Sagan demon haunted world

Thinking about philosophy and Carl Sagan’s “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark”

I find philosophy to be an incredibly controversial subject, one that is difficult to get a handle on. There is a value to philosophy, though I often struggle to understand it or place it. Perhaps this is because I lack a satisfactory definition of philosophy – a term which can represent so many different bases of ideas, including different methodologies and epistemologies ranging broadly from the analytical to the postmodern and purely subjective. For me, any grasp I may have of philosophy breaks down with the latter – I find a lot of contemporary philosophy to be subjective and lacking what I once termed “epistemological and methodological coherence”.

Maybe this last comment strikes a more explicit concern: philosophy not as a particular form of systematic enquiry, but as a weapon to enforce the formalising of opinion.  I suppose as a person who has engaged a lot with philosophy over my younger years, from the enlightenment philosophes to critical theory and anglo-american or what is otherwise known as analytical philosophy, I think I can say that, despite my struggle to find the basis for logical and rational validity, I am not of the scientific representatives who reject philosophy’s relevance. I think philosophy is relevant, in some ways, perhaps most crucially with respect to the social world. In other words, I think the situation is much more nuanced and convoluted than to merely assert “philosophy is dead” and that its fate was brought about by the march of science. Even though some of the utmost traditional philosophical areas of study are becoming (and rightfully so!) increasingly subject to scientific methodologies and epistemology – there is still something lastingly relevant to genuine philosophical thought.

From the perspective of science, one of the easiest mistakes, I think, is to presuppose the existence of some sort of rational communicative utopia. It doesn’t correlate with the phenomenology insofar that the ideas of science, of scientific logic and rationality, and more broadly of the principle of objectivity, are found to be in constant tension with the opposite: the irrational characteristics of the human social world. Science can report objectively verifiable facts and those facts may still be rejected for the benefit of political bias or general prejudice. This duality seems quite apparent, at least from my vantage. The more science becomes politicised the worse the situation because the more rational and objective engagement and communication is undermined. At the same time, the pathologies of the social world also confront the scientist, as a human being, embedded in those systems and cultural patterns. The idea of objective reality, natural and social, can easily fade by force of overwhelming communicative disorientation. That even a scientific subject of concern – say, for example, climate change (without fronting my own position and study on the subject) – is contested by some members of the scientific community (for example, see here or here) despite overwhelming consensus reveals that something fundamental in human knowledge and in the engagement with scientific study is vulnerable to bias, ulterior motivation or worse. Indeed, even scientists – perhaps especially physicists – can be guilty of hubris. But it still begs a different question. Science is principled on the basic idea of expert consensus forming, and with that a weight is given to experts in their field followed by great trust and responsibility. In such a debate, who is right and what are the facts for rational consensus? The hope, always, is that the scientific method will prevail (assuming a scientific matter). But there also seems to be implicitly a philosophical criterion here which demands consideration.

For myself, my concern is with science inasmuch as it is also with knowledge, such that the former also implies fundamental concern with reason and the idea of obtaining as objective of an understanding  of reality (social and natural) as possible within the confines of human ignorance. There is an entire thesis to be written systematically dismissing many arguments by the likes of Thomas Kuhn and others regarding the nature of “ordinary science”, “scientific revolution” and theory-forming from historical, epistemological and scientific perspectives. That science probes closer to some truer notion of reality is should not be contentious.

And yet, these concerns also become philosophical when science is forced to reflect upon itself in a critical way. And in thinking about this, I’ve come to the suspicion that the continued relevance of philosophy is possibly featured particularly with respect to the social domain as it exists in tension with such concepts of reason and unrelenting scientific consideration. Moreover, it is hard to avoid that many questions remain with respect to human behaviour, society and ethics that currently extend well beyond the scope of scientific enquiry. That scope may, indeed, continue to narrow over time, such that even the traditional philosophical subject of consciousness is becoming an increasingly scientific concern. But today it is not possible to find a scientist who, outside of thinking scientifically and performing scientific research, offers non-scientific opinion and thus also implies non-scientific philosophical assertions. That one might feign opinion as scientific – or exploit one’s position and authority in science to propagate personal bias outside of science – is something we observe all the time. To recognise the existence of bias is perhaps one of the certain hallmarks of broader intelligence in a systems-thinking frame. And yet, when all things are considered, the question of unavoidability is genuine. That, generally, the whole of science as a movement in history teaches valuable lessons – morally and broadly philosophically – does not mean that, in particular instances, subgroups may still profess scientific reason and be simultaneously fascist or bigoted or whatever.

I suppose, if one follows this course of enquiry, it can be stated that there exists and may always exist a contiguous region within a scientific society – a region of questions about greater (systemic) moral and ethical patterns and trends that require critical philosophical concepts and tools to enable science science, empiricism and evidence-based thinking to reflect upon itself in truly systemic ways. Even members of the scientific community that argue against the lasting relevance of philosophy (in whatever form) often invoke philosophical arguments outside of scientific matters of concern reveals an intriguing contradiction. That one may argue, as a matter of opinion, toward or from a basis or counter-basis of facts without the objective means to recognise potential implicit bias in the simultaneous formation of biases in those arguments, is an essential element of human irrationality that seems to come with being human (or, so the science of cognitive bias increasingly reveals). Some people are better than others in such practices of critical reflexivity, but one can hardly argue with any clarity that this is the general rule.

In any case, and whilst I have deviated somewhat from the primary trajectory, the key idea I am encircling considers whether philosophy continues to have genuine meaning in this context – that is, whether it has a role to play a critical function in human thought. As much as I have engaged with philosophy in the past, placing the role of philosophy in the enterprise of human thought (especially in the age of modern science) and excavating some satisfactory definition of “genuine” or objective philosophical theory as opposed to “bad” philosophy is something I struggle to grasp in any sort of satisfactory way. I think, primarily, because delineating between the basis of objective and even systems-based philosophy and philosophy with objective flavouring or even completely fiendish philosophical argument – the point at which one blends into another is currently subjective. And this subjective problem is what perhaps undermines completely any claim to philosophical objective enquiry, whereas science, despite microscope tensions and struggles and problems in practice, has much more of a grip on the objective.

But if the question of philosophy as a relevant critical function remains open, what I am reminded of whilst writing this short essay is piece is perhaps one of the most penetrating and thought-provoking pieces of social philosophy that I have ever read. The book I am referring to is by Carl Sagan titled “The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark” (2008). Sagan may have his critics, but this book has always struck me as being intriguing for the reason that it interweaves both science, scepticism and philosophy (social and natural) in a way that seems to exemplify the continuing power of philosophy to draw certain connections and illuminate objective patterns for the benefit of broader critical reflexivity.  Sagan evokes, if not practices with a relatively high degree of success, a rational and critical epistemology, applying scientific logic and reason along with philosophical tools to evoke deep questions about the human world. In the process, he unfolds his own humanistic values as those which he sees as a product of the unfolding of science (and, perhaps, of enlightenment reason). It is not the perfect book, by any means. And almost all popular literature shares the same fatal flaw. But what Sagan does is capture, or at least has a unique way of tracing, a sort of enlightenment scientific philosophy (however one may then project their views or biases on such a philosophy). He goes from deriving the importance of scepticism in all things (in science as well as in human policy) to forewarning about the dangers of dogma in the form of modern witch-hunts, New Age healing, and fundamentalist religion. He extracts patterns from human history – patterns of bias and repeating tendencies toward the irrational, pathological and dogmatic – to offer explanations that fit with the science.  There is also the presence of critical thinking, and, perhaps, the presence of a sort of critical theory, in which great emphasis is placed on understanding and being able to dissect fallacious arguments and practice media literacy (to be able to identify sensationally fallacious media stories and biased narratives) as well as rationally consider all that which envelops a person, with grounding in evidence; it is, in a sense, Sagan’s own social philosophical appeal to a future rational society. This is deeply philosophical inasmuch as it is motivated by science and its broader lessons.

Below are two particular passages. Reading these parts of Sagan in the contemporary social context remind one that perhaps science does serve many valuable critical lessons – even moral lessons, should one argue from the basis of its epistemology and draw out a broader philosophy of human reason. In what way, and on what basis it might philosophy be grounded in science, or cooperate and collaborate with science, I am not sure. That there are theoretical physicists who have vacated their physics departments in order to find new homes in philosophy departments, where it is felt they can then ask potentially deeper questions about the physics they are practising, is perhaps one reference point. Of course, I might also invoke MY past studies of history here, and cite the classical context in which philosophy and science were not separate, divisible parts. The natural philosopher – through the tools provided by philosophy – conceived of the scientific method, and a trace of that legacy – in the very concept and practice of scientific logic – surely remains.

That such a deep connection exists suggests that a rational, critical and objective philosophy would not see itself as being too far from also being normatively informed scientifically. Moreover, perhaps it is true that philosophy is necessarily speculative, but philosophy without science is condemned to the practice of blind speculation. From another angle, I’ve read in the past that perhaps it is the categorical imperative of philosophy to support the project of human reason, science and critical thinking – to guide such efforts and keep them honest. In some ways, I read this in Sagan – he is philosophical in his humanism without ever vacating from his scientific foundation, referring to the support of science, education and a literate and rational social class as key values (there is also a very clear economic argument to be made here, if one is thinking of psychological well-being in relation to fostering the capacity for increased social rationality, as linked in past discussions on social pathology). He writes, for example:

I worry that, especially as the Millennium edges nearer, pseudoscience and superstition will seem year by year more tempting, the siren song of unreason more sonorous and attractive. Where have we heard it before? Whenever our ethnic or national prejudices are aroused, in times of scarcity, during challenges to national self-esteem or nerve, when we agonize about our diminished cosmic place and purpose, or when fanaticism is bubbling up around us – then, habits of thought familiar from ages past reach for the controls.

