Modern Science and Its Philosophy

Philipp Frank


science teaching and the humanities

1. Special Field and General Education

THERE is a widespread belief that the rising contempt for tolerance and peace is somehow related to the rising influence of scientific thought and the declining influence of ethics, religion and art as guides of human actions. This contention is, of course, debatable. There is hardly a doubt that the causes of war can be traced back quite frequently to religious or quasi‑religious creeds and very rarely to the doctrines of science. The humanities, including religion and ethics, have been for centuries the basis of education and the result has been, conservatively speaking, no decline in the ferocity of men. The scientists have never had a chance to shape the minds of several generations. Therefore, it would be more just to attribute the failure of our institutions to educate a peace‑loving generation to the failure of ethical and religious leaders than to impute the responsibility to the scientists.

I do not think, however, that it makes much sense to discuss the share of responsibility. For I agree wholeheartedly with the critics of science in the belief that the training of generations of scientists in mere science, without making them familiar with the world of human behavior, would be harmful to the cause of civilization. Whether we like it or not, scientists will participate more and more in the leadership of society in the future. Also there is hardly a doubt by now that the contribution of the scientists to our political life has been more on the side of peace and tolerance than have the contributions of the students of law or government, or, for that matter, of philosophy proper.

In order to make this attitude of our leading scientists a habit among the rank and file, it is important to imbue the future worker in science with an interest in human problems during his training period. Since for this purpose it is futile to argue for the supremacy of humanistic education over science education, the debate "science versus humanities" or vice versa is, of course, without point here. But it is also of little avail to compel the student of science to take some courses in the departments of humanities. According to the record of all the people I know, the mentality of the average science student is such that he will not sufficiently appreciate these courses, and therefore will not assimilate them well. What we actually need is to bridge the gap between science and the humanities which has opened and widened more and more during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. According to my opinion, this can be done only by starting from the human values which are intrinsic in science itself. The instruction in science must emphasize these values and convince the science students that interest in humanities is the natural result of a thorough interest in science.

In this way the science teacher will be giving his support to the whole cause of general education as well as to his specialized teaching of science.

Everyone who has ever tried to raise his voice for the cause of general education among the faculty members of a university has been running almost regularly against one very definite objection: whatever of their time the students have to spend in classes on general education they have to subtract from the time they devote to specialized work in their own scientific field. As this field is, in any case, so vast that it cannot be covered during their stay in college, it would be almost a crime to curtail this short and valuable time. This attitude is particularly strong among the teachers of science proper.

I am going to discuss the issue "special field versus general education" mainly from the viewpoint of science students. However, I am sure that the general picture will be about the same in any other field of study, in languages, in history, and so on.

Even the departments of philosophy have kept to a policy of isolationism. Instead of working toward a synthesis of human knowledge, they have proposed a kind of truce between science and philosophy. In my opinion, this gap is greatly responsible for the rift in our general education, or, exactly speaking, the gap between science and philosophy is the most conspicuous part of the gap between science and the humanities—and hence the gap between science and the realm of human behavior in general.

This gap is perhaps nowhere so clear‑cut and conspicuous as in the domain of physical science. Therefore, the battle for the renewal of liberal education will not be won without a willing and intensive cooperation of workers in the physical sciences. On the other hand, if we want the students of the humanities to go in gladly for general education which requires them to take in quite a few helpings of science, we must convince them that by learning science they will also advance toward a better understanding of human behavior.

I am going, first, to describe the harm that the rift between science and philosophy has done to both of these fields and to the cause of liberal education in general. Second, I am going to make some suggestions as to how this rift can be repaired by removing the causes through which philosophy and science have been estranged.

2. Philosophic Interest in Physics

There is no doubt that the public interest in the physical sciences is primarily due to their technical applications: television, radar, the atomic bomb. When Copernicus suggested that the motion of the celestial bodies be described with respect to the sun rather than with respect to the earth, this suggestion was quite irrelevant for any technical purpose. Yet the public interest and the heat of the debates were certainly greater in this than in the case of any new technical device. But we need not go back several centuries for examples, since we ourselves have been witnesses of the "relativity boom" which arose when Einstein advanced his new theory of motion and light. Although this theory seemed at that time very far from any technical application, the public interest was in some cases rather hysterical, and there are examples of people who were almost killed in an attempt to get into an overcrowded lecture room where Einstein in person tried to put over relativity to his audience. There is also no doubt that the philosophic and even religious implications of such general physical doctrines account for the fact that quite a few clergymen have been eager to make use of relativity in their sermons. In order to appreciate this situation correctly, we must not forget that Newton, during and after his lifetime, was a popular topic of parlor conversation and that many books popularizing Newton were published, some of them especially designed for "the use of the ladies."

Nowadays we find, not infrequently, books and magazine articles written by clergymen, philosophers, or, for that matter, by scientists, in which the theories of modern physics (relativity and quantum theory) are recommended for their philosophic or religious benefits. We learn from these papers that twentieth-century physics has restored the place of mind in the universe, that it has reconciled science with religion, and that the tide of materialism characteristic of eighteenth‑ and nineteenth‑century science has definitely been broken in the twentieth century. As "materialism" has always been connected with some political and social systems, these authors conclude that the new physics means also a defeat of all political systems based on materialism, by which they mean, according to their personal bias, Communism or, occasionally, Nazism (racism).

