The Growth of Science and the Structure of Culture

Comments on Dr. Frank’s Paper — Robert Oppenheimer 

Daedalus, Vol. 87, No. 1, (1958).

It is a good and happy occasion that we should be celebrating the achievements of Dr. Frank and Dr. Bridgman. In this group of papers we have been using the words ” the influence of science on culture” in three related, but different, senses to discuss three separate questions. The first has to do with the extent to which cultured and thoughtful people know something about the content of science; we need not exclude a knowledge of its methods, because the two are inherently inseparable. The second question is whether this knowledge provides useful analogies between one science and another, or between one science and a part of rational life that is not normally thought of as scientific. Think, for instance, of the powerful notion of entropy, which comes from a very special branch of physics, and which is certainly useful in the study of communication and quite helpful when applied in the theory of language. The third question goes beyond the knowledge of a culture about the sciences, and beyond the enrichment of a culture that may derive from that knowledge. This is the question whether what has been found out in science can and should have ontological bearing, that is, whether it leads to, whether it justifies, whether it should justify, the drawing of conclusions about the nature of reality.

We are, I think, all clear that the first of these influences, though not easily achieved, is indeed desirable. It is desirable that culture be enriched by knowledge of what has been discovered in the specialized sciences. I am clear that the second influence is also desirable: analogies from the sciences, though they need correction, refinement, often even rejection, are a fruitful part of the life of reason. I think that we are all very shy on the third sort of influence; to this I shall return briefly. Both Dr. Bridgman and Dr. Frank  have devoted a good deal of their lives to trying to get the first problem in better order, to trying to make sure that what is generally known by educated people about science, and specifically about physics, is something true, that wrong conclusions have not been drawn, the wrong pictures not evoked.

Recently I reread Dr. Frank’s book of 1938, Interpretations and Misinterpretations of Modern Physics, devoted half to the special theory of relativity — which has played so dramatic and great a part in Dr. Bridgman’s life — and half to the quantum theory, which, discovered twenty years later, has played an equally dramatic and great part in the life of the generation following Dr. Bridgman’s. We read with the closest attention and interest what Dr. Frank has written of the lessons of atomic physics and the theory of complementarity, and of what Bohr has made of these. I may say that in every respect I concur with what Dr. Frank has written: that this is a sober and faithful description of what goes on in atomic physics; that in its application to psychology it is deep and important, but not really quite new to the philosophy of science; and that in its application to biology it may very probably not be so.

I would like to make my report in the form of comments, starting with what Dr. Frank has said. My comments have to do with the nature of the interaction between scientific discovery and our common culture, with what people who are not scientists know of science, think of it, and make of it. There are six comments.

I. The first comment starts with Dr. Frank’s recognition of the difficulty in correctly drawing relevant information from contemporary science into the general culture as a linguistic problem. This there certainly is; but there is a far more difficult and deeper problem even than the linguistic problem. Science starts with preconception, with the common culture, and with common sense. It moves on to observation, is marked by the discovery of paradox, and is then concerned with the correction of preconception. It moves then to use these corrections for the designing of further observation and for more refined experiment. And as it moves along this course the nature of the evidence and experience that nourish it becomes more and more unfamiliar; it is not just the language that is strange.

This long chain, which creates such desperate problems of education and communication, is only in part a chain of logic. This very important mathematical side plays a decisive part in theoretical physics. It is not yet such an important element in biology and may never be. It is not such an overridingly important element even in chemistry. The feature common to all these sciences is that the experience the scientist describes starts with the experience he has in common with all men and rapidly becomes the experience — and I use this terrible word “experience” for the content of his daily professional life, the things he looks at, the things he does, the experiments in which he engages, his communications about them —very soon comes to be that of a world apart. In an early science, one that is just begun, the difference is not very great. In a science as old and as specialized as physics, it is enormously great. We talk about things that do not in any way enter into the experience of non-physicists. Most of the things that we talk about in our professional life do not enter into the experience even of chemists and biologists.

When Newton formulated his laws of motion it had taken three centuries to overcome the sense of the strange, the bizarre and the wild in the idea of inertia; the idea that, I suppose, was first perceived in the Paris of Buridan. But many of the things that Newton’s laws dealt with were reasonably accessible to common experience; they had been talked about in a way that made them part of intellectual life for two millennia. It is, therefore, not unreasonable that a revolutionary discovery about them should have had some sense of impact on thoughtful people. Even more was this true of the law of gravitation, though caution is needed in understanding this impact lest we mistake the plausible stories of the textbooks for the course of history.

