Sir J. Arthur Thomson

Sir John Arthur Thomson

1861-1933. Professor of Natural History at the University of Aberdeen from 1899 to 1930, Lecturer on Zoology and Biology in the Royal Colleges of Physicians and Surgeons in Edinburgh. Wrote and lectured widely on science, edited "The Outline of Science" (1922), wrote "Riddles of Science" (1932), "What Is Man? (1923), "Science and Religion" (1925), translated August Weismann's "Evolution Theory." Knighted in 1930.

Science and Modern Thought

 - Sir J. Arthur Thomson -

          IT IS not easy to define Science. It is a system of knowledge built up on a basis of observation and experiment, and compacted by reflection on the data thus supplied. Scientific knowledge is typically of such a kind that it can be verified by competent inquirers who repeat the observations and experiments, and make them the subject of careful independent reflection. Science is verifiable, communicable, impersonal, unemotional knowledge; but all the fields of science are not on the same level. Thus Newton's Principia may be called very perfect science, but its range of communicability is limited. It is probably easier to be impersonal in Astronomy than in Ethnology.

The Aim of Science

The establishment of a science depends on processes of selection and detachment, what might be called isolating certain aspects of things. Thus the geologist does not as such concern himself with the beauty of the scenery, nor the astronomer with the majesty of the star-strewn sky. Nor does the physiologist primarily concern himself with the subjective aspect of life, though here the abstraction of metabolism from mind is less easy. The aim of science is to work out descriptive formulae - as short, as simple, as complete, and as consistent as can be devised. As Aristotle said: "Art" (we should say "Science") begins when, from a great number of experiences one general conception is formed which will embrace all similar cases." Science means unifying diversities and detecting uniformities. As Professor J. H. Poynting put it: In science "we explain an event not when we know 'why' it happened, but when we know 'how' it is like something else happening elsewhere - when in fact we can include it as a case described by some law already set forth. As Professor Karl Pearson has said: "The law of gravitation is a brief description of how every particle of matter in the universe is altering its motion with reference to every other particle. It does not tell us why particles thus move; it does not tell us why the earth describes a certain curve round the sun. It simply resumes, in a few brief words, the relationships observed between a vast range of phenomena. It economises thought by stating in conceptual shorthand that routine of our perceptions which forms for us the universe of gravitating matter." This view of science as essentially descriptive is well suggested by Kirchhoff's famous statement of the aim of mechanics - "to describe completely and in the simplest manner the motions that occur in nature." Many of the misunderstandings that have arisen in regard to "science and religion," "science and philosophy," and similar questions are due to a failure to recognise what Science aims at - the formulation of things as they are and as they have come to be. The primary aim of science is not to "explain," except in the sense of saying "This is a particular case of Law X," or of saying, " This is the outcome of that." It does not inquire into the "why" of things, the purpose or significance of the cosmos. That is not its metier.

The Scientific Method

The scientific study of a subject implies a certain intellectual attitude or mood, which need not, however, be regarded as the only right of way. Thus the aesthetic or poetic or purely practical approach to a subject may be not less legitimate than that of the scientific investigator. The scientific mood, which reaches very diverse degrees of development, is marked by (1) a passion for facts (this includes a high standard of accuracy and a detachment from personal wishes); (2) a cautious thoroughness in coming to a conclusion (this implies a persistent scepticism and self-elimination in judgment); (3) a quality of clearness (which includes a dislike of obscurities, ambiguities, and loose ends); and (4) a less readily definable sense of the interrelations of things, an insight which discerns that apparently isolated phenomena are integral parts of a system. When a body of knowledge is very young or very elusive, there is apt to be a penumbra of what Faraday called "doubtful knowledge". One must steer between uncritical easygoingness and expurgitorial intolerance.

