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September 1912

In the Noon of Science
by John Burroughs

How surely the race is working away from the attitude of mind toward life and nature begotten by an age of faith, into an attitude of mind toward these things begotten by an age of science! However the loss and gain may finally foot up, the movement to which I refer seems as inevitable as fate; it is along the line of the mental evolution of the race, and it can be no more checked or thwarted than can the winds or the tides. The disturbance of our mental and spiritual equilibrium consequent upon the change is natural enough.

The culture of the race has so long been of a non-scientific character; we have so long looked upon nature in the twilight of our feelings, of our hopes and our fears, and our religious emotions, that the clear mid-day light of science shocks and repels us. Our mental eyesight has not yet got used to the noon-day glare. Our anthropomorphic views of creation die hard, and when they are dead we feel orphaned. The consolations which science offers do not move our hearts. At first the scientific explanation of the universe seems to shut us into a narrower and lower world. The heaven of the ideal seems suddenly clouded over, and we feel the oppression of the physical. The sacred mysteries vanish, and in their place we have difficult or unsolvable problems.

Physical science magnifies physical things. The universe of matter with its irrefragable laws looms upon our mental horizon larger than ever before, to some minds blotting out the very heavens. There are no more material things in the world than there always have been, and we are no more dependent upon them than has always been the case, but we are more intently and exclusively occupied with them, subduing them to our ever-growing physical and mental needs.

I am always inclined to defend physical science against the charge of materialism, and that it is the enemy of those who would live in the spirit; but when I do so I find I am unconsciously arguing with myself against the same half-defined imputation. I too at times feel the weary weight of the material universe as it presses upon us in a hundred ways in our mechanical and scientific age. I well understand what one of our women writers meant the other day when she spoke of the 'blank wall of material things' to which modern science leads us. The feminine temperament, and the literary and artistic temperament generally, is quite likely, I think, to feel something like a blank wall shutting it in, in the results of modern physical sciences. We feel it in Herbert Spencer and Ernest Haeckel, and now and then in such lambent spirits as Huxley and W. K. Clifford. Matter, and the laws of matter, and the irrefragable chain of cause and effect, press hard upon us.

We feel this oppression in the whole fabric of our civilization — a civilization which, with all its manifold privileges and advantages, is probably to a large class of people the most crushing and soul-killing the race has ever seen. It practically abolishes time and space, while it fills the land with noise and hurry. It arms us with the forces of earth, air, and water, while it weakens our hold upon the sources of personal power; it lengthens life while it curtails leisure; it multiplies our wants while it lessens our capacity for simple enjoyments; it opens up the heights and depths, while it makes the life of the masses shallow; it vastly increases the machinery of education, while it does so little for real culture. 'Knowledge comes but wisdom lingers,' because wisdom cannot or will not come by railroad, or automobile, or aeroplane, or be hurried up by telegraph or telephone. She is more likely to come on foot, or riding on an ass, or to be drawn in a one-horse shay, than in any of our chariots of fire and thunder.

With the rise of the scientific habit of mind has come the decline in great creative literature and art. With the spread of education based upon scientific principles, originality in mind and in character fades. Science tends to eliminate the local, the individual; it favors the general, the universal. It makes our minds and characters all alike; it unifies the nations, but it tames and, in a measure, denatures them. The more we live in the scientific spirit, the spirit of material knowledge, the further we are from the spirit of true literature. The more we live upon the breath of the newspaper, the more will the mental and spiritual condition out of which come real literature and art be barred to us. The more we live in the hard, calculating business spirit, the further are we from the spirit of the master productions; the more we surrender ourselves to the feverish haste and competition of the industrial spirit, the more the doors of the heaven of the great poems and works of art are closed to us.

