Roughly stated, the scientific method is to go and look, and then look again. The most elaborate experiments and abstruse equations are designed to answer the simple question, “What are the facts?”

by Herbert J. Muller

Roughly stated, the scientific method is to go and look, and then look again. The most elaborate experiments and abstruse equations are designed to answer the simple question, “What are the facts?” Today this question seems so natural and obviously sensible that it is hard to understand how for centuries men could repeat Pliny’s statement, that the blood of a goat would shatter a diamond, when a simple test would have disproved it. Yet it seems that they did not perform the test; and the explanation is that the basis of their thought was not empirical but “rational.” Although Aristotle went to nature, he returned for authority to pure reason. He simply asserted that heavy bodies must fall faster than light ones, just as he asserted that planets move in circles because the circle is the only perfect figure. Hence Galileo’s Pisa experiment marked a real revolution in thought. It marked, Dewey summarizes:

a change from the qualitative to the quantitative or metric; from the heterogeneous to the homogeneous; from intrinsic form to relations; from esthetic harmonies to mathematical formulae; from contemplative enjoyment to active manipulation and control; from rest to change; from eternal objects to temporal sequence.

In this summary, science already begins to look strange to the plain man; and of course it is strange. Even as roughly stated, its method is still not generally applied to moral, political, or other problems. For science is not, strictly, “organized common sense.” Common sense is not only much vaguer and more cocksure but in a way, curiously, more practical. It deals with the total concrete situation, takes life as it comes. Science always abstracts for a very limited purpose, makes up fictions. Especially in late years, it has left common sense far behind. When scientists try to speak the plain man’s language, they tell him that the quantum theory may be understood by the analogy of a clock whose mechanism had vanished, leaving only the ticks, and that if he still doesn’t understand, the point is that the universe is “not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.”

Yet science does remain simply a form of organized intelligence; to become oriented to it, we again do well to begin with the obvious. Although men talk as if the object of intelligence were the discovery and contemplation of eternal truths, actually they employ it chiefly to handle the new situations that are always arising even in a routine life. In daily experience they are continually experimenting, reconstructing, adjusting themselves to a continually changing environment; otherwise there could be no consciousness, no real experience at all. The scientific method is a systematic extension of this behavior. George H. Mead therefore described it as “only the evolutionary process grown self-conscious.” Biologically, it is an advance in the natural direction: more differentiation, finer adaptation to environment, greater control over environment.

Similarly the basic interests of science, the concern with the “material” world, are not actually newfangled or alien. Men often feel that nature is hostile to them, at best very careless, at worst unfathomably cruel; in their philosophies they have represented it as a show of illusory or accidental appearances, in their religions as a mess of devil’s pottage. Nevertheless they also feel a deep and constant kinship. They naturally personify the world about them and draw from it their metaphors for human life: they bud and bloom in youth, they ripen like fruit on the bough, they fall into the sere, the yellow leaf. The rhythms of nature are in their blood. Like poetry, science explores and articulates these relations; it realizes our rich heritage as children of this earth. Like Christian theology, moreover, it assumes that the heritage is lawful. Science grew out of the medieval faith that the world is orderly and rational, and that all happenings in it could be explained. Scientists now consider this a postulate, not a fact, and their explanations are usually offensive to orthodox theologians; nevertheless they have the same working faith as the theologians. Thus Newton could lay the foundations of the mechanistic universe in a spirit of extreme piety, and be applauded by other devout Christians; he was simply clarifying the ways of God to man. Thus agnostic scientists still admire all the evidence of uniformity, regularity, harmony in the universe. They admire the most wonderful of miracles, that there are not incessant miracles.

In other words, they are not really so inhuman as they are reputed to be. Whereas the man on the street sees only the gadgetry of science, intellectuals are prone to the other extreme of viewing it always in the abstract. They dwell upon its remorseless impersonality, the coldness of its truth; they forget its personal satisfactions, the imaginative value of its truths. For to scientists truth is indeed beauty. Mathematicians exclaim over the “elegance” of their demonstrations, Einstein delights in the “preestablished harmonies” that physicists discover, J. W. N. Sullivan is struck by the “astonishing beauty and symmetry” that Minkowski gave the theory of relativity by adding the notion of a four-dimensional continuum. On the other hand, they are displeased by unsightly gaps or bulges in their theory-patterns, dislike the messiness of quantum physics even when its theories seem to fit the facts. Their effort is always to get all their facts to fall into a shape, and their preference among theories, when the experimental test has yet to decide, appears to be determined chiefly by the esthetic quality of the shape. Thus Sullivan notes the comments of Einstein and Eddington on each other’s attempt to reduce the laws of electromagnetism to geometry: Einstein said he simply did not “like” Eddington’s theory, though he could not disprove it, and Eddington said Einstein’s theory was a matter of “taste.” Altogether, the generic motive of science is no doubt utilitarian—“service to mankind,” if one likes more exalted terms; but the individual scientist, like the individual artist, does his work for the simple, unexalted reason that he likes it, and when it turns out right he feels a comparable lift and glow.

