Learning to pray, then as I understand it, is learning to listen with the mind and the heart – making oneself attentive to each exquisite detail of the world. It is a fearsome exhilarating task, best suited to solitude and silence. Such prayers are answered not with miracles tagged with our names, or those of our loved ones, but with beauty and terror. For the prayerful listener, the world becomes the sublime scripture, full of stories of structure and chaos, law and chance, complexification and decay, including the story of the human person in whom the universe becomes conscious of itself. All my life has been a relearning to pray – a letting go of incantational magic, petition, and the vain repetition ‘Me, Lord, me,’ instead watching attentively for the light that burns at the center of every star, every cell, every living creature, every human heart (xiv-xv)
A biologist, if he wishes to know how many toes a cat has, does not "frame the hypothesis that the number of feline digital extremities is 4, or 5, or 6," he simply looks at a cat and counts. A social scientist prefers the more long-winded expression every time, because it gives an entirely spurious impression of scientificness to what he is doing.
It has hitherto been a serious impediment to the progress of knowledge, that is in investigating the origin or causes of natural productions, recourse has generally been had to the examination, both by experiment and reasoning, of what might be rather than what is. The laws or processes of nature we have every reason to believe invariable. Their results from time to time vary, according to the combinations of influential circumstances; but the process remains the same. Like the poet or the painter, the chemist may, and no doubt often' does, create combinations which nature never produced; and the possibility of such and such processes giving rise to such and such results, is no proof whatever that they were ever in natural operation.
[The] weakness of biological balance studies has aptly been illustrated by comparison with the working of a slot machine. A penny brings forth one package of chewing gum; two pennies bring forth two. Interpreted according to the reasoning of balance physiology, the first observation is an indication of the conversion of copper into gum; the second constitutes proof.
Observation is simple, indefatigable, industrious, upright, without any preconceived opinion. Experiment is artificial, impatient, busy, digressive; passionate, unreliable. We see every day one experiment after another, the second outweighing the impression gained from the first, both, often enough, carried out by men who are neither much distinguished for their spirit, nor for carrying with them the truth of personality and self denial. Nothing is easier than to make a series of so-called interesting experiments. Nature can only in some way be forced, and in her distress, she will give her suffering answer. Nothing is more difficult than to explain it, nothing is more difficult than a valid physiological experiment. We consider as the first task of current physiology to point at it and comprehend it.
But many of our imaginations and investigations of nature are futile, especially when we see little living animals and see their legs and must judge the same to be ten thousand times thinner than a hair of my beard, and when I see animals living that are more than a hundred times smaller and am unable to observe any legs at all, I still conclude from their structure and the movements of their bodies that they do have legs... and therefore legs in proportion to their bodies, just as is the case with the larger animals upon which I can see legs... Taking this number to be about a hundred times smaller, we therefore find a million legs, all these together being as thick as a hair from my beard, and these legs, besides having the instruments for movement, must be provided with vessels to carry food.
The faith of scientists in the power and truth of mathematics is so implicit that their work has gradually become less and less observation, and more and more calculation. The promiscuous collection and tabulation of data have given way to a process of assigning possible meanings, merely supposed real entities, to mathematical terms, working out the logical results, and then staging certain crucial experiments to check the hypothesis against the actual empirical results. But the facts which are accepted by virtue of these tests are not actually observed at all. With the advance of mathematical technique in physics, the tangible results of experiment have become less and less spectacular; on the other hand, their significance has grown in inverse proportion. The men in the laboratory have departed so far from the old forms of experimentation—typified by Galileo's weights and Franklin's kite—that they cannot be said to observe the actual objects of their curiosity at all; instead, they are watching index needles, revolving drums, and sensitive plates. No psychology of 'association' of sense-experiences can relate these data to the objects they signify, for in most cases the objects have never been experienced. Observation has become almost entirely indirect; and readings take the place of genuine witness.
It is usual to say that the two sources of experience are Observation and Experiment. When we merely note and record the phenomena which occur around us in the ordinary course of nature we are said to observe. When we change the course of nature by the intervention of our will and muscular powers, and thus produce unusual combinations and conditions of phenomena, we are said to experiment. [Sir John] Herschel has justly remarked that we might properly call these two modes of experience passive and active observation. In both cases we must certainly employ our senses to observe, and an experiment differs from a mere observation in the fact that we more or less influence the character of the events which we observe. Experiment is thus observation plus alteration of conditions.
An experiment in nature, like a text in the Bible, is capable of different interpretations, according to the preconceptions of the interpreter.
The intensity and quantity of polemical literature on scientific problems frequently varies inversely as the number of direct observations on which the discussions are based: the number and variety of theories concerning a subject thus often form a coefficient of our ignorance. Beyond the superficial observations, direct and indirect, made by geologists, not extending below about one two-hundredth of the Earth's radius, we have to trust to the deductions of mathematicians for our ideas regarding the interior of the Earth; and they have provided us successively with every permutation and combination possible of the three physical states of matter—solid, liquid, and gaseous.