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1. Science and the Modern World

Our age is an age of science. Speaking about the relevance of science I try to speak about the way in which science succeeds in being the dominating factor of our age. This I do not intend to do by any analysis of sociology, economics or politics. Being trained as a scientist myself, I share the general preconception of scientists that the relevance of science is founded in the truth of science. Hence these lectures will be devoted to the truth of science—to its meaning, its limitations, and its possible ambiguities.

This first series of ten lectures approaches our problem from a historical point of view, and I propose to treat one or two particular problems as examples for a far broader field of questions, a field which would be intractable in its generality.1 This first lecture is mainly an introduction to the complete series.

Science and the Modern World is the title which one of the few great philosophers of our century gave to his most famous book.2 In what sense is science characteristic of the modern world?

Our world is a technical world. Such a statement needs no explanation in the age of the radio and the washing machine, in a period in which political history is made by the threat of atomic weapons and by the nimbus of the sputnik. Modern technology, however, would be impossible without modern science. Science and technology may be compared to two neighbouring trees that have sprung out of different seeds and still have some separate roots and some separate branches, but whose trunks have grown into one and whose leaves form one huge top. The steam engine of the 18th century was still developed largely out of the traditions of mining and of handicraft; the electromotor of the 19th century would have been impossible without the preceding scientific discoveries of Ampère and Faraday; the nuclear reactor of our century was devised and first built by the atomic physicists themselves. The other side of the medal shows a corresponding picture. I do not need to explain how much natural science in its beginnings owed to the seemingly useless questions asked by the philosophers and to the intellectual methods invented by pure mathematicians, and how little, on the other hand, even the best mind can achieve in modern science if the experimental equipment, made possible by modern technology, is insufficient. In order to express myself simply I shall mostly use the term “science” for this combined structure, this twin tree, of science and technology.

But the relevance of science goes beyond its technical applications. Science seems somehow to represent the character and the fate of our age. I shall try to express this view in two theses which are formulated in a not quite usual terminology; and I shall give the next steps of the analysis in an attempt to interpret these theses. They are:

  1. Faith in science plays the rôle of the dominating religion of our time.
  2. The relevance of science for our time can, in this moment of history, only be evaluated in terms that express an ambiguity.

Thus religion and ambiguity will be the key concepts of the following passages.

The two theses can only be understood together. Thus in calling faith in science something like the religion of our time I have spoken in ambiguous language. In one sense of the word religion this statement is, I think, true, in another it is certainly wrong. In aiming at an understanding of our time by analysing this ambiguity, I shall first explain in what sense I feel my first thesis can be asserted.

First of all it is certain that our time has no other dominating religion. If you take a European point of view you can rightly say that the dominating religion of the Middle Ages and even of the 19th century was Christianity. The same statement would not apply to our century, for two reasons. First, while Christianity still is the official religion of the majority of the citizens in our western countries, it might be an overstatement to call it dominating. Religious agnosticism is most probably the dominant attitude of the western mind in our times. Secondly, the European point of view is no longer adequate to describe the world which we call our world. While America today shares the European religious tradition, Russia, at least in its dominating class, has left the same tradition; and China, India, the Arab countries, none of which has ever entered this tradition, are most conspicuously members of the world in which we have to live together.

Perhaps we live in a non-religious world. But it is improbable psychologically that the place in the mind of the average human being which in earlier times was filled by religion should now stay empty. My first thesis maintains that this place is now filled by science, or, if you prefer that expression, by scientism, i.e. by faith in science. And I want to go on by stating that the structure of science, looked upon as a factor in the mind of the individual and in society, is such as to enable it to fill that place very efficiently.

What would a sociologist call the indispensable elements of a religion? We may be inclined to mention at least the following three: a common faith, an organized church, and a code of behaviour. Does science provide anything comparable to a faith, a church, and a code of behaviour?

