Popular Science Monthly/Volume 13/May 1878/Science and Mental Improvement

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SCIENCE AND MENTAL IMPROVEMENT.[1]
By Professor JOSEPH LE CONTE.

THIS club, as I take it, was formed for mutual improvement. The narrowing and ever-increasingly narrowing tendency of professional pursuits, in these modern times of division of intellectual labor and eager struggle for life, renders the formation of such associations very necessary. The ideal of a life-culture, as I conceive it, i. e., of a culture which, commencing with youth, shall terminate only with death, is briefly epitomized as follows: First, a general culture of all the faculties—a preparation for general efficiency without reference to any special pursuit—to the period of full maturity; then a concentration of the thus strengthened and disciplined powers upon special professional studies, but still in connection with a scheme of liberal culture or university, by which the professional culture shall be impregnated with the lofty spirit of liberal learning; and, lastly, when active professional life commences with its necessary narrowing effects, the formation of associations like this, by which we are brought into contact with the best thought in every department.

If culture be the object of your association, then ought it not to be merely an association of kindred spirits, as many think. On the contrary, it should consist of persons of the most diverse pursuits—theologians, lawyers, physicians, engineers, merchants, and of all modes of thought, from orthodoxy to rationalism, from idealism to materialism, from old-fogyism to young-Americanism—with one condition only, viz., that all be imbued with the spirit of liberal culture. Now, among the pursuits which ought to be represented here, I believe none to be so necessary as that of science; and for the reason that the spirit of science and the methods of science are more diverse from the spirit and methods of other intellectual pursuits than these latter are from each other.

I will say nothing of the glorious achievements of science already set forth in the sentiment to which I am called to respond; nor even of science as a means of mental discipline, for this would take too long. I wish only to remove some objections which have been brought by her detractors against Science as an agent of general and liberal culture; for it is with this that your association is chiefly concerned. Among these objections, however, I select only one, but perhaps the chief, viz., the tendency of science to materialism. It is believed by many that science starves all our noblest faculties, quenches all our most glorious aspirations, and buries all our heavenly hopes in the cold earth of a vulgar materialism.

Now, it is indeed true that there has been in these modern times a strong tendency, a current of thought, in the direction of materialism. It is true, too, that this tendency is strongest in the domain of science, and, among sciences, strongest of all in biology and geology; but I believe it is true also that this is only a passing phase of thought, an ephemeral fashion of philosophy. As a sympathizer with the age in which I live, still more as a scientist, and most of all as a biologist and geologist, I have felt the full force of this tendency. In this stream of tendency I have stood, during all my active life, just where the current ran swiftest, and confess to you that I have been sometimes almost swept off my feet. But it is the duty of every independent thinker not to yield blindly to the spirit of the age, but to exercise his own unprejudiced reason; not to float and drift, but to stand. I think I can show you that materialism is not the necessary outcome of scientific studies and the scientific spirit. For this purpose, I will select that scientific theory which is supposed to be par excellence materialistic, viz.: the theory of evolution. I wish to show that even evolution does not necessarily lead to materialism, and that to conclude so is a very shallow view of the subject.

First of all I wish frankly to acknowledge that I am myself an evolutionist. I may not agree with most that evolution advances always cum æquo pede. On the contrary, I believe that there have been periods of slow and periods of rapid, almost paroxysmal, evolution. I may not agree with most that we already have in Darwinism, the final form, and survival of the fittest, the prime factor of evolution. On the contrary, I believe that the most important factors of evolution are still unknown— that there are more and greater factors in evolution than are dreamed of in the Darwinian philosophy. Nevertheless, evolution is a grand fact, involving alike every department of Nature; and more especially evolution of the organic kingdom, and the origin of species by derivation, must be regarded as an established truth of science. But, remember, evolution is one thing and materialism another and quite a different thing. The one is a sure result of science; the other a doubtful inference of philosophy. Let no one who is led step by step through the paths of evolution, from the mineral to the organic, from the organic to the animate, and from the animate to the rational, until he lands logically, as he supposes, into blank and universal materialism—let no such one, I say, imagine for a moment that he has been walking all the way in the domain of science. He has stepped across the boundary of science into the domain of philosophy. Yet the step seems so easy, so natural, so inevitable, that most do not distinguish between the teachings of science and the inference of philosophy, and thus the whole is unjustly accredited to science. Now, as most people not only do not make, but have never imagined, any such distinction, I am anxious to make it clear to you. This I can best and most briefly do by some simple familiar illustrations.

