Saving Scientists: A Roycean Critique of the Metaphysical Obligations of Scientists


Scientists are generally believed to be concerned with facts, and the scientific community is generally thought to be the group of all persons so engaged and concerned.  Mystics, psychics, theologians, or even philosophers are not usually considered to be scientists.  Scientists, it is thought, work on questions such as, "How can we cure and even prevent cancer?" while questions such as, "What is the meaning of life?" are left to others to consider.  The result is that scientists are allowed, or possibly even required, to abnegate responsibility for "metaphysical" questions.  I will briefly examine what I take to be a common conception of the scientific community (Kuhn's) and use the philosophy of Josiah Royce to argue that scientists, simply by virtue of practicing "science," are already implicated in the questions they are quick to dismiss.  Specifically, I will show that all inquirers, including scientists, are seeking salvation.

Scientists are generally conceived of as wearing lab coats, participating in experiments (usually involving beakers) and concerned with empirical matters.  Or, in less philosophic language, it is generally believed by most folks that scientists, whether or not they wear lab coats and use beakers, are concerned with facts.  The scientific community, then, is generally conceived of as the group of all persons so engaged and concerned.  We would not generally think of mystics, psychics, theologians, or even philosophers as scientists.[1]  Scientists, it is thought, work on questions such as, "How can we cure and even prevent cancer?" or, "What is the nature of the universe?" while questions such as, "What is the meaning of life?" and, "Is there a God?" are left to others – maybe even philosophers – to toil over.  Questions that are not thought to be empirically answerable are generally dismissed as speculative in a society where the intellectual authority is placed squarely in the scientific camp.  The result is that scientists are allowed, or possibly even required, to abnegate responsibility for very large, and perhaps more important, questions in life.  I will briefly examine what I take to be a common conception of the scientific community (that of Thomas Kuhn) and use the philosophy of Josiah Royce to argue that scientists, by virtue of practicing "science," are already implicated in the questions they are quick to dismiss.  Specifically, I will show that all inquirers, including scientists, are seeking salvation.

Kuhn argues that scientific communities are demarcated by paradigms, which, while complex[2], are at least the background conditions shared by scientists as well as the beliefs and research programs that both determine and constrain the type of work that is done in the field of Science.  Specifically, Kuhn states:

[O]ne of the things a scientific community acquires with a paradigm is a criterion for choosing problems that, while he paradigm is taken for granted, can be assumed to have a solution [e.g. puzzles].  To a great extent these are the only problems that the community will admit as scientific or encourage its members to undertake.  Other problems, including many that had been previously standard, are rejected as metaphysical, as the concern of another discipline, or sometimes as just too problematic to be worth the time.  A paradigm can, for that matter, even insulate the community from those socially important problems that are not reducible to the puzzle form, because they cannot be stated in terms of the conceptual and instrumental tools the paradigm supplies (Kuhn 37, emphasis added).[3]

Nicholas Maxwell has recently argued that regardless of the philosophy underlying contemporary science, the current paradigm demarcating the global scientific community is one of "Standard Empiricism."  Within the paradigm of Standard Empiricism, Maxwell claims that, "[N]o substantial thesis about the nature of the universe can be upheld as a part of scientific knowledge independently of empirical considerations, and certainly not in violation of empirical considerations" (Maxwell 382).  In other words, the evidence considered in scientific inquiry is necessarily empirical.  Conversely, scientists are, by nature of their inquiry, concerned with things that can be "verified" empirically (debates within the philosophy of science regarding verification aside).[4]

So, if it is the case that the current "global" paradigm demarcating the "global" scientific community is one of Standard Empiricism, and Kuhn is correct in his assertion that questions not condoned by a scientific community (or determined by a given paradigm) will be dismissed as "metaphysical" or relegated to the work of non-scientific disciplines, then we can see that questions regarding topics such as "the meaning of life" will be dismissed as non-scientific, insofar as this question, at this time, has no foreseeable, empirically verifiable answer.[5]  They will be left to philosophers, theologians, and others to ponder, presumably without decisive settlement, and without end.  In Kuhn's terminology, these kinds of questions would be considered "problems" within the given paradigm of Standard Empiricism (that have no guaranteed solution), rather than the puzzles.  Puzzles, which necessarily have a solution, are the queries and issues on which practitioners of normal, mature science spend their time.

