Jacques Barzun
From Dawn to Decadence

Both atom and monad are concepts that reduce the visible world to 'simple natures,' fundamental things that are all alike and do not change. The common-sense look of things is not to be trusted; it is too variable. The human aspect of the world and human use of objects must be ignored by the student of nature. In this purging of variety the importance of words is considerable: it helps to keep the geometrical idea in mind. Thus mass is better than weight, which suggests a burden pulling at one's arms. Force also seems to imply our own exertion, and energy does not-or not so much. The abstract word gravitation conceals 'heavy' very nicely. Again, references to spirit or principle to account for what happens are too vague and suggest unseen 'powers.' As for the biological sciences, they must use a system of words-nomenclature, which is names, and terminology, which designates parts and functions. To sum up, any 'anthropomorphic'-manlike-view of things is wrong in principle and will mislead. Especially wrong is the belief that anything in nature fulfills a purpose. Aristotle's physics relied on a doctrine of ends, of final purposes and meanings. The reverse assumption yields the truth of science, not movement toward goals but purposeless push or pull that need not end.

It goes without saying that the cultural consequences, the effect on human lives, of this shift in outlook have been profound. To begin with, as success in 'natural philosophy' became evident in one realm after another, scientists, as we now call them, came to be regarded as 'those who really know.' This in turn meant that reality was split-scientific fact and human experience, no longer one and often contradictory. If the one was real, the other must be illusion.

The only way out of the contradiction was to regard Man as not part of Nature. He confronted it as an enemy. The search for knowledge began to be spoken of as the 'conquest of nature,' the hostile cosmos being regarded as 'blind'; for once man was excluded from it, it had no consciousness. Next, man himself must be regarded as nursing a fantasy when he thought he was pursuing a purpose. Being made of matter, he was a thing too, possessing no free will, only the illusion of it. The chain of causes determined his every act.

  The World was all before them, where to choose
Their place of rest, and Providence their guide:
They, hand in hand, with wand'ring steps and slow,

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Through Eden took their solitary way.