Commentary Magazine


Testament for Social Science, by Barbara Wootton

The Newest Testament
Testament for Social Science.
by Barbara Wootton.
Norton. 197 pp. $3.00.

 

The argument with which this book starts is familiar enough: The scientific method has been immensely successful in the investigation of natural processes and technological problems, and it is certain to be just as successful when applied to human and social problems. Further, it is high time that a supreme effort was made in this direction, for the human race faces swift extinction unless it abandons its old, pre-scientific ways of handling social and political matters.

So the question is not whether science can solve the fateful problems now confronting mankind: on this, no doubt is permitted. The only question we have to worry about is whether the scientific outlook will in fact be adopted in politics. Once this decision is made, we may hope that the danger will be overcome; failing this, mankind will perish.

Now if this were all that the author says, the book would not, in my opinion, deserve serious consideration, for this way of formulating the problem begs the question. To assume that those on whom the march of human events depends may agree to listen to impartial scientific counsel implies that they no longer care to settle controversial issues by force. But if this were actually the case, the danger from which the application of scientific knowledge is supposed to save us would no longer exist. Handing over the solution of social and political issues to scientific arbitration presupposes a kind of moral reformation which would in itself mean that the evils threatening mankind had been essentially conquered. Without such a reformation, the advice of science will not be heeded; and it is obvious that science cannot by itself bring about a moral reformation which is a prerequisite of its being accepted as an arbiter. Plainly, then, some sort of “pre-scientific” moral insight and reorientation on the part of humanity would be necessary to enable science to save civilization. The main argument put forward by Professor Wootton, namely that mankind can save itself only by abandoning all pre-scientific habits of thought in public matters in favor of scientific ones, is quite literally absurd.

Fortunately, however, this is not the entire content of the book. If we disregard the all-or-nothing proposition that we must either cast out all pre-scientific modes of thinking or perish, we may still examine fruitfully a more specific problem, namely, the question whether there are particular areas already ripe for the replacement of pre-scientific thought and action by scientific theory and behavior. This is a legitimate and pertinent question to ask, and much of what the author says is relevant to it.

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To understand correctly the message contained in this book, we have to consider the intellectual climate in which it was written. There prevails among British intellectuals (of whom Miss Wootton is one) a feeling that the violent controversies separating the two opposing political camps in Britain are to a large extent verbal and in the last analysis irrelevant. Actually, there is no disagreement about the kind of situation one would like to see materialize. Everybody—Laborite and Tory alike—agrees that useful things should be produced in abundance and distributed as fairly as possible. Yet, both parties combat one another violently on abstract issues they choose to treat as ultimates, although dispassionate economic analysis would tell them that if they did not balk on these side issues, they could agree on practical policies. This irrationality, this political fetishism, is probably what Miss Wootton has in mind when she speaks of “pre-scientific habits of thought” that ought to be abandoned in favor of a scientific outlook; and I agree that political life both in Britain and the United States would benefit by greater readiness to apply scientific reasoning to practical problems.

But the fact that progress of this kind is within reach implies that the conflicts dividing the opposing parties are not excessively grave. If Britain or the United States were on the verge of irrepressible social conflict, all hope of progress through a scientific reorientation of politics would vanish. Scientific analysis cannot create a consensus on ultimate questions where there is none; and it implies no disrespect to science to say that one of the things it cannot do is eliminate those conflicts that are potentially the most radical and most destructive ones.

Miss Wootton’s plea for a wholehearted application of the scientific method to problems of theoretical knowledge, morality, art, and politics, often has much justice on its side, but in overstating her case, she weakens it. For instance, she puts great emphasis upon the “universality” of the scientific method, meaning thereby that all scientific assertions rest ultimately on testimony of the “five senses” which is essentially the same regardless of all personal and cultural differences; while she claims that hopeless disagreement is inevitable the moment one decides to rely on other kinds of evidence such as a purely philosophical or moral sense of certainty, or religious faith. According to her, the first stage in the construction of a scientific theory is “accurate observation of the data,” meaning essentially sense-experience and nothing else; this is followed by the “formulation of a hypothesis” and, as a last step, “empirical verification” which again is a matter of sight, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching.

