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The Conquest of Inner Space


ISSUE:  Spring 1959

In the intellectual climate prevailing in the mid-twentieth century it is almost a scandal to quote Alfred Tennyson, and to profess admiration for his work brands one as a tasteless Boeotian if not a subversive character yearning for the restoration of chattel slavery and the code duello.I hasten to point out, therefore, that I quote him merely to demonstrate how wrong the Eminent Victorian could be. I have in mind the lines,

 … I doubt not through the ages one increasing purpose runs, And the thoughts of men are widened with the process of the suns.

As to the increasing purpose I have no competence to speak, but it’ the thoughts of men have been appreciably widened in recent years, many of us have sadly mistaken the meaning of the word. It seems, on the contrary, obvious that they have been narrowed until today they bear almost exclusively on the point of mere physical survival, which is the measure of the thoughts of the brutes. I am persuaded that Tennyson did not dignify as thinking agitation over who should represent what constituency in Parliament, or how a Birmingham textile manufacturer might sweat out of his workers another per cent of profit. That kind of thing continues unchanged, but unless to arouse his contempt it has rarely interested a poet, even a bad one; what the writer of. “Locksley Hair’ had in mind was the thoughts of men concerning their own nature and their place in the universe; which is what he considered serious thinking.

It is not to be denied that the ambitions of men have widened prodigiously, especially in the past twenty years; but ambitions are not identical with thoughts. No doubt ambition may provoke thought, but it is not the same thing. We are now witnessing what no previous generation ever saw, namely, the ambition of men emulating that  of the flames in Poe’s imagination,

 Leaping  higher, higher, higher,

With a desperate desire style

And a resolute endeavor

Now, now to sit, or never,

By the side of the pale-faced moon.  

But it does not follow that this signalizes a widening of thought. The verb “to widen” means to extend, certainly, but it means extension in two-dimensional space. Thoughts that extend in one direction only may be lengthened, but they are not widened. The thoughts of modern man are indeed lengthened to such an enormous degree that they contemplate the establishment of man’s dominion over the abyss between the planets; but that they have been extended in the opposite direction to any comparable degree is more than the most determined optimist dare assert.

I refuse to concede that to plunge into the depths of the atom is to move in the opposite direction from endeavoring to circle around the moon. They are both movements in physical space and physical space, the great mathematicians tell us, is curved; therefore movement in physical space, indefinitely prolonged, means eventual arrival at your starting point.

This is not in fact a new idea. The notion that there is no escape by movement in physical space was conceived, if dimly, by the Orphics thousands of years before Einstein was born, and was stated definitely by the writer of Ecclesiastes: “The thing that hath been, it is that which shall be; and that which is done is that which shall be done … it hath been already of old time, which was before us.”

We describe the abyss between the stars as outer space, be­ cause it is outside of ourselves and very largely outside of our experience; but the interval between the electrons that circle in the interior of the atom is not its opposite, for it, too, is out­ side of our experience and is, properly speaking, equally outer space. The true  opposite of outer  space is the chasm that yawns between what Man is and what he might be. It is only as our dominion over that vast gulf is extended by equal steps with its extension over outer space that our thoughts are widened, and not merely lengthened.

In support of this view I offer the testimony not of theologians, moralists, or psychologists, but of some of the greatest among those men who have devoted their lives to the con­ quest of outer space. Take, for example, the declaration, made ninety years ago by the great mathematician, J. J. Sylvester: “If I were asked to name, in one word, … the central ideal which pervades as a hidden spirit the whole corpus of mathematical doctrine, I should point to Continuity as contained in our notions of space and say, it is this, it is this.” Then hear the same idea repeated fifty years later by A. N. Whitehead: “To see what is general in what is particular, and what is permanent in what is transitory, is the aim of scientific thought.” Then hear Albert Einstein speaking to a materialist in 1944: “You believe in a God who plays at dice, whereas I believe in perfect laws in a world of existing things … which I try to understand with wild speculation.” But to me the most lucid statement of all is that of the American mathematician, C. J. Keyser: “The sovereign impulse of Man is to find the answer to this question: what abides1”

The explorers of outer space have not found that answer and the greatest among them despair of finding it either among the galaxies or among the electrons. I cannot believe that any rational man would include Bertrand Russell among the mystics. On the contrary, he is acknowledged to be one of the great foes of metaphysics and his hostility to every form of organized religion has been proclaimed incessantly for many years. Russell is the very incarnation of the scientific spirit. Yet it was Russell who asserted only three years ago, “It is not only, or even principally, in knowledge that man at his best deserves admiration. Men have created beauty; they have had strange visions that seemed like the first glimpse of a land of wonder; they have been capable of love, of sympathy for the whole human race, of vast hopes for mankind as a whole.” These things, in the opinion of the scientist, are more admirable than knowledge; and he concludes with the words, “Those who are to lead the world out of its troubles will need courage, hope, and love. Whether they will prevail, I do not know; but, beyond all reason, I am unconquerably persuaded that they will.”

