Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Scientism and You

In his inaugural address, President Obama declared that his administration would "restore science to its rightful place." He then gave some very conventional practical applications of that intention, but, taken on its own, the statement raises the question of the relationship between science and government. How much of government decision-making can be relegated to men of science? If we were all simply scientific in our thinking, would we be more governable? Would our life together be harmonious?

Francis Bacon was not only the original exponent of modern science, he also gave careful thought to its political implications. He begins The New Organon, his explanation and defense of what we have come to call experimental science, with this little aphorism:

"Man, being the servant and interpreter of Nature, can do and understand so much and so much only as he has observed in fact or in thought of the course of Nature. Beyond this he neither knows anything nor can do anything."

His project was to re-establish all human knowledge, even moral and political knowledge, on the foundation of the new scientific method. In other words, he proposed, "The total reconstruction of sciences, arts, and all human knowledge, raised upon the proper foundations." When he says "all human knowledge," all means all.

This is what we may call not just science but "scientism," viz. the view that scientific reasoning is the only way of knowing.

According to these epistemological standards, judgments of moral right and wrong, the noble and the base, the beautiful and the ugly, become utterly subjective, i.e. mere expressions of personal sentiment. They do not correspond with any objective moral or aesthetic reality.

The moral world that this produces is insightfully summarized in Monty Python's "Merchant Banker Sketch."

Notice that he has no "inner life." Evidently, someone has accused him of this, perhaps his previous appointment, and so he is looking it up in a reference book, having no idea what it is. As a mere calculator of self-interest, and maximizer of material advantage, contemplating what is true and eternal has no role in his life. He doesn't even have a category for it in his thinking. Accordingly he has no idea of what a gift is, gratuitous giving out of love for another, out of recognition of another person's inherent worth, be it a friend or a stranger. "Tax dodge" is the closest he can come. He hasn't a friend in the world, and feels no need of one. Friendship as such has no rational basis in a scientisticly understood universe. If scientific reasoning is the only way of knowing and if what can be observed and measured by modern scientific methods is the only reality that we are justified in recognizing, then there is no human relationship that is not a form of economic exchange or domination of one person by another.

He is indifferent to whether or not he has a name. He forgets it, but what is important to him is that he is definitely a merchant banker. See what Harvey Mansfield says is the importance of having names in how we see our personal importance or inherent human worth ("How To Understand Politics"). In general, he questions the sufficiency of the natural and social sciences for understanding the human beings the purport to explain.

Political science ignores the question of importance because it has the ambition to be scientific in the manner of natural science, which is real science. Scientific truth is objective and is no respecter of persons; it regards the concern for importance as a source of bias, the enemy of truth. Individuals in science can claim prizes, nations can take pride in them, but this sort of recognition is outside science, which is in principle and fact a collective, anonymous enterprise. And so political science, which by studying politics ought to be sensitive to importance, to the importance of importance, aims to abstract from individual data with names in order to arrive at universal propositions.
Yet human beings and their associations always have names; this is how they maintain their individuality. Names mark off the differences between individuals and societies or other groups, and they do so because the differences are important to us. You can think your way to an abstract individual or society without a name, but you cannot be one or live in one. Science is indifferent to proper names and confines itself to common nouns, but all human life takes place in an atmosphere of proper nouns. “To make a name for yourself,” as we say, is to become important. “To lose your good name,” to suffer a stain on your reputation, is to live thinking less well of yourself, or among others who think less well of you.

Anyway, I used the Python sketch as an illustration in class today of how a life guided simply by calculations of self-interest might look, and I wanted to post it on the blog.


Roundhead said...

there will not be, can never be, a situation where only `science' can decide what to do, and what not to do.

This was evident in Obama's own statement that while (allegedly `in the name of science') he would lift bans on stem-cell research -
but at the same time, he forbade the practice of human cloning.

Why? Isn't this `anti-science'? After all, science says that human cloning is possible, so why don't we do it?

The answer is that cloning is somehow `unethical' and that it `just isn't right.'

Again, moral judgements (rightly) are decided in preference to scientific possibility - just as was the case when Bush the younger decided to end stem-cell research `but for existing stem cells.'

the fact that Obama's moral judgements are vague and haphazard (in contrast to GW Bush), goes entirely unremarked.

David C. Innes said...

Fine point on the continuation of the moral control of science and the Obama hypocrisy, Roundhead. I made use of it in class.

Roundhead said...

oh, thanks Professor. Keep up the good work (I'm certain you and Harold will)