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On the Dread and Dislike of Science.

By George Henry Lewes

G.H. Lewes

IN THE STRUGGLE OF life with the facts of existence, Science is the bringer of aid; in the struggle of the soul with the mystery of existence, Science is the bringer of light. As doctrine and discipline its beneficence is far-reaching. Yet this latest-born of the three great agents of civilisation—Religion, Common-Sense, and Science—is so little appreciated by the world at large that even men of culture may still be found who boast of their indifference to it, while others regard it with a vague dread which expresses itself in a dislike, sometimes sharpened into hatred.

I shall be told, perhaps, that the growing demand for popular expositions of scientific results and the increasing diffusion of scientific inquiry point to a different conclusion. It is true that there never was a time when Science was so popular. It is true that every year the attendance on lectures and the meetings of scientific associations is larger. The tide is rising. The march of Science is bit by bit conquering even the provinces which most stubbornly refuse allegiance to it. But, meanwhile, among the obstacles it has to overcome are certain prejudices and misconceptions which are the grounds of a deep-seated dread.

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  1. P. Anderson-Morshead wrote:

    Scientific Religion: An Old Question.

    “In the centre of the world-whirlwind, verily now, as in the oldest days, dwells and speaks a God.” – Carlyle.

    “Our little systems have their day; They have their day, and cease to be: They are but broken lights of thee. And thou, O Lord, art more than they.” – “In Memoriam”.

    …Mr. George Henry Lewes pours out his sorrow at the perversity of many of his fellow men; in that they foolishly rail at and even express a dread of science as science, although their daily life, with its struggles and sorrows, is continually aided and relieved by the many successful results of scientific research. “There are men of culture,” says Mr. Lewes, “who take pride in expressing their indifference to science.” They are too fond of saying, with the morbid hero of Maud, that the man of science is “fonder of glory, and vain,” and even go on to declare that, though his eye is “well-practised in nature” yet his spirit is “bounded and poor.”

    The scientific man refrains from continuing the quotation (which might snub an ordinary man of culture) — “the passionate heart of the poet is whirled into folly and vice” — not so much because he thinks it untrue, but simply because it is insufficient to express all his contempt for the benighted devotee of culture, and culture alone. However, it may at once be granted that a man who says he despises science is a very foolish man. Nor, of course, would Mr. Lewes have a very high opinion of a scientific prig, who declared that the time spent in studying literature was time wasted. Neither the one nor the other is to be despised.

    But is there any real antagonism? Let us follow Mr. Lewes through some of his arguments.

    He first endeavours to prove his assertion — that there does exist a dread and a dislike of science; and then he proceeds to give what he considers to be the causes. Mr. Lewes grants at once that science was never so popular as at present. But he complains that there are still persons who harbour unreasonable prejudices against it, based on misconceptions, which are the causes of a strong dislike. The anti-vivisectionists are some of these prejudiced persons — such at least as object to vivisection, because the experiments are made for scientific purposes alone. Those who sympathize with animal suffering, and endeavour to repress all unnecessary infliction of it are fully respected by Mr. Lewes; but too often the men who object to vivisection on these grounds are (perhaps thoughtlessly) tolerant of an enormous amount of torture yearly inflicted on animals, either to please their palate, or gratify their desire for sport. Mr. Lewes of course puts his point forcibly; and, we must say, we think he has the best of the argument. We ought not to charge scientific men with the “selfish motive of acquiring reputations;” though in some few cases (and those are, for the most part, foreign ones) the charge may not have been quite undeserved. Wars, and other evils, are tolerated without complaint, if the motive is commercial advantage; all these things are so because science is not recognised as a social benefit.

    Having thus shown the existence of this dislike, Mr. Lewes proceeds to give the reason for it. The first cause, he says, is a misconception of what science is. “Science is simply knowledge classified, systematised, made orderly, impersonal, and exact; instead of being left unclassified, fragmentary, personal and inexact.” It has been called “Common Sense methodised and extended.” Since no one would hesitate to place knowledge above ignorance as a guide in life and conduct, Mr. Lewes supposes that science thus correctly conceived will excite no dislike and cause no dread.

    But even when it is admitted that science is this systematised common sense it still arouses in some a dislike; for it is systematisation itself that gives so many of us annoyance. We are indolent, and exactness is troublesome. To jump at conclusions by guessing is much more easy (and, we fear, much more natural !) than arriving at them by patient observation. As knowledge advances we shall readily admit that accuracy is not to be cried down merely because it is less trouble to be inaccurate and vague in our assertions; and we shall at once see that there is no right of private judgment, without evidence to guide us.

    Now comes an important sentence. When this advance has been made “there will disappear certain mistaken pretensions of scientific men too ready to step beyond their own domain.”

