VIII

THE VALUE AND DANGER OF MODERN SCIENCE

A. SCIENCE AND THE PUBLIC

B. TRUE SCIENTISTS AND TRUE CRITICS

C. THE UPSHOT OF SCIENCE FOR THOUGHT

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A. SCIENCE AND THE PUBLIC

THE result of the relative strength of physics and weakness of psychology is that the mental atmosphere or fashion of thought of scientists, and of our whole modem civilization, is one in which immense respect is paid to physical facts, while all else tends to seem mere illusion. Probably our successors five hundred years hence will be much less impressed by the triumphs of our physical science than by our ignorance of all the kinds of reality which are less tangible than the movements studied by physics. They will surely smile at our childish faith that if only we can describe an event in terms of our neat little physical laws, we succeed in saying the main truth about it.

Even to-day, many scientists themselves realize that though science gives us wonderful powers of predicting events and controlling them, it gives us very little insight into their real nature. It has progressed by ignoring more and more of the characters which we actually experience, and by concentrating more and more strictly on those few experienced characters which its method could study. The result is that to-day it is a vast system of mathematical formulae which do indeed describe very elegantly and comprehensively one aspect of the universe, namely movement. But, though they reveal much that could not otherwise be known about the immense movements of stars and the minute movements of electrons, and the many other movements that make up the physical universe, yet they tell us nothing whatever about anything but movements and some of the relations between movements and other facts.

But though many true scientists are now keenly aware of the weakness of science, most of the large company of more or less scientifically minded persons are still naively inclined to believe that in science man has not only a mighty power for the exploration of the physical universe and the making of a better human society, but also a key to all mysteries and to the knowledge of good and evil.

Not very long ago science was fighting for independence against the Christian Churches. The clergymen claimed that they knew more about the physical world by divine revelation than scientists could ever discover by observation and experiment. .In those days it seemed to ordinary people that scientists were wickedly wrong-headed. On the strength of their seemingly pettifogging explorations scientists denied principles that all decent persons had long accepted as sacred. The earth, they said, was not the centre of the universe. Animals such as now exist had not been created in their present forms, but had been evolved from simpler types. Man himself was not utterly different from the animals, but had grown out of something ape-like.

In those early days of science it was difficult for people to give up the old and respectable theories, and to adjust their minds to ideas that were not only new but shocking. In those days, therefore, all sincerely thoughtful persons had to rally to the cause of science.

To-day the situation is very different, and rather complicated. In the first place, there are still many backward peoples, and backward sections of the more advanced peoples, who have not yet been influenced by science deeply enough to cast out the ancient superstitions and the old confused ways of thinking. Also, even among those who have not the excuse of ignorance, there are to-day swarms of more or less clever but also extremely foolish, or malicious, persons, who, though they tolerate science in some respects, fight tooth and nail against the spread of certain special kinds of scientific knowledge, such as the biology and psychology of sex. This they do because the scientific study of sex makes nonsense of their own moral prejudices. Against all such, and against the sheer ignorance of the backward sections of society, the scientifically minded must still carry on relentless war.

But in our day science is not, in the main, a struggling, persecuted thing. It is a triumphant and venerated thing. And because it has now great honour in the hearts of men and great authority over their minds, there is a danger that it may come to exercise the same kind of tyranny as the churches have exercised for centuries, and do still exercise to a very large extent. It is not altogether unreasonable to feel that, while the effect of the churches in the modem world is in the main deadening, the effect of science is by no means wholly vitalizing, and that it may in time become as lethal to the spirit as the churches at their worst.

Even to-day there is a tendency to regard contemporary science as eternal truth. Even to-day to be called 'un-scientific' is almost as serious as in the old days it was to be called 'immoral'. To doubt the value of science is coming to seem as wickedly heretical as formerly to doubt the value of religion.

In many ways the scientists are becoming the priests of the modern world. Like the priests of old, they possess a vast body of 'truth', which, if it is not called divine, is at least treated as sacred. Like the priests, they are looked upon with respect and awe. Like the priests they are divided into two classes. Some of them live among us to help us and educate us, not with religious but with scientific wisdom. Others retire from the world to seek the truth, not in monasteries but in research laboratories. There they explore the sacred mysteries which mere laymen can never really understand. Like the priests, they wield immense power over our minds. They kindle our imagination, and give us a vision and an ideal, a vision of the immensity and intricacy of the universe, and an ideal of scientific knowledge and power. Also they threaten us with terrible consequences if we dare to rebel against the precepts of this new church, or if we lose faith in the sacred truth. With complete I confidence, and with righteous indignation, they prophesy to the unscientific person, and to the unscientific nation, disease, poverty and death. No doubt their prophesies are in the main justified, and their practical influence is in the main beneficent. But it is inevitable that a great and priestly caste should seek to exaggerate the accuracy of its knowledge and the importance of its office.

