Monday, November 5, 2012

SCIENCE and what we are losing on the way

 From Science and Religion, part 3by Mrs. Dowson, L.R.C.P. & S., I.Volume 11, 1900, pgs. 13-18
...there is good work to be done in showing the confusion of thought underlying a belief that science or anything else can adequately interpret the meaning of the higher reality in terms of the lower. Dr. Ward says that the belief is often due "to a confusion between abstraction and analysis." The fact--for it seems to be a fact--puts into our hands a powerful weapon, not only of defence, but also of attack. Let us consider for a moment the difference between the two processes as applied to a living man.
If a man can be successfully analysed into Matter, Motion or Force, or any other similar set of physical constituents, then we shall have a right to regard him as made up of them; but if we can bring him down to these terms only by abstracting, or taking away from him something, be it little or much, that belongs to him and without which he would not be man at all, then we must somehow reckon with what we have taken away before we can interpret him.
In the process of analysis, we mentally pull a thing to pieces and keep all the pieces; in abstraction we lose something at every step. If we can analyse a man into Matter and Motion, let us say, we can sort him out under these two heads without leaving anything of him unaccounted for, and we can, in imagination, build him up again without adding anything from another source, which, as Euclid says, is absurd. As a matter of fact, we can bring him under these heads only by abstraction, by previously taking away from him everything that will not be classified under them and leaving it out of consideration.

Abstraction is a good servant, but an uncommonly bad master. We can take three things as different one from another as a man, an apple, and a pair of tongs; we can mentally strip them of all distinguishing qualities and powers, of all that enables the man, for example, to eat the apple and mend his fire with the tongs; we can bring all down to mineral constituents or even lower still, until at last we find apple, tongs, and man entirely indistinguishable, except by difference of quantity, mere quantity of 'energy' and 'mass.'
The process is quite legitimate; it is necessary to systematic classification; it leads to no harm as long as we know what we are doing, and remember what we are losing on the way: but when we forget--when we begin to fancy that by its aid we penetrate the secret of being and attain to interpreting the fuiness of real things, then our judgment goes astray. We may even become capable of saying and believing, as Mr. Edward Clodd says and doubtless believes, that "the story of creation is the story of the evolution of gas into genius."
Men may say this reasonably, of course, if they are quite prepared to see in gas everything necessary for genius, but the position brings with it a host of difficulties for the mechanical philosophizer. It is not our work to deal with these difficulties: the task lying ready to our hands is the work of pointing out inaccuracy in the use of scientific terms and conceptions, the confusion of abstraction with analysis, and, as a consequence, the treatment of a mere symbol, or else a small part of a thing, as if symbol and part were the complete real things of experience. We have to show the rashness and folly of building up a speculative scheme about real things on foundations so insecure, a task easy enough when the foundations themselves have been laid bare.


  1. Hey, Naomi, just wanted to say that I'm here battling through this with you. I haven't formulated an opinion yet, but I appreciate you doing the work on this.