§21. The Paucity of Scientific Knowledge


116. Persons who know science chiefly by its results — that is to say, have no acquaintance with it at all as a living inquiry — are apt to acquire the notion that the universe is now entirely explained in all its leading features; and that it is only here and there that the fabric of scientific knowledge betrays any rents.

117. But in point of fact, notwithstanding all that has been discovered since Newton's time, his saying that we are little children picking up pretty pebbles on the beach while the whole ocean lies before us unexplored remains substantially as true as ever, and will do so though we shovel up the pebbles by steam shovels and carry them off in carloads. An infinitesimal ratio may be multiplied indefinitely and remain infinitesimal still.

118. In the first place all that science has done is to study those relations between objects which were brought into prominence and conceiving which we had been endowed with some original knowledge in two instincts — the instinct of feeding, which brought with it elementary knowledge of mechanical forces, space, etc., and the instinct of breeding, which brought with it elementary knowledge of psychical motives, of time, etc. All the other relations of things concerning which we must suppose there is vast store of truth are for us merely the object of such false sciences as judicial astrology, palmistry, the doctrine of signatures, the doctrine of correspondences, magic, and the like.

119. In the next place, even within the very bounds to which our science is confined, it is altogether superficial and fragmentary. Want of knowledge of the constitution of matter and of electricity. The conservation of forces, as Helmholtz first enunciated it, untenable; whether it can be universally true in any sense is a difficult problem. To strengthen it Helmholtz greatly insisted on discontinuities — a most objectionable theory from every point of view. Mind quite as little understood as matter, and the relations between the two an enigma. The forces we know can be but a small part of all those that are operative. Our ignorance of small things and great, of distant times and of very slow operations. We are equally ignorant of very rapid performances which nevertheless we know to take place. Our science is altogether middle-sized and mediocre. Its insignificance compared with the universe cannot be exaggerated.


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