Many admirers of science, it is true, think that science differs from religion in replacing faith by reason. This view, however, seems to be caused by too narrow a concept of faith; or, perhaps, it is precisely an expression of the faith in science. The guiding factor in faith is not belief but trust. Here I use the word belief for the intellectual attitude of an assent which is not knowledge. By trust, on the other hand, I want to indicate a pervading quality of the personality which is not limited to the conscious mind; a quality of reliance which enables us to act precisely in the way in which we ought to act if that in which we trust were clearly before our eyes. It is not primarily the intellectual satisfaction of belief but the moral satisfaction of trust which gives religious faith its strength—here the word “moral” is to be taken in its broadest possible sense. And if you ask what makes the Siamese twins of science and technology the idols of our time, the answer ought to be: it is their trustworthiness. The primitive boy from any village in the world, who knows little about his gods and nothing about science, learns how to tread on the accelerator, and the car will roll. The European Christian and the European agnostic exert their common trust in the technical world, whenever, in entering a room, they push the switch and expect the light to go on. The romantic author who has written a book against the world view of science calls his publisher by telephone because he is late in his proof-reading; and by this very act he tacitly bows before the god whom he defies in his writing. And when the car, the electric light, the telephone fail we do not blame science for being wrong but we blame the individual gadget for being defective, for not corresponding to the standard set by science itself. Such is our faith in science.

But does this trivial trust deserve the name of faith? Is not religious faith revealed from another world, screened in mystery, and confirmed by miracles? Yet the psychological situation of the average man in our time who faces science is just like that of a believer towards his revealed faith. Is not the atom another invisible world and the mathematical formula the sacred text, open before the eye of the initiated whom we call a scientist, and mysterious to the layman? And a miracle was not originally defined as an event which transcends the laws of nature; for the very concept of laws of nature is a modern one. A miracle is a manifestation of superhuman power. The most conspicuous miracles in the history of religious belief were those of feeding, of healing and of destruction; modern agriculture and transportation, modern medicine and modern war machinery work precisely these miracles.

This believing trust in science which, if I have described it rightly, is taking over in our time much of the rôle played by religious faith in earlier ages, I shall call scientism in what follows.

If the religion of science has its faith, does it have a church? Probably you will say: no. Perhaps the Communist Party tries to be something like such a church. But then it is not more than a very powerful sect. The majority of the believers in science in the world of this day do not share the communist interpretation of science; they feel that much of what communists call science is not science at all. But, strangely enough, though there is no church of science, there is a priesthood of science: the scientists themselves. I have called them the initiated. It is their understanding of a common truth by which they recognize each other. That physics is science and dialectical materialism is not, for example, became clear, in 1955 at the first Geneva conference on the peaceful use of atomic energy. There many western and Soviet physicists met for the first time, and a good deal of classified information was made public. It was a great experience to see that the numerical values of the same atomic constants, measured in deep secrecy in different countries under opposed political systems and creeds, when compared, turned out to be identical down to the last decimal. Nothing of the sort happened with respect to theories on society. The Soviet physicist and his colleague from the West are united by a bond which no political dissension can touch; they are united by a common truth.

Let me make a remark about priests and truth. Sceptics have invented the theory that the higher clergy of a religious community cannot possibly believe their own dogmas and miracle-stories. The sceptic, seeing that priests on higher levels are usually clever, cannot imagine that they should believe what in his eyes is nonsense. He may be right concerning the minor hocus-pocus that seems to be inevitable in religion as well as in medicine. He is most certainly wrong, though, about the basic creed. The priest is the man who understands the creed and who is able to explain it as far as it can be explained to the uninitiated. The priest has taken the longer path along which the meaning of the scriptures is opened step by step. He takes it and knows how to lead others along it. The priests of the same religion, whatever may be their personal differences, are united by the common possession of what they most firmly believe to be truth. Just for this reason differences in the interpretation of this truth which seem trifling from outside are of such importance to those within. And now the scientists find themselves in the possession of such a truth which unites them in their own eyes as well as in the eyes of the world. They are forced into a priestlike position, whether they like it or not.