Yet contrast this history of Newton’s time with relativity or quantum theory, for which the experience itself is not available to the lay scholar. The experience is built on a world of physics he does not know. It is built on experiments, on ideas, on logic and on mathematics which are not part of his resource. It is, indeed, a long way away for him.

Let me give a contemporary example. It has to do with the difference between right and left. We, in ordinary human life, recognize the difference between our two hands. We trace this back to the existence of chemically opposite forms — right- and left-handed forms which are equally possible, but one of which happens to have played a big part in organic chemistry. From the point of view of atomic science this remains an accident of history. For we have always been confident that as one entered the atomic domain there could be no inherent difference between right and left; the laws have to be symmetric with regard to right-handed and left-handed structures: space itself shows no preferred sense; there were no built-in screws in the atomic world.

It is an open question whether space has this symmetry on the cosmological scale because we have learned to think that the structure of space is determined by the disposition of matter. In the current cosmologies there is this built-in symmetry; but Godel invented one a few years ago in the quest for a cosmology in which one could give no meaning to cosmical simultaneity: in this there is a built-in screw in the motion of matter, and therefore in the geometry. It also turned out, to his pleasure, that the time of such a universe may be cyclical, and that in each cycle the time goes, not backward, but forward. This is a good example of Dr. Frank’s caution that the words of physicists do not necessarily mean what they appear to mean to the lay ear.

An example of something that is at the moment conjecture, which may soon be a real piece of progress in atomic physics and which may well turn out to be wrong, is the proposal that, on a very small scale, there are objects in the atomic and subatomic world which can exist only in a right-handed or left-handed form, that space does have this lack of symmetry and that the two forms are not equally possible. An element of all earlier atomic physics and chemistry has been that the two must exist together; many beautiful phenomena arise from the necessary coexistence of the two. This proposal would, if true, be something new; and since it deals with the structure of space, one would say that it is very important; we ought, if we are more certain about it, to tell every one all about it. Yet it is obviously of no interest to men except insofar as they are following in honest detail the physics which defines it. That is true whether or not this piece of intelligence, which has been suggested by the two Chinese physicists Yang and Lee, is the correct interpretation of the evidence.

In much the same way, one has the impression that, although there were certain linguistic difficulties in Darwin’s work, because the taxonomists by their nomenclature had gone as far as anybody could to make biology unintelligible, there was no insurmountable difficulty for the layman in understanding what he was talking about. Why these people came to be so excited about it is another matter to which we must return. But that they knew what he was saying, that it was defined in terms of common sense and common experience, is at least one of the conditions for its having an enormous impact: it could be understood. Mendel was hardly understood. Long neglected by the profession, his work has had little apparent effect on general thought. The development of a chemical interpretation of heredity by Watson, Crick, and their successors and amplifiers is probably a giant stride in the reduction of the organic realm to the inorganic. So too is the confirmation in Urey’s laboratory of Oparin’s conjecture as to how organic material can be made from inorganic. This reduction is, of course, far from complete; conceivably it may never be complete. But these findings constitute remarkable progress. They do not appear to interest very much the philosophers, the writers and the literate public, because they are already defined in terms which are too remote and too inaccessible to be a meaningful part of their life.

We have had, I think, in the impact of Freud, again a situation in which his work referred largely, as in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life and The Interpretation of Dreams, to experiences that people could verify. The terminology he used —the anthropomorphic and dramatic terminology for the elements of the human psyche —was of course also familiar, and even primitive. Thus the whole difficult problem of unfamilar experience and concept that appears in abstract science does not exist for much of Freud’s work. Whether we are now in psychology in a situation where technical experience makes a barrier between general understanding and the science, I do not quite know. This was certainly not true of much of Freud’s writing.

Thus in the history of the sciences there is likely to be a period, their hinge, when they begin to come out of common sense, when they come to find that the common view of this experience is not an adequate explanation, when creative synthesis begins. That is the time when there is meat in scientific discovery to enrich human life. That is the time when the content of a science may indeed influence culture. Of course it is also the time of the abuses of scientific discovery of which we have heard so much.

