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Part III: Medieval Synthesis: Modern Fragmentation Chapter 2
The Modern Synthesis
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- HISTORY HAS been defined as the "drift of culture," (28) and for the most part the word drift is appropriate since it implies a gradual change. It is convenient to divide history into epochs, but such divisions are not always meaningful. The flow of events goes on largely unbroken. Occasionally revolutions or wars mark the end of an age and serve as reference points, but more frequently the change occurs without too many people being aware of it at the time and only observing it concretely in retrospect. The passing of the old World View may not have been as sudden and as revolutionary to those who experienced the events which marked it as it seems to us now, and my description at the close of the last chapter is to this extent artificial. Yet it did come to an end: and the events which marked its breakdown can be examined with profit, because a new Synthesis is now being offered which parallels the Medieval one in many remarkable ways ‹ and has, to my mind, reached a stage which is very close to that assumed by the Medieval Synthesis just before it began to break up. The causes of the collapse of the old World View were many and complex, some being internal and some external to it, but all had the same basic effect, undermining certain concepts fundamental to the integrity of the whole.
As an example of what I mean by internal causes, it may be recalled that man had been held to be central in God's creation. Since he lived on this earth, the earth itself was distinguished in a similar way. It was assumed on theological grounds to be at the centre of the Universe, and common sense experience strongly supported this view, for it was "obvious" that the stars and the sun and moon circled the earth.
- 28. Drift of culture: a phrase coined, I think, by Edward Sapir.
Aristotelian philosophy was seen to lend its support to this geocentric picture, and it was accordingly favourably received as being confirming of "the truth" and therefore inherently sound in itself. The test of truth, as always, was not experimental verification, but harmony.
We have already noted that in the eleventh century St. Anselm had believed that he might understand. But following him came Abelard seeking to understand that he might believe. This circumstance reflects a subtle change in the structure of thought which re-positioned some of the older beliefs on a new base. This shift in emphasis from faith to reason had the effect of inverting the argument until it was held with equal assurance that since both reason (philosophy) and sense-experience supported the concept of an earth-centred Universe and since man was on the earth, he must be central to all else and this fact proved his paramount importance. The conclusion was as before, but the premise had been changed.
Having once accepted this idea, it was inevitable that the theological view of man should be endangered the moment the earth's centrality was challenged, though the danger was not immediately apparent. (29)
As an example of what I mean by external causes, one may cite the following. Between A.D. 1200 and 1400, there occurred five events, each of which contributed in a specific way toward the weakening of the old World View and together destroyed it completely. These were the fall of Constantinople, the development of printing, the perfection of gunpowder, the discovery of the Americas, and the plague called the Black Death. (30)
The fall of Constantinople led to the migration back into Europe of educated Greeks who had preserved in
29. This is clear from the fact that when Copernicus finally published his Book of Revolutions in 1543, it contained an introduction by Pope Clement VII, commending the work. This fact, underscored by Arthur Koestler in an article entitled, "The Greatest Scandal in Christendom," (Observer Weekend Review, London, 2 February, 1964, p.21), shows how unfounded is the common assumption that Galileo dared not at first publish his views openly for fear of ecclesiastical censure. Koestler shows that Galileo's great fear was ridicule by his colleagues, the professors of Bologna, Pisa, Padua, and elsewhere. Galileo admitted this in a letter to Kepler, from which Koestler quotes. The church did not see it initially as a challenge to its own beliefs. pg.2 of 34
30. Printing: a Chinese invention. See Joseph Needham, Science and Civilization in China, Cambridge University Press, 1959, vol.IV, sect.32.
Gunpowder: see also Needham, vol. I, p. 131 and elsewhere. Black Death: 1348-50, causing the death of a third of the total population of Europe, according to Wallace K. Ferguson, A Survey of European Civilization, Houghton Mifflin, New York, 1943, p. 406.
Asia Minor the Western culture which had been eclipsed in Europe after the sack of Rome by Alaric in 410. It was virtually an intellectual blood transfusion. pg.3 of 34
The development of printing, using movable type, long known in the Far East, had the tremendous effect of making written texts available to the ordinary reader on a scale never before thought possible. The new learning and new ideas introduced by the Greek immigrants spread far more rapidly than would otherwise have been the case.
The perfection of gunpowder, also well-known but in a less effective form in China, had the result of bringing to an end the feudal system, since castles no longer formed the "safe retreats" they had for centuries. Lords and nobles began to find themselves dependent on armies, and this meant raising, hiring, and keeping soldiers; the fact of reciprocal dependency between nobles and common men meant the beginning of the end of serfdom and ultimately led to the rise of a middle class of free wage-earners.
To this stimulus was added the discovery of the New World, which not only enlarged man's domain and broke down some of ethnocentrism, but also led to such an increase in trade and in the accumulation of wealth that the benefits of heaven began to pale in contrast with the more assured benefits to be gained on earth.
Finally, the Black Death came as such a tragedy, so appalling in its effects upon the lives of so many millions of people -- rich and poor, sinner and saint -- that faith in the benevolent order of things and God's sovereignty was severely shaken.
