THEOSOPHY, Vol. 26, No. 4, February, 1938 (Pages 157-164; Size: 24K)
THE THEOLOGY OF SCIENCEThe business of the man of exact Science is to observe, each in his chosen department, the phenomena of nature; to record, tabulate, compare and classify the facts, down to the smallest minutiæ which are presented to the observation of the senses with the help of all the exquisite mechanism that modern invention supplies, not by the aid of metaphysical flights of fancy. All that he has a legitimate right to do, is to correct by the assistance of physical instruments the defects or illusions of his own coarser vision, auditory powers, and other senses. He has no right to trespass on the grounds of metaphysics and psychology. His duty is to verify and to rectify all the facts that fall under his direct observation; to profit by the experiences and mistakes of the Past in endeavoring to trace the working of a certain concatenation of cause and effects, which, but only by its constant and unvarying repetition, may be called A LAW. This it is which a man of science is expected to do, if he would become a teacher of men and remain true to his original programme of natural or physical sciences. Any sideway path from this royal road becomes speculation.NO investigator animated by the true spirit of science can take issue with any of these statements. As a matter of fact, modern observers who have studied the practical effects of the misuse of scientific method and discovery have come to exactly the same conclusions. If current scientific literature may be taken as evidence, orthodox scientific thought is due for a "reformation" fully as significant as that wrought by Martin Luther and Erasmus. And as was the case in religion, the reformers are gathering from within the ranks of science itself.
Instead of keeping to this, what does many a so-called man of science do in these days? He rushes into the domains of pure metaphysics, while deriding it. He delights in rash conclusions and calls it "a deductive law from the inductive law" of a theory based upon and drawn out of the depths of his own consciousness: that consciousness being perverted by, and honeycombed with, one-sided materialism. He attempts to explain the "origin" of things, which are yet embosomed only in his own conceptions. He attacks spiritual beliefs and religious traditions millenniums old, and denounces everything, save his own hobbies, as superstition. He suggests theories of the Universe, a Cosmogony developed by blind, mechanical forces of nature alone, far more miraculous and impossible than even one based upon the assumption of fiat lux out of nihil(4) -- and tries to astonish the world by such a wild theory; which, being known to emanate from a scientific brain, is taken on blind faith as very scientific and the outcome of SCIENCE. (The Secret Doctrine II, 663-4.)
Dr. A. S. Pearse, professor of zoology at Duke University, is one who arises in defense of science. For this reason his remarks have greater value than the accusations and condemnations with which he attempts to deal. He says:Perhaps the clearest discussion of the relations between science and metaphysics has been presented by Bergson. He points out clearly that science can never do anything but weigh and measure. All a scientist can ever hope to do is answer such questions as how long?, how fast?, how wide? and how much? In addition to knowledge gained by weighing and measuring man may know other things, and these Bergson groups under intuitive knowledge. The crux of the matter is, are there things that can not be weighed and measured? Bergson, most theologues and many scientists believe that there are.Definitions of the scope of science, however, seem to have been incapable of preventing the dissemination of mere speculative theory in the guise of established fact. It is now frankly admitted that the scientific cosmogony -- in which the universe is "developed by blind, mechanical forces of nature alone" was only an imaginative vagary on the part of nineteenth century scientists. This is made clear by Bertrand Russell in his Introduction to Lange's History of Materialism:
Theoretically science can do no harm. Its sole purpose is to learn the truth about natural phenomena, and truth should hurt no one. Unfortunately scientists are human. They are sometimes just as bigoted and partisan as other men. Some scientists are capable of concealing truth or of telling half truths to help their cause. Some have used discoveries to injure their fellows. But there is nothing inherent in science, its methods or its teachings that should make men wicked. If a man has the scientific spirit, he is brave in the defense of truth, but humble before the mysteries of nature. A scientist will always respect evidence more than authority. . . .
