1.3 Concerning the Competence of Science to Answer


To the scientist, it would seem a natural conclusion that scientific research is, in principle, capable of approaching answers to all three of the above questions. Is not the word science, by its derivation, concerned with knowing; and knowing recognizes no artificial boundaries between the physical, biological, and psychological domains.

To the basic questions, "Who and what am I?", science returns the partial answer which the modesty and caution of its methods dictate, namely, that I am a member of a species homo sapiens, with an interesting position anatomically, physiologically, and mentally in the taxonomic tree of life. I am built of proteins polypeptide chains and minerals, according to a blueprint written in the genetic code of my chromosomes. By a process not unlike that in a chain of firecrackers (but self-restoring), a vast number of electro-chemical signals circulate in the neurons of my brain; and, in some, as yet mysterious, way this generates awareness of the world around me and myself. Similarly, and with similar rather large unknowns admitted into its equations, science can tell me where I am; on a planet with the rare temperature suitable for life, circling a rather nondescript, middle-sized star, rather far out on the swirling arm of a galactic nebula, in a boundless space, illumated by countless galaxies extending indefinitely as far as the eye with its present technical aids can see.

Answers of this nature, enriched every year with new facets and heightened in precision, have been presented to the first two questions by mutually critically alert scientists; and except for doubts by epistemologists, whose business it is to ask how we know that we know (and whose viewpoint we shall duly take into account), there has been no real doubt about their acceptance. They are, moreover, given as factual systems that are admittedly incomplete, couched in theories that are recognized as likely to change in structure; and with the understanding that science proceeds by successive approximations.

But when we come to the third question, "In this defined setting, what ought this defined person to do?", the whole firmament of scientific and social discussion my well seem to go into convulsions. Throughout the nineteenth century (and much of the twentieth as witness the Scopes trial), educated people agreed that science should deal with "What is life?" but not with "Why?". The revealed religions have exclaimed aghast that "science has nothing to do with defining moral values!" Strangely enough, surveys indicated that most scientists agreed with them. Drawbridge's (1932) study, if repeated, would almost certainly show scientists now more willing to speculate but only as we take the younger men in this generation.

Quite apart from the still persisting strong popular resistance to science trespassing on religion, and the doubts of scientists and epistemologists concerning the capacity of science to handle religious phenomena, the psychologist himself might doubt that science can ever perform the emotional functions of religion, as traditionally set. Does not its very ideal of a coldly cognitive, detached and scientific approach negate the very possibility of profound emotional experience? To this, as a psychologist one must eventually respond with an emphatic "No!" A very real perception of the admirable qualities of the loved one does not destroy love. The aeronautical scientific analyses which enable us to fly, or the bacterial analyses which preserve for us more robust health, do not detract from the emotional experience of soaring in flight or the poetic appreciation of good health on a day in spring. We learn, in time, to attach our emotional responsiveness to the things which in fact have strong effects upon our lives, regardless of their initial appeal or lack of appeal to our primal instincts. People can get excited about a recondite enzyme analysis that promises an end to cancer, or very angry about an increase in air pollution index from 0.125 to 0.130. Science can create its own world of emotion. Nevertheless, the combined result of these difficulties and pre-existing emotional loyalties to religion was to beget, mostly between 1850 and 1950, a bitter conflict between science and religion. Psychologists and rationalists have found much food for reflection on the weakness of human nature and the socio-economic power of religious organizations, as they survey the diverse causes of emotional hostilities and socio-religious pressures which for a hundred years have harassed attempts such as the present to bring science to bear on moral issues. Since these obstacles can by no means be said to have disappeared, the tactician may wish to study them in more detail elsewhere, (Cattell, 1938; Draper, 1898; Freud, 1928; Hirsch, 1931; Huxley, 1957; Simpson, 1926; White, 1896).

Leaving these battles to history as irrelevant at the present stage of educated thought, we must beg leave here to walk through the thin theological picket line, engaging in no polemics but proceeding directly on our course of basic reasoning. For the central theme of this book, as indicated on the opening page, is that a third avenue to moral values exists in science itself. It aims to demonstrate that by paying full regard to logical consistency, and making constant appeal to scientific experiment and empirical observation, valid moral rules and a profoundly satisfying emotional relation to man and the universe can be reached on a scientific basis. That is to say, we propose to give a thorough trial to the proposition that science can answer also the third question above.

Nevertheless, so complex a question, so demanding of original thought, as that of the derivation of moral goals and ethical rules from science, must be approached cautiously and sytematically. The next step-by-step development of the argument will begin in Chapter 3 below and proceed through 4 and 5. The present chapter and Chapter 2 must be considered a skirmish with the problems likely to be involved, and a brief survey of the areas of knowledge needed. The present chapter, as stated symbolically in its title, proposes to make a relatively naturalistic evaluation of the activities of religion, science, and the arts as alternative gateways to truth. In doing so, it will glance at the properties of our instruments of understanding: the human mind, logic, and scientific method. Thus, the question becomes, "What is the methodological competence respectively of science and its rivals in our existing cultural institutions to answer the questions at stake?" Let us begin with religion.