The candle flame gutters. Its little pool of light trembles. Darkness gathers. The demons begin to stir.

Sagan lays out these arguments in the context of science and its potential broader moral and ethical lessons, while discussing anything from Maxwell’s equations and electromagnetism and quasars to the human genome. He does so from a framework that allows for prescient critique, such as in the following quote that I reference to close this article. Notice, too, the kernel of applied critical philosophy as the web for each concerning depiction of the future. I close with the following quote,

I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time – when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness. The dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30-second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance.

Latour’s Revision: Objects and “Truth”

One may have noticed something distinct about the title of this essay, namely that I have enclosed the word “truth” in quotations.  The purpose is to bring focus to the question of its status, not because the concept itself is in doubt, but because after what seems like much neglect, whatever truth content may have existed for human beings appears to have increasingly eroded. I am not just speaking of climate denialism, or of observations regarding the status and role of “fact” in popular discourse. I am speaking also to what one might describe as the crisis of metaphysics in postmodernism.

So why comment? The short answer is that, on the side of my physics, I am interested in the study and history of mathematics, including the history of scientific and mathematical knowledge. With that, I have also developed a study of epistemology more generally (i.e., human knowledge). The opening statement of this post draws on these studies. It was also inspired by an article I recently read on Bruno Latour’s revision of his postmodern challenge against “scientific certainty”. The article cites that recent reconsiderations by Latour have formed in the context of growing unease with the development of things like climate denialism and post-truth culture. It was intriguing, nonetheless, to read these words in relation to such a staunch postmodernist thinker. For me, as I detailed in my study in social pathology, the question of rational discourse – its lacking – is a concern.

The trouble I have with Latour’s position – and this probably goes for the whole of postmodernism – is that, from what I can see, it lays the foundation not just for the irrational but for a reject of reason as a whole. Why? I think it begins with what I see as the misguided rejection of the object. Indeed, there is even a frequent conflation between the scientific study of objects – consider, for example, mathematical objects or the study of things like neutrinos or stress tensors – and the social epistemology of object reductionism (argued to be a site of ethical violation). For Latour and the broader postmodern view, natural epistemology and social epistemology seem to be awkwardly collected into one. Indeed, this seems to be the case for much of what is called contemporary critical theory. In epistemological terms, the objective side of the subject-object dialectic is rejected outright without sufficiently working through the role the object plays in the progress of human thought. While the ethical philosophy of social object reductionism is applied in contexts of violence and prejudice (see concepts of epistemic violence and economic reductionism, for example), and while the arguments can be compelling, something is missing when a wider assertion is made linking this reductionism with scientific methodology.

That science – and scientific epistemology -might be exploited on behalf of economic ideology is a problem that I think we ought to take seriously. There is a lot of bad science out there – not science as such, but science as an abstraction of itself on behalf of economic or political biases. This leads to a comment that the argument in the context of social philosophy – namely, the concern of socially mediated facts in the context of a highly irrational social world seems, to me, to scratch some kernel of philosophical and empirical truth. In especially convoluted circumstances in which rational discourse appears significantly lacking, the postmodern idea that there is no such thing as “natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth” takes on a certain meaning. But to argue toward a metaphysics of post-truth seems absurd to me.

For Latour, “the opposite of relativism is totalitarianism”. I take this to be the general postmodern view. Uncomfortably absolutist and overly simplistic, I’m not sure the assumption is a necessary or even sufficient condition for the conclusion, particularly or especially when extended beyond the realm of social and political truth. That is because the postmodern case seems more of a social projection on metaphysics than an actual genuine statement about metaphysics. It takes a pathological and thus irrational social world and projects it on the plane of metaphysics, as though human society is an example of natural truth and natural scientific epistemology. Moreover, or to put it another way, I struggle to see how it is logically or rationally sufficient to extend social critique to a metaphysics of reality. That the social world produces patterns of dogma, which may or may not then be a sufficient condition for tyranny, does not necessitate that the idea of objective reality and truth is fundamentally despotic. To conflate the former with the latter seems very much misguided.

Social truth contexts, I would say, are very different than scientific truth contexts – they do not share the same epistemological grounding – although in social science the two may overlap. But the idea that in the human social world, the concepts of fact and truth might be easily manipulated or epistemologically convoluted, and that one might then extrapolate from this experience that “truth” as a whole is subject to Foucault’s notion of power seems to me to be grossly simplistic.

But this is exactly what seems to happen in postmodernism. For postmodernism, the object, severed from the subject, becomes epistemologically and methodologically inaccessible. In other words, postmodern philosophy, rejecting any claims of objective reality, seeks to establish a response to modernity by suggesting human beings are prisoners of language, facts are thus entirely constructed. Through the lens of such cultural theory, objects do not exist in the world insofar that facts do not exist “out there” waiting to be discovered. This is the epitome of the postmodern trope – the essence of postmodern philosophy.

For me, it is hard to read such opinions in the context of natural scientific study. To posit such beliefs or arguments in the context of the success of things like quantum field theory or general relativity, two of the most successful scientific theories in human history, offers immediate disproof of the epistemological biases of the postmodern narrative.


What, then, of objects? It seems to me that the idea that the natural scientist reduces everything in the world to objects is an overstated myth. The “objects” of science may be plants in botany, a fundamental particle in physics or a distant phenomenon in cosmology. An object can also be a system. But, in general, we could just as well replace the word “object” with “model” and we can also replace the notion of pure reduction to contextual isolation. If “object” and “model” are synonymous, as they often appear to be, this concept of modelling is based on the scientific activity in which a particular part or feature of the world is made easier to understand, define, quantify, visualise, or simulate by referencing it to existing and usually commonly accepted knowledge.

Think, for instance, of weather patterns as a dynamical system. This object of study may be further visualised, at least in terms of human intuition, by creating a plot. Or, perhaps for the sake of simplicity, think of a more classical picture of study in which something, say a cow, is being acted on by a number of forces. For whatever reason, we want to know or understand the forces acting this cow! A number of simplifying assumptions could be made, such as modelling a cow as a circle. In this case, let’s model it as a particle. In doing so, we could then accomplish a number things, such as calculating the net force acting on the cow. Indeed, though the cow is an object of study in this example, this does not necessitate that there is some lasting epistemological skew. The cow is also a subject, and this can indeed be recognised. Most of the reports I’ve read by scientists study fruit flies are never short of expressive their appreciating and wonder for the subject of the fruit fly. In other words, the notion of the object seems to mean different things to the natural scientist and to the postmodern philosopher. Firstly, there are two different definitions of objects at work here. Secondly, in the scientific frame, there are also different types of objects. Thirdly, the status of objects in biology – a very young science – and the status of objects in physics are not necessarily one and the same. In biology, the objects of study are also subjects.  Philosophically, I understand this is very sensitive ground for many who partake in contemporary ethical debate, particularly, as I have read, around the meaning of the study of animals. Simply put, one is no longer studying mathematical objects of the traditional sort, or systems and phenomena in the physical sense, but things other creatures.

But it is striking that the one of the most vocal sources of appreciation for the natural world is the scientific voice. In biology, to say that a forest is an object of study is different than the economic reductionism of that same forest, even though there seems to be conflation here amongst certain philosophers. That the global economy might equip scientific tools for the economic harvesting of the natural world is not an issues of science but, in my opinion, an issue of the misuse of scientific methodologies and epistemology. Biology sees the forest in its diversity of biological life – all the wonderful particularities of the forest to be studied, explored and appreciated with a great sense of discovery for each subtle hint that may be disclosed at a broader truth. The epistemology of the global economy only feigns a scientific appearance in this regard, using scientific tools to reduce that forest to the status of economic objects to then be exploited for profit. This is not science, and I think a survey of the biological scientific community would reveal quite the opposite appreciation for the sensitivity of the life of that forest that exists as much more than some economic resource.

On my readings, it seems like if there is any rationality to the concern of object reductionism it exists primarily within social and ethical philosophy with respect to the reduction of phenomena as social and economic objects as a site of violation. As I mentioned early, the arguments can be compelling. At the same time, to confuse scientific objects of study with economic objects of control makes no sense in absolute and definitive terms. Indeed, and putting aside the recognition that many of the most staunch defenders of environmental health are scientists, and that within the scientific community the ethical view of celebrating the diversity of life and the complexity of the subject is one that fills so many popular science books, I would challenge the idea that to analysise the world “out there”  necessitates a lack of investment with the reality of subjects. To construct this argument, there needs to be clear epistemological connection and I personally do not see it.

