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The Humanistic Character of Science


Scientific Man. The Humanistic Significance of Science

From our foregoing investigations we can safely infer that science, when understood as a creative activity of man, has a humanistic character of its own. Our aim here, is only to make more precise the results attained. […]

Genuine Science: The Quest for an Ideal

The issue of the essence or genuineness of science is a much controverted one. To succeed in our enterprise of bringing this essence into a focus die most promising angle is, as usual, the experiential approach. To this end, let us begin from the obvious. Science is first and foremost a matter of research. Why do scientists do research in the first place? The answer to our question is expectably unanimous. All scientists agree in saying that they search for truth. To be sure, there can be different attitudes concerning this basic goal. As Rostand put it: “To each his own way of loving truth. One scientist will refer to the blisses of discovery; another to the torments of research”. [1] Nevertheless, one thing is clear: research as such has an intrinsic aim. This aim has been stated by Born: «The spirit of research is the disinterested desire to disclose nature's mysteries […] this fascination of lifting the veil of mystery and of discovering harmony in apparent chaos.»[2] In other words, as the same writer put it elsewhere, research as such aims at “deciphering the secret language of nature from nature's documents, the facts of nature.” [3] In fact, this is the universally shared motivation of scientists as researchers. Sometimes they even blush in confessing their intimate motivation, as one chemist interviewed by Eiduson admitted: «It sounds silly, but what I want is really an understanding of the pattern of the universe [...] what I would like to do is to understand the universe for its own sake—but I am afraid that I never will.»[4]

Such an embarrassment serves merely to confirm that scientific research has a goal of its own that may even overwhelm the researcher involved. The psychology of productive or creative thinking underlines this goal-directed character of research. In Wertheimer’s synthetical presentation: «In human terms there is at bottom the desire, the craving to face the true issue the structural core, the radix of the situation; to go on from the unclear inadequate relation to a clear, transparent, direct confrontation-straight from the heart of the thinker to the heart of his object, of his problem.»[5]


The intrinsic goal of research is clearly the quest for truth or knowledge for its own sake. […]

One of the most forceful declarations in favor of science as having an essence characterized exclusively by the search for knowledge is due to Einstein. The audience to which he presented his address was impressive. It consisted of some of the world’s leading researchers: the members of the Berlin Physical Society. The purpose was to celebrate Planck’s sixtieth birthday (1918).[6] In front of this scientific body, Einstein decided to discuss the question of why scientists do science. To set the stage, he began by comparing science with an open temple to which many people come because of different motives. Some of the visitors enter because they enjoy the exercise of their superior mental gifts: they look for the sensation of discovery or the satisfaction of ambition. Some other people come in to offer the products of their brains on the altar of science for purely utilitarian purposes. At this point, Einstein suggests, let us suppose that an angel appears and drives away from the temple all those who belong to the categories enumerated. As a result, he continues: «the assemblage would be seriously depleted, but there would still be some men, of both present and past times, left inside. Our Planck is one of them, and that is why we love him».

The objection arises: Should one suppose that only the few left inside the temple deserve the name of scientist? Not necessarily, if the term “scientist” is taken in its ordinary sense. Einstein concedes immediately that among those who have been driven out there were “many excellent men who are largely, perhaps chiefly, responsible for the building of the temple of science.” Nonetheless, Einstein’s position is firm. He wants to stress that not all scientists deserve their name in the same way. Some deserve it partly, others fully. The full-name scientists are only those who are left within the temple. They alone are those who are genuinely scientific in the complete sense of the term. For they alone are truly responsible for the creation and permanence of the temple of science in the first place. As Einstein puts it poignantly: «But of one thing I feel sure: if the types we have just expelled were the only types there were, the temple would never have come to be, any more than a forest can grow which consists of nothing but creepers.»

What are the reasons why genuine scientists, according to Einstein, do science? In his mind, there is no doubt that it is a question of an ideal of the whole man. He gives both a negative and a positive experiential description of such an ideal. Negatively speaking: «one of the strongest motives that lead men to art and science is escape from everyday life with its painful crudity and hopeless dreariness, from the fetters of one’s own ever shifting desires.» But of course, it is the positive reason that is determinant. As for it, Einstein can only speak of the desire of scientific man to create a wholly meaningful vision of reality that may satisfy the deepest aspirations of man himself. Man tries to make for himself in the fashion that suits him best a simplified and intelligible picture of the world [...] in order to find in this way the peace and security which he cannot find in the narrow whirlpool of personal experience.