The Methods of Science

In any scientific inquiry the first step is to get at the facts, and this requires precision, patience, impartiality, watchfulness against the illusions of the senses and the mind, and carefulness to keep inferences from mingling with observations. The second step is accurate registration of the data. In most cases science begins with measurement. As Lord Kelvin said, "Nearly all the grandest discoveries of science have been but the rewards of accurate measurement and patient, long-continued labour in the minute sifting of numerical results. - There is a certain quality of character here, and it is very significant that Clerk Maxwell should have spoken in one sentence of "those aspirations after accuracy of measurement, and justice in action, which we reckon among our noblest attributes as men."

A third step is arranging the data in workable form - a simple illustration being a plotted-out curve which shows at a glance the general outcome of a multitude of measurements, e.g. the range of variability in a particular specific character in a plant or animal. The data may have to be expressed in their simplest terms, reduced perhaps to a common denominator with other sets of facts with which they have to be compared. There is the danger here of losing sight of something in the process of reduction. Thus, in reducing a fact of animal behaviour to a chain of reflex actions we may be losing sight of "mind"; or in reducing a physiological fact to a series of chemical and physical facts we may be losing sight of "life."

The fourth step is when a whole series of occurrences is seen to have a uniformity, which is called their law. A formula is found that fits the finding being sometimes due to a flash of insight and sometimes the outcome of many tentatives. Newton's passage from a falling apple to a falling moon was a stupendous leap of the scientific imagination; the modern science of the atom is the outcome of the testing of many approximate formulations.

The Laws of Nature are man's descriptive formula of uniformities of sequence, which enable him to say, "If this, then that." These laws are not all of the same rank they differ in precision and comprehensiveness the meaning of their terms often changes with time. Science is not only human, it is often anthropomorphic. It may even reflect the social outlook of the age. Thus in Biology, one of the less exact sciences, provisional concepts, such as "the struggle, for existence," are often borrowed from human affairs; and while illuminating suggestion often comes from this, there is no small risk of fallacy. Science is not so objective as is sometimes supposed; we can no more escape from anthropomorphism than from our shadow. Yet those who exaggerate the subjectivity of science and declare with a great philosopher of today that scientific truth is the creation of the human mind, and not of outer nature," are missing what is characteristic of man's scientific formulation of the Order of Nature, that it must be verifiable by all normally constituted minds, and that it must form a reliable basis for prediction, if not also for control. The fact that the astronomer can predict the night of the comet's return, and the Mendelian the nature of the hybrid rabbit's litter, shows that our formulations approximate towards objective reality.

Scope of Science

There is much to be said for using the word science with a qualifying adjective - e.g. chemical and physical science, natural science, biological science, mental and moral science, social science, abstract science. For the various sciences differ greatly in their degree of precision. When we pass from chemistry and physics to the study of living creatures and their behaviour, to the study of human societies and their inter-relations, we find that accurate measurements and precise registration are more difficult, analysis is very imperfect, formulation is very provisional, test experiments are hard to devise, and prediction is usually hazardous. The discovery of methods, concepts, and formulae has advanced much further in regard to matter and energy than it has in dealing with the realm of organisms and the kingdom of man. An exact science is like a solar system, a young science is like a nebula, yet the student of, say, dreams may be as "scientific" as the student of rocks, provided he never allows assertion to outstrip evidence, and understands what he knows. Science includes all knowledge, communicable and verifiable, which is reached by methodical observation and experiment, and admits of concise, consistent, and connected formulation. But all science is not the same science.

A saving clause of some importance relates to the use of scientific symbols. The modern physicist assures us of the reality of the atom, but until a few years ago the atom was only a symbol - a working hypothesis approximating to reality. Many terms in common scientific usage remain in the symbolic stage. A chromosome is a visible something, but no one has seen a "gene" or "factor." Yet these genes are dealt with in modern theories of heredity as if they were seeds in a pod. They are indispensable. No one supposes that a carbon atom has four hands, but this symbol has been extraordinarily useful. Fanciful or arbitrary symbols never live long; they are retained only when they afford a convenient basis for prediction and control. The history of science shows in an eloquent way how provisional symbols are tested, and how some of them gradually attain to the dignity of realities - as the atom has done.

