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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.

No better illustration can be given of the general suspicion and dislike of Science as Science than the great stress which is laid on the “iniquity of Vivisection,” because experiments on animals are pursued for purely scientific purposes. The animating impulse of an effort to awaken a due sympathy with animal suffering and check an inconsiderate infliction of it is one which so entirely commands my esteem, that I would willingly overlook the flagrant contradiction of people tolerating without a murmur the fact that yearly millions of creatures are mutilated and tortured to give a few men pleasure, to make food more palatable, and domestic animals more tractable, yet are roused to fury by the fact that a few score creatures are mutilated (a smaller number tortured) to discover remedial agents and scientific truths. All the pain inflicted for sport or other pleasure is condoned; the pain inflicted for scientific ends is pronounced diabolical. Is it, therefore, not on account of the suffering inflicted, but on account of the scientific purpose, that Vivisection is to be reprobated? Ten thousand times the amount of suffering is disregarded if only its purpose be not that of acquiring knowledge. And that this is so, is manifest in another case. For suffering may be also inflicted on human beings, and on a large scale, without exciting any outcry, if the motive be commercial advantage. Not to mention wars undertaken to push commerce, let us only consider some industrial experiment which will certainly drive hundreds of families from their employment with starvation as the consequence; yet the sufferings thus occasioned, if they excite pity, weigh so little against the prospect of the general good, that if the starving workmen revolt and destroy the machinery, the philanthropist is ready to enforce on them the utmost rigour of the law. Here the social benefit is allowed to override the individual injury. That is to say, an experiment which has the prospect of enlarging wealth may inflict suffering on men, women, and children; but an experiment which has only the prospect of enlarging knowledge must be forbidden if it inflict suffering on animals! Obviously such a contradiction could not be upheld if Science were recognised as a social benefit. It is not so recognised. And one indication of this is the frequent accusation that physiologists are actuated by the “selfish motive of acquiring reputation,” not by the unselfish motive of benefiting mankind. I will not pause to discuss the question of motives, nor how far the selfish motive may further a social advantage; I will only ask whether the motive of the industrial experimenter is less selfish? Unless Science were a social benefit, no one would ardently desire a scientific reputation. [1]

Having indicated the existence of the dread and dislike of Science, let us now glance at the causes.

The primary cause is a misconception of what Science is. No rational being dreads and dislikes Knowledge. No one proclaims the superiority of Ignorance as a guide of conduct. Yet Science is simply Knowledge classified, systematised, made orderly, impersonal, and exact, instead of being left unclassified, fragmentary, personal, and inexact. Auguste Comte calls it “Common-Sense methodised and extended.” There is plenty of knowledge which is not exact, and of exact knowledge which is not methodised. There is plenty of experience, which is personal and incapable of being communicated to others. Wanting the illumination of many minds, this store cannot do the work of Science, which is the experience of many enlarging the experience of each. If there is immense benefit in knowing what are the facts and the order of the physical world in which we live, and of the social world in which our higher life is lived, there is clearly a great advantage that this knowledge should be made orderly and communicable; and the dread of such an arrangement of knowledge is obviously irrational. Thus enlightened, we recognise in Science the deliberate effort to reduce the chaos of sensible experiences within the orderliness of ideal constructions, condensing multitudes of facts into simple laws—an effort which the Intellect acknowledges as a supreme duty, and which Conduct acknowledges as a guide.

Another source of the dislike is the opposition of our native tendencies. Science is abstract, impersonal, whereas our experiences are concrete and personal. It is systematic, and systematisation is troublesome: our native indolence renders us impatient of labour, and our impatience leads us to prefer the facile method of guessing to the difficult method of observing: we have to be trained into the preference of observing what the facts are, instead of arguing as to what the facts must be. Science, moreover, is greatly occupied with remote relations; now to feel an interest in these we must first have had them “brought home” to us. Knowledge springs from desire. It begins when prolonged observation, stimulated by emotion, replaces the incurious animal stare at things; and for this prolongation there is needed a sustaining motive. The sustaining motive of research is the conviction of the vast increase of our power which Science creates. Measuring by a footrule and measuring by trigonometry may be taken as types of Common Knowledge and Science: the result reached may in some particular case be the same, whichever method be used; but the incomparable extent of the second method, which is applicable where the footrule cannot reach—which measures the heights of mountains and the distances of stars—furnishes the sustaining motive to the study of trigonometry.