The problem, rather, is that in seeking to construct the argument that it is a fundamental error to separate the world into subjects and objects, Latour, and many other postmodernists, seem to sidestep questions of epistemology in effort to avoid serious engagement with the role of the concept of the scientific object plays in the positive development of human knowledge. But even more broadly, the role of the  object in thought cannot simply be discarded. Indeed, rather than working through the subject-object relation in effort to establish some sort of logical reconciliation in what is likely to be their epistemological mediation. Even in theoretical physics, the great Albert Einstein pondered absence of humans in the measurement. In any case, if we assum such reconciliation is necessary in the first place – Latour seems to dismiss the idea altogether and instead substitute a different implicit dualism: human disinvestment-investment with natural reality. What is interesting in drawing this distinction, from what I can tell, is that any substantive discussion on the objects of myth is avoided. In the context of post-modernism, relativism, exceptionalism and mysticism are allowed to flourish and not only is truth deconstructed completely on a metaphysical level – instead of social truth in particular – so too is the notion of reason eroded. Such, it would also seem, is the nature of the conflict postmodernism has generated with the enlightenment. And while postmodernism seeks to work in the area of critical theory, unlike the foundations of critical theory which sought to defend the enlightenment, reason and the principle of human rationality in the face of the irrational and pathological, I fail to see how postmodernism is equipped with the right conceptual tools to tackle the problems of knowledge it seeks to evoke.

To construct the postmodern view, one must firstly reject the subject-object distinction outright. The rejection, in this case, comes on the side of the subject at the cost of the object. As the question of genuine reconciliation, or mediation, is not even of a concern – inasmuch that this rejection is synonymous with disposing of any idea that certain methodologies have more of a corner on the truth than others – the result is subjectivism and the manufacturing of the subjectivity of relative worldviews. The irony, I think, is the manner in which the foundations of postmodernism imply a sort of false reconciliation between subject and object without admitting that such reconciliation was even on the agenda. But the postmodern response to epistemology is just as regressive as the dogmatist who cuts the relation purely on the side of the object or the religious mystic who fantasises about the object through the lens of a subjectivism. But then again, in the postmodern case, it would seem to this reader that as a substitute for objective reality what we have is a purely socially constructed notion of reality – that is, instead of objects, we are left with a different doctrine of knowledge in which there are no facts external to the subject’s enterprise. So it is kind of like the reemergence of myth through an abstract reason, in the sense of how the rational and scientific description of the world is replaced with an epistemology in which natural or social phenomenon are given subjective explanations.

The mediated nature of the relation between subject-object is corroded, along with the differentiation between two very different forms of truth: natural and social.

Epistemologically speaking, it is in no way surprising that the effects of such misguided efforts have culminated in the development of the post-truth, post-empirical worldview with its inclination toward conspiracy and the falsely reconciled idea of the “truer truth” that we observe in conspiracy and anti-science cultures. What is surprising is that now even Latour is beginning to backtrack from making “scientific certainty” a “primary issue”, as the social, political and cultural foundations of climate denialism demand focus.

None of this is to say that postmodern philosophy has offered nothing positive. To my mind, its emphasis on the particular is a good thing. Post-modernism forced through the important social ethical concept of appreciating and celebrating the particularity, and sought to defend such particularity from reckless social and political attempts at hypostatisation. But I think it is also time to recognise that, analogously, emphasis on the particular cannot come at the epistemological cost of the universal. Indeed, there are philosophical problems that currently face us when it comes to a coherent theory or model of objective knowledge which satisfies, on the one hand, the limits of non-scientific and scientific knowledge in process and, on the other hand, the substance of our current best theories and the nature of identity. The discerning reader will acknowledge yet another connection by analogy: more broadly, debates between process metaphysics and substance metaphysics. Inasmuch that with each historical moment there is a limit to our knowledge it can also be said that science teaches us that with each historical moment, that knowledge also sharpens, deepens, and expands in the course of the next future moment. If, in my opinion, philosophy remains especially vulnerable to absolutist theories of concepts – that the antiquated law of identity predicates the conflation of concept, phenomenon and the non-identity of identity – I would argue that science generally fosters the opposite in the sense that its epistemology is a priori principled on the understanding of the revealing nature of phenomena: that identity, process, and substance can and do exist simultaneously. Where the trouble arises, I think, is when science and scientific knowledge enters the social world with it biased inclinations toward hypostatisation.

To the last paragraph, I think this also speaks to my own lack of comfort when it comes to the relation between science and industry, or any other obviously biased and social site of practice. Indeed, as scientific knowledge enters into a biased and less-than-rational social world, it becomes a political object or, in other ways, it seems to become an abstraction of itself in much the same way rationality might maintain its form but lose all of its content. As scientific knowledge is politicised, its truth content gets emptied. Of course this is not always the case, but examples are plenty!

I suppose the concern lends to the view that how science is realised, socially, and how science is used can be vulnerable to the biases of governing political, cultural and economic systems. For me, this is a much more pressing and nuanced issue than the postmodern case would allow.

In closing, if much of what I have read suggests the postmodern view is one that wants to respect history, then surely one ought to also recognise that the frontier of human knowledge has advanced to truly astounding boundaries of investigation, owed entirely to the modern scientific enterprise and its unique epistemological domain of enquiry. If human social history is largely one of prejudice, the development of an objective knowledge of the natural world over time points to the manner in which human enquiry ought to be accountable to scientific verification. Or, at least, this is the demand from the perspective of the history of scientific knowledge.

I suppose what I am saying is that I think it is important realise that the domain of social study is very different than the domain of natural scientific study; and that questions of social truth and of the operation of social truth are very different than concepts of objective truth and natural reality in the context of the scientific study of the natural world. But what is perhaps most obvious to me, it is the natural sciences by and large that remain a site for the mediation of subject-object and a truer view of reality.

The Book of Why

The Book of Why: The New Science of Cause and Effect

The notion of causality – and the many longstanding debates about it – has interested me for some time. It is a subject that regularly resurfaces in my study of knowledge, and one that I continue to write about in my notebooks. In truth, it is no small or trivial matter – debates about the nature of causality have existed since at least Aristotle. I would describe it as a concept of such importance that any subtle shift or advancement in the science of cause and effect would impact a significant number of general academic and scientific fields. In physics, we still search for a clear definition of it, while the notion of causality is also very important to epidemiology and other diverse places like psychology and cognitive linguistics. In philosophy and social science, the notion of causation remains a site of great contention, and the implications of these debates are arguably immense.

I was first introduced to the notion of causation in physics. Considering the subject has its presence in my daily studies as a theoretical physics student, wider contention about its definition or even its actuality has offered a site of both intrigue and concern. In physics, causality is an important concept – think, for example, of the Penrose Interpretation and his arguments about the causes of wave function collapse. Or, as another example, think of the paradox of the arrow of time and the search for non-local causality. Or, finally, think of Special Relativity, where it is not possible for an effect to occur from a cause that is not in the back light cone of that event. But these are just a few examples, with the point to be emphasised that causality is important in a diversity of places within the physical sciences, from things like causal calculus to such areas as mathematical biology to my area of interest in particle physics.

So why is it interesting to think of issues pertaining to causation? I suppose it begins by acknowledging that it is not just in the natural sciences where the idea of causation has a presence. Causation – or causal reason – is arguably a fundamental tool of human cognition. There is also an argument to be made, along quite substantial lines, that cause and effect is a fundamentally important concept for the study of the social world. I won’t write too much about my own position on the matter. What I will say is that, from my current vantage, I am of the mind that causality is a key aspect of physical reality. I speak of such an opinion from the basis of my studies in maths and physics. I am also of the mind that causality and causal reasoning is a key aspect of human experience, and I speak of this opinion on the basis of a lot of extracurricular study from statistics to psychology, history, anthropology and other areas like epistemology. I think there is also a sample basis to suggest that causation is integral to the very existence and possibility of moral philosophy and social rationality, should one wish to expand on the notion that far.

Having said all that, the concept is very difficult to capture in definitive way. There is some cool maths (think of causal systems, for example) and science that help to enable an elaboration; but the problem, traditionally, concerns the question of what causality actually means and how we effectively arrive at capturing it in complex cases where an assessment of root cause is not immediately accessible. It is easier to think about causation within the natural sciences. It becomes much more difficult when the study involves conscious subjects, and then even more difficult when investigating the development of some complex social phenomenon. In some of my extracurricular studies – like when I wrote on the subject of social pathology and human development, for example – I always had some idea of causality in mind. It operated as a sort of rational tension, if you will, expressed simply as the idea that there is causation at work in the development of x social phenomenon (the limits of investigation were defined by the notion of feedback loops). But how to do justice to it? How to drill down deep enough to elaborate a sufficient framework that might capture cause and effect, whether scientifically or when it comes to the study of human civilisation? On what scientific and empirical-philosophical foundation might one rely to expand its application, from physics to the engineering to the sociology of health?

Reflecting on these questions offers some hint as to why I am excited to read a new book by Judea Pearl and Dana Mackenzie. It is titled, The Book of Why: The New Science of Cause and Effect. My hope is that it will stimulate further thought, offer new perspectives and drill down toward more fundamental definitions. As a young natural scientist who also likes to think of wider issues (with a particular interest in epistemology), the work has immediately jumped to the top of my extracurricular reading list. From what I understand, the author’s argue toward a similar position that I have been tentatively sketching: that causal reasoning not only plays an integral role in the practice of modern science, but, as a cognitive tool, it has even also played an important role in human evolution. In exploring new methods of causal reasoning – namely, the concept of causal inference – it sounds like a timely publication that aims to deepen the science of cause and effect, and also not without significant philosophical implications. 