As a third element of religion I mentioned its code of behaviour. This includes a moral code. But many religions have a particular ritual code besides. Historically the concept of pure ethics is probably a rather late stage in the development of a religion. In the earliest codes we usually find moral rules embedded in ritual. Ritual contains the rules of right behaviour towards those superhuman powers on which we depend all our life. These rules are generally incomprehensible to modern man. He is no longer able to produce within himself, even in a playful manner, the state of mind of a person who truly believes in the reality of those powers. He would find a very good analogy, though, in his own belief in the laws of nature and in his readiness to obey the directions for use which are attached to any piece of modern machinery. The car does not run; of course, you forgot to release the hand-brake. If you don’t learn to use the right pedal you will never be able to drive a car. If you don’t learn to spell the right formula at the right moment, the demons will never obey your will.

Ethics grows out of ritual as right behaviour towards our fellow man grows out of right behaviour towards the invisible powers. In its peculiar way, the technical world knows this transition, too, and it is vital for our future that we should understand it. If you know how to work the knobs you will be able to drive a car at 60 mph. But if you try to drive your car at 60 mph through a city street, you are violating the traffic law; more than that, you are reckless, and you know it. There is an inherent ethics of the technical world, but it is not yet well understood. To do everything that is technically feasible, is non-technical behaviour; it is not, as some believe, technical avant-gardism, but it is childish. The little boy tries out his toy without thinking of the furniture and of the peace of mind of his parents; the adult uses technical apparatus as means to an end. I feel that this consideration applies even to such great problems as weapons and war in an atomic age. Much that is done technically in our time is in no way better than black magic. It is not worthy of a mature technical age. We still live more in a time of technical ritual than of technical ethics.

Let us now take a step back. I have tried to draw a picture of the relevance of science in modern life by comparing it to a religion. I suppose that some of you will have felt rising within your minds a strong objection. Is this comparison between science and religion anything but blasphemy? I am not here speaking of those believers in science who would object to my comparison because they think science to be true and religion to be wrong; their case will be treated at length in later lectures. In speaking of blasphemy I want to express the opposite feeling, that of the truly religious man or woman who will say: whatever analogy there may be between the public influence of science and that of religion, still science is not religion and should never be allowed to take its place. I fully agree with them. The reason for my using such ambiguous language will become clearer in the further course of these lectures, too. As a first step I shall now turn the tables and try to give a few arguments which can be used against scientism as a religion of our age. I shall first speak about the success and failure of scientism, then about its meaning, and this will lead me to the question of its origin.

Even if we speak of scientism as a dominating religion we must ask if it is a true view of life. And we should not be inclined to call it true if it leads into catastrophe or even into a life not worthy of human beings. Therefore I think the question of success is relevant. What does our experience teach us about the success or failure of science and of scientism? I think the answer cannot but be ambiguous. Science has led us into a two-edged, an ambiguous situation. Any example, if we are not afraid of thinking through its consequences, will make that obvious.

Medicine and hygiene have saved thousands of millions of lives. This is the most wonderful success science can boast of. Death has not been conquered, it is true, and will not be conquered. To save lives means to save them for a while; such is our human condition. We cannot want more than to save the lives of children so that they may see maturity, and the lives of adults so that they may fulfil their calling and, as is said of Abraham, may die in a good old age, full of years (Gen. 35, 8). Hence it means a great deal to raise the life expectation of the new-born from thirty-five to sixty-five years.

But another aspect of this success is the enormous increase of the world population. It has more than doubled within one century, and no limit seems as yet to be approached. How can we feed the human beings whom we condemn to life by our medicine? Is not Malthus right after all?

I see just two solutions to this problem, a preliminary one and a final one. The preliminary answer is industrialization and intensification of agriculture, combined with an unfettered exchange of goods all over the earth; this answer, to put it briefly, is an increase in food production. But the area of our planet is limited; finally the increase of population must come to an end. If we do not want to rely on a break-down of our civilization I see no final answer but general birth control.

