CHAPTER II – Where Do We Stand To-day?

PART I: Science at the Threshold


Chapter II – Where Do We Stand To-day?

In the year 1932, when the world celebrated the hundredth anniversary of Goethe’s death, Professor W. Heisenberg, one of the foremost thinkers in the field of modern physics, delivered a speech before the Saxon Academy of Science which may be regarded as symptomatic of the need in recent science to investigate critically the foundations of its own efforts to know nature.1 In this speech Heisenberg draws a picture of the progress of science which differs significantly from the one generally known. Instead of giving the usual description of this progress as ‘a chain of brilliant and surprising discoveries’, he shows it as resting on the fact that, with the aim of continually simplifying and unifying the scientific conception of the world, human thinking, in course of time, has narrowed more and more the scope of its inquiries into outer nature.

‘Almost every scientific advance is bought at the cost of renunciation, almost every gain in knowledge sacrifices important standpoints and established modes of thought. As facts and knowledge accumulate, the claim of the scientist to an understanding of the world in a certain sense diminishes.’ Our justifiable admiration for the success with which the unending multiplicity of natural occurrences on earth and in the stars has been reduced to so simple a scheme of laws – Heisenberg implies – must therefore not make us forget that these attainments are bought at the price ‘of renouncing the aim of bringing the phenomena of nature to our thinking in an immediate and living way’.

In the course of his exposition, Heisenberg also speaks of Goethe, in whose scientific endeavours he perceives a noteworthy attempt to set scientific understanding upon a path other than that of progressive self-restriction.

‘The renouncing of life and immediacy, which was the premise for the progress of natural science since Newton, formed the real basis for the bitter struggle which Goethe waged against the physical optics of Newton. It would be superficial to dismiss this struggle as unimportant: there is much significance in one of the most outstanding men directing all his efforts to fighting against the development of Newtonian optics.’ There is only one thing for which Heisenberg criticizes Goethe: ‘If one should wish to reproach Goethe, it could only be for not going far enough – that is, for having attacked the views of Newton instead of declaring that the whole of Newtonian Physics-Optics, Mechanics and the Law of Gravitation – were from the devil.’

Although the full significance of Heisenberg’s remarks on Goethe will become apparent only at a later stage of our discussion, they have been quoted here because they form part of the symptom we wish to characterize. Only this much may be pointed out immediately, that Goethe – if not in the scientific then indeed in the poetical part of his writings – did fulfil what Heisenberg rightly feels to have been his true task.2

We mentioned Heisenberg’s speech as a symptom of a certain tendency, characteristic of the latest phase in science, to survey critically its own epistemological foundations. A few years previous to Heisenberg’s speech, the need of such a survey found an eloquent advocate in the late Professor A. N. Whitehead, in his book Science and the Modern World, where, in view of the contradictory nature of modern physical theories, he insists that ‘if science is not to degenerate into a medley of ad hoc hypotheses, it must become philosophical and enter upon a thorough criticism of its own foundations’.

Among the scientists who have felt this need, and who have taken pains to fulfil it, the late Professor A. Eddington obtains an eminent position. Among his relevant utterances we will quote here the following, because it contains a concrete statement concerning the field of external observation which forms the basis for the modern scientific world-picture. In his Philosophy of Physical Science we find him stating that ‘ideally, all our knowledge of the universe could have been reached by visual sensation alone – in fact by the simplest form of visual sensation, colourless and non-stereoscopic’.3 In other words, in order to obtain scientific cognition of the physical world, man has felt constrained to surrender the use of all his senses except the sense of sight, and to limit even the act of seeing to the use of a single, colour-blind eye.

Let us listen to yet another voice from the ranks of present-day science, expressing a criticism which is symptomatic of our time. It comes from the late physiologist, Professor A, Carrel, who, concerning the effect which scientific research has had on man’s life in general, says in his book, Man the Unknown: ‘The sciences of inert matter have led us into a country that is not ours. … Man is a stranger in the world he has created.’