All these challenged a system that was too tidy to brook any demand for adjustment or revision, too neat a bundle of questions and answers to perceive that they were no longer completely relevant, too cloistered to meet in open conflict with secular philosophies, too closely linked to the privileged classes to suit a bourgeois community, and too unwilling to submit to test by experiment to appeal any longer to the scientific minds which were forming the new intelligentsia. The collapse seems to have been sudden, almost like the instant disappearance of peace when total war is declared.
Theology as a Queen was deposed and her right to arbitrate denied in one area after another. The autonomy which each discipline began to claim for itself was not merely the rejection of the guidance of theology but even of any need to recognize interrelationships with other disciplines developing equally rapidly. The unity of knowledge was lost, and the loss was scarcely even noted. This autonomy expressed itself in the
development within each discipline of a language and terminology appropriate to itself alone. While this had the effect of removing correctives which each science had once exercised upon all the others, it did have, however, the effect of greatly accelerating the extension of knowledge and of understanding within each branch of learning. And with greater understanding came greater control.
Thus came about a situation in which, as the Church with a sense of futility became less and less effective and steadily lost ground as a spiritual force, science continually gained ground and authority as a secular one. The theologians naturally set about the building of fences by seeking ways and means of limiting the freedom of the scientists. But the latter continued to perform more and more miracles for the common good as the Church performed fewer and fewer, and its defenses were futile.
So successful was the Scientific Method in increasing man's dominion over nature that the use of reason alone and the replacement of faith by a growing skepticism became the order of the day. Not unnaturally the Church saw this -- or thought it saw this -- as the greatest danger to man's spiritual well-being, a well-being which had hitherto depended upon an unquestioning faith. Although the new knowledge led to a great increase in human productivity and the rise of a middle class which in turn favoured the spread of Protestantism, even Protestants looked upon the new rationalistic attitude as being very dangerous to faith. Not only the Council of Trent, which was a Roman Catholic conclave, but even Luther himself speaking for Protestants felt it necessary to protest against the use of reason.
The catechism of the Council of Trent (1545-63) has this statement:
He who is gifted with the heavenly knowledge of faith is free from an inquisitive curiosity; for when God commands us to believe He does not propose to have us search into His divine judgments, nor to inquire into their reasons and causes, but demands an immutable faith. . . . Faith, therefore, excludes not only all doubt, but even the desire of subjecting its truth to demonstration.
While Luther defined reason as "that silly little fool, that Devil's bride, Dame Reason, God's worst enemy," he added: (31)
We know that reason is the Devil's harlot, and can do nothing but slander and harm all that God says and does. If, outside of Christ, you wish by your own thoughts to know your relation to God, you will break your neck.
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- 31. Luther: as quoted by John H. Randall, ref.10, p.166.
Thunder strikes him who examines. It is Satan's wisdom to tell what God is, and by doing so he will draw you into the abyss. Therefore, keep to revelation and do not try to understand.
Calvin, too, viewed the free inquiry of the Humanists as the supreme heresy of thought, so that -- as Randall points out -- because the Reformers scorned all science, the way was left open for science to assert its claim to complete autonomy. (32) The rift between faith and science widened rapidly, and the emergence of the New Humanism seemed about to provide the common man with an alternative religion much more amenable to the spirit of the times.
It thus came about that from the religious ordering of secular life which had once been the rule, there came to be a secular ordering of life -- even of religious life. The purpose of education increasingly became the emancipation of man rather than the worship of God, and the goal of life was the creation of a heaven here on earth much better suited to man's enjoyment because it was entirely of his own design. Kenneth Walker commented: (33)
When we trace the history of theology and science . . . we find that they slowly diverged from each other and in the course of time became isolated departments of knowledge expressing contradictory views of the universe. As Hardwick has pointed out, the human mind has a faculty of creating prisons for itself, and eventually the scientific spirit incarcerated itself in a materialistic scheme of the universe which completely cut it off not only from religion but from all fruitful speculation concerning man's nature. In like manner the self-sufficient pedantry of the church scholars had the effect of enclosing religion in a rigid casing of thought, which completely isolated it from all the new discoveries being made by the scientists. Insulated from each other's ideas and pitifully satisfied with the sufficiency of their respective beliefs, it was inevitable that in the end scientists and teachers of religion should come into conflict.
Although it is true that, officially, Institutes of Higher Education adopted this apartheid policy, in the sphere of private life there are notable examples of scientists who maintained a more balanced view and did not hesitate to declare their faith while at the same time propounding their scientific views. The Royal Society in its founding membership contained not a few such men. As Coulson pointed out, a certain wholeness of outlook in the matter of science and religion lasted well into the beginnings of modern science. He wrote: (34)
Our Royal Society was founded in 1645, and to its growth and importance much of the dissemination of knowledge, without which science cannot live, is due. Among its members were John Wilkins and
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- 32. Calvin: as quoted by John H. Randall, ref.10, p.166.
- 33. Walker, Kenneth, "Meaning and Purpose," Pelican Books, London, 1944, p.28.
- 34. Coulson, C. A ., Science and Christian Belief, Oxford University Press, 1955, p.11.