Beyond a certain point in our culture, exact knowledge counts for so much less than sympathy, love, appreciation. Exact knowledge of the dog, for instance, as to his power to discriminate color, to unthread a labyrinth, and the like, counts for so much less in the real values of human life than love and companionship with the dog, and appreciation of his natural capacity to get on in life. We may know Shakespeare to an analysis of his last word or allusion, and yet miss Shakespeare entirely. We may know an animal in the light of all the many tests that laboratory experimentation throws upon it, and yet not really know it at all. We are not content to know what the animal knows naturally, we want to know what it knows unnaturally. We put it through a sort of inquisitorial torment in the laboratory, we starve it, we electrocute it, we freeze it, we burn it, we incarcerate it, we vivisect it, we press it on all sides and in all ways, to find out something about its habits or mental processes that is usually not worth knowing.

Well, we can gain a lot of facts, such as they are, but we may lose our own souls. This spirit has invaded school and college. Our young people go to the woods with pencil and notebook in hand; they drive sharp bargains with every flower and bird and tree they meet; they want tangible assets that can be put down in black and white. Nature as a living joy, something to love, to live with, to brood over, is now seldom thought of. It is only a mine to be worked and to be through with, a stream to be fished, a tree to be shaken, a field to be gleaned. With what desperate thoroughness the new men study the birds; and about all their studies yield is a mass of dry, unrelated facts.

In school and college our methods are more and more thorough and business-like, more and more searching and systematic: we would go to the roots of the tree of knowledge, even if we find a dead tree on our hands. We fairly vivisect Shakespeare and Milton and Virgil. We study a dead language as if it were a fossil to be classified, and forget that the language has a live literature, which is the main concern. We study botany so hard that we miss the charm of the flower entirely; we pursue the bird with such a spirit of gain and exactitude that a stuffed specimen in the museum would do as well. Biology in the college class means dissecting cats and rats and turtles and frogs; psychology means analogous experimental work in the laboratory. Well, we know a lot that our fathers did not know; our schools and colleges are turning out young men and women with more and more facts, but, so it often seems to me, with less and less manners, less and less reverence, less and less humility, less and less steadfastness of character.

In this age of science we have heaped up great intellectual riches of the pure scientific kind. Our mental coffers are fairly bursting with our stores of knowledge of material things. But what will it profit us if we gain the whole world and lose our own souls? Must our finer spiritual faculties, whence come our love, our reverence, our humility, and our appreciation of the beauty of the world, atrophy? 'Where there is no vision, the people perish.' Perish for want of a clear perception of the higher values of life. Where there is no vision, no intuitive perception of the great fundamental truths of the inner spiritual world, science will not save us. In such a case our civilization is like an engine running without a headlight. Spiritual truths are spiritually discerned, material and logical truths — all the truths of the objective world — are intellectually discerned. The latter give us the keys of power and the conquest of the earth, but the former alone can save us — save us from the materialism of a scientific age.

The scientific temperament, unrelieved by a touch of the creative imagination, is undoubtedly too prone to deny the existence of everything beyond its ken. But science has its limitations, which its greatest exponents like Tyndall and Huxley are frank to acknowledge. On such a question as the immortality of the soul, for instance, I believe the poet, the mystic, the seer, are likely to come nearer the truth than the man of science in all the pride of his exact demonstrations.

All questions that pertain to the world within us are beyond the reach of science. Science is the commerce of the intellect with the physical or objective world; the commerce of the soul with the subjective and invisible world is entirely beyond the sphere. Professor Tyndall confessed himself utterly unable to find any logical connection between the molecular activities of the brain-substance and the phenomenon of consciousness.

In trying to deal with such a question, he says, we are on the boundary line of the intellect where the canons of science fail us. Science denies all influence of subjective phenomena over physical processes. In the absence of the empirical fact, science would be bound to deny that a man could raise his arm by an act of volition; only 'the phenomena of matter and force come within our intellectual range.' Science is forced to deny the soul, because its dealing with physical facts and forces has furnished it with no criteria by which to validate such a conception. There are questions of mind and there are questions of matter; philosophy deals with the former, science with the latter. The world of the unverifiable is the world of the soul, the world of the verifiable is the world of the senses. We have our spiritual being in the one and our physical being in the other, and science is utterly unable to bridge the gulf that separates them.