There is no doubt that the correlation between physics and philosophy has been largely responsible for the great interest in twentieth-century physics of wide sections of the general public. The intelligent reader who follows the trend of contemporary thought in books and magazines, who listens to popular lectures of scientists, preachers, philosophers and global politicians, would often have a greater interest in the general ideas of twentieth‑century physics than an average student of physics who specializes, say, in radar. Even after graduation, a student of physics usually knows very little about the relation between physics and philosophy, let alone between physics and human behavior. He is generally less trained than the educated layman in forming a well­balanced judgment on such problems as are daily discussed in magazines and lectures about the influence of modern physics on human affairs. If a student in high school or, for that matter, in most colleges, asks his physics teacher for information about problems of this kind, he will hardly get a satisfactory answer. The information, if any, will mostly be perfunctory and evasive. Therefore, the graduates in physics will rarely be able to advise the general public on questions which this public regards as relevant for their general outlook on man and the universe.

This failure of the learned physicist will not stifle the public interest. The thirst for knowledge which is not quenched by the scientists will be assuaged by people who are ignorant in science but know how to give answers that flatter the wishes of the majority of people. Thus the longing for knowledge of large sections of the public will become grist for the mills of some organized propaganda groups.

The textbooks of physics mostly claim to stick to the facts and to exclude "idle philosophic talk." But actually, they formulate the general laws of nature often in such a way that no physical facts whatsoever can be logically derived from these laws. This means that they really formulate not physical but purely metaphysical laws.

Thus, the physical sciences provide very good examples from which students can learn that the expression "sticking to the facts only" is frequently used as a pretext for avoiding all logical analysis, and therefore for favoring all kinds of obsolete prejudices. What one should reasonably mean by "sticking to the facts only" is to make only statements that can be checked by experience, that is, by observable facts. This habit is certainly of great use in debunking empty slogans and bigotry in politics or religion.

As "sticking to the facts" is the slogan of traditional physics teaching, "ignoring the facts" is a slogan cultivated in the traditional teaching of mathematics. Both these slogans are logically legitimate within a restricted domain of thought. However, on occasion, the students have to learn the limitations of these slogans; otherwise, the meaning of the most important laws of nature cannot be made clear to them, and the very goal of general education on the basis of science would be frustrated.

3. Chance Philosophies

Without an understanding of the tie‑in between mathematics and physics, the student misses the best opportunity of grasping the most important trait of human knowledge: the relation between sense observation and logical thinking. If this bridge between the fields is not built by a thorough analysis of the empirical and logical procedure in science, that is, by a systematic philosophy of science, the necessity for it is so overwhelming that it will be built anyway. This will be done mainly by some obsolete but popular philosophy which will replace the thoroughly logical analysis of science. It is noteworthy that, in practice, crude empiricism in science, without critical analysis, has often made possible the flourishing of crude metaphysical systems.

Quite a few great thinkers who belonged to very divergent schools of thought have been unanimous on one point: if a scientist believes that he has no philosophy and keeps tightly to his special field he will really become an adherent of some "chance philosophy," as A. N. Whitehead puts it. This great contemporary metaphysician with a solid scientific background assures us that for a scientist deliberately to neglect philosophy

is to assume the correctness of the chance philosophic prejudices imbibed from a nurse or a schoolmaster or current modes of expression.

We find complete agreement with this opinion in a statement of Ernst Mach, a philosopher and eminent scientist who was the most radical enemy of all kinds of metaphysics. He says, about obsolete doctrines of philosophers, that they "have survived, occasionally, much longer within science where they did not meet such an attentive criticism. As a species of animals which has been badly adjusted to the struggle of life has survived sometimes on a remote island where there have been no enemies, obsolete philosophy has survived within the borders of science."

As a third and again very different type of thinker we may quote Friedrich Engels, the lifelong collaborator of Karl Marx, who was particularly interested in the consequences of obsolete philosophy in social and political life. He says:

Natural scientists may adopt whatever attitude they please, they will still be under the domination of philosophy. It is only a question whether they want to be dominated by a bad fashionable philosophy or by a form of theoretical thought which rests on acquaintance with the history of thought and its achievements. [1]

One thing seems to be certain: if we try to eliminate from, say, physics, all teaching of the philosophy of science, the result will be not a crop of scientifically minded physicists, but a flock of believers in some fashionable or obsolete chance philosophy.

Among science students, the students of engineering are those who get traditionally the worst training in philosophic analysis. They often absorb science, stripped of its logical structure, as a mere collection of useful recipes. Is it only a coincidence that the students of engineering have on the whole been more impressed by empty political slogans (like Fascism) than the students of "pure" science? There is no doubt that general slogans play a role in politics similar to the role that general principles play in science. If someone is trained to understand to what degree general principles like conservation of energy or relativity are based on confirmable facts and how far on arbitrariness and imagination, be is more immune to the political slogans of demagogues than a student who has been trained only to record his immediate experience and to regard the general laws as gifts dropped from heaven for helping him to bring some order into his record sheet.