SCIENCE DEMANDS EXACTNESS, AND this demand irritates the vulgar mind. The impatience with which your cook listens to your advice that she should measure and not guess the quantities (advice you can never get her to follow), is but the same movement which rouses your resistance when any one desires to test your opinions by weighing the evidence, or endeavours to show that your traditional beliefs rest on no verifiable observations. Is not he who insists on evidence commonly styled “a bore” by all whose opinions have been adopted quite irrespective of evidence? Is it not pronounced “narrow” to hesitate in accepting wide conclusions without a keen appreciation of their data?

The distaste for accuracy, and the impatience at any restriction of the divine right of judging without evidence, will disappear with the advance of knowledge; and with this advance will also disappear certain mistaken pretensions of scientific men too ready to step beyond their own domain. It is this which causes the distaste of artists, men of letters, and moralists; and their opposition to the spread of scientific teaching. They do not oppose knowledge in the abstract, nor any particular knowledge; what they resist is the idea that the conclusions reached in one department on inquiry are to dictate the conclusions in another. The artist is quite willing to accept the chemist’s methodised experience of chemical facts, but refuses to listen to the chemist theorising about Art. The moralist will accept from the physicist equations of light, and from the anatomist relations of structure; but reserves to himself the right of deciding on a moral question.

One must admit that in the inarticulate resistance of Sentiment and Common Sense against certain applications of scientific doctrines there is often a justification. For example, there are mechanical laws and equations which admirably explain the facts of motion, yet Sentiment is shocked at the attempt to explain Nature on mechanical principles only, and is sustained by Common Sense, which sees other facts besides facts of motion, and sees that Nature is not mechanical only. Again, when the stored-up wealth of sentiments laboriously evolved in civilised life is set aside in favour of some analogy drawn from observed processes in the inorganic world, when the moral impulse to cherish the weak and sickly is condemned because Nature (which is not moral) cherishes the strong and pitilessly destroys the weak, Common Sense protests, and the protest helps to intensify the popular distrust of Science. Yet, in truth, the wiser heads among men of science are equally alive to the mistake of such applications.

WHAT IS TO BE understood by Science? It means, 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. In this second acceptation there are the particular sciences—such as Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Psychology, &c.—which are the special applications of the general Method to special departments of knowledge; and although there is an interdependence of these sciences, each is restricted to its own class of facts, none can legislate for the others. But because the various branches of knowledge have been very unequally reduced to the exactness and orderliness of Science, those which have been most successfully reduced have acquired the almost exclusive title; so that Science is generally regarded as something apart—the peculiar study of a particular class. Hence also the opinion that there is a profound separation between the principles applicable in the Physical Sciences and the principles applicable in the Moral Sciences. What has been the consequence? It has been that the Method which is no longer regarded as a rational procedure in dealing with the phenomena of Human Nature; and the supernaturalism long banished from physical theories is still invoked in psychological and social theories.

Of late years this has ceased to be the universal error, though it still remains a widespread error. We are slowly beginning to recognise that there may be a science of History, a science of Language, a science of Religion, and, in fact, that all knowledge may be systematised on a common Method. The facts of the External Order, which yield a Cosmology, are supplemented by the facts of the Internal Order, which yield a Psychology, and the facts of the Social Order, which yield a Sociology. These are all comprised in Science. However imperfect the second and third may be, in comparison with the first, the greater complication of the phenomena does not warrant the introduction of another Logic of Search. The principles which have guided us successfully in the first are to be followed in the others. The three classes of facts are all facts of Experience, so far as they are known, and must all be tested, classified, and systematised by the same rules.

This being so, we can separate the rational from the irrational antagonism against Science. It is rational when protesting against the misplaced application of the results reached in one department to problems belonging to a different department—for this is an offence against scientific Method. It is irrational when protesting against the rigorous application of one Logic to all inquiries. Those, therefore, who sneer at Science, and would obstruct its diffusion, are sneering against the effort to make all Knowledge systematic, and are obstructing the advance of civilisation.

