Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 2.djvu/193

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181
AIMS, ETC., OF SCIENTIFIC THOUGHT.

means of conceiving such things. But, then, we cannot be sure that the facts will not make us learn to conceive them; in which case they will cease to be inconceivable. In fact, the putting of limits to human conception must always involve the assumption that our previous experience is universally valid in a theoretical sense; an assumption which we have already seen reason to reject. Now, you will see that our consideration of this opinion has led us to the true sense of the assertion that the order of Nature is reasonable. If you will allow me to define a reasonable question as one which is asked in terms of ideas justified by previous experience, without itself contradicting that experience, then we may say, as the result of our investigation, that to every reasonable question there is an intelligible answer, which either we or posterity may know.

We have, then, come somehow to the following conclusions: By scientific thought we mean the application of past experience to new circumstances, by means of an observed order of events. By saying that this order of events is exact, we mean that it is exact enough to correct experiments by, but we do not mean that it is theoretically or absolutely exact, because we do not know. The process of inference we found to be in itself an assumption of uniformity, and that, as the known exactness of the uniformity became greater, the stringency of the inference increased. By saying that the order of events is reasonable, we do not mean that every thing has a purpose, or that every thing can be explained, or that every thing has a cause; for neither of these is true. But we mean that to every reasonable question there is an intelligible answer, which either we or posterity may know by the exercise of scientific thought.

For I especially wish you not to go away with the idea that the exercise of scientific thought is properly confined to the subjects from which my illustrations have been chiefly drawn to-night. When the Roman jurists applied their experience of Roman citizens to dealings between citizens and aliens, showing by the difference of their actions that they regarded the circumstances as essentially different, they laid the foundations of that great structure which has guided the social progress of Europe. That procedure was an instance of strictly scientific thought. When a poet finds that he has to move a strange new world which his predecessors have not moved; when, nevertheless, he catches fire from their flashes, arms from their armory, sustentation from their footprints, the procedure by which he applies old experience to new circumstances is nothing greater or less than scientific thought. When the moralist, studying the conditions of society and the ideas of right and wrong which have come down to us from a time when war was the normal condition of man and success in war the only chance of survival, evolves from them the conditions and ideas which must accompany a time of peace, when the comradeship of equals is the condition of national success—the process by which he