Practically, the separation between science and philosophy can be kept up strictly only during a period in which no essential changes in the principles of science take place. In a period of revolutionary changes the walls of separation break down. In Whitehead's statement quoted above, he makes particularly the point that the lack of philosophy of physics among the physicists may be harmless in a time of stability, but during a period of reformation of ideas this lack will lead unavoidably to the chance philosophy of which we spoke. Our own age, with the rise of relativity theory and quantum theory, is an obvious example. These new fields have actually become, not only for the layman but also for the physicist of average training, a kind of mystery.

Different methods have been used by physics teachers to dodge the issue of giving to their students a coherent picture of the laws of nature. The simplest thing to do is to stick as closely as possible to the description of physical devices and the presentation of mathematical computations. This way of teaching has given the nonphysicist the impression that the science of physics, which has been, historically, the spearhead of enlightenment, has become in some cases a source of obscurantism. Quite frequently physics has actually been used to attack belief in human reason and to bolster belief in irrational sources of truth. This misuse had its basis certainly in the failure of many books and instructors to give a logically consistent interpretation of the physical meaning of the formulas that express the most general laws.

4. “Professional Philosophy"

Besides the departments of the special sciences there is in most colleges a department of philosophy, which is to counteract the extreme specialization. It is devoted to the task of investigating the foundations that are common to all the special sciences. According to our previous argument, the average instruction in the special sciences has not achieved the goal of giving to the student an understanding of the place of his science in the whole of human knowledge and human life. Let us now inquire how the average instruction in philosophy has done the job which has been ignored by the instruction in the special sciences. As a matter of fact, philosophy (as taught in most departments of philosophy) has become a special science itself which is more separated from mathematics, physics, or biology, than these branches are separated among themselves. The width of the gap that has separated science from philosophy became noticeable when the rise of completely new theories like the theory of relativity produced a confused situation among the scientists. The contribution of the philosophers trained in their special field toward a clarification of the new concepts and their integration into the whole system of our knowledge has been all but negligible. The students of philosophy trained in the traditional way have mostly studied the theory of relativity and quantum theory from superficial popularizations which were written by "physicists" who, in turn, had no training whatsoever in the logical analysis and philosophy of science. Therefore, their popular writing is imbued with their "chance philosophy" which they have picked up somehow. Concepts like space, time, causality are used according to these "chance philosophies." In this way, again, their own traditional and sometimes obsolete philosophy has been returned to the philosophers in the disguise of the gospel of "science."

To form an estimate of the width and the depth of the abyss which we have mentioned again and again, we have only to make an attempt to locate a philosopher who has a "clear and distinct idea" of, say, the real issue in the old conflict between Copernicus and the Roman Church, let alone of the conflict between the Newtonians and Einstein. We would find very few. But it seems obvious that nobody can grasp the philosophic meaning of an issue in the history of human thought if he does not understand the issue itself—and by "understand," I mean "thoroughly understand."

Among philosophers the apology is current that it is just impossible for them to have an exact insight into a scientific issue because the sciences have become, in our time, so highly specialized that only the specialist can have a thorough understanding. But if this is so, how again can one have a philosophic judgment about an issue that one understands only superficially because the matter is too complicated? In this situation a great many philosophers have chosen to establish as their redoubt a special field of philosophy outside the field of science. To master this field one supposedly needs only an acquaintance with the prescientific knowledge that is familiar to the man in the street. According to this program of action, the philosopher investigates the concepts and beliefs that are the logical basis from which the experience of our everyday life can be derived. On this level we make free use of words like "time," "space," "existence of external objects," in the sense in which the man in the street uses these expressions. The special sciences like mathematics, physics, biology, as isolated branches of knowledge, are taken for granted and the policy of nonintervention is upheld. These recognized special sciences have been born somehow. They thrive happily without bothering about philosophic analysis. The philosopher wants them to be happy in their innocence and not to intrude into his "living space," which is located between and above and below the domain of these isolated special sciences.

Actually, these autonomous sciences exist only in the oversimplified scheme set up by a large group of philosophers. The domain between mathematics, physics, biology, history, is exactly of the same stuff and has exactly the same logical structure as the domain within physics or within mathematics. The borderlines between the special sciences are drawn only for the sake of the division of labor and not for any profound philosophical reasons. The special fields of physics and chemistry were regarded for centuries as being of an essentially different nature, since physics has to do only with quantitative changes while chemistry inquires into qualitative or even substantial changes. Today we have between physics and chemistry two new special fields—physical chemistry and chemical physics—which replace the mysterious something that was supposed to be the philosophic link between physics and chemistry.

