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Monday
Nov192012

The Liberal Republic of Science, part 2: What is it?!

This is the second in what will be four posts (I think; post-number forecasting is not yet as reliable a science as sabermetrics or meteorology)  on the Liberal Republic of Science.

The first one set the groundwork by discussing the concept of a political regime, which in classical philosophy refers to a type of government characterized by an animating principle that not only determines the structure of its sovereign authority but also pervasively orients the attitudes and interactions of its citizens throughout all domains of social and private life.

The Liberal Republic of Science is a political regime. Its animating principle is the mutually supportive relationship—indeed, the passionately reciprocal envelopment—of political liberalism and scientific inquiry.  That’s the point I now want to develop.

The essential place to start, of course, is with Popper.  It is a testament not to the range of his intellectual interests but rather to the obsessive singularity of them that Popper wrote both The Logic of Scientific Discovery and The Open Society and Its Enemies.

Logic, the greatest contribution ever to the philosophy of science, famously identifies a state of competitive provisionality as integral to science’s signature mode of knowing.  For science, no one has the authority to say definitively what is known; and what is known is never known with finality.  The basic epistemological claim science makes is that our only basis for confidence in a claim about how the world works is its ongoing success in repelling any attempts to empirically refute it.  We must understand "truth” to be nothing more than the currently best-supported hypothesis.

Open Society—a paean to liberal philosophy and liberal institutions—identifies liberal democracy as the only form of political life conducive to this way of knowing.  Systems governed by managerial programs calibrated to one or another rationalist vision invariably erect barriers of interest and error in the path of scientific inquiry. But even more fundamentally, because they authoritatively certify truth, and thereafter bureaucratically mould social life to it, such systems stifle formation of the individual dispositions and social norms that fuel the engine of scientific discovery.

The nourishing environment that liberal democratic culture supplies for science is thus one part of the idea of the Liberal Republic of Science. The other is the reciprocal nourishment that science furnishes the culture of liberal democracy.

The citizens of the Liberal Republic of Science remark their dedication to science’s distinctive way of knowing throughout all spheres of life, sometimes in overt and openly celebratory ways but even more often and more significantly in wholly unnoticed ways, through ingrained patterns of behavior and unconscious habits of mind.

They naturally—more or less unquestioningly, as if it hadn’t even occurred to them that there was any alternative—seek guidance from those whose expertise reflects science’s signature mode of knowing when they are making personal decisions (about their health, e.g.).

They accept—consciously; if you suggested they shouldn’t do this, they’d think you were mad—that public policy relating to their common welfare (e.g., laws aimed at discouraging criminality—or at assuring efficiently operating capital markets) should be informed by the best available scientific evidence.

They seek as best they can to think for themselves in a manner that credits science’s distinctive way of knowing. That is, they believe that the best way to answer a personal question—which automobile should I buy? Which candidate should I vote for President? Who should I marry?—is to gather up and weigh relevant pieces of evidence. The notion that this just is the right way for an individual to use his or her mind is also very distinctive historically, and still far from universal across societies today.

And finally, the citizens of the Liberal Republic of Science intrinsically value science’s way of knowing. 

They admire those who are excellent at it.

The are thrilled and awed by what this way of knowing reveals to them about the way the world works.

They expend significant collective resources to promote it, not just because they see doing so as a prudent investment that will make their lives go better (although they are stunningly confident that this is so), but because it seems right to them to enable the form of human excellence that it displays, and to create the sort of remarkable insight that it generates….

Do we, in the U.S., live in the Liberal Republic of Science?

It is in the nature of political regimes to be imperfectly realized.  Or to put it differently it is in the nature of being a political regime of a particular sort for its members to recognize the ways in which their society’s institutions and norms do not perfectly reflect that regime’s animating idea, and to feel urgently impelled to remedy such imperfections.  I mentioned in the last post, e.g., Lincoln’s understanding of the imperfection of the American political regime as one animated by the idea of equality, and what this meant for him in confronting political compromises to avert the Civil War.

So while I am troubled by the many ways in which the U.S. only imperfectly embodies the idea of the Liberal Republic of Science, the imperfections do not trouble me in classifying the U.S. as a regime of this sort. (Certainly it is not the only one, either!)

I do anticipate, though, that some of the readers of this post might disagree—not because they are uncommitted to the idea of the Liberal Republic of Science but because they are unconvinced that their fellow citizens actually are.  In fact, they perceive that the U.S. is bitterly divided between a constituency that supports the Liberal Republic of Science and another that is implaccably hostile to it--that a civil war of sorts might even be looming over the role of science in American democracy.

This is a misperception I need to take up. And I will in the next post, in which will I address “Popper’s Revenge,” a paradox inherent in, and potentially destructive of, the constitution of the Liberal Republic of Science.

References

Popper, K. R. (1959). The logic of scientific discovery. New York,: Basic Books.

Popper, K. R. (1945). The open society and its enemies. London,: G. Routledge & sons. 

Nos. OneThree & Four in this series.

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