There was a time, long ago, when the priests of religion commonly stood for clear thinking, for genuine education, for the overthrow of tyrants and tyrannical classes, for the suppression of tribal and national hatreds, and for world civilization. To-day, when the priests, with some exceptions, have sunk into futility and reaction, the scientists still on the whole stand for mental and spiritual freedom—so long as these do not conflict with respect for science. But already there are signs that in the future the influence of science, like the influence of the churches, will be opposed to all independent thinking, will turn education into parrot-like repetition of sacred and meaningless formulae, will subject the peoples to the tyranny of a scientifically minded ruling caste, will even make national wars more frequent and more destructive, or will produce at best not world-civilization but world-mechanization.

Already in our day, although there are still large numbers of people who are simply behind the times, and have never really been able to understand and accept the scientific point of view, there is also an ever-growing swarm of those who are too complacently at home in the mental atmosphere of to-day. They are proud to live in a scientific age, vastly impressed by all the products of scientific invention and with the very limited wisdom of science. They despise the helplessness and ignorance of earlier ages. They are intolerant of all those of their contemporaries who protest against the arrogance of science. They cannot distinguish between the protest which springs from mere prejudice and that which springs from serious criticism. They are eager to be up to date, to wear whatever mental clothing is worn by the leaders of scientific fashion. They cannot conceive that the present scientific fashion may some day look as clumsy and ridiculous as nineteenth-century dress.

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B. TRUE SCIENTISTS AND TRUE CRITICS

The main bulk of the world's population, then, may be divided into the blindly unscientific and the blindly scientific. But there are some more thoughtful persons, who do not belong to either of these two classes. They also are of two kinds, and may be called the true scientists and the true critics of science.

The true scientists are well aware that our science contains fundamental inconsistencies which bid fair to prove irresolvable, that at any moment its best-established doctrines may have to be so radically reinterpreted as to become unrecognizable, that at best they tell us almost nothing about the real nature of the world, that mathematical formulae of science are true only of one aspect of reality, that science can only very indirectly and haltingly help us to discover what is worth living for and dying for, what is most to be prized in life.

But though the true scientists are aware of all this, they are also aware that at present we have almost no serviceable knowledge at all except science and our invaluable 'common sense' perception. About the spheres which science does not touch we have, indeed, only a number of vague feelings and guesses. These feelings and guesses may be the foundations of a much deeper kind of knowledge which has still to be built up, but at present they are very disconnected and unreliable. On the other hand, the scientist knows that science is definite, and within its true sphere reliable. Even to-day it has already been put to tremendous use, for good and for ill.

But the scientist may well be more impressed by what science might do than by what it has already done. It has already given man great powers, but it has not yet been able to give him the wisdom to use those powers to the best advantage. The scientist rightly feels that the means to create a world-population fully developed in body and mind is a gift which cannot be overestimated. Every one in the world might with the help of science be given conditions of life more favourable than even the most fortunate of us can secure to-day. The average physique might be made to excel the average of to-day as the Greek athlete excels the most stunted of our industrial serfs. Not only so, but, as we have seen, science also gives the means to emancipate all men and women from drudgery; and in addition the means of filling the life of every individual with great diversity and subtlety of experience. It can even contribute to make him appreciate the kind of life which is most appropriate to properly nurtured human beings. Further, the vast development of communication which has already done much to bring remote peoples into touch with one another, should in the future enable every human being to appreciate all the manners of life and modes of mind which occur on the planet, and, indeed, to wander at will into any region of the earth as easily as he now wanders about his native county.

But much more than this science has yet to achieve. All that has thus far been mentioned could be brought about by contemporary physics and chemistry and such rudimentary biochemistry and biology as we already possess. Psychology cannot as yet play more than a very small part. In the future, if all goes well, biochemistry, general biology, and psychology also, will very probably revolutionize our knowledge of our own nature. We shall learn to know and to use the fundamental laws of human motive as effectively as we now know the laws of dynamics, and we shall so control the growth of minds that the perversions of will which now cripple so many of us will be avoided, and all men will with clear vision seek to express the best that is in them.

