Percy Williams Bridgman has come out with a volume this year called The Way Things Are. Bridgman is a physicist, a Harvard Nobel laureate, who has produced such books as The Logic of Modern Physics, The Intelligent Individual and Society, and a collection of articles, Reflections of a Physicist. The review in The New York Times Book Review (Mar. 1, 1959) is by T. V. Smith, recently retired from the philosophy faculty of Syracuse University, who writes with great approval not only of Bridgman but of the thesis of Bridgman’s book. He calls Bridgman the “philosopher’s scientist of our generation.” He describes Bridgman as a man “who has outgrown physics by following the argument where it led him.” It is a nice thought—outgrowing physics, especially when suggested by a Syracuse philosopher commenting on a Harvard professor.
The first part of Bridgman’s book reviews the situation today in the field of physics. Bridgman uses the findings of physics to work over the fields of methodology and logic with particular interest in probability. He is, indeed, “the philosopher’s scientist” and says some devastating things to fellow scientists about their overconfidence both in their findings and in their conclusions. Physicists will find this book irritating but also cathartic in Aristotle’s sense.
In the second part of the book Bridgman moves from the field of physics to the field of psychology and in the latter part of the book he turns to sociology. I think his attempt is to move in unbroken line from physics to psychology to sociology with one discipline serving as foundation for the next. I question very strenuously whether he has the right so to do, to insist, for example, that psychology can be subjected to the methods of the physics lab and that sociology is simply the multiplication of many psyches to make a society. But even if he believes he can move from the physics lab to the psychology lab to the sociological lab, it is my opinion that in his book he does so very badly. The book’s value seems to be on three levels. On the first level, as nearly as I can judge—and I cannot judge as a physicist—Bridgman is very fateful in what he finds and what this means. In psychology, less careful.
When he finally moves to sociological implications he seems to have abandoned the care with which he treated the section on physics. To a friend I suggested that in the first part of the book (which is the major portion) Bridgman is getting material out of his own lab; in the second portion he is taking careful notes from some friends down the hall who are carrying on their own researches in psychology; in the third part he has gone down to the commons room and is “shooting the breeze” about “the way things are” in government, society, and politics.
What really bothers me about this book is the complete evasion of things theological. Philosophers are happy because a physicist has to pursue truth far beyond the field of physics. But why stop with philosophy and the contemplation of logic or probability? In both title and thesis, the idea of God ought to be an idea seriously met even if, later, for necessary reasons, discarded. But in dealing with physics Bridgman touches on God ever so lightly, in the section on psychology he gives God the back of his hand, and by the end of the book you have sensed disdain toward all things religious. He is very polite on these matters, but purposely devastating in the cynical touch here and there. He may be rightly critical regarding some expressions of religion, even as one could be easily critical of uncritical physics. But knowledge and wisdom have to do with making these very distinctions. If I am to judge physics from the writings of the Nobel laureate of Harvard, then I could suggest that he judge theology at least on the level of Temple and Oman. The undercurrent attitude is that a man who turns his attention to the things of God proves himself not quite bright. Books like this tell us very clearly the assumptions of the mind of our times which must be reached and made slave to the mind of Christ.
Some other religious implications are evident. “It is the nature of knowledge to be subject to uncertainty,” says Bridgman, and he suggests the converse of this, namely, that such knowledge as we do have is highly personal and subjective. Indeed, basic to his treatment of physics are probability and relativity. Probability keeps us from knowledge in any absolute sense, and relativity keeps all knowledge relative to the observer and time of his observation. Here, with a vengeance, we have subjectivity and existentialism, and the objectivity of method or the absolutes of our findings are gone. Coming out of the physics lab with researches independent of modern theological thought, Bridgman unwittingly adds to our theological problems. Add to this his general viewpoint on man reduced to the physics of psychology, a refined behaviorism. Make this thinking machine a part of every so-called objective study, and behold “The Way Things Are”—a universe in which the subject-observer is always a part of the objective analysis, and this observer in turn a complex mechanism behavioristically determined. Then Bridgman’s high hopes for man’s good sense in sociological relationships are naive. The religious concern with man, sin, redemption, the hope of fellowship—these become totally irrelevant.
We may decry philosophical theologians of our day as over against old-line biblical or systematic theologians. But the man represented by Bridgman’s book will be reached first by the Tillichs and the Niebuhrs. If apologetics is to reach a man where he is, and bring him where we think he ought to be, then apologetics in the philosophical deeps demands such men first. The Way Things Really Are either does or does not include the possibilities of Christianity—the possibility of the spirit, the supernatural revelation, moral responsibility, knowledge of God, final judgment and hope—and the current debate is taking place there.
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