Popular Science Monthly/Volume 39/September 1891/Editor's Table

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search



OUR readers have had the opportunity of following, in the interesting articles contributed to this periodical by Dr. Andrew D. White, the marvelous history of the struggle which science from its birth has had to wage with the forces of intellectual obstruction. The great foe to science, it is not too much to say, has been theology. To say this is not to cast doubt on the possibility of a true theology; it is merely to affirm that, in point of fact, the particular theologies that have heretofore occupied the ground have one and all felt themselves threatened by science, and have set themselves to resist its advance by every means in their power. We see no reason why this fact should not be frankly recognized. In the natural course of things theology deals in imaginative fashion with questions of origin and development; and until exact knowledge begins to prevail the notions thus established serve a more or less useful purpose. As knowledge grows, these conceptions are found to be faulty; but theology resists any change—in the first place, from a general conservative instinct, and, in the second, because the cause of moral and social order seems to be more or less involved with the primitive cosmogony. But when once man has begun to observe, to compare, to verify, and to record, he has laid a foundation that can not be shaken, he has sown a ferment that must grow and spread till it has leavened the whole of human thought. Systems founded upon imagination must yield to those produced by the use of the reasoning faculty. They were no better than guesses at the first; and if they furnish an adumbration, however vague, of the truth, it is almost more than we have any right

to expect. Reason itself errs in many of its constructions, but it faces the light, and year by year and age by age it is able to perfect its work.

We fail, therefore, to see why any of our religious contemporaries should take in evil part the really instructive treatment which Dr. White has given to this subject of the perfecting of science through opposition and conflict. They really need not feel too bad about it. In a certain way it was good for science, just as it was for the Psalmist, to be afflicted. The natural reluctance which men of science felt to find themselves at variance with established beliefs, armed with the power of persecution, led them to scan their theories very carefully before giving them to the world. Moreover, the very difficulties of the situation drew out much heroism of character, and made science more conscious than it would otherwise have been of its moral and intellectual mission. Whether in these comparatively peaceful times the work of science is done in as high and noble a spirit as formerly is perhaps open to question.

The lesson which nearly all sensible men draw from the history of science is simply this, that the enlightened reason of man is the only interpreter of Nature's laws, and that physical theories handed down from remote antiquity have simply no claim whatever upon our acceptance in the present day. It matters not whether a misapplied ingenuity can find in them some distant resemblance to known facts, any more than it matters, when a weather prophet guesses at the weather, how near the mark or how wide of it his guess may fall. In the present day we have done with guessing in matters scientific. We may frame hypotheses, but, if so, their destination is to be confronted with facts; and if they can not abide the test we let them go. Some of our theological brethren are given to gloating over the mistakes made by scientific men, and point with triumph to the wrecks of scientific theory that lie along the highway of the world's thought. There is little justification for the triumph. No scientific theory ever perished except to give birth to a better. It would be nearly as sensible to take a man to some ancient cemetery and taunt him with the number of his dead ancestors. Id humanity is the living germ which persists from age to age, though the generations of men fall like the shed leaves of the oak, and so with science: theories and systems may fail—though not till they have served their purpose but science as a method, as a principle, as a power survives, and from generation to generation admits us into ever more intimate recesses of Nature's temple. Theology, too, it is sometimes said, is progressive, and, in a certain sense, doubtless it is. But in what does its progress chiefly consist if not in giving up a fruitless contest with science, and recognizing the perfect independence of the latter as an interpreter both of Nature and of man? If theologians are wise they will not only renounce forever the ancient conflict, but they will endeavor to make an ally of science and to impress upon it, to the utmost of their power, a moral aim. The business of science is not to deprive the world of religion, but rather to make religion possible for all men by removing the intellectual difficulties that have in the past more or less hindered its acceptance by enlightened minds. When the voice of authority is no longer raised to stifle intellectual inquiry, science will cease altogether to wear a negative aspect, and will gain universal recognition as the great constructor of whatever is sound in knowledge or of practical value in life; while religion will embrace the emotions and convictions that come to man from the contemplation of the all-comprehending universe and its Transcendent Cause.



As a general thing, when the importance of individuality has been insisted on, the individuality in view is that of man. It is he who has been exhorted to assert himself, to be true to his opinions, to live his own life; the exhortation has not been to any great extent addressed to his wife or his sisters. Enough for them if they can be so fortunate as to minister not unworthily to some grand male individuality. "Women, however, though not particularly invited to the lecture, have been listening to it,—and what people do not always do with lectures or sermons—are applying it to themselves. The best of them are now aspiring also to be individuals. They want to think, to feel, to know, to do something as of themselves, and-, if possible, to think clearly, to feel truly, to know surely, and to do efficiently. St. Paul said that a woman should not be suffered to teach: what would he say if he could attend an annual meeting of our National Educational Association, and see to what an extent woman has become the teacher of the youth of the nation? He said that if a woman wanted any information on doctrinal or religious matters she should go home and ask her husband. The husband of to-day knows more about business than he does of theology; and few wives, indeed, would think of consulting their husbands on the latter subject. In any case the conditions have totally changed since these dicta were uttered. Woman has access now to something wider than domestic teaching. The world of science and literature is open to her, and the need of depending solely upon her male relatives in intellectual matters is not very often felt. Among all the changes that mark our modern time we consider this one of the most important. The elevation of woman means the elevation of man. Many persons have distressed themselves over the thought of men and women competing for work, and doubtless such competition has already given rise to some unpleasant results. But, strictly speaking, competition for work is a feature of an imperfect social system, and therefore, as we may trust, an evil that is destined to disappear; while competition in work will remain as a powerful spring of progress. On the other hand, man will be roused by the rise of woman to a competition not so much with her as with himself. If he wishes to win her respect, to say nothing of conquering her love, he will have to be something better on the average than he has been in the past. Heretofore man has, consciously or unconsciously, counted too much on the power of instinct for his influence over woman; while she in turn has regarded him as a creature to be captivated mainly by appeals to the senses and by an appearance of subservience to his wishes. In the future the primitive attraction between man and woman will remain, but it will be so modified by intellectual and moral influences that it will not exercise the same mastery that it has done in the past, nor be so determining an influence in conjugal unions. It is vain to represent to women that it is their duty to marry; their first duty is to themselves, and only when marriage can give fuller scope to their individuality will the best women fo the now rising generation care to commit themselves to it. In some ways this may seem to bode evil, seeing that the less advanced will be as ready as ever to marry on the old terms; but, on the whole, we can not doubt that the reflex action on men will carry with it a large surplus of advantage to the world. We want individual men—that has long been recognized; but we want also individual women that has only lately been recognized: when once woman becomes an individual in the truest and highest sense, civilization will have reached the threshold of its most glorious period.