For decades the idea that “correlation is not causation” or that “correlation does not imply causation” has been an established position in many of areas of science and philosophy. It is a mantra in statistics. And it has arguably also had significant effects on the shape of the contemporary human social world, especially pertaining to a theory of value (for better or for worse). One of the ideas, or basic tenants, is that if  two things correlate this does not necessarily imply that one causes the other. There could be a third variable which, for example, causes the correlation. In that “correlation does not necessarily imply causation” is a logically valid statement, one of the more popular and mainstream examples “of a correlation being clear but causation being in doubt concerned smoking and lung cancer in the 1950s”.

In the natural sciences, as the author’s point out (from I have read about the book), the concept of causality still lives but it has become “taboo”. In areas of philosophy and social science, on the other hand, I have already mentioned that from my understanding causality is a markedly contentious concept that draws significant divides. The debates also seem to become very muddled, to the point where established post-modern philosophies even outright reject the idea of causal roots and objective knowledge for the sake of subjectivism. In a sense, it would seem a particular matter of “correlation does not equal causation” taken to the extreme of “there can be no clear sense of causation”, which, at least to my mind, is then a short step from a post-truth worldview. On the other side of the divide, efforts appear to be in search of a rigorous framework that can do justice to the idea of root causes in a social, economic and environmental sense, maintaining the idea of objective knowledge and rationality. I suspect these efforts also tie-in, or may tie-in, to systems thinking as well as other theories.


In general, I suppose one point I am making is that these matters are interesting to think about not only within a natural scientific context – why does scientific knowledge work? – but also within a social scientific context – how can we explain, or identify, the cause of a certain systemic trend?

Of all the psychology and broader social science I have read, it seems to me that often researchers struggle (when considering a wide range of matters) with the lack of some concise or fundamental definition of causation. One interesting trend that I have noticed is often in how, in order to fundamentally explain some phenomenon within the human and social world (i.e., root cause), this requires some frame of analysis or set of tools that can drill to some idea of causal roots; but, in lacking a fundamental and clear definition – the science of causality, if you will – the inclination is for that frame to become increasingly philosophically and hyper-speculative in effort to “explain away” a justification for the identification of that causal root. I notice this in a lot of literature – its like there is a sense of some causal root, but it’s not always clear how to arrive at it or capture it in a rigorous and evidenced-based way.  I could be totally wrong, but in some ways I see the problem as the social sciences not yet being methodologically mature enough to realise a systematic study of fundamental root causes when it comes to explaining complex social phenomena. There are tools like causal chain analysis, or conceptual definitions like feedback loops in systems theory, which are helpful and begin to hint at the steps forward or how we might begin to elaborate on an effective framework. But it also remains that the study of causation can be so convoluted when concerning complex systems or phenomena. When thinking of causality in the context of social science,  one is also dealing with the human and social world – a world of incredible bias and complex motivation in which subjectivity is also a key factor. It makes for a messy form of research, and is why I alluded earlier that it is easier to think of causality in the natural sciences than in the social sciences.

There is a simple example from psychology that elaborates on this concern: when a person notices a certain negative tendency in thought, or a certain behavioural pattern, or a certain anxiety, sometimes causality can be very easy to discern in relation to their neurosis. That person had x experience that left them feeling z, and therefore developed y psychological tendency or emotional memory. It is simple, like a child being bitten by a dog – even innocently and not overly violently causing serious harm – resulting in their developing an overly irrational fear of dogs. We have a causal relation of some description. In other instances, it could take many years of psychological care and study a few times a week, and maybe then the individual may or may not discover or scratch the surface of some clear causal relation that can reveal new perspectives about their behavioural patterns.

Unlike simple cases of cause and effect, many times it doesn’t seem like such aspects of human experience and neurosis can be derived so cleanly. If they could be derived so cleanly, humanism would be a science. In other words, it seems incredibly difficult to differentiate between correlation and causation within the context of social and human study, and thus it would seem equally difficult to navigate toward some concise explanation in terms root cause. Even though the above is an example on the level of the individual subject, it serves as a wider analogy. There are serious contemporary issues – from economics and the study of systemic global trends to culture, social psychology, geopolitical conflicts, environmental health and so on, where understanding causal roots is of fundamental importance but difficult to model.  Social and systemic patterns and effects can easily be perceived as a correlative web, rather than a complex and integral chain or sequence with some causal root (or roots). Just think of the study of human history, which is notoriously subjective. The problem here is that there often seems to be many dimensions to a social phenomenon or a particular sociohistorical development. Complex systems can have many interrelations, and it doesn’t always seem possible to drill down to the level of root cause without simultaneously drilling into each of its dimensional factors.

I suppose what I am saying, to add to the above, is that causal chains are not always so simple and linear in terms of drawing a straight lined connection from one cause to an effect. In non-closed or non-simple systems – that is, in complex systems – there can be any number of factors that influence an outcome, or that influence multiple effects which then cause other effects. It’s not necessarily disorder, but the fact that in some places in the causal chain more than others, there are an increased number of factors where a simple cause-effect might deviate to multiple layers of cause and effect. Moreover, in many social cases – that is, the study of human behaviour in relation to macro trends – to obtain an increasingly accurate picture would seem to entail the inclusion of more and more variables or factors in the causal chain for that system or picture. More simply, it is the need to account for how an effect might influence a later cause, which can then create feedback in the advancing chain and produce other causes which lead to other effects which can then produce other branching causes. Another way to put it: in complex social systems, an important point that we must consider with great urgency, I think, is how to account for what I would argue is the more realistic picture of layer upon layer of instances in which causes produce effects and in which those effects may then produce other causes in a complicated, multidimensional and interactive network of events that produce some outcome.

What I am suggesting is the urgent need to account for some fundamental concept of causality within the context of complexity, should one agree with the suggestion that the most accurate model of human society is as fundamentally complex or even chaotic. Another issue is the question whether pure statistical analysis can offer explanation, especially in complex cases. As I mentioned earlier, causation and explanation of causation don’t appear to be the same thing. Instead, similar to causal chain analysis – if not the same in idea – I sometimes find it helpful to think of the explanation of causality as requiring something more multidimensional, interactive and deviant in the analysis of complex sequence. This is very abstract, but it is interesting to ponder causal chains in which any one event, or fact, can again also have dimensions of its own. I have sometimes used phrases like “the multidimensionality of phenomena” or “analysis by interdisciplinary coherence” in relation to principles of cause-effect chains. The main idea takes note from Richard Feynman and others, particularly when it comes to thinking of the study of causality in the natural sciences as a simultaneous study of each dimension of that phenomenon or system or event. I mention Feynman because in one of his lectures he hints at arriving at cause and effect – or knowledge – by way of contribution from each scientific field. In other words, each field deepens our understanding of the subject of concern. He calls it the “hierarchy of concepts”, and while very informal, it always stuck with me when thinking about epistemology. I also think there is something important that can be taken here in the sense of the interdisciplinarity of causal explanation.

Think, again, of the study of human behaviour. There are several dimensions to human behaviour: emotional, psychological, biochemical, cognitive, social (and historical), and so on. An explanation of an individual’s behaviour would likely include many of these dimensions insofar that an explanation would require one to drill down into each of these contributing factors, such as when studying violence for instance, and how each may contribute to layers of some cause-effect chain. Or, to offer another example, think of climate change, beginning with the greenhouse gas effect. Picturing a causal chain, we can also include systemic factors: economic, industrial, political, psychological or whatever could be mapped in the chain which themselves lead to indirect causes and then various impacts, and so on. With climate change, we know and understand the cause; but in terms of explanation, in the causal chain, a more complete picture would seem to begin from the root that is the production of greenhouse gases also factoring economy, governance, and knowledge then leading to industry and sector specific causes to immediate causes (i.e., deforestation) and their interrelated nodes to environmental impacts, cultural and social patterns, and so on. It’s a complicated picture that seems to require a simultaneously drilling down into each cause, indirect cause, and their impacts in addition to how they may all interrelate and produces their own spiraling effects.

In thinking in the way described above, the closest analogy or metaphor I can arrive at when referring to this notion of a pattern from within a “hierarchy of concepts”, particularly when studying the causality of a complex phenomenon with a mind toward explanation – it is like solving several simultaneous differential equations.

In closing, it will be interesting to learn what Pearl and Mackenzie have to say. My sense of the publication is that it is a lifetime work.

For the curious reader, here are two reviews that offer a summation of the book’s contents. The first was recently recommended by Prof. Pearl via his Twitter account. The second is a standard popular review, the only other I could find in a quick search. I also found an unedited – and therefore not to be cited – version of the opening chapter.

*Edited on 15/07/18 for syntax and clarity. A link was also included to an unedited version of the first chapter of Pearl’s book.

Ethics: “Should We Stop Doing Science?”

It is not common for me to begin an essay this way. But the latest edition of New Scientist was released – “the ethics issue” – and it raised a few points of reflection, however informal and searching.