Classification of the Sciences

There are three great orders of facts: the domain of things, the realm of organisms, and the kingdom of man. Thus some have spoken of the cosmosphere, the biosphere, and the sociosphere. The fundamental sciences of chemistry and physics deal with matter and energy, especially in the physical universe. Biology has the life of organisms for its province. The young and yet, in a sense, very old science of sociology deals with human societies and folk-ways. Physics and chemistry are practically inseparable, biology and psychology often look like different aspects of the same elusive activity which we call life; sociology deals with groups of men where the whole is more than the sum of its parts. But there is much to be said for the recognition of five fundamental sciences, which may be arranged on this scheme:


It will be seen that biology occupies a central position, resting in part on physics and chemistry, though with independent methods and concepts of its own, and supplying in turn a basis to psychology and sociology. Each main or general science has its subdivisions: thus, biology includes botany and zoology; a great part of astronomy must be ranked under physics, and much of mineralogy under chemistry. Then there are the combined sciences like geology and geography and anthropology, which use the methods and concepts of several sciences for their own particular purposes. Thus geography is like a circle intersecting four or five others for a particular end. Furthermore, there are applied sciences - where departments of general science are focussed for practical purposes on particular sets of problems, e.g. those connected with the arts and crafts. Thus agricultural science and medical science, the science of engineering and the young science of education are, in great part, applied sciences, and are neither more nor less scientific on that account. As Huxley always insisted, applied science is nothing but the application of pure science to detailed practical problems.

But on a different line are the abstract sciences, which deal with necessary relations between abstract ideas or propositions, irrespective of the actual content. They are deductive rather than inductive; ideal, not experimental; dealing with methods, not with observations. They comprise mathematics in particular, also statistical methods, graphic methods, and logic. Some would include here that part of metaphysics which has for its business the criticism of categories, or a study of explanations as such. 

So we reach an outline map of scientific knowledge: In considering such a map of the sciences it should be kept in mind that they differ not merely in their subject-matter, but in their aims and methods. The same subject may be tackled by several sciences. There is a chemistry and a physics of the human body as well as a biology thereof. The chick may be studied anatomically, physiologically, embryologically, psychologically, and even then we have not exhausted the totality of the chick. The sciences are parts of one endeavour to understand the order of nature and human life within it; they form a correlated body of knowledge; they work into each other's hands, and succeed best when they recognise mutual rights and limitations. The chemistry and physics of the beanstalk are indispensable, but when they are added up they do not give us the biology of the bean-stalk, still less of jack. It is begging many questions to insist that there is only one science of nature, which describes all things and changes in terms of ideal motions, expressible in mathematical formulae. This is trying to give a false simplicity to the facts. Even the omniscient chemist cannot tell how the cat will jump. Professor Dolbear writes: "By explanation is meant the presentation of the mechanical antecedents for a phenomenon in so complete a way that no supplementary or unknown factors are necessary." But many biologists of today would agree that in dealing with distinctively vital behaviour, such as the cat's jump, it is necessary to invoke other than mechanical factors, such as the organism's power of enregistering and profiting by experience. There is a correlation, rather than a unity, of the sciences.

Limitations of Science

No one will be inclined to set limits to man's understanding, but it is useful to recognise that science as we know it is subject to certain limitations. 

(1) There is a self-imposed limitation in the fact that science applies its methods to abstracted aspects of things. We cannot intellectually separate a living creature from its surroundings any more than we can separate a whirlpool from the river, vet for biological purposes we continually think the fish away from the sea and the bird from the air. In analytical anatomy it is actually profitable to do so Even in more exact sciences this limitation operates. In dynamics we treat the mass of a body as if we studied the body under the influence of gravitation only. But in actual observations and experiments we can never secure the entire absence of electrical, magnetic, and other energies. In other words, science works with "ideal systems"; it aims at practically convenient representations of certain aspects of facts, deliberately abstracted from other aspects.

(2) Science works with "counters" or concepts which are in various degrees far from being self-explanatory. What mysteries lie behind the terms "organism," "protoplasm," "heredity," "energy," "chemical affinity," "gravitation," "inertia," "matter"! It is admitted that the analysis of concepts proceeds apace and that the number of "irreducibles" grows less. But there are many "x's" left.

