by Kenneth Boulding

William James, in his famous book, The Varieties of Religious Experience, writes (page 7):”The Quaker religion…is something which it is impossible to overpraise. In a day of shams it was a religion of veracity rooted in spiritual inwardness, and a return to something more like the original gospel truth than men had ever known in England.” I am not sure that we have always lived up to his good opinion of us, but his identification of two outstanding characteristics of Quakerism—veracity and spiritual inwardness—was a profound insight. Veracity is not the same thing as truth. Veracity is not telling lies. Truth is not being in error. Of truth we can never be sure, especially as the systems among them become more and more complex. Veracity we can hope to attain. Veracity is to make our outward communication correspond closely to our inward state. It is to avoid pretense and deceit, propaganda or misleading eloquence, to try to say what we mean and to mean what we say, and to make our lives transparent. This is a possible ideal. As Cecil Henshaw has pointed out, what distinguished Friends of the seventeenth-century from their Puritan neighbors, whom they so much resembled, was not so much mysticism (though there were mystics among them) as perfectionism, the passion to be free from sin, to realize the full human potential. This is a dangerous passion and it can easily lead into corruption and self-deceit. Perfect love is rarely given to human beings and perfect knowledge never, but veracity is within our reach and many of the practices, customs, and organizations of the Society of Friends can be interpreted in terms of a love of veracity, in that words and deeds would correspond to the reality that lay within.

The rise of science is a much larger phenomenon in human history than the rise of the Society of Friends, but it is also a spiritual movement. Its ethic is remarkably similar. Science is a movement of veracity rooted in the curiosity about the outward world rather than rooted in inward conviction, but veracity played a very important role and continues to do so. The one unforgivable sin in the scientific community is the deliberate falsification of results in the interest of personal prestige or even a treasured and much beloved theory. A scientist caught out in deliberate deceit never really gets back into the scientific community. Lies are unforgivable.

The great danger of the Society of Friends and of all sects based on inwardness is the danger of mistaking inward conviction for outward truth. It is possible to be wholly veracious and yet in error, that is, to hold sincerely an image of the world which is not true. Nevertheless, without veracity error is harder to reduce. Veracity is a necessary, though not a sufficient, condition for the reduction of error. George Fox was well aware of this problem. Faced with the catastrophic example of the Ranters, for whom the inward conviction was the only evidence necessary for truth, Fox instituted meetings for business. He thus set up an apparatus whereby the light of one person would be checked against the light of others, hoping that consensus would be a guarantor of truth. Unfortunately, not even consensus can guarantee truth, even though it is a real protection against the gross errors which may arise in the unchecked imaginations of the individual. It is perhaps the key to the scientific revolution that the scientific community devised means for the testing of error which went beyond consensus and indeed could challenge it.

There are a number of practices within the scientific community by which it is hoped to detect error. The most familiar perhaps is experiment, by which a theory is tested in a carefully controlled situation. The experiment must be subject to constant criticism of design and capable of replication. Experiments always involve some prediction. We learn very little that is new from success in prediction–this merely confirms what we knew already. Failure of prediction, however, is of enormous importance, as it involves reorganization of our image of the world. Thus the famous Michelson-Morley experiment on the velocity of light forced a reorganization of the whole body of physics to account for the fact that the velocity of light did not depend on its direction.

Experiment, however, is not the only method of science. There is also careful observation and recordings of events in space and time and interpretation of these events through statistical and other forms of analysis. A very important method, particularly in complex systems, is that of random sampling, by which we seek to transcend our personal experience and obtain more accurate information about large systems which cannot be observed in their totality. Measurement and quantification have been important in science because they assist in the abstract description of large and complex systems. They are not, however, the only methods of description, and the real world constantly involves structures and patterns which must be described by means other than simple measurement.

Science, therefore, represents an ethical and spiritual movement very much in line with the movement which gave rise to the Society of Friends. And it is certainly no accident that the Society has contributed to science far out of proportion to its members. The scientific community, like any subculture, can fall short of its ideals. Scientists, like Quakers, are also human beings, with the weaknesses to which our species is subject. But the ideals constantly stand to check deviations from them.

The social sciences share the ethic and the methodology of the scientific community, but the fact that they deal with systems of immense complexity sharpens their methodology but makes their results more tentative. They are not Johnny-come-latelies; they have grown up along with the other sciences. Economics, for instance, which begins with Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations in 1776, is younger than physics and astronomy but older than chemistry, geology, or theoretical biology. The social sciences have substantially increased our knowledge of the human race in all its immense complexity, diversity, and interactions. They do not, and never will, reach absolute truth, and neither will any other science. The most we can hope for is the gradual reduction of error and uncertainty in our images of the world. That reduction is of great importance for the future of the human race.

I have been concerned that Friends, and perhaps especially the younger generation of Friends, have not sufficiently appreciated the spiritual importance of the scientific ethic and methods, and hence in some degree we have fallen away from our own ethic of veracity. I detect among Friends an impatience with the slow growth of knowledge. A search for revolutionary “answers” may well push the human race towards the worse rather than the better. I believe that a “normative science” is possible which will apply the method and the ethic of the scientific community to the diminution of error about values and about the effects of actions. This should clarify what it means for things to go to the better rather than to the worse and will help us to act in ways that will make things go for the better. Normative science is still in its infancy, though it already exists. I can think of no greater duty of Friends than to devote themselves to it. This requires discipline, study, and “doing homework,” being very modest about what we think we know, avoiding ideologies and simple solutions, learning the skills of the sciences, especially the social sciences, and applying these to the realization of ideals. We must realize that good will is not enough. Without good skill it can easily lead to a worsening of the human situation rather than a betterment. If I ask myself: Is the Society of Friends, which has meant so much to me, contributing through its activities to human betterment? I would have to say “I am not sure.” I hope we are. Perhaps it is well that our impact is small. The social system is so complex that it could be that our quest to do good will actually increase tyranny, poverty, and frustrate rather than expand human potential. We must at least take this possibility seriously and develop a passion for outward veracity as well as inward. I would like to see a Quaker Institute for Advanced Study, which among other things would subject the beliefs and the activities of the Society of Friends to careful scrutiny in the light of their possible effects. Distrust of the organized intellect is quite deep in the Society of Friends and by no means wholly unjustified. A man does not have to be bred at Oxford and Cambridge to be a minister of the gospel; he does have to be bred somewhere to be a scientist. We came late to higher education. We have still not come to organized research. Perhaps this is the next step.

Boulding (1910-93) was born and raised in Liverpool, England. He became a pacifist and joined Friends as an adolescent. Although he never earned a PhD he went on the become a world-renowned economist and university professor. He was an active member of several meetings including Ann Arbor (Michigan) and Boulder (Colorado) Meetings.

This article was first published in the April 15, 1977 issue of Friends Journal.