New Scientist is generally known for its unique combination of science reporting and communication, critical thinking and social consciousness. It is a science magazine, and within it one can usually expect intelligent debate and a sense of objectivity as the normative goal. There is also a place for opinion, and in this space of opinion there is a unique philosophical quadrant. I enjoy the magazine for numerous reasons, not least because I appreciate how at times it seeks to inspire scientifically informed public conversations and debate about the future of science and where we ought to go as a species. A really good example of this is the article on CRISPR.

But what inspires me today is the ethics issue. The idea of structuring a publication on ten or so moral dilemmas that currently face science is exciting, thought provoking and certainly also very important. These are timely debates, and we must consider them in detail with all their nuances and caveats. The final article – with the provocative title, “Stop Doing Science?” – is what I want to focus on in particular.

As a whole, it is an enjoyable read in spite of it being frustratingly short and simplistic. When skimming its paragraphs I was reminded that the publication’s philosophical engagements tend to be generally lacking in substance, offering only a mere glance of the issues with little to no nuance. There is often also little room for caveats and, let’s face it, there are always so many caveats.

When it comes to this article in particular, and perhaps also the entire issue on ethics, I was continually reminded of what I perceive as a common fallibility in analysis among those that engage with a critique of science. Namely that, whenever engaged with discussions on the ethical status of science, there is commonly a lack of differentiation between “science” and social mediation. Science – that is, scientific practice and knowledge – can easily become conflated with whatever errors in the form of its general social actualization. When publishing a column that provocatively asks “”Stop Doing Science?”, and which engages with opinions on the ethical status of science in relation to society, I would expect the author(s) to more deeply engage with the pressing point: the social and cultural realization of scientific outputs.

The New Scientist article opens as follows:

Science has the capacity to cure diseases, improve crop yields, reshape the planet and carry us into the cosmos, but is any of that worth the risks? The march of science has improved the lives of some, but not all. And it has inadvertently precipitated a problematic population explosion and an unfolding environmental catastrophe. […] Add to that the development of weapons of mass destruction, disgraceful research such as the Tuskegee syphilis experiments on African Americans, and a few accidents such as the 1978 release of smallpox in Birmingham, UK, and perhaps the ethical thing to do would be to quit while we’re ahead.

The article goes on to cite a number of academics, including philosopher Massimo Pigliucci, whose comments on military science among other things are featured. “The biggest winner from science has been the military”. What I would like to do is raise the following question: perhaps the root of the issue does not have to do with “science” per se. Rather, maybe on the level of first principles what really is in question is a distinctly social and cultural problem. I am not naive enough to deny that the modern scientific endeavor hasn’t directly experienced moments of ethical shortcoming. There is very much a scientific ethics that must be adhered to, and there have been notable cases in which this ethics has been violated. But in the most famous examples commonly cited by anti-science philosophers, critics or ethicists, the social and cultural conditions within which scientific outputs are realized seems to get little attention. Instead, social misappropriation of the technical possibilities science creates becomes cause for a critique of the entire scientific endeavor.

Consider, for example, the advent of mass surveillance, which was one topic in the New Scientist issue on ethics. It may be that science created the possibility for mass surveillance technologies, but it also created the possibility for the original conception of the World Wide Web. The Web actually serves another good illustration, especially in light of the controversies around recent challenges against net neutrality. From my understanding the Web was originally very much a P2P concept that I’ve read was close to the idea of the digital commons, but many experts argue that increasing commodification has drastically altered the structure of how we think about and interact with the Web today.  In simple and terse terms, there are very different and even opposing examples of how our online information space might be conceived.

How scientific outputs and technology are realized has to do with a question of social or societal values as opposed what some appear to suggest in a so-called critique of “modern science”. Perhaps another timely example can be found in the emerging ethical tech movement, such as the Fairphone. I recently read an interesting article on how and why we need to think differently about e-waste, and within its list of facts was a particularly notable philosophical point: product lifetime is important, which contradicts such design and economic policies as planned obsolescence.

According to Apple, 84 percent of the carbon emissions associated with the iPhone 6s is related to manufacture of the phone—only 10 percent comes from usage. “This makes product lifetime the key determinant of overall environmental impact,” explains a 2015 report from the Green Alliance, a UK environmental think tank. “A device that lasts longer spreads its manufacturing impacts over a longer time period.” It’s not just carbon, either. Re-use markets ease the demand for cobalt and other materials, the mining of which is often harmful to human health and the environment.

One of the emerging solutions is the “right to repair” law, but the censuses among experts I’ve come across within the tech industry seems to also pertain to a more humble questioning of values. As the article states, in places like China and Ghana – countries which used to act as electronic wastebaskets – there is evidence that a powerful green economy is emerging. More generally, sustainability now also seems to be very much an emerging global phenomenon. What we’re seeing is a whole new world of ideas, powered by material science among other fields. When it comes to ethical tech, sustainability initiatives in material science, waste, mobility, city planning, agriculture, and the incredible growth and support in renewables (to name a few) would seem to project a transformation of values and a shift in how technology is socially realized.

If one is having difficulty accessing the meaning of what I am suggesting, think of medical science as an entry point. It is unanimously universally agreed that the development of penicillin is a positive thing for humanity. With that said, is it a result or direct consequence of science that an artificial paywall is constructed blocking people’s access to this vital antibiotic when in time of need? If one were to be overly simplistic, science can ultimately mean two things for human civilization: the realization of humanity’s potential or not. But a significant part of any potential realization – which would certainly be based on the positive social realization of scientific knowledge – largely pertains to the output of the social systemic function. In essence: it raises a question about the general status of human and social values.

Scientific outputs, like technology, would seem to undergo quite a lot of social mediation. Some of the most frontier theories and widely accepted philosophies of technology confirm this view. And with this mediation comes bias, orthodoxy, and even at times social and cultural irrationality.

One way to think of it is almost like a function. In mathematics, a function is a relation between a set of inputs and a set of outputs. I tend to see natural science as representing a unique epistemological space. In the case of this article, the function f is the social aspect of human life which comprises everything from culture and economy to how we organize society and its systems and the structure of our relationships. Within this sociocultural context or milieu, the status of our values comes into direct focus.

As a whole, I find this general line of thought to be interesting . There are entire collections of books, from science inspired literature to science fiction and philosophy, that dabble with a very similar set of observations. Some of the most well-known sociologists in history have all played with a similar analysis. Ultimately, I think it comes down to what extent the social function is an expression of common universal humanistic values. In a study on pathology that I did some time ago, I found that societies with a greater emphasis on such universal values – economic democracy, equality, justice, rights, egalitarianism, and so on – also socially actualized scientific and technological developments with a different sensibility than, for example, a society (democratic or not) based heavily on the military, religion, or other orthodoxies. In psychology we read quite regularly how societies based on fear tend to reproduce authoritarian outcomes, which can very widely on the scale.

Perhaps this is why, however much crossover there is in global society, each individual society is distinguishable according to the status of their core values. Some are more democratic than others just as some are more violent than others. Some have greater degrees of inequality, others prioritize policies to help foster equality and economic democracy. The same can also likely be said about the difference in emphasis on how scientific outputs and technological developments are realized. Think, for instance, of climate science, which tells us that the continued burning of fossil fuels is not sustainable. Some societies and cultures have responded positively, embracing the need for transformation when it comes to energy for example. Scotland is directly on path to becoming powered one-hundred percent by renewable energies. Others have remained stuck in a strange sort of economic orthodoxy, influenced, likely, by those with significant investment in fossil fuels.

In this case, science has highlighted possible alternatives and revealed a path in light of the facts about human caused climate change. The same could be said for numerous other issues, from material waste and plastic pollution to farming and agriculture. But scientific research and knowledge can only be suggestive when it comes to the social world outside of its scope. In other words, it is not “science” that typically comes into question here, but the social values outside of its domain.

Let us consider an example. That scientists split the atom is a remarkable discovery that could have unending positive implications, but its social realization also came with the advent of nuclear weapons. Conceptual conflation is a key notion here, when dissecting critiques of science. “Nuclear” is often perceived as a dirty word these days. People associate it with nuclear waste and nuclear armaments, but nuclear applications and research is an incredibly promising and important area without which the entire scope and potential future of human civilization would be drastically different (and not for the better). The possibility of nuclear fusion – unlimited clean energy that would forever solve humanity’s energy problems – is a distinct potential of 21st century nuclear science. It is also one of the most drastically underfunded areas of 21st century science. It is curious to wonder, what is this difference in priority between the continued funding of nuclear armament programmes or the continued funding of fossil fuel development and the lack of funding toward nuclear fusion research? What is that difference in emphasis when it comes to policy and politics? Nuclear science can be realized in the form of the atomic bomb, or in terms of a humanistic history that prioritizes its positives benefits and potentials.

I understand the present discussion is incredibly hand-wavy. It is admittedly informal and searching. But the question for me, is not “should we keep doing science?” but whether the current social and cultural formation – and its rationale – is fit for the realization of science and humanity’s potential. This might sound incredibly sci-fi in terms of message. Indeed, it is a question that could admittedly be taken directly from Star Trek. But the existence of military science offers another interesting site for reflection. It is likely that only a heavily invested military society would realize science via the conceptual universe and epistemological domain of its military institutions. And, generally, when one surveys each society today and their particular culture, this point would seem to have some validity. It is not the case that every society invests heavily in the military and in the development of military science. Others invest more in core scientific institutions, and in the promise of positive social philosophical and scientifically informed vision for their future, and this would seem reflected in the status of their core underlying values. It is therefore not necessarily the case that “the biggest winner from science has been the military”, as the caveat pertains to how such a development strictly refers to particular socio-historical and cultural contexts.

