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Tolerance and the New Knowledge

ISSUE:  Autumn 1929

Two events of incalculable consequence have, during this last year, stirred the intellectual life of the world. The first is the plan, made possible through the gift of six million dollars by the International Education Board, to construct a two-hundred-inch reflecting telescope in California. This new instrument, when built, will penetrate twice as far into space as the largest telescope we now possess, bringing us into contact with those outposts of the universe that have beckoned from immemorial times. With our present instruments we have detected objects so far away in space and time that light, traveling at the rate of 186,000 miles a second, takes 140 million years to come from them to us. That is, we see these remote celestial bodies not as they are today, but as they were 140 million years ago. What is going to happen when we are able to reach out twice as far into the universe? What new things shall we see? What new conceptions of time and space shall we gain? What new ideas as to the origin of matter and of life and the place of man—if he has any place—in all this vast, illimitable complexity?

The second event which has stirred the imagination of the world during this last year is the announcement of Einstein’s new formula for linking up electro-magnetic forces and mechanical forces. Gravitation is no longer an isolated phenomenon; there is a unity of energy in the universe which earlier physicists and mathematicians, working in three instead of four dimensional space, apparently, did not detect.

What this new formula of Einstein may mean in its practical consequences I as a layman do not pretend to know. I doubt if anyone today can forecast its implications. It is important because the earlier pronouncement of Einstein on relativity has so profoundly influenced the thought of the world. Twenty years ago we used such expressions as the “real length of a rod,” or “true length,” or simply “the length,” and believed we knew what we meant. But Einstein showed us that these words had no meaning. All we can know about “length” must come from measurements which involve relative factors. “Length” under one set of conditions is not “length” obtained under another. In other words, absolute factors cannot be discussed. The word “absolute” has no meaning, and its disappearance from the dictionary of physics has had a far-reaching effect in other fields of thought in which the word has been freely used— in philosophy, in ethics, and in law. Whether the new doctrine of Einstein, announced this year, will in the same fundamental fashion modify the thinking of men remains to be seen. Certainly a new age in natural science and in philosophy, has dawned with this great German mathematician.


I mention these two events—the telescope and the Einstein theory—because they illustrate in a dramatic way the change that has occurred in our reactions to the discovery of truth. Except for a somewhat ill-tempered comment from Cardinal O’Connell of Boston, as far as I know there has been no criticism of the telescope or of the Einstein formula on the ground that they imperiled the faith of mankind or threatened the established order of ideas. Nobody has suggested a heresy trial or has rushed into print to defend the Ark of the Covenant against impious hands. There has been no vituperation of Einstein such as was hurled at his earlier compeers: Copernicus, Newton, and Darwin. The instinctively hostile attitude of our forefathers to anything that might disturb their settled modes and patterns of thought seems, at first glance at least, to have given way to a tolerance, indeed to a fearlessness, which is quite new in the history of mankind.

It was only three centuries ago that an eminent scholar, Francesco Sizzi, arguing against the discovery of the satellites of Jupiter which Galileo had made with his little two-and-three-quarter-inch telescope, gave voice to the following pronouncement:

There are seven windows in the head, two nostrils, two eyes, two ears, and a mouth; so in the heavens there are two favorable stars, two unpropitious, two luminaries, and Mercury alone undecided and indifferent. From which and many, other similar phenomena of nature, such as the seven metals, etc., which it were tedious to enumerate, we gather that the number of planets is necessarily seven.

Moreover, the satellites are invisible to the naked eye, and therefore can have no influence upon the earth, and therefore would be useless, and therefore do not exist.

Besides, the Jews and other ancient nations as well as modern Europeans have adopted the division of the week into seven days, and have named them from the seven planets ; now if we increase the number of the planets this whole system falls to the ground.

With the weight of the intellectual and religious forces of his time against him, and with the Inquisition staring him in the face, the seventy year old Galileo, broken in mind and body, gave way under the strain.

It was less than two hundred years ago that Newton was pilloried from the pulpits of England and America as a “dangerous man” whose hypotheses were “delusive and arbitrary and contrary to Scripture.” “They tend toward infidelity,” said John Wesley in one of his milder moments.