It is curious to observe that no sooner do we find out, in any work of Nature, how it is made, than we all say that it is not made at all; it made itself. So long as the origin of species was a mystery, every one admitted that species must have had an intelligent Maker. But no sooner did we discover the process, than every one seemed to think that no Maker is necessary at all. Now, the whole object of science is to discover processes by which things are done; or how things are made. Is it any wonder, then, with this perverse tendency of the present mind, that science should ever and anon seem to destroy belief in a Supreme Intelligence?

Again, it is curious to observe how an old and familiar truth, coming up in a new form, startles us as an impossible paradox. I well remember some twenty-five years ago, when the little instrument the gyroscope first made its appearance, how it startled everybody by its seeming violation of the laws of gravity. Imagine a heavy brass wheel rotating rapidly at one end of an axle, while the other end is supported on a vertical column. So long as it rotated, the heavy wheel, instead of falling, remained suspended in mid-air, revolving meanwhile slowly about the point of support at the other end of the axle. At first sight it seems as wonderful and as paradoxical as the body of Mr. Home, the spiritualist, sailing in mid-air in full view of his gaping and noble audience. In the case of Mr. Home, we suspect some mistake or deception; but there is no mistake about the gyroscope. Yet this strange paradox, which startled people so, and which so flooded scientific literature with explanations, is an old familiar fact in a new form. The problem is precisely the same as that of the boy's top, which spins and leans, and slowly revolves in its leaning, but does not fall so long as it continues to spin.

Now, in evolution, also, we have no new truth, but only an old truth in a new form: and lo! how it startles us out of our propriety! The evolution of the individual by a slow process from a microscopic germ. Everybody knows this. Yet it has never heretofore interfered with a belief in an intelligent Maker of each of us. Perhaps most of you may remember, when first at your mother's knee, you were asked, "Who made you?" and you answered as you were taught, "God made me." But suppose you had asked in return, "How?" The only true answer would have been, "By a process of evolution." Yes, every one of us was individually made (and is not this far more important for us individually than any origin of species, even of the human species?) by a slow process of evolution from a microscopic spherule of unorganized protoplasm—the germ-cell. Yet the knowledge of this fact did not make us ridicule the reverent answer of the little one, or despise the pious teachings of the mother. Why, then, should it be different in this case of the origin of species by evolution?

Again, all vexed questions are such, because there is truth on both sides. Unmixed error does not live to plague us long. Error lives only by virtue of a contained germ of truth. In all vexed questions, therefore, there are three views, viz., two opposing, partial, one-sided views, and a third, more rational and comprehensive, which combines and reconciles them.

I can best illustrate this by the familiar story of the fabled shield. You well remember how, in the good old times of knight-errantry, this shield was hung up in the sight of all men in token of the fact that the owner challenged the world to mortal combat. You well remember that the shield having been seen by many knights, these knights, on comparing notes, could not agree as to its color, some declaring that it was white, and some equally certain that it was black. You well remember that after many lances had been splintered, after many broken heads and bloody noses had been endured in the vain attempt to settle this vexed question, by the blundering logic of blows and knocks, as was the fashion in those days (alas! do we not even now settle many questions in the same way, only we call the process now, the "logic of events")—after, I say, many blows had been given and taken in the sacred cause of truth, some one who, strange to say, had something of the spirit of science, and who, therefore, thought that truth was to be discovered, not by conflict, but by observation, proposed that the shield be examined. The result you all know—one side was white and the other was black.

Now, do you not observe that both parties in this dispute were right and both were wrong? Each was right from his point of view. Each was wrong in excluding the other point of view—in imagining his truth to be the whole truth. And do you not observe also that the true view combined and reconciled the two partial views? There is an old adage that "truth lies in the middle," between antagonistic extremes. Now, while there is a kind of truth in this adage, yet, as usually understood, I believe it contains a most pernicious error. It is the favorite adage of the timid man—the trimmer, the time-server, the politician, the fence-man. Suppose there had been present on this occasion one of these fence-philosophers. He would have reasoned thus: "These gentlemen are of equal intelligence, equal veracity, and equal strength (a most important element in making up an opinion for these fence-men); the one says the shield is white and the other says it is black; now, truth lies in the middle: therefore I conclude that it must be a kind of gray or neutral tint, or perhaps a sort of pepper-and-salt." Do you not observe that of all the crowd he is the only one who has absolutely no truth in him? No, gentlemen; truth and rational philosophy is not a mere mixture of opposing views—truth is not what our English friends might call a philosophic "'alf-n'alf." It is rather to be sought in a more comprehensive view, which combines and reconciles opposing partial views—it is a stereoscopic combination of two partial surface views into one objective reality.