The modern scientific endeavour has, in my opinion, influenced the social-environmental function in positive ways. But scientific knowledge – or, as Steven Pinker calls it, the “scientific mindset” – does not determine the values of the social function. We see examples where there can be science in an irrational society. Science only happens to lend itself toward a certain social philosophical vision, and for that reason in such irrational social contexts there would seem an inevitable clash of values. For me, science advocates and appeals to a certain way of thinking, and thus helps foster a more rational society; but this is not its a priori aim. As Carl Sagan put it in The Demon-Haunted World:

There is much that science doesn’t understand, many mysteries still to be resolved. In a Universe tens of billions of light-years across and some ten or fifteen billion years old, this may be the case forever.


Science is far from a perfect instrument of knowledge. It’s just the best we have. In this respect, as in many others, it’s like democracy. Science by itself cannot advocate courses of human action, but it can certainly illuminate the possible consequences of alternative courses of action.

The scientific way of thinking is at once imaginative and disciplined. This is central to its success. Science invites us to let the facts in, even when they don’t conform to our preconceptions. It counsels us to carry alternative hypotheses in our heads and see which best fit the facts. It urges on us a delicate balance between no-holds-barred openness to new ideas, however heretical, and the most rigorous skeptical scrutiny of everything — new ideas and established wisdom. This kind of thinking is also an essential tool for a democracy in an age of change.

One might say that my above example of the social function is a silly way to think about the issue of ethics when it comes to the relation of science and society. Another might even suggest that the implications are a bit too atomistic. But it serves the practical purpose of illustrating the most fundamentally ethical question that we can possibly raise when it comes to the entire scope of possible moral dilemmas in science: whether scientific outputs can become entwined with irrational social forces of domination and orthodoxy? This is what I was expecting from a New Scientist issue dedicated to ethics and that dabbles in philosophy.

If we concede as a basic observation that natural science is not absolutely immune to getting caught up in socio-cultural developments, or, in another way, its outputs and the practice of those outputs are not immune, perhaps this is why some philosophers express suspicion toward the idea of a wholly “positive science” within an irrational social world. If natural science is a special epistemological domain, as I tend to see it being, which does possess a certain degree of autonomy, as attested to by the effectiveness of the scientific method, there are also many historical instances in which scientific outputs have become entwined with forces of domination or negative social orthodoxies. There is an undeniable objectivity to science, and it is simply wrong of critics to suggest that science is never value-free. These sorts of critiques conflate the doing of science with the social mediation of its output.

I’ve read many questionable strands of critique in recent time in relation to the industrial use of science and things like the systematic destruction of the natural environment. But, again, my gripe with these critics is that there isn’t sufficient differentiation. For these reasons I used quotations around the word “science” earlier in this essay, and in reference to the New Scientist article, because I think there needs to be sufficient differentiation between fields of science and their contextual dynamics and epistemological environments and finally also their outputs. Industrial science and the issues in relation to it are different than military science – as are the ethical debates – which also needs to be differentiated from what some call “basic” or genuine science. The status of science in a military or industrial setting is very different than in other scientific domains, as is widely understood given the complexity of ethical debates in and around modern industrial use of scientific practices. Genuine or wholesome science – however one wants to describe it – still has a place in many of our institutions, and in the practices of many scientific research facilities.

All of this goes without saying that one of the most widely accepted and understood theses is that “every technology embodies the values of the age in which it was conceived or created”, to whatever degree. Science is no different in the sense of the social use of science. Or, in other words, this is what some describe in a critique of “instrumental reason” – i.e., the instrumental and exploitative use of scientific research and outputs. Indeed, at least for me, the actual problem has more to do with the corporatization or economic reductionism, misuse and capitalization of the natural sciences, mostly outside of university and within “industry”, wherein such a dominant economistic epistemology is likely to be fostered and exercised. Scientists’ stories are everywhere on the internet to be read. In not wanting to participate in a particularly exploitative or destructive practices of a certain industry, scientists are often forced to because that’s their only ticket to obtain funding for what is still often very valuable research.

In the end, the question becomes one of social ethos. And maybe this is where the importance of philosophy also comes into focus?

This brings me to Steven Pinker’s assertion  regarding how, “scientific facts militate toward a defensible morality, namely adhering to principles that maximize the flourishing of humans and other sentient beings”. Pinker goes on to say, similar to what I alluded above in my function description: “the scientific facts do not by themselves dictate values,” these facts at least “hem in the possibilities” (Pinker, 2013). Citing examples of the scientific refutation of the theory of vengeful gods and occult forces, as well as the resultant undermining of barbaric practices such as human sacrifice and witch hunts, “the facts of science, by exposing the absence of purpose in the laws governing the universe, force us to take responsibility for the welfare of ourselves, our species, and our planet” (Pinker, 2013).

We can add to this with what philosopher Andrew Feenberg said in a past interview: “We should all be able to approve the discovery of penicillin and electricity, regardless of politics. But at the same time progress is channelled by social forces. Thus penicillin is used in a medical system controlled by business, while electricity is generated by utilities committed to burning fossil fuels” (Feenberg, 2015). We can expand the point in countless directions, but the general thrust is how there needs to be objective critical thinking about the relationships between ideas, theoretical positions and scientific outputs and their social environment. Science inspires, in my opinion, a more reconciled and transformative vision of society; but it is the actual domain of culture, economy and politics – as well as their prevailing epistemology – that represents the range of possible forms in which scientific outputs might crystallize. The same can be said about technology or any other area of society, such as the medical sector.

I’ve had the opportunity to study and write on a lot of issues, crossing most if not all major disciplines. One conclusion I’ve reached, at least from my current vantage point, is that history teaches us that no positive human potential is safe from the realization of its opposite.  No human invention, no positive human capacity, is safe from the forces of pathology and irrationality. Humanity can equip itself with all the right tools: science, a well-developed education system, democratic ideas of social relations, among other progressive things based largely on core humanistic values. But if the social universe – to put it in terms of systems thinking, the systemic coordinates of the modern social and cultural universe – if they are not, in principle and in practice, based on egalitarian and emancipatory ideals for the benefit of the whole of humanity and the natural environment, it doesn’t matter what enlightened or emancipatory values a culture places in science, or in technology, or in law, or whatever. There will always be, to greater or lesser degree, a general tendency toward exploitation, misuse, conceptual distortion or, in a word, negative outputs. Or, in the very least, as we often witness it will be a constant struggle to ensure outputs are not not entwined with questionable economic orthodoxies,  bias and destructive worldviews.

In closing, if we bracket science for a moment and allow for it to be perceived in its full autonomy, more often than not such issues as military science no longer have to do with science itself, as a concept and as a thing, but with the social appropriation of scientific knowledge and practice. There is a very fine, if not subtle differentiation between science, at its roots, and the social exploitation or societal scope of scientific appropriations. Maybe this is what Pigliucci was alluding, when, as quoted in the article, he reflects: “Maybe, before questioning the relatively small amounts we spend on basic science, we should ask ourselves what on earth are we doing with such an oversized military?”

This is a nice way to close. As I currently see it, there appears to be a deep error in misplacing the social and thus also pathological influence on scientific outputs for a critique of the whole modern scientific enterprise, as though, for example, “science” directly proceeded to specify the outcome of the development of weapons of mass destruction; fracking; mountaintop removal; mass surveillance; or whatever else one might want to insert here.

On a philosophical note, Sagan also wrote in The Demon-Haunted World that “humans may crave absolute certainty; they may aspire to it; they may pretend, as partisans of certain religions do, to have attained it”. An extension of this point is that in the irrational drive toward the absolute we also lose sight of the value of nuanced, objective critical thinking and rational debate. In that this essay presents a series of informal reflections without any certain conclusion, what is certainly clear is the complexity of the ethical issues we face. This will always be the case at the frontier of knowledge. The ethics issue of New Scientist does a nice job at seeking to inspire scientifically informed debates and discussions on a select list of topics. The recently published, A Crack in Creation by Jennifer Doudna is another recent example, as it explores gene-editing and CRISPR, the positive possibilities immediately ahead of us, and potential future concerns. These are the sort of debates and considerations and engagements necessarily at the heart of a positive science inspired society, and long may they continue.

The Enlightenment, Science and Core Humanistic Values in a Post-Factual World

R.C. Smith

Over the course of the last few years, I’ve been re-reading a lot of books on the enlightenment (mostly in my spare time), including many notable texts by such prominent enlightenment thinkers as Kant, Hume, Descartes and so on. My interest in the philosophes dates back to when I was a teenager, where some of my very first books of interest was Descartes’ Discourse on Method and the Meditations in addition to David Hume’s Enquiry. This sparked an analytical interest, connected, it would seem, with my love for science and passion for mathematics. And so from there, as I moved into my twenties, it was between the philosophes and humanism, including existentialism, mixed in with a broad-stroke of Anglo-American philosophy, which defined and continues to define my general interest in and engagement with the world of philosophical thought.

