THEOSOPHY, Vol. 27, No. 7, May, 1939
(Pages 319-322; Size: 13K)
(Part 1 of 2)


[Scientists are competent to tell us what are the "facts" of nature and of life, if by "facts" we mean careful descriptions of visible objects and of their orderly inter-relation in terms of law. This is generally recognized as the legitimate field of scientific investigation and judgment. There are, however, the questions: Can scientific knowledge of this sort lead to further judgments in the field of human values? Do the facts of science help us to determine what should be the end of human striving, or is such an expectation unwarranted optimism, following from a misconception of the scope of scientific method?
These are problems for which the scientist, as scientist, can offer no solution, because their elements are non-existent to the physical senses. Only the philosopher, or the scientist as philosopher, is competent to consider such questions. That scientific thought in recent years has assumed a deeply philosophical character is one of the most hopeful signs on the horizon of modern intellectual investigation. With increasing regularity the journals of science in America are printing articles of such value as to justify their reprinting entire in THEOSOPHY. One such contribution, by Dr. R. C. Wallace, Principal of Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, is of an excellence seldom achieved in modern literature, scientific or otherwise. It being too long for republication in its original form, a number of representative extracts have been selected for appreciation and comment. -- Editors.]
IN the Hector Maiben Lecture before the June, 1938, meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Dr. R. C. Wallace, Principal of Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, regarded "The Changing Values of Science" through the eyes of an educator.(1) Happily, he raises questions instead of offering conclusions -- questions that are basic to an understanding of the import of modern science, and which every scientist no less than all other thoughtful men pervaded by the scientific spirit ought to ponder. Dr. Wallace begins by pointing to the "shift" in the emphasis of modern scientific thought, then proceeding to an attempt to discover the meaning of this change. He reviews briefly the spread of scientific inquiry and the development of scientific method: Scholastic speculation, remote from nature, led to a counter-movement which demanded "facts." Since Roger Bacon the scientist has been gathering and organizing facts, and he has converted the workers in all departments of knowledge to this point of view. Out of this activity the scientific method was born:
. . . there has developed under the hand of the scientist a technique of obtaining the pertinent facts. Facts do not come of themselves. They must be sought for under controlled conditions, or under conditions which, if not controllable, are fully understood. The experimental sciences have provided the means wherewith to ascertain facts under controlled conditions. They have had their special sphere in the physical realm; but the biologist has used the experiment with amazing success in the less easily controllable field in which he operates. In the sciences which deal with man, and in social studies of all kinds, the experiment is less readily applicable, and the student is forced back on the study of the conditions under which the data accumulate. These conditions may be unplanned, but they must be known. The scientist has shown how to disentangle the significant conditions from the adventitious. He has placed facts in their setting in the flow of events.
The presupposition here is that scientists know beforehand which facts to seek and where and how to seek them. It has been repeatedly shown, however, that every search for the facts is guided by a priori conception of what ought to be found.(2) The scientific ideal of complete "impartiality" is a psychological impossibility. As Darwin said, "How odd it is that anyone should not see that all observation must be for or against some view, if it is to be of any service." The very act of seeking, then, is irrefutable evidence of a metaphysical position, consciously or unconsciously held by the seeker. This is borne out by the condemnation of the facts of psychic research by all materialists, who could not recognize them and remain materialists. Huxley thought spiritualistic phenomena irrelevant to the problems of his field.(3) But how could he know that psychic dynamics were not "significant" when he had never investigated them? Dr. Wallace might rather have said that all too often the scientist places his facts in their setting in the flow of his theory. Dr. Wallace speaks of the scientific pursuit of the "how" of things, which finds definition in terms of law, showing how the practical consequences of this quest have given science its enormous prestige in the modern world. Science is honored not so much for its intellectual attitude as for its contributions to "the amenities of living." Because of the physical achievements of science, its metaphysical assumptions are deemed to be correct. The mechanistic view of natural processes has been extended from the inanimate to the life sciences, from the biological to the psychological disciplines. The statistical or inductive method has invaded education, as though it were established that in an accurate description of the actual, that is, of human behavior, we may find an inner logic pointing to the ideal. In Dr. Wallace's words: "There is no human problem so complex, as many think, that it may not ultimately resolve itself into the ordinary phenomena of causal conditions within the system, and the inevitable consequences of those conditions -- in a word, a system working within itself in a mechanical process as rigid and unalterable as the movements of a clock under the force of its mainspring."