Further, as science advances, men will effectively explore those many fields which at present lie on the extreme limit of research. For the present we can do no more in these fields than register the suspicion that all contemporary scientific concepts are inadequate to these strange problems. In the vast dark continents whose mere fringes are now being fragmentarily mapped out by 'psychical research' there may await us discoveries which will subvert psychology as completely as astronomy has been subverted since the days of Ptolemy; nay, which may change our whole conception of the place of man in the universe.

Greatly as he prizes all these actual and possible discoveries of science, the true scientist feels, also, I think, that science has another and very different kind of importance. For him science really does play something of the part which for many others is played by religion. In the first place, it is for him a mental discipline, for it imposes on him an ideal of efficient and conscientious work. He must not be slovenly or superficial or dishonest in his research. He must never spare himself in service of the truth. Indeed, the discipline which science imposes on him might well be called a spiritual discipline. He must learn to subject his personal desires for the sake of the great co-operative enterprise of science; and also he must try to take a detached view of all things human. He must distrust all human thought, even his own science, and look critically into all human desires and ideals.

In the second place, science has a deep effect on the true scientist through the sheer vastness and intricacy of the cosmos which it reveals to him. He is overwhelmed by the multitude of stars, and of galaxies, and by the prodigious, crowded and variegated depths of past ages. The whole career of man seems to him but a strange flicker on a microscopic mote in the great dance of galaxies. Though he knows as well as the critics that mere size has nothing to do with beauty and goodness, yet the magnitude and variety of physical existence does afford him an intense exhilaration, like that which may be experienced by a man who, leaving a small and crowded room, finds himself under the stars. It also suggests to him that, just as man formerly underestimated the size of the cosmos, so perhaps he is now underestimating its mental and spiritual potentialities, and taking his own highest achievements in those directions much too seriously.

In his own special study the scientist may have a very strong and inspiring sense of the independent reality of what he is exploring. He knows well that only the surface, the outer skin of this reality, is open to his exploration; but he has a keen sense that it is what it is, and not what he desires or expects it to be. He tries earnestly to 'enter into the spirit of it' and see it truly. He is anxious not to misinterpret it in accordance with his own preconceived ideas. When he looks beyond his subject and considers the universe as a whole, he regards it in the same way. He is intensely aware of its reality, and of the extreme complexity and vastness and independence of this reality.

Since he is a man, and not merely a scientist, the upshot in his mind is apt to be two very deep but quiet emotions, or movements of the will. The first is loyalty to the great human enterprise of advance in knowledge and power and in discriminate appreciation. Science, he feels, opens up limitless possibilities of such advance. The second emotion is perhaps most truly to be called worship of the vast, intricate, non-human reality whose surface science studies. He worships it partly, I think, for its very 'inhumanity', for its apparent indifference to man; but also for its suggestion of limitless spiritual potentiality.

The true critics of science, on the other hand, are more impressed by the dangers of science than by its benefits, more by the harm it does to common minds than by the discipline it affords to truly scientific minds. They see that it tends to regard the physical side of reality as the only important side'; that it often makes men insensitive toward all the finer kinds of experience, such as the appreciation of human personality, and of art and religion. These experiences, they say, contemporary science cannot properly describe. And because it misdescribes them, leaving out the 'nerve' of them, so to speak, its devotees take them to be illusory and, negligible. Science has destroyed something which could at least sometimes lift men out of themselves, or fortify their more human and spiritual nature against their purely animal nature. The true critics see also that science tends to give some men a false standard of values. By destroying the old ideals it either makes them care for nothing but personal pleasure and excitement, or it deludes them into prizing the mere power of controlling the material world, without questioning what should be done with that power.

Now there is, indeed, one way in which science may help us to value things more accurately. It may help us to see them more clearly, and so enable us to decide more justly as to whether they have or have not the characters which we independently prize. But science itself cannot tell us what kind of thing is really desirable or really admirable. Some have claimed that because life (as they believe) is evolving into ever more complex and more capable forms, therefore what is desirable is whatever advances the evolutionary process. This argument is false. In the first place, evolution is a rare process. Very few types have actually advanced. In the second place, evolutionary advance is not good because it is the direction of evolution; it is good in so far as it tends in the direction which we independently approve, namely the direction of more awakened mental and spiritual being.

The critics feel also that the effect of popular science on popular morality is very serious. The old standards are being rapidly discarded, and in their place comes an ethic which (they say) is at heart self-indulgent and degraded. It is an ethic based on very inadequate biological concepts, and devoid of that intuitive sense of rightness which men in the past regarded as an intimation of divine will. The proof of the insufficiency of modern morality, the critics say, is that the typically modern' young person is disillusioned, and disgusted with himself and the world. The critics of science feel that science is producing a swarm of cheap, standardized minds, incapable of any depth of experience, and intolerant of all who do not agree with them.

