Popular Science Monthly/Volume 52/January 1898/Science and Morals


SCIENCE, held under the ban through the long course of the middle ages, has now conquered its independence, by virtue of the services it has rendered to man. It has fulfilled the promises made in its name by the natural philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and has transformed since then, as it has indeed been doing from the beginning, the material and moral conditions of the lives of the people. The changes accomplished from the beginning of civilization have had a most effective promoter in science, although its real importance was long hidden or obscured by the mixture of elements borrowed from the imagination. For two centuries and a half only has the scientific method been disengaged from all strange alliance, and been manifest in its purity; its efficiency has been attested in the most various ways by a constantly accelerated industrial and social evolution.

There exist, indeed, and always will exist, many deplorable things, much suffering, and much wickedness in the world; but it is to the credit of science that, instead of lulling mortals with the feeling of their powerlessness into the passivity of resignation, it has urged them to react against destiny, and has taught them the sure way by which they can diminish the sum of woe and injustice, and increase their happiness and that of their fellows. It has not accomplished this by means of verbal exhortations or a priori reasoning, but by virtue of processes and words really efficacious, because they are acquired from the study of the conditions of existence and the causes of evils.

The words mystery and miracle are alike excluded from scientific language and methods, not by virtue of purely logical deductions, but because wherever it has been possible to take deep soundings of phenomena we have found that they were constantly produced in accordance with a determined relation between effects and causes. It is exactly this a posteriori determination that constitutes the scientific method. We do not, indeed, pretend to say the last word concerning the universe. We profess, on the contrary, that that word can not be formulated in advance, and we know that among the infinite variety of phenomena we never succeed in meeting and observing more than the most infinitesimal part. We know the whole extent of our ignorance, and have the modesty consonant with it, but it should not be represented by a universal skepticism; no more should it cause us to depend upon the existence of supernatural verities, and paralyze our efforts to the profit of mysticism. The scientific method has been recognized, by the experience of ages that have passed as by that of present ages, as the only efficacious method of arriving at knowledge. This is the significance of the exclusion of mystery in the study of man and the universe, and in the government of individuals and societies, which is, or rather ought to be, the consequence of this study. The mystic who assumes to direct his life and business according to the ideas of the marvelous would very soon be lost; general history and mental pathology show that peoples and persons who have adopted mystery and divine inspiration as exclusive guides have been precipitated at once into irreparable moral, mental, and material ruin. We may, then, leave the mystics to enjoy their dreams, but must not permit their intolerance to impose these dreams upon us as the rule of social activity. Man has, indeed, always sought to escape the severity of determinism in this way, just as he formerly tried to impose his will upon the superior powers by the conjurations of magic, or to turn aside the rigor of destiny by incoherent prayers. But such illusions need not make us depart from the rigor of our method of proceeding, or be allowed, by an irrational confusion, to destroy the exactness of our results. This irrevocable separation between the scientific method and mystery has not always been; it is the product of a long elaboration, in which empirical and experimental conceptions have been associated and confounded. For better comprehension, let us try to summarize in general outline the historical evolution of science. In all things we can best comprehend the present by going back to the beginning.

Let us carry ourselves back to those distant periods during which our species was gradually disengaging itself from animality. We can do this to a certain extent by the aid of archæological discoveries, and by comparing them with the stories of travelers who have observed savage tribes which have been arrested at different steps of the evolution that has been accomplished since the primitive ages by civilized peoples. Thorough examination of the habits and instincts of animal species, knowledge of the laws of the psychological and physiological development of the individual, especially in his infancy, unite with history to cast a strong light on the problems with which we are here concerned. The sum of these studies has shown how the human races, each according to its degree of intelligence, have gradually created the instruments, arms, and customs by the aid of which they achieved their first triumphs over Nature and accomplished their first organizations. The family and the state, morality and virtue, gradually issued from the social instincts which we see in action, now, as formerly, among the animal races.

The intelligence of the first men was too feeble, however, to conceive either the abstract laws of their own development or those of natural phenomena. It personified them; it made realistic beings of them, constructed in its own semblance—that is, souls and gods. Such is, in fact, the universal tendency, as has been established by travelers among savages. Our own children, too, are prompt to transform their joys and their fears into superhuman phantoms. The images of dreams serve them as guides in this respect. In a word, observation shows that men are drawn by a spontaneous inclination to give objectivity to the products of their own thought, in order to create personalities and symbols, to which they shortly assign an absolute character, autonomous and divine. In this way, at the origin of the civilizations, every invention, every organism, was attributed to celestial revelations. The most intelligent and best instructed men founded their domination on such prepossessions, which they shared in, too, and when the temples rose at Memphis and Babylon, all knowledge was concentrated around their altars. The same persons, protected by their sacred character, then represented science and religion. The two orders of ideas were confused into a common dogmatism. A similar condition was reproduced at the beginning of the middle ages, after the destruction of the ancient civilization by the barbarians.

