our knowledge. In other words, because we can not understand or measure everything, we must consider that there is a door perpetually open into some fourth dimension, as it were, through which may freely enter beliefs of the most fantastic kind, and such as, judged by the laws of our own familiar three dimensions, we should utterly refuse to accept. No other than this is the lesson which Mr. Balfour attempts to teach in his much-discussed work, The Foundations of Belief. He proves, most unnecessarily, that science can not reach the absolute origin of things, and that, when we get back to such ultimate conceptions of matter and force as we are capable of forming, we do not discover those finished products of human evolution, moral authority and the sense of beauty. His work is described on the title-page as being "introductory to the study of theology," and the author makes it plain that what he would have us do is, on the ground of the insufficiency of human reason, to accept a system of theology, preferably the Christian, which, while carrying us back to the origin of all things, will provide a basis for those moral beliefs and sentiments which are essential at once to the dignity of the individual and the cohesion of society, but which science, as he holds, can neither explain nor justify.
Now, we have no objection whatever to Mr. Balfour's conclusion that people should cherish some form of religious belief, but we think he is ill advised in trying to prove that, because science is weak, theology (his theology) is probably strong. Whatever weakness attaches to science attaches to it by virtue of the limitations of the human mind, which, as Matthew Arnold says,
"A thousand glimpses wins,
But never sees the whole."
Science, as we have often said in effect, is simply the product of the striving of the mind after 1 exact knowledge; and by exact knowledge we mean knowledge brought more and more into conformity with the totality of human perceptions. If Mr. Balfour could convict science of using illegitimate processes or of endeavoring to stereotype unverified or imperfectly verified doctrines, he might very properly bid us look elsewhere for guidance; but this he nowhere does. He is well aware that civilization is rich to-day with the garnered results of a score of separate sciences, and that men are coming and going and living their lives in a well-grounded assurance that, in the main, what science teaches as true is true, and that work done on scientific principles will stand.
Science might perhaps conveniently be defined as the kind and ex tent of knowledge which the constitution of the human mind permits us to have; and, so viewing it, we certainly fail to see what theology can do for us in the way of bringing knowledge or rational belief within our reach that science can not do. Will it be said that, while science reflects the limitations of the human mind, theology doas not do so? History would certainly not confirm such a contention. Science uses imagination, but keeps it, or tries to keep it, under control; theology, if we judge by the systems that have held sway in the past, has used imagination, has hardly even tried to control it, and has often been completely overmastered by it. In ancient Egypt, according to Erman, "we find a mythology with myths which are absolutely irreconcilable existing peacefully side by side; in short, an unparalleled confusion (which). . . became ever more hopeless during the three thousand years that, according to the pyramid texts, the Egyptian religion flourished." Yet the books in which this religion was set forth were so sacred that "even the gods themselves were supposed to wash seven times" before reading them. "The lively Grecian," as we know,
"In a land of hills,
Rivers and fertile plains and sounding shores,
Under a cope of variegated sky,
Could find commodious place for every god";
but the myths he wove about those gods were of so doubtful a moral tendency that Plato was opposed to allowing them to enter into the education of youth. Of the sacred rites of the Etruscans the historian Mommsen says that "their prevailing characteristics are a gloomy and withal tiresome mysticism, a ringing the changes on numbers, soothsaying, and that solemn enthroning of pure absurdity which at all times finds its own circle of devotees." The Latin religion, the same high authority tells us, had a respectable origin in the attempt to spiritualize and generalize the phenomena of Nature and the duties and functions of everyday life; but, by a gradual process of change, it "sank into a singular sobriety and dullness, and early became shriveled into an anxious and dreaiy round of ceremonies."
If science therefore can not lead us into all truth, it is tolerably clear that theology, as the world has heretofore known it, can not save us from all error, but on the contrary is exposed to all the perversions which an unchecked use of imagination can entail. The task to which Mr. Balfour has committed himself is to show that the particular system which he would recommend is free from the imperfections and, so to speak, organic weaknesses of all other systems, and that it stands forth as an unimpeachable authority in all those matters upon which science is incapable of instructing us. The accomplishment of this task, it is needless to say, will be watched with much interest by every reader of Mr. Balfour's recent volume.