Now, Royce would not necessarily disagree with Kuhn and his belief that scientific communities are demarcated by paradigms.  Royce would most likely add the assertion that scientists are implicated in metaphysical as well as physical questions, or, in Kuhnian language, that scientists are already involved in "problems" simply by virtue of their inquiry into "puzzles."  In Roycean terms, Kuhnian "paradigms" are actually causes, and the existence of scientific communities, are, at base, grounded in the fact that human beings, including scientists, are frequently wrong

For one to be wrong, one must first make some claim about something.  The person making the claim is in the somewhat strange situation of both knowing the "something" well enough to make this judgment, but also not knowing the "something" well enough to be wrong about it.  The knower (person making the claim) believes her claim to be accurate.  That is, she believes her claim to correctly match or "hookup with" the object of her claim.  She, however, is unable to judge individually whether her claim actuallymatches its object, for she already believes that it does, given the information currently available to her.  She intends her claim to remain accurate in the context of a "larger insight"[6], a greater body of knowledge, a bigger picture, but is unable to provide this greater body of knowledge independently – she requires another perspective to determine if her claim is wrong.

This new perspective necessary for detecting error stands as a third, outside of the original dyadic knowing relation of knowledge claim and object.  The new perspective must know both the claim being made and the intended object of the claim (call these claim a and object a), in order to detect the mismatch between the two, or an error.  If it were not for this third, errors could not be detected – it is the third that provides the "larger insight" or bigger picture.  The third then makes a judgment (which becomes claim b) about the accuracy of the claim a – object a relation.  Namely, do they match?  Claim b may then be itself either accurate or inaccurate, since it now stands itself as a claim about the accuracy of the original claim a.  This claim, if it is to be in error, must also be subject to judgment by still another perspective, which would then pass judgment c with its intended object c as the b relation, and so on.

The question then arises as to who this third, new perspective is.  The person judging the accuracy of claims in relation to their intended objects is a person that is connected or dedicated to, interested in, knowledgeable of, the claim and intended object.  If the person were not concerned in some way with the information relayed by the claim, the need to determine the accuracy of the claim would be unnecessary and superfluous.  Persons involved in judging the accuracy of claims must enter willingly into such a position or role.  While I might be coerced to act in the interests of swans, I cannot be forced to care about swans. 

Those persons that do choose to participate in the conversations regarding a specific subject can be understood to hold that subject – that group of judgments and claims[7] – as a cause in Roycean terms, or something to which they willingly devote themselves, and the group of persons sharing such devotion constitute a community.  A community, then, is both defined and unified by the shared cause – it transforms a simple group of persons into a community. 

The "global" scientific community, then, is the community of persons dedicated to the cause of "science," which currently, if we are to believe Maxwell, includes a dedication to Standard Empiricism.  An individual scientist, working in isolation, may make an independent discovery, but her experiments (and discovery) must be repeated and conclusions empirically "verified" by others in the scientific community for the information to be included in scientific canon.  The same relationship holds for all persons engaged in a search for "truth" of one sort or another.  Persons engaged in religious inquiries participate in the same triadic epistemological relationships, although the subject matter of their inquiries might be said to be the nature of the Divine rather than the nature of nature.

That such a "larger view" exists must be the case insofar as we believe any statement can be true or false, right or wrong.  It is not posited for convenience, nor is it conjured simply to make the system "work."  Whatever is real, this "larger insight" is real.  Royce explains, "True is the judgment that is confirmed by the larger view to which it appeals.  False is the assertion that is not thus confirmed.  Upon such a conception the very ideas of truth and error depend.  Without such a conception truth and error have no sense" (SRI 109).  Further, "That such an insight is real, must be presupposed even in order to assert that our present opinions are errors... If there is no such world-possessing insight, then, once more, your opinions about the world are neither true nor false" (SRI 113).  In other words, some such "larger insight" must actually exist insofar as we make any appeal to truth or falsity.  To deny that such an insight exists is to implicitly appeal to it – that is, if the claim that such a "larger insight" does not exist must itself rely upon some "larger insight" to be true. 

