Illusionary Progress

We live in an age of great technological success, in an atmosphere of materialistic philosophy tempered with misgivings and regrets, in a turmoil of social change and of conflicting political ideologies. We are uneasy with forebodings, for civilization may well die in the next war if it comes. We are little consoled by the prospect of dying amid new luxuries. Brilliant progress in the technological application of science stands in sharpest contrast with the social chaos of our generation. Will the critical historian of 3000 A.D. remember us chiefly for our success in one area or for our failure in the other? Can the echelons of science be diverted in part from the sector where they have won us an overwhelming victory to that where the battle turns against us? When and how? In the present article I shall suggest for the physical sciences a diversion of much effort from gadgetry to an extensive study of man himself, and for the biological sciences a keener, more integrative appraisal of evolutionary history as the basis for extrapolating from the past the course of man’s inevitable social destiny? (Williams 1948, 116)

It is scarcely necessary to belabor the point that within the past two centuries man has made unprecedented progress in the natural sciences. Basing action on this newly acquired knowledge he has harnessed steam, electricity, chemical reaction, and, presently, atomic fission to do his bidding. He has tapped field, forest, and subterranean depths for fuel, food, and materials of construction. He has erected towering cities, spanned the continents with rail and roadway, and girdled the globe with wires, radio beams, and swift flights of air armadas. Mechanical power and assembly lines have multiplied a hundred or a thousand fold the yield of goods from his hand and brain and eye. An economy of abundance is at length possible, but:— (Williams 1948, 116)

As ever increasing fraction of the fruits of human toil and ingenuity goes to feed the holocaust of war. The greatest drain on the exchequer of every government is the cost of present and past wars. The waste of ruined cities and scarred countrysides spreads over three continents where rose the most ancient of historic civilizations. More utter devastation looms on the horizon through the latest and most momentous of man’s scientific discoveries. Social progress since Roman times seems almost negligible. If legalized slavery has been well nigh abolished, chivalry has also waned. Conflicting political concepts of earliest history still persist in unresolved modern controversies. Democracy has just disarmed three major tyrannies at great cost but faces still another. The remaining one [i.e., Russian revolution] professes a prophetic vision for all mankind when its aegis shall have spread around the globe. (Williams 1948, 116)

The Russian people do not want war. Most probably the Russian government does not want it. Certainly neither the people nor the government of the United States desire World War III. Yet some inexorable force seems to impel both governments (and peoples) in that direction. Neither the leaders whom the Russians have chosen or accepted nor the leaders whom Americans follow are able to lead in the direction which everbody wants to go. Why? Because Russian thought and American thought are as far apart as the poles with reference to the basic political means which will achieve the universally desired end. There are no universally accepted political principles. Nothing indisputable has been learned in 5000 years of racial history. There is no scientific knowledge about politics. (Williams 1948, 116-117)

In economics the condition is essentially the same. There are almost as many schools of thought as there are thinkers. None will deny the tremendous impact of scientific technology upon our present economy, but beyond that few economic principles are universally accepted. The most elemental matters are in dispute: private property versus communal ownership; personal rights versus governmental sovereignty; economic versus political boundaries. Free trade versus protective tariff is, for example, still merely a matter of opinion. Our social systems are extremely diverse, and class strife of various sorts has rarely been more conspicuous. At best society is static; at worst, and more prevailingly, society moves off in all directions at one and gets nowhere. Fundamentally this is because social science is not science; its foundations are utterly insecure. It has no basis for proceeding from the known to the unknown, for virtually no principles are established beyond dispute. (Williams 1948, 117)

Scientists, however, have no occasion to be supercilious or sacrosanct. The failure of political, social, and economic theory to make progress is an old story. We are doing no worse than in Roman times, merely no better. The prime reason for the contrast lies in this, that for the most part in natural sciences we enjoy the benefits of the experimental method. We guess what should happen by a priori reasoning and then design a careful experiment whereby we verify or confound our prior reasoning. In social science the practice is to reason a priori and then assert the conclusion to be true. The experimental method is not practically available in social matters [except via historical perspective]. We may enact a measure, say the Smoot-Hawley act, but long before the experiment is complete a war, a new technology, a change of administration, or some other country’s countermeasure intervenes to invalidate any conclusion. All our so-called social experiments in domestic economy are fraught with similar hazards. (Williams 1948, 117)

One of the difficulties of the social sciences is that their problems are always problems of immediate concern to large numbers of people. Vox populi raises a distraction to disturb any objective contemplation. Public opinion focuses its attention about some controversial problem, and those who become the political leaders are those whose views are acceptable to the majority. All other contenders are disqualified for the moment though a decade later they may have proved themselves wiser than their opponents. The successful political leader is one who correctly senses the trend of public opinion. As Disraeli once quizzically remarked, “I must follow the people. Am I not their leader?” (Williams 1948, 117-118)

(….) In social problems there is no appeal to natural science, and natural science as such seeks no opportunity to be heard. Yet I beg to submit that human affairs are by no means unrelated to the kind of universe in which we dwell and with which science is so much concerned. The difficulty is that science is prevailingly either preoccupied with isolated phenomena in Nature or with the gadgetry of technology. The direction of human affairs is by common consent relegated to a position outside the field of scientific enquiry. We have already referred to the sad fact that the experimental method is inapplicable to social science. Otherwise we might be more sure footed in our social progress. (Williams 1948, 118)

