The Faith of a Liberal: Selected Essays by Morris R. Cohen

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50
THE OPEN MIND

THOSE who genuinely value the freedom of the human mind will always speak with respect of the great rationalists of the eighteenth century. It is they who broke the back of ecclesiastical and political restraints on science and renewed the old faith in the dignity and brotherhood of man. But we cannot withhold a smile at their naïve faith that the Age of Reason was actually at hand when they merely replaced the old dogmas with new ones. The most noteworthy of the new dogmas was the belief that the whole universe is a mechanical contrivance in which nothing can happen except in absolute accordance with the eternal and unalterable laws of mechanics. It was indeed a most useful dogma, for it helped to banish the open belief in magic and witchcraft and in antiquated moral codes based on the authority of miracles. But the social utility of a belief is not the same as its physical proof, however much we are inclined in our weaker moments to blur over the distinction.

There are enlightened brethren who will at once jump at this and exclaim: "Who is this obscurantist that dares cast doubt on the reign of law which modern science has so clearly proved?" Peace, brethren! Which modern science has proved, or can prove, the impossibility of chance happenings in this world of ours? There is not a single law of nature that can be verified with absolute accuracy, for the simple reason that we have no instruments that can measure with absolute precision. Ask a

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Published in The New Republic, Vol. 13, p. 191 ( December 15, 1917). as a review of Emile Boutroux, The Contingency of the Laws of Nature.

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