But courage, hope, and love are not intellectual faculties; they are emotions. They are not attributes of outer space, infinite or infinitesimal; they are attributes of the human spirit, whose realm is the opposite of outer space, but whose dimensions are no less vast. This same philosopher, Russel1, has uttered the dictum that Man is the equal of all that he can understand. It is a startling utterance when one considers the extent of the understanding of outer space that man has attained in recent years. It was a mere rhetorical question when the writer of Job imagined God asking, “Canst thou bind the sweet influence of Pleiades, or loose the bands of Orion? or canst thou guide Arcturus with his sons?” It remained rhetorical up to fifty years ago, but there is an increasing probability that within the predictable future Job may answer, “Yes,” so swiftly is our understanding of outer space advancing; for with understanding comes dominion.

But in this same passage other questions are linked with these, and some remain rhetorical to this day. For instance: “Knowest thou the ordinances of heaven 1canst thou set the dominion thereof in the earth? Who hath put wisdom in the inward parts? or who hath given understanding to the heart?” To these even the twentieth century man can do no more than echo the words of Job: “what shall I answer thee? I will lay mine hand upon my mouth.”

We have developed the intellectual faculties of man into an instrument of such power and precision as was never imagined by any earlier generation. This is not to say that we have produced mightier minds. It is doubtful that the world has ever seen a greater mathematician than Archimedes, or a greater philosopher than Plato; hut any university can pro­ duce mathematicians and philosophers who can perform tasks beyond the utmost effort of the ancients, because the moderns work with instruments that have been enormously improved.

The intellectual instruments, however, are devised almost exclusively for the conquest of outer space; we have achieved no such refinement of the emotional instruments that alone are useful for the conquest of the infinite depths of the human spirit, instruments by which we may hope to establish dominance over the inner space that we call by various names, heart, spirit, soul, but which is greater than the abyss between the stars. Arithmetic, algebra, geometry we have improved so vastly in recent years that Robert Oppenheimer remarked the other day that almost all now known about them was not in any book when he went to school; and certainly they have been carried far beyond the understanding of those of us who have no skill in science. But where is the like improvement of courage, hope, love, the emotional instruments that Russell said are indispensable by those who shall lead us out of our troubles?

Those who may object that the emotions are absolute and to talk of their improvement is nonsense are themselves guilty of changing the meaning of the word “improvement” be­ tween two statements. As applied to intellectual achievements its meaning is undisputed.  The Theory of Groups, for example, is a branch of mathematics so abstruse that long and rigorous scientific training is required to understand it at all, and the greatest mathematicians have not yet completely explored its implications. Yet it is actually arithmetic and we have no doubt that the elements were acting in accordance with the Theory of Groups before the human species appeared on the face of the earth. Nothing in the physical universe was changed when Galois introduced the theory little more than a century ago; yet to say that he improved arithmetic is a statement that  everyone understands.  What it means is that he improved our comprehension of that branch of knowledge.

Such an abstraction as courage may be discussed in the same way. The concept is an absolute. Courage is courage, and to talk about improving it, or developing it, or refining it is to talk nonsense. But my understanding and appreciation of courage is another matte1·; that is capable of vast improvement. As much may be said of other emotional endowments, including hope and love as well as others not mentioned by Russell.

Is any real progress being made along that line? I presume to doubt it. It seems to me that the history of the first half of the twentieth century is a flat refutation of all man’s claims to have developed his emotional nature much beyond the point reached by the ancient Greeks shortly after the dawn of the history of ideas. I am not a complete cynic. I do not believe that modern man is ethically no improvement whatever on his remote ancestors. But I am merely echoing the consensus of the wisest in pointing out that his ethical progress has been very slow indeed by comparison with his intellectual progress, so slow that many powerful minds have denied him credit for any progress at all.

The counsel of despair attributes this to what it calls the impossibility of changing human nature. Yet to think is a part of human nature, and only a lunatic would claim that there has been no change in our ways of thinking since the days of Plato, to say nothing of ancient Babylon and Egypt. We have changed our ways of thinking tremendously in the three centuries since Bacon attacked Aristotle and Descartes wrote the “Discourse on Method.” No one denies that modern science represents a new way of thinking.