That we do not already possess this "larger insight" is a result of a "narrowness of view" to which humans are subject due to the type of consciousness we possess.  Our capacity to think is, while powerful, at the same time rather limited.  We are unable to process or analyze all of the information presented to us at any one time.  Consequently, we are forced to select which information will be reasoned about in any given moment.  The selection process itself is subject to error, insofar as we often do not select wisely.  For instance, if I am driving a car and selectively focus on the conversation I am engaged in rather than the visual stimuli of the rapidly approaching truck in my lane, I have chosen unwisely.  But even when the selection process is a "good" one, the selection itself excludes additional input and information that may be pertinent to or even alter the situation at hand.  And yet, "We are always rebelling at our own form of consciousness, so long as we are trying to know or to do anything significant" (SRI 261). 

Further, it is precisely the moments in which we recognize our narrowness that motivate us to seek the larger insight.  Whenever we notice the limitations of our individual lives, when we acknowledge our errors, when we recognize that our concerns are not the concerns of humanity as a whole, when we question the meaning of life, we recognize our need for something larger than ourselves.  In these moments we both know ourselves and are aware that there is something more than ourselves – the larger insight.  Moments of error, grief, guilt, and darkest despair are, according to Royce, the moments in which we are most aware of our need for salvation.

Perhaps from what has been said, one might guess that Royce's salvation is not the same as the salvation peddled by the likes of Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell.  Rather, Royce believes that salvation is sought by all persons, more or less effectively, including those engaged in scientific inquiry.  He explains:

The idea that man needs salvation depends, in fact, upon two simpler ideas whereof the main idea is constituted.  The first is the idea that there is some end or aim of human life which is more important than all other aims, so that, by comparison with this aim all else is secondary and subsidiary, and perhaps relatively unimportant, or even vain and empty.  The other idea is this: That man as he now is, or as he naturally is, is in great danger of so missing this highest aim as to render his whole life a senseless failure by virtue of this coming short of his true goal (SRI 12).

The need for salvation is felt by persons in any variety of professions and undertakings, where those undertakings seek communion with a unity that transcends the both the individuals and the immediate groups of individuals.  We are unable to attain this communion individually, or even with the help of other individual humans insofar as we are limited by our humanity.  We suffer from the aforementioned narrowness of view, and are, consequently, fallible creatures.  And yet we persist in seeking something larger than ourselves, something superhuman – we persist in our attempt to transcend our own fallibility.  The continued persistence in these undertakings is the seeking of salvation.

While it may seem somewhat odd or perhaps even counterintuitive to think of scientific communities and pursuits in terms of salvation, Royce disagrees for two reasons.  He suggests, "The word salvation is fitting, because the need is so great and because the transformation would be so profound.  The endlessly various interpretations of this one ideal [salvation] and of the nature of the saving process are due to the wealth of life and to the imposing multitude of motives and of experiences..." (SRI 53).  A scientific community completely in line with the "larger insight" to which I keep referring would be an infallible community – a profound transformation, indeed.  Further, we ought not be surprised that there exists a wide variety of ways (religious, philosophic, scientific, and others) in which salvation is sought simply because human beings are themselves a varied bunch, and, of course, narrow in view.  That a person is raised in one faith rather than another, or in no faith at all, in no way means that person is precluded from feeling the need for salvation.  This person may simply seek salvation through different avenues.  The need, again, is a result of human nature rather than "religious" dogma.  Consequently, all attentive human beings will sense this need.