Seth Ward, both bishops; John Wallis, doctor of divinity and mathematician; Robert Boyle, the chemist who bequeathed the sum of £50 a year to found a lectureship for "proving the Christian religion against notorious infidels," and chiefly recommending his dear sister (his executor) to "the laying of the greatest part of the same (i.e., his personal estate) for the advance or propagation of the Christian religion among infidels"; John Ray, the founder of systematic botany and zoology, whose great book The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of Creation exercised a profound influence among thinking people and was even used in a shortened form by John Wesley in training his traveling preachers; Christopher Wren, astronomer and architect of St. Paul's Cathedral; as well as the greatest figure of them all, Isaac Newton, who claimed (though we might perhaps disagree with him in this) that his theological studies were at least as important as his strictly scientific ones. It may be true that religious discussions as such were not permitted at meetings of the Society; but in their second charter, the Fellows were commanded to direct their studies "to the glory of God the Creator, and the advantage of the human race." And any doubts regarding the relation between the Society and the Church were to be dispelled by its first historian, Sprat, who wrote:
"I do here in the beginning most sincerely declare that if this design (of a Royal Society) should in the least diminish the reverence that is due to the doctrine of Jesus Christ, it were so far from deserving protection that it ought to be abhorred by all the politic and prudent, as well as the devout, part of Christendom."
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- Coulson rightly observes, "Of course, we know how the separation developed; it was the inevitable result of the atomization of knowledge."
University life gradually ceased to be a totality of studies pursued with a single object and harmoniously integrated into a satisfying World View. Centres of learning in time became what might far better be termed "multi-versities" than universities, (35) the only unifying factor being juxtaposition of faculties and simultaneity of lectures. What cohesion there was remained not because of any overriding feeling for a need of integration
- 35. Multi-versities: I believe I may be entitled to the claim of being the coiner of this word while at the University of Toronto in 1951. Among those of us who were at that time studying anthropology, it became an accepted term for the first time. I was interested to see it used so many years later by Claude Bissell in his report to the Governors and Senate of the University of Toronto, as reprinted in Varsity Grad., Annual Reports, 1964, p.18. And on page 39 of the same report, the situation which the term was designed to cover was summed up by a friend of very long ago, Prof. Roy Daniels of the University of British Columbia, when he said, "We . . . are committed to a great endeavor---the re-establishment of certainty amid doubts, of wholeness in the midst of fragmentation." Kenneth Boulding in the same connection wrote, "There is sting in the remark of a Roman Catholic friend of mine that a State University is a 'City of God' that is all suburbs; our innumerable specialties spread around the intellectual map in formless clusters, with only the most congested trickles of communication between them, and there seems to be no Centre which can relate one to the other" (Religious Perspectives of College Teaching: On Economics, Hazen Foundation, New Haven, 1952, p.22). In Nature (7 February, 1953, p.244), reference is made to an institute specially designed to contribute to this integration.
but purely for administrative convenience. (36) Such a blanket statement is, of course, too broad a generalization to be true in every case, for the breakdown of the "ideal" in many of the older universities led to the establishment, especially in the New World, of new universities (Harvard, for example) which had as their original objective the restoration of the old ideal with its central religious emphasis. (37) But the tide of events was already running too swiftly, and one by one even the newer universities, like the older ones, departed from the goals that had inspired their founding.
Smaller denominational and non-denominational universities and colleges sprang up to protest against the complete divorce of the new knowledge and religious faith, but unfortunately these small universities were and have continued to be at a tremendous disadvantage. By their very insistence on the importance of faith they have often had to surrender much of the kind of recognition from the scientific community that is essential
36. Fragmentation for convenience: Conway Zirkle made this observation: "It is hardly feasible to list all the impediments to a proper integration of human knowledge. We have become so accustomed to viewing the universe in splintered bits that many of us really assume that it has a cellular structure and that each cell can be treated conveniently as if it were a pigeonhole. This view is widespread even if it is not held overtly. It is the view that college university administrators seem to favour, for it promises to simplify their always-too-complex problems. Whenever they can, they assign a single pigeonhole to the custody of the corresponding academic department. Thus, by increasing the number of departments, the large colleges and universities may, literally, cover the universe, neatly, completely, and without jurisdictional conflicts. And each savant on the faculty will know just where he stands. Well, the concept at least is orderly!" ("Our Splintered Learning and the Status of Scientists," Science, April, 1955, p.517). pg.7 of 34
37. Concerning the original ideal which led to the formation of universities, John H. Hallowell, Professor of Political Science at Duke University, made this comment: "There is a great deal of talk among college and university teachers today about the importance of integrating our teaching, breaking across arbitrary departmental barriers and promoting interdisciplinary projects. But if we are to relate one subject to another it must be in terms of something which transcends them both. In religion, which is concerned with the whole of a man's life, with the totality of his experience, we have a body of thought and of experience that sheds light on all aspects of human experience and, as a consequence, can integrate subjects, particularly among the humanities and the social sciences, as nothing else can. Indeed, the original universities lay in just such a conviction. And to the extent that universities have lost the faith that originally inspired them, they have progressively lost the unity of purpose that made one out of many. The first college in America, Harvard College, was founded In Christi Gloriam, in the conviction that there could be no true knowledge or wisdom without Christ. Those today who are urging the colleges and universities to put religion back into higher education are not urging something upon them that is alien to their nature but are suggesting only that they revive the faith that originally inspired their founding." See Religious Perspectives of College Teaching: in Political Science, published by the Hazen Foundation, New Haven, p.33. Surprisingly, recent surveys have shown that colleges which have a theological bias have actually produced a remarkably large proportion of leading American scientists, a statement verified by John R. Sampey, "Training Leaders in Science and Religion" in the section "Comments and Communications" Science, vol.114, 1951, p.332. See further, C. A. Coulson, Science and Christian Belief, Oxford University Press, 1955, p.11; C. E. A. Turner, "Puritan Origins in Science" in Transactions of the Victoruan Institute, vol.81, 1949, p.85-105.