(3) Another limitation has to do with causal sequence. One billiard ball strikes anotheran impelling cause; a spark explodes the gunpowder - a releasing cause; the relaxed spring turns the cylinder of the gramophone, and there is music. But it is only in the first case that the cause explains the effect, in the other cases the effect is more or less given in advance. In the great majority of cases all that science does is to say: "If this, then that." Its causal explanations are usually very partial.

(4) Another limitation concerns origins, which remain mysteries. The biologist begins with the first organisms, but whence came they? The chemist begins with the elements, but what has been their history? There is always something before the beginning with which the scientific investigator starts and must start. So there are limitations implied in the partial view we have to take in prosecuting a scientific inquiry, in the radical mysteriousness of the counters we use, in the difficulty of giving complete causal explanations except in the field of mechanics, and likewise in the obscurity of origins. If these necessary limitations were more clearly kept in mind the aim and scope of science would be less frequently misunderstood.

Moreover, besides all these limitations there are others of a different kind-imposed on us by the limits of our sense organs, even when greatly helped by ingenious instruments, and by the narrow limits of exact data in regard to the past. Furthermore, it should be kept in mind that formulae or laws which seemed for a time to fit well have often had to undergo readjustment with the increase of knowledge and the recognition of residual phenomena. So Kepler improves on Copernicus, and Newton on Kepler, and Einstein, some say, on Newton. Science may be compared to an asymptotic line, which is always approaching nearer and nearer to some curve but never reaching it except at infinite distance. Sometimes a single discovery may change the whole framework of a science. Thus Professor Soddy, speaking of radio activity, says: "It sounds incredible, but nevertheless it is true, that science up to the close of the nineteenth century had no suspicion even of the existence of the original sources of natural energy ... The vista which has been opened up by these new discoveries [of the radio-active properties of some substances] admittedly is without parallel in the whole history of science." And sometimes it is a new idea, like that of organic evolution, which changes the whole outlook of a science and makes the world new.

Finally, according to well-warranted scientific belief there was once a time when all that happened upon the earth might have been formulated with apparent exhaustiveness in terms of matter and motion. But ages passed and living creatures emerged - a new synthesis, requiring new formulae. Ages passed and intelligent creatures commanded their course; a new aspect of reality required a new science. Ages passed and Man emerged with self-consciousness, language, reasoning capacity, and a social heritage. As the world grew older, the biosphere emerged from the cosmosphere, and out of the biosphere there emerged the sociosphere. As long as its subject matter continues evolving in the direction of new integrations, science must also evolve.

Science and Feeling

Our life is like a prism: its three sides are (1) DOING, (2) FEELING, and (3) KNOWING, corresponding to the old-fashioned HAND, HEART, and HEAD. Each is a doorway out - (i) to the world of action; (2) to the world of art, music, religious ritual, literature; and (3) to the world of externally registered thinking, from a stone circle to a nautical almanac, from a map to a census, from a calendar to a chemical balance. Men are happily of diverse moods: (1) Some have "a practical turn of mind," with, a pathological extreme in "matter-of factness" and "materialism, - but are essentially men of action, who make things hum and get things done. (2) Some are men of "feeling," going out by the emotional doorway, with a pathological extreme in "sentimentalism," but essentially men of artistic insight, and sometimes, as poets and seers, the makers and shakers of this world of ours. (3) Some are predominantly men of intellect, who "elect to know, not do," who discover causes, uniformities, laws, and who try to think things out. The pathological extreme "botanises on his mother's 'grave," as Wordsworth put it, and gibes at "proud philosophy," but there is no doubt that the makers of new knowledge have transformed human life, giving it a new freedom and fullness.