Many of the serious critics of science are so disgusted by the effects of science upon men's minds that they find their way back again into one or other of the churches. Feeling that the old religions really do take into account kinds of experience which are of very great importance and are ignored or despised by the more hasty kind of scientists, these desperate critics choose to accept all the orthodox doctrines of some church or other, including many which seem to be the products of merely animal or primitive craving and of confused thinking. Their disgust with science blinds them to the fact that these doctrines have, in many cases, no more claim to credence than fashionable scientific speculations themselves. It is, indeed, tragic that revulsion from science, and our science-obsessed civilization, should lead so many of our most sensitive minds to fly to the old religion and accept it uncritically, instead of facing the fact that not only science, but also religion itself, of the doctrinal kind, is inadequate.

Both the true scientists and the true critics of science seem to have right on their side, though each is disinclined to do full justice to the other. Apart from the very urgent world-economic problem, there is no more important problem for mankind to-day than this one of realizing the danger and the true value of modern science. Before leaving this subject, I would suggest that we must constantly distinguish between the science of the true scientists and the science of the commoner and less truly scientific kind of scientists; who, even if they happen to be fine workers in their special fields, never manage to regard life as a whole in the truly scientific way, and never manage to look at science itself scientifically.

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C. THE UPSHOT OF SCIENCE FOR THOUGHT

I shall now attempt to describe briefly the whole upshot of contemporary science so far as it should bear upon the world-view of the ordinary intelligent person. Any part, or even the whole, of modern scientific thought may turn out to be in important respects wrong. Nothing in it deserves to be regarded as certain. But in all probability the general outline of it is in some sense true, even if it is systematically distorted by the omission of some far-reaching principle still hidden from us. Let us, then, try to set down the main tenor of modern science in a few bold strokes.

In the first place, then, many of the notions of common sense, which have worked so well for many thousands of years, and many of the earlier notions of science itself turn out to be only very roughly true. For instance, in the long view of modern science the seemingly fixed order of space and the seemingly fixed order of time are seen to be very dependent on one another and on the point of view of the observer. But some other mysterious thing, neither mere space nor mere time but the reality which includes the two of them, is a fixed order. Seemingly our intuitions of space and time, though valid for our practical life, are superficial. They need to be qualified by some more subtle intuitions not yet possible to us. Again, energy, which science itself conceived, and took to be of an absolutely fixed amount in the universe, turns out not to be so; but once more, there is something else, much more complex, and to us quite unimaginable, which is the fixed reality behind energy. And so on. In fact, not only the world of common sense, but also the world of earlier science itself, is almost certainly very superficial and fragmentary aspects of a deeper and far more subtle world which lies at present almost entirely beyond our comprehension. Such at least is the case if modern science is to be trusted.

Then there is the matter of mere size. If science is right, the universe turns out to be very much bigger than was supposed a little while ago. Astronomers tell us that if an ordinary page-size photograph of one of the galaxies, or star-systems, was enlarged to the size of Asia, the earth would remain invisibly small on it unless one used a powerful microscope. The solar system, with the earth in it, lies within one such star-system or galaxy. Our galaxy contains about a hundred thousand million stars. Our own sun is a star of average size, though it is probably very exceptional in having planets. Its volume is over a million times that of the earth. Though stars are so big, and there are so many of them in a galaxy, they are also so far apart that if a star be represented by an orange, its nearest neighbour would be many hundreds of miles distant.

Some two million other galaxies are visible through our present telescopes. They are separated from one another and from our own galaxy by immense tracts of space. Beyond the farthest visible galaxy there lie, in all directions, a much greater number of galaxies, so distant that our most powerful telescopes cannot reveal them. It is said that there must be about a hundred thousand million of them. So there are as many galaxies as there are stars in one galaxy. If all the stars in all the galaxies were grains of sand, they would make up a bed hundreds of yards deep over the whole surface of England.

But though the universe is so big, it has a definite size. It is not infinite. The smallest known physical object, an electron, occupies a definite proportion of the whole of contemporary space. This does not mean that there are boundaries to the universe, beyond which there is nothing, not even space. It means that if we were to go on travelling in what we call a straight line for long enough, we should at last arrive at the place from which we started. Light, which would take one-seventh of a second to travel round the earth, takes at least a hundred thousand years to travel 'round' the whole universe.