The simple answer to Ransom, then, is that science does “free the spirit.” He has forced a narrow view of utility upon it, just as moralists and scientists often do upon art. Like thought itself, science has become a passion and a luxury. It follows the gleam, it stirs hopes too wildly dear. It is indeed often not utilitarian enough: science for science’s sake is as much a cult as art for art’s sake, and can carry one as far from the actualities of purposeful living. Yet this same passion calls out the plain answer to Roelofs. Science does produce saints. Not to go down the long list of heroes and martyrs, Mme. Curie will do as an example of simple, noble goodness. Such idealism is not itself scientific, to be sure, and may be called religious. Nevertheless the fact remains that science can inspire it without benefit of clergy.

This demonstration that even the scientist is human may seem inconsequential. It finally leads, however, to the heart of the problem of what science is. The recent developments in its philosophy may be summed up in precisely this recognition of the “human element,” the human “standpoint” that is literally involved in all statements. Scientific laws are not chips off the old block Reality; as interpretations of sense impressions, they take after the human mind as well. All knowledge is a joint enterprise, an affair whose conditions are both inside and outside the organism. It is the offspring of the marriage of man and nature, a union in which the older partner may be expected to outlive the younger but which is indissoluble during the life of man.

This idea will concern us later on. Immediately, Einstein tells us how to understand the scientist’s method: “Don’t listen to his words, examine his achievements.” Still better, watch him at work, examine the actual operations by which he gets his knowledge; and here an excellent guide is William H. George’s The Scientist in Action. Whatever it may become in theory, George points out, a scientific fact is in practice an observation of coincidences. Although products of sensory impression, facts are impersonal in that they are independent of the judgment of any one man; they are statements of coincidences that can be observed under the same conditions by all men. The scientist can therefore gather and test them without bothering about such philosophical problems as whether there really is an external world; “real” is not an observable property. He does have to bother, however, with the problem of classifying and interpreting his facts, fitting them into patterns called theories and laws. The more comprehensive these are, the better he is pleased; but the most comprehensive is still tentative and does not “reduce by one the number of absolute truths to be discovered.” Newton’s great laws were patterns into which hitherto unconnected facts could be fitted; Einstein devised a different pattern that could accommodate all these and other facts; and we may expect that more inclusive but still different patterns will be devised by Zweistein, Dreistein,.etc.

In other words, facts and figures do not speak for themselves. For all their stubbornness, they are accommodating enough to allow a number of different interpretations—and there are always enough of them around to support almost any theory. Moreover, the facts are not simply there, waiting in line to be discovered. The scientist selects from a host of possibilities, he looks for as well at at, he may accordingly overlook—as Grimaldi’s experiments on the path of light were long neglected because they did not fit in with Newton’s corpuscular theory. Hence the advance of science has not been automatic or really systematic, and it has not been in a straight line. Science is first of all the creation of scientists, who are also men with temperaments, special interests, predispositions. (Bertrand Russell has noted, for example, the divergent developments in animal psychology under Thorndike and Koehler: “Animals studied by Americans rush about frantically, with an incredible display of hustle and pep, and at last achieve the desired result by chance. Animals observed by Germans sit still and think, and at last evolve the solution out of their inner consciousness.”) More significantly, science is the creation of a definite type of mentality, which has been interested in certain kinds of phenomena but notoriously indifferent to others, averse to the seeming “wild data.” Most significantly, it is the creation of a culture, a society with special interests. Even physics, Which seems wholly impersonal and autonomous, has been influenced by vested social interests. The concept of energy was developed to meet the manufacturers’ need of a bookkeeping device, a way of measuring the efficiency of machines in units of work; in general there is an obvious correspondence between the long reign of classical mechanics and the needs of industry. Today, when science has developed a highly specialized technique, language, and subject matter of its own, it is still dependent upon the greater society for its privileges. It is the more profoundly a fashion of the times.

This view is not designed to humble or discredit the scientist. Rather it relieves him of the awful responsibility of speaking absolute truth. It stresses his continuity with the organic processes of evolution, the tremendous adventure of civilization, the vital needs and purposes of society; the scientist no more than the poet can afford the illusion that his activity is pure or priestly. It makes clearer the cultural pattern of science today: the concept itself of patterns, fields, organic wholes, which—as we shall see—has become important in all the sciences, and which parallels the collectivistic trend in the world of affairs. And it enables a more realistic approach, specifically, to the difficult issue of just where science properly begins and ends.

