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Confusion of Tongues

ISSUE:  Winter 1934

God and the Astronomers.
By William Ralph Inge. New York: Longmans, Green and Company. $4.00. The Limitations of Science. By J. W. N. Sullivan. New York: The Viking Press. $275. Where Is Science Going? By Max Planck. Translated by James Murphy. New York: W. W. Norton and Company. $2.75.

Among the recurrent dreams (one might almost say nightmares) of modern civilization is the dream of a universal language. Volapuk, Esperanto, Ido, Ro: one by one these pretenders to the throne of empire have subsided to the status of minor cults, commanding the loyalty of small bands of followers, but far deader than the dead languages because they have never lived.

The trouble with the exiles from Utopia who have created these tongues is that they think of a language as something apart from the ideas it expresses; as a “how” divorced from any particular “what.” We cannot thus separate form and content; back of any universality of expression must lie some body of common concepts, some “universe of discourse” within which lies all possible interpretation. Mathematical and musical notations are in their respective fields universal. It would doubtless be possible to give in Esperanto or Ido a perfectly adequate account of some experimental research. But the difficulty of elucidating some new concept of science would be enormous, and in metaphysics, where the deeper recesses of the human spirit are involved, it would be insurmountable. Whoever concerns himself with the expression of philosophical ideas soon realizes that the ideal of a language which is understood by even two people is only a remote hope.

Three recent books illustrate this diversity of outlook. The questions handled by each writer are more or less the same. They are “deep” questions in the sense that no standardized technique exists for their treatment. Each writer has to draw on his personal stock of analogies, illustrations, metaphors, selecting with a particular audience in mind. The result is Babel.

The Very Reverend William Ralph Inge, Dean of St. Paul’s, needs no introduction to the English-speaking world. His “God and the Astronomers” is a reworking and amplification of a series of Warburton Lectures. The terms of this foundation prescribe the subject of the lectures as either Old Testament prophecy or the errors of the Church of Rome. The most elastic interpretation of these terms could hardly identify science with Rome, but by conferring on Messrs. Jeans and Eddington the title of Acting Minor Prophet it was possible for the trustees to give Dean Inge the scope he desired. The task which the Dean has set himself is to study the theological implications of modern scientific theories. Concerning his special fitness for this task, he speaks quite humbly in his preface. He admits that he cannot judge these theories as science, but must accept the account as given. This is bad enough, but the situation is even worse than he realizes: not only is he unable to lay an egg, he is not even a good judge of an omelet. For even the theological implications which he criticizes and compares with traditional Christian theology are taken ready-made from the writings of our scientific theologues, principally from the popular works of those two arch-dogmatists, Jeans and Eddington, so that they are treated not merely as authorities on matters of fact but as authorities in philosophy. Against these the Dean cites other authorities: Plato, Kant, Spinoza and the rest. Of really critical examination there is very little. For instance, in his second chapter he discusses the second law of thermodynamics. This law, one of the most assured results of physics, admittedly puts the cosmolo-gist in a hole, for it does not allow him to place the origin of the world in an indefinitely remote past. Energy, in the form of radiation, is being continually interchanged between the stars, and temperature differences are being every moment reduced. This gives a definite direction to the total course of things. Pushed into the future, it points to a time when all things will be at one temperature, and life, which depends on temperature differences, will be impossible.

The often quoted reply of Laplace to Napoleon’s question as to the place of God in his cosmology—”Sire, I have no need of that hypothesis”—is not to be interpreted in the spirit of Whistler’s “Why drag in Velasquez?” It simply meant that his system was self-contained in its rationality. The second law of thermodynamics, with its indications of a beginning beyond our comprehension, is not so self-contained. But while this theistic implication is noted by Dean Inge he takes no pleasure in it. He seems to feel that science should, after all, keep within Laplace’s restrictions.