Science has not changed the nature of men or of their societies. It has given opportunities, and men have chosen to use these to make themselves better or worse. The false assumption on the part of critics is that a scientific discovery should mean progress for society. The radio gives man unusual ability to communicate over great distances. It may be used to give notice of storms and to keep ships on their courses through dense fogs, and thus benefit man; but it is also used to send out misinformation (Zion City informs listeners that the earth is flat) or to spread selfish propaganda. It is not the business of science to make men good.(1)Historically, we may regard materialism as a system of dogma set up to combat orthodox dogma. As a rule, the materialistic dogma has not been set up by men who loved dogma, but by men who felt that nothing less definite would enable them to fight the dogmas they disliked. They were in the position of men who raise armies to enforce peace. Accordingly we find that, as ancient orthodoxies disintegrate, materialism more and more gives way to scepticism. At the present day, the chief protagonists of materialism are certain men of science in America and certain politicians in Russia, because it is in those two countries that traditional theology is still powerful.While we may recognize and be thankful for the service of science in liberating the west from theological ignorance, the debt so incurred need not be repaid by willing submission to scientific "revelation." Very few scientists realize or give thought to the fact that the blind faith in dogma through which the church held the race mind in thrall is not a characteristic or product of religion per se, but is a fundamental tendency in human nature and equally susceptible to scientific fiat. There are, however, one or two men of science now making tentative explorations of this possibility. Dr. Francis B. Sumner, professor of biology at the University of California, expresses his fears of "The New Dogmatism"(2) which has resulted from the specialization of scientific research. In his view, not merely the "man in the street," but scientists themselves are victims of this tendency. He points out that "not only do we depend more and more upon authority for our scientific information, but this information, when it reaches us, arrives in the form of abstractions to a large degree divested of living reality." Dr. Sumner examines the correspondence between scientific and religious dogma:A worshipper, repeating the "Apostles' Creed," expresses his belief in the "resurrection of the body." A student, reciting in a chemistry class, tells the professor that the "atomic number" of sodium is 11. I do not wish to make too much of this comparison. All I contend for is the probability that to many students "atomic number" is just as much of a dogma as "resurrection of the body," and just as little capable of being translated into terms of human experience. As to the professor -- well, there are professors and professors of course. But any kind of an instructor in chemistry will tell the student in a few words just what the expression atomic number "means." The number of positive charges on the nucleus of the atom -- what could be simpler? And so, I doubt not, could any bright Sunday-school teacher give a verbal account of the resurrection of the body.His chief criticisms are directed against the speculative flights of modern mathematical physics. As a biologist whose field of investigation is plainly objective, he finds the new explanations of the universe "a bog of paradoxes and non-sequiturs."In general, the illustrative "experiments" by which the principles of relativity are justified to the reader are purely imaginary ones, involving such things as the observer's moving through space at the velocity of light or moving at an accelerated motion, corresponding to the acceleration of gravity, or involving his ability to read another man's clock or measuring rod, while one or both of the parties are traveling at these furious speeds. . . . A disembodied equation may be highly interesting and valuable when we are concerned with pure mathematics, but it hardly serves as a substitute for a description when we are concerned with phenomena in the physical world. At least this is true for the non-mathematical mind. To an unsophisticated naturalist I fear that this argument that a thing may have the properties of a wave and a particle at the same time is too strongly reminiscent of some of the old-time theological arguments for the doctrine of the "Trinity."Dr. Sumner feels that the "new physics" has received a far too romantic presentation to the public. Where is the scientific justification for all this glamor?There would seem to be a vast inconsistency between the traditional notion of the man of science, with his uncompromising insistence on evidence and his lofty scorn of guesses and unproved assumptions, and the quasi-mystic who tells us all these strange things about space and time and infinity and who describes with such assurance the detailed intricacies of an infinitesimal world forever beyond the range of human observation.He finds in the press accounts of progress in physical science "too much parade of individual brilliancy and resort to whimsical analogies and startling paradoxes, and too little earnest attempt to make the reader really understand the matters on hand." He concludes:What some of us would like to find is first of all a clear description of what the experimenter really does and sees, and after that an account of his theoretical interpretations. We are too apt to read about "bombarding the atom," "smashing the nucleus," "weighing the electron" and the like, with commonly but the faintest intimation of how all this is done and why these effects are inferred. As Swann pointedly remarks: "We say that we set up apparatus and measure the number of electrons going through a certain hole. We do no such thing. We make settings of certain electrical instruments, and we make readings of others. From our readings and settings we calculate these visions of electrons going through holes, and the like." It is unfortunate that this realistic view-point is not more constantly kept in mind by the popular expositor of recent scientific developments, biological as well as physical.As H. P. Blavatsky indicated years ago, if the scientist is to discuss the attributes of atoms, or their constituent particles in accordance with his method, "he must first know what the atom is, in reality, and that he cannot know," for--He must bring it under the observation of at least one of his physical senses -- and that he cannot do: for the simple reason that no one else has ever seen, smelt, touched or tasted an "atom." The atom belongs wholly to the domain of metaphysics. It is an entified abstraction -- at any rate for physical Science -- and has nought to do with physics, strictly speaking, as it can never be brought to the test of retort or balance. (S.D. I, 513.)In The Atlantic Monthly for July, 1937, Prof. Herbert Dingle, an English scientist,(3) records the same troubled concern as Dr. Sumner, but with the broader ground of a review of the several major departments of modern intellectual endeavor. Writing under the title, "Knowledge Without Understanding," he introduces his illustrations with the remark: "If there is one word that more aptly than another describes modern intellectual activity in its widest generality, that word is 'unintelligibility'."
