The Corner

Liberals, Science, and the Pessimistic Fork


Lotsa luck extricating yourselves from the science/religion/politics whack-a-mole game you’ve foolishly re-started up there.

Personally, if a politician seems willing and able to reduce government to its proper scope, safeguard the nation’s borders, maintain a stable currency, and keep us out of unnecessary wars, I couldn’t care less if he prays to Unkulunkulu in the privacy of his chambers. I set out this view at greater length here.

And so far as politicians and science are concerned, again I can’t really see much to talk about. I want decision-makers with good general knowledge, a track record displaying solid common sense, and a restrained skepticism toward grand expensive governmental schemes: sensible and conservative, in other words. If a science-based decision needs to be made, I want my man to call in leaders in that field of science to hear their opinions, which in fact is what politicians almost invariably do. I’d expect my ideal decision-maker to know that most people in the science establishment are political liberals, and to discount their pleas for grand expensive governmental schemes accordingly, and make sure to hear what certified non-liberal specialists have to say.

Those principles, it seems to me, should see us safely through the average century. They’re not watertight, but then nothing in human affairs is.

I would, however, urge compassionate persons to spare a little sympathy for liberal scientists, which is to say most scientists. They are stuck in an uncomfortable philosophical fork.

Liberalism is optimistic. It is a doctrine of progress and improvement. (Why do you think they call themselves “progressives”?) In this, liberalism has had the support of science, which has made so much improvement possible — banishing diseases, improving the quality and variety of our food, reducing the need for arduous labor, increasing our comfort and amusements. As I’ve said elsewhere: “Dazzled by the things we have done with our machines and our organizational methods, we come to think we can do anything, that politics is the art not of the possible but of the conceivable.” Science — more precisely the technology that science makes possible — has fueled much of that political optimism.

The link between liberalism and science is therefore easy to understand. Along with the generally optimistic implications of scientific progress, though, there has always been a pessimistic undertow. By repeatedly dethroning us — not at the center of the universe, only another branch on the tree of life — science diminishes us in our own eyes. This is more than many people can take, which is why there are Creationists, and, yes!,Geocentrists still among us.

I have quoted elsewhere Descartes’ realization in Principles of Philosophy — written in the year of Galileo’s death — that the world was not made for us:

We do not doubt but that many things exist, or formerly existed and have now ceased to be, which were never seen or known by man, and were never of use to him.

You can’t mistake the note of melancholy there; and as the human sciences come to the fore, this pessimistic undertow gets ever stronger. The advance of the physical sciences, though it abolished the gaudier kinds of superstition, at least left us still able to believe in the human spirit and the autonomous individual will. The human sciences are shaping up as colder, more ruthless, more unsparing than that.

This is most apparent in the emerging field of “Consciousness Studies.” Neuroscience is already sapping away at the very notion of self. Thoughtful workers in the field worry about the consequences. Here’s one of them: Thomas Metzinger, in his book The Ego Tunnel:

We are already experiencing a naturalistic turn in the human image, and it looks as if there is no way back. The third phase of the Consciousness Revolution will affect our image of ourselves much more dramatically than any scientific revolution in the past. We will gain much, but we will pay a price. Therefore, we must intelligently assess the psychosocial cost.

At present the human sciences still exist in the optimistic overhang of technological progress, with cheery books still coming out offering recipes for raising human intelligence or moulding perfect kids. That’s just Wile E. Coyote running in midair, though. If you think that Galileo and Darwin were disenchanting, wait till you see what the Hum. Sci. geeks have in store for us.

Pessimism, however, as Metzinger himself says elsewhere, is maladaptive. It’s the pretty lies that keep us going. For the human race at large, survival will probably always come down to a choice between this set of pretty lies and that set.

I see from that Kevin Drum piece that our own Kevin linked to, that at least one liberal has already sold the pass, or at least half of it, on the heritability of intelligence. (Though Drum, along with the rest of liberaldom, is still clinging for dear life to the dubious Turkheimer paper I had some words for here.) What price, then, those grand liberal plans to Fix The Schools, Kevin (Drum)?

Liberals can go on respecting science, or they can go on believing their own set of pretty lies, but they can’t do both.

In an age of pessimism about human nature, which will prove better equipped to survive: the conservative temperament, or the liberal one? Someone should write a book about this. Oh, wait …


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