Views of an Agnostic
by: Ross E. Browne
This is part 3 of Ross E. Browne's 1915 book, Views of an Agnostic.
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I have the highest respect for that method of investigation which takes for its basic data the carefully established evidences of our senses; looks for similarities and differences among the phenomena observed, leading to classifications and generalizations ; calls into action the ingenuity of the mind in inventing hypotheses to account for ‘the relations established; applies deductive methods of reasoning to determine necessary consequences ; modifies such hypotheses, if necessary, to make their consequences conformable with all known facts ; adopts these hypotheses provisionally and applies them to new problems with the view of discovering new facts, etc. The working hypotheses thus established are always subject to modification, rejection, or fuller acceptance, in the light of new experience.
This is known as the “scientific method.” It involves many trial balances between the results of inductive and deductive reasoning. It teaches us the importance of being sure of the accuracy and sufficiency of our facts before we rely upon the results of logical reasoning based upon them.
The scientist is ,generally averse to mere speculation without good foundation in fact. He is opposed to waste of effort in fields hopelessly beyond the reach of scientific method. He devotes himself mainly to work on or near to the confines of established knowledge, rather than to the effort to comprehend subjects entirely unattached. He is not in sympathy with guesswork and analogy in fields wherein the results of speculation are evidently beyond his powers of practical test or verification. He guards against the biasing influences of sentiment and desire.
The value of the scientific method is exhibited in its results. It has been the means of establishing most of the useful knowledge we now possess concerning our bodies and the things which surround us, and the laws which, govern them. It has furnished the knowledge which enables the utilization of the forces of nature on a large scale for the benefit of man. It has been the most potent influence in modern progress.
The philosophers, by their metaphysical work, have contributed relatively little toward the practical improvement of the condition of man. They began at the wrong end of the problem. They have been, as a rule, men of the most remarkable power in deductive reasoning, and intellectually among the ablest men of their times, and it was doubtless owing to the brilliancy of their minds that they were not satisfied to limit their foundations to the meager assemblage of established facts.
Some of these philosophers, however, aside from their speculative work, have rendered service of great practical value to mankind by advancing our knowledge of mathematics and kindred subjects, notably Descartes and Leibnitz. Mathematics is the simplest of all sciences. The data upon which it is based-the axioms-are so few in number, and so evident, that little of the plodding industry of the inductive method was required in establishing a basis, and the science, on account of the simplicity of its foundation, was the first to be developed. Generally speaking, deductive speculation is more fascinating than inductive work, as Mark Twain would say, “It yields a larger return of conjecture for a smaller outlay of fact,” and formerly much time was wasted in attempting to develop sciences, other than mathematics, by deductive methods, before proper foundations were laid. It was after many signal failures that the great importance of the inductive method was recognized by such men as Roger Bacon, Galileo, Newton, and others. We owe the bulk of our knowledge of natural phenomena to the untiring industry of such men, and their followers, in the last three or four centuries.
The scientist, through his work in physiology and psychology, is slowly but surely invading the field that was formerly considered the exclusive property of the metaphysician. Some day the two may meet upon common ground and agree upon a few practical lines of demarkation between the known and the unknown - the knowable and the unknowable. The spreading of an authoritative statement’ defining the limitation of our knowledge, in simple commonplace language, might be an effective step in the direction of eliminating from the mind of the average layman much undue concern regarding the unknowable. Such concern is not, as a rule, conducive to mental health.