The notion, implied or expressed, of two Logics, two Methods of Search, two systems of explaining phenomena, the natural and the supernatural, is the foundation of the great conflict between Science and Theology. And since in the majority of minds, Theology is identified with Religion, and Religion is of supreme importance to man, it is natural that Science should be regarded with dread and dislike. Before proceeding to dissipate the confusions on this subject, it will be needful to glance at the attitude of sincere theologians in our day, and at the reasons which justify to their minds the acceptance of scientific doctrines side by side with the acceptance of theological doctrines. It would be equally ungenerous and short-sighted to suggest that a mind which is deeply impressed with the truth of certain theological opinions may not be also deeply impressed with the beneficence of Science in general, and the truth of scientific doctrines which do not directly embrace moral and religious questions. We have 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. Whether the mind ought to do so, is another question. Let no one therefore suspect me of a doubt as to the sincerity of theologians who proclaim that the sphere of Science is limited to the processes of the physical world, and may be frankly accepted in all that it teaches respecting such processes, without in the least involving the moral world which Theology derives from a source independent of experience. Science, they say, systematises whatever experience reveals; its test is Reason. Theology systematises what had been revealed from a higher source; its test is Faith. Between Reason and Faith there is an absolute demarcation; and between Science, which relies on observation and induction, and Theology, which relies on precept and intuition, there is no conflict. As the artist appeals to the chemist for a theory of salts, and to the mathematician for a theory of singular integrals, but declares both chemist and mathematician to have no voice in a theory of Art, so the theologian accepts the teaching of mathematician, physicist, chemist, and biologist, in their respective departments, but peremptorily excludes each and all from the supreme department of moral and religious duties founded on a theory of the relations of the world to its creator.

THUS STATED, ONE MUST admit a sufficient logical consistency in the present condition of compromise, and need suppose no kind of insincerity, no conscious equivocation in the acceptance of both the natural and the supernatural modes of explaining phenomena. Nor, indeed, could the fundamental inconsistency of such a compromise have been even recognised, until the quite modern extension of scientific method to moral questions had come to complete the disintegrating effects of historical and philosophical criticism applied to the Sacred Books of which Theology relied. In the earlier stages of development, although the natural explanation was adopted in reference to the most familiar experiences, and framed the rough theories of Common Sense for the habitual guidance of conduct, both in relation to the physical world and to society, the supernatural was adopted in reference to whatever was unusual and unseen; and the wider range of this speculative method was due to the immensity of ignorance. The slow progress of positive knowledge has more and more enlarged the domain of natural explanation, more and more restricted the domain of the supernatural. Yet even now the majority of cultivated men regard the facts of human nature as only partly explicable without aid drawn from the supernatural; and resist, as impiety, the attempt to assign natural causes in explanation of moral relations. That is to say, there where the operation of natural causes escapes our penetration, supernatural causes are invoked. Just as to men ignorant of natural conditions thunder was the fury of the storm-demon, or an eclipse was God’s anger, so nowadays men ignorant of natural conditions interpret epidemics as “visitations,” and regard “intuitions” as of divine origin. The inconsistency, then, of the acceptance of theological side by side with scientific principles, is only a continuation of the primitive mental state, and must vanish when there is a general conviction that Science is orderly Knowledge, and is co-extensive with Experience. If we can have no knowledge transcending Experience in the widest sense, and if Faith is the vision of things unknown—dealing with what transcends knowledge—then the conflict between Science and Theology is the conflict between Knowledge and Ignorance.

Unless this be the character of Faith, I dispute the claim of Theology to the exclusive possession of Faith as a principle of guidance. Science also has its Faith, and by it must all men to a great extent be guided. But the Faith of Theology and the Faith of Science are very different in their credentials. The former is reliance of the truth of principles handed down by Tradition, of which no verification is possible, no examination permissible; the latter is reliance on the truth of principles which have been sought and found by competent inquirers, tested incessantly by successive generations, are always open to verification in all their details, and always modifiable according to fresh experiences. We believe in the law of gravitation, though we never opened the Principia, and could not, perhaps, understand it; but we rely on those who can understand it, and who have found its teachings in harmony with fact. We believe in the measurement of the velocity of light, though ignorant of the methods by which the velocity is measured. We trust those who have sought and found. If we distrust them, the search is open to us as to them. The mariner trusts to the indications of the compass without pretending to know how these indications were discovered, but assured by constant experience that they guide the ship safely. That also is Faith.

But if the mental attitude is one of the same obedience as the Theological Faith, its justification is different. Its credentials are conformity with experience. Those of Theology are the statements of the Sacred Books: the Vedas, Zendavesta, Bible, Koran. The statements therein made concerning the divine nature, its relations with the human, and the providential government of the world, are not open to the verification of Experience, for they were not sought and found in Experience. If we ask for their credentials, we are told that they are of divine origin. If we ask for evidence of this divine origin, we are referred to History or to our Moral Consciousness. Tradition has handed down these statements through successive generations; yet if we ask, as we ought to ask, how the tradition itself originated, we are brought face to face with this two-fold difficulty: we cannot recognise that those who first promulgated the statements had any better means of knowing the truth that we have; and we are struck with the fact that the statements thus handed down by tradition do not agree. That of the Hindoos is not that of the Jews; the Persians reject the traditions of both.