Prof. Dingle looks at logic, literature, art, music, religion and modern physics. In each of these fields he shows "unintelligibility" the achievement when not the ideal. He comments:Now it is of the first importance to notice that in all these departments of thought we are dealing, not with difficulties which stimulate, but with impossibilities which crush. The new ideas are not merely hard to understand; they are intrinsically beyond the reach of understanding -- or, at the best, beyond the reach of understanding without a long and arduous course of special training which only a few can undertake.A scientist himself, Prof. Dingle naturally feels that "science offers the most promising inroad into the fundamental philosophy of life to which all intellectual interests must lead if they are followed to their source." On this account he is particularly alarmed at the growing unintelligibility of the new physics. The average man, already deeply awed by the objective achievements of physical science, is dazzled by the pyrotechnics of mathematical speculation. Even thoughtful men trust humbly in the modern theoretical explanation of things. Prof. Dingle notes the unconscious pathos in their surrender to the "better" (i.e., the "mathematical") minds.
Furthermore, the doctrines which are preached by the favored few who have more than normal powers are not such as, to the ordinary man, seem reasonable. If they were, he might profitably take the reasoning on trust, and try to think out the full effect of the conclusions on his public and private life. But when the conclusions themselves seem absurd, and he is incapable of checking them, what then? When the witnesses speak in unknown tongues and the judge seems mad, what is the poor jury to do?
Where does this "surrender" lead? Prof. Dingle answers:The enigmas of modern physics are in no measure explained; they are simply dispelled. The reader is not enlightened; he is drugged. Paradox, instead of being a challenge to thought, becomes a delight to the ear, and whenever the reader feels a question arising in his mind there is always a comfortable assurance ready to preserve him from the dangers of thinking out the answer.Prof. Dingle quotes several modern writers who recommend such intellectual serfdom. One of them says that "science leaves us free to give such interpretations of the mysterious background of phenomena as we may wish." Thus--
"But what," he may ask, "is this electron which you say is both a particle and a wave?" "Ah, you needn't trouble about that," is the reply; "we don't know ourselves: the electron is something unknown doing we don't know what." "But what, then, have you discovered? Why do you speak so contemptuously of the old science, which we understood in some measure, and say it is superseded by a great new revelation?" "Because we have found that, at bottom, everything is mathematics." "What, then, is mathematics?" "Why, my dear fellow, mathematics is the one sole characteristic of the Creator: would you presume to understand that? If you knew mathematics you would know everything; a mathematical formula, and nothing else, expresses the ultimate reality. You yourself are simply a mathematical formula -- a mathematical thought in the mind of a perfect Mathematician. Is not that sufficient justification for contempt of a mere system of screws and flywheels which the last century talked about?" "Well, yes, I suppose; but I don't see how you have found out that everything is mathematics." "Why, by mathematics, of course; how else, since mathematics is everything? The system of physics is a closed system."Captivity looks not so bad, then: we can really trust our masters to look after us. And here finally is the proof, from one safely imprisoned. It is far better even than we dared to hope. We are not merely lodged in comfort; we are hypnotized so that we believe we are free.An illustration is Sir Arthur Eddington'sThe Nature of the Physical World. The reader pays his money for the book and is thereby emancipated from "the shackles of classical science." "In other words," says Prof. Dingle, "to think is to be shackled; freedom is to pay others to think for you."