It is perhaps natural that scientists should have conceived a superficial dislike for investigations into the "why" of the things and events which form the subject-matter of their study. A theory of purpose involves a theory of cosmology, and the whole scientific world has but recently emerged victorious from a life-and-death struggle with the theological view of these matters. Obviously, there must be a complementary relation between the answers to "how" and "why," and no such harmony was possible between the respective answers of science and religion to these questions. Consequently, scientists decided to ignore the problem of "why" altogether. This, however, is equally impossible, as thoughtful scientists are beginning to perceive. To proceed on the hypothesis that knowledge of the purpose of things is unimportant or unobtainable leads directly to the position that there is no purpose at all -- itself a cosmological theory as dogmatic as any theological conception. From the point of view of ethics and social relations, the assumption of ultimate meaninglessness has consequences which are worse, if possible, than those of revealed religion. For when a man acts, he acts with purpose; any other view is unthinkable. Science has presented him with its extraordinary technique of action, saying, in effect, "Select your own end; we have nothing to say on that subject; probably there isn't any end at all." The common man consents, thereupon embarking for Aldous Huxley's "Brave New World."

Dr. Wallace thinks that the authority of science has "over-reached itself, and is in danger of falling on the other side." Mechanism is too exclusive:

. . . the underlying assumptions of the scientific method have been too complete to meet the case. They have left no room for anything else, and there is something else which the methods of science fail to elucidate. That is the reason for the reorientation and revaluation which is taking place today. In this readjustment the scientists are joining hands with the philosophers; for the task belongs not to science, nor to philosophy, but to science and philosophy together.

Overemphasis is something to which the mind is prone; and it is, to our way of thinking, a question of overemphasis with which we are dealing in the development and use of the scientific tool. We have been passing through a period of depression, which has given special significance to the dependence of man on his economic setting. If we were to judge from the discussions and the literature of the past eight years, we would be led to the conclusion that man is primarily concerned about, and influenced by, his economic relationships. We would be led to subscribe to the premises on which Marx erected his political philosophy. And yet we know that this is not the truth of the case. There are other, and more fundamental, springs of life and conduct than the economic. We have been under the spell of the overemphasis of a phase of the truth; and we are only gradually coming back to a sounder balance. So in the changing emphasis in the religious life, where in one age the dogmatic formulation is all-important, in another the social gospel prevails, in another the mystical approach. It seems difficult -- indeed it may not be possible -- to maintain through the ages an even balance. Truth seems to unfold itself by exposing the falsity of the over-statement of positions, which, within their own limits, are true.

Dr. Wallace remarks the "growing doubt as to the applicability of science to human affairs." Enigmas of the emotions and the mind, the intangible values transmitted by an inspiring teacher -- these and other considerations suggest that there may be a limit to the mechanical principle made popular by physical science. Such values, admittedly real, elude the plan of the balance and are just as much responsible for the questioning attitude toward scientific method as the recalcitrant electron that seems to flaunt its random motion at the memory of Isaac Newton. Dr. Wallace asks:
Is it the case that the difficulty lies, not in the incompetence of science in this field of human affairs, but in the lack of knowledge of the complicated factors which operate in human life and thinking and conduct? Is there not so much to be explored before we can say so peremptorily that there are areas beyond the limit of scientific analysis? Will not the rapidly advancing knowledge of psychological processes change the situation? Can the scientist go forward at all unless on the hypothesis that the scientific method is applicable? Or, on the other hand, are there values which are beyond the reach of the scientist qua scientist, and of which his method has no means of assessing the validity? This is the fundamental question; and we have discussed the human problem first because the question has arisen in many minds in recent years. There are scientists not a few who feel that as scientists they must go forward on the assumption that there are open fields still to be cultivated, but as men feel that there are regions, the door to which they will not be able to unlock by the key which science provides. 

Next article:
"Changing Values of Science" -- II
(Part 2 of 2)


(1) Published in Science, Sept. 23, 1938.
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(2) See Morris Cohen's Reason and Nature (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1931), pp. 76-7.
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(3) Huxley wrote the London Dialectical Society's committee for the investigation of Spiritualism: ". . . supposing the phenomena to be genuine -- they do not interest me." Report of the Committee (J. Burns: London, 1873), p. 229.
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