Book: The Unseen World and Other Essays
Author: John Fiske





The Unseen World and Other Essays By John Fiske

Format: Global Grey free PDF, epub, Kindle ebook
Pages (PDF): 245
Publication Date: 1876

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Summary:

John Fisk, born in Connecticut in 1842, was a Harvard educated philosopher. A fan of Charles Darwin, he championed the popular opinion of the day regarding brain size and the racial superiority of the "Anglo-Saxon race". Despite this, he was also avid anti-slavery and twenty-three years after the cessation of the American Civil War, he declared the North's victory complete "despite the feeble wails" of "unteachable bigots."
Essays in this book include: The Unseen World; “The To-Morrow Of Death.”; The Jesus Of History; The Christ Of Dogma; A Word About Miracles; Draper On Science And Religion; Nathan The Wise; Historical Difficulties; The Famine Of 1770 In Bengal; Spain And The Netherlands; Longfellow’s Dante; Paine’s “St. Peter.”; A Philosophy Of Art; and, Athenian And American Life.



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Excerpt:

“What are you, where did you come from, and whither are you bound?”— the question which from Homer’s days has been put to the wayfarer in strange lands — is likewise the all-absorbing question which man is ever asking of the universe of which he is himself so tiny yet so wondrous a part. From the earliest times the ultimate purpose of all scientific research has been to elicit fragmentary or partial responses to this question, and philosophy has ever busied itself in piecing together these several bits of information according to the best methods at its disposal, in order to make up something like a satisfactory answer. In old times the best methods which philosophy had at its disposal for this purpose were such as now seem very crude, and accordingly ancient philosophers bungled considerably in their task, though now and then they came surprisingly near what would to-day be called the truth. It was natural that their methods should be crude, for scientific inquiry had as yet supplied but scanty materials for them to work with, and it was only after a very long course of speculation and criticism that men could find out what ways of going to work are likely to prove successful and what are not. The earliest thinkers, indeed, were further hindered from accomplishing much by the imperfections of the language by the aid of which their thinking was done; for science and philosophy have had to make a serviceable terminology by dint of long and arduous trial and practice, and linguistic processes fit for expressing general or abstract notions accurately grew up only through numberless failures and at the expense of much inaccurate thinking and loose talking. As in most of nature’s processes, there was a great waste of energy before a good result could be secured. Accordingly primitive men were very wide of the mark in their views of nature. To them the world was a sort of enchanted ground, peopled with sprites and goblins; the quaint notions with which we now amuse our children in fairy tales represent a style of thinking which once was current among grown men and women, and which is still current wherever men remain in a savage condition. The theories of the world wrought out by early priest-philosophers were in great part made up of such grotesque notions; and having become variously implicated with ethical opinions as to the nature and consequences of right and wrong behaviour, they acquired a kind of sanctity, so that any thinker who in the light of a wider experience ventured to alter or amend the primitive theory was likely to be vituperated as an irreligious man or atheist. This sort of inference has not yet been wholly abandoned, even in civilized communities. Even to-day books are written about “the conflict between religion and science,” and other books are written with intent to reconcile the two presumed antagonists. But when we look beneath the surface of things, we see that in reality there has never been any conflict between religion and science, nor is any reconciliation called for where harmony has always existed. The real historical conflict, which has been thus curiously misnamed, has been the conflict between the more-crude opinions belonging to the science of an earlier age and the less-crude opinions belonging to the science of a later age. In the course of this contest the more-crude opinions have usually been defended in the name of religion, and the less-crude opinions have invariably won the victory; but religion itself, which is not concerned with opinion, but with the aspiration which leads us to strive after a purer and holier life, has seldom or never been attacked. On the contrary, the scientific men who have conducted the battle on behalf of the less-crude opinions have generally been influenced by this religious aspiration quite as strongly as the apologists of the more-crude opinions, and so far from religious feeling having been weakened by their perennial series of victories, it has apparently been growing deeper and stronger all the time. The religious sense is as yet too feebly developed in most of us; but certainly in no preceding age have men taken up the work of life with more earnestness or with more real faith in the unseen than at the present day, when so much of what was once deemed all-important knowledge has been consigned to the limbo of mythology.

The more-crude theories of early times are to be chiefly distinguished from the less-crude theories of to-day as being largely the products of random guesswork. Hypothesis, or guesswork, indeed, lies at the foundation of all scientific knowledge. The riddle of the universe, like less important riddles, is unravelled only by approximative trials, and the most brilliant discoverers have usually been the bravest guessers. Kepler’s laws were the result of indefatigable guessing, and so, in a somewhat different sense, was the wave-theory of light. But the guesswork of scientific inquirers is very different now from what it was in older times. In the first place, we have slowly learned that a guess must be verified before it can be accepted as a sound theory; and, secondly, so many truths have been established beyond contravention, that the latitude for hypothesis is much less than it once was. Nine tenths of the guesses which might have occurred to a mediaeval philosopher would now be ruled out as inadmissible, because they would not harmonize with the knowledge which has been acquired since the Middle Ages. There is one direction especially in which this continuous limitation of guesswork by ever-accumulating experience has manifested itself. From first to last, all our speculative successes and failures have agreed in teaching us that the most general principles of action which prevail to-day, and in our own corner of the universe, have always prevailed throughout as much of the universe as is accessible to our research. They have taught us that for the deciphering of the past and the predicting of the future, no hypotheses are admissible which are not based upon the actual behaviour of things in the present. Once there was unlimited facility for guessing as to how the solar system might have come into existence; now the origin of the sun and planets is adequately explained when we have unfolded all that is implied in the processes which are still going on in the solar system. Formerly appeals were made to all manner of violent agencies to account for the changes which the earth’s surface has undergone since our planet began its independent career; now it is seen that the same slow working of rain and tide, of wind and wave and frost, of secular contraction and of earthquake pulse, which is visible to-day, will account for the whole.