Some Wisdom from the Past

Arthur Thomson, also known as Lord Kelvin, was an English physicist (and Christian) who wrote a book titled “Progress of Science in the Century” published in 1901. The century referred to was the 19th.. I have a copy of it among my collection of pre-20th century science books. It can also be found online. The book is a fascinating and eye-opening account of most scientific fields (especially physics and chemistry) and the enormous strides that had been made prior to the Einstein and Planck revolutions. Toward the end of the book, Kelvin discusses biology (which had barely begun to be a science) and some philosophy. The following is an excerpt from that section, that I believe contains some important wisdom for our own time.

The three main moods or attitudes of mind observable in human relations to nature — practical, emotional, and scientific. They find expression in doing, feeling, and knowing; in practice, in art, and in science; they may be symbolised by hand, heart, and head. And as one of the moods often has temporary dominance, we are all apt to err in over-doing, or over-feeling, or over-knowing. Our thesis then is that some measure of completeness of life — in ideal at least — is the condition of sanity in human development. A thoroughly sane life implies a recognition of the trinity of knowing, feeling, and doing. It spells health, wholeness, holiness,

Many other opinions of authoritative experts might be cited, varying greatly in their form, but with this common basis of agreement that the phenomena of life cannot be restated in the language of chemistry and physics. And yet, the reader may well ask, “Is this more than a pious opinion, an argumentum ad ignoratiam? Is not biological analysis still in its youth? Have not partial restatements been given of numerous functions? May one not look forward to the time when these may be completed?

This leads us, in concluding this discussion, to follow Prof. Karl Pearson in pointing out again the radical misunderstanding which exists in many minds in regard to scientific method. The material of science is “the routine of our perceptual experience”; we think over this, though we never understand it; we make sure by experiment that the sequence of sense-impressions which constitutes the routine is not illusory; we make sure that the routine is perceived by others also (for science is social), lest we should be the victims of an idiosyncrasy; and by and by, if we are clever enough, we give “a description in conceptual shorthand (never the explanation) of the routine of our perceptual experience.”

“The problem of whether life is or is not a mechanism is thus not a question of whether the same things, ‘matter’ and ‘force,’ are or are not at the back of organic and inorganic phenomena—of what is at the back of either class of sense-impressions we know absolutely nothing— but of whether the conceptual shorthand of the physicist, his ideal world of ether, atom, and molecule, will or will not also suffice to describe the biologists’ perceptions.”

That it does not at present seems the opinion of the more philosophical physiologists; if it ever should it would be “purely an economy of thought; it would provide the great advantages which flow from the use of one instead of two conceptual shorthands, but it would not ‘explain’ life any more than the law of gravitation explains the elliptic path of a planet.”

“Atom” and “molecule” and the rest are concepts, not phenomenal existences, therefore even if the physicists’ formulae should fit vital phenomena —which they do not seem to do—there would be no “explanation” forthcoming, for “mechanism does not explain anything.”

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5 Responses to Some Wisdom from the Past

  1. SheilaDeeth says:

    Wow! I really enjoyed reading this.. Knowledge increases, but wisdom is timeless.

  2. Jon Garvey says:

    There is a massive density of wisdom in this. I like the scientist who says that he describes, but doesn’t explain, given the breadth of his view of reality!

  3. resonate47 says:

    Thanks for sharing this Sy! It’s amazing to find this wisdom that came before us 🙂 In the last few weeks, God has put some insight in my heart and I am actually about to go back to school to study history as I had originally wanted to when I graduated high school. Of course I’ll be looking into the history of mathematics and science. There’s so much in the past to be discovered, as you know very well 🙂
    Peace to you, my friend.

  4. That is good news, Ethan. Glad to hear it.

  5. Fascinating, particularly in light of the time and events that would follow. Karl Pearson… There’s a name I haven’t seen/heard in a very long time. He was party to some subject matter in an undergrad “Methods of Inquiry” (philosophy of science) class, mainly with regard to his interpretations of Darwin’s theories. Definitely a product of his time and culture. Elsewhere, I recall a discussion of his ideas with regard to their influence in the development of Relativity.

    I’ve located the text… have to read through a little when I have some time. I’m curious whether Thomson’s reference of Pearson was intended to counter an argument, or if he was emphasizing something Pearson had said?

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