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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 27

Influence of Modern Science

Influence of Modern Science.

I believe that the best answer to this question will be found in the additions that have been made by modern science to human knowledge, and in the change or rather the revolution which those additions have made in the mind and its judgments with reference to subjects of religious speculative thought. I do not allude to the numerous great practical discoveries of recent science. Of the two classes into which the sciences may be divided, founded upon what Bacon calls "the last or farthest twofold end of knowledge," namely, those sciences which tend "to the glory of the Creator," and those which tend "to the relief of man's estate," the latter class appear to leave no special enduring mark upon the minds of successive generations of students.

On the other hand, the two great sciences of astronomy and geology, which have gradually raised and expanded the human intelligence more than all other influences put together, have done very little to help man in his contest with material nature. A learned and very practical thinker, Sir George Cornewall Lewis, startled the scientific world half a century ago by the proposition that the discovery of Copernicus had been of little or no benefit to man for any practical purpose, but he proved his proposition as he stated it by showing that almost all the requirements of navigation, the art which more than any other derives assistance from astronomy, might have been supplied by the Ptolemaic system of astronomy if that system had not been supplanted. The science of geology, in like manner, during its briefer history has done comparatively little towards giving effectual practical aid to man in his search for mineral wealth. But astronomy and geology, each exerting a wide and indirect influence, have enormously extended man's conceptions of space and of time in the minds even of persons who know little or nothing of either science, and in doing this they have changed the whole character of human thought upon the highest subjects of speculative inquiry.

The extent of this change may perhaps be best understood by comparing, or rather contrasting, the state of two minds, before and since the time of Copernicus. Let us take the case of a European, an educated and learned man, at any period between the second and the sixteenth centuries. What were his thoughts about Nature and God? He could see, as we now do, that man was at the head of the animal world. But he believed, in page 9 accordance with ancient tradition, that all animal and plant life had been called into existence about the same time as man, and that they had been created for the use and benefit of man. He looked up from the earth, whose shape he did not know, and saw that the heavenly bodies appeared to revolve round it at uncertain but small distances, and he naturally concluded that they, too, like everything else on the surface of this planet, existed for man and to supply his needs, that the sun ruled by day and the moon and the stars governed by night in subservience to man's convenience and wants. He would necessarily infer that man was the centre of the universe, and that all things existed for him. The Creator of the Universe could not, in the estimate of such a mind, be other than a magnified man, not free from the prejudices and caprices, and even the passions, of men of smaller growth. How profoundly erroneous do all such conceptions now appear to us?