From there I eventually discovered interdisciplinary philosophy, or what might also be cited as social philosophy, and finally also limited strands of the tradition known as a critical theory. But after many years and many books, I find myself returning to the enlightenment and its core humanistic tradition. In so many ways the enlightenment seems to represent the roots of the advance modern thought, which itself takes a place in a much wider history in the evolution of philosophical ideas. Though focused particularly on the history of moral philosophy and its development, Kenan Malik’s The Quest for a Moral Compass is one of the best book’s that I have read in recent time. With a background in the natural sciences, there is a structure to Malik’s thought which seems absent in so much of the human or social sciences. This book sits as part of a long tradition, and what is fascinating is its exploration of moral thought across time and throughout cultures.

But some of my favourite of Malik’s writings have to do more focusedly on the enlightenment. His book The Meaning of Race (1996) offers a very important and substantive rebuttal against those who link enlightenment thinking – even science and reason – with racism. Moreover, in examining the ideas of the historical development, and philosophical and political roots, of the idea of race, Malik does a very nice job at showing that racial difference is actually in opposition to the universalist ideas of the enlightenment project. Likewise, his book Strange Fruit (2008) and his many articles on the enlightenment are certainly worthy of broader consideration, as they offer important contributions to contemporary debates. Additionally, Malik’s book Man, Beast and Zombie (2001), is thought provoking. My recent essay reflecting on and around Paul Bloom’s Against Empathy, addresses similar issues as Man, Beast and Zombie; but perhaps a separate essay on this book is something worth pursuing in the future.

The enlightenment ultimately brought the value of reason and of the modern scientific endeavour to the fore, serving also as an important catalyst for the development of important core humanistic values. Instead of being premised on the authority of the church, these values were to be grounded in the human world. To state today, especially in the context of our increasingly troubled social world, that the enlightenment project and its legacy is even more fundamentally culturally important is by no means excessive. The impact that the Enlightenment had on western society – and, indeed, throughout the world – underlines a significant part of the modern value of progress. The enlightenment philosophes are not without their issues, which is to say that today we can continue to advance and progress key arguments, given new data and insight over centuries. One obviously place for such progressive advancement, I think, is in the field of epistemology, which, on the side of my own scientific studies and pursuits, is one of my favourite areas of philosophical consideration.

Whether explicitly realized or not, it seems fairly clear from my current vantage point that the basic values often shared by progressives today are tied to the enlightenment and its social, political and philosophical legacy. Equality, cosmopolitanism, and modern conceptions of democracy are a few examples. Conversely, modern emphasis on individual liberty and religious tolerance, along with notions of constitutional government, normative critique of the abuses church and state, and popular scepticism of traditional authority can all be traced to the enlightenment (The scholarship offered by Stephen E. Bronner among many others is very informative here).

Even the contemporary value of “critical thought” is indebted, it would seem, to the basic enlightenment value of reason, understood as the basis for authority and legitimacy in thought and action, which, as a means itself, sought to inspire normative critical reflection on human social reality. Also tied to this, of course, are such values as empiricism, scientific rigor and evidence-based thinking. Social-historical and cultural progress was, too, seen critically as open-ended and unfolding. Unbound to prejudiced or ideological ends, the value of progress seemed explicitly intended to have been positioned in such a way that, based on rational enquiry, it would be safeguarded from the irrational and ultimately totalitarian utopian urge that makes claim to the end of history. One of the philosophical lessons would seem that: “Critical thinking” and unbiased enquiry as synonymous with reason, in that rationality owes no allegiance to any party or movement – social-political, theoretical, or otherwise – serves non-partisan thinking in the same way that facts, or reality, is non-partisan. As Lawrence M. Krauss recently put it, “Reality exists independent of the desires or claims of those in power”. Likewise, reality exists independent of the bias and prejudices of the individual and social collective. Perhaps, many years ago, when I wrote my first book of philosophy and introduced the notion of conscious evasion, this is what I was ultimately aiming to describe – what we might call today, thanks to the advances in cognitive science, the problem of “confirmation bias”.

In sum: if the enlightenment was meant to blow open history in the sense of challenging and breaking free from traditional doctrines and dogmas as well oppressive regimes of thought and social organization (Bronner, 2004; Pagden, 2013), this is because the very idea of the Enlightenment as a project and as a set of ideals was meant to become the “source of everything that is progressive about the modern world”, standing “for freedom of thought, rational inquiry, critical thinking, religious tolerance, political liberty, scientific achievement, the pursuit of happiness, and hope for the future” (Thomas, 2014). Perhaps more emphatically, the Enlightenment was meant to liberate human beings once and for all (Bronner, 2004). This project of emancipation was not only social and political; it represented the possibility of a certain existential liberation as well (Israel, 2002), especially when it comes to the advent of reason and science as common values which support humanity’s overcoming Myth more generally and certainly also the oppressive grip of the Church in particular (Pagden, 2013).

One can cite numerous texts by key Enlightenment thinkers which support the above view.

Marquis de Condorcet (1794/2012), in his famous work titled Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind, writes for example on the interrelation between the progress of the sciences and enlightened social behaviour (Gregory, 2010; Leiss, 2011; Pagden, 2013).William Leiss summarizes this nicely while quoting Condorcet: “He [Condorcet] remarks that ‘all errors in politics and morals are based on philosophical errors and these in turn are connected with scientific errors’. He is saying that there is a connection between our conceptions of natural processes, on the one hand, and our understanding of society and individual behaviour, on the other” (Leiss, 2011, p. 29).Moreover, “Condorcet envisioned a future in which ‘the dissemination of enlightenment’ would ‘include in its scope the whole of the human race’” (Leiss, 2011, p. 29). He maintains the position that the enlightenment provides a new way of thinking, a new view of the world, and that this view, based on a transformative ethos (Bronner, 2004, pp. 4-5), not only connects science and reason with morality and ethics, but is principled, as Bronner (2004) writes, on a series of core human values.

Condorcet’s reflections in Sketch for a Historical Picture of the Progress of the Human Mind share a common vision with many other Enlightenment thinkers (Bronner, 2004). Indeed, “the Enlightenment” as a whole “crystallized around the principles connected with fostering the accountability of institutions, reciprocity under the law, and a commitment to experiment with social reform” (Bronner, 2004, p. 9). It sought not “imperialism, or racism, or the manipulation of liberty”, but instead the ideals of liberty, individual rights and dignity (Bronner, 2004; Pagden, 2013) and what we might describe today as social conditions which foster the “free flourishing subject”. These ideals formed the basis of Enlightenment universalism (Israel, 2001; Bronner, 2004; Pagden, 2013), which sought to protect rather than threaten the exercise of subjectivity (Bronner, 2004, p. 9).


So what does all of this philosophical reflection and discourse mean today, particularly for the modern scientific endeavour and for the outward values of science? It would seem that there is a debate about the role science plays in terms of social, historical and cultural enlightenment and about how science engages with the human social world and its search for core progressive values.

Although I don’t entirely agree with his stance about the 2017 March for Science, because I think the campaign is ultimately a positive thing, there is a deeper truth to Jerry Coyne’s article: namely, that the increasing politicization of science is a cause for concern. Additionally, while at various protests the political left seem inclined to make claim to science – that facts tend to have a liberal bias – there are many studies that show both sides can be diluted, driven by confirmation bias instead of an open investigation of reality.

At the same time, the notion of openess and unbiased investigation is much more significant than cognitive bias studies acknowledge. While research into cognitive bias offer tremendous insight when it comes to the problem of political ideologies and prejudices, among other things, it does little with regards to the age-old metaphysical and ethical problem concerning the nature of truth. Is any appeal to truth reduced to bias? Cognitive bias, in a sense, implies closedness. But where things seem to get tricky, at least from my observational point of view, is when this principle is applied within the social domain. For example, is it a product of cognitive bias that one might defend climate science in the face of so-called climate deniers? The obvious answer is that it is not, so long that one’s appeal is to evidence without dogma or prejudice. One can remain open to the opinions of a “climate denier” whilst also disproving their claims. But in today’s world, everything is either reduced to politics or opinion or both. And that seems to be a problem. The stage, as it were, is already set to frame the logic and structure of debate in the way of a purely subjective narrative. In other words, the very meaning and structure and purpose of rational debate and the appeal to objectivity, evidence and facts seems in decline. The mentality, the philosophical approach, is largely logically dubious and irrational.

It is important, in agreeing with Coyne, that the modern scientific endeavour, the very practice and values of science, remain non-partisan and therefore operative in the realm of what I would describe as the critical, objective and open to new data and to the unfolding investigation of reality. Reason, like scientific enquiry, should remain unbiased and untied to ideological or prejudiced ends. Others may describe it differently, but the main point, I think, is that the worst thing that can happen in this pathological era of so-called “post-factualism”, is that science becomes associated with political dogma and agenda.

At the same time, if science tends to foster a philosophy of openness, in today’s social world this would seem to have very real structural-political consequences. This philosophical value of openness also has a very particular epistemological appeal: namely, the openness to diversity, the unknown and to the moreness of phenomena. In the social world, these values seem to be given political appeal, with different sides making claim to the title of rightful defender. But they are nothing more than common universal values in a deeply existential and humanistic sense.