The schools of thought that have advocated the separation of philosophy from science have certainly tended to cooperate in the integration of the sciences, but they perform this job by using as binding material some prescientific stuff, while we learn from our last example that the binding material between the special sciences is itself a full-fledged science. But another school of thought, which claims to be very up‑to‑date, takes an attitude that we may call an attitude of defeatism. It leaves the special sciences untouched and autonomous. But according to this school, philosophy does not even attempt to fill the gaps between these special sciences but plans to build up a completely separated stratum of knowledge "beyond science." This "knowledge" is claimed to be completely independent of any advance of science proper, for it is based only on the prescientific experience of mankind.

We may distinguish two groups within this school. Both insist that when the scientist has done his job as thoroughly as he can, the philosopher's job begins. When, for example, the physical laws of motion are established by the scientist, the philosopher, says the first group, steps in and puts his particular questions. The scientist has formulated by his laws how motion takes place, what it is like, and so on. But the philosopher wants to know what motion is, with the emphasis on the "is." While the scientist explores the observable attribute of motion, the philosopher wants to find out the "being," the "essence," of motion. This essence of motion can be discovered on the basis of our prescientific knowledge about motion and cannot be affected by any further advance in our science of mechanics. To this group belongs the present‑day neo‑Thomist.

The second group starts also from the special sciences as having accomplished their job. But instead of looking for the "being" of things this group claims that these special sciences take some "presuppositions" for granted without investigation, such as the existence of material bodies, the law of causality, the law of induction. Then, they say, the philosopher has to step in and investigate whether these presuppositions are correct. When I hear this claim, I have sometimes the feeling that the shoe may be on the other foot. For quite frequently scientists investigate the presuppositions that philosophers have taken for granted without investigation. The founders of non‑Euclidean geometry, Gauss, Lobatchevski, and Bolyai, doubted the axioms of Euclidean geometry. Einstein doubted the axioms of Newtonian mechanics, while a great many philosophers believed in these axioms as eternal truths. Moreover, it is quite debatable whether "presuppositions" like the existence of material bodies really play any role in science and whether presuppositions that do play a substantial role can be investigated by any method which is not scientific itself. Whatever may be our final judgment about this investigation of presuppositions, the practical effect of this philosophic school is again the establishment of philosophy as a special science besides mathematics, physics, economics—and the perpetuation of a wide gap between science and the humanities in our educational system.

The role of philosophy as an integration of human knowledge is ignored, or, at least, neglected; consequently, the educational values intrinsic in mathematics or physics are not exploited. These special sciences are reduced to the status of useful knowledge without truth value while, on the other hand, "philosophy" becomes a type of discourse without contact with the advance of science and, therefore, without contact with the evolution of human intellect.

From these considerations, it seems obvious that the traditional teaching of philosophy may have contributed considerably toward sharpening the thinking of students and giving them a certain touch of sophistication, but has certainly made little contribution toward the synthesis of human knowledge which should be the chief goal of liberal education.

5. Neo‑Thomism and Dialectical Materialism

There is a suggestion which has been widely discussed during recent years—the idea of Robert M. Hutchins, Chancellor of the University of Chicago. The essential point of his thesis is that we have to base the integration of knowledge taught in our colleges on the last available synthesis in the history of thought, on a kind of "standard tradition." According to this group, the spokesman of which has been the philosopher Mortimer J. Adler, the last system in history that has really achieved a synthesis of science, ethics, politics, and religion is the philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas. His Summa Theologiae and his Summa Catholicae Fidei contra Gentiles present a coherent system in which, from the same set of principles, not only astronomy, psychology, ethics, and politics are derived logically, but also the behavior of the angels—for example, whether the speed of their flight is finite or infinite.

It seems, of course, debatable whether actually Thomism is the last coherent system that has attempted or achieved such a sweeping synthesis. Some people would, certainly, claim that the philosophy of dialectical materialism, which is the official basis of education in the Soviet Union, is also a set of principles from which are derived not only physical science but also the laws of history and sociology. just as well as Thomism this more recent system claims to give guidance not only in scientific research, but also in the question of what is a "good life."

The basic contention of Hutchins and his group is that a synthesis which may not be perfect is preferable to no coherent synthesis at all. There is no doubt that it is the chief asset of Thomism that such disparate subjects as astronomy and theology can be regarded as conclusions from one and the same set of principles. But disregarding theology, hardly anyone would claim that Thomism is a good system from which to derive an answer to the question whether the Newtonian or the Einsteinian mechanics is preferable.

In the same way, the chief asset of dialectical materialism is the fact that the laws of physics are derived from the same principles as the laws of human societies. We learn from the textbooks of dialectical materialism that, for instance, the law of the transition of a capitalistic society into a communistic one follows from the same principle as the transition of water into steam. Both are conclusions drawn from the dialectical principle that quantitative changes eventually become qualitative changes. But if we are not interested in the synthesis of physics and sociology into one set of principles, hardly anyone would claim that dialectical materialism is the best foundation of physical science—for example, the most helpful interpretation of the evaporation of liquids.

Dialectical materialism has, as a matter of fact, nowhere been chosen as a basis of education except in countries where the government has been committed to Marxist economic and political principles. In this case, there is clear advantage in having these principles linked up with the laws of physical science by a common set of principles. With the same right we can assume that Thomism is not commendable as a basis of education except where the government is committed to the political and religious doctrine of the Catholic Church. For it will enlist science by regarding science, politics and religion as derived from common principles.