The popular notion is that science necessarily involves the use of instruments in a laboratory. Knowledge cannot be really scientific unless men have got it out of a test tube, taken an X-ray picture of it, or tried it out on some guinea pigs. Such methods are very well for dealings with sticks and stones, animal life, or the human body; but it follows that they cannot apply to the motions of mind or spirit. Laboratory workers themselves are often contemptuous of the social sciences, and of psychology when it leaves the laboratory and deals with such immeasurables as “consciousness” and “insight.” They distrust any statement that cannot be put into an equation. And so the critic is warned off the sciences of man, which are naturally closest to his interests. He is left with the problem of determining just where, then, the sciences stop and the humanities begin, and just what use he can make of the power that has in any event so thoroughly made over the world in which the humanities have their being.

To begin with, there are important distinctions that should remain distinct. Some generous philosophers identify science with all disciplined thought, uniting all the humanities and the sciences in one big happy family. Thus Cassius J. Keyser defines science as any work that aims to establish by legitimate means a body of categorical propositions about the actual world; he therefore accepts as science the work of Plato and Aristotle—and blurs the fundamental difference between their thought and the thought of Galileo or Darwin. Moreover, there are important differences between the sciences. The physicist and the chemist have the adventitious advantage of large subsidies (capitalism has been a generous if not a disinterested patron) and now of relative freedom from personal prejudice or official interference; the psychologist and the sociologist are at any moment likely to tread on the corns of public opinion or get mixed up in some live social issue. But the former also have the intrinsic advantage of a subject matter that lends itself to the extremely helpful devices of mathematical measurement and controlled experiment. The experimental test is especially important, as the ultimate criterion for distinguishing scientific knowledge from philosophic speculation.

Nevertheless most distinguished scientists appear to agree with Max Planck, that from physics to sociology there is a continuous chain; and I can see no practical or logical reason for choosing to break the chain. On practical grounds, it would seem desirable to give science as much scope as possible, and not to discourage important social inquiries by verbal quibbles or qualms about their scientific chastity; it would seem foolish to demand complete, positive knowledge or none. On logical grounds, any sharp break in the chain is not only arbitrary but inconsistent with the basic scientific assumption of natural continuity. That the physical sciences are more objective and more exact than the sciences of man makes them neither more fundamental nor fundamentally different. The differences are in degree, not in kind.

Ultimately the unity of science lies in the logic, not the materials or the specific techniques of its inquiry. As formulated by Dewey in his monumental work, this is a logic of discovery and invention. Its forms are not a priori but postulational and operational; they are not absolute modes of pure reason but generalizations drawn from previous inquiry and liable to modification by subsequent discoveries. Indeed, scientists object to any theory, such as vitalism in biology, which is complete and therefore offers no possibility of advance; their curious objection, J. H. Woodger observes, is that it is too successful, too perfect. They demand that all theories live dangerously. But this experimental logic does not absolutely require the specific technique of laboratory experiment. It requires primarily that theories be so formulated as to leave room for future discoveries and almost certain modifications. It thereby exposes, indeed, the essential weakness of the sciences of man today, which is not so much the jungle growth of theory as the attitude toward this theory. As scientists, psychologists and sociologists are still very young, and like youngsters much too cocky—few physicists speak with quite the assurance of John B. Watson or Pareto. More specifically, they are seldom content with mere postulates and approximates; they set up some explanatory principle as necessary and sufficient, the one positive truth by which all the other little truths must be sired or certified. Yet their attitude is quite gratuitous. This very criticism of it implies that an experimental logic can be applied to these problems too.

“Wherever there is the slightest possibility of the human mind to know,” wrote Karl Pearson, “there is a legitimate problem of science.” If men have “known” all sorts of absurdities, there can be no question about a fact, strictly defined, and such facts are available in all spheres of interest. Observation, not measurement of coincidences is their criterion. If it is clearly more difficult to classify and interpret them in the sciences of man, it is not clearly impossible; important relations have already been established and systematically formulated. Students of the humanities who deny that there are fundamental laws in their province necessarily think in a way that presupposes such laws—else their thought would be pointless. In sum, only by divorcing human affairs from natural processes can they be shut off from scientific inquiry; and this ancient expedient disposes of the problem by creating two more.

Herbert J. Muller, “What Science Is,” from Science and Criticism, by Herbert J. Muller. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1943.


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