Popular Science Monthly/Volume 8/April 1876/The Character of Modern Knowledge

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THE science of the present age is distinguishable from the learning of past ages by many important features. By these it has indeed somewhat altered the sense originally attributable to its name, and science has become a word of greater precision, and therefore of a less broad significance than what may be termed mere knowledge. This is so little understood, that when lately a great statesman and orator met some of his constituents in a southeastern suburb of this metropolis, he informed them, among other things, that science was merely another term for knowledge. Even if it had been so originally, and the Latin word scientia had been merely the equivalent of the Saxon word knowledge, it would have to be admitted that the relations have changed by one of those conventions which are silent and convenient. We hold that the systemic enunciation of mere knowledge is doctrine; that science is a kind of knowledge, but that not all knowledge is science. Science is that kind of knowledge the correctness and truth of which can be proved by evidence convincing to all healthy understandings. Science is a series of potentialized axioms, which when once mastered are as evident as the simple axioms in mathematics, which are said to be so self-evident as to require no proof. By this definition a very large amount of human knowledge or doctrine is at once excluded from the domain of science. The learning of past ages was mainly imitative, little observant of new phenomena. Those ages had too much work on hand, first in the development of their languages, in which they used imitations countless in number, next in the shape of securing the conditions of social life in the form of communities and states. But even where these may be said to have been secured, e. g., at the height of power of the Roman Empire, science was not developed, and it may be said that this absence of scientific treatment of the common problems of life has been one of the principal causes of the downfall of that, and of many other states. Famines, epidemics, among men and cattle, and wars, are made possible or necessary only by the absence or faulty application of the principles taught by science. Science, by teaching that, and how, these evils are to be avoided, has a field in this generation, of which the past had not even a distant conception. Imitative learning shows itself mainly as art, buildings, sculptures, paintings; all the mass of temples and gods which fill the world's history and imagination are of this kind. There is no science about a Greek or Egyptian temple, simply because there is no value in it; it does not satisfy, to our present mode of thinking, one single demand of the understanding. There is no science about our present homes, or how could they get filled with sewer-gas, be devoid of arrangements for ventilation, and have square chimneys. Architecture, so called, is not a science, but an imitative art, beautiful but blundering. Manufactures have, too often, been carried on with great disregard of science, with the result that either empiricism was, for the time, successful enough, or that the manufacture went simply out of existence. It is the same with commerce. These arts have worked by tradition, by prescription, by precedent. They all wait for an infusion of the scientific method, the method of principle based upon natural laws immutable and indestructible. While not often scientific themselves, these branches of human knowledge, administering all the time, for a consideration of gain to be paid by the recipient, to important human wants, have yet indirectly advanced science by either finding and bringing, or by producing some of its materials.

Antiquity, then, possessed no science, except alone the results of meditation, which have been termed metaphysics, and which, if allowed to include ethics and logic, have no doubt attained in the treatment of philosophers a high degree of development. The contemplation of Nature, however, in its inorganic and organized shape, and of the causes determining all motion and development, was not greatly developed. The power of distinction, the mother of all knowledge, was not applied to all things, and consequently they termed a process such as fire an element, and allowed some all-pervading material to exist under the name of the quintessence. Bodies fell to the ground because they possessed weight; but that the falling was a reciprocal action between the earth and the body falling upon it escaped their observation, and was only found by science.

Mere observation is not science, but only the beginning of science. When a person, sitting in the railway-train, beholds the traveling shadow, he makes an observation. He begins a scientific inquiry, when he asks whether the shadow travels as quickly as the train, so as to be in a line falling from the sun past the train or whether the shadow is not a little later. If once the question has arisen, it is immaterial where it is solved, whether upon the railway-train, or the satellites of Jupiter—the question must lead to the idea that light requires time for traveling; exact science determines this time by measuring space. Science began its development with the elucidation of celestial phenomena, and became astronomy, or the doctrine of the laws according to which heavenly bodies move. Copernicus is from this point of view the father, the creator of science. Kepler, Galileo, and Newton, reduced the observations of these phenomena to expressions of regularity which we call laws. The method once found was applied to other branches of knowledge; then arose the physiology of the animal and vegetable world, based upon anatomy as a science. Harvey made physiology a science, and so on in all branches of knowledge.