There is, on the other hand, no doubt that in an education which emphasizes the integration of human knowledge, much more attention than usual should be given to the systems that historically have performed such an integration, however we may judge the actual political and religious way of life which is coherent with this system. The student should get a good and unbiased presentation of both Thomism and dialectical materialism as syntheses of human knowledge. But to make either of these systems the main or exclusive basis of education in the philosophy of science can be justified only if a particular political and religious indoctrination is intended.

6. Integration of Science and Philosophy

Before we can set up a constructive plan for bridging the gap between science and philosophy and, as a result, between science and the humanities, we have to remove the chief obstacles blocking the way toward this goal. As we have learned, the two principal obstacles are, first, the exaggerated belief of scientists in specialization which sometimes leads even to a prejudice against general ideas and, second, the recent tendency of the schools of philosophy to establish "philosophy" as a new special science, instead of working on the synthesis of knowledge.

The negative attitude of many scientists is based on their conviction that any trespassing beyond the limits of one's own field would lead to unavoidable superficiality. Therefore, the genuine scientist has to mind his own business and keep within the fences of his own department. There is, of course, a grain of truth in this argument of avoiding superficiality. However, it does give only one side of the picture, for the advance of science has revealed not only more and more complexities in science, but also more and more cross‑connections between the "isolated" special branches. By this fact it has become much easier than formerly for one man to grasp the findings of several special fields. We have only to consider the example of physics and chemistry.

If we want to get a sound judgment of how, despite the abundance of factual material, to acquire a thorough knowledge across departmental lines, we have to ask, for example, how some people have managed to become experts in a field like biophysics. They certainly did not do it by a thorough study of the whole of physics plus the whole of biology, for this cannot be achieved in one lifetime. Instead, they acquired a balanced survey knowledge in both fields, physics and biology, and tried to acquire a really thorough knowledge in those parts of physics and biology which are relevant for the interaction of the phenomena of life with physical phenomena. As a matter of fact, the behavior of the scientists who have worked within a traditional field like physics has not been different. An average physicist will survey first general physics and then obtain a detailed acquaintance with his special field within physics. If he wants to become a biophysicist his survey information has to be broader, but his field of special interest need not be larger than the special field of an ordinary physicist. Moreover, to be quite truthful, the average physicist learns some part of physics outside his special field only through popular generalizations. This is frequently true for the theory of relativity. The individual physicist is, of course, not to blame for this situation, for without using popularizations he would not be able to get any information about important fields of his science.

From these remarks it becomes obvious what must be the training of the "philosopher of science" if his goal is a synthesis of human knowledge. He has to acquire a survey knowledge of several sciences and a thorough and precise knowledge of those parts of each special field that are relevant for the relations across the borderlines and for the relation between science and human behavior.

Some people may object that a survey knowledge would not be sufficient, for one cannot know what part of science will be relevant for the purpose of philosophy before the integration has been actually achieved. There may be some truth in this argument, but it proves too much. For according to this argument, every physicist must have a thorough knowledge of the whole of physics; otherwise he cannot know what knowledge may be relevant for his special field of physics. Nothing can be done about it and he just has to take the risk in his training as a physicist. He will learn by and by to smell what is relevant and what is not. No greater effort is, in principle, required of the philosopher who wants to acquire a training in the philosophy of science. There is no doubt, however, that even a survey knowledge in the sciences will take so much of his time that he will not be able to get the training that a philosopher has to get if he goes into "philosophy as a special science."

But it may be sufficient for a student who specializes in the philosophy of science and wants to take his Ph.D. in philosophy to get along with a survey knowledge in the history of philosophy, without learning the details of all the opinions that have been uttered through two or three thousand years. Every philosopher of science should, of course, be familiar with the ideas of the great thinkers like Plato, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, Leibnitz, Descartes, Kant, Nietzsche. But it is perhaps sufficient if this special candidate becomes familiar with the language of these men and knows bow to locate their ideas within the great stream of the evolution of scientific thought. This would leave him time and, more important, the leisure to acquire a good survey of the physical and biological sciences. He would concentrate his effort on those parts of these sciences which are the most relevant for judging the borderline problems arising between the special sciences and between science and traditional philosophy. He would concentrate, for instance, in mathematics on problems like the "truth of non‑Euclidean geometry"; in mechanics on the role of "absolute motion"; and, in particular, on the ties between mathematics and physics, such as the distinction between mathematical and physical truth of geometric axioms. He would, of course, try to acquire a thorough understanding of Einstein's theory of relativity, of Heisenberg's principle of uncertainty, of Bohr's complementary concept of nature, and so on. In traditional philosophy he would try to understand the approaches of different schools to the question of what is the precise borderline between physics and philosophy. He would try to learn the answers of the great philosophers to questions like: What is the logical status of the general laws of nature? Are they a result of experience or of reason or of what? What are the roles of chance and of causality in the general laws of nature and in their application to observed phenomena?

