Popular Science Monthly/Volume 49/September 1896/Editor's Table

Editor's Table.


IN many minds it is a settled conviction that the attitude of the Christian clergy toward science must necessarily be one of antagonism. There has been much, of course, in the history of the past to give countenance to such a view, and possibly the recent publication of President Andrew D. White's able and interesting volumes on The Warfare of Science with Theology may just now be doing something to strengthen and extend the impression. President White, however, it should be remembered, has not failed to make it clear that, in the general progress of intelligence, the clergy are more and more being led to take up a reasonable position in regard to the teachings of science; so that, on the whole, the antagonism of which he writes may be looked upon almost as a thing of the past.

It is a pleasure to find evidences of this in contemporary happenings. Some weeks ago a meeting was called in the town of Leeds, in England, to consider the question of raising subscriptions in aid of the Huxley Memorial Fund. Among those present was the Bishop of Ripon, Dr. Boyd Carpenter, who spoke strongly in support of the object of the meeting. He did not profess to share all Huxley's opinions; but that did not seem to him any reason why he should not bear testimony to the nobility of Huxley's life and the value of his services in the cause of science and of popular enlightenment. He recognized in Huxley a great man—"great by virtue of his devotion to science, great by virtue of that wide appreciativeness he brought to bear upon it, and great in the power of expounding it to others." He acknowledged that there were those—though, as he said, a diminishing number—who were disposed to "look askance at the progress of science." Their feeling was that science threatened to take away their faith—a faith that was bound up with their dearest hopes; but men were now "beginning to understand that it can not be in the nature of things that facts and truths will contradict those things that are nearest and dearest and most essential to their happiness." This perception, this conviction, the bishop holds to be faith in its highest form. "Because we are men," he says, "we claim it to be our privilege and our responsibility to follow truth wherever it leads us. It is not our duty to encourage a timidity which, if it were encouraged, could only lead to a fatal obscurantism. The progress of knowledge can only deepen and intensify our attachment to the things which are true, and the things which are true can not be out of harmony with the things around us."

These are brave and noble words, but the bishop was determined to be yet more precise, so that no one could misunderstand his meaning. He therefore continued: "Religious truth, in one sense, must always wait on scientific truth; and religious truth must often change its form at the bidding and on the information given it by scientific truth. I am not aware that in the history of scientific progress religion has ever lost; the precious jewels have always been restored to her in richer and nobler settings. Because I believe that the advancement of knowledge must be for the benefit of mankind, and could not in the long run be hostile to any of the things most precious to us, I stand here to-day to do honor to one who labored in the cause of the advancement of knowledge, and did so much to make it the heritage of all people."

Finally, this representative prelate bore testimony to Huxley's "truthfulness of character," for which he said he had "the prof ouudest admiration." As to Huxley's antagonism to Christianity, he said it was far more called out by the "unfortunate attitude of some who made themselves champions of Christianity, than by anything in the essential nature of the Christian religion." Huxley was not a man who would have wished to deprive any one of convictions that were a source to him of moral strength and comfort.

So far the Bishop of Ripon; and if a hishop can say these things, what is there to hinder that perfect reconciliation of science and religion which will give to both the best conditions for development? The fault to-day—so far as fault there is—is not wholly on the religious side. On that side we see the timidity which the bishop deprecates, and for himself repudiates; but on the other side we see at times a disposition to exult in the scientific view of things as being fatal to all hopes and aspirations which do not rest on facts as material as those of physiology or mechanics. Man, however, has never yet confined himself to the circle of his material wants and satisfactions, nor is there any evidence that he is going to do so in the future. Individuals may choose to grovel, but the race, we may be sure, will, through all vicissitudes, strive after the highest life that is possible for it, and will not be turned away from its ideals simply because there are some who say that they do not know what an ideal is. The mission of science is a great and glorious one—far greater and more glorious than some who claim to speak for it have any conception of—but it has no mission, and no legitimate function, which would divorce it from the higher life of man or place it in antagonism to his deepest instincts and intuitions.


Very needless, in our opinion, was the confession of failure which formed so prominent a feature in the speech delivered by Lord Kelvin (Sir William Thompson) on the occasion of the jubilee celebration tendered to him at the University of Glasgow in the month of June last. The eminent professor's words were as follows: "I might perhaps rightly feel pride in knowing that the University and city of Glasgow have conferred on me the great honor of holding this jubilee. . . . I do feel profoundly grateful. But when I think how infinitely little is all that I have done I can not feel pride; I only see the great kindness of my scientific comrades, and of all my friends, in crediting me for so much. One word characterizes the most strenuous of the efforts for the advancement of science that I have made during fifty-five years; that word is failure. I know no more of electric and magnetic force, or of the relation between ether, electricity, and ponderable matter, or of chemical affinity, than I knew and tried to teach to my students of natural philosophy fifty years ago in my first session as professor. Something of sadness must come of failure, but. . . what splendid compensations for philosophical failures we have had in the admirable discoveries by observation and experiment on the properties of matter, and in the exquisitely beneficent applications of science to the use of mankind with which these fifty years have so abounded!"

