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The Spike or Victoria University College Review 1943

Some Thoughts on the Relation Between Theory and Practice

page 18

Some Thoughts on the Relation Between Theory and Practice

"To spend too much time in studies is sloth: to use them too much for ornament, is affectation; to make judgement only by their rules, is the humour of a scholar. They perfect nature, and are perfected by experience: for natural abilities are like natural plants, that need pruning by study; and studies themselves do give forth directions too much at large, except they be bounded in by experience."

(Lord Bacon—Essays Civil and Moral)

Here We Find the beginning of the scientific spirit; the germination of a seed that was to become the first real tree of knowledge, with its roots deep in the world of human experience. For the essence of the outlook of the scientific man is to combine the study of textbooks with the handling of test tubes. Theory for the scientist must be "bounded in by experience." There can be no knowledge which does not fall within the realm of experiment: metaphysical speculation despite its high-sounding jargon has no place in the scientific attitude. Theory and practice are two aspects of man's activities in changing the world in which he lives. When the alchemists gave up their search for things created by speculation and began the task of discovering laws which enabled them to turn nature to their service chemistry was born. The science of chemistry arose when men wanted to know how to make sulphuric acid and other things for which the industrial changes of the times created demands. These demands could not be met by word-spinning. Science knows only one way in the search for truth, the careful observation of experiments and the generalizing of the results of many observations in the form of laws which can guide the actions of other men. Until men had learned to base their theories on practice we could say with the Honourable Robert Boyle (the Skeptical Chymist).

"Methinks the chymists, in their searches after truth, are not unlike the Navigators of Solemen's Tarshish Fleet, who brought home from their long and tedious voyages, not only Gold and Silver and Ivory, but apes and Peacock's too; for the writings of several (for I say not all) of your Hermetick Philosophers present us, together with dives substantial and noble experiments, Theories, which either like Peacock's feather make a great show, but are neither solid nor useful; or else like Apes, if they have some appearance of being rational, are blemished with some absurdity or other, that when they are attentatively considered make them appear Risiculous."

To-day in the capitalist countries, and particularly in the fascist countries, there is a reversion to fantastic word-spinning, to the production of theories based on vain imaginings. We find highly placed men of science becoming High Priests of the cult of Mathematical Deity; there are snobbish sniffing on the part of highly specialized theoreticians when applied science is discussed. Theory and practice are losing contact. The dissertations of the High Priests of the New Mysticism "if they have the appearance of being rational are blemished with some absurdity or other that when they are attentatively considered make them appear ridiculous." Those who are tempted to believe in the Great Ones who live in the splendid isolation of the Court of Higher Mathematics or the maze of the new quantum physics may well be reminded that the object of the founders of that austere body, the Royal Society, was the study of "natural philosophy and husbandry according to the principles of our new philosophical college that values no knowledge but as it hath a tendency to use."

It is not accidental that Boyle, living during the period of development of the new capitalist world should have had this virile outlook, nor are the metaphysical meanderings of our modern mathematicians dissociated from the general break-up of our capitalist society in which the weevil and the drought help in keeping production down and prices up while the man who makes two blades of grass grow where one grew before becomes an embarrassment.

The wheel of history has, however, just completed a revolution and we now see the beginning of page 19 a new virile society in which there is once more a keen pursuit after "knowledge that hath a tendency to use." In the Soviet Union the scientist has become part of a great team united in the tremendous task of building a new form of human society. And in this task of changing the world science has been rewarded by the discovery of important new laws; despite the awful warnings of the pundits of our declining democracies theory has made great strides, and in the abstract fields of higher mathematics and wave mechanics important advances are being made.

Perhaps the greatest feature of Soviet science is the fact that the scientific worker sees his discoveries applied with enthusiasm to the task of helping his fellows. Whereas in our world a novel discovery may become the property of a large monopoly, its sole value being to increase the wealth and power of a few people, in Soviet Russia a new invention becomes immediately the property of the people to be applied in building the new world. But lucky is he who has his ideas exploited by a capitalist monopoly for it is even more likely that they will be " pidgeon-holed," never to see the light of the day. A new invention which causes the obsolescence of valueable private property is frequently a serious embarrassment.

Ours is a dead world which only progresses during periods of destruction; a world for which war is the only solution for its difficulties. Science at present is going ahead because it has become necessary to devise ways and means of killing men, women, and children more quickly than the enemy can. British estimates for rearmament expenditure for 1937-41 were £1,500,000,000, while the Department of scientific and Industrial Research investigating food, clothing, housing, etc. spent £600,000 in 1936-37.

"This is the dead land,
This is the cactus land,
Here the stone images
Are raised, here they receive
The supplication of a dead man's hand
Under the twinkle of a fading star."

Fascism has come to prop up our decaying civilization, and with the spread of its evil influence the stars of learning are one by one eclipsed. Man spirit is stupefied by propaganda and lies, the people of the reactionary countries will be remembered—

"if at all—not as lost
Violent souls, but only
As the hollow men
The stuffed men."

But we are not without hope, for at this very moment the Red Army men are throwing the Nazi war machine back across the Ukraine, the entire Russian people has risen to throw out the invader—to destroy the hordes of Hitler-created puppets. The Russian people have for a time thrown their energies into destroying an evil world rather than building a good one. They recognize in Nazism not only a military enemy, but an enemy of the spirit, an enemy that would attack everything for which the Soviet Union stands.

"Modern Russians have qualities which bourgeois governments lack: warm faith in principles without which any society is doomed to destruction. The Russians believe that exists for the purpose of assuring a free life of the body and spirit to all workers. The Russians believe that men exist on earth for the purpose of creating a happier life for other people and their dependents." (Paul Gsell.)

It is the unity which such a creed inspires which will destroy the slaves of reaction. The war on the Eastern front is a war between the very spirits of the combatant. It is a struggle between the past and the future. And the future must win: a new world is being created men's ideals and their deeds are one. Men in this Soviet world are no longer content to preach one day of the week and live basely during the rest. A socialist cannot have an ideal which is not at once a deed; he cannot have theories which are not actions. The ideals of Liberty, Equality and International Fraternity are for the modern Soviet citizen "bounded in by experience."