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Salient. An Organ of Student Opinion at Victoria University College, Wellington N.Z. Vol. 21, No. 10. August 6, 1958

The Scientific Attitude

The Scientific Attitude

The Editor:


—While I agree in the main with M. Heine's article on the importance of science, I feel that in his efforts to counteract the recent attacks on science by Dean Bretton, he has advanced his case further than is justified, He has said, in effect, that science alone can form a complete basis for human aspirations. I find this idea rather quaint and totally unrealistic.

The scientific attitude as defined by Bertrand Russell is "an attitude of mind that involves a sweeping away of all other desires in the interest of the desire to know—it involves the suppression of hopes and fears, loves and hates, and the whole subjective emotional life, until we become subdued to the material, able to see it frankly without preconceptions, without bias, without any wish except to see it as it is, and without any belief that what it is must be determined by some relationship, positive or negative, to what we should like it to be or to what we can easily imagine it to be."

The scientific attitude is a mental technique which is appropriate to many problems and investigations but is not necessarily appropriate in all cases. It is obviously essential in investigations into the nature of the external world, including the phenomena of life, and also to some branches of philosophy. For instance, the doctrine of dilectical empiricism advanced by Locke is page 7 almost synonomous with the scientific attitude.

However, science is by definition, ethically neutral. It is quite useless in attempting to form standards of values which must, of necessity, be arbitary. It cannot decide between capitalism, communism, socialism, or dictatorship any more than it can formulate a code of behaviour. It can produce a big bomb but it cannot tell us when, where, or if to use it. It concerns itself solely with what constitutes reality but not with how knowledge of the nature of this reality can be used in the best interests of society, nor even with the form the society should take.

Science has many times been used as a justification of arbitary practices. We have only to look at the claim that communism is "scientific" or that capitalism is based on natural" laws. This tends to demonstrate that the underlying ideals upon which science is based are often misunderstood. Science is in a morally unassailable position as it purports to be nothing more than the objective search for truth. If, as Dean Bretton is reported to have said, science is a threat to Christianity, then the inference is rather obvious.

Science needs no apology, but to claim that it alone can form a basis for society is hardly justified. At best, its only guiding principle could be the pursuit of happiness, which is itself an intuitive concept and therefore not amenable to measurement. Man is capable of thinking outside the realms of physical reality; to interpret human emotion and irrationality as a weakness, as Mr. Heine does, is to dismiss the work of Shakespeare, Keats, Blake and Dylan Thomas as superfluous. This may suit Mr. Heine but is not for me.

Graeme Caughley.