It is within the memory of people now living that Darwin’s books in 1859 and 1871 were met with a torrent of abuse and misrepresentation almost without parallel. “These infamous doctrines,” said a Roman Catholic churchman in France, “have for their only, support the most abject passions. Their father is pride, their mother impurity, their offspring revolutions. They come from hell and return thither, taking with them the gross creatures who blush not to proclaim and accept them.” Similar expressions came from Princeton and Yale and other educational institutions here in the United States. When Darwin died in 1882 and was buried in Westminster Abbey, the Reverend Dr. Laing referred to it as “a proof that England is no longer a Christian country” — a sentiment which received and has continued to receive cordial support in certain limited circles.

But today when Einstein comes with his revolutionary thesis, what happens? The leading journals all over the world give columns of space to it, printing dozens of articles by mathematicians and physicists as to its meaning and significance. One enterprizing New York paper had the text with all its obscure mathematical symbols transmitted from Berlin by telephotography and printed a facsimile of the result. Everywhere Einstein is hailed as a genius, a seer, a pioneer working on the far frontiers of human knowledge. On his recent birthday he had to hide himself to escape the congratulations and importunities of a friendly and inquisitive world.

Similarly when the announcement of the new gigantic telescope was made, it was greeted with universal approval and acclaim. Religious and secular journals alike spoke with enthusiasm of this new instrument that would search out the secrets of space and widen the horizons of human understanding.

Apparently our generation has entered upon a new era in its attitude toward the advancement of knowledge. It seems a far cry. to the days when Dr. James Young Simpson, a Scotch physician, was vilified from Protestant and Catholic pulpits because he advocated the use of anaesthetics in obstetrical cases; and yet this occurred in the days of our grandfathers. It seems long ago that the writings of Herbert Spencer and Thomas Huxley were banned in American college libraries; and yet this occurred in the days of our fathers. It is difficult to believe that measures for the control of yellow fever were savagely fought in America and elsewhere because they “interfered with God’s rights eous judgments on the sins of the people”; and yet this occurred in our time. But, except in isolated and backward sections, this attitude apparently is behind us. Science has won its victory; the forces that opposed it have gone down in ignominious defeat. We have entered an age that is thirsty for knowledge—an age where

“Thoughts that great hearts once broke for, we Breathe cheaply in the common air.”


But perhaps it would be wise to be a little cautious in our optimism. For nearly seventy years Copernicus slumbered in his grave before the significance of his doctrine was really understood. It was not until the truth of his thesis was established by the telescope of Galileo that the world woke up to its peril. If today we completely grasped the revolutionary implications of Einstein’s principle of relativity, I am not at all sure that history would not repeat itself, and a new martyr be added to the long list of those who have suffered for truth’s sake.

For Einstein’s principle, as we have seen, involves far more than a mathematical formula. We are asked to stretch our imaginations to new horizons just as people had to do under the prodding of Copernicus to grasp the idea that down is not a fixed direction. Just as the first physical synthesis centered around the lives of Copernicus and Galileo and destroyed the old Aristotelian conceptions of mankind which were buttressed by philosophy and religion and by all the accepted traditions and prejudices of the age, so this new synthesis which Einstein proposes is demanding a reconsideration of ideas to which the centuries have given sanctity and respectability. As Keyser puts it: “The old cosmic absolutes—absolute space, absolute time, absolute matter, absolute natural law, absolute truth—are gone.” Nothing is fixed; nothing is final. Time and space turn out to be nothing more than the relations established between the mind and the things that it observes, and the relations vary according as the observant mind is still or moving. The axioms of Euclidian geometry, which we were taught at school, are true only under certain conditions; under other conditions they are not necessarily true. The test of a simple arithmetical formula is no longer whether in the abstract it is true or false, but whether it is applicable; a scientist will try one kind of mathematics after another in order to find one that fits his immediate problem. “Natural laws” like Newton’s law of gravitation are not laws at all; they do not represent final or ultimate truth; they are merely interpretations of human experience subject to the possibility of reformulation. Even “facts” can no longer be thought of as “ultimate elements in experience which always were and always will be what they, are.” They are the result of correlation and interpretation; and in the light of new experience to re-interpret a fact is essentially to change it. Consequently absolute truth cannot be captured by a syllogism or pinned down by a microscope. We can approach it, but it is always just ahead of us; our fate is constantly to pursue it and never quite catch up with it. In the words of Mr. Justice Holmes, “Certainty is illusion and repose is not the destiny of man.”