Both solutions rest on certain political conditions. The later we stop the population increase the greater will be the number of people to be fed. The greater this number the more complicated and hence the more vulnerable is the system of technology and of organization needed to feed them. The classical concept of the sovereignty of nations which includes the freedom to wage war becomes increasingly incompatible with the functioning of this system. It becomes more and more evident that war must be abolished. Yet how shall we enforce peace? War is an institution as old as human history. If science forces us to abolish war it strains our inventiveness and our good will to the utmost. Can we assert that mankind will be equal to such an enormous task?

Probably more than peace will be enforced. Can we rely on voluntary birth control? I was present at a meeting of scientists where this problem was treated. A representative of Communist China, a very nice man by the way, rose to say: “The problem must look insoluble to a capitalist society. To us it is no problem. In China we have now 615 million people. Within the next 15 years we will go on to 800 million. Then we will stop.” He spoke and sat down. Here a totalitarian sect of scientism offers its solution to a problem created by science. Is a world dominated by science compatible with human freedom? I am not going to answer this question, but I think we are compelled to raise it.

What contribution has science so far given to the solution of international political problems? I am afraid, the most conspicuous contributions in our time are guided missiles and atomic bombs. I do not deny that just by transforming war into an all-out catastrophe these weapons may contribute to the preservation of peace in our time. Such is the ambiguity of the effects of science: medicine, made to save lives, creates the nearly insurmountable problem of population increase; weapons, made to kill lives, seem to contribute to the establishment of peace. But if the inherent dialectic of these effects turns black into white once, is there a guarantee that it will not turn white into black again? Are we prepared to organize that peace which weapons can make imperative without making it possible at the same time?

These lectures are not intended to offer solutions for our problems but to make a step towards an investigation into their roots. They are not concerned with therapy but only with diagnosis. I am afraid many proposed therapeutical measures have failed or are bound to fail because they rest on an insufficient analysis of the situation, on an insufficient diagnosis. Diagnostics need infinite patience of investigation and they need an eye for the inconspicuous symptoms, for the hidden causes of great effects. Thus let me try to indicate some less conspicuous problems to which an analysis of those already mentioned may lead us. The contribution of science to the organization of peace will to a large extent consist in planning. Planning will be possible and necessary in international affairs, in economy, in social structure, in health, education, and many other things. Planning is inevitable in a scientific world like ours. But certainly it is easier to plan a machine than to plan the behaviour of certain human beings who like to exert their free wills. Hence it is easier to plan their behaviour if we try to treat them as though they were machines. Servitude is more easily planned than freedom. It is true, if we do not open our common life to the spirit of scientific planning, we will see chaos. But if we do open it to that spirit, we will have to withstand the temptation of planning away our humanity, of bringing a servitude over us, the more dangerous the less visibly it enters our communities.

No well-established servitude rests mainly on brute physical force. It rests on a domination of minds. I lived under a dictatorship for twelve years. I did not behave like a hero, but I studied the functioning of the system. Perhaps the main weakness of that particular dictatorship was that it did not believe in science; still it knew how to apply the means provided by science. For example it has led me to believe to this day that the radio contains a more deep-rooted danger than modern weapons do. Weapons are useless if people are not prepared to use them; propaganda is one of the main methods to prepare them for their-use. Perhaps one may dare to go a step further. An integrated personality may be able to resist propaganda. Yet the habit of hearing the radio not for what it brings to the conscious mind but as a placating or titillating background-noise may do more than we know towards a disintegration of the subconscious mind. What demons obsess our technology to make that contemplation impossible to which we ought to return from time to time if we want to find the right use of technology itself?

Human nature is not free from the danger of self-destruction. Science has not created this danger but it brings it into the foreground of the scene. A psychologist may be tempted to call it a positive tendency towards the destruction of our own ends. Take another example. Precisely because we have invented so many instruments for saving time we are all haunted by lack of time. Once such an effect is seen its causality is easily understood. The number of people we can reach by railway, motor-car, aeroplane, and telephone is so much greater than the number with which communication was possible in earlier times that this increase by far surpasses the gain of time in every single human contact. But this is an explanation ex eventu. Will we learn to overcome the effect which we have been unable to forestall or even to foresee?

