Chapter 5: The Limitations of Science

God Our Contemporary
by J.B. Phillips

Chapter 5: The Limitations of Science

Let us be clear in our minds that there is a sharp difference between the attitude of the dedicated man of science and the man who, with little real knowledge of science, sees in it the answer to all the problems of humanity. The truly great scientist, as far as my experience and reading inform me, is a humble man. He unravels one complexity only to discover that the small door which he has opened reveals vista after vista of further complexities. He can hardly escape an overwhelming sense of awe. It is true that he may find himself unable to accept those childish conceptions of "God" which are all that perhaps have come his way, but frequently he is a deeply religious man. He knows how little he knows, and that is for all of us the beginning of wisdom. But that attitude of mind is poles apart from that of the man who thinks only in terms of the revolutionary contributions which science has made to human living on the material plane. Such a man thinks that the answers to all questions will inevitably be produced by scientific knowledge. To him, all that art or religion or philosophy have to say is really quite beside the point; science will lead him by sure and certain methods to heaven upon earth. I am not suggesting that many people would consciously express such a blind and arrogant view of life, but I am concerned to point out that it exists beneath the conscious level in a great many people’s minds. We need to see clearly how "scientism" has become a kind of sacred cow. Its infallibility is often accepted without question, and its limitations lie unsuspected. In Dr. Magnus Pyke’s book Nothing like Science (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1957.) we have a most significant side light on the sanctity of this modern god. For the author states in one place that he once proposed to give a broadcast talk on "The Failures of Science." He was not allowed to do so -- apparently because to debunk what is held by many to be infallible would be the ultimate heresy!

Let us take some simple illustrations of the limitations of science. By the use of scientific methods we can be told accurately and completely about the sound produced in the playing of a Beethoven sonata or a Bach fugue. There is not the slightest deviation in tempo or pitch, not the smallest variation in harmonic or overtone which is not readily measurable by the appropriate instruments. But in such an analysis would any sane person consider that science had done anything whatever to explain the music, to give the slightest clue to its effect upon human emotional experience, still less to explain why one piece of music should be great and the other mediocre? Similarly, in the art of painting, science may give the most complete physical and chemical analysis of a certain canvas, but can do absolutely nothing to explain its value or its effect. Thus science by its very nature and method is excellently equipped for dealing with physical matters, whether the problems arise in the conquest of disease, the fatigue of metals or corrosion by sea water (to name but three which come to mind), but by the very same token science is quite irrelevant in the field of any of the arts, or of philosophy or of religion. There are realms of human experience where the scientific method, as commonly understood, is simply not the right instrument to use. Indeed it would be as inappropriate to attempt scientific analysis in some human situations as it would be to use a microphone to detect odor, or a Geiger counter to measure the consumption of domestic gas! In the nature of the complex human situation of which we are a part it must be understood that there are aspects and dimensions of truth which are vital to man’s well-being on which science has nothing to say. Because science can answer so many of our hows we should not be deceived into thinking that it can answer any of our whys.

Of course we all owe an incalculable debt to the science which is applied to our common life. I confess I have no patience at all with those who long to return to some fanciful prescientific age. Who would wish to go back to an age in which there was no electricity for lighting, heating or power, no printed books, no piped water, no roads, no charted seas, no reliable means of communication, no anaesthetics, no antibiotics or sulfa drugs, no real understanding of physical or mental illness -- in fact to lapse back into ignorance? But at the same time my common sense and my experience tell me that many of the really intransigent problems in human life are hardly touched at all by such scientific advances.

There seems to me to be a danger for some lest they become drunk with scientific achievement and imagine that if only men make bigger and better technical strides then all "human" problems will solve themselves. Again, this is not an error into which any of us would fall consciously, but I believe it lurks dangerously in many unconscious minds. Surely it is not unreasonable to plead that more of the admirable patience and dedication required for scientific advance should be directed upon really pressing human needs. Is it not a measure of our bewitchment by science that modern man should be seriously planning to visit another planet within measurable time when there are on earth a thousand unsolved economic, social and moral problems? We can think at once of the problem of "integration" with people whose skins are variously pigmented, of the problems of nations emerging from centuries of primitive ignorance, of the problem of health and nutrition of millions of people in "the East." We can think of the problem of cancer or of poliomyelitis, of the increasing number of people who are mentally sick, of the thousands of broken homes, of the juvenile delinquent, and of the special problems of the blind, the deaf, the dumb, the spastic and the mentally defective. These are but a few of the dozens of urgent human problems which surely challenge man’s enterprise, compassion and willingness to serve. Yet, in actual fact, there is a tragic dearth of people willing to dedicate their lives to coping with them. Is not this also an indication of the extent to which man has become intoxicated by a false idea of science?