to their growth. They suffer from lack of top-flight staff, not having funds for high salaries; exceptionally brilliant students fearing inadequate stimulation are discouraged from enrolling; and funding agencies are apt to withhold grants, suspecting the absence of a sufficiently competent staff or sophisticated facilities for research in depth. There are probably exceptions, but it seems largely to be a losing battle unless there is some compromise of faith.
As universities have become multi-versities, so the Universe itself has ceased to be a Universe in the Medieval sense and has become instead an unimaginably great aggregate of bits and pieces, apparently purposeless in itself, of which our little earth is an inconsequential fragment, and man himself an even more insignificant by-product. This last is the saddest and most disturbing of all the consequences, yet those who accept it seem to do so with a strange kind of enthusiasm. (38) Thus George Gaylord Simpson wrote in his Meaning of Evolution: (39)
Man is the result of a purposeless and materialistic process that did not have him in mind. He was not planned. He is a state of matter, a form of life, a sort of animal, and a species of the order Primates, akin nearly and remotely to all of life and indeed to all that is material.
On another occasion the same author wrote with even more enthusiasm: (40)
There was no anticipation of man's coming. He responds to no plan and fulfills no supernal purpose. He stands alone in the Universe, a unique product of a long unconscious, impersonal, material process, with unique understandings and potentialities. These he owes to no one but himself, and it is to himself that he is responsible. He is not the creature of uncontrollable and indeterminable forces but his own master.
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- It is a heroic creed in the light of recent history, yet Simpson is merely working out to its logical conclusion a philosophy which rejects God. When there are no supernatural forces at work, then every appearance of what has hitherto been termed a spiritual life must be reduced to the level of physics and chemistry, perhaps ultimately to electrochemistry alone, and every appearance of transcendental purpose denied. Starting with an
- 38. E. L. Mascall in his Importance of Being Human (Columbia University. Press, 1958) underscores the difficulty "which civilized western man in the world of today experiences in convincing himself that he has any special assigned status in the Universe . . . and the sense of instability which this uncertainty produces." He adds, "Many of the psychological disorders which are so common and distressing a feature of our times are, I believe, to be traced to this cause" (p.19).
- 39. Simpson, George Gaylord, The Meaning of Evolution, Yale University Press, 1952, pp.344-45.
- 40. Simpson: quoted by John Pfeiffer, "Some Comments on Popular Science Books" in Science, vol.117, 1953, p.403.
accidental by-product of natural forces, everything else must be supposed to have occurred as a result of the inherent properties of matter. This is not new. Democritus of Abdera (470 - 361? B.C.) explained the Universe by a host of fortuitous circumstances, and Anaxagoras of Clazomenae (500 - 428 B.C.) held that a single element must have somehow contained within itself the entire diversity to which it automatically gave birth in time. (41) Bertrand Russell wrote: (42)
That man is the product of causes which had no pre-vision of the end they were achieving: that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms: that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave: that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspirations, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of man's achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins---all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand.
This pessimism is prevalent among modern authors. Not long ago Arthur Balfour expressed the same sentiment: (43)
The energies of our [solar] system will decay, the glory of the sun will be dimmed, and the earth, tideless and inert, will no longer tolerate the race which has for a moment disturbed its solitude. Man will go down into the pit and all his thoughts will perish. The uneasy consciousness, which in this obscure corner has for a brief space broken the contented silence of the universe will be for ever at rest. Matter will know itself no longer. "Imperishable monuments" and "immortal deeds," death itself and love stronger than death, will be as if they had not been. Nor will anything that is, be better or worse for all [that] the labour, genius, devotion, and suffering of man have striven through countless ages to effect.
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- It would have seemed utterly incredible to the Medieval mind that human beings could really accept and live by such a philosophy. And yet it is so. But there is evidence that just as the older view which had invited such an expansive exercise of faith and demanded little use of reason was ultimately destined to collapse, so now, we may discern that the modern view which depends so largely upon reason and disallows the exercise of faith is also showing signs of its inadequacy. The human spirit cannot long survive a diet of such dry bread. A few
- 41. As quoted by Jacques Maritain, Introduction to Philosophy, Sheed and Ward, New York 1955, pp.52, 54.
- 42. Russell: as quoted by J. W. N. Sullivan, Limitations of Science, Pelican Books, London, 1938, p.175.
