In the Noon of Science

"In this age of science we have heaped up great intellectual riches of the pure scientific kind... But what will it profit us if we gain the whole world and lose our own souls?"

We are not to forget that physical science is of necessity occupied with the physical side of things. And what is there in nature or in life that has not its physical side? Exclusive occupation with this side does not make the poet or the prophet or the artist or the philosopher; it makes the man of science. Such occupation, no doubt, tends to deaden our interest in the finer and higher spiritual and intellectual values. The physical side of things is not often the joyous and inspiring side. The physical side of life, the physical side of birth, of death, of sex-love, the physical side of consciousness and of our mental processes, the physical or biological side of our animal origin, and so on, are not matters upon which we fondly or inspiringly dwell. The heart, which symbolizes so much to us, is only a muscle — a motor-muscle, as we may say — that acts under the influence of some physical stimulus like any other motor; the brain, which is the seat of thought and consciousness, is a mass of gray and white matter incased in the skull. Every emotion or aspiration, the highest as well as the lowest, has its physical or physiological equivalent in our own bodies.

In the light of physical science our bodies are mere machines, and every emotion of our souls is accounted for by molecular changes in the brain-substance. Life itself is explained in terms of chemico-mechanical principles. Physical science spoke in Huxley, and doubtless spoke accurately when he said, 'The soul stands related to the body as the bell of a clock to its works, and consciousness answers to the sound the bell gives out when struck.' It is not a very comforting or inspiring comparison, but it is what physical science sees in the fact. And it is this side of life alone that science can deal with. Of the major part of our lives,— of all our subjective experiences, our religious and esthetic emotions, in fact, the whole world of the ideal and the supersensuous,— nothing can be known or explained in terms of exact science or mathematics.

If we want to know things as they stand related to our culture, our personality, our aesthetic emotions, we must go to literature and art; if we want to know them as they stand related to our religious sentiments and aspirations, we must look to the religious writers and the poets; but if we want to know their laws and properties and our actual physical relations to them, and make good our hold upon the sources of the permanent well-being of the race, where can we turn but to physical science?

Let us give physical science its due. We owe to it all the exact knowledge we have of the physical universe in which we are placed and our physical relations to it. All we know of the heavens above us, with their orbs and the cosmic processes going on there; all we know of the earth beneath our feet, its structure, its composition, its physical history, science has told us. All we know of the mechanism of our own bodies, its laws and functions, the physical relation of our minds to it, science has told us. All we know of our own origin, our animal descent, science has revealed. The whole material fabric of our civilization we owe to science. Our relation to the physical side of things concerns us intimately; it is for our behoof to understand it. Practical or daily experience settles much of it for us, or up to a certain remove; beyond this, physical science settles it for us — the sources and nature of disease, the remedial forces of nature, the chemical compounds, the laws of hygiene and sanitation, the value of foods, and a thousand other things beyond the reach of our unaided experience, are in the keeping of science. We have the gift of life, and life demands that we understand things in their relation to our physical well-being.

Science has made or is making the world over for us. It has builded us a new house,— builded it over our heads while we were yet living in the old, and the confusion and disruption and the wiping-out of the old features and the old associations, have been, and still are, a sore trial — a much finer, more spacious and commodious house, with endless improvements and convenience, but new, new, all bright and hard and unfamiliar, with the spirit of newness; not yet home, not yet a part of our lives, not yet sacred to memory and affection.

The question now is: Can we live as worthy and contented lives there as our fathers and grandfathers did in their ruder, humbler dwelling-place? What we owe to science on our moral and aesthetic side it would not be so easy to say, but we owe it much. It is only when we arm our faculties with the ideas and with the weapons of science that we appreciate the grandeur of the voyage we are making on this planet. It is only through science that we know we are on a planet, and are heavenly voyagers at all. When we get beyond the sphere of our unaided perceptions and experience, as we so quickly do in dealing with the earth and the heavenly bodies, science alone can guide us. Our minds are lost in the vast profound till science has blazed a way for us. The feeling of being lost or baffled may give rise to other feelings of a more reverent and pious character, as was the case with the early star-gazers, but we can no longer see the heavens with the old eyes, if we would. Science enables us to understand our own ignorance and limitations, and so puts us at our ease amid the splendors and mysteries of creation. We fear and tremble less, but we marvel and enjoy more. God, as our fathers conceived him, recedes, but law and order come to the front. The personal emotion fades, but the cosmic emotion brightens. We escape from the bondage of our old anthropomorphic views of creation, into the larger freedom of scientific faith.


Our civilization is so largely the result of physical science that we almost unconsciously impute all its ugly features to science.

