« AnteriorContinuar »
THE FUTURE OF SCIENCE, AND
THE future of science is a fit subject for the consideration of the Aberdeen University Scientific Society in these days when everything is being cast into the crucible of war to be consumed or refined. I have added to the title, "and what bars the way," because I believe that active opposition has still to be overcome before science takes its rightful place in the Scottish universities. Indeed, one has only to contrast the growth and power of science in the outside world, not merely the world of things and facts, but equally the world of ideas, with the position it holds relatively to the so-called classical studies in the ancient universities, with the possible exception of Cambridge, or, again, to contrast these with the new universities that have sprung up in England and Wales, to realise that the older institutions have lost whatever capacity they may once have had for intellectual leadership, and toil painfully behind the times, a clog rather than a stimulus to the coming task of national reconstruction. The period of outspoken, honest opposition and hostility to science of a couple of generations ago on the part of those whose most ancient and cherished beliefs had been rudely overthrown by the growth of our knowledge of external nature, has given place to a far more.
1 Presidential Address to the Aberdeen University Scientific Society, 3rd November 1916.
insidious and deadly secret distrust and hostility to science, on the part of those left still with power and influence in the councils of the State. This second phase, meaner in motive than the first, derives its strength from a negative source, far stronger than any downright antagonism, from sheer mental inertia and the comforting belief of the masses that the world is big enough and lazy enough to swallow up science without really departing, by a hair's-breadth, from any of its former habits of thought, or relinquishing any of its old, inefficient, empirical methods. As one of the few clear decisions yet reached by the war, this second and infinitely more dangerous phase of hostility to science has, I believe, received its death-blow. Whether its end be lingering or sudden it is too soon to say.
The curricula of ancient universities accumulate rather than evolve. The new cult of science is sandwiched with a culture that came to maturity thousands of years ago. Nothing is ever abolished from the curriculum. If there were real freedom of choice, the survival of the fittest would operate. But the whole system of bursaries and regulations for degrees is to bolster up and perpetuate a museum of ancient learning, and the system of finance to divert to its support the resources needed for living subjects. What Sir Arthur Evans has characterised as the dull incuria of the parents to intellectual pursuits allows it. The result is that the ancient universities become, not by any means the quiet sanctuaries of ancient learning, which would be relatively harmless, but the active agents in perpetuating in power a type of man who is hopelessly out of tune with his environment, however rational he may have been in the Middle Ages. Then Latin was much what Esperanto is trying to become to-day, a universal written language, and as necessary
THE FUTURE RECONCILIATION
to every student as a knowledge of technical French, German or Italian is to the student of to-day.
Most of those who otherwise would be attempting here to reconcile to their digestions the varied menu of the feast of learning are away attempting a more practical reconciliation on the battlefields of Europe. There all the discoveries and inventions of modern times, capable of being twisted by human ingenuity to the purpose of destruction, are being pitted against one another in the defence of those primal instincts of national honour and safety which we inherit from ancient man, and to the strength of which, it has been remarked with universal satisfaction, education has added if possible a more terrible pertinacity and devotion.
What will be the nature of the reconciliation? I am not thinking even vaguely of the terms of peace, the new map of Europe or future forms of government. We have reached a stage in the evolution of the world when something has to give.
That something has already given is fairly obvious. Every enthusiast deems his hour has now come. The war, we hear, is to produce a great spiritual revival, and the thoughts of men are to be turned from their practical and material concerns to higher things. Or, if we listen again, science is coming to its own to regulate all the affairs of a nation chastened by catastrophe to a fitting sense of its colossal folly. One cries that the go-as-you-please existence of the British Empire is at an end, and every citizen is to be trained to bear arms to defend his country and to carry into the avocations of peace the spirit of co-ordination and subordination to a common purpose learned in the barrack - room. While another cries, and the cry seems to lose its ring of confidence as the struggle lengthens, that this war is a war to end war for ever.
Merely to enumerate a few of these antagonistic aspirations is to show that no decision has been reached as regards them, nor indeed can be till a decision is first reached on the field. It is merely as though the bottom had dropped out of the mill-race of human emotions and each jostling element in the turbulence, suddenly relieved from the antagonism and obstruction of its neighbours, had sprung forward crying victory. Yet, all are agreed that little in our daily lives will be the same as it was before the war. The universities of the future will certainly not be, as in the past, proud to be considered the last sanctuaries of lost causes. But there is one definite decision that has been reached, whatever be the issue of the conflict, which concerns us deeply, and that is that science, whether it be loved or hated, whatever else be relegated to a museum of antiquities, is absolutely essential and indispensable if the nation is to survive either in war or in peace. Magna est veritas et prevalet.
The reconciliation that will be arrived at on the battlefield will be a reconciliation of exhaustion. The reconciliation that will endure must be one between the old in thought and manner and the new in things, which can no longer co-exist. The humanist, the student of man, must admit into his world the science of the external universe, and modify his ideas accordingly. Instead of his being the central figure in a system of his own creation, man is being constrained to move in an orbit by a power external to himself. The battle between the old and the new has but lately been joined in earnest. But the incongruity of the battlefield-the most wonderful and terrible of scientific weapons, submarines, dreadnoughts, zeppelins and aeroplanes, each a mass of the most ingenious and beautifully constructed scientific machinery-grappling on behalf of political
systems that are mouldering and codes of international ethics that are frankly savage-is but a symptom of the age. The antinomy between the old and the new is to be seen in its greatest perfection only in the ancient universities. As the child is father to the man, it is in the schools and universities of a country that the horoscope of its future is cast. They are the microcosm wherein is to be sought the discordant elements which have to be reconciled. But this is a reconciliation which must begin a generation or two before it can mature, and in this reconciliation the council-chamber is world-wide and the plenipotentiaries are university teachers and
It is the growth of the power of things over ideas, of science over instincts, of external nature over human nature, that gives to the problem of war its only feature of novelty and therein its only hope of solution. Science now forges the thunderbolts that Jove is pleased to hurl. It has displaced Ceres the giver of harvest, Mercury the messenger of the gods, and well-nigh all the ancient deities, save Jove. Jove remains to cultivate the artistic temperament on the top of Olympus, dissipating on his loves and his hates, his fears and his jealousies, the résources of a world which he is powerless to replenish, and which has outgrown him.
The older subjects have one great advantage over science. In the course of their long history they have developed an unrivalled vocabulary of vituperation and contumely for poachers in their preserves who have sneaked in in disguise. Would that they might occasionally direct it against those amongst themselves who are for ever discussing science and scientific research, and are as intimate with either as I am with the Greek drama. Indeed, thanks to the compulsory Latin and Greek in our early education