- 43. Balfour: quoted by John Custance, Wisdom, Madness, and Folly, Pellegrine and Cudahy, New York, 1952, p.128.
years ago, Leslie Paul, with eloquence equal to that of Bertrand Russell, pictured Russell's world in the following way: (44)
The entire term of humanity is but a minute episode in a scarcely longer history of life on a cooling planet which for the most of its existence knew no life at all. And that planet in the infinite immensity of the universe is a tiny scrap of matter rushing with all other scraps---and from all other scraps---at colossal speed to heaven knows what destination in the curvature of space.
In no one knows what time, though it will be soon enough by astronomical clocks, the lonely planet will cool, all life will die, all mind will cease, and it will all be as if it had never happened. That, to be honest, is the goal to which evolution is travelling, that is the "benevolent" end of the furious living and furious dying. . . . All life is no more than a match struck in the dark and blown out again. The final result . . . is to deprive it completely of meaning.
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- In his latest book, Simpson has two chapters devoted to an examination of why science has set out so rigidly to exclude the concept of purpose. (45) Basically his argument is that you cannot have purpose without a Purposer, and a Purposer introduces supernature, with which science cannot possibly deal by its own terms of reference. The faith of science, according to Howard Becker, is that the answer to any problem which it so far has been unable to resolve completely is simply "more science". (46) But science has been so successful in dealing with those limited aspects of experience to which it is restricted by its own catechism that the public has been led to assume that what science has ignored could in fact be denied altogether. (47) The scientist in turn, sharing in the spirit of the times, has ultimately come to support this view, so that an opinion has become very widely accepted which attributes to science an omnicompetence which it does not in fact have and did not originally claim. It
- 44. Paul, Leslie, The Annihilation of Man, Harcourt Brace, New York, 1945, p.154.
- 45. Simpson, George Gaylord, This View of Life, Harcourt Brace and World, New York, 1963, chaps. 10 and 11. As a rest cure, I suggest a reading of F. Wood Jones's delightful and thoroughly rewarding Trends of Life, Arnold, London, 1953, especially chap. 2.
- 46. Becker, Howard, University of Wisconsin, in a lecture before the Anthropology Department of the University of Toronto, February 1952, entitled "Science, Culture and Society." Simpson himself puts it this way: "It is a necessary condition and indeed part of the definition of Science in the modern sense that only natural explanations of material phenomena are to be sought or can be considered scientifically tenable" (The Meaning of Evolution, Yale University Press, 1952, p.131).
- 47. Huxley, Aldous, Science, Liberty and Peace, Harper, New York, 1946, as reviewed in Science by R. T. Cox, who sums up Huxley's views as follows: "Even the fascination of power over the inanimate forces of nature has contributed to the world's trouble, by leading people to mistake for final reality the restricted aspects of experience by the study of which scientists have shown how to attain this power. Where scientists, properly for their own purposes, have ignored a part of experience, general opinion has gone farther and denied its existence altogether" (vol.105, 1947, p.134). Similarly Kenneth Walker observed, "When scientists have announced that they are not concerned with the significance or purpose of things, but only with certain relationships which exist between them, onlookers have often mistakenly assumed the absence of all purpose and meaning" (Meaning and Purpose, Pelican Books, London, 1944, p.22).
enjoys competence by dealing only with part of the truth; and denying that there is any other kind of truth it claims omni-competence. In the meantime, no one is any longer disturbed when a paleontologist like Simpson speaks with a pompous infallibility on certain philosophical issues which are entirely outside his field. On the contrary, the public is led to believe that what he has to say about the absence of purpose in the Universe and man's position as an accidental by-product of it has the same kind of absolute validity as his announcement about the size of some newly discovered prehistoric reptile. The Medieval Church made equally dogmatic statements which were similarly outside its competence to declare an opinion upon. And in precisely the same way, and for much the same reason, the common man was duly impressed: the tables have now been turned---but the practice is the same, and so is the effect.
Thus having rejoiced in his new liberation from the constricting World View which, while it imposed moral restrictions upon his behaviour and thinking, at least gave meaning to life as a whole, man in time found himself largely free of restrictions---but also in a completely impersonal universe. It was not long before the entire absence of purpose or meaning in history proved intellectually disturbing, and efforts began to be made once again to re-establish meaning on some basis other than a theological one. (48) This is reflected in attempts made to arrange history into cycles, to find in the successive rise and fall of nations and cultures a key which, without introducing God into the picture, would still provide some kind of a "map" that would enable each contemporary culture to see its position in the march of events and to orient its thinking and behaviour accordingly. The works of Vico, Petrie, Sorokin, Spengler and Toynbee are all illustrations of this urge. To the extent that the controlling factor in the movement of history in each of their philosophies is strictly
48. In this connection, Schrodinger made this observation (in 1945): "We have inherited from our forefathers the keen longing for unified, all-embracing knowledge. The very name given the highest institutions of learning reminds us, that from antiquity and throughout many centuries the universal aspect has been the only one to be given full credit. But the spread, both in width and depth, of the multifarious branches of knowledge during the last hundred odd years has confronted us with a queer dilemma. We feel clearly that we are only now beginning to acquire reliable material for welding together the sum total of all that is known into a whole. But, on the other hand, it has become next to impossible for a single mind fully to command more than a small specialized portion of it. "I can see no other escape from this dilemma (lest our true aim be lost forever) than that some of us should venture to embark on a synthesis of facts and theories, albeit with second-hand and incomplete knowledge of some of them---and at the risk of making fools of ourselves" (as quoted by S. H. and S. M. Cohn, "The Role of Cybernetics in Physiology," Scientific Monthly, February, 1953, p.85). pg.11 of 34
"deterministic" or "spiritual," to that extent various types of people have found them satisfying. (49) In the deterministic view, the controlling factors include such things as economics, climate, geography, genetic endowment, and natural resources. (50) Some have viewed history in cultural terms. Others like Toynbee have tended toward a more spiritual view in that they look upon the decay and collapse of a civilization as being caused by a breakdown in its moral life or a weakening of its spiritual vigour. On the whole, where the view has been predominantly deterministic, it has been more acceptable to scientifically minded people; where it has been related rather to values within the culture, it has been more acceptable to men of faith.
