Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 81.djvu/91
A SCIENTIFIC EXPLANATION OF LIFE
So far as the second of these possibilities is concerned, the men of the future will be no better fitted to deal with it than we are, and as for the first it is practically like the other, and useless as an explanation for an explanation which by the nature of the case we can not understand, is a contradiction in terms.
Aside from the impotence of the vital X as an explanation, its spokesmen are guilty of reasoning unbecoming to men of science, for they attempt to furnish us with an efficient cause of vital action, a captain who steers the ship of life. But consciousness, the nearest known possible relative of the problematic X, is certainly not a cause in man's life, for however much prejudice may incline us to adhere to the opposite view, consciousness is neither more nor less than a condition. It is true that we must recognize it and deal frankly with it, for in its absence man's life assuredly would not be what it is. But the same thing might be said of respiration, of digestion, of the environment, or of any one of the multitude of conditions under which life occurs, and is what it is. And the same thing would unquestionably be true of the vital X, for if it could be proved to be something with which he who would give a scientific explanation of life must reckon, if indeed it were shown to be the element without which it is impossible to understand how the right thing happens in the right place, at the right time and to the proper degree, science instead of having engulfed a real cause, would simply be enriched by the capture of one more of the conditions under which some of the substances in nature live.
If nature were a limited system, there would be some hope of ultimate acquaintance with all the conditions of life, but as the universe is unlimited, no foundation for this hope exists, and one need but reflect, as Brooks did, on the growth of knowledge to realize the truth of these words:
Each scientific discovery shows us new and unsuspected wonders in nature. The unexplained things which are brought to our knowledge by each scientific explanation far outnumber the things it explains. The progress of knowledge is no mere comprehension, or gathering in. It is more like sowing seed than gathering a harvest, for the known world grows with knowing.
We are told that “when every fact, every past or present phenomenon of the universe, every phase of present and past life therein, has been examined, classified and coordinated with the rest, then the mission of science will be complete.” But if we are to judge the future by the past, classification and coordination will always show us more unclassified and uncoordinated things than they classify and coordinate.
Each new encyclopedia is bigger than the one before, and so, no doubt, it will be to the end. If knowledge were nothing more than comprehension, or the analysis and classification of facts, the progress of science should be bringing us nearer to universal knowledge, but each new discovery puts it farther from our grasp than before, and they who know most, are most convinced of its