Every intellectual combatant seeks more or less resolutely to gain an all-round or synoptic view of his experience, and this is his philosophy. Our present point is that this must be for most men in a large degree a matter of temperament, according as the practical, the emotional, or the scientific mood is dominant. To return to the old-fashioned Hand, Heart, and Head, these are not only doorways old, they are portals in. For life is like a dome, always with its concave and convex side, subjective as well as objective. Thus there is the inner world of appetencies and "urges," desires and ideals, which lead externally to action; the world of feelings and emotions which lead to art; and the world of intellectual experimentation which has its external expression in, let us say, the archives of science. All these are natural and necessary expressions of the developing human spirit, and it is in the deepest sense unphilosophical to pit one against the other, or to make antitheses between the different glimpses of reality which are to be obtained from each of the three great doorways of our being.

Truly, science as science is unemotional and impersonal, and its analytic, atomising, or anatomising methods are apt, in their matter-of-factness, to seem antagonistic to artistic unities and poetical interpretations. But here must be learned the lesson of patience and open-mindedness, and here the limitations of science must be borne in mind. The poetry of the man of feeling must not contradict the formulations of the man of science, but they are speaking different languages, and we may know by feeling some aspect of reality which eludes us in scientific analysis. Our delight in fine scenery is not less real than our knowledge of the geology. Both are pathways to reality.

When science makes minor mysteries disappear, greater mysteries stand confessed. For one object of delight whose emotional value science has inevitably lessened - as Newton damaged the rainbow for Keats science gives back double. To the grand primary impressions of the world power, the immensities, the pervading order, and the universal flux, with which the man of feeling has been nurtured from of old, modern science has added thrilling impressions of manifoldness, intricacy, uniformity, inter-relatedness, and evolution. Science widens and clears the emotional window. There are great vistas to which science alone can lead, and they make for elevation of mind. The opposition between science and feeling is largely a misunderstanding. As one of our philosophers has remarked, science is in a true sense "one of the humanities."

Science and Religion 

Science seeks to discover the laws of concrete being and becoming and to state these in the simplest possible terms. These terms are either the immediate data of experience or verifiably derived from these. Religion, on the other hand, implies a recognition - practical, emotional, and intellectual - of a higher order of reality than is reached in sense-experience. It sees an unseen universe, which throws light on the riddles of the observed world. Its language is not scientific language and the two cannot be spoken at once. The concepts of religion are transcendental, those of science are empirical. The aim of religion is interpretation, not description. Religious interpretation and scientific description must not be inconsistent, but they are incommensurable. This is not falling back on the impossible solution of having idea-tight compartments; what is meant is that while the form of a religious idea, of Creation, let us say, must be congruent with the established scientific system, scientific description and religious interpretation work in two quite different "universes of discourse."

Science and Philosophy 

The philosophical outlook is synoptic; an all-round view. In other words, a philosophical system is the outcome of interpretative reflection on the whole data of our experience. Science and philosophy are complementary. To the scientific thinker philosophy is of service in helping him to recognise the limitations of his task and the assumptions with which he starts. It may save him from being easygoing in the criticism of his categories. On the other side, a modern philosophy must take account of all the far-reaching results of scientific inquiry. Thus an adequate interpretative system must have been receptive to all the influences of such conclusions as the principle of the conservation of energy, the doctrine of organic evolution, and the outstanding facts of heredity. Philosophy has of course no right to call the tune which it wishes science to play, but its task is to correlate the conclusions of science with those which may be reached in the course of practical, ethical, aesthetic, or religious experience. Philosophy begins where the experimental and observational sciences leave off, but it does not follow that philosophy in its edifice must use the building stones just as science hands them over. It is here that philosophical criticism and all-roundness must come in. Thus the results of the modern study of heredity need not be accepted in a form so crude that the inevitable outcome is fatalism; the results of modern biochemistry need not be accepted in a form so partial that they confine us to a mechanistic view of the living creature; the results of the modern study of animal behaviour need not be accepted in a form so one sided that it practically rules "mind" out of court. These are merely examples of the opportunities which philosophy has for a criticism of scientific categories - a task for which the majority of scientific investigators is poorly equipped.