At any rate, these endeavours -- and some of them have been tremendous works, massive in both scholarship and volume -- are symptomatic of the need which man feels for some kind of faith in some kind of meaning and purpose in history. For most of us, a purposeless universe is not merely disquieting in the negative sense, but positively debilitating, undermining our sense of value in things which do not serve personally useful ends, and leading to a very unhealthy state of skepticism about "good" of any kind. Fromm wrote, "Another way of paralyzing the ability to think critically is the destruction of any kind of structuralized picture of the world." (51) This kind of negative effect---the absence of an integrated world view---is itself harmful. But the possession of one may or may not be satisfying. Benjamin observed, "Man achieves a satisfying life largely to the extent to which he is able to include the widest range of intellectual experiences with the minimum of conflict between any
49. Giovanni Battista Vico (1668-1744), an Italian philosopher whose chief work was published in France by Michelet in 1827 under the title Principiis de la Philosophie d'Histoire. Sir William Petrie, Revolutions of History, Harper, New York, 1911. Pitirim Sorokin, Contemporary Sociological Theories, Harper, New York, 1928. Oswald Spengler, Decline of the West, Allen and Unwin, London, 1926. Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History, 6 vols., Oxford University Press, 1946-57. See also A. L. Kroeber, "The Superorganic" in American Anthropologist, vol.19, 1917, p.162-213; and R. C. Collingwood in two articles in Antiquity, September and December, 1927. pg.12 of 34
50. Deterministic views: Climatic: Ellsworth Huntington, Mainsprings of Civilization, Wiley, New York, 1945. Cultural: Leslie A. White--see for example "Man's Control Over Civilization" in Science Monthly, March, 1948, pp.240ff. Biological and physical: Julian Huxley, Bertrand Russell et al. Economic: Adam Smith, An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations, Ward, Lock and Co., London, 1776. Contrast, however, C. W. M. Hart, "The Hawthorne Experiments" in Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, vol. 9, 1943. Geographic: Griffith Taylor, in various volumes, including Environment and Race, Oxford University Press, 1927; Environment and Nations, Toronto University Press, 1936; Environment, Race and Migration, Toronto and Chicago University Presses, 1944; and other works.
51. Fromm, Erich, Escape From Freedom, Rinehart, New York, 1941, p.251.
two." (52) A belief system that is compounded of mutually contradictory elements cannot survive; it must have an inner logical -- rather, theological -- consistency; it must have the power to create an integrating framework for all else.
Even among intellectuals where skepticism is a kind of habit of mind, there is a growing feeling that somehow the various branches of knowledge need re-integration, not merely because it would be convenient from the educational point of view, but because it is felt that the present situation imposes positive limitations on the practical use to which our accumulated knowledge can be put. These limitations, therefore, relate not merely to the desirability of achieving a true education in the classical sense, but even the more practical object of using the information to make further advances in control or in understanding. It is becoming apparent that a too rigid departmentalization has had the curious effect of making us ignorant, not because we know too little, but because there is too much to be known. The individual is no longer able to adjust to the growth of knowledge sufficiently to integrate it.
While there is no doubt that the lot of the average man has physically improved and culturally his opportunities are now immeasurably greater than they were in the Middle Ages, in the matter of controlling individual behaviour the advance has not been so spectacular. The social sciences appeared to benefit tremendously by the new spirit of free inquiry and indirectly have sought increasingly to make use of the methods and tools which have contributed so greatly to man's control over his environment. At first, there was unbounded optimism that human nature was perfectible by scientific methods. Evolutionary philosophy encouraged this belief, for if man had reached his present high estate as the result of forces which operated in the absence of any deliberate and conscious attempt on man's part to improve himself, how much more might be achieved by effort consciously directed toward an end so desirable. Melvin Rader observed: (53)
At the dawn of modern science, man was immensely confident that its uses would be beneficent. The great medieval seer, Roger Bacon, was fired by a deep enthusiasm for the new world that science would create. It would reveal the past, present, and future, and secure the vast improvement and the indefinite prolongation of life! Similarly such Renaissance thinkers as Giordano Bruno, Leonardo da Vinci, and Thomasso Campanella, harbingers of the modern scientific and technological revolution were intoxicated with its infinite promise. Such optimism found
pg.13 of 34
- 52. Benjamin, A. Cornelius, "Science and the Pursuit of Value" in Science Monthly, October, 1946, p.311.
