|A Scientific Examination of Humanity
Unwelcome Questions and Their Avoidance
The Plan of the Book
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I shall not claim to have a solution for any of these problems. Only a charlatan would do that. In science one must expect a long and weary trail between the first attempt to formulate a problem and the final achievement of solving it. If I succeed in following the trail for only a very short distance, I shall have accomplished what I set out to do. This distance will not be great enough to lead to anything deserving the name of a theory. It will only lead to a hint at the direction along which further progress may be looked for.
That may disappoint those who do not know how important it is in science properly to formulate every problem before an attempt is made at its solution, nor how difficult it is to do so. Even the task of finding those questions that are strictly relevant to what one wants to know is often an arduous one. Testing for relevance calls for more careful thought than non-scientists realise. And when the relevant question has been found, there is the further task of phrasing it suitably. The ideal form is one in which the words used are simple, in which there is no doubt about their meaning, and such that there are only two possible, mutually exclusive, answers to the question — namely yes or no. One cannot always find this ideal form of question, but scientific method demands that one should always try.
The most unwelcome questions of all are those for which the only two possible answers both appear unattractive. It is so if either involves the surrender of some cherished conviction. The field in which science comes into conflict with religion provides some of the best known examples. To some questions about the doctrine of Free Will, for instance, one of two mutually exclusive answers may be said, rightly or wrongly, to be incompatible with good science, while the other is incompatible with traditional theology. Similar examples are to be met in other fields.
Then there is a very natural temptation to dodge the question. A perverted ingenuity has devised several techniques to this end. One of them is to declare that the answer depends on the meaning of the terms used. This is sometimes true; but the device is too often used not to clarify, but to confuse. Another device is to assert that the question is an unreal one. It is again true that many questions are unreal, lead nowhere, and are rightly dismissed for that reason. But one must guard against using unreality as a pretext for dismissing a question when the true reason is its irksomeness. A third device is to claim, with no support from facts or logic, that the correct answer to the irksome question is neither yes nor no, but somewhere between these alternatives. If the question is relevant, real, and properly worded, this way out can never be defended. And, fourthly, there is the method of explaining that each of the two mutually exclusive answers is quite right in its own field — that, for instance, the doctrine of Free Will is true in theology and false in science.
This last technique is, I fear, the commonest way out of the dilemma created by an uncompromising question. It is also the most fatuous. The occasions when it truly serves the cause of intellectual honesty are not unknown, but they are rare. The occasions when it serves the cause of intellectual indolence are frequent. It amounts to the strange heresy that a theory can be true even if it is proved incompatible with some accepted facts. The austerities of scientific method do not allow this way out of a dilemma. In science any fact that refutes, or seems to refute, a theory is a challenge to further effort. The excuse that the disturbing fact belongs to a discipline remote from the one in which the scientist happens to be working cannot be permitted in science.
I am pointing all this out deliberately because I shall take great pains to find questions to which the only possible answers are the mutually exclusive yes or no. I shall try to make these questions relevant, simple and unambiguous. I shall try to leave no doubt as to the meaning of the words used. I shall confine myself to questions that are real; for they will all be based on acknowledged, observable facts. And the virtue of these questions will be, I am hoping, that they will fall into the unwelcome, the challenging, class. Human nature being what it is, the temptation to dodge them will raise its scaly head from time to time. I shall do my best to forestall this danger and I shall try to devise a method of presenting facts and arguments that meets this end.
Many of our most eminent and responsible scientists, I have noticed, become impatient — even a little shocked — at the bare suggestion that these problems should be subjected to scientific method. The most that they are inclined to concede is that it would be nice if solutions were to be stumbled upon while research was proceeding on other problems; they are not inclined to encourage the notion that the solutions should be sought deliberately. They would deprecate any co-ordinated attack on these problems. I should find it quite easy to understand as an explanation that they themselves are engaged on other tasks and cannot afford the time for such formidable problems; however, they also make it clear that they would not think highly of any scientist who did give his time to them. They deprecate even a passing interest in any of them. They seem to believe, quite unjustifiably, that such problems must ipso facto belong, not to science, but to metaphysics, and 'metaphysician' is, oddly enough, sometimes employed as a term of abuse. As no one likes to be ill thought of by his colleagues, there is an excusable tendency among scientists to repudiate indignantly any suggestion that they might ever be tempted to think seriously about those problems that I shall formulate as clearly as I can in the following pages. People prefer fields of study that have been approved by the most censorious as fit for scientists to work in.
Anyone who tries to bring such problems to the notice of scientists suffers, therefore, from a handicap, and I am well aware of it. It is only too unhappily true that this theme bristles with prejudices which are not held only by one side among those who argue for or against the reality of non-material influences. The idealists would rather not contemplate the very great difficulty of reconciling their belief with elementary physics. The materialists are so sure of support from science that they consider it a waste of time even to examine the very great difficulties of reconciling many facts of common experience with their belief. It is the difficulties on both sides that I propose to present as clearly as I can here. If only more scientists would face them instead of following the fashion by ignoring them, they might expect to bring science forward with a great bound.
