The Common Roots of Science, Politics and Philosophy
We are at a crucial point in history: the technical progress which gave rise to a world of such convenience and abundance has left many indifferent to its logical, liberal and empirical foundations.
In light of recent political events in the world, a re-examination of the political landscape is needed to both make sense of things as they are (i.e. what are the facts), as well as give a normative direction for things to flow (where should we go?). Here I will argue that an understanding of the shared origins of Science and Political Philosophy is the best way to achieve these goals. This is because so far as we know, Science is the best method we have to discover facts about the world, and the related philosophies may provide a common direction for us to work towards.
Geopolitical instability in the Middle East gives strength to insurgent groups as well as tremendous outpouring of refugees. Rising nationalisms and financial crises in Asia, Europe, and North America further fuel anger and hatred, oftentimes misplaced. The mainstream news organizations sometimes appear more like sensationalized entertainment than actual objective news. Everyone seems to have different values about what is right and wrong. With all these events occurring simultaneously, it might seem as though the world is amidst chaos. Scientific thinkers and professionals are subject to an engrained objectivity that perhaps the “everyday politician” is not privy to; this is a great strength that should not be exclusive to “designing better mousetraps”. Perhaps the next great North American political leaders could not only have a charismatic background, but also precise technical knowledge tempered by shared human values such as life and liberty.
Science, in this context referring to the scientific method, is an empirical method of building knowledge. It rests on certain assumptions, namely that there is an objective “world” outside our minds, which operates more or less by laws which are unchanging, or that change in a predictable manner. It takes empirical (observable) data and subjects it to logical reasoning (both inductive and deductive) to obtain conclusions. So far, science has brought us fantastic things such as laptops, vaccines, space exploration, magnetic trains, overabundance of food as well as not-so-amazing things such as poison gas and nuclear weapons. Science can be considered a tool, which can be used for good as well as bad. Science constantly seeks to falsify itself, and the strongest ideas which pass test after test, replication after replication, survive only until the next pieces of evidence de-throne those previous assumptions. For example Newton’s Classical Physics was upended by Einstein’s General Relativity, which itself is now grappling with Quantum Physics. It doesn’t always operate in a perfect way (for example, many studies are not replicable) but it’s the best we have so far. I argue we should work with the best we have.
In the most general sense, politics deals with attaining positions of organized control over a region, and the usage of the power and resources that are within. Lawmaking can be construed as the power to ban or permit actions that people take. In regards to resource distribution; decisions regarding which agencies receive funding, ownership of property, and the tax rate are all under the jurisdiction of federal or municipal governments. Additionally, a government usually has a monopoly on force; the police and army are generally agreed as necessary for public protection and enforcement of property rights and laws. An efficient state is capable of organizing and mobilizing enormous amounts of resources as well as accelerating technological development. Politics is firmly intertwined with power, again with potential to do great good or great harm. Politics deals with decision-making, often for tens of thousands or millions of people. We make the best decisions with the best facts.
The Common Origins of Science and Politics
This story actually starts in ancient Greece (and also China) thousands of years ago, however it only really picks up great speed right after the Renaissance, roughly 500 years ago. The philosophers I will mention were Enlightenment-period academics who applied reason to many areas of learning, laying the groundwork for not only modern political systems but science as well. Hobbes reasoned that the natural state of things was one of chaos without consequence. As a result, an informal social contract was attained by some community and a power broker (sovereign/king) who promised to keep them safe from harm -by force if necessary — and thus the first states were formed. Locke said that the state should exist not to serve the king, but to serve the people, through enforcing laws regarding life, liberty and property. (Sound familiar?) Hume talks about empiricism which is the basis of scientific discovery, and also puts forth notable critiques of the scientific method including the induction and is-ought problems. Kant shifted philosophy towards epistemology (how do we know what we know?) and talks about ethics. Are things good because of the motive behind, or the consequences ahead, or some combination of both? Both Bentham and Mill focused on utility-based notions of ethics and political economy.
These philosophers applied reason to the most crucial problems of their day and the foundations of formal logic, science and modern political philosophy all draw their roots from this primordium.
However, catastrophic events such as the World Wars, the Cold War and more recent wars and revolutions have drawn the popular focus away for over a century. Moreover, as a result of coping with these tragedies, people have been firmly categorized in opposing or separate camps. Capitalist- communist, religious- atheist, democrat- republican…we should all remember that the arena of facts has no distinction. We are all people, and perhaps there are a set of “human facts” which may be a foundation for a set of values that can be agreed upon by all. Critical reasoned analysis with regard to facts, perhaps combined with impassioned rhetoric may be a possible solution to many of the global issues we face today. It is also important to note that we should have healthy skepticism of not only the facts but also their use, as facts can all too easily be co-opted to serve malicious agendas.
We are at a crucial point in history: the technical prowess which gave rise to so much prosperity has left many indifferent to the logical, liberal and empirical foundations that created this world of convenience and abundance. That indifference threatens to spill over to leaders of the next generation, exemplified in anti-vaccination movements, climate change denial, mass surveillance, wanton toppling of foreign governments and restrictions on free speech. It is my strong opinion that if we equip scientists, engineers and related STEM counterparts with the frameworks and skills to successfully navigate the political landscape, we will guarantee a better future for us and our children.