SHAW The Annual of Bernard Shaw Studies 23 (2003) 59-64
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Is the Holy Ghost a Scientific Fact?
Why Shaw's Creative Evoultion Might Become the Scientific Religion of the Twenty-First Century
Despite the sweeping sound of my subtitle, my project today is simply stated: to defend a single outrageous statement by Bernard Shaw. As you all know, he was rather fond of making outrageous statements, of expressing his ideas in the most startling and paradoxical ways. He made this particular audacious declaration in the Preface to Back to Methuselah. He said, "the Holy Ghost is a scientific fact." 1 Shavians and others sympathetic to some form of vitalism are apt to accept this as forgivable hyperbole, but I propose to defend it as a literal statement of the truth: the Holy Ghost is not merely a fact but is a scientific fact.
Given our assumptions—even the assumptions of Shavians—this assertion appears an obvious paradox, an incompatible equation of opposites. The Holy Ghost is vague, indefinable, and unobservable, while science is exact, rigorous, and verifiable. It is hard to imagine even what it might mean to think of a spiritual entity as scientific, but I would like to propose, as a beginning, that to say that the Holy Ghost is a scientific fact is to assert that it is something susceptible to scientific investigation. That is the proposition I wish to defend.
Now I must say at the outset that I cannot, in the time allotted to me, offer a complete argument. I cannot address every conceivable or even every reasonable objection to my thesis. I can only offer an outline of an argument, but I hope that I will at least make you aware of possibilities that may not have entered your consciousness.
To resolve this seeming paradox we must first closely examine our two terms. We must ask precisely, What is the Holy Ghost and what is a scientific [End Page 59] fact? The difficulty arises because we start out with unquestioned but unnecessary assumptions about both terms. To be scientific our assertions must be specific, rigorous, analytical, and predictable, but they need not be mechanistic. That is the unnecessary assumption: that those genuine requirements of science I first mentioned entail the last one; that rigor and predictability imply mechanistic determinism.
It is fairly easy to describe the first term, or at least to say what it was Shaw meant by it. The Holy Ghost is simply what Shaw ordinarily called the Life Force, but that is still far too indeterminate a concept to be scientific. Indeed, the most telling criticism of Vitalism—the belief in a Life Force—has always been that the concept is impossibly vague. It need not be. It is easy to define the essential characteristic of the Life Force: purpose. The Life Force—thus the Holy Ghost—is simply a teleological principle in the universe that is manifest in living things, although it could conceivably be immanent in all that exists.
Why should we believe in such a force? What would lead us to imagine that it is a "fact"? The fundamental argument is Don Juan's, in the dream scene of Man and Superman. In their long argument, the Devil tells Don Juan: "You think, because you have a purpose, Nature must have one. You might as well expect it to have fingers and toes because you have them." Don Juan replies: "I, my friend, am as much a part of Nature as my own finger is a part of me." 2
Now this is a far more compelling and cogent argument than is generally supposed. If the universe is without purpose, as the mechanists insist, and I am part of the universe, as seems self-evident, either my own purposes are illusory or purpose can somehow be created out of purposelessness. Either I only think that I behave purposefully when in fact I am purposeless, or my...