But its ugly features can only indirectly be charged to science. They are primarily chargeable to the greed, the selfishness, the cupidity, the worldly-mindedness which has found in science the tools to further its ends. We can use our scientific knowledge to improve and beautify the earth, or we can use it to deface and exhaust it. We can use it to poison the air, corrupt the waters, blacken the face of the country, and harass our souls with loud and discordant noises, and we can use it to mitigate or abolish all these things. Mechanical science could draw the fangs of most of the engineering monsters that are devouring our souls. The howling locomotives that traverse the land, pouring out their huge black volumes of fetid carbon, and splitting our ears with their discordant noises, only need a little more science to purify their foul breaths and soften their agonizing voices. A great manufacturing town is hideous, and life in it is usually hideous, but more science, more mechanical skill, more soul in capital, and less brutality in labor would change all these things.

Science puts great weapons in men's hands for good or for evil, for war or for peace, for beauty or for ugliness, for life or for death, and how these weapons are used depends upon the motives that actuate us. Science now promises to make war so deadly that it will practically abolish it. While we preach the gospel of peace our preparations for war are so exhaustive and scientific that the military spirit will die of an over-dose of its own medicine, and peace will fall of itself like a ripe fruit into our hands. A riotous, wasteful, and destructive spirit has been turned loose upon this continent, and it has used the weapons which physical science has placed in its hands in a brutal, devil-may-care sort of way, with the result that a nature fertile and bountiful, but never kind and sympathetic, has been outraged and disfigured and impoverished, rather than mellowed and subdued and humanized.

The beauty and joy of life in the old world is a reflection from the past or pre-scientific age, to a degree of which we have little conception. In spite of our wealth of practical knowledge, and our unparalled advantages (perhaps by very reason thereof, since humility of spirit is a flower that does not flourish amid such rank growths), life in this country is undoubtedly the ugliest and most materialistic that any country or age ever saw. Our civilization is the noisiest and most disquieting, and the pressure of the business and industrial spirit the most maddening and killing, that the race has yet experienced.

Yet for all these things science is only indirectly responsible. In the same sense is the sun responsible for the rains and storms that at times destroy us. The spirit of greed and violence, robust because it has been well-housed and fed, and triply dangerous because it is well-armed and drilled, is abroad in the land. Science gave us dynamite, but whence the spirit that uses it to wreak private revenge, or to blow up railroad bridges and newspaper and manufacturing plants? Let us be just to science. Had it never been, the complexion of our lives and the face of the earth itself would have been vastly different. Had man never attained to the power of reason, he would still have been a brute with the other beasts. It takes power to use power. Knowledge without wisdom is a dangerous thing. Science without sense may bring us to grief. We cannot vault into the saddle of the elemental forces and ride them and escape the danger of being ridden by them. We cannot have a civilization propelled by machinery without the iron of it in some form entering our souls.

With our vast stores of scientific knowledge come the same problems that come with the accumulation of worldly wealth — how to acquire the one and not lose sight of the higher spiritual values, or become intellectually hard and proud, and how to obtain the other and not mortgage our souls to the devil; in short, in both cases, how to gain the whole world and not lose our own souls. It has been done, and can be done. Darwin confessed toward the end of his life that he had lost his interest in art, in literature, and in music, of which he was once so fond, but Darwin never lost his intellectual humility or gentleness and sweetness of soul, or grew weary in the pursuit of truth for its own sake. He had sought to trace the footsteps of the creative energy in animal life with such singleness of purpose and such devotion to the ideal that the lesson of his life tells for the attitude of mind called religious as well as for the attitude called scientific. His yearning patient eyes came as near seeing the veil withdrawn from the mystery of the world of animal life as has ever been given to any man to see.

Huxley, the valiant knight in the evolutionary warfare, was not a whit behind him in the disinterested pursuit of scientific truth, while he led him in his interest in truths of a more purely subjective and intellectual character. Huxley was often accused of materialism, but he indignantly resented the charge. He was a scientific idealist, and he shone like a holy crusader in following the Darwinian banner into the territory of the unbelievers.


One may question, after all, whether this oppression which our sensitive souls feel in the presence of the results of modern science be the fault of science or of our own lack of a certain mental robustness, or spiritual joy and vigor, that enables one to transmute and spiritualize science. Let us take courage from the examples of some of the great modern poets. Tennyson drew material, if not inspiration, from the two great physical sciences, geology and astronomy, especially in his noblest long poem, 'In Memoriam.' Clearly they did not suggest to him a blank wall of material things. Later in his life he seems to have feared them as rivals: 'Terrible Muses' he calls them, who might eclipse the crowned ones themselves, the great poets.

Our own Emerson was evidently stimulated by the result of physical science, and often availed himself, in his later poems and essays, of its material by way of confirming or illustrating the moral law upon which he was wont to string everything in reach. Emerson, in his eagerness for illustrative material in writing his essays, reminds one of the pressure certain birds are under when building their nests, birds like the oriole, for instance. Hang pieces of colored yarn near the place where the oriole is building its nest, and the bird seizes upon them eagerly and weaves them into the structure, not mindful at all of the obvious incongruity. Emerson in the fever of composition often snatched at facts of science that he had read in books or heard in lectures, and worked them into his text in the same way, always reinforcing his sentence with them. The solvent power of his thought seemed equal to any fact of physical science.

