Popular Science Monthly/Volume 55/June 1899/Editor's Table
SCIENCE AND THE IDEAL.
WE have had frequent occasion in these columns to refer to the tirades against science indulged in by writers who, because they can not quite make ends meet in their philosophy of the universe, strangely allow themselves to think that science must be at fault. At one moment it is M. Brunetière, at another Tolstoi, at another it is a Harvard professor or a Western school superintendent; but no very long time elapses before we find somebody in very unnecessary trouble, as it seems to us, over the shortcomings of science. The last sufferer to whom our attention has been drawn is Dr. John Beattie Crozier, the author of two able works—Civilization and Progress, and History of Intellectual Development—who has lately written a history of his own intellectual development under the title of My Inner Life. This writer describes the effect upon his mind of a study of Mr. Spencer's Principles of Psychology. "Then it was," he says, "that the ideal within me, struck to the heart, shriveled and collapsed." This sad result was due to the discovery, forced on him by a study of the work in question, that all our mental experiences have equally a material basis, and that from a material point of view or, as we may say, seen from below, one thought or feeling is as much justified as any other. Previously he had considered that "such higher faculties as veneration, benevolence, conscientiousness, and the like, were quite distinct in essential nature from low ones, like revenge, lust, vanity, cowardice, and deceit"; but now "all this was changed, and all the faculties alike, the high and the low, the noble and the base, the heroic and the self-indulgent, lay on a dead level of moral and spiritual equality … all alike being but vibrations, vibrations, vibrations, nothing more." Consequently, "the dethroned Ideal fell prone and headlong like a false and usurping spirit; and my mind, bereaved of that which had been its life, settled into a deep and what, for a year or two, threatened to be a permanent intellectual gloom."
It is a great pity that at this critical moment a very simple consideration did not occur to this troubled spirit. When we read the Sermon on the Mount we read "words, words, words"; when we read some horrible piece of profanity or indecency it is again "words, words, words"; when we read the demonstration of a proposition in Euclid it is "words, words, words"; and, again, when we take up Tennyson's In Memoriam we find that its whole tissue is "words, words, words" But would it tend in the least to lessen one's reverence for the Sermon on the Mount to be reminded that it was constructed out of the same verbal elements as the piece of profanity? or would it diminish our admiration for In Memoriam to be told that it was constructed of words just like the dullest piece of prose? If not, then why should one be so terribly disconcerted and depressed to find that all our mental life finds its basis in vibrations? Or why should the inference be drawn that, because the basis is one, all that reposes on it must also be one in character and meaning? Is our delight in the lily or the rose impaired by the reflection that it springs from the same soil that produces noisome weeds; or do we gaze on the humming bird with less admiration because it flies in the same atmosphere as the bat? Why should "vibrations" not be the condition of existence of one mental phenomenon as well as of another? Surely the very fact that Dr. Crozier classes all the feelings he mentions as mental affections should prepare him to believe that they have a common basis. But how feelings shall be classified and ranked after they have taken form is a question precisely similar to the question how the various combinations of words should be classified and ranked. In the latter case words are the basis of them all, but we say: "This is an epic poem; this is a moral essay; this is an immoral novel; this is a silly joke; this is a market report." Are these distinctions illusory because words are the basis and substance of all these various forms of composition? Does the poem lose anything of its beauty, or the essay anything of its ethical value, because each was not composed of elements altogether peculiar to itself? The solid globe itself was once a diffused nebula, but we do not on that account find a less varied beauty in flower and tree, in hill-side and running brook and grandly flowing river.
In his sad condition of mental disarray our author betook himself, he says, to the counsels of Thomas Carlyle. That sage, when he heard that his visitor had been reading Spencer, made some uncomplimentary remarks about the latter which we hardly think the visitor was justified in repeating. Apart from this, Carlyle told him in effect that, as he was in the world, he had just to make the best of it, and that in time he would find work that he could do with benefit to himself and others. Finally, our author made what he calls a discovery and offers as a contribution to modern philosophy—namely, that in the mind of man there is a "scale," according to which thoughts and feelings are appraised. Some are high up on the scale and some are low down. He found that there is that in the mind which is not of the mind, and which sits in judgment on all the contents of the mind—something which smiles on every right action and frowns on every wrong one, and yet which he does not care to speak of as conscience. Here was the antidote he required to the "pure and undiluted materialism" which had so paralyzed his moral being in the Principles of Psychology; and, having obtained it, he has been living happily, as we gather, ever since.
We have tried to do justice to the originality of Dr. Crozier's conception, but really with indifferent success. That there is a scale by which we are all accustomed to measure the varying values of our thoughts, feelings, and actions hardly needs to be stated; and that there is substantial agreement between men on the same plane of civilization as to the relative values of different mental products is also unquestionably true. What our author has not shown is how this conflicts with the strict scientific position taken in the Principles of Psychology. He does not tell us that he has repudiated the teachings of that work; indeed, he gives us distinctly to understand that, so far as it affirms the dependence of thought upon physical organization, he adheres to it still. If so, he has only built upon it a super-structure which it was always open to him to build; so, why he should find fault with the foundation it is not easy to see. Science goes as far as she can see her way to go in setting forth the relations between the mind of man and the environing universe. It studies also the human mind in its historical manifestations, and tries to unfold the laws of human conduct. It confines itself to facts which are believed to admit of verification and to inferences which have been tested by experience. This is the contribution of Science to the theory of human life. But because Science stops here she does not lay any veto on thought, desire, or hope. She lays a foundation; it is for us to build thereon "gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, stubble," each of us according to our own impulse and upon our own responsibility. The fire of experience will "try every man's work of what sort it is." But not only may we build, we must build; no one can live upon another man's philosophy. We may adopt this creed or that, but it means nothing to us till we have worked it over in our own mind and made it our own—with modifications.
