” Confronting mankind there stands a sphinx- the vast Unknown. However well a man may be informed concerning a special subject, his farthermost outlook concerning that subject is bounded by an impenetrable infinity.”
” Granted,” I interrupted, ” that mankind has not by any means attained a condition of perfection, yet you must admit that questions once regarded as inscrutable problems are now illuminated by the discoveries of science.”
” And the ? discovered,? as I will show, has only transferred ignorance to other places,” he replied. ” Science has confined its labors to superficial descriptions, not the elucidation of the fundamental causes of phenomena.”
” I can not believe you, and question if you can prove what you say.”
” It needs no argument to illustrate the fact. Science boldly heralds her descriptive discoveries, and as carefully ignores her explanatory failures. She dare not attempt to explain the why even of the simplest things. Why does the robin hop, and the snipe walk? Do not tell me this is beneath the notice of men of science, for science claims that no subject is outside her realm. Search your works on natural history and see if your man of science, who describes the habits of these birds, explains the reason for this evident fact. How does the tree-frog change its color? Do not answer me in the usual superficial manner concerning the reflection of light, but tell me why the skin of that creature is enabled to perform this function? How does the maple tree secrete a sweet, wholesome sap, and deadly nightshade, growing in the same soil and living on the same elements, a poison? What is it that your scientific men find in the cells of root, or rootlet, to indicate that one may produce a food, and the other a noxious secretion that can destroy life? Your microscopist will discuss cell tissues learnedly, will speak fluently of physiological structure, will describe organic intercellular appearances, but ignore all that lies beyond. Why does the nerve in the tongue respond to a sensation, and produce on the mind the sense of taste? What is it that enables the nerve in the nose to perform its discriminative function? You do not answer. Silver is sonorous, lead is not; why these intrinsic differences? Aluminum is a light metal, gold a heavy one; what reason can you offer to explain the facts other than the inadequate term density? Mercury at ordinary temperature is a liquid; can your scientist tell why it is not a solid? Of course anyone can say because its molecules move freely on each other. Such an answer evades the issue; why do they so readily exert this action? Copper produces green or blue salts; nickel produces green salts; have you ever been told why they observe these rules? Water solidifies at about thirty-two degrees above your so-called zero; have you ever asked an explanation of your scientific authority why it selects that temperature? Alcohol dissolves resins, water dissolves gums; have you any explanation to offer why either liquid should dissolve anything, much less exercise a preference? One species of turtle has a soft shell, another a hard shell; has your authority in natural history told you why this is so? The albumen of the egg of the hen hardens at one hundred and eighty degrees Fahrenheit; the albumen of the eggs of some turtles can not be easily coagulated by boiling the egg in pure water; why these differences? Iceland spar and dog-tooth spar are identical, both are crystallized carbonate of lime; has your mineralogist explained why this one substance selects these different forms of crystallization, or why any crystal of any substance is ever produced? Why is common salt white and charcoal black? Why does the dog lap and the calf drink? One child has black hair, another brown, a third red; why? Search your physiology for the answer and see if your learned authority can tell you why the life-current makes these distinctions? Why do the cells of the liver secrete bile, and those of the mouth saliva? Why does any cell secrete anything ? A parrot can speak; what has your anatomist found in the structure of the brain, tongue, or larynx of that bird to explain why this accomplishment is not as much the birthright of the turkey? The elements that form morphine and strychnine, also make bread, one a food, the other a poison; can your chemist offer any reason for the fact that morphine and bread possess such opposite characters? The Earth has one satellite, Saturn is encompassed by a ring; it is not sufficient to attempt to refer to these familiar facts; tell me, does your earth-bound astronomer explain why the ring of Saturn was selected for that planet? Why are the salts of aluminum astringent, the salts of magnesium cathartic, and the salts of arsenicum deadly poison? Ask your toxicologist, and silence will be your answer. Why will some substances absorb moisture from the air, and liquefy, while others become as dry as dust under like conditions? Why does the vapor of sulphuric ether inflame, while the vapor of chloroform is not combustible, under ordinary conditions? Oil of turpentine, oil of lemon, and oil of bergamot differ in odor, yet they are composed of the same elements, united in the same proportion; why should they possess such distinctive, individual characteristics? Further search of the chemist will explain only to shove the word why into another space, as ripples play with and toss a cork about. Why does the newly-born babe cry for food before its intellect has a chance for worldly education? Why?”
” Stop,” I interrupted; ” these questions are absurd.”
” So some of your scientific experts would assert,” he replied; ” perhaps they would even become indignant at my presumption in asking them, and call them childish; nevertheless these men can not satisfy their own cravings in attempting to search the illimitable, and in humiliation, or irritation, they must ignore the word Why. That word Why to man dominates the universe. It covers all phenomena, and thrusts inquiry back from every depth. Science may trace a line of thought into the infinitely little, down, down, beyond that which is tangible, and at last in that far distant inter-microscopical infinity, monstrous by reason of its very minuteness, must rest its labors against the word, Why. Man may carry his superficial investigation into the immeasurably great, beyond our sun and his family of satellites, into the outer depths of the solar system, of which our sun is a part, past his sister stars, and out again into the depths of the cold space channels beyond; into other systems and out again, until at last the nebuloe shrink and disappear in the gloom of thought-conjecture, and as the straggling ray of light from those farthermost outreaches, too feeble to tell of its origin, or carry a story of nativity, enters his eye, be covers his face and rests his intellect against the word Why. From the remote space caverns of the human intellect, beyond the field of perception, whether we appeal to conceptions of the unknowable in the infinitely little, or the immeasurably great, we meet a circle of adamant, as impenetrable as the frozen cliffs of the Antarctic, that incomprehensible word-Why!
” Why did the light wave spring into his field of perception by reflection from the microscopic speck in the depths of littleness, on the one hand; and how did this sliver of the sun’s ray originate in the depths of inter-stellar space, on the other?”