Stedman and Hutchinson, comps. A Library of American Literature: An Anthology in Eleven Volumes. 1891. Vols. VIVIII: Literature of the Republic, Part III., 18351860
The March of Theory
By Tayler Lewis (18021877)
[Born in Northumberland, N. Y., 1802. Died at Schenectady, N. Y., 1877. The Six Days of Creation. 1855.]
SCIENCE has indeed enlarged our field of thought, and for this we will be thankful to God and to scientific men. But what is it, after all, that she has given us, or can give us, but a knowledge of phenomenaof appearances? What are her boasted laws but generalizations of such phenomena ever resolving themselves into some one great fact, that seems to be an original energy, whilst evermore the application of a stronger lens to our analytical telescope resolves such seeming primal force into an appearance, a manifestation of something still more remote, which, in this way, and in this way alone, reveals its presence to our senses. Thus the course of human science has ever been the substitution of one set of conceptions for another. Firmaments have given place to concentric spheres, spheres to empyreans, empyreans to cycles and epicycles, epicycles to vortices, vortices to gravities and fluids ever demanding for the theoretic imagination other fluids as the only conditions on which their action could be made conceivable.
And this process is still going on. In the primitive times the sun appeared, and was understood, perhaps, to revolve round the earth. Very earlywe know not how earlycame the oriental theory which was afterwards held by Pythagoras. This, like the modern Copernican, put the sun in the centre, although it did not maintain itself against the more common hypothesis that claimed to be grounded on observation and induction. Later astronomy, however, reversed the decision. It placed the sun again in the centre; and now it was thought we had at last reached a fixed fact in the universe. But alas for the doctrine that would maintain that anything stands and that all things are not eternally moving, a science still more modern is displacing this once immovable centre for some other and immensely more remote pivot of revolution. There is no end to thisno end in theoryand the present scientific view of some great millennial or millio-millennial period will only stand because the shortness of human observation, even continued during the age of the race, can get no visible data for anything beyond it .
There has been a similar process in the department of pneumatology. Common air was at first supposed to be the most subtile of all material substancesif material substance it wasand was therefore taken as the best representative of spirit or immateriality. It furnished that conceptionnot the idea or notion, which is a very different thingbut that conception of soul or spirit which is to be found in the roots of almost every language. Next came the æther, the quintessence, or fifth element. In more modern times, electricity and magnetism are the great words of ignorance as well as of science; and these, in turn, are yielding to that unknown fluid in which it is supposed will be found the elemental unity of all force. By a like process the old element, fire, became transmuted into phlogiston, and phlogiston into the modern caloric. But we are still no nearer the remote primal fact or facts, although a vast amount of useful knowledge has been obtained in the process. Each of these conceptions may embrace phenomena not conceived before, and thus each may seem comparatively interior; but they are all yet upon the outside, and we may say, equally upon the outside, in respect to the great truth or truths they represent. They are all phenomenal, or conceptional. They are all alike the outward signs of the things unseen ([Greek])of hidden powers or truths which we may receive by reason and by revelation, but which eye cannot see, nor any sense perceive, neither can it enter into the imagination, or imaging faculty, of man ever to conceive.
If, then, absolute correctness of representation is aimed at, a revelation of Gods creative acts could no more endorse one scientific theory than another. What would now have been the credit of the Scriptures had they been written in the style of the Aristotelian or Ptolemaic science, which in its day, perhaps, was thought to be the ne plus ultra of astronomical truth?a system so far complete that if it did not contain all the facts, it was supposed, at least, to furnish the best language, and the best method, through which they could be represented. And yet this grand old Book of God still stands, and will continue to stand, though science and philosophy are ever changing their countenances and passing away. It is one of the few things in our world that never become obsolete. It speaks the language of all ages, and is adapted to all climes. Ever clear and ever young, it has the same power for the later as for the early mind; it is as much the religious vernacular of the occidental as of the oriental races. Instead, then, of being its defect, it is its great, its divine wisdom, that it commits itself to no scientific system or scientific language, whilst yet it brings before the mind those primal facts which no science can ever reach, and for this purpose uses those first vivid conceptions which no changes in science and no obsoleteness in language can ever wholly impair.