Science and Philosophy

(Part 2 of 4 in our series marking the fiftieth anniversary of Pauling’s delivery of the Messenger Lectures.)

Above all else, Linus Pauling considered himself to be a man of rational thought. The Ava Helen and Linus Pauling Papers are filled notebooks and manuscripts detailing Pauling’s ideas on practical manners (such as reflective road signs), matters of legality and morality (including diversity and racism in the United States), and philosophical questions (such as this refutation of solipsism). Over the course of his long life, Pauling trained himself to think critically about every question within his reach, even going so far as to advocate thinking about problems through dreams.

In his first Messenger Lecture, entitled “Science and Philosophy,” Pauling chose to approach philosophy itself through the lens of hard science. In order to do so, however, he first found it necessary to define science. “Science,” he claimed, is the “knowledge, understanding, and appreciation of the world.” He argued that appreciation, defined as an “accurate perception, true estimation, [or] evaluation” is a key component of science in that it requires the scientist to be able to both collect and interpret facts and to critically evaluate the value (be it practical, moral, or other) of that interpretation.

Unlike some of his contemporaries, Pauling actively engaged in intellectual conversations outside of his own field of expertise. In particular, he found himself drawn to philosophy and became interested in the work of philosophers of science such as Alfred Stern and, later, Karl Popper. The Messenger Lectures allowed him to focus this interest and apply it to a structured, well-developed dialogue with his fellow intellectuals. Rather than building his talks on a foundation of opinions and personal experiences, Pauling chose to rely on the works of established philosophers, approaching their writings and ideas through the lens of his scientific training.

Citing P.W. Bridgman’s The Way Things Are, Pauling argued that philosophy can act to challenge the significance of self and, in some cases, both depress and demean the human spirit. “I myself,” he claimed, “have been depressed by the old philosophical writings. Now I no longer am depressed, because I think that I understand them, and that I can now decide how they should be interpreted, and how much time and effort should be devoted to them.”

Pauling found that, despite his lack of training as a philosopher, he could in fact approach complex philosophical concepts.

He explained that “The basic fact is that philosophy must be based on science – it includes science (the relation of man as subject and the objective world includes the nature of the objective world).” While he did not argue that philosophy is itself a science, he suggested that science – what Pauling referred to as “the study of the world in an objective manner” – necessarily affects our core understanding of philosophy. As such, he claimed that the disciplines of philosophy and science should be merged, allowing the tenets of scientific methodology to guide philosophical thought.

Finally, he concluded that, “Philosophy is the subjective study of the world by man.” Everyone, he said, studies the world in some way, be it through profession, hobby, or simple curiosity. Therefore, anyone who hopes to reach some measure of truth, and is willing to apply their intellect to this search, may call themselves a philosopher, regardless of background or training.

Click here for all of our posts on the Messenger Lectures.  For more information on Linus Pauling, please visit the Linus Pauling Online Portal or the Special Collections homepage.

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