To sum up, the position of Einstein is unmistakably clear, even though it may remain vague for those who are not directly acquainted with science itself. To him, science can only be genuine if its search for knowledge is not subordinated to any other aim. Of course, he admits elsewhere, there is no logical way of proving this point. Hence he can only speak out of the intimate conviction born of personal experience. Let me then make a confession: for myself, the struggle to gain more insight and understanding is one of those independent objectives without which a thinking individual would find it impossible to have a conscious, positive attitude toward life. The position defended by Einstein is usually spoken of in terms of pure or genuine science. A compact definition of the mentality involved is, for instance, a statement by the famous experimental physicist Bridgman: «If there are some scientists who are sure that their most compelling motive is the acquiring of understanding, then those scientists, when acting in response to this motive, are engaged in what I call pure science.»[7]

The question now is to know whether Einstein’s conviction, and Bridgman’s, is shared widely enough by the scientific community to be considered the characteristic motivation of the scientist as such. To find an answer, we can only resort to the data supplied by psychological and sociological investigations of the scientific community. An illuminating summary of the mentality detected is the following by the psychologist Eiduson: «Many scientists use the word “success” only sotto voce […]. These men share some of the clichés: that a truly creative person is motivated by pure rather than impure considerations—purity meaning that the reward should be thought of only in terms of inner satisfaction derived from arriving at the solution—and that a desire for recognition, exhibitionism, or self-aggrandizement, if it emerges at all in such a person, is only an extraneous concomitant of devotion or dedication.»[8]

From the words cited it is clear that pure science presents itself to scientific researchers as an ideal to be pursued in their work. They may fail to put it into practice, but at least they recognize what they should do in principle. Purity of science—as visible especially in theoretical research—is so much seen as a normative ideal that scientists tend to establish a sort of hierarchy among themselves. They liken the great scientists to creative artists, while they ascribe a mere technical ability to the others. In Eiduson’s summary: «Many describe the great scientists as "artists”—and by this they always mean the theoreticians—and the others as "guys who are painting."»[9]


We can conclude the first point of our summary about the humanistic character of science. Science is humanistic because it is essentially a quest for the ideal. The ideal consists in the search for truth as an end in itself. To be sure, scientific workers may do science for many other reasons as well. This is the case because the scientist may share more or less fully in the genuine spirit of science as such. But such a spirit puts science firmly into the category of humanistic undertakings. To synthesize with Born: «The scientist’s urge to investigate, like the faith of the devout or the inspiration of the artist, is an expression of mankind’s longing for something fixed, something at rest in the universal whirl: God, Beauty, Truth. Truth is what the scientist aims at.»[10]

The ideal aspect cannot be dissociated from the conception of science without destroying science itself. This, clearly, is the prevailing conviction of the scientific community. As a further example, Heisenberg makes this point—at least by inference—when contrasting the situation of the present-day specialist with that of Kepler. Kepler enthusiastically thought of being able, some day, to master with his own mind the whole plan of creation. The modern scientist knows that things are far more complex. Nevertheless, Heisenberg concludes: «But the hope for a great interconnected whole which we can penetrate further and further remains the driving force of research for us too.»[11]


Personal involvement

According to the testimony of scientists there is a second main reason why science deserves to be called a humanistic undertaking. It is the sense of total personal involvement with which science inspires its practitioners.