Royce's salvation, then, may also be understood in terms of meaning.  That is, the felt need for salvation is a need for meaning, and the quest for salvation is a quest for meaning in one's life.  This equation follows if we understand "meaning" in terms of one's place in a larger whole.  When one seeks the clichéd "meaning of life," one usually wants to know the reason for one's existence in relation to the "big picture" – be the "big picture" understood in terms of the cosmic universe or God's creation.  Royce explains, "My thesis is essentially this, that you cannot rationally conceive what human experience is, and means, except by regarding it as the fragment of an experience that is infinitely richer than ours, and that possesses a world-embracing unity and completeness of constitution" (SRI 137, emphasis added). 

Notice that seeking to understand one's relation to the "larger insight" is not necessarily seeking to understand one's relation to a Christian God.  However, what, exactly, the "larger community" is, remains to be addressed, and needs to be dealt with in a more complex explication of Royce's loyalty, community and interpretation than can be provided here.  It will be helpful, though, to sketch briefly some of the possibilities for the "larger insight." 

The "larger insight" is at least a community, and, more appropriately, an infinite community.  Recall that every opinion (assertion) requires something outside of the dyadic knowing relation (a third) to judge its accuracy.  This third makes an assertion regarding the accuracy of the original opinion, and this, too, is subject to evaluation by something larger.  Royce explains that, "at least in ideal, the social process involved is endless" (PC 290).  In other words, the evaluation of assertions is infinite, and all persons involved in such evaluations form a community that is also infinite.  If this community is considered in its entirety, one can argue that the infinite Community of Interpretation is the "larger insight" of which Royce speaks.

Some will argue, though, that Royce necessarily considers the "larger insight" to be a divine entity, and perhaps an incarnation of the Absolute present in his earlier work.  Throughout The Sources of Religious Insight Royce refers to the "larger insight" with terms such as the "divine will" (SRI 160), and "the master of life" (SRI 209), all of which tend to evoke a God-like entity.  These descriptions, however, are not necessarily incompatible with the claim that the "larger insight" is actually an infinite community.  To refer to the "larger insight" as one will rather than an infinite collection of wills is unproblematic insofar as members of a given community share a common cause, and align their wills with this cause.  Royce explicitly describes communities as possessing minds and wills of their own in The Problem of Christianity.  He writes, "A community is... a sort of live unit, that has organs, as the body of an individual has organs... Each of the two, the community or the individual member, is as much a live creature as is the other.  Not only does the community live, it has a mind f its own..." (PC 80).  Further, it can be argued that by the writing of The Sources of Religious Insight, Royce's conception of the Absolute had been transformed into an infinite Community of Interpretation, although the details of this argument are beyond the scope f this paper.

So according to Royce, all communities are seeking salvation – not just the religious community, or even worse, one particular religious community.  Insofar as both the scientific and religious communities organize themselves and their pursuits in light of the "larger insight" and attempt to align themselves with this insight they actively pursue meaning and salvation.  Religious communities may seek meaning more explicitly in the traditional understanding of the word salvation, that is, religion is grounded in the explicit belief that humans ought to be saved (SRI 8-9).  But the "global" scientific community is also a community seeking meaning, which can be understood in the Roycean terms of salvation.  In other words, scientists are already implicated in metaphysical inquiries, by nature of their physical inquiries, and cannot arbitrarily restrict their obligations.  Scientific communities can no longer defer to religion or elsewhere when "difficult" questions are posed – namely questions with no apparent empirical answer.  Questions of meaning belong in the laboratory as much as they belong in mosques, temples, cathedrals and philosophy classrooms.  It might be suggested that it is impractical, and, perhaps even impossible, for scientists to be concerned with "why" as well as "how" questions.  My claim is not that every scientist ought to attempt to answer all questions.  Rather, my claim is that in attempting to answer a circumscribed set of questions, the scientist both admits to the existence of a superhuman community, and desires that superhuman community's knowledge.  Her focus is on a certain set of questions (as it must be for science to progress).  But she cannot not say, "I seek the larger insight in these affairs, but I seek it not in others."  Her original question is itself evidence of her search for salvation – it is evidence that she recognizes her limitations as well as the possibility of transcending those limitations.