In the first place, we must recognize that religion is many other things to man besides what science claims to be namely, a method simply for pursuing truth. Religion has also always been more even than ethics and morality, and certainly more than the cognitive system of beliefs about God and the Universe, in which it claims, with varying degrees of logic or appeal to historical origins, that its central moral values are embedded. For example, it provides an immense aesthetic experience, as in the bright Buddhist temples or the majestic chants that rise in our great cathedrals. By contrast, science is, so far, an aesthetic experience only for the few. A religion is also a socio-political community, in which education and welfare are fostered, and in which family recreational and other social life can be experienced. (Again, the social community of science, at present, means something only to the few.) For centuries, men have received the sacrament of birth, married, and died in the ritual of their religions. Furthermore, many simple communities have satisfied in one institution virtually all needs for knowledge of the universe, ethical direction, social support, and aesthetic experience.

When an institution which, for most of two or three thousand years in Western culture, has so comprehensively and organically satisfied social, emotional, aesthetic, and moral needs begins to go to pieces, it is not surprising that the community experiences so widespread a malaise as we now see. (That "going to pieces" is documented, psychologically, in my earlier book (1938), and, philosophically, in the recent "God is Dead" theme of theological writings.) No one is likely to claim that science, as it is now known and with present boundaries to its operations, can provide a home to more than a fraction of the emotional needs met by religion, and which now rise protestingly like a flock of birds disturbed on an old roost. Indeed, to most of those not actively engaged in science, its activities may seem but the glitter of a few instruments, and its voice but the dry rustle of papers and the metallic clicking of a computer. Artists and literary men in particular have quite failed to realize the richness and depth of emotional life which the dedicated scientists, now rapidly growing in number, gain from their world view and their involvement in research.

This blindness of the contemporary arts to the emotional message of science is a specific social and cultural problem to which we must return. Meanwhile one must freely admit that whereas it is open to the experience of most educated men and women to perceive the deeper emotional meaning which science gives to our attitudes to our universe it is comparatively difficult to catch what it is saying about moral feeling for our fellow men. Regarding the latter, for example, there is a popular view that it has a sinister message or none at all. The skeptical, procedural and carping procedures of debate among scientists in the cold correctness of science suggests to many indeed, that it is inherently inimical to any emotional warmth, akin to that in religious and artistic experience (however much the inner fires of science may show in the sparks flying from scientific debate!). The superficiality of this view we shall hope to explain, but certainly the public seems to have concluded that science lacks the immediate emotional experience they require. William James, in his Varieties of Religious Experience, contrasts the "oceanic" feeling of religious acceptance with the intellectual hair-splitting of theory implying that science could, at best, be the theology and exegesis of religion. Darwin wistfully speaks of the loss of aesthetic experience that accompanied his increasing scientific concentration on analysis of the natural world though nature had been his first love. And anyone familiar with scientific conferences will know with what sanitary care all appeals to emotion, aesthetic feeling (and, alas, sometimes even intuition!), are meticulously excluded from the laboratory.

The reaction of the robust natural scientist to the above will be that exclusion of emotion from immediate, technical reasoning is one thing, but the whole impetus of research activity under emotional drive and aesthetic pleasure quite another. Further, he will vehemently insist that he experiences in the fellowship and values of his scientific community all the emotional and aesthetic satisfaction that the typical religious community offers. Finally, he will maintain that reason and emotional life do not have to stand at odds, but that depth of intellectual understanding and richness of emotional experience go hand in hand. While, as a fellow scientist, I realize, at first hand, that this is true for those that have the appropriate background, I must still, in the name of realism concerning our existing mixed-up society, insist that: (a) throughout most of the history of science from Aristotelian times, science has not played this role; (b) that even today it has demonstrated its capacity to do so only for a minority; (c) that it has not yet fully thought out and brought out convincingly its capacity for emotional, religious, aesthetic leadership. Current assumption in literature persists in the theme that science is a merely technical world. This can be documented from C. P. Snow's (1959) admission of "two cultures" to the latest popular literature or journalism forever pursuing, remote from science, some emotional "salvation" in this or that artistic or theatrical fad.

What is usually not contested is that science is eminently fitted for and successful in the handling of the cognitive foundations of belief, as shown by the quality of its answers to the first two of the basic questions. But here the scientist is surely right in saying that since emotion not based on correct cognitive perception is the definition of madness, he has the real key also to the third question that of emotional purpose. In short, sane emotional life is, as in Plato's metaphor of the charioteer, a condition in which the steeds of emotion are directed by the cognitive reality-perceptions of the charioteer.

Everywhere in nature the higher organism releases its emotion only on the basis of vital cognitive discernments, either in love or war. The discernments may be partly unconscious, as in falling in love; but neither in our loves nor our hostilities can we survive if the rein is given to emotion. Why should we expect rules to be different in regard to religion and morality? In these also the emotional assent ought ideally to follow rational cognitive examination. But this is not what happened in the history of religions. To the person already emotionally attached to this or that traditional religious belief, a demand for a critical examination or the argument that a comparable emotional satisfaction can be found in newer constructions may come hard and be resented. Every human being has a legacy of emotional vitality to spend. As those who bestow it in drunkenness, tawdry ideals, or drugs, learn to their cost the vitality of emotion disappears when squandered, and wise men know that it lasts longest when invested in accordance with external realities. If science is providing our most accurate picture of the realities of our universe, then religion, as an emotional experience, has to ally itself with science.















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