Hence the singular character of these primitive sciences, like astrology and alchemy, in which positive results were associated with the dreams of magic, and in which the efficacy of experimental practices had to be assured by the use of formulas and incantations, intended to control the will of the gods and command their assistance. Miracle was then obligatory upon the divinity, and independent of all moral notions. The Greek philosophers first tried to disengage true science from this alliance and render it purely rational. They, too, were at first accused of impiety—an accusation which has not ceased to be sounded for two thousand years, and which has cost the lives, from Socrates down, of the purest and most disinterested men. Yet, Greek genius, with all its power, never reached a clear apprehension of the scientific method, as we apply it now in the study of the world and of man. That method was not distinctly separated from pure and established logic till the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, during which period the experimental sciences and the sciences of observation—physics, astronomy, mechanics, chemistry, physiology, and natural history—were definitely constituted. The method has been since extended to the historical and sociological sciences, in place of the old systems—the issue of the theology of the middle ages. We add, finally, that it is only in our own time that the scientific method, which looks to the relative and excludes the absolute, has begun to be fully applied and extended to ideas of every order.

Science presents itself to us under a double aspect: as primitive science, which is the solid basis of every application, in the material as well as in the moral domain; and ideal science, which comprehends our near hopes, our imaginings, and our remote probabilities. The common bond between these two aspects is method. Our method consists in first observing facts. I mean internal facts, revealed by consciousness or inner sensation, as well as external facts, made manifest by outer sensation; and in provoking the development of both by experiment, the principal source of our discoveries. This method is the same for social and political, for material and industrial facts. The study of facts thus constitutes the point of departure for all knowledge. When facts are once established, human intelligence brings them together and seeks to determine general relations between them. Hence, what we call scientific laws; and upon these laws rests all application of science, to individuals as well as to societies.

But this pure determination of facts and their laws does not satisfy the human mind. Drawn by an invincible tendency, it supports itself upon the facts and rises above them to construct representatives or symbols, by the aid of which it collects its knowledge into a co-ordinated system of hypotheses. Such a system is even indispensable if we would go further and make discoveries; for, in order to find new facts and new relations, it is necessary first to imagine them; then we seek for the realization of them. Each one develops as he will, following his individual inspiration according to his feelings and creative faculties, the consequences of the conceptions and symbols by the aid of which he has figured facts and laws to himself. But the student also should always be ready to abandon his hypothetical beliefs as soon as the facts have demonstrated the vanity of them. In any case, every one finally builds up thus his system of the world—a scaffolding, resting at the bottom on facts, but the solidity of which—I mean the certainty, or rather the probability—diminishes as one goes higher.

Thus facts and laws, through symbols and hypotheses invented to co-ordinate them, constitute the fundamental basis and even the sole substratum of every system. Such are to-day the general views, such the manner of proceeding, of those who seek to raise the scientific ideal above empiricism.

The diversity, the profound contrast existing between the scientific and the theological methods employed in the seeking for truth are manifested to a very striking degree in the application of these methods to the government of individuals and of states. While theologians erect their systems regarding the beginnings and the ends of things into absolute and invariable principles revealed by the divinity of whom they declare themselves a priori the organs, and while they assume to impose them, even by force, as the eternal rules of private and social life, men of science, having recognized the relative and historical source of these assertions, limit themselves to applying actual rules to the practical conduct of life, in morals and politics as well as in hygiene and industry—rules always provisional, and subject to modification from day to day by the evolution of future ages, as they have been constantly modified in past ages.

The prime characteristic of modern science is its readiness to declare the increasing uncertainty of its ideal constructions. While it does not refuse to examine problems of origin, while it itself furnishes the only probable data by the aid of which the solution of them can be pursued, it affirms nothing and promises nothing in the matter. It would consider it equally rash to set up on similar constructions the rules of industrial applications and moral rules for the conduct of individuals and societies. In real things we never proceed in the name of absolute principles, because we have learned that all our principles rest upon hypotheses borrowed from the facts of observation under a direct or simulated form. To deduce everything from absolute principles is an illusion. Whatever pretends to be supported on the absolute is supported on nothing.

Man's knowledge is gained solely by the method of the observation of facts, but is derived from two sources, an internal and an external one. Sensation reveals the external world to us, and is the point of departure of all the physical, natural, and historical sciences. It exhibits the insignificance and subordination of the individual in mankind, present and past; the insignificance and subordination of mankind overwhelmed and almost reduced to nothing in the infinite whole of the universe. From this point of view, all morals consist in our humble submission to the necessary laws of the world; religions say nothing more than this when they subordinate the human mind to the divine will. In this domain everything is objective.

