THE title of this book suggests a variety of problems.
Some of them are of interest to scientists, some to
theologians, some to philosophers. It is my aim here to
isolate those that are of interest only to scientists and that
can be tackled only by the application of scientific
method. They are among the most fundamental that
scientists can ever have to consider; for they are concerned
with the nature of reality.
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.
When suitably simple, unambiguous, uncompromising
questions have been found they are not always welcome.
Socrates made that discovery. For every question is a
challenge to thought. The mere fact that it is posed may
suffice to throw a doubt on some preconceived notion till
then accepted unthinkingly, to show that some traditional
doctrine cannot be taken for granted, to suggest that some
attractive theory may have to be abandoned in favour of a
less attractive one. But in the irksomeness of such
questions lies their virtue. Scientific conclusions must
always be based on facts; never merely on faith. Questions
that cause an act of faith to be scrutinised serve a good
purpose. And in science the criterion of attractiveness
must always give way when it comes into conflict with the
criterion of truth. Questions that foster this principle
help to purge science of error.
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. And 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 used on some occasions,
not to clarify, but to confuse. Another device is to assert
that the question is an unreal one. True again that many
questions are unreal and lead nowhere. They 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, 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.
The theme of this book is stated in very general terms in
Chapter I though its bearing on science will not become
apparent until later. It might be thought that this theme
would have found a place in science long ago. But, strange
though it may seem, the work done on it by scientists has
been slight and has never been co-ordinated in the way
work done in other better established fields has been
co-ordinated. Those scientists who could contribute most
fruitfully have hitherto stood aside.
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. Not only do they explain, which I should find it
quite easy to understand, that they themselves are engaged
on other tasks and cannot afford the time for such formidable problems; 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 thought ill 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; I am well
aware of it. It is only too unhappily true that this theme
bristles with prejudices. And they 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. And 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.
There is a reason for this. The field in which the
problems lie borders on many others. The road that
connects biology with physics passes straight through
this field; it is not far from philosophy; it is within walking
distance of theology and ethics. Consequently its cultivation has never become the recognised responsibility of any
one in particular. It has been treated as a no-man's-land
to which all and sundry have free access; it has become
the playground of many peoples' leisure hours; it is a
place where hard work is expected of no one. In such a
place the oddest theories are allowed to grow unchecked,
as abundantly as weeds.
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.
Nor 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, all these qualities do not encourage anyone with
a sense of responsibility to join their company.
This objection need not, however, persist. It is not
because of the nature of the subject but 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 problems,
together with each subsidiary one as and when it arises,
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 too often now, 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.
Now for a few words about the plan of this book.
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 I venture to suggest in
defence of my method 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 tojust 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 it is unwise to overload a
book. So I have decided to reserve that material for a
Except for two quotations on page 68 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.
But 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 yet 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 that I have received with the formidable
problems of exposition that this theme presents from
Mr. Bertram Brookes, Lecturer in the Presentation of
Technical Information at University College, London.
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23rd May 1950