Now, let us see what was the method by which these results were obtained. Meditation had of course the inciting share, but furnished no materials. Observation accumulated the materials of which reflection might weave a tissue, the test was experiment. If from a knowledge of conditions a result can be predicted, then there is certainty. Such certainty is science; it consists of observation, meditation, knowledge of conditions, knowledge of their results, and therefore of the connection between results and causes; these being regular, immutable, within the time accessible to our perceptions, and coercing everything under their sway, are called natural laws.

Of science, it is allowed that no part comes out of the human brain alone, not even the ideas of God and Immortality, which Kant claimed as innate ideas, while allowing all others to be the result of observation and reflection. The celebrated joke, that, if an Englishman and a German were asked to produce a camel each, the Teuton would evolve one out of his inner consciousness while the Briton would produce a camel of flesh and bone, is a good satire upon innate ideas. Science did not progress until it rejected all innate ideas or phantasies, and applied itself deeply to its proper methods, to observation, to meditation on the correlation of forces, and to experiment. Work, work, and again work, were the three main features of its success. The search for the philosopher's stone, for the medicine that should make young, healthy, happy, and rich, was also work, enormous in amount and extension, but it was not based upon observation. It left results which science gathered, the main result being that we cannot prolong our lives forward, but we can, as Kopp has beautifully said, prolong them backward indefinitely, and see the changes of enormous spaces of time pass before our admiring eyes and minds.

There are three kinds of history, that of our planetary system in the theory of Laplace, that of our earth in geology, that of living things in the theory of Darwin. No serious person doubts now that the teachings of geology deserve the title of an exact science, and that compared to its coercing character upon the mind of man the convictions derived from written history are feeble in the extreme, and all contradictory writings, however old, mere nullities. The youngest of the sciences or branch of science is chemistry, founded by Lavoisier and Dalton; developed by thousands of clear heads and nimble hands, it has in half a century become a recognized power in the affairs of man. It has materially improved his estate, and enlarged his mind to conceptions of an elevating nature; it has become a ready test of his reasoning and working power. It has become the handmaid of almost all the elder sisters of astronomy, teaching the composition of distant star; of geology, teaching the composition and changes of strata and minerals; of physiology, vegetable and animal, teaching about food, nutrition, growth, changes, death, and decay; of the healing art, teaching the nature of evils in the shape of disease, and the means of curing or mitigating them. This science, too, was developed by work, work, work—physical and mental; its ways were often rugged; its endeavors misapprehended, opposed, suppressed. And the great men whose names are inscribed upon the roll of its principal promotors will be considered by posterity as benefactors akin to Hercules, removing evils, establishing the good and true. If we cannot now inscribe their names and likenesses among the stars, and transfer them to an Olympian abode, yet we can honor them by admiring their works and lessons, by sharing and continuing their work, by, as it were, living their lives with them over again, and thus prolong their memory forward while we prolong our own in the inverse direction. We ought to honor them out of gratitude no less than out of the desire to benefit continuously man's estate. Such feelings have been instrumental in the cases of those who described the greatness of your Davy, of your Faraday. Such feelings shall now be the guiding principle in the consideration of the life, works, and philosophy of Justus Liebig. But I must beg you to understand that I shall proceed by a severe process, that of analysis, for nothing less than the results of analysis of work done can establish as proved what many feel as a sentiment. You will understand both the censure and the acclamation of what we will call the world; you will see the necessity for a reform in the philosophy of many of us; you will see how the life and labor of one man have produced vast applications and industries, improved or created a large commerce, and enhanced or engendered art; how they have soothed the pain and anguish of hundreds of thousands under the most severe trials of human organization, and how they have left a growing harvest in the hearts and minds of men all over the world.

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  1. Introductory remarks to a course of lectures on the "Life and Labors of Prof. Liebig.