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What We Can Never Know

( Originally Published 1916 )

THE most striking thing about a really learned man is not the extent of his knowledge, but the extent of his admitted ignorance. The wiser a person is the greater the number of things he doesn't know.

The more universally cock-sure and well in-formed one seems the more likely it is that he is a humbug.

Whom well inspir'd the oracle pronounced
Wisest of men,

used often to say he knew nothing.

How little has science made inroad upon that stupendous and limitless nescience that surrounds it, as the stellar universe enfolds the tiny earth!

Sir Oliver Lodge the other day, at the meeting of the British Association, spoke of the mystery of sex determination. Spite of all claims, we know little more to-day than did the cave men why one child is born a boy and another a girl, and why the world ratio keeps about the same.

Sir Oliver also expressed his wonder that some plants bore both male and female flowers, He said the same sap comes into the stem, but just at that junction where differently sexed flowers branched away from each other there must be some profound change in the sap.

"I don't know what it is, and microscopes tell me nothing about it," he continued. "Perhaps if physiologists could find out just what happens in that little plant joint they would get some clue to the reason why some human beings are born boys and others girls."

He might have pushed further his point of wonder. How comes it that the earth juices make here a white flower and there a red? How is a huge oak all folded in a little acorn?

How can nature make the peach, full of juice and cased so closely in the thinnest of fuzzy skin that never leaks?

How does blood food here create a hard finger-nail, there a hair, and there a stony tooth?

What is electricity? We know somewhat of how it acts. But what is it? We know little more of it than does a savage.

What is life? What is that secret force that transforms in a trice a living dog, who eats his environment, into a dead dog, whose environment eats him?

What is love? Why does this woman thrill you and that one leave you cold or repel you? What is conscience, that world's policeman that urges us on to what we think right and affrights us at what we think wrong?

What is truth? What is personality? What is being?

And these questions are not remote, academic questions, not such things as Huxley called "lunar politics," but they touch the very nearest and dearest regions of every man's life.

We are but dust-motes in the sunbeam of the infinite. We cling like oysters to our little point in the bed of the vast ocean of mystery.

All about us is nature, deep-wombed, gray-eyed, her mind a galaxy of secrets, her thoughts far and strange as the procession of the suns.

Nothing befits us, her children, so much as reverence for her purposes, humility before her great brain, trust and love in her vast heart.

No one is so consummate an ass as the one who thinks he knows it all.

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