You see what Einstein is doing to us. The reign of relativity inaugurated by the natural sciences is working a revolution, deep, noiseless, but inevitable, in all the views and institutions of man. It is far more of a solvent for the “eternal verities” than either the Copernican or Darwinian theory. For if truth is not fixed and absolute, what becomes of all the ideas which we have so fondly based upon that conception—our ideas of religion, of law, of governmerit, of conduct, of ethics? If there are no spiritual mathematics applicable to all situations—no immutable measuring-rod for human ideas and ideals—no certainties upon which we can lay our hands and say, “Here at last is truth” —then life seems suddenly a chaos, and we can appreciate something of the bewilderment and hostility of those scarlet-clad cardinals of the Church before whom Galileo stood to plead his cause, as they tried to understand his startling thesis that contrary to the Scriptures this earth which God had so peculiarly made his own was not the center of the solar system, but that with other planets it revolved about the sun.


No less a threat to accepted ideas is the new telescope in California. Copernicus and Galileo and Newton never dreamed in terms of our modern astronomy. The earth might revolve about the sun, but the sun was still the center of the universe. Not for them were the conclusions to which astrophysics and other sciences have led us in this generation. Instead of a world six thousand years old, spontaneously created, we now have a planet that is probably two thousand million years old, evolving through leisurely immensities of time out of a universe of distances in which our particular solar system is contemptibly insignificant. The human race that for half a million years or so has hugged the earth and fought for supremacy with the animal and vegetable kingdom with which it is akin is traveling through space on “a dwarf planet revolving around a dwarf star.” Why we are here, where we came from, what consciousness really is, whether in the thousand million stars in this particular universe there are planetary systems supporting forms of life with which conceivably we might communicate, whether indeed the whole cosmic business may not be a dream—and we “the brain-cells in the mind of the dreamer”—these are questions unanswered and perhaps unanswerable. But they are questions, nevertheless, that for centuries to come will summon into being telescopes and laboratories, and with increasing attraction beckon adventurous minds to the frontiers of knowledge. They are questions, too, that in our own day will test our claim to tolerance, and measure up our generation against the generation that stamped on the grave of Copernicus and brought Galileo to his knees.


It is when science begins to turn questioning eyes upon things that are related to our daily living and thinking that tolerance seems suddenly to desert us. After all, we are not apt to be greatly upset by new conceptions in the realm of physics or chemistry or mathematics—or even of biology in many of its phases. These things are too far away from the lives of most of us to be disturbing. But let any one lay heavy hands upon our ideas of government or religion or economics or social relations: how swift is the throw-back to Copernican days! With scarcely the change of a word the invectives and arguments employed by Martin Luther against Copernicus, by John Wesley against Newton, by Bishop Wilberforce against Darwin, are used today against those who propose innovation or experiment in our social institutions. The mental world of most of us consists of beliefs which we have accepted without questioning and to which we are emotionally attached; and we are instinctively hostile to anything that upsets this familiar environment of ideas.

This reaction, which we probably share with our ancestors of the Tertiary Period, is due in part to the conservative tendency of collective thought. It is due in part, too, to the fundamental timidity of the human mind. More than to anything else, perhaps, it is due to lethargy. A new idea, inconsistent with accepted beliefs, involves the necessity of rearranging our minds; and this process is frankly laborious. For many, of us, therefore, opinions which cast doubt on the validity and worth of our institutions seem evil because the process of adjusting them to our present stock of beliefs requires a disagreeable expenditure of mental energy.

Whatever the cause, intolerance of new ideas is still firmly rooted in the human mind. Our easy optimism arising from the victory of the natural sciences and the spread of the scientific method is soon dispelled as we see the old battle line still intact—traditionalism and prejudice in full array against new beliefs and new inquiries and new solutions for old evils. It is one thing to question the validity of Newton’s law of gravitation or the theory of the conservation of matter; it seems to be quite another thing to question the Constitution of the United States or the theory of democracy. Recently three members of the faculty of the University of Missouri were dismissed because they sent out a questionnaire that had to do with sex relations; they were approaching this confused problem in the same spirit with which Einstein approached the problem arising from the inapplicability, of ordinary physics and geometry to the universe. Not long ago two teachers at the State Normal School in West Chester, Pennsylvania, were dismissed because they sponsored a liberal club that was opposed by the local chapter of the American Legion. The purpose of this club was to ask questions about property and capitalism and international relations—just as the chemists and physicists in our schools and colleges are asking questions about all sorts of accepted principles which the past has handed down. Apparently a man is either a scientist or a dangerous radical dependent upon the material with which he works. If his theories have to do with the relations of atoms, he is a scholar; if they have to do with the relations of human beings, he is doubtless a Bolshevik who ought to be watched.

