Popular Science Monthly/Volume 24/November 1883/Remarks on the Influence of Science

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Popular Science Monthly Volume 24 November 1883  (1883) 
Remarks on the Influence of Science
By Leslie Stephen

REMARKS ON THE INFLUENCE OF SCIENCE.[1]

By LESLIE STEPHEN.

"IF it were a qualification for his office," Mr. Stephen remarked, "to be impartial in the sense of not having an opinion on the matter, it would have been hardly possible to select a less qualified chairman in all London than himself. He believed that the spread of scientific influence had not only not been bad, but that the thing of which we stand most in need is a great deal more scientific thought and method in every direction. He felt, however, that his case was so strong that he could afford to give points to the opposite side; and for this reason, and because to a certain extent he was prepared to go with the opener in his remarks, he hoped to be able to point out fairly where the various arguments which had been used found their proper place. The only definition, or rather description, of science which ever appeared satisfactory to him was, that Science is that body of truths which may be held to be definitely established, so that no reasonable person doubts them. To speak of mischievous science is, therefore, to assert that truth is mischievous, an assertion to which no one would be likely to seriously agree, especially in such a place as University College. If it is to be supposed that science is mischievous, it must either be meant that certain false theories which call themselves science are wrongful, which may well be the case, or that the scientific progress at the present time happens to be exercising a mischievous influence.

"No one denies that science may accidentally lead to a large number of our particular mischiefs, as in the case of the invention of dynamite; but it can not in any way be admitted on that account that science is mischievous. For the question arises, If science is bad, what can be substituted for it? and in what way will these mischiefs be remedied if we are not scientific? It is impossible to say that erroneous impressions will make us better off than correct ones. For instance, the old belief in medicine subjected people to years of torture because of supposed witchcraft. In India it is still believed in some parts that small-pox is a demon, and efforts are made to propitiate it, so that, if unnecessary torture and small-pox are evils, we are better for the light which the scientific man has thrown on these subjects. Still, it must be admitted that in particular ways the development of science has produced new evils as well as new benefits, and for that matter no sort of progress is made without collateral evils. But the question then remained as to the remedy, and in his opinion that remedy could be very shortly described as more science and not less. There is no sort of conflict between a scientific and a literary education. Everybody ought to have some literary knowledge, and everybody ought to be taught the first principles of science; even a smattering of chemistry might be useful in a literary pursuit. He himself had found what little smattering of science he had acquired at Cambridge and elsewhere of the greatest use in every other kind of study. The habits of thought and feeling acquired by the study even of mathematics, which he took to be the most uninteresting science there is to most individuals, are very useful when one comes to need accurate thinking anywhere, even in matters purely literary.

"It had been urged that science prevents a man from taking the same sort of pleasure in nature as he would do without it. Wordsworth was very fond of saying this, and of denouncing generally the scientific position. But the reason of that was, that Wordsworth knew nothing about science. The result was, that there is no other instance of so great a poet leaving off writing great poems so early in his career. All his finest poems were written in his early life ; and the reason is, that he went mooning about the mountains by himself, and did not get any new thoughts. In contrast to him Goethe stands out as a man great in both science and poetry, and is a typical example of the way in which they react on one another. Whenever it was suggested that science is opposed to a love of nature, the speaker always thought of the greatest man of science of modern times, Mr. Darwin, whose books are, apart from their scientific value, quite delightful in their literary style. No one, for instance, could read his 'Voyage in the Beagle' without seeing that Darwin's love of science was only a part of his love of nature. There is, indeed, no conflict between the two, and a man can not strengthen the one side of his nature without at the same time contributing to strengthen the other. Indeed, the reason why so many of our living poets are inferior to those who wrote at the beginning of this century, or to those of an earlier generation still, is just that they have not had the pluck to look science in the face, but have only taken a passing and sideway glance at it.

"An important point in the argument—namely, the relation of science to morality—was suggested by the remarks that had been made on the subject of vivisection. The vivisection question, in the first place, did not seem to him to be quite fairly stated. People speak as though vivisection were a recent practice, just introduced by a hard-hearted scientific generation. But, in point of fact, vivisection had been going on for many centuries. The thing which was new was the objection to it. The stock argument in favor of vivisection—that by it the discovery of the circulation of the blood was made—is only one of many instances.

"It had been remarked by a previous speaker, with whom he was inclined to agree, that there had been a great increase in humanity in modern times, and that this increase is to be attributed to the growth of science. It is not true, for instance, to say that the abolition of excessive and cruel punishments has been due to the action of a few energetic but unscientific individuals. They were, on the contrary, put down by the growth of the scientific spirit of the age—a spirit closely allied to humanity, and which showed itself in the philosophy of the eighteenth century, especially in the writings of Hume and Bentham. They gave up the idea of punishment as simply a revenge to gratify the feelings of the punishers, and took the utilitarian ground that it must only be administered in so far as it is beneficial to society. They were thus inevitably drawn into denouncing excessive punishments. Romilly, who had been cited by the other side, was probably a pupil of that school; and certainly Bentham and Mill were, who really spread the principles which led to the abolition of excessive punishment. And those principles were only the principles of science applied to morality.

"Though he admired our ancestors of the sixteenth century, he felt bound to admit that they were a brutal lot. An instance of how far we have improved in point of humanity is to be seen in 'Roderick Random.' After having reduced his young, amiable, and beloved hero to very great straits through 'dissipation,' Smollett makes him go to India to purchase a lot of slaves, whom he sells in America at a large profit. This we should consider brutal and degrading conduct, and the fact that we do so consider it marks the great improvement which has taken place in our morality. It is quite true that it is not merely the growth of science, but the general intellectual development of the country, which has put a stop to cruelty; but it is equally true that the growth of science is an integral part of that development, and one that can not be separated from it. None of these things would have been possible unless the intellect had widened; and science has helped to do this. We may hope for similar good results from the application of science to other things; for example, to poli- tics, where there is little enough of scientific principles at present.

"On the religious question I can only say this," Mr. Stephen remarked in conclusion, "that you have got this plain dilemma to face, which can not be avoided. In the first place, if any religion, or religious belief, is true, what can the holders of it have to fear from the growth of truth, which you call scientific truth? If these beliefs are destroyed, is it not a conclusive proof that they may be false, or at least contain an element of untruth? The religion may, indeed, have been very useful, although not true, and not qualified to satisfy all the aspirations of a cultivated mind. You may see, when a civilized race comes in contact with a lower race, that the effect of the sudden contact may be to destroy the religion and the rule of life of the inferior race, without putting anything in its place. Evils of that kind have been caused by modern science. It is destroying inevitably many beliefs which people have lived under well and happily. It is undeniable that this causes pain, and that it may be injurious to their morality I shall not attempt to deny. But when I am asked to say that therefore science is injurious, I have to come back to my original proposition—the remedy is more science. The only way out of the difficulty is this: we are here, and we have got to go—forward. And the only way is, to apply the test of truth to all our beliefs. This effects a certain amount of pain, as every other kind of progress does; but the only other way is to go on believing what you know to be lies. And, without saying which are true and which are false, I can not see who any person can wish to do anything else but increase the amount of truth, the only satisfactory cure."—Knowledge.


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  1. Remarks by Mr. Leslie Stephen in summing up a debate at University College, London, on the motion by Mr. B. Paul Newman: "That the spread of scientific thought and method has, on the whole, exercised an injurious influence on English society." The motion was supported by Mr. N. Mickleman, and opposed by the Rev. A. Capes Tarbolton and Mr. J. G. Pease.