If human nature can be changed in that respect, why not in another? If intellectual man can be altered by the introduction of a new way of thinking, why should it be ruled impossible for emotional man to be altered by the introduction of a new way of feeling? The conventional answer is, because emotion is not subject to will. But three centuries, or at most five centuries ago that same answer would have been applied to the intellectual faculties, and it was not finally discarded until about a century ago when Riemann sunk the idea forever with his non-Euclidean geometries.

Our basic error has been exposed a thousand times. Plato made it clear with his famous analogy of the prisoners in the cave, who could not distinguish between the two kinds of reality, and mistook the shadow-shapes for substance: but Plato himself faltered when he failed to admit the reality of the shadows as equal to that of the opaque objects  that cast them  Innumerable thinkers since his time have noted this failure, but so far without much effect. We are still capable of no more than a dim perception of the two realities, which I have referred to as outer space and inner space, and which count­ less other men have called by countless other names.

It is hard for us to manage a clear perception because of a very ancient error, which began to he corrected only with the introduction of the scientific method. It was the error of applying our emotional powers to purposes which they were never fit to serve. The March Hare in “Alice in Wonderland,” tried to correct his watch by applying butter to the works and would not be convinced of his error  because, as he pointed out, it was the very best butter. The March Hare was mad. Draw your own conclusions about people who expect to understand the physical universe by an act of faith.

But today we are in danger of falling into the converse error. Our attempts to deal with outer space through our emotional equipment were such disastrous failures, and our success was so prodigious when we began to use our intellectual equipment exclusively, that some men, including some of immense learning and great brilliance, have come to believe that our emotional equipment is only an incumbrance. Far from considering its strengthening and development worth our best efforts, they contend for its increasingly rigid control, if it cannot be eliminated altogether.

The high priest of this sect was Karl Marx, prophet of the faith that is called dialectical materialism, but he has had many successors who repudiate the faith, yet accept its fundamental error. These are the anti-Communists who propose to fight Communism with Communistic weapons—the ancient heresy of fighting the devil with fire.

They are injecting into the modern mind, and specifically into American thought, innumerable ideas of questionable worth; but at the moment their most vigorous effort in this country is to concentrate almost ail the energy of the educational system upon the problem of the conquest of outer space, meaning by that the interval between the electron and those farther galaxies whose inconceivable distance and velocity are hinted at, rather than revealed, by the displacement of the lines in their spectra. These people justify their view by the assertion that scientific education for the production of engineers is essential to our physical survival and must not be impeded by any waste of available energy on other objects.

It is highly significant that this intense concentration is advocated only by scientists of the second rank. The greatest minds in the scientific world are hesitant, not without reason. These have proceeded so far beyond the bounds of ordinary men’s thoughts that they have analyzed matter, energy, and time out of individual existence and into nothing more than different aspects of being. And there they have been stopped, not, as they believe, because there is nothing further to be learned, but because the intellectual instruments which they have thus far used successfully fail at that barrier.

Men of the first rank without exception are aware that the ultimate achievement of the scientific approach has been to endow mankind, not with the more abundant life which was the object sought, but with power to exterminate the species, and perhaps to destroy the globe that the species inhabits. They are agreed also that this 1·esult is due, not to any inherent defect in the scientific method, but to our failure to achieve moral control over human nature equal in efficiency to our intellectual control over non-human nature. But the establishment of moral control is not within the field of physical science. Some other agency must be entrusted with that task.

To date the one agency we have devised that has shown any appreciable efficiency in this field is the method of education, religious perhaps, but certainly humane in the literary sense of the word, that is to say, dealing with the finer qualities of humanity. The inescapable inference is, it seems to me, that the present moment demands, not the relegation to the background of such studies, but their strengthening and broadening by all possible means. What means are possible I do not assume to say, but it takes no professional training in the techniques of education to be sure that they must include one element of the scientific method—its respect for truth as against any and all opinion.

For it is no more certain that fields of force exist in the physical world than it is that there exists in mankind some­ thing that we call greatness, very unevenly distributed throughout the race, but perhaps not totally lacking anywhere. Yet we have not as yet even the crude beginnings of a general field theory that would give this quality unity even as tenuous as the unity that Einstein’s efforts have given to the movement of the electrons and the movement of the galaxies.