Modern historic criticism has made such havoc with the historical pretensions, that theologians are now throwing all the emphasis on Moral Consciousness. The doctrine of our Sacred Books is said to be unequivocally ratified by our intuitions: we feel their truth, and we see in their moral influence on mankind the verification of their divine origin. But here again the scientific method, which applied to the historical evidence has shattered its claim, applied to the evidence of Moral Consciousness is equally destructive. Psychology not only enlightens us as to the genesis of the intuitions, but in a comparison with other nations and the earlier stages of human development, shows how they vary. If the intuitions of the savage are not those of the civilised, if precepts which the Hindoo feels to be divine are opposed to the precepts which the Chinese, the Jew, and Mohammedan, and the Christian feel to be divine, we need a criterion beyond these varying standards.

There is a widespread superstition which regards whatever is innate, or otherwise unexplained, as of a higher authority and diviner sanction than what is acquired through individual experience or is explicable on known laws. Our religious instincts are appealed to, and if Instinct were the infallible guide in conduct; although a moment’s reflection will show that it is the great aim of civilisation to correct and repress many instincts. If the developed music of our day is of a higher order and more adapted to our sensibilities than the music of the Middle Ages; if our theories of natural phenomena are of a higher order and approximate more nearly to the truth than the corresponding theories of Aquinas and Albertus Magnus, why should our theories of moral phenomena be deemed inferior to those of Judaism or the Councils? Is the nursery a school of riper wisdom than the laboratory?

SO MUCH AS TO Method; now as to results. The Sacred Books of all theologies claim to expound a theory of the universe and a theory of human life and destiny. Their theories of the universe, both as general conceptions and particular explanations, are in such flagrant contradiction with the teachings of Science, that nowadays no one who is worth a moment’s consideration seeks astronomical, geological, or physiological explanations in the Sacred Books. There has arisen the assertion that the Sacred Books were never intended to teach man scientific truths, but only to teach him his duties. The answer is twofold: first, that man’s duties are comprised among scientific truths: secondly, that the Books do teach, not scientific truths, but doctrines which science shows to be erroneous. We ask, therefore, if their dicta are proved to be erroneous on points where the control of observation is possible, what authority can they claim on points beyond all such verification? If their astronomical, geological, and biological statements are false, why are we to believe their statements respecting the origin of the universe, the laws of its evolution, the nature of man, and the conduct of man?

The escape from this dilemma which is attempted by giving up the physical world to Science, reserving the moral world for Theology, is only a temporary escape. Let it be granted that the authority of the Sacred Books refers solely to the phenomena of Human Nature in the double aspect of the relations of Man to God and his relations to Society. If they contain explicit statements which are at variance with our moral culture—such as that God is “jealous” and “vindictive,” or that sinners will be consigned to everlasting torment—they must have some other guarantee of their truth than the ratification of Moral Consciousness, since that rejects them; and if they contain statements respecting man’s nature which are at variance with experience when they can be verified, how shall we accept their authority when the statements are beyond verification?

When the statements are ratified by experience and moral culture, Theology can give these no extra sanction; when they are not so ratified, Theology cannot make them acceptable. By way of illustration of the conflict between Science and Theology, in their explanations of human phenomena, with the precepts which are founded upon each, let us take the case of Disease.

Very little is accurately known of its causes; but whatever they are, Science, recognising Disease as the result of some disturbance of the organic functions, seeks the unknown causes in the known properties of the substances composing the organism. Theology, which uniformly explains the unknown by the unknown, invokes a supernatural cause for this natural effect. It declares that God sends diseases as chastisements and lessons. Nor is this declaration withdrawn when common sense objects that the chastisement is often an injustice and the lesson an enigma. The innocent are seen to suffer even more than the guilty, and no one knows why they suffer; no one can regard the punishment of the child for the sin of its father as in agreement with human justice. But you say “all men are guilty”? Then why are not all punished? And why are animals and plants also afflicted with diseases? Have they, too, the burden of Adam’s disobedience? There was a time when such explanations reconciled the doctrine with observation; but nowadays cultivated minds shrink from the conception of “imputed sin” as a rational explanation of human and animal suffering.

In applauding this progress we must also point out the logical inconsistency of those who maintain the absolute authority of the Texts of which such conceptions are the necessary application. Theology maintains its doctrine even when theologians set aside the practice which that doctrine ordains. To claim absolute submission to the physician’s formulas, and yet refuse to follow his prescriptions, is surely irrational? Yet this is the case nowadays. When the supernatural theory of Disease was undisturbed by positive knowledge, prayers and incantations were the remedies in vogue; but now even those who will not acknowledge the theory to be an antiquated error practically disavow it, for they replace prayers and incantations by drugs and diet. Only the small sect called “The Peculiar People” trust entirely to prayer; and Christian magistrates are so outraged at this trust that they punish it as a crime! In vain are epidemics declared to be visitations, in vain are books written with such titles as God in Disease; the practical sense of the nation decides that Cholera or Cattle Plague are not to punish landlords and farmers for the scepticism of a few speculative minds, and hence that we had better seek to avert them by a course of treatment and “an order in council,” than by pulpit eloquence and a “day of humiliation.”

