Galileo one day observed the swinging of the great candelabra in the cathedral of Pisa. His reflections on that movement led to his discovery of the law of pendular motion.
Newton one day observed the fall of an apple. It was this observation (according to Voltaire) that led to Newton’s discovery of the law of gravity.
All science is discovery. And the glory of the scientific method is that, shunning a priori assumptions, it insists on observing and learning from things as they are. The true scientist tries never to impose his expectations on objective reality.
That everyone has expectations, and that these expectations do sometimes impose themselves, unsuspected, on even the work of scientists, should go without saying. Einstein and Sir Arthur Stanley Eddington, both great physicists, were in disagreement on some obscure point of science. Einstein settled the matter by declaring that it was, after all, “only a matter of taste.”
Scientists are human. We should not be dismayed if sometimes we even find them out there in the pit of competition, slugging away with the best.
What is dismaying is the widespread assumption that, if one can only train oneself to adopt a completely scientific outlook, he will rise altogether above human feeling, and that, in his cold objectivity, he will achieve superior understanding — as though, in that unfeeling state, he could become some kind of intellectual superman. According to this view, human nature is an obstacle, not an aid, to understanding.
It is no accident that so many fictional glimpses into the future portray a world stripped of such “superficial nonsense” as beauty, kindness, happiness, and — probably the first of all to go — humor. Science fiction, a prime example of this genre of literature, can be depressingly sterile. The earth hundreds of years from now is envisioned as a place without trees (at least, none are mentioned), without grass and streams and singing birds; a place where science has finally collared Nature and made her sit down and behave herself. We are offered a supposedly ideal world of steel and new, ultra-strong plastics, of efficient laboratories and smoothly functioning machines — including altogether machinelike human beings.
A famous psychology professor made a practice of telling his first-year students, “If anyone here thinks he has a soul, please park it outside the classroom before entering.” (This cute remark of course won him the smug titters he was fishing for.) What he was actually telling his students was, in effect, “We’re going to approach our subject with intellectual objectivity — scientifically, and without any human pretensions.” And what he achieved was another shovelful of dirt onto the coffin of Keats’s famous dictum — passé, alas, nowadays—“Truth is beauty; beauty, truth.”
For what the “good” professor was also saying was, To be scientific, we psychologists have a duty to view human nature as the physicist views matter — as a thing, merely: a collection of molecules, conscious only because matter, in the long, meandering process of evolution, happened to produce a brain.
In this view of human nature, it is of course absurd to postulate a soul.
In such a case, however, it is equally absurd to suppose ideals, to encourage fantasy, to reach upward toward anything at all. This view encourages us to remain satisfied with reaching down toward the merely “gut-level” satisfactions of instinctual, animal desires.
Sri Radhakrishnan, formerly the vice president of India, said during the conversation I once had with him, “A nation is known by the men and women it looks up to as great.” In light of his remark, rich in the simplicity of wisdom, does it not seem at times as though the model we are being offered today of the ideal human being were something akin to a robot?
In how many modern novels do we find the hero described as smoothly efficient, unemotional, finely tooled physically and mentally — indeed, machinelike. For these qualities we are expected — not to like him, perhaps (that would be asking too much), but at any rate to admire him.
When intellectuality is not balanced with feelings, it can produce a Hamlet complex, thereby paralyzing action. Too many professors, with the claim of objectivity, betray their bias against commitment of any kind. How different they are in this respect from the truly great scientists of our age.
Einstein claimed that the essence of scientific inquiry is a sense of mystical awe before the wonders of the universe. Great scientists generally, like most great human beings, are dreamers as well as people of action. And they are committed to their dreams — their vision, if you will. One thinks here of Edison testing 43,000 filaments before finding one that would work in an incandescent light bulb. His assistants, after some 20,000 experiments, pleaded with him to abandon the quest. Imagine such extraordinary commitment to what seemed to everyone else an impossible dream!
And how different the great scientist, in this respect, from the average pedagogue, who represents the scientist’s discoveries in the classroom! More or less forgotten, by the time the scientist’s life and findings are included in textbooks, is his enthusiasm, his total commitment to his subject.
It seems likely that the pedagogues, fearful as they are of intellectual commitment, are partly responsible for the frozen image so many people hold nowadays of the ideal human being. Our school system breeds preoccupation with mere things, and with abstract ideas, while fostering indifference to values that are more closely human.
Psychology itself, however, tells us that human feelings cannot be suppressed. Ignore a person’s emotional life instead of trying to develop it along constructive lines, and those emotions will simply find other, and often destructive, outlets for self-expression.
Unfortunately, psychologists have also encouraged the unbridled expression of emotions as a means of ridding oneself of them. They don’t discuss how to refine the emotions. Emotions themselves are viewed merely as obstacles to understanding. Thus, people have been led to believe that the way to find release from their feelings is to give them free rein.
Consider television — that mirror of public attitudes and opinions. One has only to turn on the television set to be confronted (within a few minutes) with examples of almost embarrassing immaturity. Screams of anger, gratuitous insults, kicks and fisticuffs, a refusal to listen to the simplest common sense, even shooting at others — such behavior is presented as perfectly normal. Selfish indifference to the needs of others is taken quite for granted. No suggestion is offered that calm, refined feelings are the true norm for mature human behavior, and that disturbed emotions are an aberration of that norm; that, although the emotions can distort a person’s perceptions of reality, refined emotions, in the form of pure feeling, can clarify those perceptions. The intellect is one of the tools provided by Nature for accessing her secrets. Feeling, however, when calm, is the other tool. Of the two, feeling is the more important.
The West, in its scientific achievements, has much to be proud of. After a life of traveling around the world, however, I wonder whether Western civilization isn’t also producing people of stunted psychological and spiritual development.
I am reminded of an answer given by Mahatma Gandhi to the question, “What do you think of Western civilization?” With a wry smile he replied, “I think it would be a good idea!”
Science has provided an important key to the advancement of knowledge by insisting that no belief system be imposed on our perceptions of objective Nature. Nothing in this scientific approach need limit us to material research alone. We must listen, rather, to whatever Nature has to tell us, going beyond belief even in matters of spiritual development, and strive always to harmonize ourselves with whatever is.
Science has taught us to learn from Nature. Why not, then, seek to learn from human nature, and also from divine nature?
This process may not be rightly the task of our school system any more than scientific discoveries themselves are expected in the classrooms. The purpose of schooling is to pass on to students what has been learned already in the great school of life. Much has been learned already, however, about human and divine nature through the millennia. Many discoveries have been made also regarding the search for true fulfillment in life. A good start in the schools, then, would be to include among the subjects covered in the classroom an intelligent study of these findings.
The need, moreover, is to approach these findings with the same objectivity that true science has shown — not cold, intellectual objectivity, merely, but the objectivity also of calm feeling.
From life only can lessons be drawn that have repeatedly, in the past, shown human beings the ways to better living.