It is obvious, of course, that no such line can be drawn between sacred and profane inquiry, between investigation that is permissible and investigation that is banned. We are living in an age when the authority of tradition is being superseded by pragmatic test. All things, old and new, must be put on their merits. No longer are there any domains of thought or experience or emotion over whose entrances a “Keep Out” sign can be maintained against the inquisitive and questioning spirit. No social form or institution, no doctrine hallowed by tradition, no code of conduct, can escape critical examination and analysis. Every social fact and phenomenon must constantly be reinterpreted and given its current value, regardless of its bearing on personal interests or its effect upon cherished theories. It is truth that we must seek—truth that forever eludes us—and it is the search for truth that shall set us free.

To us who are interested in or connected with universities this attitude becomes a supreme obligation. The closed mind, the intolerant mind, is always an anachronism; in an institution of learning it is a hideous anachronism. A university, should be the home of the untrammeled and the unafraid—where eager and skeptical spirits gaze at the phenomenon of mankind and at the far-flung world with frank ingenuous interest. A university should be a place where nothing is taken for granted, where everything must prove itself, where any kind of question may be asked, where freedom is unabridged to observe, to think, to write, and to speak. A university should create an atmosphere in which a Galileo or a Darwin would feel at home; in which a Karl Marx or a Lenin or a Judge Lindsey would be welcomed for any contribution he might conceivably make to our advancing knowledge.

Over the doors of our universities might well be written these words: “Here is a home where brave spirits may search and understand.” Too often there are no such words. Instead there is a note scribbled on the gate-post in the language of Luigi Lucatelli: “Farewell, good Sirs: I am leaving for the future. I shall wait for humanity at the cross-roads, three hundred years hence.”


It must be admitted that tolerance is not an easy virtue to achieve. Our beliefs are generally group beliefs, and we like to think with the herd. Herd beliefs are always surcharged with strong emotion which colors them with sanctity and inviolability. To be asked to be tolerant of an individual opinion that is flying in the face of what the mass of mankind has accepted as truth is apt to fill us with incredulous and resentful amazement.

This amazement becomes all the more marked when we are confronted with the demand which the new knowledge is making of us in this generation. For we are asked to regard all truth not as an objective that can be reached by any person or any age, but as a slowly retreating figure that beckons us from one concept to another. It is not a new request; philosophy framed it years ago. But it has now been reinforced and strengthened so that its insistence is compelling. Just as some modem encyclopaedias are put together on the loose-leaf principle in order that fresh pages can be inserted as more accurate and extensive information is acquired, so we are asked to have loose-leaf minds, from which old ideas can be taken out and thrown away as new ideas are discovered. On no subject has the last word been said. In regard to no belief is there an element of finality. Throughout the entire range of human knowledge and experience everything is and must remain in a state of perpetual flux.

Here is a call for tolerance with which perhaps no other age has been challenged. For it has been the fatuous but inextinguishable conviction of every generation that however many erroneous ideas may have previously been held, at last, in its own day, truth has been finally reached. “The past,” said Beccaria, “is a vast sea of errors,” presumably, implying that they had all been corrected in his time. Nothmg is more pathetic in human history than the arrogant dogmatism with which each generation has proclaimed its discovery of the truth. In theology, Calvin laid down the final word in his day; a century later Cotton Mather modified it; a generation later Jonathan Edwards gave it an entirely new setting; while modern theologians have altered the entire structure. In philosophy one dogmatism has succeeded another for nearly three thousand years, each outmoded by the next. In the field of law, the belief of each generation in its own concept of justice has reached supreme heights of pathos and absurdity. Natural science shows no better record. In my own college days I remember a professor of chemistry telling his class that the great period of chemistry and physics had passed; most of the ninety-two elements had been discovered; the structure of matter was known; and there was little left for the future to do. And then came Rutherford and Eddington and Niels Bohr and Millikan—opening up vistas so far ahead that we now think of physics and chemistry as merely in their infancy.

