By Rev. Baden Powell
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HISTORICAL SKETCH OF THE PROGRESS OF PHYSICAL SCIENCE AS BEARING ON RELIGIOUS BELIEF.
I. THE PHYSICAL PHILOSOPHY OF THE ANCIENTS AND OF THE MIDDLE AGES.
Early progress of scientific ideas.
THE first origin and early progress of all science is involved in obscurity; yet, on general grounds, it may be considered evident that the necessary arts of life must, from the nature of the case, precede all scientific speculation or inquiry; and, again, when such speculation does begin, it seems an equally natural result that, in the infancy of intellectual progress, imagination should largely predominate, and that science should not at first take the strictest or simplest form of inquiry into facts, but rather begin with widely extended yet visionary contemplation, out of which more sober and exact conclusions are only by degrees evolved. Men must live and act before they speculate; and when they speculate they feel and fancy before they investigate and measure--they wonder and imagine before they reason and analyze.
Mystical origin of Science.
If we look at the case historically, in its first stage, as far back as we can trace it, early science is always found involved in a large admixture of mysticism, closely combined with religious or superstitious impressions on the one band, and with not less visionary philosophic theories on the other.
The rudest observations of great natural phenomena were associated with those feelings of awe and wonder, which easily accorded with a belief in supernatural influences; and some of the earliest indications of this spirit were seen in the ideas of astrology, and of omens and portents supposed to be connected with human affairs; while the phenomena themselves, not reduced to laws, were ascribed to arbitrary and often conflicting supernatural agencies.
But the feelings of awe and wonder first inspired by the contemplation of nature, especially in its grander aspects and phenomena, gave way by degrees to more familiar inquiry; and thus out of mysticism we trace the first rise of philosophy, as described by Aristotle [Aristot. "Metaph." i. 12.]: X X X X X X
With the varied phenomena of nature constantly before their eyes, it was impossible that men should not gradually, and by the continued use of their senses, exercised on objects around them, arrive at some conceptions of physical truth, however imperfect. Such knowledge, slowly accumulated, by degrees assumed some definite shape, and ideas properly belonging to science were, in some measure, extricated from the mass of extraneous, if not prejudicial, adjuncts in which they were involved; and thus, in some isolated departments, in early times, a few physical facts, and even simple laws and general truths, were recognized amid the multitude of speculations and imaginary theories in which man's untaught fancy luxuriated.
No distinction between fact and theory.
But such ideas, at the best, were unconnected among themselves, and were mixed up with an incongruous mass of mystical conceits, and hardly intelligible abstractions. There was scarcely any definite line of demarcation drawn between fanciful hypothesis and Physical reality, between fiction and fact. Now and then a high physical principle or a just and sound analogy was thrown out, as it were by accident, or at least without any apparent sequence or connection with other truths, and amidst a mass of absurdity and error.
Thus, for example, Pythagoras had asserted not only the heliocentric planetary system, but even that comets resemble planets of longer period. But, instead of advancing in later ages, these sound and just analogies were overpowered by the increasing subtleties of the mere technical schools, --when Aristotle taught that comets were mere terrestrial meteors, and refused them a place among the objects of astronomy; when others held that the earth was a flat cylinder, and the sun the size of the Peloponnesus, and when the solar system gave way before the complex geocentric scheme of the Peripatetics, and a multitude of antagonistic powers, sympathies, and antipathies, were assigned as the causes of physical phenomena.
Anaxagoras taught just notions of the celestial dynamics when he affirmed that the heavenly bodies would fall if not prevented by their rapid motion, "like a stone whirled round with a string ;" - Democritus argued the infinity of the sidereal universe, or it would collapse into a point;--Aristarchus of Samos described the sun, with his attendant planets, as a star among innumerable stars; yet these sublime and just views were soon lost sight of in the crystalline spheres and firmaments of the Ptolemaists, and the distinctions between terrestrial and celestial motions of the Peripatetics.
Such was the absence of sequence and connection which characterizes the history of the ancient speculations, and which, in truth, results almost inevitably from the nature of the principles on which they were conducted.
The physical science of the ancients was chiefly a multitude of discordant gratuitous theories, amid which we discern, here and there, some disconnected individual investigations of immense power and beauty; such as their geometry, their geometrical optics, their principles of the mechanical powers, and a few elementary applications of them.
No real advance with time.
But when we look beyond these, we perceive that in such a philosophy there was no continuous progress, no settled order according to which one truth was elicited out of another, no advance from the mere particular to the more general. The earlier views were often better, more sound and comprehensive, than the later. They were, in fact, all more or less conjectural, and, as such, were not dependent upon any steady advance in discovery, or the cooperation of many minds and many hands, but arose entirely out of the spontaneous conceptions of individual, intellects, and were thus good or faulty, not with reference to any advance in the age, but only in proportion to the intrinsic ability and power of those individual minds.