According to one of the latest, but seemingly well-established, theories, the volume of space itself, compared with the smallest of all physical objects, is expanding; or, if you prefer it, the objects themselves are contracting. More accurately, the distances between the galaxies are ever increasing in comparison with the size of the galaxies themselves and the size of electrons and waves of light. The farthest visible galaxies are rushing away from us at a prodigious and ever-increasing rate, simply through this 'expansion of space'. The farthest galaxies of all, far too remote to be seen, are receding much faster. Sooner or later they will be travelling faster than the speed of light, and will have no longer any connexion whatever with us.

Not only does the universe turn out to be bigger, it turns out also to be much older than was supposed. The human species has perhaps existed for a million years, say thirty thousand generations. The first mammals probably appeared some twenty million years ago. It is perhaps about two thousand million years since the planets were formed from the substance of the sun. They were born, it seems, as the result of a very rare accident in the universe, namely the close approach of the sun and a passing star, and the drawing out of a part of the sun by the attraction of the other star.

The sun itself is thought by some to have been formed out of the original nebula or gas-cloud about seven million million years ago. But in estimating the past we have to take into account the theory of the expanding universe. If that theory is true, then the expansion cannot have been going on for ever. There must have been a time when all the galaxies were crowded together like a swarm of bees hanging from a branch. The beginning of the process, it seems, cannot have been so very long ago, not so long as has been demanded for the condensation of the galaxies out of the primeval all- pervading gas. In fact there is a discrepancy in the time scales suggested for evolution. But, whichever account is right, the beginning of the physical universe must have been many millions of years ago.

Looking into the future, we find that, though man has only existed for about a million years, probably the earth will still be a possible home for him two thousand million years hence, and perhaps much longer. Thus if we represent his past million years by a few days, he has still the prospect of a long lifetime before him; though of course he may be destroyed before his time by some astronomical catastrophe, or by biological changes beyond his control, or by the unwise use of the powers which science is giving him.

But though the universe has a very long past history, and will have a very long future history, there was something like a Beginning, and there will be something like an End. The universe is apparently running down, like a clock. Knowing the rate of its unwinding, we infer that at some date, very long before the formation of the stars, it must have been started; and that at another date, very long after all the stars are reduced to cinders, it will stop. Of these most remote events scientists can tell us very little. Some believe that in the beginning God created the universe, and that in the end it will have fulfilled its purpose. Others, with at least as good reason, believe that the life of the universe consists of an extremely slow alternation of winding up and unwinding, like the alternate intake and output of a man's breath. Others again say that, since the universe is finite, and no energy can be actually lost from it, and since its 'end' is not really a state of exhaustion, but an all-pervading agitation of light-waves, mere chance, operating through inconceivable myriads of aeons, must sooner or later result in a vast rewinding, a vast piling up of energy once more into certain places, so that the whole cosmical process must take place again.

But all this is guesswork. What science actually tells us with some confidence is that the universe is very big and very long-enduring; that at present it is unwinding; that man is physically a very minute part of it, and one of very recent origin; that his planet is probably unique; that life itself, as we know it, depends on several peculiar and (in a loose sense) accidental features of this planet; and that man evolved from primitive life through the effects of still further accidents, such as the fact that some of his ancestors were forced to live in trees and develop good eyes and hands. Science suggests, in short, that man is a product of an amazing chain of lucky chances, or conjunctions of causes; and that to-day, as at every stage of his career, he is at the mercy of the obscure cosmical forces which, so far as science can tell, blindly produced him, and may as blindly destroy him. It suggests, moreover, that his mind, with all its desires and fears and its loftiest aspirations, is very largely determined by the seemingly blind workings of chemical and physical events within his body. If his digestion goes wrong, he becomes irritable or gloomy; if he is given certain drugs, he becomes hilarious, or ecstatic, or angry, or anxious, or dull, or brilliant, in response to the properties of the particular drug.

All this that science asserts is perhaps humiliating to man's self-esteem; but science tells us also something different. It tells us that, though in the past man has, indeed, been the sport of circumstance, and must, so far as scientists can judge, ever remain so to a great extent, yet in our age he seems to be coming into the possession of hitherto unimaginable powers of controlling his own destiny. If these powers are misused, they may well destroy him. But if they are used wisely, with clear consciousness of the desirable goal, they may, in the fullness of time, enable him to make of himself a very much more alive being than he is at present. Indeed, it is not inconceivable that man is the living germ which is destined to vitalize the whole cosmos. On the other hand, it is at least as possible that he is of no cosmical importance, that all the while there goes on upon the galactic or the cosmical plane, 'over man's head', and unrevealed to him, some exalted life and mind and spiritual experience of a kind which he cannot possibly conceive.

Chapter 9

Chapter 7

Waking World Contents