Teachers of philosophy with a similar type of training could give to the students reliable information about the problems of the "philosophy of science" and of the "integration of sciences."

But then we are confronted by a further task. If we know even the problems, do we know also the solutions? What should we present to the student as the result of the integration of science? One should give him reliable guidance without providing him with a "chance philosophy" which may be either the result of an old and now obsolete tradition or just the fashion of a year and a certain social group.

There is no doubt that the integration of knowledge on the college level can be promoted among the students only by the use of philosophical and historical argument. However, the starting point has to be living science itself. Philosophical and historical discourse must emanate from this source. There are quite a few good reasons for this, but it may be sufficient to consider the practical reason that in no other way can philosophy and history be made palatable to the student of science, and he will fail to appreciate this unusual food if he has no appetite for philosophical and historical ideas. It would be, of course, a poor teaching method just to add to the traditional presentation of science some philosophic spice or sauce. We have rather to give to the presentation of science itself a philosophic touch.

The teacher of the special sciences will perhaps be afraid lest time would be wasted by such a treatment. The student would pay for this philosophical and historical touch by a deficiency of information in science proper. But it seems to me that this new approach will rather save time. For by this method a great many laws of physics, for example, could be much more attractively presented to the students than by traditional methods. However, I do not mean that the approach should be made by one of the numerous metaphysical systems that have been invented during the ages for the purpose of an integration of human knowledge. Every attempt of this kind would introduce very questionable doctrines into the teaching of science and would lead to disaster. We have to make use of the philosophic argument that has grown up on the soil of science and has been fed with the blood of science. We must never forget that metaphysics divides people and science unites them.

If we try to build the bridge between science and philosophy, our first step will be to present to the students their own special science as a chapter in the book of human knowledge. Every scientist is confronted with the amazing fact that it is possible to derive from a few simple principles by means of logical argument a wide range of facts which can be checked by actual observations. The existence of these principles allows us to put the phenomena of nature into our service, for they enable us to construct methods by which the outcomes of physical processes can be predicted from the start.

Philosophy of science is concerned with the nature of this method or device which man has invented in order to bring about the prediction of physical phenomena. To have a certain understanding of this device is a basic requirement for everyone who wants to understand the history and the behavior of mankind in past centuries, and in our own.

An understanding of the logical structure of science is a long step toward the understanding of the meaning of statements in any domain outside science proper and, indeed, toward judging truth of any kind. In fields like ethics, politics or religion, we have also to distinguish clearly between the factual content of a certain doctrine and the symbolic language in which the statement of this doctrine is couched. The example of physical science is a guide in a more difficult world and will help us to disentangle statements of religious or political principles with respect to whether they are really statements about observable phenomena or only attempts to use a certain type of symbol.

In physics this analysis is comparatively simple and not so loaded with emotional and egotistic elements. If someone asks people in the strongest language to "follow the voice of their conscience" or to "follow the will of God," this bid will be empty if he is not able to describe the criteria by which we can know whether a "voice" is actually the voice of our conscience or how actually to find out the will of God. The student of science who has been trained in the "understanding" of science will immediately turn his attention not so much to the strength of the language, but to the question of who is authorized to interpret the will of God.

7. Role of the Human Mind

By logical and empirical analysis the student will learn that the principles of science are neither "proved by reason" nor "inferred by induction from sense observation." They are a structure of symbols accompanied by operational definitions. This structure is a product of the creative ability of the human mind and consists of symbols which are products of our imagination. But the truth of this structure can be checked by observations that can be described in everyday language. By logico‑empirical analysis the creativity of the human mind emerges as the primary factor in science. Thus the student will learn that the role of this creativity in science is by no means inferior to its role in the humanities and even in art or religion. And we now can understand that the emphasis on science teaching will no longer interfere with interest in the humanities but will rather support it.

However, the role ascribed to the human mind by logico‑empirical analysis does not exhaust the contribution of science teaching to the understanding of the human aspect in our picture of the world. For by logico‑empirical analysis the role of the human mind is only hinted at in a rather abstract way. But our imagination and inventiveness are much too limited to enumerate and discuss all possible principles that the creative ability of the scientists may set up in order to derive the wide range of phenomena of our experience. For this we have to study the principles that have been actually set up in history. We have to complement our logico‑empirical analysis—where "empirical" implies individual experiences—by "historical analysis," which is empirical not for the individual but for the human race. The history of science is the workshop of the philosophy of science. We have to teach the student all the relevant principles that have been set up in the course of history. And we mean by history extension in time as well as in space, the development of structures of science through the ages and over the surface of our globe.

In this way the logico‑empirical analysis gains life and color and becomes a living link between science and the evolution of the human race. The average textbook of physics tells us very little about the evolution of the principles of this science, except some dates of anniversaries. Very often these books speak about ancient and medieval science in a derogatory way; they claim not to understand why for ages people were not able to discover such a simple law as the law of inertia, which today every schoolboy knows is an obvious result of our everyday experience or is even self‑evident. But despite these smug remarks the same textbooks are not able to formulate this law of inertia in a satisfactory way. They even block the understanding of this and similar principles. For it is clear that a principle which intelligent men have not found through centuries cannot be as obvious as the statement presented by these books as the law of inertia. This complacent attitude imperils even the understanding of the evolution of thought and helps to spread the spirit of intolerance and bigotry among the students, while an attitude of adequate logico‑historic analysis would contribute toward good will between people of different backgrounds and different creeds.