There is no need at this point to insist further on science as an experience of the whole person. However, it may be useful to recall this as a very important datum. For the general tendency to see science as a merely intellectual endeavor is much too widespread to be easily conquered. Eiduson expresses the situation synthetically as follows: «The phrase “emotional investment” may not suggest the intense nature of intellectual experiences. These activities are described by such adjectives as “thrilling,” “intimate,” “completely possessing”; and the long hours, the dedication, the slavish devotion—which are part of what LaFarge has called the “emotions of science”—are only the external manifestations of the almost inexpressible affective content.»[12]

In the light of the preceding it is clear why practicing scientists insist so much on imagination and feeling.According to Heisenberg, for instance, it is a mistake to suppose that all that matters in science is logical thinking and intellectual understanding. In point of fact, he maintains: «imagination plays a decisive role in the realm of natural science.»[13] The reason, according to him, is experiential. Experience shows that one can arrive at the cognitive synthesis which marks successful science only by sensing rather than thinking one’s way into phenomena. In his own words: «For, even though much experimental work is necessary, sober and accurate, in order to arrive at collecting the evidence—the synthetical organization (Zusammenordnen) of the evidence itself succeeds only when one is able to sense rather than to think one’s way into the phenomena.»[14]


One important aspect of the emotional involvement typical of science is the awareness of a personal call. The call is felt in the form of a powerful, pervasive inclination to dedicate oneself to science. It can be defined with Louis de Broglie as a «mysterious attraction acting on certain men [that] urges them to dedicate their time and labors to works from which they themselves hardly profit.»[15] What attracts scientific man can, with Kepler, be named forma mundi. By this term he meant the orderliness and harmony, the intelligibility and beauty that science seeks in nature and by means of which nature reveals itself to man as a meaningful totality.[16] The call to do science reaches so deep in the personality of the scientist that it can also be designated with the term “vocation.” The sign of genuine vocation is that a person cannot think of any other pursuits as capable of justifying his own existence. But this seems precisely to be the conviction of the scientists who strive after the purity of science. They have the impression that nothing but a total dedication to research can give significance to their lives. A telling testimony in this regard is that of James Franck reporting about his own experience and that of his contemporaries at the turn of this century. «Everyone who went into physics at that time went into physics because he had to. He couldn’t help himself. He had to. There was no attraction to go … There was no industrial position for a physicist … So whoever went to study physics went because he felt he could not be happy in any other way.»[17]

Still another aspect characterizes the sense of total personal involvement typical of science. It is the experience of science as consisting essentially in a wholehearted response. As an example, Heisenberg—in private conversation—likes to explain the situation by means of a comparison. According to him, it is not true that the creative scientist is a kind of superman who boldly takes the initiative toward unheard-of discoveries. Rather, he contends, the creative scientist is just a person “who has a more sensitive ear and listens more attentively than the average.” This comparison is illuminating because it is borne out by the psychological investigation of productive or creative thinking. Wertheimer speaks of “a human attitude,” which is “willingness to face issues, to deal with them frankly, honestly, and sincerely.”[18] Erich Fromm summarizes this aspect by stressing that it is essentially an attitude of one who cares and responds. In his own words: «The object is not experienced as something dead and divorced from oneself and one's life, as something about which one thinks only in self-isolated fashion; on the contrary, the subject is intensely interested m his object, and the more intimate this relation is, the more fruitful is his thinking in the first place […]. In the process of productive thinkingthe thinker is motivated by his interest for the object; he is affected by it and reacts to it; he cares and responds.»[19]


A Labor of Love

The third reason why science should be called humanistic is but the consequence of the two preceding ones. We have seen that science is a quest for an ideal that involves the total personality of its practitioners. We can now add that science, if pursued consistently with its spirit, is a manifestation of love.


Several features manifest science as a loving enterprise. The most typical one is passionate dedication. As Einstein put it: «There exists a passion for comprehension, just as there exists a passion for music. … Without this passion, there would be neither mathematics nor natural science.»[20] But this passion is not something that is merely inborn. It is, rather, something that man must foster to the best of his abilities. Pavlov’s words to the academic youth of his country state it aptly: «Remember that science demands from a man all his life. If you had two lives that would be not enough for you. Be passionate in your work and your searchings.»[21]

Two other traits are common to science and love. One is dignified engagement—the form of service that is the exact opposite of any slavish attitude. Wertheimer, for instance, stresses that the creative thinker is inspired by «a desire for improvement, in contrast with arbitrary, willful, or slavish attitudes.»[22] This frame of mind can be designated also as a “cold enthusiasm for truth.” The expression was used by the great anthropologist Franz Boas to explain the motivation animating the famous physiologist Rudolf Virchow.[23] Another trait common to science and love is concerned respectfulness. Science is animated by great respect for the reality it is investigating. This is the essential reason that science itself is so insistent on objectivity. In Fromm’s summary: «Objectivity does not mean detachment; it means respect; that is, the ability not to distort and to falsify things, persons, and oneself.»[24]