- 53. Rader, Melvin, "Technology and Community" in Scientific Monthly, June, 1948; pp.502-4. This is a most valuable paper.
ample expression in the work of Francis Bacon who believed that science would enlarge the bounds of human empire to the effecting of all things possible . . . and in writing the New Atlantis jubilantly imagined the Utopia he believed scientific progress would achieve.
Of course, such a view is greatly encouraged by belief in the inheritance of acquired characteristics, which held that the gains made in each generation would be accumulated so that each individual would stand on the shoulders of his predecessors. As Sir Alfred Zimmern expressed it: (54)
Up to about fifty years ago, it was the accepted view among biologists that acquired characters -- hat is to say, physical and mental characteristics which a living organism took on during its own life time -- were transmitted from one generation to another together with the original inherited makeup. It was this belief which enabled the early social scientists to have so confident a view about the social progress of mankind. They thought that biology gave them the authority to look forward to a steady process of development in human nature under the influence of a rapidly improving environment.
Improved conditions would lead to an improvement in human nature, and this in its turn would lead to a further improvement in conditions. Thus, by a process akin to that of compound interest, the gains would be increasingly multiplied on both sides until, in the course of a very few generations, the blessings of Western Civilization would be extended over the face of the globe, and man everywhere in the ancient East and in primitive Africa would be ready to live harmoniously under western institutions, and in the words of Tennyson, echoing the popular science of his day, to accept the authority of a single government, "the parliament of man", and "federation of the world".
Tennyson was influenced, like most men of his day, by Herbert Spencer's philosophy which, it should be pointed out, preceded the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species, just as Tennyson's In Memoriam did---a fact surprising to many who are not aware of it. In his Social Statics, Spencer has a chapter entitled, optimistically, "The Evanescence of Evil." In this appears the following passage, which reflects the prevailing sentiments of the day: (55)
The influence that as advancement has hitherto been the rule, it will be the rule henceforth, may be called a plausible speculation. But when it is shown that this advancement is the working of a universal law; and
pg.14 of 34
- 54. Zimmern, Sir Alfred, ref.18, p.22. Zimmern adds, "We know today that these hopes were unwarranted. Acquired characteristics are not inherited---at least not in any form or degree which are relevant for sociologists and political scientists. For all practical purposes, the material of human nature, the stock of instincts and impulses, of qualities and attitudes, with which our statesmen have to contend is the same as that with which not merely Pharaoh and Nebuchadnezzar but the tribal leaders of the Stone Age had to deal. Every baby that is born, insofar as it has not been affected by pre-natal influences, is a Stone Age baby." So also Robert Briffault: "It may be doubted whether the modern civilized individual differs greatly as regards inherited capacities from his ancestors of the Stone Age: the difference between savagedom and civilization is not organic but cultural" ("Evolution of the Human Species" in The Making of Man, edited by V. F. Calverton, Modern Library, New York, 1931, p.763).
- 55. Herbert Spencer: quoted by G. H. Clark, A Christian Philosophy of Education, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1946, p.54
in virtue of that law it must continue until the state we call perfection is reached, then the advent of such a state is removed out of the region of probability into that of certainty. If anyone demurs to this, let him point of the error. . . .
Progress therefore is not an accident but a necessity. . . . As surely as a blacksmith's arm grows large and the skin of a labourer's hand becomes thick . . . as surely as a passion grows by indulgence and diminishes when restrained . . . so surely must the things we call evil and immorality disappear; so surely must man become perfect.
Perhaps one more quotation may be apropos, this time from Kenneth Walker, who wrote: (56)
The nineteenth century was an age of great expansion, of ever widening horizons and of unfounded confidence in the steady progress of humanity. It was believed that under the guidance of Science men were advancing swiftly towards a not too distant millennium.
And finally, a summary statement which shows how progress was to some extent identified not so much with improving human nature as with improving man's lot, in the firm belief that complete mastery of the cosmos would guarantee the improvement of man himself. This mastery was to result from "understanding," and by understanding was meant the reduction of everything to fundamental principles. Thus Andre Schlemmer wrote: (57)
To the scientist of, say, the end of the nineteenth history, the palace of science was to be an edifice the completion of which was merely a matter of time. The framework had been designed, some of the rooms were ready, some were only waiting to be furnished; on the other hand, some parts of the building were just having their foundations laid out but one could already have an idea of what the whole would be. The principles of conservation of energy and of matter were making the substance of the world under study materially solid and reliable, and the laws of physics were relatively simple and coherent. The atomic theory and the laws of thermodynamics gave a good account of what chemistry had recorded.
The discoveries in organic chemistry on the one part, and in biology on the other, made it possible to expect the reduction of the latter science to the terms of the former. Some striking experiments in psychophysiology, joined to the discovery of the localization of a few cerebral activities, gave the hope, soon transformed into belief, that psychology might be a part of physiology.
Evolution gave an account of the passage from elementary to human life, and history was explaining sociology itself by the action of economic and psychological facts. The whole world would soon be explained by a system of sticks and strings.