If the new knowledge has done nothing else, it has sounded the doom of dogmatism. The old certitudes are slowly losing ground. Already in many sections of our encyclopaedia we insert the new pages without question. And when we stop to think of it, this demand that is made on us for loose-leaf minds is not a presumptuous challenge to the integrity and dignity of the race. For as time runs in our planetary, history it was only a few minutes ago that man began to think at all. We are just around the corner from our animal ancestors, just up from savagery. How can we, in this early stage of our development, seriously imagine that with our little inductive and deductive tools we have succeeded in carving out any substantial segment of ultimate truth about either ourselves or this vast universe in which we are adrift? And how tame and colorless the future would seem if we had to look forward to countless generations living with the beliefs about right and wrong and justice and time and space which they had inherited from us and which, because we had hit upon the correct answers, they had not been tempted to disturb!


But let us not underestimate the difficulties which this generation faces if it admits—as it must ultimately admit —that no page in the encyclopaedia can permanently remain in place. It is here that we confront the necessity for readjustment and adaptation on a stupendous scale. How can we build within the framework of shifting knowledge an equilibrium for daily life? How can we keep the trains running when the railroad must be constantly under repair?

Let me say at once that I do not know the answers to these questions. Moreover, I do not believe anybody knows the answers. Some writers like Joseph Wood Krutch in his recent brilliant book, “The Modern Temper,” are frankly, pessimistic. According to them, philosophy and ethics have collapsed as interpreters of knowledge and experience in terms that have human values. Consequently an intolerable disharmony is growing and will continue to j grow between man and the universe as science little by little j takes away the props which have shored up his age-long conviction that somehow or other the universe responded to his needs and ideals.

And yet pessimism is not a mood that can permanently prevail. It is only a temporary harbor for the discouraged, a halfway house up the mountain for shelter during the storm. It is the natural reaction from an age of great discovery and change. Philosophic pessimism marked the thinking of the world after the revolution in human thought which Copernicus created. Similarly, in religious circles at least, Darwin’s work resulted in a cloud of uncertainty and gloom. Any idea which wrenches our minds out of old ruts and necessitates a rapid readjustment is inevitably accomparried, for most of us, at least, with discomfort and despondency. A new conception frightens us, and like children who would hide their faces in their mothers’ skirts, we rush back to the familiar surroundings of old ideas— only to be tempted to look again, and gradually to accustom ourselves to the thing that is novel and strange.

Man does not remain long discouraged over anything. His gradual mastery, of this planet in the face of incredible obstacles has been due to his capacity to adapt himself to any kind of untoward condition that his environment or his own nature might create. Again and again he has had to shift his mental and physical habits as situations which he never knew before have blocked his path. As one sees him fighting for his life with the early mammals, struggling for survival through the ice ages, pitting his slowly developing brain against Nature’s recurring hazards, shocked into new modes of existence by, the discovery of new weapons, tirelessly building his little systems of philosophy in an attempt to explain himself and the universe he lives in—surely no one can say that this strange and indomitable creature is going down in defeat before the flood of new knowledge that in this generation has been poured across the world. It is only another one of Nature’s hazards. The same tenacious courage and the same tough adaptability that have saved him a thousand times in the past will save him again.

And there is this additional circumstance which gives hope. Man is now deliberately embarked on a wide-flung campaign to enlarge the boundaries of his own knowledge. With a determination that is almost presumptuous he has set out to learn the secrets of the universe — whether they are hidden in himself, in the tiniest atom, or in the immense reaches of space. He is constructing laboratories, he is thrusting out his gigantic telescopes, he is evolving abstruse mathematical symbols as engines of expression, he is slowly fumbling his way toward new techniques in psychology—and all for one daring purpose: to bring the universe and himself within the grasp of his own intelligence. That he can never achieve this purpose does not deter him. Finality will forever elude him, but perhaps he can trace out certain tendencies, certain trends upon which he can get a compass sight. Perhaps he can find the paths where Truth has walked. Although he can never grasp her hand, he will be able with conviction to say: “It was from this point that Truth seemed to beckon last.”

Here is a basis—small and cramped as it may seem — upon which he can establish an equilibrium. No larger was the basis upon which the followers of Copernicus rebuilt their shattered world. Here is the tentative beginning of a possible creed: that it is not truth, but the search for truth, that will set man free. It is through knowledge—and still more knowledge—that he will win, not peace but perspective, not certainty but tolerance. And it is through tolerance that he will find, not repose, but an enlarging vision.


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