THEOSOPHY, Vol. 34, No. 4, February, 1946
(Pages 129-132; Size: 12K)
(Number 2 of a 12-part series)



SO long as scientific investigations remained the private undertakings of individuals and small groups, it was possible to regard Science as a liberating movement of the human spirit. Despite its agnostic position and methods dictated by materialistic assumptions, the effect of scientific inquiry was to release intellectual energies from bondage to ignorance and to establish a fact-finding discipline that has proved enormously fruitful in the industrial development of the West.

Today, however, Science is in transition. The body of ideas, facts, and theories, the processes and techniques that have grown up with scientific progress, now threaten to assume a position of social dominance in modern civilization. From the status of contestant in the struggle for supremacy, Science is rising to that of victor, and with this elevation to power certain primary responsibilities must be assigned to every scientific thinker, whatever his field.

The reasons for the ascendancy of the scientific viewpoint are fairly obvious. The values of Western culture are largely measured by material standards, and science is, par excellence, the creator of material abundance. Virtually every home of the twentieth century in the West contains some practical evidence of scientific "know-how," of the control over natural forces possessed by laboratory technicians. Much of modern advertising employs the white-coated figure of the research scientist as a symbol of the high priest or dispenser of the precious things of civilization -- the "goods" everyone desires. Newspaper and magazine articles continually exploit the "superman" attributes of research-workers, and never tire of announcing new "miracles" the benefits of which we owe to Science.

Education, also, transmits a reverential attitude toward scientific activities and conclusions. Many material findings of science are characterized by absolute certainty. Each student may demonstrate them by experiment. "Science has proved it" is a phrase frequently on the lips of the generations which attended high school or college during the past twenty years, and, inevitably, there has been a transfer of this faith to other fields of science where much less certainty prevails. Science, in short, has won uncritical acceptance from the educated man.

War usually accelerates the processes of social transition. For years, science has been moving toward a position of social dominance, and the late war accomplished the inseparable unity of science and politics. From now on, every political council must have its scientific consultant, and every major national decision will reflect a judgment of presumed "scientific necessity."

This is regarded by many scientists as presenting an historic and golden opportunity for the scientific profession to set the world to rights. The English physicist, J. D. Bernal, a leader among socially conscious scientists, is particularly optimistic. Writing of "Transformation in Science" in the Scientific Monthly for December, 1945, he describes the transition of scientific enterprise from private to public ends:

In practice, the intellectual and material concerns of the most active leading group in the community dominate the form and content of scientific thought of the time. The seventeenth century was the age of mercantile adventure, and sciences connected with navigation and gunnery held first place. At the end of the eighteenth century the rising manufacturers directed science towards chemistry and the study of heat. In the nineteenth century the lead passed over to electricity. In every case, science served the interests of the limited group, and its benefits to the rest of the community were incidental. The essential difference between the present and the past is that we now have the possibility, and indeed the necessity, of organizing consciously what had before merely occurred by the interplay of social forces.
The possibilities in organizing science for the social good are seen to be great:
To organize consciously the machinery of civilization puts a much greater responsibility on human beings than they have had in the past. As long as no one is capable of tracing out the effects of human actions the most terrible consequences can occur, and no one will be to blame.... To reap the full benefits of science, there must be and can be an intimate relation between science and social processes at every stage; in assessing needs, in studying and modifying social forms, in production and distribution problems, and finally in keeping guard over the results of its application to see that they do not turn in unforeseen and undesirable directions....

Science has never taken the place it should in our educational scheme. It needs to be worked in at every stage and related throughout to the interests of each age of student.

Manifestly, Mr. Bernal anticipates for science an accession of political power, or, at least, of political influence, to which he would add intensive popular education in science and the implications of scientific theory.

It is a grave question, of course, whether scientists can resist the corrupting influences of politics any more than can the rest of mankind. The union of science and politics in Germany produced a scurrilous pseudo-science which attempted to rationalize the dogmas of the Nazi Party. In Russia, official censors keep a watchful eye on scientific theory, lest the dialectic of Marx suffer criticism from too daring investigators. But these obvious dangers may be left for sociological research. The question of pertinence for Theosophical inquiry lies in the content of scientific theory as presently constituted, regardless of political modifications.

Whether responsibly or irresponsibly used, scientific conceptions are destined to play an increasing part in controlling the pattern of modern life. Allied with political authority, the dictates of science are likely to be enforced by law. "There must be," says Mr. Bernal, "an intimate relation between science and social processes at every stage." Just what will this mean for the individual?

At present, scientific doctrines affect the individual directly in several areas of his life: the physical, the psychic, the educational, and the moral. Through the practices of modern medicine, physical health is affected for good or ill. The deliberate organization of society according to scientific theory will mean much closer control over the individual's physical being. Laws constraining everyone to submit to vaccination and other forms of inoculation may become inescapable. The population will have the advantages of socialized medicine, but the opportunity for persons dissenting from orthodox medical practice to choose treatments they believe in will be much reduced. Conformity in medicine will tend to become an obligation of citizenship. There will be the natural temptation of organizations like the American Medical Association to dominate the national legislature in all law-making concerned with public health.

It will be the duty of social scientists to condition the population to all scientific measures of social control, to reduce "ignorant" resistance to a minimum. This means extensive propaganda through official government channels. It means modern advertising techniques writ large for the public good. It means that private organs of opinion which, for good or bad reasons, oppose these controls, will be condemned as public enemies, or, at least, as unpatriotic. It means that access to the impressionable psychic nature of the masses, through the radio, the screen, the stage and the press, will be easy for the opinion-creating machinery of the scientifically guided State, but difficult if not impossible for dissident minorities.

In the field of education, as the prestige of science spreads further, scientific assumptions will increasingly acquire the kind of authority which, during the Middle Ages, belonged to the dogmas of the Church. These assumptions will pervade all learning, not as "rules" imposed, but as the very atmosphere and substance of knowledge. The unbeliever, doubtless, will not be persecuted for his recalcitrance, but he will be frustrated in expression and unable to find a place in the "normal" student world.

It is more difficult to anticipate the scientific impact on moral ideas. More than likely, as scientific figures with political propensities rise to positions of authority, they will find reasons for "cooperating" with organized religious groups. A kind of synthesis at a superficial level may be worked out between science and religion, similar to the unimaginative concord attained at recent sessions of the Conference of Science, Religion and Philosophy held annually in New York City. Strenuous efforts to gain control in this area may be expected from the Catholics, whose institutional prestige is already growing in academic circles. And the tendency of some scientists to embrace a watered-down religion has been frequently noted of late and termed "The Failure of Nerve" by radical critics of the trend.

The danger, in brief, in all these possible developments is the progressive regimentation of modern thought in the terms of a "scientific" cultural attitude that will be prejudicial to consideration of the ideas which the world most needs in this crucial epoch.

A peculiarly puzzling feature of this general historical tendency is that it is led by men of undoubted humanitarian objectives. Scientists manifest a broad, public-spirited attitude, and their insistence on scientific assumptions is a natural consequence of their deepest convictions, growing from a lifetime of service. Of all classes of society, scientists are probably the most impersonal and unselfish in their determination to act responsibly for the good of all. Of all classes of society, they have least reason to doubt the validity of their beliefs, and as other leadership has failed so miserably, it is natural for them to rise to the great opportunity offered them by history, and to urge acceptance of the broad program involved in the conception of a scientifically ordered civilization.

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