I HAVE TAKEN THE case of Disease because it is less open to the ambiguities and difficulties which beset a moral problem, but a similar discrepancy might be pointed out between the theological precepts and the moral practices. Here, as everywhere, it is patent that as knowledge advances, Theology loses its hold; and Morality, instead of remaining stationary like Theology, advances with an enlarging insight into the healthy conditions of human relations. Science is often taunted with its imperfections and its inability to explain the mysteries of life. Imperfect it is, and that is why we should all strive to make it less so. Mysteries will doubtless for ever encompass us. But Science may answer the taunt by challenging Theology to show that its explanation of the mysteries has any claim to our acceptance. The question is not whether an explanation can be given, but whether the given explanation has any verifiable evidence. Kant has truly said that now Criticism has take its place among the disintegratory agencies, no system can pretend to escape its jurisdiction. The Church has it texts, and has decided once for all what meaning these texts must bear. But the criticism of scientific method asks for the evidence which can prove these interpretations to be in agreement with fact. In both respects the answer is unequivocal. There is no evidence to prove the texts. The interpretations are discordant with experience. Thus the Catholic who accepts Galileo and Newton must give up the texts, or take the first step towards Protestantism, which asserts the right of interpreting the texts according to private judgment. And the Protestant who asserts this right of interpretation, and forsakes the literal meaning of the texts, has taken a step towards Rationalism, and implicitly disavowed the authority of the texts, since what he obeys is not their teaching, but the teaching of the culture of his day and sect. The Rationalist, in turn, has taken a step towards the scientific position; he regards the texts as symbols of an earlier stage of culture, which need the interpretation of our present culture; and when he learns—as easily he may learn—that all the facts of the moral world are to be investigated and systematised on the same principles as the facts of the physical world, setting aside in the one as in the other all supernatural and metempirical conceptions, because these cannot enter into the framework of Knowledge, he will learn that Science, in the true meaning of the term, embraces Nature and Human Nature, and moreover that it expresses what is known of both, whereas Theology is only “the false persuasion of knowledge.”

Many readers may vehemently deny the assertion just made. They will maintain the validity of theological explanations, all the more because, persisting in the old confusion of Theology with Religion, they refuse to acknowledge that a science of Nature and Human Nature, if truly expressing the facts, must be a better foundation for Religion than a Theology which untruly expresses those facts. The whole contest lies between the two modes of explanation and the results reached by such modes. I accept the appeal to History. This shows how in proportion as knowledge because exact and orderly in each department of inquiry, the supernatural and metempirical explanations were silently withdrawn in favour of natural and experiential explanations. Nowadays, among the cultivated minds of Europe, it is only in the less-explored regions of research, where argument is made to do duty for observation, that the supernatural and metempirical explanations hold their ground. When Science has fairly mastered the principles of moral relations as it has mastered the principles of physical relations, all Knowledge will be incorporated in a homogeneous doctrine rivalling that of the old theologies in its comprehensiveness, and surpassing it in the authority of its credentials. “Christian Ethics” will then no longer mean Ethics founded on the principles of Christian Theology, but on the principles expressing the social relations and duties of man in Christianised society. Then, and not till then, will the conflict between Theology and Science finally cease; then, and not till then, will the dread and dislike of Science disappear.


Originally published in the Fortnightly, CXXXVIII N.S. 1878. Manually transcribed exclusively for the New Series with non-textual edits to track subsequent use. Please note The Fortnightly Review [New Series] and fortnightlyreview.co.uk in citations based on this transcription.

More in the Fortnightly: Science and disenchantment by Alan Wall.

Anthony Trollope’s obituary of G.H. Lewes, published in The Fortnightly Review on 1 January 1879 (and republished in an abridged version in The New York Times on 16 February 1879), is available online at Ellen Moody‘s website.


[1] When one observes those who believe Hospitals and Colleges to be important institutions, socially beneficial, threatening to withdraw all support unless the teachers openly declare what they do not believe, namely, that vivisection for scientific ends is unjustifiable, one is reminded of the recent outbreak of fanaticism on the part of the Jains. This Hindoo sect has such a horror at the destruction of animal life that a group of the most fervent murdered all the Mussulman butchers in the neighbourhood.

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