The truth is that Dean Inge is fundamentally disqualified both by training and temperament from dealing with the questions he discusses; fundamentally, that is, from the standpoint of either science or philosophy. If, in spite of this, there emerged from these lectures the full-flavoured personality of the author of the “Outspoken Essays,” the result would still be worthwhile. But the program of intellectual humility which he sets himself is out of character. We find flashes of the old trenchant phrasing, but these give vent to only minor irritations. If he dislikes a, doctrine, he feels no necessity for understanding it. Thus he feels (and quite possibly his British audience with him) that pragmatism, the underlying philosophy of all experimental method, is sufficiently disposed of by the epithet “American.” “God and the Astronomers” will add little to his reputation.

J. W. N. Sullivan’s “The Limitations of Science” is an attempt to present, in a form suited to the lay reader, a brief sketch of the main lines of scientific thought from ancient times to the present, and to discuss the bearing of these on problems of everyday philosophy. The author, J. W. N. Sullivan, is well known for his former successes in this field. The present work is readable, clear, and accurate; and considering the small compass of the volume, the depth to which Mr. Sullivan penetrates is surprising. The professional scientist will get no new light on his subject here; there is a complete absence of that background that makes even the

j lighter utterances of the “eminent authority” important. But this implies no real fault; it is not addressed to the over-sophisticated. The present reviewer is inclined to take the

popularity of Mr. Sullivan’s work for granted, and to use it as an index to the mind of John Doe, who pays the bills and keeps going generally the whole co-operative enterprise of civilization, and who thus makes possible the existence of theologians and physicists.

Taken this way, as a reflection of public interest, “The Limitations of Science” shows a remarkable contrast with similar works of the last century. Then the popular writer could assume the common possession by his audience of a stock of theological concepts, such as moral accountability,

sin, immortality, but had to elaborate in detail on such doctrines as the uniformity of nature, causality, and the like. Today the condition is reversed. Even the popular prejudices are different. The odium scientificum has replaced the odium theologicum as a polemic weapon (witness the Mencken technique). Not that Mr. Sullivan indulges in

polemic. Criticism is severe at times, but restrained. But the kind of audience that at its best could be addressed on philosophical questions in a spirit so completely secular, could on a lower level applaud the crudities of Keller or Wiggam in the same spirit that cheered the attacks on


Would Mr. Sullivan understand Dean Inge? I doubt it. Neither, I think, would Professor Planck. Max Planck is Professor of Theoretical Physics in the University of Berlin. In 1900 he published his first account of a new theory of radiation. This theory contained the germinal idea out of which has grown the “quantum theory,” which, with the theory of relativity, has revolutionized physics. Now in his seventy-sixth year he looks back over the ground won, and gives voice to his satisfaction and to some misgivings. “Where is Science Going?” is, like “God and the Astronomers,” a reworking of the substance of lectures delivered originally to scientific gatherings. Professor Planck speaks as one scientific man to another, but the questions he discusses are not technical. The central question is the problem of causality. Certain aspects of quantum mechanics have seemed to some physicists to lead to the view that atomic processes cannot be linked in causal sequences, and that only statistical averages are accessible to human knowledge. This view Professor Planck opposes. He freely admits that the causal concept is not a necessity of logical thought, but feels it to be necessary for scientific thought. The whole treatment is a model for scientific discussion: penetrating, fair, and scrupulously detached. The question is beset with difficulties, however, and is not quite closed by the argument. In the reviewer’s judgment (which may be prejudiced), “Where is Science Going?” is by far the most important of our three books. Not only is it by one who knows whereof he speaks, but there is direct, fresh treatment of problems, instead of scholastic appeals to authorities and citations of A’s opinion about B’s views on C, such as fill the pages of Dean Inge.

It is all the greater pity therefore that Professor Planck should have to appear before an English-speaking public in a volume which for bad translation and wretched proofreading exceeds anything which has yet come to my notice. I have not access to the German originals at this moment; but they are unnecessary when the translator makes Professor Planck utter statements no physicist could make, or talk scientific twaddle. The English version is further marred by an “Epilogue,” purporting to be a stenographic report of a conversation between Einstein, Planck, and the translator. The result is the kind of thing one can read in any daily paper—an “interview.” Professor Planck deserves a more dignified exit.


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