We may remark before concluding that we are not nearly as much troubled as Mr. Balfour evidently thinks upholders of "naturalism" ought to be, by the knowledge that the primary data of science do not afford any hint of the moral law or of the highly developed human emotions that are associated therewith. Neither does the atomic theory or molecular chemistry afford any hint of the wonders of organic life, which yet depend on molecular association. We might know all that is to be known in regard to the elements as elements without discovering-the secret of the rose or of the tiniest "flower in the crannied wall." But are we to abandon or disparage what we know about the chemical composition of the rose because there is that in its synthesis which eludes us? Or are we to refuse our admiration to the flower because its original elements promised no such revelation of beauty?
and the part of wisdom is to make the best of it. If there are those who think they discern a flaw in the title of the moral law, and on that account propose to trample it under their feet, all we can do is to keep our eye on such and see that the moral law is duly re-enforced by material sanctions. A writer of more than literary authority has described "the law" as "a schoolmaster" (literally, pedagogue or child-conductor) to bring us to the true source of instruction; and we may rightly infer that the external precepts which have more or less governed mankind in the past, by whatever authority promulgated, have had for their function to bring men to a recognition of the intrinsic moral quality of actions, and to incline them to choose good in preference to evil. The course of human evolution has brought us a developed moral sense; and the important question for us now is not whether that supreme faculty was foreshadowed in the pre-organic world, or whether it can be read into the atomic philosophy; but whether it is a living fact today, whether it is useful for guidance and whether obedience to it is an essential condition of happiness. The search for title-deeds is very well within limits; but there was a time when title-deeds were not, simply because the conditions did not call for them. The moral law is in possession, and will remain in possession, because it has become part of the constitution of human nature.
In an excellent article on the late Prof. Huxley, contributed by the eminent Professor of Physiology at the University of Cambridge to Nature, and reprinted in this number of the Monthly, we read that the "note" of the "new morphology," of which Huxley made himself so earnest and successful an apostle, was "not to speculate on guiding forces and on the realization of ideals, but to determine the laws of growth by the careful investigation, as of so many special problems, of what parts of different animals, as shown, among other ways, by the mode of their development, were really the same or alike." The result of the prosecution of research along this line, Prof. Foster says, has been the acquisition since the year 1850 of "a body of science touching animal forms both recent and extinct of which we may well be proud," and that altogether apart from the special discoveries which may be traced directly or indirectly to the influence of the Darwinian theory of natural selection.
We have thought it worth while to cite this dictum of the Cambridge professor as bearing somewhat closely on a recent discussion in these columns. A contributor who was dissatisfied with certain references we had made to the doctrine of design, put forward his own opinion to the effect that the time had now come for making design the Why?—the guiding principle—of research. Such is manifestly not Prof. Foster's opinion, or else, while commending Huxley for throwing in his lot with the "new morphology," he would certainly have hinted that there was a yet newer morphology, destined to lead to still greater results, and the note of which was, specifically, speculation on "guiding forces and the realization of ideals." Of course, this newer morphology would only be the old pre-Darwinian speculation back again; and we think it is tolerably safe to conclude that such a reintroduction is not contemplated by the leaders in science to-day, and is in no wise a probable event.
The comparative study of animal forms resembles more or less all other comparative studies. It does not lead to the discovery of ideals in any sense, any more than does the comparative study of myths. We are merely led back from more developed to less developed forms, indicative of simpler conditions of life and a less varied play of the action of natural selection. We are no nearer to any "Why" when studying amoeba; than when investigating the structure of the highest vertebrates. The whole result of comparative biological study is to show us the order, and to some extent, the conditions of development of animal and vegetable structures, and to establish connections, affiliations, and homologies where, apart from the comparative method, no resemblances or correspondences of any kind could be detected. As our knowledge in any field of investigation attains a certain completeness, the imagination is impressed more and more with the wonderful unity of plan which prevails throughout the works of Nature; and at times we thrill as we catch, or 6eem to catch, the pulsations of universal life. These emotions come to us not in the search for ideals, but in that humbler search for facts and co-ordinating principles which some would have us forsake, as being altogether too humble and below our high prerogative as intellectual and moral beings. To us the world and humanity furnish an ample school for the training of our highest faculties, the religious not excluded. All depends on the spirit in which knowledge is pursued. Without grappling with problems that are in their nature insoluble, we may seek to adjust ourselves progressively to the highest knowledge we can attain, and thus to reach the highest and best self-development. If we do this, the path of knowledge will be for each one of us a path of ascent, and we shall find that, without any investigation of the Why, we have solved life's problem in the best possible manner.
The meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science this year was characterized by a calm studiousness which was promoted by the quiet but thrifty environment in which it was held. The address of the retiring president, although confined to the one science in which Dr. Brinton has won his chief eminence, was a model for such addresses, in that the whole of it could be "understanded of the people," while at the same time furnishing food for thought to the man of science. It is no doubt easier for an anthropologist to prepare such an address on his science than for the specialist in some other fields, for the science of man is no foreign ground to any intelligent human being. This was demonstrated by the continued interest and large attendance at the sessions of the Anthropological Section. The addresses of mast of the vice-presidents dealt with broad aspects of the several sciences. That of Mr. F. H. Ousting, on The Arrow, was more like a special paper, but the expressions of interest on the part of his hearers showed that they found no fault with him on that score. The public has often been told what great benefits industry receives from labors in pure science. It was a happy thought for Mr. William McMurtrie to point out to a scientific audience the benefits that the science of chemistry has derived from industrial operations. Those who listened to Vice-President William Kent's address on The Relation of Engineering to Economics carried away several valuable ideas, one being that the invention of machines has been of more economic importance than the division of labor of which the old economists made so much; another that America is far behind the Old World in the art of wasting human labor; and another that improved methods inflict more temporary loss on capital by destroying the value of machinery and appliances than upon labor by displacing workmen. Mr. B. E. Fernow, addressing the Section of Economic Science, ventured upon the debatable ground of governmental functions, but probably most of his audience accepted what he said in regard to the conservation of our forests and other natural resources. The papers read gave evidence of diligent research and had been in the main well sifted, although occasionally some newly fledged professor or garrulous veteran consumed more time than he should have. Time limits rigidly enforced by the several presiding officers might be worth trying in order to give more snap to the proceedings and increase the value of the association to the best workers. The only remarkable discovery announced in the course of the meeting was the finding of another implement in the glacial gravels, which strengthens the view that man lived in America either during or immediately after the Glacial period. The implement was exhibited and described by Prof. G. F. Wright, who has become the leading exponent of this view. The attendance was an average number, and probably included a smaller proportion of sightseers and a greater one of workers than when the meetings are held in larger cities.
Next year the association will hold its fourth meeting in Buffalo, further strengthening the precedent of a decennial visit to that city, and Prof. E. D. Cope will preside. The vice-presidents elected are: (A) Mathematics and Astronomy—William E. Story, of Worcester; (B) Physics—Carl Leo Mees, of Terre Haute, Ind.; (C) Chemistry—W. A. Noyes, of Terre Haute, Ind.; (D) Mechanical Science and Engineering—Frank O. Marvin, of Lawrence, Kan.: (E) Geology and Geography—Benjamin K. Emerson, of Amherst; (F) Zoölogy—Theodore N. Gill, of Washington, D. C.; (G) Botany—N. L. Britton, of New York city; (H) Anthropology—Alice C. Fletcher, of Washington, D. C.; (I) Social Science—William R. Lazenby, of Columbus, Ohio.
Prof. F. W. Putnam remains Permanent Secretary. The following are the other officers: General Secretary, Charles R Barnes, of Madison, Wis. Secretary of the Council, Asaph Hall, Jr., of Ann Arbor, Mich. Secretaries of the Sections: (A) Mathematics and Astronomy—Edwin B. Frost, of Hanover, N. H.; (B) Physics—Frank P. Whitman, of Cleveland, Ohio; (C) Chemistry—Frank P. Venable, of Chapel Hill, N. C.; (D) Mechanical Science and Engineering—John Galbraith, of Toronto, Canada; (E) Geology and Geography A. C. Gill, of Ithaca, N. Y.; (F) Zoölogy—D. S. Kellicott, of Columbus, Ohio; (G) Botany—George F. Atkinson, of Ithaca. N. Y.; (H) Anthropology—John G. Bourke, United States Army; (I) Social Science—R. T. Colburn, of Elizabeth, N. J. Treasurer, R. S. Woodward, of New York, N. Y.