In the inner world, that of consciousness, on the contrary, the man appears alone; his mind, his feelings, become the measure of things. These have no existence for us, except on the condition that they are known, and therefore from that point of view they exist only for our intelligence and in our intelligence. In this domain all is subjective. Such is the contrast—I do not say opposition—between the two sources of our knowledge. Now, these two sources, internal and external, of our positive knowledge are equally, I repeat, the two sources of our morals.

Human morality, no more than science, does not recognize a divine origin; it does not proceed from religions. Its rules are drawn from the internal domain of conscience, and the external domain of observation.

The man of our time finds in the depth of his consciousness the idea of good and evil, and the ineffaceable feeling of duty that is the categorical imperative of Kant. Duty is further conceived as toward himself and toward other men—that is, he comprehends the solidarity of his relations. These are fundamental facts of consciousness, independent of all theological or metaphysical hypothesis. The ideas acquired from the exterior source of our consciousness—that is, from history and the natural sciences—present morality under a different light, in that they show the instinctive origin and the evolution of it. The human species, in fact, only represents a particular case among the multitude of animal species that live in society. With these we witness, according to the degree of perfection they manifest, the appearance of the first elements of morals. The family, offspring of the instincts that preside over the preservation of the species, exists, temporarily at least, among birds and mammals, not to go lower. It coexists with the feeling of maternal love, and in certain cases of paternal love, raised to the highest degree.

With the feeling of the family we meet also, among the social species, that of solidarity and the devotion of the individual to the collective whole, rising sometimes to the sacrifice of his life. The study of the still savage human races has shown how near their special morality lies to that of the social animal species, if it is not even inferior to that of some of them. There are, in this respect, great differences in the social instincts, among men as well as among animals. But the existence of a general basis common to both is demonstrated by observation.

The social instincts, and the feelings and duties derived from them, are not, then, peculiar to the human species, and due to some strange and divine revelation, but are inherent in the cerebral and physiological constitution of man—a constitution similar to that of the animals, but of a superior order, and having become more so during the course of centuries by the effects of the conquests of our intelligence. The hereditary perfection of these instincts is the real basis of morals, and the point of departure for the organization of civilized societies.

As men advanced in civilization, their positive knowledge, continually increasing, demonstrated the social utility of certain duties and certain moral laws, which were rendered obligatory by the chiefs of the states—priests and legislators. But these laws, deduced from scientific notions, were associated and in a manner amalgamated with the arbitrary prescriptions of the theocracy, and proclaimed according to mystic formulas, from which no mind was then free. The history of the religious formations and evolutions that have succeeded one another among mankind for seven thousand years shows that there exists no genetic bond, no necessary relation, between morals and mysticism. With nations as with individuals, the least moral personalities are often met among the most religious. In short, history proves that the development of morals in the world has been connected at the same time with science, from which it has proceeded; and with religions, which have rested upon it as one of their points of support. But no more from the external point of view of history than from that of internal consciousness have morals been the product of religions. The same representative illusion always appears, which transforms into the generative cause of certain ideas the notions that have issued from them.

The modern conception of morals is of a generous and universal character. It rises with the elevation of intelligence; its practical applications are more or less delicate, according to the sentiments variously developed by peoples and individuals. But it responds to-day, as it has always responded, to the condition of knowledge as it is more or less advanced according to time, places, and persons. Therefore it could not continue fixed in any decalogue. It undergoes gradual modifications with the continual discoveries of the physiological, psychological, and sociological sciences. Just as there exists by the side of positive science an ideal science, derived from it, moreover, but which precedes it and incites it forward, so there are ideal morals, which announce and precede the evolution of future morals. These ideas, this conception of modern morals, are becoming every day more preponderant, and if they have not yet been accredited by men as established science, it is because of the long religious servitude that has been imposed on education. Down to our own time it has been the practice to base the moral education of the people and the rules of conduct on the catechism—on theological doctrines and prescriptions—instead of establishing them upon positive data acquired from consciousness and the historical and natural sciences.

We now see every day how the application of scientific teachings to industry is continually adding to the wealth and prosperity of nations. The application of the same teachings to hygiene and medicine is constantly diminishing the pains and risks of disease, and increasing the mean duration of life. The history of the present century likewise demonstrates to what point the lot of all, including the poorest and most humble, has been ameliorated by the new ideas; while we must not lose sight of the fact that we are still far from having reached the degree of improvement that modern justice and morals demand, which we should all strive to attain. Such are some of the consequences of the scientific method—consequences which we are pursuing and shall realize, in the moral as well as in the material order, and despite all opposition; and in this way will come the universal triumph of science to assure the highest degree of happiness and morality to men.—Translated for the Popular Science Monthly from the Author's Science et Morale.