II. The second comment is a modest one. One thing science can do, and rarely does: it can correct the inherited views that it has by accident at another stage given to common sense, and which turn out not to be true. It can undo its own errors. Even this is not easy. We think, for instance, of the common-sense notion of chance: this does not distinguish sharply between things of which the causes are not known and the things of which the causes cannot be known and cannot be assigned. When we talk about the fall of a die, or about the fluctuation in weather, we say we do not know their origin: it is a chance. No physicist of the nineteenth century would have contemplated in a serious way the proposition that he could not find out how the die would fall if he took the trouble. Nor should we today. Here chance appears, in other words, as a practical notion, or at least in part a practical notion; as a limitation of what is profitable, sensible, appropriate to do.

Inherent in the quantum theory, as it now stands and as it has stood for three decades, are elements of chance. These elements of chance are occasionally relevant to large-scale things; they are all important surely on the atomic scale. But this chance corresponds not to our having failed to find out the cause, but to the logical impossibility of assigning a cause. Much has been made of the fact that one cannot prove this impossibility with both complete rigor and complete certitude. But this is hardly more than that one can prove nothing in science with complete rigor and complete certitude, because one can prove with rigor only if one assumes that one’s description of the world is right. That in turn can only be made overwhelmingly probable by a massive, intricate, subtle and immensely reassuring confrontation of the description with reality, that is with experiments and with experience; it cannot be made certain. I think one has as much reason to say that there is an element of chance in this more abstract sense as one has to make any other assertion based on specialized experience or science.

There is always, of course, a lack in cogency in going from any scientific experience to an ontological statement. There can be no isomorphism between the two. One reason is the nature of the material of science, the finiteness of its material, the limitation and specialization of its material. There can be partial mappings, there can be modes of analogy; and in the worst cases these are reduced to the linguistic mismatch of which Dr. Frank spoke: puns in which relativism and relativity get confused, in which the words indeterminacy and uncertainty evoke the most familiar and re current state of man’s psyche.

III. The third comment has to do with the fact that where science has come into a culture it has not only required a community of experience and understanding; it has also required a kind of resonance. There has had to be some reason why people who were not scientists not only learned — for that, when it is possible, is not unnatural — but also were moved and stimulated by what they learned. The examples in the earlier papers indicate how large a part not completely understood motivations played in the adoption of Newtonian views and the use of Newtonian arguments in the eighteenth century. I think a conclusive proof that this was the case is that in no real sense was Newton himself a Newtonian. He was not led to the Newtonian view of the world by making the very findings which were invoked to support it.

There is another, very different situation in more nearly contemporary physics, in Bohr’s concepts of complementarity, in the lessons of atomic physics for the theory of knowledge and man’s attitude toward the antinomies of life. Bohr participated perhaps more than any one man in the development of atomic mechanics. To the decisive formal discoveries of Heisenberg, Schrodinger, Dirac, he was very close. Yet he has told me that his interest in the ideas of complementarity long antedated these discoveries in atomic physics. They sprang from his early interests in the complementary character of the introspective and the behavioral description of man, in the complementary character of dealing with experience in the light of love and in the light of justice, and from the familiar yet disturbing tensions of comprehending in one description causal explanation of behavior and moral condemnation of behavior. These traits of experience are part of our inheritance and our tradition; they are neither easy to ignore nor easy to resolve. So too are the complementary uses of words, words as equipment or instruments on the one hand and as objects of study fit for analysis on the other hand; as means of study, or as objects of study. A long and early awareness of these problems made it natural for Bohr to be alert to, to welcome and expand the discovery of complementary features in the physical description of atomic phenomena. I can well think that without Bohr’s interest and genius we would not today have a broad theory of complementarity in our culture. Of course, we would still have the same physics; we would still understand what to do in the laboratory and in the classroom and with mathematics, and how to talk about it. We would know how to analyze observation and measurement in the atomic domain. But we would not have this immense evocative analogy to situations of psychological and human interest that Bohr has given us. This appears to mean, of course,—if, as I believe, this is a fair example — that scientific discovery enters in an important way into the history of ideas and into culture for historical reasons; these are not reasons that can be established in logic or in rigor.