But scientific theory-making does not really proceed in this way. The data one observes have to be selected on the basis of a preliminary conception which is not provided by the “five senses” but by the activities of the entire brain, or mind, reflecting upon a vast amount of previously acquired experience. And in this experience, the “five senses” do not play a self-contained role; after all they are parts of a living organism, intimately connected with a brain and a nervous system, and their testimony is always presented in a context which is also influenced by the structure, the needs, and the previous history of the entire organism. This is true of pre-scientific and extra-scientific as well as of scientific experience; the latter, too, does not start from scratch with pure sensations, proceeding towards the recording of “stable associations” among these sensations. If science were an activity of this kind, we could make an absolute distinction between it and extra-scientific experience; but since it is not, a valid delimitation of scientific from non-scientific procedures should be attempted in some other way.

It would then appear, I think, that there is valid extra-scientific, everyday experience besides scientific experience, and that we must try to be as reasonable in our everyday living and choosing as we presumably are in our scientific fact-collecting and theorizing. Miss Wootton seems to think that there is only one yardstick for determining the reasonableness of an everyday belief or choice, namely, the possibility of supplying scientific validation for it. Failing this, she holds, we must maintain a rigorously skeptical, agnostic attitude. Now it is certainly unreasonable to cling to factual beliefs that fly in the face of scientific evidence; to this extent, science is superior to unprocessed, non-scientific experience, and we must bow to its authority. But the principle breaks down when it comes to moral choices.

In the excellent chapter Miss Wootton devotes to the problem of science and morality (it is, to my mind, the best part of her book, together with the chapter in which she brilliantly criticizes the organismic and Marxian theories of society) she starts by admitting that science cannot determine moral ends. She admits further that morality is not a matter of arbitrary, individual preference, but that there are moral judgments which are in some sense true and valid. To me, these two statements imply that there is a rationale in moral dunking which does not depend on scientific evidence. Instead of drawing this, to me, inevitable conclusion, however, the author maintains that since all this is so, we should treat our moral principles as hypotheses until some scientific validation can be found for them. This is a non sequitur if ever I saw one.

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But while the logic of this reasoning is unfathomable to me, I can see very well the psychological reasons that impelled Miss Wootton to adopt this position. Even against her own feeling, she is afraid of admitting that any belief not derived from scientific investigation could be maintained as valid and in a sense true, for such beliefs, according to her, can only be dogmatic ones. It is in science alone that we can make assertions boldly and with a good conscience, for first, the source of these assertions is our five senses which we share with the lowliest Patagonian, and second, we are ready to abandon our assertions with the best of grace whenever we come upon evidence that controverts them. In the field of morals, however, all judgments we make must be based upon some authority, since they lack both the incontrovertible and universal evidence of the senses and the escape clause of future revision; the only consolation we may have is that some moral judgments, after all, may be more “consonant” with the scientific spirit than others.

I think that in the field of ethics this fear of dogmatism is quite unfounded. For we are not being dogmatic about our moral principles if we apply them impartially—dogmatically, if you will—against ourselves as well as against others. In morality, the check against dogmatism is not an “escape clause” of possible future repudiation, and not an alleged universality of experience which is highly doubtful even so far as scientific evidence goes; it is our resolution to stake our dignity as men upon really living up to a principle we hold valid for everybody. It is in this way alone that we may overcome the temptation to consider ourselves “superior” to out-groups and to “rationalize” our aggressions.

This is not to say that all factual knowledge is irrelevant to ethical judgment. On the contrary, all moral judgments should be read with a clause rebus sic stantibus; what they say is that “the facts being thus and so, this is the right thing to do.” By refining and deepening our knowledge of facts, especially psychological ones, scientists do influence our moral thinking and our course of action on moral issues. There can be no question, here as elsewhere, of maintaining a watertight separation between the scientific and the extra-scientific. On the one hand, we have to admit that the moralist cannot judge well unless he has good factual evidence; on the other, we must also recognize that the ultimate inspiration of the scientist is not a scientific but moral and spiritual one.

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