Friday, February 19, 2010

Ferris and the Templetonians

Apropos to my previous post, looks like the new book by Timothy Ferris, The Science of Reason (review here) makes the case that the self-correcting experimentalist practices of science were instrumental in creating modern liberal democracy. This will definitely have to go on my reading list. Looks like Ferris is selling some of the liberal progressivism I talked about in my last post, though I think there's a case to be made that the core of his thesis is correct to some extent. I would say, though, that the real heir of scientific-critical thought in the realm of politics would be the libertarian left; anarchists and democratic socialists of various stripes that fought for more radical democratization in the times when democracy was limited indeed. Though I quibble with this definition a bit, it's useful to recall that anarcho-syndicalist Rudolf Rocker characterized the libertarian left as :

the confluence of the two great currents which during and since the French Revolution have found such characteristic expression in the intellectual life of Europe: Socialism and Liberalism.

After all, if one really thinks critical inquiry and constructive debating of ideas is the best way to advance freedom in society then your model should probably closer to Rocker than Adam Smith and his heirs. Rocker, echoing the broad lineage of democratic socialism, advocated that all levels of society should be organized along directly democratic lines from industrial syndicates to community/regional councils, which could then federate in order to interact across large areas. Instead, it seems that Ferris thinks that a system where we elect representatives outside of our control and have our constructive competition go on between profit-focused “private tyrannies” (Chomsky's memorable term for corporations....) is somehow closer to the ethos of scientific inquiry. Hmm....

It's also interesting that the reviewer for the NY Times review linked to above is Gary Rosen of the Templeton Foundation. The Templetons crew is always looking for ways to show that science is incomplete, that it is some sort of task-specific methodology that is sorely limited without being butressed by God/spirituality/quantum mechanical New Ageblahblah. Rosen's concept of science seems narrowly focused on “experiment” as opposed to “evidentiary argument”, the kind of pigeonholing of science that would exclude paleontology, geology, and cosmology (not to mention the social sciences and history) because they cannot isolate variables in laboratory environments. If you've limited the purview of what counts as science to such an extent, then you can make claims like this:

The experimental frame of mind encompasses the scientist in her lab, the inventor in his workshop and even (with some literary license) the reflective bohemian, the calculating entrepreneur and the shrewd democratic leader. But does it yield the “laws of nature” from which Locke and Jefferson drew the idea of universal human rights? Does it explain our reluctance today to compromise those rights in the name of expediency or results? Jeremy Bentham dismissed the idea of natural rights as “nonsense upon stilts,” because it stood in the way of a proper utilitarian calculus of human welfare. Arguably, one can find his heirs today atop the Chinese state, conducting technocratic experiments of their own and deploying the tools of modern science (Google beware!) to preserve a “harmonious society.” For the politics of liberty, mere empiricism is not enough.

Well, sure, a narrow experimental empiricism will never be enough to get far in the messy worlds of human history and society. But without rational argumentation that appeals to material evidence, the bedrock of a broader conception of science, then we are truly wandering blindly. I suppose Rosen would want to insert religious faith here as the corrective. When the Templetonians can point to even one method that religion might have to come to truth, or even one truth that religion has bestowed upon us that couldn't have been uncovered otherwise, then they might have a chance. I recommend Rosen pray more fervently, cause the chances aren't looking too good.

1 comment:

  1. Or was it the socialist movement that spearheaded not only the obvious "socialist" reforms (governing the working day, etc.), but also such "liberal" reforms as expanded voting rights and basic civil liberties?