_LIMITS OF THE HUMAN MIND_
Someone asked Newton one day why he walked when he wanted to, and how
his arm and his hand moved at his will. He answered manfully that he had
no idea. "But at least," his interlocutor said to him, "you who
understand so well the gravitation of the planets will tell me why they
turn in one direction rather than in another!" And he again confessed
that he had no idea.
Those who taught that the ocean was salt for fear that it might become
putrid, and that the tides were made to bring our ships into port (The
Abbe Pluche in "The Spectacle of Nature"), were somewhat ashamed when
the reply was made to them that the Mediterranean has ports and no ebb.
Musschenbroeck himself fell into this inadvertence.
Has anyone ever been able to say precisely how a log is changed on the
hearth into burning carbon, and by what mechanism lime is kindled by
Is the first principle of the movement of the heart in animals properly
understood? does one know clearly how generation is accomplished? has
one guessed what gives us sensations, ideas, memory? We do not
understand the essence of matter any more than the children who touch
Who will teach us by what mechanism this grain of wheat that we throw
into the ground rises again to produce a pipe laden with an ear of corn,
and how the same soil produces an apple at the top of this tree, and a
chestnut on its neighbour? Many teachers have said--"What do I not
know?" Montaigne used to say--"What do I know?"
Ruthlessly trenchant fellow, wordy pedagogue, meddlesome theorist, you
seek the limits of your mind. They are at the end of your nose.