Physics and chemistry are supreme examples of experimental science. Together with mathematics they account for most of the technical progress man has made. However, there is a large field of true science which is essentially observational rather than experimental. Astronomy and geology furnish us with many significant examples. We cannot turn the stars in their courses to ascertain experimentally the result, so it is necessary to infer indirectly much of what has been learned about their motions, masses, and composition, as well as their past history and future destiny. Similarly, in geology we cannot experimentally raise mountains, divert the course of great streams, or reproduce the conditions of ancient lakes. Yet few would deny that astronomy and geology are true sciences or that their conclusions are broadly trustworthy. (Williams 1948, 118)

Biology as a field lies between those of purely experimental and purely observational science. Many of its problems can be and have been attacked experimentally and successfully. Some of the great problems of biology are set on a time scale so vast that short-lived man cannot deal with them experimentally. Otherwise we might perhaps prove the descent of man from lower creatures by producing him on the sport for evidential purposes. However, the evolutionary process can be observed in the laboratory by the use of short-lived lower organisms and it can be turned to immediate practical account in breeding plants and animals of specifically desired characteristics. In spite of its many debatable regions, biology ranks as a sound science. (Williams 1948, 119-119)

According to my view each of these types of method has a potential application in human affairs. (….) In a thousand ways each person differs form his fellows. What we call personality is an integration of ten thousand traits each determined in part by heredity, in part by training and in part by current habits and ways of life [e.g., culture]. Some of these traits doubtless have a physiological basis if it could be traced. Some are psychological yet have an underlying physical basis, and many fall in the class of spiritual qualities. (Williams 1948, 119)

Personality is a fact of vital importance in our human relations. Yet one could assemble a very imposing array of physiologists, biochemists, psychologists, and physicians only discover that the whole battery of talent could not account for [the nature of personality]. These personality factors are of tremendous importance in many of our social problems. (Williams 1948, 119)

(….) So much for the potential of experimental natural sciences which would be much more significant for future human welfare at this stage than a new plastic, a more efficient freezing unit, a faster airplane, or a flossier automobile. We could get along with what technology already offers in those lines, but we keenly need means of preventing frustrated, futile lives and of raising the whole level of human happiness. These things must be recognized as within the potential field of science. We must get out of our ruts of thinking in terms of a single discipline and in terms of the physical things used for food, shelter, raiment, transportation, or amusement. We ourselves are more important than our environment. (Williams 1948, 120)

There is, however, a whole category of human problems of which the crux lines in the massing of humanity, rather than in the individual. A large group of humans bond together by some real or fancied community of need or circumstances acts differently at times than each of them the component individuals would be disposed to do if acting independently. People divide into groups by race, by language, by flags, by economic level, form of employment, or special intellectual interest or aptitude. Once so divided we are prone to forget our common humanity and place all emphasis upon our national or class interest. It is by the operation of this form of mass psychology that the problems of international antagonisms, political animosities, class and racial hatreds arise. In the present era, war, industrial strife between employer and employee, and racial hatred appear as the most outstanding destructive forces. There are, however, numerous lesser rivalries exemplified, for example, by pressure groups of farmers, manufacturers, dairymen, or what not. The study of individuals will not meet these problems. (Williams 1948, 120)

The most significant contribution which science might make to this category of problems is an emphasis on our common human heritage and the oneness of human life with all the life which preceded it in the evolutionary process. That is the route by which we came to be human and that is the road by which man may grow to greater stature. Biological evolution arrays hundreds of millions of years before us. May not science discern its trends and consider their validity for man today? (Williams 1948, 120)

(….) However, our social trends need to be undergirded by some broad philosophy which, endeavors to estimate results at least a generation hence. No social course which veers abruptly first in one direction then in another can possibly lead us happily forward. Yet that is precisely what we do in civic, political, and national life. (….) We proceed by impulse, not according to a reasoned course which becomes ingrained in the fiber of the people. Imagine a business enterprise succeeding with such a fluctuating policy. (Williams 1948, 121)

A popular philosophy cannot become second nature to a people within a few weeks or months or years. Its culture must pervade our educational processes for decades before the philosophy can ripen and bear fruit. It is, however, high time that such a social philosophy be born and that it have the endorsement of a large element of our most thoughtful people. How better can it be born than out of the womb of science and how will it gather more commanding support than if it comes from scientists. Science today enjoys an unprecedented popular respect, and no voice speaks with as much authority as does the scientist who is backed by the general opinion of his fellows. (Williams 1948, 121)

We had such a philosophy at the time of the birth of our republic, and, in spite of some dissent, we believed in it as a people. In the words of the Declaration of Independence “We hold these truths to be self evident: That all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. That to secure these rights governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed;—” There are other philosophies abroad today. Not long since Hitler thundered “The state is everything, the individual nothing.” Today Russia’s Politburo justifies the dictatorship of a minority by defending its beneficent intentions. (Williams 1948, 121)

The divergent philosophies cannot all be true yet they were or are supported by the mass of scientists, as well as other people, resident in each of the respective countries. This could not possibly be true if science had generally recognized that humanity is a part of Nature and an outgrowth of her works. (Williams 1948, 121)

Some will object that evolution has had no consistent trends; that it has changed direction with climatic alterations as in the successive periods of glaciation. Its fundamental trends and causative factors have, however, in my opinion, maintained a high degree of constancy. The continuity of the evolutionary process has received amazing and unexpected support in the field of biochemistry during the past decade or two. The enzymes and other chemical mechanisms that operate in our tissues are present and operative also in the tissues of lower animals and even in plants and microorganisms for more primitive and far more ancient in their evolutionary origin. If life development has been so continuous that the oxidative mechanisms, for example, of its earliest forms of organisms are still operative in its latest and higher forms, it is scarcely reasonable to think its past trends are not still meaningful for man’s future. (Williams 1948, 121-122)

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