We have already reached the point where the discoveries of science can "greatly bless or wholly destroy." But the way in which the knowledge is used cannot be decided by scientific means. The majority of scientific men are without doubt kindly and humane people, but it is not their science which gives them their kindness or their humanity, nor can any branch of science assess what is "good" or "right" or "human." Science itself is incapable of making moral judgments and it is not really too wild a step of the imagination to think of a situation where scientific knowledge is valued more highly than human lives. In countries where our traditional "Christian" values are not held it seems to me perfectly possible that science could become the master instead of the servant.

Most of the activities of what is commonly called science are concerned with the physical and the material. But there are departments of scientific knowledge which do touch what I believe is our crucial problem, the problem of human behavior. The comparatively newly born science of psychology can offer much illumination and disentanglement. Enormous loads of human unhappiness have been lifted by wise and patient psychiatrists. Men and women have been reintegrated into society, human relationships have been vastly improved and a host of hitherto insoluble problems have been successfully dealt with by skilled psychological methods.

The curing of mental ill-health, enabling an individual to fit happily into normal social life, demands great patience and skill. We cannot be other than full of gratitude and admiration for those who devote their lives to such demanding work. But we might properly ask whether such adjustment, valuable as it is to the community as it exists, is sufficient. It may be doing no more than producing a well shaped cog instead of an ill shaped cog for use, for instance, in industrial life; it cannot integrate a man into the total pattern and purpose for human living, and does not attempt to do so. It is well known that the man-hours lost to industry through mental sickness of one kind or another reach an alarming figure. We may be sure that a Communist country is as quick as we are to use psychiatric methods to cure such mental sickness, if only in order to maintain the efficiency of its factory personnel. But such treatment would inevitably leave the godless, Communist-indoctrinated attitude of the patients as it was before. The Communist psychiatrist, or our Western psychiatrist has, we will say, performed his work skillfully and well. He has helped the patient to "adjust himself to life," but in either case he has helped a human being to fit into a pattern of human life without giving him any clue as to whether it is the right pattern.

We gratefully acknowledge that psychiatry can, and does, remove certain disabilities and resolve certain conflicts, but it cannot by itself supply our standards or values. It cannot answer any questions outside the immediate range of human personality. I believe that those who would see in modern psychiatry something at once more efficient and more "scientific" than true religion are doomed to disappointment. For however excellent psychiatric methods may be, no adjustment can be provided toward any supra-human purpose in life and no connection made with any resource outside human personality. Such further integration may be, and of course sometimes is, provided, even unconsciously, by the psychiatrist. But that is because he is a man of faith himself, and not because he is a practitioner in psychiatry. He has to go beyond his function as a scientist if he is to adjust his patient to a world of spiritual reality.

Obviously this whole business of "adjustment to life" raises fundamental questions. Unless we have some standards beyond the immediate human situation, the most we can do is to help fit a man into the existing social fabric. But suppose that our whole social fabric is wrong, as is sincerely believed by Communists, then our good, well adjusted man is only good and well adjusted in our opinion, in a certain context and under certain conditions. This is, of course, the cue for the humanist to appear and advocate his "human" values. But let me repeat that the man who denies the existence of God or any spiritual order can only produce a set of ethical standards which he and his friends have decided are the best and most conducive to human happiness. He can have no sort of answer for the millions of people who sharply disagree with his concepts, and who is to say who is right?

Now I know from conversations which I have had with scientists that their whole method of training and pattern of working makes it difficult for them to conceive the apprehension of valid truth by any "non-scientific" methods. This, by an effort of the imagination, I think I can begin to understand. But I would appeal to any scientist who happens to be reading this book to think seriously that people such as poets, artists of every kind, mystics and indeed ordinary people of faith may be receiving truth in an entirely different way from that to which he is accustomed. It is not in the least that his own wholly admirable and painstaking methods are being ignored or, so to speak, short-circuited. It is simply that there are ways of apprehending some kinds of truth which are quite independent of the scientific method. Sometimes these are intuitive and sometimes they are developed by long practice, and of course sometimes they are both. I think the honest scientist cannot help admitting this, and perhaps he may be persuaded to see what I myself find quite plain -- that the more man’s attention is concentrated upon the material the more his spiritual faculties become atrophied. I hope he will be good-humored enough to realize that such a chapter as I have just written is not meant to be an attack upon science but an attack upon that one-sided obsession with the material and the tangible which leads to the loss of spiritual apprehension. Man cannot live in any real sense by science alone.