But what is the ordinary man to do? What should be the contribution of scientific writers?He can think for himself if Sir Arthur will tell him, not what it is impossible to do and know, or what science no longer believes, but in what scientific thought can assist his own thinking. It is just this lack of a medium for the ordinary man, between an impossible effort and no effort at all, between the fate of Sisyphus and the ministrations of Procrustes, that makes it so important to-day to examine the essential character of science itself rather than the particular aspect which it presents at the moment.One may be ignorant of Prof. Dingle's capacities as an astrophysicist, but this article leaves no doubt that he is a psychologist of parts. Turning from illustrations of child-like faith in scientific speculation, he asks what may be the effect of such a state of mind on democratic society. As he says, "the question is not pleasant." In answer, we are provided with a "psychoanalysis" of the "ordinary man":In matters which he has once learned to call "science" his respect for knowledge is abject; the most obvious nonsense is welcomed with joy and wonder if it is only called "mathematics" or "quantum theory." On the other hand, in matters of infinitely more difficulty which are not technically "science," the opinions of experts with first-hand knowledge are deemed absurd, or even criminal, if they conflict with the emanations of his own ignorance.Then, the prognosis, equally cogent:The blind acceptance of authority, as well as the supreme assurance of ignorance, must yield to the active operation of a reason conscious equally of its sovereign powers and of their proper limitations. There is no state of mind more easily exploited by the clever demagogue, charlatan though he may be, than that which exists among us at this moment.Now comes the important question: What is to be done? Admitting that "a nation of men and women with free, disciplined minds is a dream," Prof. Dingle urges that it is a dream worth realizing; but, as he points out, it requires individuals who will strive to keep themselves detached from the partial viewpoints of the specialist and thereby preserve their perspective in viewing the content of the whole field of inquiry. He concludes by saying that all he has attempted to do is to direct attention to the problems raised, ending with the words: "We stand in a perilous position; to realize the peril is the first necessity."
Fifty years ago, with the publication of The Secret Doctrine, in the lines quoted at the beginning of this article, and elsewhere, H. P. Blavatsky made precise definition of the peril discerned by Dr. Sumner and Prof. Dingle. While in the light of her warning their expressions seem as faint echoes, they may indicate the dawn of a new view of physical science. Scientists, by virtue of the practical character of their activities, should be of all men the most self-reliant. They traditionally dislike "authority" of any kind and abhor instinctively the worship of "unintelligibility." We may look forward to similar expressions from other dissenters in the scientific ranks, and to a new spirit of questioning. There may even be demand for a precise accounting of the facts in fields other than physics. If the latter science is, as one writer has put it, "firmly grounded on the principle of uncertainty," it may yet be discovered that current theories of anthropogenesis have still less warrant for being taken for granted as "proved."
Theosophists should seize every opportunity to acquaint the general public with the unsettled character of scientific doctrines and explanations of things, toward the end that men may realize that no more than the Christian dogma, does modern science provide the final solution to human problems. From the intellectual point of view, the study and the acceptance of Theosophical philosophy has one essential requirement: reliance on one's own powers of thought and discrimination.
"Changing Values of Science" -- I (Part 1 of 2)
FOUR (4) FOOTNOTES LISTED BELOW:
(1) "For Science," The Scientific Monthly, October, 1937.
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(2) The Scientific Monthly, October, 1937.
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(3) Assistant professor of astrophysics at the Imperial College of Science and Technology, London.
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COMPILER'S NOTE: I added this footnote; it was not in the article. If it doesn't paint an accurate enough picture, or is incorrect, I hope the Editors of THEOSOPHY magazine will spot it and point it out to me, so that I can make the necessary corrections.
(4) "fiat lux out of nihil" means, if I'm not mistaken, something like this: To create by divine fiat; you know, to create something out of nothing (with this "something" not being an effect of a prior cause), which Theosophy says is impossible.
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