Whitman was, if anything, still more complacent and receptive in the presence of science. He makes less direct use of its results than either of the other poets mentioned, but one feels that he has put it more completely under his feet than they, and used it as a vantage-ground from which to launch his tremendous 'I say.'

I lie abstracted and hear the tale of things, and the reason of things,
They are so beautiful I nudge myself to listen.

Addressing men of science he says, —

Gentlemen, to you the first honors always;
Your facts are useful and yet they are not my dwelling;
I but enter by them to an area of my dwelling, —

as all of us do who would live in a measure the life of the spirit. To Whitman the blank wall, if there was any wall, was in his area and not in his dwelling itself.

The same may be said of Henri Bergson whose recent volume, Creative Evolution, is destined, I believe, to mark an epoch in the history of modern thought. The work has its root in modern physical science, but it blooms and bears fruit in the spirit to a degree quite unprecedented.

When we can descend upon the materialism of the physical sciences with the spiritual fervor and imaginative power of the men I have named, the blank wall of material things will become as transparent as glass itself, and the chill will give place to intellectual warmth.

Bergson, to whom I have referred, is a new star in the intellectual firmament of our day. He is a philosopher upon whom the spirits of both literature and science have descended. In his great work he touches the materialism of science to finer issues. Probably no other writer of our time has possessed in the same measure the three gifts, the literary, the scientific, and the philosophical. Bergson is a kind of chastened and spiritualized Herbert Spencer.

Spencer was a philosopher upon whom the spirit of science alone had descended, and we miss in his work the quickening creative atmosphere, and that light that never was on sea or land, that pervades Bergson's. One thinks of Spencer as an enormous intellectual plant, turning out philosophical products that doubtless have their uses, but are a weary weight to the spirit. His work tends to a mechanical explanation of the universe and of the evolutionary impulse which Bergson, with his finer and more imaginative endowment, helps us to escape. Bergson's work has its root in physical science also, but you run against no blank wall of material things in it. On the contrary, it has the charm of the ideal, and is luminous with insight into the more subtle and spiritual processes of the universe. Creative Evolution would have appealed to Goethe, and to our own Emerson and Whitman, and to all true idealists curious about the ways of creative power. It puts wings to the results of physical science as no other work with which I am acquainted has done in my time.


We must face and accept the new conditions. They will seem less hard to our children's children than to us. If the old awe and reverence must go, the old fear and superstition must go with them. The religious ages begat a whole brood of imps and furies, — superstition, persecution, witch-craft, war,— and they must go, have gone, or are going. The new wonder, the new admiration, the new humanism, with the new scientific view of the universe, chilling though it be, must come in. We shall write less poetry, but we ought to live saner lives; we shall tremble and worship less, but we shall be more at home in the universe. War must go, the zymotic diseases must go, hide-bound creeds must go, and a wider charity and sympathy come in.

There is nothing that fuses and unifies the nations like scientific knowledge, and the rational views that it inculcates — knowledge founded upon the universal nature which is in all countries the same. Science puts the same tools in all hands, the same views in all minds; we are no longer divided by false aims, or by religions founded upon half-views or false views. The local gives place to the universal. We come to see that all people are one, and that the well-being of each is the well-being of all, and vice versa. Distrust gives place to confidence, jealousy gives place to fellowship. Like knowledge begets like aims, the truths of nature make the whole world kin. The individual and the picturesque will suffer, local color will fade, but the human, the democratic, the average weal, will gain.

It must be said that literature has gained in many respects in this hurrying, economic age; it has gained in point and precision what it has lost in power. We are more impatient of the sham, the make-believe, the dilatory, the merely rhetorical and oratorical. We are more impatient of the obscure, the tedious, the impotent, the superfluous, the far-fetched. We have a new and a sharpened sense for the real, the vital, the logical. The dilatory and meandering methods of even such a writer as Hawthorne tire us a little now, and the make-believe of a Dickens is well-nigh intolerable. We want a story to move rapidly, we want the essay full of point and suggestion; we find it more and more difficult to read books about books, and all writing 'about-and-about' we are impatient of. We want the thing itself; we want currents and counter-currents — movement and rapidity at all hazards.

We are used to seeing the wheels go round, we feel the tremendous push of our civilization all about us; we see the straight paths, despite obstacles, that the controlled physical forces make over the earth's surface; we are masters of the science of short-cuts in all departments of life; and both literature and philosophy respond to these conditions. Pragmatism has come in, dogmatism has gone out; the formal, the perfunctory, the rhetorical, count for less and less; the direct, the manly, the essential, count for more and more. Science has cured us of many delusions, and it has made us the poorer by dispelling certain illusions, but it has surely made the earth a much more habitable place than it was in the pre-scientific ages.

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