The physico-chemical explanation of life and of consciousness to which modern science seems more and more inclined, falls upon some minds like a shadow. In trying to explain life itself in terms of physics and chemistry, science is at the end of its tether.

The inorganic world may grind away like the great mill that it is, run by heat, gravity, chemical affinity, and the like, and we are not disturbed; but in the world of organic matter we strike a new principle, and in any interpretation of it in terms of mechanics and chemistry alone, we feel matter pressing in upon us like the four walls coming together. Why does one dislike the suggestion of machinery in relation to either our minds or our bodies? Why does the chemico-mechanical explanation of any living thing give one a chill like the touch of cold iron? Is it because we feel that though life may be inseparably connected with chemical and mechanical principles, it is something more than chemistry and mechanics?

We are something more than machines, though every principle of mechanics be operative in our bodies. We are something more than bundles of instincts and reflexes and automatic adjustments, though all these things play a part in our lives. We are something more than mere animals, though we are assuredly of animal origin. The vital principle, even the psychic principle, may not be separable from matter, not even in thought, and yet it is not matter, because the matter with which it is identified behaves so differently from the matter with which it is not identified. Organic matter behaves so differently from inorganic, though subject to the same physical laws. A stone may rot or disintegrate, but it will never ferment, because fermentation is a process of life. There is no life without chemical reactions, and yet chemical reaction is not life; there is no life without what biologists call the colloid state, and yet the colloid state is not life. Life is confined to a certain scale of temperature — beyond a certain degree up and down the scale life disappears, and yet life is not heat or motion, or moisture or chemical affinity, though inseparable from these things.

The biological view of our animal origin is an uncongenial fact, and we may struggle against it, but we cannot escape it. Science has fixed this brand upon us. 'Brand,' I say, but have we not always recognized our animality and known that the wolf and the tiger slumbered in us? We knew it through a figure of speech, now we know it as a concrete fact.

Carlyle turned his back upon Huxley on the streets of London because Huxley had taught that mankind had an ape-like ancestor. Why is such a thought uncongenial and repelling? No doubt that it is so. There is no poetry or romance in it as there is in the Garden of Eden myth. If we could look up to our remote progenitors instead of down, if we could see them clothed in light and wisdom instead of clothed in hair and bestiality, how much more enticing and comforting the prospect would-be! But we simply cannot, we must see them down a long darkening and forbidding prospect, clothed in low animal forms and leading low animal lives — a prospect that grows more and more dim till it is lost in the abyss of geologic time.

Carlyle would have none of it! The Garden of Eden story had more beauty and dignity. That this 'backward glance o'er traveled roads' repels us, is no concern of science. It repels us because we regard it from a higher and fairer estate. Go back there and look up: let the monkey see himself as man (if he were capable of it), and what would his emotions be? The prehistoric man, living in caves and clothed in skins, if we go no further back, is not a cheering person to contemplate. And his hairy, lowbrowed forbears in Tertiary times can we see ourselves in them? It makes a vast difference whether we see the past as poetry, or see it as science. In the Bible, and in Whitman, we see it as poetry, in Darwin we see it as science.

'Rise after rise bow the phantoms behind me.'— Here Whitman, through his own creative imagination, anticipates Darwin. Carlyle probably would have been moved by such a picture of his origin as Whitman gives. It would have touched his fervid ego. When Haeckel or Darwin gives us an account of man's origin, it is not of my origin, or your origin; the personal element is left out, the past is not linked with the present by a flash: in other words, we see it in the light of science, and not in the light of the poetic imagination. And the light of science in such matters is the light of the broad, all-revealing noon-day. It is therefore in the nature of things that the scientific view of life in some of its aspects should repel us, when it comes too near us, when it touches us personally, especially when it comes between us and our religious beliefs and aspirations.

Vol. 110, No. 3, pp. 322-331