In the light of the preceding, it is clear why we can speak of science as a labor of love without indulging in emotional exaggeration. The reason is obvious: it is the experiential similarity of love and science. Love, authentic and sincere, is not subjective partiality nor instinctive hunger for self-satisfaction. The true lover is not the person who picks and chooses what he likes in other beings to the end of gratifying himself. On the contrary, he is the person who welcomes the other in his otherness, rejoices at his uniqueness and concreteness, and seeks to enter more and more into respectful personal relationship with him. True love, in short, is essentially a matter of admiration, self-dedication, and communion. But the spirit of genuine science fits this phenomenological description of love remarkably well. For science is an expression of total openness toward observable reality. It is active responsiveness toward any manifestation of intelligibility that comes from nature. It is a responsiveness that sets no bounds to its own involvement. Above all, it is concerned respectfulness that aims at nothing but seeing reality as it is. In fine, science is love because it enables man to establish a relationship of personal communion with nature and with nature’s own ultimate source of meaning.

The experience of love is what keeps the scientist going. His life is unavoidably hard. Often, it is also socially misunderstood and unrewarded. Love is the only key to understanding why the scientist feels enraptured with science.

[1] J. Rostand, The Substance of Man, trans. I. Brandeis (New York: Doubleday, 1962), p. 273.
[2] M. Born, The Restless Universe, trans. W. M. Deans (New York: Dover, 1951), p. 297.
[3] M. Born, Experiment and Theory in Physics (New York: Dover, 1956), p. 44.
[4] B.T. Eiduson, Scientists: Their Psychological World (New York: Basic Books, 1962), p. 153.
[5] M. Wertheimer, Productive Thinking (London: Social Science Paperbacks, 1966), p. 236.
[6] The quotations by Einstein cited in the text are from A. Einstein, Ideas and Opinions, trans. S. Bargmann (New York: Crown, 1954) pp. 224f.
[7] P. W. Bridgman, Reflections of a Physicist (New York: Philosophical Library, 1955), p. 351.
[8] B.T. Eiduson, Scientists: Their Psychological World, pp. 178f.
[9] Ibidem, p. 139; cf. pp. 158 and 179.
[10] M. Born, The Restless Universe, p. 278.
[11] W. Heisenberg, Philosophic Problems of Nuclear Science, trans. F.C. Hayes (London: Faber, 1952), p. 94.
[12] B.T. Eiduson, Scientists: Their Psychological World, p. 89.
[13] Translated from W. Heisenberg, Der Teil und das Ganze: Gesprache im Utnkreis der Atomphysik (Munich: Piper, 1969), p. 254.
[14] Ibidem.
[15] L. de Broglie, Physics and Microphysics, trans. M. Davidson (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1966), p. 207.
[16] For details see M. Caspar, Kepler, trans. C. D. Heilman (London: Abelard - Schuman, 1959), pp. 376f.
[17] T.S. Kuhn, J.L. Heilbron, P. Forman, L. Allen, eds., Sources for History of Quantum Physics, American Philosophical Society; interview with J. Franck, July 7, 1962, p. 7.
[18] Cf. M. Wertheimer, Productive Thinking, p. 179.
[19] E. Fromm, Man for Himself: An Inquiry into the Psychology of Ethics (Greenwich, Conn.: Fawcett, 1968), pp. 109f.
[20] A. Einstein, Ideas and Opinions, p. 342.
[21] I. P. Pavlov, “Bequest to the Academic Youth of His Country,” in A.V. Hill, The Ethical Dilemma of Science and Other Writings (New York: Rockefeller University Press, 1960), pp. 163f.
[22] M. Wertheimer, Productive Thinking, p. 243.
[23] Quoted in M. Harris, The Rise of Anthropological Theory. A History of Theories of Culture (New York: Crowell, 1968), pp. 257f.
[24] E. Fromm, Man for Himself: An Inquiry into the Psychology of Ethics, p. 111.

E. Cantore, Scientific Man (New York: ISH Publications, 1977), pp. 133-144.