The best way to help the student to understand the steps in the evolution of human thought is to present to him in elaborate detail the chief turning points in the evolution of science, with the emphasis not so much on the discovery of new facts as on the evolution of new principles of change in the symbolic structure. It would be, for example, of the greatest importance to discuss thoroughly the conflict between Copernicus and the Roman Church (or, for that matter, the Lutheran Church). I think that every student of science and the humanities should have a clear understanding of this issue, which was one of the greatest and most interesting in history. If this subject were discussed thoroughly and competently, the student could get a good understanding of the eternal conflict between established patterns of presenting the facts and attempts radically to alter the symbolic structure of science. He would learn that the tendency to preserve the old pattern of presentation is often disguised under the name of "common sense," and how the appeal to common sense has been used in the history of mankind to cloak the interest of established governments and churches. For, as he would learn in particular, the role that the interaction among science, philosophy and religion has played in the justification of political aims is very great.

Equally, students of science and philosophy should learn exactly what were the issues between Descartes and Newton and between Newton and Leibnitz. From these disputes has arisen what we now call the classical physics of the nineteenth century, which until today has been the basis of the training in science that our students get in colleges of engineering or liberal arts. To grasp these issues would help them to understand our present science as a dynamic living being. This would not happen if they were confronted only with the desiccated and artificially stuffed skin of science that is presented in most of the current textbooks.

8. Science and Political Ideologies

If the students get an understanding of the earlier turning points in science, it will be much easier for them to grasp exactly the meaning of the turning point around 1900, when our twentieth‑century science was born.

This last turn has been dramatized by the phrases "crisis of classical physics" or "decline of mechanistic physics" or "refutation of materialism." If one has been trained to analyze the nature of a "turning point in the history of science," one will be less inclined to believe that the "crisis of classical physics" is a "crisis of rational thinking" or even a justification of an irrational approach to science.

As we have already mentioned, it is not sufficient to approach these turning points of human thought by logico‑empirical analysis only, for the human mind is not strong enough to carry out an exact analysis of such a complex structure. One has to study classical physics as an extinct organism, which grew up against immense obstacles, defeated its opponents, and then turned out to be no longer fit for survival. With this training one would have a clear understanding of, say, the broad analogy between the fight of medieval philosophy against Copernicus and the fight of modem Newtonian philosophy against Einstein.

Students who have this kind of logical and historical training will easily see through attempts to exploit the "breakdown of Newtonian physics" and the "defeat of materialism" in order to justify a return to ancient "organismic science." They will be, moreover, on their guard against attempts to exploit this "crisis of thought" in a fight against liberalism and democracy, or, for that matter, against all progressive trends which have been historically labelled "materialistic" or "atomistic" or "mechanistic."

By this approach the student of science would be led in a natural way to an understanding of the struggle among rival ideologies. It will be a great attraction for him to approach these problems starting from the role that has been played by his own special field. The student of science will get the habit of looking at social and religious problems from the interior of his own field and entering the domain of the humanities by a wide‑open door and not by the rear door of some isolated humanity course which he may take for "distribution." He will need neither a spoon feeding of trivial information nor a stuffing with technical material that is of no real profit for his general education.

There is no better way to understand the philosophic basis of political and religious creeds than by their connection with science. The student who understands the relation of his science to these creeds has an access from an inside track. He will easily and confidently cross the bridge between science and the humanities.

The attentive student of science will notice soon that the traditional symbols of science have a life of their own. They persist in a changing world where the scope of science is continually growing. This point is made particularly clear by focusing the attention of the students on the turning points in the evolution of scientific thought.

The student will learn, for example, in what sense materialism has been encouraged by the physics of the nineteenth century and how this in turn was anticipated to a certain degree by the Epicurean School in old Greece. He will learn how the transition from medieval physics—which was based, in its turn, on the Aristotelian school of Greece—to the physics of Galileo and Newton found its continuation in the school of Laplace at the end of the eighteenth century at the time of the great French Revolution. He will appreciate, then, how the fight of Newtonian (mechanistic) physics against Aristotelian (organismic) physics became connected with the fight of liberalism and tolerance against feudalism and bigotry.

He would thus understand that what scientific and corresponding political (ideologic) issues have in common is the use of the same symbols, with their wide range of connotations. In this way the student of science would learn to appreciate the great value of symbols in the history of human thought and, for that matter, in the history of human behavior.