To take another illustration, the principle of the conservation of energy, formulated in reference to the transformations that go on in physical experiments, must not be allowed to foreclose discussion of the question whether "mind" and "body" (if these be recognised as admissible scientific or philosophical terms) can interact in a way that really counts. And the answer given to that question, or to some similar question more satisfactorily phrased, affects the general philosophical or metaphysical theory that one holds in regard to the world as a whole and man in particular.

Similarly, when philosophy takes over from the biologist the formula of organic evolution that the present is the child of the past and the parent of the future, it is bound to scrutinise the concept of evolution and to show that it is no easy one; and it is bound to make very clear the difference between accepting the modal formula (indicative of the general mode by which the present biosphere has come about) and accepting any particular statement of the factors in the age-long process. The general fact of evolution stands firmer than ever; but inquiry into the factors is still relatively young.

Science and Life

The primary purpose of science is understanding, but knowledge is power. As Bacon said: "The end of our foundation [Salomon's House] is the knowledge of causes and the secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible." The two aspects are hardly separable. All the sciences, including mathematics, sprang from concrete experience of practical problems, and the most theoretical investigations have made the biggest differences in man's everyday life today. Wireless telegraphy, the telephone, aeroplanes, radium, antiseptics, antitoxins, spectrum analysis, and X-rays were all discovered in the course of abstractly scientific researches. If the utilitarian criterion is pressed in a short-sighted way, then, as to results, it defeats itself, And apart from this consideration, itself utilitarian, it is profitable to return to Bacon's distinction between those results of science which are of direct practical utility (fructifera) and those which are light giving (lucifera) - a distinction which led to the admirable deliverance: "Just as the vision of light itself is something more excellent and beautiful than its manifold use, so without doubt the contemplation of things as they are, without superstition or imposture, without error or confusion, is in itself a nobler thing than a whole harvest of inventions."

The old discouragement expressed in the saying that increase of knowledge is increase of sorrow has been replaced by a more robust confidence in what science may achieve in the control of life. The modern outlook is expressed in Herbert Spencer's pithy sentence: "Science is for Life, not Life for Science," or in Comte's well-known saying: "Knowledge is Foresight and Foresight is Power."

Bacon had the idea clearly in mind when he wrote in The Advancement of Learning:

"This is that which will indeed dignify and exalt knowledge if contemplation and action be more nearly and straitly conjoined and united together than they have been." And the passage ends by declaring that what is sought in science should be "a rich storehouse for the glory of the Creator and the relief of man's estate." But what is distinctively modern is the ideal of bringing the light of science to bear on man's problems all along the line, on health of mind as well as of body, on education as well as on agriculture, on ethical development as well as on the more economical exploitation and usage of natural resources, on eugenics as well as on eutopias. Just as many ills that the flesh is heir to are met no longer with folded hands, but by confident therapeutics, so over a wide range there is a promiseful application of all kinds of science to the amelioration of the conditions of human life. Great stores of wealth are awaiting the scientific "Open Sesame"; a great heightening of the standard of health will be attainable in a few generations if men of good-will take science as their torch. But wealth and health are the preconditions of true progress, which means a fuller embodiment of the true, the beautiful, and the good in lives which are increasingly a satisfaction in themselves.


The article above was taken from "The Outline of Science" edited by Sir J. Arthur Thomson and published by George Newnes Limited in 1922.


SIR RICHARD GREGORY, "Discovery, or the Spirit and Service of Science" (London, 1916).

ALEXANDER HILL, "Introduction to Science" (London, 1899).

SIR E. RAY LANKESTER, "The Kingdom of Man" (London, 19o6) and "The Advancement of Science" (1890).

C. LLOYD MORGAN, "The Interpretation of Nature" (London, 1905).

KARL PEARSON, "The Grammar of Science", rev. ed. (London, 1911).

SIR ARTHUR SCHUSTER AND SIR ARTHUR SHIPLEY, "Britain's Heritage of Science" (London, 1917).

ARTHUR THOMSON, "Introduction to Science" (London, 1912); "The Control of Life" (London, 1920) "The System of Animate Nature" (London, 1920).



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