Science, it seems, is a two-edged sword. No optimism or pessimism seems to be adequate if we want to describe what it has given us and what it promises for the future. Science is still growing. Every effect which we see now can be superseded by a greater one. Whether the greater effect will be better or worse than the one we know is difficult to guess. Therefore I have chosen the word ambiguity to describe what we know about the success of science so far.

Let us go on and say that the meaning of scientism is as ambiguous as the effects of science. If science plays the rôle of a religion, we may rightly ask two questions: What does it know about God? and: What does it know about man?

I propose to postpone the first question. It is true when I called scientism a religion I exposed myself to the objection that religions worship gods or God, while science does not speak of a god. But there are religious systems like original Buddhism or Confucianism which we might call atheistic, and science, on the other hand, believes in powers and laws which would have been called divine by many people in the past; a more thorough study of historic religion which I hope to give in these lectures ought to precede an answer. But we need no preparation for asking the second question: What does science know about man?

Let me explain the case by a well-known silly little story. A man is found at night searching every inch of the street in the light-cone of a street lamp. He explains: “I have lost my door-key.” “Are you sure you have lost it under the lamp?” “No.” “Why, then, do you look for it there?” “Because here at least I can see.” Science cannot select the order in which it wants to treat its subjects according to their importance for human life. The motion of the planets is not relevant to human happiness or salvation. But it turned out to be a comparatively simple problem for mathematical treatment, and thus through the efforts of Copernicus, Kepler, and Newton its theory became the keystone of modern science. Human nature is less simple. Human actions will most probably never be predicted with mathematical exactness. Even if we accept the comparison of the human brain to electronic calculating machines, we have to admit that the biggest electronic brains have so far only reached the same degree of complication as the central nervous system of an earth-worm. I am afraid the scientist who offers to explain human nature is at least far ahead of his time.

But the key we seem to have lost is just the key to human nature. Religion has at all times claimed to possess this key. Even the agnostic who doubts the claim as raised by religion will probably have to admit that it would be vital for us to have an adequate understanding of human nature. All the troubles I mentioned before do not arise out of an insufficient mastery of the powers of the physical world; they arise out of our inability to conduct, to predict or even to understand the actions of human beings. Now to deny that science makes important contributions to such an understanding would again be wrong. But besides admitting the limitations of our scientific knowledge of the human heart we have to understand the highly ambiguous potentialities of the power implied in such a knowledge. The idea that the psychological insight of a Freud might be combined in one man with the purposes and the cunning of a Goebbels, will make us shudder. Pavlov’s study of conditioned reflexes seems to be the historical origin of the method now called brainwashing. Scientific knowledge means power. Power ought to mean responsibility. But that scientific knowledge would supply us with the ethical greatness needed to bear this responsibility is a hope not warranted by the facts. I think it can be stated bluntly that scientism, if it rests its trust on the expectation that science by its own nature is enabled to give us sufficient guidance in human affairs, is a false religion. Its faith, if going so far, is superstition; the rôle of the priest does not become the scientist, and good scientists know that; the scientific code of behaviour needs a background of an ethics which science has not been able to provide.

But this statement is negative and hence insufficient. Our next step will be the question: how did science come to play the ambiguous rôle in which we find it today?

With this question I have reached the subject matter of this first series of lectures. I can now describe them as lectures on the historical origin of scientism. This is to be their modest contribution to the diagnosis we are searching for. But for a thorough investigation even this question is still too far-fetched. As I said in the beginning, I shall select one particular problem by which the origin of scientism may be illustrated. I choose a problem which is far from any technical application but close to the scientific concerns of the first centuries of our modern era. It is the problem of the relationship between the two concepts of creation and of cosmogony. I shall use the rest of this hour for a brief exposition of the problem.