56. Walker, Kenneth, ref.33 p.31. pg.15 of 34
57. Schlemmer, Andre, Crisis in the World of Thought, Inter-Varsity, London, 1940, pp.15-16.
When Darwin's Origin of Species appeared in print in 1858, it was sold out almost in a matter of hours. Darwin himself seems to have been surprised, but his surprise is really only in keeping with a trait in his character which showed up in an odd lack of awareness of how much his own thinking was influenced by other people. It has often been said that ideas are born of the times and that the credited originator merely acts as a vehicle for the idea to find its own expression. (58) Calverton in his introduction to The Making of Man observed: (59)
The very simultaneity with which Darwin and [Alfred Russell] Wallace struck upon the theory of natural selection and the survival of the fittest was magnificent proof of the intense activity of the idea at the time. Every force in the environment, economic and social, conspired to the success of the doctrine.
In the University of Chicago Darwin Centennial Celebrations, a paper was presented by A. L. Kroeber on this very point, and he puts the matter in perspective, saying: (60)
There is a sort of huge disproportion between Darwin's specific contribution to Science . . . and the overwhelming effect which the establishment of this purely biologic principle [of natural selection] came to have on total science. There was evidently a particular historic concatenation in the world's thought which enabled Darwin's discovery to trigger off consequences so great.
pg.16 of 34
- Man, it seemed, had at last discovered the unifying principle he sought which---when applied across the board, not merely in zoology---would bring order into man's intellectual life. Tremendous excitement followed, because it seemed to many that a satisfying and rational World View might, after all, be possible without any need for even an "absentee" God, though Darwin himself hesitated to go this far at first. The word Evolution became a household term, an open sesame to every process, and the key to all understanding. As Susanne Langer has pointed out, there are times when the very coining of a word seems to be all that is required to start vast new trains of thought and to set the mind free to explore in an entirely new way. (61) It is almost like the invention of a research tool such as the telescope or the electron microscope.
Where it had been sufficient in Medieval times in the face of any mystery merely to refer back to God, it now
- 58. Ihde, Aaron .J., "The Inevitability of Scientific Discovery" in Scientific Monthly, December, 1948, pp.427-29.
- 59. Calverton, V. F., ref.54, p.2.
- 60. Kroeber, A. L., in his paper entitled "Evolution, History, and Culture" in Evolution After Darwin: The Evolution of Man, University of Chicago Press, 1960, vol.2, p.1.
- 61. Langer, Susanne, Philosophy in a New Key, Mentor Books, New York, 1948, p.18: see especially chap. 5, pp.83-116.
became necessary in the same situation merely to refer to Evolution. Art, language, technology -- everything began to be interpreted in this new light and history reconstructed accordingly. The determination to apply this concept universally created an intellectual atmosphere which -- just as nature abhors a vacuum -- equally abhorred the idea of discontinuities or exceptions. Once the concept had taken hold, it became a consuming passion, in the life sciences in particular but in the physical sciences as well, to construct what Arthur J. Lovejoy has described as "the Great Chain of Being." (62)
The underlying principle here is that from the appearance of the very first atom to the final annihilation of all matter, if such a thing were ever to happen, one ought ideally to be able to establish a series of natural links from event to event which involved no super-nature and no gaps whatever, not even the kind of gaps which would analogously be represented by discrete steps up an incline. This was no stairway, and much less a ladder---but a smooth incline, the stages not being perceptibly separated from one another. Of course, there were limits to this, and these limitations were freely acknowledged. For example, it did not seem likely that after the appearance of the first atom and before the appearance of the second one there would be a series of fractions of an atom in process of formation, though even this is today being proposed. (63) But as far as possible everything was to be joined to everything else with no discontinuities. And it became a common pastime to establish things in series---evolutionary series, that is. The simple always preceded the complex. The process of complexification was a natural one inherent in things themselves. Whenever two nearly related objects were juxtaposed, there was an irresistible temptation to put in the link between them. As Lovejoy says, for example, there was tremendous excitement when the polyp hydra were first identified as a link between plant and animal life. (64) And similarly biologists achieved great satisfaction when a link appeared to have been discovered (in archaeopterix) between birds and reptiles.
The "missing link," which was paramount to the whole system -- the link between animals and man -- was predicted with such assurance because it was so necessary for the completion of the system that no one
62. Lovejoy, Arthur J., The Great Chain of Being, Harvard University Press, 1942. pg.17 of 34
63. On this see O. R. Frisch in a series of articles in The Listener , vol.63, BBC, 21 January, 1960, p.119f.; "Exploring the Subatomic World" 28 January, 1960, p.l73ff.; "The Strange Particles", 4 February, l960, p.217ff., "Strangeness and Parity."
64. Lovejoy, Arthur O., ref.62, p.233.
was really surprised when it appeared to be found in so-called fossil ape-man: Piltdown, for example. Indeed, that Piltdown Man proved so successful a forgery was only because those who believed in the "Modern Synthesis", as Huxley called it, accepted uncritically almost anything that was concordant with it. It was exactly what had happened in the Medieval one. The intellectual climate of both is the same.
But there have remained certain missing links of a quite critical nature, which tend to be hopefully minimized but yet persist. These are (1) the link between matter and no matter, i.e., the origin of matter itself, (2) the link between dead matter and living matter; (3) the link between man and the other primates; and (4) the link between what is merely consciousness and what is self-consciousness.
Copyright © 1988 Evelyn White. All rights reserved
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