If the sovereign impulse of man is indeed to discover what abides, surely this is as promising an avenue of approach as that of investigations that have already gone far toward the dissolution of energy, mass, and time into a common flux to which we have not been able as yet to ascribe a name and whose characteristic features, if it has any, are completely unknown to us. Certainly nothing that abides has been discovered in that direction. It is only a few months since half the theoretical structure of mathematical physics crashed, and will have to be rebuilt from the ground up, following the discovery by two Russian scientists of movement that apparently is faster than the speed of light; for the supposition, now shattered, that the speed of light is the ultimate velocity was the basis of a great part of our theorizing.

Yet if the discovery of the Russians is confirmed beyond debate within the next six months science will not long be impeded, nor will scientists be much perturbed. For science has ever been accustomed to having its central theories demolished and its most cherished systems thrown into confusion. I was once told by an eminent physicist, then sixty-five years old, that he had had to learn his subject three several times because new discoveries had twice knocked the foundations from under it. But far from despairing he was complacent, because whereas it took him twelve years to gain the doctorate in physics the first time, on the second occasion he mastered the completely new science in five years, and the third time in two. “I am,” he said, “an educated man, because I have learned how to study.”

It is my belief that there is a parable for the non-scientific world in this. If men had learned how to study the humanities as this man had learned how to study physics, I do not believe that Einstein and Fermi, Oppenheimer and Szilard would ever have stood appalled by their own success in putting into the hands of mankind forces so powerful that their limit is not yet guessed. For if there is, as Heisenberg hopes soon to prove, a discoverable relation between the movement of Aldebaran, that great sun in the Hyades, and that of the proton in the hydrogen atom, then assuredly there is a relation be­ tween the forces that moved Socrates to accept the hemlock, Christ to accept Golgotha, and millions of unknown men and women down to our own time to accept duty in preference to life.

The theologian answers briskly, “But there is no mystery about that force; it is God.” The sectarian answers even more briskly, “More than that, it is my God, not yours, and I will cut your throat if you deny it.” But if it comes to that, Heisenberg can just as readily give a name to the object of his study. It is order. That much was known to Heraclitus, who lived five hundred years before the star stood over Bethlehem. What interests the scientist is not the existence of order, but the way in which it manifests itself through phenomena; and I submit that he has learned a great deal more about it than we have learned about the way in which the force that the theologian and the sectarian call God manifests itself through human beings.

The logical way of approach to this knowledge is so obvious that its reiteration is a banality.


Know then thyself, presume not God to scan;

‘The proper study of mankind is man,


has been dinned into our ears by every prophet, priest, and sage since Thales, but not to good enough effect to deter the race from coming to the brink of self-destruction because its knowledge of the fields of force in outer space is so vastly greater than its knowledge of the fields of control in inner space.

Is this, then, the moment to subordinate the study of man­ kind to the study of the atoms and the stars? It seems to me that the reverse is true. Our need to know more about the forces that transform mass into energy is far less urgent than our need to know more about the forces that transform some specimens of the animal genus Homointo saints and heroes. For the transmutation of mass into energy on a large enough scale could precipitate the apocalyptic catastrophe when “every island fled away and the mountains were not found” hut the transfiguration of ordinary men into saints and heroes on a large enough scale would bring us very close to the prophet’s vision of a new heaven and a new earth.

Possibly there are those who will scorn this as merely another plea for a revival of religion. If it be so, so be it, but it is not presented as such. To call for a revival of religion is a very dangerous thing unless one defines religion in a way that will please no sectarian. For all the great religions that the world has ever seen are contaminated with human blood. Christianity, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddism—each has a dreadful record of fomenting fratricidal strife. The reason, no doubt, is that in every such case the religion in question has been perverted from its original function. But that is precisely the evil that has overtaken modern science.

In any event, I have no intention of propagandizing for a particular faith, for I know of none that cannot be, or that has not been at some time prostituted to the service of murderous passion. But I do think that a sincere and whole­ hearted search for the answer to the question, what abides?, cannot be so prostituted. The Psalmist made the same query in different words. He asked, “What is man that thou art mindful of him1and the son of man that thou visitest him?” I believe that the whole purpose of study of the humanities is to seek an answer to that question. The answer is to be sought in that unknown factor in the human psyche that somehow corresponds to the order that we have observed in outer space; and to understand that factor would give us dominion over inner space that would qualify us for rulership over those vast physical regions that we have thus far penetrated only with our engines of war.

To qualify for that rulership, according to Russell, we must have courage, hope, and love. But what is the analysis of courage? What is its relationship to hope? In what manner and to what extent do the three emotions act and react upon each other?  The supreme achievement of physical science, they tell us, is Einstein’s proof that Eequals mmultiplied by c-square, where Eis energy, mis mass, and c is the speed of light. This is the measure of force in the physical universe. But let us try a substitution. On the left-hand side of the equation instead of Erepresenting energy let us substitute Lrepresenting love. Where is the Einstein who can write the rest of that equation? I do not know, but I am persuaded that the man who could do it would measure the force of the metaphysical universe wherein originated the mind that now reaches for dominion over outer space.

