Science Fiction Project
Analog - All editorials
* * Back * *

THE SCIENTIST - John Wood Campbell

The philosophy of the true scientist is one of the few things he does not, ordinarily, express clearly; this is, in part, because he, of all men, considers human opinions of little import in the scheme of things, and a philosophy appears to be simply a system of human opinions. He's wrong in that to some degree; a philosophy is a theory of the relationships of the Universe, actually - and it is important to state theories clearly, communicate them, and cross-check them with the observations of others.
But because his personal philosophy is so personal, he seldom defines it clearly for others to investigate and consider. Perhaps it would be worth while seeking to find a definition - a clear statement - of the scientist's philosophy. Many of the fine scientists I know and have known appear to me to act on a system of beliefs somewhat like this:
They believe in the existence of a Supreme Authority in the Universe, an Authority they call "Natural Law". They hold that that Authority is above and beyond the opinions and beliefs, the will or willfulness, of any human being. That that Authority can, moreover, be directly consulted by any man, at any time - and that every man is, at every time and in every place, directly and specifically obedient to that Authority, to Natural Law, whether he recognizes that fact or not.
They believe that the highest task of Man is to seek to understand more fully the nature of the Laws of the Universe.
That the highest good of Man is achieved by understanding and working with those Laws, and not by seeking to defy them.
That the system of laws is absolutely inescapable, but that any individual law can be offset by proper use of others of the total system of laws. That Natural Law is like an equation having many terms; the total equation must always be in balance, but that any one factor on one side may be altered at will by accepting appropriate alteration of factors on the other side of the equation.
That Man thus has free choice with respect to any situation - but he cannot rationally speak of having free choice as to whether he will or will not obey the total system of the Laws of the Universe.
The scientist believes that he has made a mistake any time his actions lead to results he did not predict - and that it is sublimely futile to say that the Universe is wrong, or unjust, or irrational.
Since only total knowledge of everything in the total Universe could make possible accurate prediction of all the results of any action, the scientist is necessarily an humble man; he knows he must make mistakes.
But the scientist is also a proud man; he is proud of his willingness to learn, to give up his dearest conviction in the face of a new learning.
The scientist seeks to state his beliefs in the clearest, most unequivocal form he can achieve; thus he can more quickly detect and correct errors in his ideas as to what he thinks the Laws are, and what those Laws actually are.
The scientist seeks to communicate his ideas to other men of high ability and knowledge equal to his own; if he cannot communicate his idea to them, he knows he has not adequately clarified his statements, or has made some error in his development of his idea. He has made a mistake; it is futile to hold the other man at fault. This he learns early, for it is a simple extension of the concept of the futility of blaming the Universe when his experiment goes in a direction other than he predicted. Other people are, clearly, part of any individual scientist's external Universe.
The scientist likes to work with machines. A machine is a structure which has no beliefs, no biases, no willingness to be friendly nor any desire to be inimical, for it has no desires. It's utterly honest, granting no favors and refusing no earned reward. A man can fool himself; he can even fool his friends and, sometimes, his enemies. A machine is honest to a fault.
A machine invariably does precisely what you have "told" it to do; if your instructions - i. e., your design - are not clear, the machine does not function as predicted. If it doesn't, the fault is yours - you gave the instructions. Designing and building any type of machine is a powerful lesson in humility and, equally, in self-respect. If it works, you know precisely why it does; if it doesn't, you may not know why, but you must, inescapably, acknowledge an error, for the machine will not function until you do acknowledge that you have made an error, and both seek and find that error.
The true scientist is an humble man in another respect; he acknowledges that the Laws of the Universe apply in full to himself; that they limit him as well as others, and will equally help him as well as any other.
He is also a courageous man; he is willing to submit his tender and beloved beliefs to the harsh test of practice and experiment, well knowing that most of the time the experiment will prove him wrong and force him to rebuild, laboriously, the structure of belief he so recently completed.
To the non-scientist he seems very strange. The scientist looks at the Ptolmaic theory of the Universe, and the modern concept of the Cosmos, and says: "They are not very different; each yields the same predicted observations to the first decimal point". His understanding completely confuses the non-scientist, for the scientist holds that facts are very deceptive, yet also holds that all understanding must be based on fact. How can this be?
It's very confusing to the non-scientist to have an electrical engineer and a mechanical engineer get together and say that an automobile transmission gear shift is essentially the same thing as a multi-tapped transformer.
The resultant attitude the scientist shows toward his theories - the way he abandons one and shifts over to "an entirely different" one - makes him seem somehow intellectually dishonest, untrustworthy and unreliable to the non-scientist who cannot see the fundamental similarity of the theories. How can a man honestly say that an automobile gear shift is the same thing as a multi-tapped transformer? Only by recognizing that each is an impedance matching device, that each is a modification and application of the basic principle of the lever. The scientist seeks the Basic Laws, and is not afraid to find that they apply to him - for he knows that they always have applied to him, and always will, whether he acknowledges them or not. The Law of Action and Reaction applied to Ug, the Caveman; it was Ug's ignorance of them that got him into trouble, for the Law applied whether he knew or not, whether he so willed or not. A Man-made law can seek to limit a human's freedom; the non-scientist many times confuses Man-made law and its effects with Man-discovered law and the results of that discovery. It was not Newton's discovery of the Law of Gravity that kept men from flying - it was the existence of the Law that did that. But it was Newton's discovery of the Law, plus the Wright's application of certain laws of aerodynamics, that finally led to Man's flight.
When Ug, the Caveman, caught a small boulder thrown at him, and staggered backward under the impact, he attributed the effect to the stone. This was a misattribution of effect; the effect was assigned to the wrong cause. The stone, which he could see and which had palpable existence, was obvious; the momentum never existed apart from the stone, and was not obvious - until Newton recognized it.
The scientist seeks to achieve a correct attribution of cause and effect; in doing so he invents nothing, generates no new laws, imposes no new limits on humanity. Knowing this, he is not averse to accepting that he is, was, and always will be ruled by the Laws of the Universe.
Characteristically, many human beings lack the willingness to accept that they obey laws they do not know exist. In the field of personality and human relations, for instance, there is a deep rebellion against the idea that there are laws which apply. In that area, then, there are very few true scientists in the sense of individuals willing to acknowledge freely that they are bound by and controlled by Universal Laws they do not know exist.
But one of the most difficult tasks any physical scientist can try is that of defining in what way his basic philosophy differs from that of the sincere, self-searching moral philosopher, with his deep belief in God as the Supreme Authority, and the Giver of Universal Law. Perhaps it is, essentially, that the physical scientist says, in effect, "I have proven beyond doubt that there is Universal Law; I am not yet wise enough to know the nature of its source" while the moral philosopher insists that he knows the Source.
It might help the integration of the physical, social and moral philosophical sciences, however, if each group could state in clearly communicable terms the essence of their beliefs. And this in turn would, surely, help in the integration of our vastly increasing physical competence with our laggard social engineering competence.

December 1953