Thursday, August 7, 2014

Morality and Science / Henri Poincare

Morality and Science*
Henri Poincaré

The dream of creating a scientific morality appeared often in the last half of the nineteenth century. It was not enough to praise the educational value of science, the benefits obtained by the human mind for its own improvement, thanks to direct commerce with truth. It was expected that science would put moral truths on an indisputable plane, along with mathematical theorems and the laws formulated by physicists.

Religions can wield a great deal of power on believers, but not everybody is a believer, for faith falls only to some, whereas reason should appeal to all. So we must address ourselves to reason, and I do not mean the reason of the metaphysician, whose constructions are brilliant but ephemeral, like soap-bubbles amusing us for an instant and then bursting. Science alone builds solidly; it, built astronomy and physics; it is building biology today; by the same procedures it will build morality. Its prescriptions will reign indivisibly; nobody will be able to murmur against them, or dream of rebelling against the moral law any more than of revolting today against the Pythagorean Theorem or law of gravitation.

But on the other side, there were people who imputed every evil possible to science and saw in it a school for immorality. The reason was not merely that science is too materialistic, or that it deprives us of the sense of respect, for we respect highly only the things we dare not look at. But its conclusions seemed to be the negation of morality. As some well-known author, whose name I forget, put it, science goes about to extinguish the lights of heaven or at least rob them of their mystery in order to reduce them to the lowly state of gas jets. Science tends to expose the tricks of the Creator who will thereby lose something of his prestige. It is not good to let children into the wings, for that might inspire doubts in them about the existence of the puppet Croquemitaine. If you let the scientists have their way, it will be the end of morality.

What are we to think of the hopes on one side of the argument and of the fears on the other side? I reply without hesitation: they are both equally vain. There can be no scientific morals; but neither can there be any immoral science. And the reason for this is simple; the reason, how else shall I put it, is simply a grammatical one.

If the premises of a syllogism are both in the indicative mood, the conclusion will also be in the indicative mood. In order for the conclusion to be put into the imperative mood, it would be necessary for at least one of the premises to be in the imperative. Now the principles of science and the postulates of geometry are and can only be in the indicative; this is also the mood in which experimental truths are stated, and at the base of the sciences, there is not and cannot be any other mood. Whence it follows, that no matter how the subtlest dialectician wishes to juggle and combine these principles, one on top of the other, everything he concludes will be in the indicative. He will never obtain a proposition which will say: Do this or do not do that; that is to say, he will not produce a proposition which confirms or contradicts morals.

This difficulty is one that moralists often encounter. They try hard to demonstrate moral law; they must be pardoned because that is their vocation. They wish to rest morals on something, as if it could be made to rest on anything but itself. Science shows us that man can only degrade himself by living in such and such a manner; but what if I don't care about degrading myself, or if what you call degrading I baptize as a mark of progress? Metaphysics invites us to conform to the universal law of the moral order it claims to have discovered; but one can reply, I prefer to obey my own personal law. I don't know what metaphysics will reply, but I can assure you that it will not have the last word.

Will religious ethics be more fortunate than science or metaphysics? Obey because God orders it, and because he is a master who breaks down all resistance. Is that a demonstration, and can we not maintain that it is in vain to stand up against Omnipotence, or that in the duel between Jupiter and Prometheus the true conqueror is the tortured Prometheus? But then to yield to force is not to obey, and the obedience of the heart cannot be coerced.
[ Or, put more simply, have faith in the heart...  :) - mike ]
* From Denières Pensées. Translated by Philip P. Wiener.