These historical problems are tough problems, and are seldom completely solved. One can see some reasons why much of Newton’s work should have been assimilated in the eighteenth century, as proof of the power of man’s reason, as a warrant for confidence in its future. I can guess some reasons —though I may be wrong about them — why Darwin’s evolution was assimilated. His notion of development fitted wonderfully with the time-mindedness which the rapid change in the world made relevant in the nineteenth century. His sense of the unity of nature fitted wonderfully with the romantic notion of the unity of man with nature. Of course there were opponents of this view of unity who were also bitter opponents of Darwinism. One can see why Freud also excited an enormous following, why he has in many ways changed our theatre, novel and poetry, the way learned and common people talk, the way we think of ourselves. This is not only because the personification of elements of the human psyche made possible a very familiar, animistic and primitive kind of explanation of human behavior; it is in part also because the newly vivid idea of the continuity of good and evil, and of illness and sin, was made natural and welcome in the early years of this century by the decline of religious and secular authority.

IV. Great changes in abstract science — in science that has reason ably established techniques, criteria of objectivity, and language — that occur in parts of experience not immediately accessible except to specialists may touch and on occasion profoundly alter culture. These alterations cannot be understood as logically rigorous con sequences of discovery in science; they are, as I said, contingent on man’s interest; they are always analogical. A change in science, whether novelty or discovery, when properly understood, when the linguistic problem is adequately solved, will even then provide only a hunch, a starting point for looking at an area of experience  other than the science in which it was nourished and born. If an analogy is also based on a pun, that is, on a misunderstanding of the meaning of the words and symbols, it can still provide a hunch, but the chances that it will be a useful hunch are correspondingly and sharply reduced. An analogy taken, let us say, from physics, and applied to a biological system, need not be bad. It is almost certainly wrong; but it is a starting point which may be one of the great ways, by correction and refinement of experiment and analysis, to find a better view. The use of this analogy within a science and between sciences which are not too different, which have some formal relation, is one of the most powerful tools we have.

V. Before I come to my last point, I may raise one question; it may be that someone more qualified will wish to discuss it further. One might think a way in which new ideas would get into the common stream of life would be through their embodiment in technology. One might suppose, for instance, that with the enormous increase in communication, automation, calculation, and of cybernetic devices generally, some people would find the ideas of noise, of entropy, of randomness, of coding, and the general ideas of information theory, indispensable. One would think that if there were enough Geiger counters scattered about, and people listened to them, the idea of chance, in its real sense, could hardly escape human attention. One would think that this would happen even through the schools. Yet I believe that the experience of the last century indicates that not much of this is true. It may be a question that needs to be thought about, whether the carrying into common experience of the fruits of science (which have in them great discoveries and radical new general notions, which exemplify them but which do not articulate or formulate them) is one way of bringing a wider unity to our time.

VI. That unity, I think, can only be based on a rather different kind of structure than the one that most of us have in mind when we talk of the unity of culture. I think that it cannot be an architectonic unity, in which there is a central chamber into which all else leads, the central chamber which is the repository of the common knowledge of the world. I think that it cannot have the architectural coherence of a hierarchy. I know that there is clamor for just that. I think that the clamor is (in part at least) in response to the rumors of change in specialized sciences; to the feeling that a great deal is being found out that is indeed deep and important if only it could be made relevant to our time, our life, to human problems generally; if only it could be brought back, intact and integral, into the common knowledge of man.

Actually, in the rapid change, the great discoveries everybody has talked about since the Renaissance, the sum of positive knowledge has increased at an increasing rate. I would even say that it is not fifty years, as was said in the eighteenth century, in which positive knowledge doubles, but something between a decade and a generation. The mass of knowledge grows fantastically; the rate of growth itself grows. It has had on Professor Bridgman the one inspiring effect of testifying to the power of man’s intelligence. As such, it is a great thing: let us extend its range; let us get on with it. On too many of his fellow men it has the effect of an unmooring and confusion: “Oh what is the use or hope? How can we keep up with it? What is true one day is no longer true the next!” This is indeed despair of the reason, and leads to the worst excesses of anti rationalism.

I think that the unity we can seek lies really in two things. One is that the knowledge which comes to us at such a terrifyingly, inhumanly rapid rate has some order in it. We are allowed to forget a great deal, as well as to learn. This order is never adequate. The mass of ununderstood things, which cannot be summarized, or wholly ordered, always grows greater; but a great deal does get understood.

The second is simply this: we can have each other to dinner. We ourselves, and with each other by our converse, can create, not an architecture of global scope, but an immense, intricate network of intimacy, illumination, and understanding. Everything cannot be connected with everything in the world we live in. can be connected with anything.

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