So is it, gentlemen^ with many vexed questions; so is it with the question of origin of species. There are three possible views in regard to the origin of species. The first asserts Divine agency by miraculous creation, and therefore denies any process the second asserts evolution-process, but denies Divine agency; the third asserts Divine agency by evolution-process. So, also, are there three corresponding views in regard to the origin of the individual—of you, of me, of each of us. The first is that of the little innocent, who thinks that God made him as he (the little innocent) makes dirt-pies; the second is that of the little hoodlum, who says, "I wasn't made at all, I growed;" the third is the usual adult belief—that we are made by a process of evolution. Do you not observe, then, that in the matter of the origin of species many good theologians and pietists are in the position of the little innocent? They think that species were made without natural process. On the other hand, most evolutionists are in the position of the little hoodlum; for they think that species,because they "growed" wern't made at all. But there is a higher and more rational philosophy than either, which holds that the ideas of making and of growing are not inconsistent with each other—that evolution does not and cannot destroy the conception of, or the belief in, an intelligent Creator and Author of the cosmos. This view combines and reconciles the two preceding antagonistic views, and is therefore more comprehensive, more rational, and more true. But let us not fail to do justice—let us not overlook the fact that the most important and noblest truths are overlooked only by the hoodlum and materialist. Of the two sides of the shield, the little innocent and the pietest sees, at least, the whiter and more beautiful.

The end and mission of science, gentlemen, is not only to discover new truth, but also, and even more distinctively, to give new and more rational form to old truth—to transfigure the old into the more glorious form of the new. Science is come, not to destroy, but, aided by a rational philosophy, to fulfill all the noblest aspirations, the most glorious hopes of our race. Sometimes, indeed, the change which she brings about may be like a metamorphosis: the useless shell is burst and cast off, and a more beautiful and less gross form appears, but still it is always a process of evolution—of derivation. We never shall reach a rational philosophy until we recognize this fundamental truth. The new must include the old—the old must incorporate and assimilate the new, and each must modify and be modified by the other. Progress in all things—in geology, in society, in philosophy—is by evolution and growth; not by successive catastrophes with alternate destructions and recreations; by derivation, not by substitution. But these modern materialists, while they are evolutionists in geology (they indeed will hear of nothing else), while they may be evolutionists also in social progress, are, strange to say, catastrophists in philosophy. They would raze all previous beliefs, faiths, philosophies, to the ground, and leave not one stone upon another; and then, out of entirely new materials furnished by themselves, they would erect another and entirely different philosophy. They reverse the old dogma, "Whatever is, is right," and make it, "Whatever is, is wrong."

The great bar to the speedy establishment of a rational philosophy is dogmatism, self-opinion, self-conceit. The rarest of all gifts is a truly tolerant and rational spirit. In all your gettings, gentlemen, be sure you get this, for it alone is true wisdom. But do not imagine, however, that all the dogmatism is on one side, and that the theological. Many, indeed, seem to think that theology has a preëmption-right to dogmatism. If so, then modern science has "jumped the claim." Dogmatism has its roots deep in the human heart. It is born of narrowness and pride. It showed itself first in the domain of theology, only because there was the seat of power. In modern times, therefore, it has gone to the side of science, because here now is the seat of power and fashion. There are, then, two dogmatisms, both equally opposed to the true rational spirit, viz., the old theological and the new scientific. The old clings fondly to old things, only because they are old; the new grasps eagerly after new things, only because they are new. True wisdom and true philosophy, on the contrary, "tries all things," both old and new, "and holds fast only to that which is good and true." The new dogmatism taunts the old for credulity and superstition; the old reproaches the new for levity and skepticism. But true wisdom and philosophy perceives that they are both equally credulous and equally skeptical. The old is credulous of old ideas and skeptical of new; the new is skeptical of old ideas and credulous of new; both deserve the unsparing rebuke of all right-minded men. The appropriate rebuke for the old dogmatism has been put in the form of a bitter sneer in the mouth of Job: "No doubt ye are the men, and wisdom shall die with you." The appropriate rebuke for the new dogmatism, though not put into the mouth of any ancient prophet, ought to be uttered.

  1. An address before the Chit-Chat Club in San Francisco.