Friday, November 21, 2008

Science and the failure to reach philosophy.

A recurring theme of Kierkegaard is the fact that modern thought, despite its belief that it has moved decisively beyond ancient philosophy, has yet to even reach it. 

A case in point is this article from the Nov. 2 issue of the Boston Sunday Globe, about which I have been meaning to blog but just now have found the time to do so. The article from Science on which it is based is here, but it will cost you ten bucks to read it if you don't already subscribe to the magazine. I plunked down the ten bucks for the purposes of this post, but the original article doesn't add a lot that isn't already in the Boston Globe summary.

The article, like all of its type, is sophistical in the technical sense. It plays on the varying meanings of a word, proving something when the word is taken in one sense, and then applying the conclusion to the word taken in another sense. In this case, the word is politics

Now politics can mean the immediate, perhaps unreflected opinions we have about issues involving our common lives. Are you for or against gun control? How about the torture of political prisoners? Do you think it is too easy for illegal immigrants to enter the country? Any one can have an opinion about these questions whether they have thought about them or not. And those opinions will have some causal origin; if not in considered rational thought, then in our environment or perhaps the peculiarities of our individual natures (e.g., people easily startled and naturally fearful will tend to favor a strong natural defense and gun ownership.) This is common sense. We can conduct scientific studies, of course, and generate numbers and plot graphs that document the correlation between things like a fearful nature and support for strong national defense. This is what the scholars cited in the Boston Globe did, and there is nothing in their results that should surprise anyone of common sense. 

But the scientists think they have found something novel and startling, something that carries significant implications for our political life. They think this because they have applied their results - results that apply to the meaning of politics discussed in the last paragraph - to the other meaning of the word politics. This second meaning is the one used by classical philosophers like Plato and Aristotle when they discuss politics.

Aristotle was aware that everyone has opinions about man's communal nature. The cave man who ruled his immediate family with a club had an opinion: He rules because he is the strongest. The barbarian tribesman has an opinion: The chief rules because he has the strongest magic or knows the secrets of the dead or some such thing. The average Greek has opinions: He supports the Spartan military society because it has made Sparta the strongest city, or the Athenian democracy because it made Athens the wealthiest city, or any number of such opinions.

But such opinions are not yet politics in the philosophical sense. They are not political because they make no effort to transcend immediate circumstances and grasp the rational truth about the nature of man's communal life as such. They make no effort to search for the causal origin of the structure of communal life, or to search for a transcendent standard against which to judge cities. Politics is not merely a set of opinions regarding men's life together; it is the quest to ground man's communal life in reason and truth. Politics starts when we refuse to be satisfied with opinion and demand that man's communal life be grounded in an understanding of its causes and end. "We are accustomed to analyse other composite things till they can be subdivided no further; let us in the same way examine the state and its component parts and we shall see better how these differ from each other, and whether we can deduce any working principle about the several parts mentioned." (Aristotle, Politics Book I ch. 1).

Is politics as just defined possible? In other words, can reason transcend immediate circumstances to grasp the truth as such? Or are environment and, perhaps, nature determinative of political opinions? This is an old question, although the Boston Globe seems to think it was just recently taken up: "In the 20th century, scholars began to explore the influence of culture, economic status, and other environmental factors on the development of political opinion." So Karl Marx was unaware that economic status had any effect on political opinion? The French revolutionaries saw no relationship between Catholic culture and the divine right claims of Louis XVI? At least Lenin and the earlier French Jacobins could think more clearly than, say, Prof. Hibbing of the University of Nebraska:

"Simply knowing that our political preferences have physiological sources 'may make us a little more humble, a little less quick to say, 'My opponent is simply stupid, ' ' Hibbing said."

We won't say they are stupid because there is no point in saying anything to them at all, their political views having already been determined by some non-rational cause; whether that cause is genes or environment or space aliens is really of no account. How then shall our political differences be settled, if not by argument, for settled they must be? Robespierre, Lenin and Mao had a ready answer to that question. The Globe writes that "When we debate issues, in other words, we do not so much argue a political position as assert who we are." The Guillotine and the Gulag are very effective ways of asserting yourself.

Either the great questions are susceptible to rational argument or they are not. If they are not, then we should all grab our guns as quickly as possible. If they are, then we may acknowledge that pre-rational political opinions may be decisively influenced by genes, environment, upbringing, or the bad fish you ate the night before. Politics in the true sense starts with the acknowledgment that we all have opinions that have obscure origins in our nature or environment. It moves on from there to examine those opinions in the light of reason, and discard or modify opinions that have no firm rational foundation. This is just what Aristotle does in the Politics. The University of Nebraska scientists have not gone beyond Aristotle in their research; they have finally reached a point where they may profitably read him.

And, finally and as usual, the Globe writer and the Nebraska scientists do not seem to grasp that their way of thinking is just as destructive of their own science as it is of political thought. If  in politics "we may imagine that our choice is based on a thoughtful consideration of the issues" when, really, it is powerfully influenced by genetics, why not in science as well? I am sure I could take 50 random people from the street, ask them the question "Do you think political opinions are determined by genetics?" while they are hooked up to all manner of probes and electrodes, and discover some correlation between physiology and a yes or no answer to the question. Then I could conclude that all scientific opinions are determined by genetics, and that scientists only think they are debating issues, when really they are just asserting who they are. 

This little thought experiment shows the game that is being played. There is a difference, of course, between opinions about science, which anyone can have, and scientific opinions, which are more than mere opinions because they are held by scientists who have an understanding of the causes involved, an understanding that manages to transcend the limitations of nature and environment. It is sophistical to make an argument that confuses the two meanings, just as it is sophistical to conclude that political opinions are determined by genes because opinions about politics show some correlation with genetic constitution.

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