Preference of moral to physical speculation.
The Greek philosophers, in an early age, had asserted the dignity of physical inquiry; an ancient astronomer had declared that man was born to study the heavens. But later philosophers were bewildered amid the multiplicity of systems, and thence regarded all inquiry into the world of matter as vain and unworthy, and turned to speculations in the world of mind or spirit as a more congenial and satisfactory field.
And the same idea has been re-echoed in modern times; men have turned from the path of physical and demonstrative certainty to the dubious regions of moral disputation, and have even denounced the inquiry into nature as presumptuous and irreligious; while they have confidently rushed into metaphysical speculation on topics beyond all human comprehension. Pliny [Nat. Hist. ii 26.] thought Hipparchus impious in making a catalogue of the stars; and an equally preposterous prejudice actuates vulgar minds even in our own days. At a much earlier period, the same spirit of jealousy and hostility against physical investigation was displayed when Anaxagoras was persecuted for showing that an eclipse was nothing but the stoppage of light by the opaque body of the moon or earth, instead of a supernatural miracle, as was then the orthodox creed.
In the earliest stage to which we can trace the ideas of ancient nations, we always find conspicuous a mythological cosmogony. That of the Hindoos is of a most elaborate and abstruse kind, involving the notion of many successive creations and destructions of the world, and in its details offering many striking analogies to systems which have been upheld even in later ages. The Egyptians held a like series of cataclysms and renovations. Among the Chinese and Peruvians, the equally marvelous fables of deluges and universal catastrophes seem to refer to later periods, and do not assume so transcendent and sublime a character as those of the Indian cosmogonies.
Plastic powers of nature.
Apart, however, from these visionary fancies and fabulous conceptions of creation, there are on record, even in early times, discoveries of fossil bones, shells, and other remains, which were either ascribed to fancied monsters, or else to the plastic powers of nature indulging in wanton frolics, and mocking human research by forged imitations of real objects.
Among the Greeks, though some mythological ideas of a similar kind were prevalent, yet instances are not wanting of more philosophical views, suggested by actual observation of phenomena--as far as they went--conformable to what modern research has confirmed. Such are some of the speculations upheld by Strabo and others as to the effects of earthquakes, volcanic action, and the like, in the upheaval of strata and other terrestrial changes.
Value of generalization.
It is only in an advanced state of cultivation that men have been led to acknowledge the preeminent value and higher character of all science to be in proportion to the degree of generalization to which it has attained; in accordance with the extent of that generalization do we perceive the vast combination of natural laws, all mutually dependent on each other, conspiring towards greater and higher principles; and begin to obtain glimpses of that unity pervading nature which is the true basis of the grand idea of "Cosmos" the principle of universal and perpetual law, order, harmony, and reason throughout the material universe. Ideas of this tendency were occasionally broached by the ancients amid their manifold speculations--philosophical dreams, which yet, like other dreams, sometimes chanced to prove true.
Some ideas of inductive generalization.
Among the ancients, as the physical sciences had hardly advanced, at least to any higher generalizations, as there were even counteracting causes impeding any possibility of its attaining them, so we could not legitimately expect any indications of those higher conclusions just alluded to. Yet, though such conclusions could not strictly follow from existing physical data, we find a similar kind of instinctive anticipation to that noticed in some other instances; larger ideas occasionally thrown out, and reflections on them sometimes followed up by the ancient philosophers, though altogether hypothetical--happy theoretical conjectures suggested by the spirit of speculation in which they were so fond of indulging. We may perhaps exemplify this in the remarkable declaration of Cicero, so accordant with the real progress of inductive discovery, advancing from artificial systems towards natural principles: "0pinionum commenta delet dies, naturae judicia confirmat;" as well as the very just distinction drawn by Seneca as to the real object of physical inquiry, the search after natural causes as real and permanent, not arbitrary or fortuitous: "Naturalem causam quaerimus et assiduam, non raram et fortuitam."
It may, perhaps, be taken as something like a recognition of an unity in natural causes that several of the ancient schools in their speculative theories resolved all things into one primary element --the Ionic school into water, Anaximenes into air, Heraclitus into fire. But with these speculations there seems to have been usually mixed up some vague notion that these elements were pervaded by a kind of vital or creative energy; Thales is said to have held that out of water a supreme mind evolved all things. But in general there appears no disposition on the part of the ancient writers to ascribe creation to their gods.
Hesiod [Op. et Dies, i. 108] supposes gods as well as men, to have sprung from unknown powers of nature, and Diodorus Siculus [lib. i.] enumerates the various opinions held as to the origin of the world, in which there is little or no reference to the idea of a creative Deity; but he owns the subject to be one beyond human intelligence.
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Last modified: October 15, 2016.