There is nothing whatever in science that conflicts with the ideal. Strictly speaking, science brings us to the threshold of the ideal, and leaves us there. "These are the facts of life," it says; "such has been the course of human history. The human race has risen from humble origins to its present commanding position in the world; and to-day the standards of human conduct and the conditions of human happiness are very different from what they were in the distant past. Social ties have multiplied and strengthened. Domestic affections have grown in depth and tenderness, and individual happiness is now bound up to a very large extent in the happiness of other individuals. The cruel superstitions of the past have given way in many minds to a reverent regard for a power which is felt to rule in the universe. Of such a power Science can not render any exact account; but before all the ultimate questions of existence Science is dumb; nor can it attempt to reconcile the antinomies which assert themselves in all phenomena. It is for you, the individual, entering upon life, to make your choice of the course you shall hold and the principles by which you shall be governed. The senses are the guides to immediate pleasure, but the experience of the ages has settled with considerable approach to certainty the conditions on which enduring happiness is to be won.
"'Choose well; your choice is
Brief and yet endless.'"
To the man who insists on being knocked down with a club before he will yield to persuasion there is nothing in such a mode of address that will be convincing. This is a case in which, as Pascal says, "there is enough light for those who desire to see, and enough obscurity for those who want a pretext for not seeing.… Perfect clearness might help the understanding, but it would injure the will." There is, therefore, room on the scientific foundation for the idealism of Dr. Crozier, and for many other forms of idealism. It is for each one of us to construct his own ideal, and, having constructed it, to live by it. "If any man's work abide he shall receive a reward."
The interesting papers contributed to this magazine by Prof. William Z. Ripley, which, we are glad to say, will soon be published in a more permanent form, indicate very clearly the remarkable progress that has been made of late years in the scientific study of human origins. Formerly legend and tradition were the only sources of light upon prehistoric times; and the sagacious Thucydides dismissed all speculation respecting those ages with the curt remark that he did not think the people who lived then amounted to much, any way. No doubt he was nearer right in this opinion than were those who peopled antiquity with demigods and heroes; still there was much of interest to be gleaned respecting the prehistoric past if only right methods of research had been used. This was too much to expect in his day; and, indeed, it is only in very recent times that the study of human origins has been placed upon anything like an adequate scientific basis. A reference to Mr. Ripley's work will show how numerous are the lines of investigation now pursued. Language, which at one time was considered an all-important test of origin, has fallen from its high position; and theories which, on the strength of linguistic evidence, were very widely entertained, have lost their authority. has this been the case with the so-called "Aryan" theory. It was simple and beautiful and interesting, but as observations accumulated it became more and more untenable, until finally it had to be discarded.
The problems which the anthropologist and ethnologist attack are indeed of the highest degree of complexity. If our predecessors went astray therein, we ourselves are only feeling our way very cautiously and somewhat uncertainly. We have not yet reached an era of victorious generalizations. Professor Ripley well indicates the difficulties of the research. Things will go well for a considerable time along certain lines of observation until the facts come to be gleaned in some special field, and then the result will perhaps be just the opposite of what theory required. In a brachycephalic region, for example, where craniological and other tests call for a population of short stature, the stature will reveal itself as much above the average. In a region where, looking at race characteristics as elsewhere established, the tendency, say, to suicide should be particularly low, it is found by statistics to be particularly high. The ethnologist finds his path strewn with endless difficulties of this nature, and yet he is not discouraged. The truth lies somewhere, and he knows that a vigorous and courageous sifting of the facts will be sure to bring it to light, if not to-day, to-morrow. We gather from Professor Ripley's pages a strong impression of the confident patience with which the true man of science attacks his problems; he is sure that his methods are right, and that in the end they must triumph.
The interesting points of view which the study of racial geography presents are numberless. This is particularly shown in Professor Ripley's chapter on Modern Social Problems. In this chapter the writer acknowledges, as he does elsewhere, that theories of race and of heredity have sometimes been pushed too far. He demands a due recognition of the influence of environment, and cites cases where environment will explain divergences from what are recognized as race characteristics or tendencies. An example of this is afforded by the case of Brittany, in connection with separateness of home life. The population of Brittany belongs to a race that is particularly prone to such separateness, and yet in Brittany there is an unusual intermingling of families under one roof. We can not enter into the explanation here, but Professor Ripley shows how the physical geography of the country may account for the variation from type. In the same chapter the writer shows very interestingly how the Celtic parts of France manifest almost invariably conservative tendencies: how they shun divorce, afford a very low rate of suicide, and, in the matter of crime, tend rather to deeds of violence than to acts of dishonesty. The general impression which the intelligent reader will gather from the whole work is that "racial geography" has all the interest of a rapidly growing science; but that, while much has been accomplished, much more remains to be done. The lines of research are many, and we may reasonably hope that before long the combined labors of anthropologist, ethnologist, and sociologist will give us a coherent body of knowledge and theory which shall not only illuminate the past but be of the very highest value for the comprehension of the problems of our own day.