    “This it is,” continues Mr. Lewes, “which causes the distaste of artists, men of letters, and moralists ; and their opposition to the spread of scientific teaching.” This opposition, Mr. Lewes acknowledges to be rational. It is an offence against scientific method. For science is taken as meaning first “a general method, or logic of search, applicable to all departments of knowledge; and secondly, a doctrine, or body of truths and hypotheses, embracing the results of search.” Having seen what objection to the spread of scientific teaching is rational, we will see what objection is irrational. “It is irrational when protesting against the rigorous application of one logic to all enquiries.” He adds: “Those, therefore, who sneer at science, and would obstruct its diffusion, are sneering at the effort to make all knowledge systematic, and are obstructing the advance of civilisation.”

    And here we come to the well-worn arguments on the conflict between science and theology. To attempt to apply the same logic to theology and to our faith which is applied to other matters would apparently reason away our religion. But faith cannot be so argued about. Our religion is rational in all practical matters — the promotion of goodness, the enjoining of grace and peace. But when we come to give our reasons for our belief in a Personal God, and in a future life, we may confess that they are not satisfactory as strict proofs. We cannot prove the existence of a God: we believe that there is one; we believe it intuitively (unsatisfactory reason for the sceptic perhaps !), and so believing, we pass on to have a solemn hope of a life beyond the grave. On the other hand no logical arguments can prove that a Personal God does not exist, or even if to his own satisfaction a man could logically prove this non-existence, we should still cling to our belief; no logic can do away with God if there be one, and no logic could really shake our earnest trust in Him. Where proofs and reasons begin, there faith ends of necessity, for this belief of ours is no conviction based on logic; it is with us an instinct. It is a question too wide and too deep for us fairly to enter upon here.

    THAT MEN CAN ACCEPT and have accepted the general truths of science, and yet have remained firm in their religious beliefs, cannot be denied. Nor does Mr. Lewes wish to conceal this from himself. “We have,” he says, “too many conspicuous examples of men eminent in science, and sincere in their theological professions, not to admit that the mind can follow two logics, and can accept both the natural and the supernatural explanations.” Charles Kingsley might be brought forward as an example, and (to a great extent) Mr. W. R. Greg also. It is practically useless to argue about such points as these. It is the very essence of faith — that blind following, that childlike obedience, without the exercise of our reason. The philosopher may smile or sigh in pity at our dark superstition, but that faith remains unshaken. Goethe declared that the human race can never attain to anything higher than Christianity — that is, the religion given us in the teaching and in the life of Christ. “What better test of truth have we than the ablest men’s acceptance of it?” asks Mr. Froude; and yet this “mere absurdity” (as it has been called) has spread through the whole civilised world, accepted in ages of great mental activity by the strongest minds. Nervous people, then, “dread” science, which they fear will rob them of their God; persons blest with a strong faith are indifferent to science and its dick about their God; or, if they fear at all, their fear is for “the weaker brethren,” and not for themselves.

    “In the struggle of life with the facts of existence science is a bringer of aid; in the struggle of the soul with the mystery of existence science is a bringer of light.” All will agree with the first part; can we expect those to whom God is a reality — a friend and guide — to accept this last assertion, that science is a bringer of light? If they could be convinced that there was no God, that their beliefs were folly, and their prayers emptiness, would that be to them light? It would be the light which just serves to show how great the darkness is. But if on this point — the existence of a God — science and religion seem to be antagonistic, it need be but a passive antagonism. If it be agreed that we cannot, according to our laws of logic, prove the existence of a Personal God, and that by applying those same laws no definitely negative result can be obtained, we may at least leave the discussion and consider it a drawn battle. In practical matters there is no conflict between science and Christianity. The principles of forbearance, and of kindness; of charity – in short, in its widest sense, are honoured and valued by scientific men, who may, at the same time, reject and despise our system of theology. In fact, to repeat what Mr. Lewes says: “In the struggle of life with the facts of existence, science is a bringer of aid.”

    In searching after moral excellence, in striving for that true culture which chiefly consists in “self-reverence, self-knowledge, self-control,” science is not against us. Scientific men desire these things, and prize them when gained, as much as we do; though their desire for them may be based on grounds widely differing from ours. We have seen, therefore, that the dread and dislike of science or knowledge, merely because it is science, is utterly irrational ; and, we believe, is nearly extinct. The dislike which literary men express towards it has been acknowledged in most cases to be rational; seeing that it is not a dislike of science, but of certain students of special branches who are too often ready to misapply their knowledge, and give judgment on points beyond their reach.

    We have seen, too, that in practical matters science and religion go hand in hand, while between science and Theism the dislike, if dislike there be, or rather the antagonism which exists, is really a passive antagonism, because the very nature of the conflict prevents either side from claiming a complete — or even nearly complete — logical victory. For us Christians the words of the introduction to “In Memoriam” are profoundly true: “We have but faith: we cannot know; For knowledge is of things we see; And yet we trust it comes from Thee, A beam in darkness let it grow.”

    For all serious and thoughtful minds, Christian or non-Christian, these lines will be full of comfort, full of suggestion. Let us, then, leave a much-vexed question with those for our last words.

    – P. Anderson-Morshead.
    St James’s Magazine, July 1878.

    Wednesday, 3 February 2010 at 11:52 | Permalink

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