Science is, at base, an attempt to understand our "place," within a larger framework, as well as the larger framework itself (which, of course, requires an even larger framework), and this is, necessarily, a quest for meaning and salvation in Roycean terms.  In closing, though, I turn briefly and quickly to a different American philosopher – Alfred North Whitehead, who, I think, beautifully echoes Royce's philosophy:

The faith in the order of nature which has made possible the growth of science is a particular example of a deeper faith.  This faith cannot be justified by any inductive generalization.  It springs from the direct inspection of the nature of things as disclosed in our own immediate present experience.  There is no parting from your own shadow.  To experience this faith is to know that in being ourselves we are more than ourselves: to know that our experience, dim and fragmentary as it is, yet sounds the utmost depths of reality... (Whitehead 18).

Works Cited

Kuhn, Thomas S. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, 2nd edition.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970. 

Maxwell, Nicholas.  "The Need for a Revolution in the Philosophy of Science," Journal for General Philosophy of Science.  33: 381-408, 2002.

Royce, Josiah.  The Problem of Christianity.  1913.  Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2001.

Royce, Josiah.  The Sources of Religious Insight.  1912.  Washington, D.C.: The Catholic University of America Press, 2001.

Whitehead, Alfred North.  Science and the Modern World.  1925.  New York: The Free Press, 1967.

[1] I do not here mean to enter the ongoing debate in philosophy of science regarding the demarcation of science from other fields.  I am speaking only in generalities, and am concerned in this paper with what might be considered paradigmatic scientists and scientific communities.  I acknowledge that the edges are notoriously fuzzy, but do not feel that this detracts from my argument.

[2] Margaret Masterman has famously critiqued Kuhn for using the word "paradigm" in 22 different ways in the first edition of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  Kuhn attempts to address this critique in the 1969 postscript to the same book, but "paradigm" retains at least two primary uses, with subtleties within these primary cases.

[3]Given Kuhn's belief that paradigms exist on various levels, from "global" paradigms to paradigms within scientific specialties, the corresponding scientific communities exist at various levels, as well.  There is a "global" scientific community (Kuhn 177), which Kuhn claims is the community of all natural scientists.  There are also communities consisting of those persons within specific disciplines within science, such as biologists, chemists, etc.  And, as one might predict, there are communities of specialists within larger disciplines, such as organic chemists, marine biologists, and the like.  For the purposes of this paper, though, I am concerned with Kuhn's "global" community.  Additionally, I understand that the adjective "global" is potentially misleading, and that the entity to which I refer is actually an overarching, contemporary, Western scientific community.

[4] It will be quickly asserted that there is more to science than simple empirical verification.  For instance, values such as simplicity and unity play a crucial role in both the selection of evidence and formation of theories.  Maxwell himself admits this, and I deny none of it.  I am simply trying to frame an underlying paradigm that influences and constrains paradigmatic scientists, and this paradigm includes, but is not limited to, empirical evidence.  It might be further suggested that the "global" scientific community is demarcated by methodology.  As will be shown, this is not problematic nor is it contradictory, insofar as methodology can be understood as a cause in the Roycean sense or as a component of a paradigm in the Kuhnian sense.

[5] It is certainly the case that this question might have an empirically based or verifiable answer, although I think it safe to say that most folks don't think of this question as empirically answerable.

[6] Royce states, "One can express the matter by saying, that you're trying, through your opinions, to predict what a larger insight, if it were present to you, would show or would find... any expression of opinion, made at any time, is an appeal of the self of the moment to the verdict, to the estimate, to the experience of the larger and better informed insight, in light of which the self proposes to be judged" ).

[7] Judgments and claims are understood throughout this paper pragmatically (rather than positivistically), meaning that a "claim" consists of not only the proposition, but also the attitude and comportment engendered by the proposition.  For example, the group of claims and judgments comprising the cause "vegetarianism" include propositions such as "one should treat animals humanely" as well as the act of not eating meat.