I can only hope that the prevalent unwillingness to admit the difficulties of the favoured theory, whichever it may be, will not persist. I like to think that those who are too often inclined to dismiss the theme of this book as hardly a respectable subject for scientists are, with a few exceptions, not influenced by any prejudice but are only disturbed by the unscientific way in which these problems have been treated in the past.
It is not easy for scientific method to be employed effectively in such a no-man's-land. The majority who work there are laymen who do not understand science and often mistrust it. And why should the occasional scientist, when he enters, bring scientific method with him? Sometimes he does, but he has no encouragement to do so. He is not there to address his scientific colleagues; he is writing for a wider public, for people who mostly have untrained minds. With this public, the austerities of scientific method are highly unpopular.
Neither is the scientist himself much inclined to use a method so exacting when at work in a no-man's-land. Like others, he visits it after the day's work is done. This is not the time for the same concentrated effort that he is wont to apply to his own special subject, for the same painstaking thoroughness, for the same long weary hours of research, for the same degree of intellectual honesty. Rather, is it the time for relaxation, when a man may allow his active mind to roam and speculate. So long as our theme does not belong to a recognised field of scientific study, one cannot expect the scientist to bring to any of its problems more serious thought than, from his armchair, he brings to politics.
It should cause no surprise if any subject that has been dealt with so superficially in the past should now be thoroughly discredited with all serious minded scientists.
The more a person who takes problems seriously examines the theories of those who have attempted in their various and conflicting ways to solve the riddles that have baffled scholars for many centuries, the more must he be put off. The failure of these amateur philosophers even to formulate clearly the problems that they claim to have solved, their failure to examine the most obvious difficulties in the way of their theories, their bland assumptions about the laws of physics and the nature of matter, their lack of self-criticism, the arrogance and dogmatism of some of them, tend to discourage anyone with a sense of responsibility from joining their company.
However, this objection need not persist. It is not because of the nature of the subject but rather because of the nature of the work done on it in the past that these problems have come to be regarded by most scientists as unworthy of their attention. Let the main and subsidiary problems be formulated with the same care and precision as is usual in recognised fields of study; let every difficulty be honestly expressed and fully appreciated; let more questions be asked and fewer theories spun; let every conclusion reached be tested by the criterion of truth, and not, as hitherto too often, by the criterion of attractiveness: then those who now deprecate preoccupation with these problems will be quite ready to take them seriously. The problems will have earned the attention of those best qualified to tackle them. Towards this task the present volume is intended as a modest beginning.
The first chapters will be concerned with establishing the universe of discourse; with definitions and terminology; with the search for relevant questions; with certain prevalent misconceptions. It may be thought that in giving not less than six chapters to preliminaries, I am being too slow off the mark; but in defence of my method I venture to suggest that we should have been spared the many conflicting and untenable "isms" that have accumulated round the theme suggested by my title if the authors of those "isms" had given more time and space to just such preliminaries.
Chapter VII will show why, for scientific reasons, one can hardly fail to accept the materialistic view of reality, and the remaining chapters will show why, again for scientific reasons, one can hardly fail to accept the opposed view. The problem raised by this apparent contradiction is thus shown to be a challenge to science and only to science. Its solution is likely to have far-reaching consequences and enrich more than one branch of science.
The relation between mind and body is discussed here much more fully than the relation between life and body. It was my original intention to devote substantially more space to the latter theme, but as it is unwise to overload a book, I have decided to reserve that material for a later one.
Except for two quotations in chapter IX, I have purposely abstained from specific mention of any other authors who have written on the theme of this book. The reason is not because I do not attach importance to what others have said but because I have already provided a copious collection of quotations and references in my previous book, Science versus Materialism. Were I to do the same thing here, I should spoil the smooth flow of a difficult argument without adding anything that could help. A survey of ancient and contemporary thought presents one task, a sustained line of reasoning another. The two do not amalgamate well.
Nevertheless, current knowledge, current opinions, even current misapprehensions, are of basic importance. I have been at great pains to discover what they all are and to take them into consideration. Some of those that have a particular bearing on the present discourse have been specifically mentioned in Chapters V and VI. But all the more important views on this theme that are being advocated today by scientists and philosophers have been in the forefront of my mind in the planning of every chapter, in the choice of every illustration, in the form that I have given to every question. Had science and philosophy been proceeding in other directions during recent years, I should still have said what I have said here; but I should have said it in a different way.
Lastly, I should like to acknowledge the valuable help and advice concerning the formidable problems of exposition presented by this theme that I have received from Mr Bertram Brookes, Lecturer in the Presentation of Technical Information at University College, London.
Reginald O Kapp.
23rd May 1950