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Issue #44 (April 1985)
Why have Western thinkers been so scientific in their method? Since Francis Bacon and inductive research, scientific experimenting has led to continual technical invention. This kind of tinkering, luck, and flashes of genius is not, however, the kind of reasoning I wish to focus upon. Neither hit-or-miss mechanical ingenuity (art?) nor the contrasting rigorous scientific [quoteright]method has been the main driving force of material progress anyway. (Rather, something in between, along with speculative science, has been more effective. This is another subject.)
I think of the scientific cast of mind in a way that transcends the arbitrary classifications of knowledge. The completely unscientific approach puts the question, "What good is it?" Worse yet, it asks, "What's in it for me?" Not just to denigrate the "common man," the prime exemplar is the salesman, followed closely by those who respond to his sales pitch. The scientific thinker responds, however, with skepticism. The pitchman does not want his line analyzed, but analysis is what science is all about.
The scientific approach, in contrast, does not enthusiastically respond to the promise of satisfaction with a product or reward in believing in a doctrine. The scientist demands proof that the claims really are true. Qualms of conscience arise from simply accepting on faith.
In the antiscientific ethic, the next most important principle after faith is the insidious contention that the only worthwhile research is that which bolsters faith. A similar principle is that study of the principles themselves is worthy, even when the "man of faith" does not really believe in them. That is, the supposed "facts" upon which the doctrines historically were based are doubted or denied by the man of faith, but the principles derived therefrom are holy, useful, necessary, or by tradition ineradicable and therefore must be the focus of study. Consequently, the premises themselves must not be studied. If the reader cannot believe that this "straw man" is merely hypothetical, he may be so enchanted with the "pitches" of any number of current representatives that he does not perceive the emperor's lack of clothes. I am speaking of liberalism in general, whether religious, political, or anthropological. Conservatism, in contrast, preaches the simpler principles of faith or the bolstering of faith, but paradoxically shakes faith by stridently glorifying inhumaneness, irrationality (if religious), self-righteousness ("I am rich, therefore anyone can work hard to get ahead in the world and be idle like me."), and blasphemy against God ("Everyone who does not believe like me will go to Hell," or, even, "You will be damned unless God has chosen you to believe that only those can be saved who realize that we are totally depraved.").
So much for my moralistic cant on the evils of the unscientific. The true scientist does not rant against evil. The scientist searches for truth as an end in itself, not as a means of humiliating others.
Thus defined, the scientific temper can be found as well in one academic endeavor as another. It is seen in the boy who takes apart the watch to see what makes it tick, the critic of a book or a movie, the master teacher (who draws out students instead of lecturing them), perhaps in any craftsman. (Science and art perhaps merge: does "Is it true?" blend with "Is it beautiful?" in the larger category of "Is it done right?"?) More scientific yet than asking whether the result is right is to ask, "How was the result obtained?" If the route to the conclusion cannot be duplicated, it does not satisfy the rules of science. Art here diverges from science, because we do not expect anyone to sculpt and paint just as Michelangelo or Leonardo did. Here science would probably destroy great art by inhibiting each step along the way. But art is not attempting to dissect truth: it is attempting to create, in effect, "new truth" in the work of art. The one cannot be the other.
The philosopher who asks "How?" is the ultimate scientist. There is no reward for such labor. It does not obtain riches, pleasure, salvation, or even the satisfaction of feeling that knowledge has been obtained about what reality is. The most rigorous epistemologists have been skeptics, been regarded as such, or can be regarded as such. Those who fought themselves out of the box they created for themselves deceived themselves.
The scientific temper has investigated the world to find out its laws. This investigation has gained much knowledge. The yet more rigorous scientist who asks "How can we know at all?" has dissolved away all knowledge. This is the paradox of science. Our present world predicament is rooted in science's own ambivalence.