Now, with all respect and deference to one of the very greatest scientific men of the century, we venture to affirm that Lord Kelvin here strikes a false note; we even go so far as to say that he indulges in false sentiment. If the labors of his life had been specifically devoted to finding out the essential nature of electric and magnetic force, at divining some ultimate mystery of Nature, we could understand his speaking of "failure" in the way he does; but seeing that nothing is more certain than that no such aim or ambition was present to his mind, but that his efforts were devoted to just those "discoveries by observation and experiment on the properties of matter" and those "applications of science to the use of mankind," in which he acknowledges the last fifty years to have been most fruitful; and considering that his distinguished success in that field of labor is recognized by the whole world, and was the cause and justification of the gathering held in his honor, we must say that the word "failure" in connection with such a career seems to us singularly out of place. One of his brother savants, Prof. A. Gray, speaks of this "humble confession" as "characteristic of the man," but we do not find this view of the matter satisfactory. The question is a simple one. In what does scientific success or failure consist? Either word should have its own distinct meaning. If Lord Kelvin is to be counted among those who have failed, whom shall we put down as having succeeded? Sir Isaac Newton? But Sir Isaac Newton did not "penetrate the mystery of the constitution of matter," to use Prof. Gray's expression, any more than Lord Kelvin has done. He provided a formula which expressed one kind of action exerted by bodies on one another, but he gave no clew to the nature of gravitation. He worked out a great number of intricate questions in mathematical astronomy, but none of his solutions do more than correlate phenomena. We may admit him to have been a greater genius than Lord Kelvin; but that would not justify us in saying that the labors of the latter bore the stamp of failure. Each was successful in a high degree in what constitutes the true work of the scientific investigator, the reduction of phenomena to law: if either aimed at doing more than this he failed, but the failure was not a scientific one; it was the inevitable failure of the human mind in striving to transcend the region of cause and effect and the relation of subject and object.

We have only to consider for a moment in order to see and feel that so long as any one phenomenon or condition is recognized as the cause of any other, the secret of the universe has not been penetrated—we are as much in the presence of "mystery" as if we had a thousand or a thousand thousand separate causes to deal with. Our minds are 90 constituted that, while our whole consciousness depends on the recognition of difference, we have a constant craving for unification; we would fain, as it were, destroy that by which we live. It is the baffled desire for unification that gives us the sense of mystery; and when Lord Kelvin talks of "failure" he means no more than that he has not succeeded in merging effects into causes and causes into effects, and making a unity in which thought itself would disappear.

We think ourselves that the word is unfortunately used; for there are those who are on the watch to catch every confession or expression of weakness on the part of science. "The foremost physicist of the age," these will say, "confesses that all his labors of fifty years may be summed up in the one word 'failure'; that he knows no more to-day about the deeper questions of science than he did fifty years ago. Is it not plain that the Mosaic account of creation must be correct in all its details, and that men in general can not do better than submit themselves to ecclesiastical authority?" Perhaps the deductions may not be expressed in this broad and simple way; but such at least will be the drift of the argument. And yet the truth is that science is all the time doing all that it can reasonably be expected to do—revealing the order and relations of phenomena, detecting, by means of approved appliances, operations of Nature which had eluded previous observation and which must ever have eluded the unaided senses of man, opening wider and wider regions to human thought, and conferring upon mankind an ever-increasing mastery of the laws and resources of the physical world. It does all this by the aid of symbolical language and working hypotheses—in other words, by a kind of algebra of its own; and the utmost fault its critics can find with it is that it can not in some way express the absolute reality of things without the use of symbols or formulæ. Well, science must share that reproach with the human intellect of which it is the product and manifestation; but we do not see why the reproach should be brought against it by its own most shining representatives. Rather might Lord Kelvin have said: "Science in my day has been most prolific of blessing to mankind; it is proceeding apace with its appointed task of enabling men to understand for practical purposes the world in which they live, and what shall be the limit to its achievements in that direction no one can foretell. As to the 'riddle of the universe,' of which we sometimes hear, that lies beyond its ken: only when thought ceases to be conditioned will that riddle—not be read, but—disappear."