In 1692 Richard Bentley the philologist, then a young man, delivered his famous Boyle Sermons in London. With great intellectual splendour, which cannot but touch the modern reader as somewhat haughty, he sets out to refute atheism. His argument culminates in the following proof for the existence of God: Our great scientist, Isaac Newton, has shown that the motion of the planets in their orbits can be explained by the laws of nature, i.e. by the axioms of dynamics and the law of gravity. But these laws which explain how the planetary system is functioning since it came into being, cannot explain its origin. Hence the origin of the system can only be understood as due to the design of an intelligent Maker.

Contracting Bentley’s argument into one sentence one might say: there is no scientific cosmogony, and therefore there must have been creation. In a classical manner the argument opposes the two ideas of creation and of cosmogony, and induces us to understand them as representing two similarly opposed general tendencies: a religious and a scientific explanation of the world. Its admirers certainly considered the argument to be particularly stringent because it gave science its recognized place within the religious explanation: it was just Newton’s success in deducing the actual motions of the planets which transformed his failure to explain the origin of the system from a mere admission of ignorance into a positive argument for a divine Maker.

In the following lectures I hope to prove, however, that by opposing the two explanations in such a manner the religious interpretation of the world had already made its own defeat inevitable. Either Bentley’s starting point is wrong or religion has lost its case. In 1755, sixty-three years after Bentley’s sermons, the young Immanuel Kant, later to become more famous as a philosopher, published his Theory of the Heavens in which he gave an acceptable mechanical explanation of the origin of our planetary system. The gap in science which should have proved God was closed. Another fifty years later the famous astronomer Pierre Simon de Laplace invented a similar theory independently of Kant. There is an anecdote that Napoleon asked him where in his theory there was a place left for God; and that he replied: “Sire, je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là.”

Kant himself considered and rejected the possible atheistic implications of his theory. In order to be able to do so he had to reject Bentley’s argument. He felt that a God who framed the laws of nature in such a way as to lead to the necessary formation of planetary systems was more to be admired than a God who first created mechanical laws and then had to violate them in order to make a world. How can you speak of the works of blind mechanical necessity as opposed to the works of Divine Reason, if, being a Christian, you believe in a God who created everything, including the laws of mechanics?

Kant was not sufficiently trained as a historian of philosophy and theology; else he would have realized that these two opposed interpretations of God’s work have their origin in the two roots of the traditional Christian views about creation: in Plato’s Timaeus and in the Old Testament. Plato describes the Maker of the Universe as ordering by the light of reason a dark world of blind mechanical necessity which did not depend on him for its chaotic pre-existence. In the Old Testament, on the other hand, God made everything, light and darkness, order and necessity, soul and body. Perhaps Kant’s view is closer to the Bible than Bentley’s, although both of them, compared with either Plato or the Bible, are definitely modern. I propose to treat in detail the original meaning of both the Platonic and the biblical view, their merging in Christianity and their modern transformation.

In order to do so we must start even before Plato and the Bible. To the believer in scientism, the story of creation, both in Plato’s and in the Bible’s form, is just a myth. Mythology, in his view, is opposed to reason; the two Greek words, mythos and logos, are often used to describe this contraposition. If, however, we want to understand these two roots of the Christian theology of creation adequately we must go further back by one step. We must compare them with real mythology in order to see in what degree they themselves already belong to the world of reason.

This outline of the problem should suffice to illustrate the plan for the following lectures. One lecture will be devoted to true mythology; three lectures will consider the views on the origin of the world in the Old Testament, in Greek philosophy, and in Christian theology; two lectures will investigate the origin of the problem raised by modern science from the 16th to the 18th century; two lectures will describe the cosmogony accepted by the science of our century; and the last of this first series of lectures will return to the question of the first one: science and the modern world; it will do so under the particular aspect of the secularization of Christian faith.

  • 1.

    The second series will offer a philosophical analysis of contemporary physics.

  • 2.

    A. N. Whitehead, C.U.P.

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