Whoever has understood these historic issues correctly will attain a sound judgment regarding the last great transition, around 1900, when mechanistic physics had to give way to a more general approach. The transition from the nineteenth‑century to the twentieth‑century physics culminated in the relativity and quantum theories which, in turn, have led to new philosophic slogans describing this transition as an "overthrow of the concept of absolute time and space" and an "overthrow of physical determinism." The student who has been through the training in logico‑empirical and historical analysis will assess the attempts that have been made to exploit the new physical theories for the benefit of particular religious and political ideologies. He will see through the argument by which the "overthrow of eighteenth‑ and nineteenth-century deterministic physics" has been used in the fight against liberalism and tolerance, since these creeds had grown up in a period of mechanistic and deterministic science. He will understand that the breakdown of mechanistic physics did not actually imply a return to organismic physics, which was, historically, connected with the political and religious doctrines of the Middle Ages. He will understand why twentieth-century Fascism has gladly interpreted the "crisis of physics" as a return to organismic physics which could provide a "scientific" support for a return to some political ideas of feudalism.

But, above all, the well‑trained student will understand the paramount fact that, actually, mechanistic physics was replaced not by any organismic physics, but by an entirely new approach to science by logico‑empirical analysis, which has been in the twentieth century the starting point of all the new physical theories.

If science is taught in this way, the emphasis on science and technology will no longer be an obstacle to a liberal education of the student. The deplorable gap between science and the humanities will not arise, let alone widen. On the other hand, the intensive study of science as a living being will give to the student of it a profound understanding of the role of the human mind in human action, which is the very goal of instruction in the humanities.

9. Science and the Historical Systems of Philosophy

By emphasizing the historical evolution of scientific thought the student will learn, moreover, that the human mind has not always been satisfied with the logico‑empirical analysis of science, since this presentation of science is only satisfactory for the "purely scientific" purpose of predicting and mastering the observable phenomena of nature. But the phenomena are derived from principles that are couched in symbols and, as we have already hinted, these symbols have their own life, which is to a certain degree independent of the evolution of science proper. These symbols which are created by the scientists may even become occasionally a Frankenstein's monster. However, as these symbols are not unambiguously determined by the scientifically observed facts, they are strongly influenced by extrascientific factors. The choice of symbols is, as a matter of fact, very dependent on the impact of current social and religious movements. These influences are largely responsible for the decision whether one prefers rigid pieces of matter as fundamental symbols (materialism) or whether one builds up all concepts from mental elements (idealism), whether one picks as the ultimate building stone a nondescript reality (realism), or whether one starts from elements that cooperate toward a certain goal (organicism). Every satisfactory instruction in the philosophy of science has to discuss these choices of symbols on the basis of logical and historical analysis. The influence of political and religious trends on the choice of these symbols should by no means be minimized, as is often done in the presentation of the philosophy of science. On the other hand, if "metaphysical integrations of science" are discussed, particular attention should be given to those integrations that have played a role as bases of ideologies. For this reason, doctrines like Thomism or dialectical materialism should be carefully and correctly presented to the student and more time should be devoted to them than is devoted to some sophisticated systems that have played only a small role in human life and human actions.

If the foregoing plan is followed, we shall have no more graduates in science who have no clear idea of the teaching of men like Aristotle, St. Thomas, and William of Occam, or, for that matter, of Hegel, Marx, and Lenin. The type of science graduate who is without humanistic training will disappear just like those who have not even a clear picture of what the contribution of Copernicus was to our world.

The educational value of this type of instruction for science students seems to me beyond doubt. However, there is still the question of where to find a place for it in the curriculum. The most natural plan probably would be to teach the science courses of broader scope according to this method. This would hold, for example, for the elementary courses in college physics, chemistry and biology. Such a start would certainly be very stimulating and helpful for the beginning students. However, since these students have not the background necessary for the study of subtle problems, these "survey courses for beginning students" should be complemented by "survey courses for advanced students." These would be appropriately given just before graduation. They should answer the questions that were prompted by the elementary courses and treat them on a higher level. These new courses should not be "superficial surveys" as this term is often understood, but should give a bird's‑eye view of the results of science, with emphasis on special unsolved problems. These courses could be given according to the suggestions of this paper.

If there are not a sufficient number of science teachers in a college who are interested and trained in this plan of instruction, one or two "special" courses outside the usual science curriculum should be established, to be given by the few available teachers who have the necessary training and inspiration for this task. One may give these courses under the title of "philosophy of science" or "foundations of science" or “science and the humanities."

The present trend toward general education has, in some colleges, led to the establishment of science courses for nonscience students. The program of these courses emphasizes the bridge between science and philosophy or science and the humanities somewhat along the lines discussed in this paper. In these plans, however, only the nonscience student will be presented with the educational value of science, while the concentrator in science will not be able to give information about the role of science in human society to his future pupils or to his community in general. The questions regarding science that are most interesting to the general public should be answered by a competent and responsible man; and this obviously can be only the science teacher in the high school or college.


1   F. Engels, Dialectics of Nature, English translation by C. Dutt (New York: International Publishers, 1940), p. 243. [—> main text]

SOURCE: Frank, Philipp. Modern Science and Its Philosophy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1949. Reprint: New York: George Braziller, 1955. Chapter 15, Science Teaching and the Humanities, pp. 260-285.

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