But the approach to this knowledge is not through the cyclotron and the cloud chamber, or through the spectroscope and sky-maps. It is through study of those specimens of man­ kind who are plainly centers of fields of spiritual force, that is to say, study of the heroes and saints and sages who live among us or who have lived in the past and have left records that command belief. The creators of beauty, the establishers of justice, the exemplars of holiness, the martyrs of truth there is a quality common to all of these that we call greatness, but for which we have no formula, no equation, no theory, and therefore have but a dim and wavering understanding of its nature. Yet our need to understand it is urgent and becomes more pressing every day, for it is plain that unless we somehow rise to greatness we are doomed to destruction and that at no distant day.

The poet is a phenomenon no less difficult to explain than the streak upon a photographic plate that traces the path of a fragment of a shattered atom. The Parthenon, the Sistine Madonna, the Ninth Symphony, “Hamlet,” are further beyond our understanding than the displacement of the lines in the spectra of the outermost galaxies. At least we have a consistent theory about the displacement, but none about genius. Our one certainty is that none of the theories that are tenable as applied to outer space is of the slightest utility in explaining the forces that move, not Arcturus and the electron, but the hearts of men.

Yet those forces misunderstood, misguided, misapplied are capable of turning our great scientific achievements against us to our utter ruin. When we shall imitate Herod’s massacre of the innocents by hurling the hydrogen bomb upon some great city, only proximately will Hell-Gate be opened by plutonium.  Ultimately, the thing will be triggered, not by radioactivity, but by inertia-by the fact that the forces of terror, despair, and hatred in the inner spaces of the human heart have not been checked and balanced and brought into order by the counter-forces of courage, hope, and love. Surely it is not unreasonable to believe that we have failed to employ the counter-forces effectively because we do not know enough about them, never having studied them with the sharpness of perception and the unflinching loyalty to truth with which scientific method has investigated the outer world.

In a recent magazine article Granville Hicks speculated with astonishment on the inadequacy of our measurement of love. Some of its aspects we have studied to good effect. Maternal, fraternal, filial, and sexual love we have recognized and pretty well defined; but when all these have been accounted for there remains an over-plus of good will called vaguely love of mankind. Hicks observes that we know that it exists, but have no clear idea of its extent, or of its potential energy, and he is persuaded that to fill in this gap in our knowledge is as promising an adventure as any further investigation of outer space.

It is an arresting thought. It supplies at least a tentative answer to those cynics who decry any vigorous effort to eliminate such things as the organized murder that we call war. Such efforts are wasted, declare the cynics, because we can’t change human nature.  Perhaps we can’t. But perhaps we should have no need to change it if we knew more about it and especially about its latent energies.  We understand well enough the ruthless logic that decreed the execution of Edith Cavell in the First World War; but we have a very inadequate perception of what the force was that  made this—to that  date—undistinguished woman go to her death saying, “Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness toward anyone.”

Nevertheless, it is this force, and this force alone, that will save humanity if it is to be saved from destruction consequent upon its mastery of outer space far more completely than its mastery of the inner man. I submit, therefore, that investigation of this force should be the supreme effort of modern education; for in our present situation the analysis of greatness takes priority over any other investigation that scholars can pursue.

Obviously the one reasonable way of trying to achieve that analysis is by constant, intensive study of manifestations of the force wherever we can find them. This is the case for augmenting rather than subordinating study of the humanities, not in schools and colleges only, but wherever men are struggling with the perplexities of the modern world, seeking to think their way through the doubts and obscurities that have brought many to the brink of despair. For the constantly repeated appearance of greatness where no one expected to find it is conclusive proof of our inability to set limits to its prevalence or to calculate its power. More intensive study of its manifestations might give us some inkling of unsuspected energies, not merely in those whom we recognize as great, but also in those who seem to us quite ordinary men and women; and this, in turn, might lead us to methods of drawing out and enhancing the quality. Once in possession of this secret we could contemplate without anxiety the most stupendous achievements of physical science, for we should then be assured that all the forces of outer space as they are brought into our possession will also be brought within our control.

In all this, of course, I have said nothing new. It is only a repetition of unheeded advice given us many centuries ago. My whole plea for the humanities was summed up in the words of a very old book: “whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.”


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