It currently seems to me that a more reconciled approach would be one that acknowledges neither left nor right bias; nor would it assume any one position. Truly open, critical, reflective and objective reason is inherently inclined to reject all such bias and prejudiced claims. Rather than approach the world by way of some worldview, an rational approach would be more fluid. In considering all the facts, we can posit our best and most well-laid out theories which help explain reality; but those systems of thought are not closed. The more we investigate, the more we deepen our theories and the more we deepen our understanding of the objective truth of a phenomenon or issue. It is a process of constant critical openness and learning and receptivity. In the natural sciences, when studying purely natural phenomena and objects in which no bias is inherent in those phenomena, this process becomes much easier when compared to the study of social justice issues. And for all the writing I’ve read on cognitive bias, this deeper point never seems to be considered.

Research would seem to indicate that reality is tough for both sides to swallow. And yet, in emphasizing the philosophical and ethical value of openness and intellectual diversity should not also be conflated with tolerance of oppressive, irrational or prejudiced views. When, in a recent New Scientist article, the issue of same sex marriage is raised in the same breathe that “”open-minded” liberals are just as plagued by confirmation bias as “closed-minded” conservatives, consideration of the problem of cognitive bias and the difference in the nature of its appeal on both sides is lacking. This raises an interesting question in the field of ethical philosophy. It would seem to me, from a purely structural perspective, that a lack of consideration of such a prejudiced and oppressive view as anti-equality perspectives is not the same in meaning as the hate-filled bigot.

In terms of the general political landscape, both sides are fallible. The entire political world, as far as I can tell, is steeped in bias. Both left and right can be anti-science and irrational; but the fundamental issue has much more to do with the pathology of society, in which people forget how to think properly, to approach the world rationally and sensibly. Irrationality accumlates, structurally it seems to propagate.

Personally, I don’t align myself with any political party or movement or denomination because it all seems so senseless. The pursuit of truth and of understanding isn’t and shouldn’t be political. In appealing to the best of humanistic values, science and intellectualism should be for everyone. The best values we have are enlightenment values – they underline everything positive about the modern social world and of whatever progress that humanity has achieved. But these values also appeal to a philosophy that challenges the traditionalism, closed-mindedness generally associated with conservatism, as well as emphasizes a relentless critical openness that challenges whatever creeping closed-mindedness that may hamper liberals.

As Carl Sagan once put it:

Science is far from a perfect instrument of knowledge. It’s just the best we have. In this respect, as in many others, it’s like democracy. Science by itself cannot advocate courses of human action, but it can certainly illuminate the possible consequences of alternative courses of action.

The scientific way of thinking is at once imaginative and disciplined. This is central to its success. Science invites us to let the facts in, even when they don’t conform to our preconceptions. It counsels us to carry alternative hypotheses in our heads and see which best fit the facts. It urges on us a delicate balance between no-holds-barred openness to new ideas, however heretical, and the most rigorous skeptical scrutiny of everything — new ideas and established wisdom. This kind of thinking is also an essential tool for a democracy in an age of change.

No political side can make claim to being the true heirs and defenders of the enlightenment today, and that is what continues to give it meaning: core enlightenment and humanistic values would seem to transcend the rigidity of political worldviews. It would only seem that, more often than not, the defenders of core humanistic and enlightenment values are regularly found within the domain of liberals and progressives, in spite of the evidence that they also at times might turn away from such values and from the scientific mindset when it is most convenient to do so.


Science is not absolutely immune to the “sins” of irrational social forces, and the struggle that surrounds it is the struggle for a free and autonomous science. On the one hand, it is important to recognize the special epistemological space in which science is positioned. There is a certain autonomy to science in this regard, the existence of which seems all too often rejected in different strands of contemporary philosophical critique. But in understanding the special space of science and its special or unique epistemological place in society, it would seem naive – again, at least from my current vantage point – that science is somehow absolutely immune to irrational and less than progressive social forces. The problem may be better described in terms of the output of science and how this is socially realized, as opposed to the actual doing of science.

Science works, its history speaks for itself. But what of the output of scientific knowledge, the release of scientific achievement into and as it becomes mediated with the social world, its biases, constructs, and ideological systems? One example people often cite is military technology. Another is the commodification of medicine for the sole purpose of profit. The argument in this case considers how medical advancements have been significant in so many ways, but vital medicines are monetized and reduced to a system of economic profit principles, which are regular untied to core humanist sensbilities. One of the results, the arguments goes, is the manufacturing of the inequality of health and how entire groups of people do not have access to necessary treatments. On the level of moral philosophy, this is a problem. But it would also seem to be a problem for the modern scientific enterprise, if one believes that such an enterprise stands for and helps support everything progressive about a science-based and rational society.


And in this sense I think that while science must remain non-partisan, one might speculate that it is perhaps also a mistake to divorce the modern scientific endeavour from the basis of values that underline much of its historical social philosophical motivation. The modern scientific project has a very unique history, outside of the evolution of its methods and historical achievements, that is social philosophical in principle and humanistic in value. Maybe my readings are wrong, and my postulating here is inaccurate. But in my survey of the literature and scholarly record, this other history seems fairly clear and important.

Enlightenment universalism “presumes to render institutions accountable, a fundamental principle of democracy, and thereby create the preconditions for expanding individual freedom. Such a view would inform liberal movements concerned with civil liberties as well as socialist movements seeking to constrain the power of capital” (Bronner, 2004, p. 9). In much the same way, Enlightenment universalism – or what we may also describe as the common values of the Enlightenment (Pagden, 2013; Israel, 2002) – moves against prejudice to include “the other”, underpinning the liberal notion of the citizen with its “inherently democratic imperative”, while also pushing back against capitalism’s drive to reduce people to the mere status of ‘economic objects’ and therefore, too, mere ‘costs of production’ (Bronner, 2004, p. 9). Therefore, there should be no surprise when Condorcet, for example, writes:

Thus an understanding of the natural rights of man, the belief that these rights are inalienable and [cannot be forfeited], a strongly expressed desire for liberty of thought and letters, of trade and industry, and for the alleviation of the people’s suffering, for the [elimination] of all penal laws against religious dissenters and the abolition of torture and barbarous punishments, the desire for a milder system of criminal legislation and jurisprudence which should give complete security to the innocent, and for a simpler civil code, more in conformance with reason and nature, indifference in all matters of religion which now were relegated to the status of superstitions and political [deception], a hatred of hypocrisy and fanaticism, a contempt for prejudice, zeal for the propagation of enlightenment, all these principles, gradually filtering down from philosophical works to every class of society whose education went beyond the catechism and the alphabet, became the common faith . . . [of enlightened people]. In some countries these principles formed a public opinion sufficiently widespread for even the mass of the people to show a willingness to be guided by and to obey it. (Condorcet, 1794/2012, p. 101)

From just a short and brief overview, it is clear how much the value of modern science is entangled with the enlightenment and its humanistic traditions. From the Scientific Revolution, dated roughly between the years of 1550 and 1700, the enlightenment can be traced back to the “renaissance humanists” in France and Italy in the 14th and 15th century (Trevor-Roper, 2010), and so too can some of the basic foundations of the modern value of science and the implications of what science means when extended into the realm or field of social philosophy (that is, too, comprising the fields of ethical and moral philosophy).

What I wonder is, as an individual with a long history of being critical of politics, left and right, does this embracing of enlightenment roots necessarily equate to politicization? In other words, I would like to ask: does the defense of progressive values, of the ought of ethical philosophy, presuppose the existence of confirmation bias? Or is it simply an appeal to what Steven Pinker once described as the better angels of our nature? If the modern scientific endeavour is completely divorced from the basis of its deeper social-philosophical and historical values, then does the ethical and moral value of science itself not dissipate? Is this dissipation not detrimental in terms of the social output of science?

As Steven Pinker writes: “The mindset of science, cannot be blamed for genocide and war and does not threaten the moral and spiritual health of our nation.  It is, rather, indispensable in all areas of human concern, including politics, the arts, and the search for meaning, purpose, and morality”. One of my favourite contemporary physicists, Brian Cox, has a wonderful way of describing, along what I would describe as fundamental social philosophical lines, how science inspires the foundation for the practice of a rational society. His book the Human Universe (2014) is a fantastically inspiring testament to such a hopeful possibility. Perhaps Cox is right when he comments: “the scientific way of thinking is the road to better politics.” One can think, moreover, of the endless inspiring passages of reflection offered to us by Carl Sagan, which very much captures the spirit of the idea of a science-based future rational and democratic society.

Quite simply, the value of science is much more than the practice of scientific research. The importance of science extends beyond the laboratory. As alluded above: Pinker describes it as a “mindset”, and he’s right. “Open debate, peer review, and double-blind methods” as well as the truths “of mathematics, the logic of scientific theories, and the values that guide” the scientific enterprise are just a few that Pinker cite. One could even expand on the point and describe it as a form of subjectivity in the sense of a critical, rational and open approach to how we relate with the phenomenal world, which seeks to transcend the ideological limitations of social irrationality as well as biased and prejudiced “worldviews”. But ultimately what is being indicated are the defining practices of science, the psychology and experiential sensibility that it fosters – to be open to the world, to new data, and to exploring the unknown.

Deepening the account, and perhaps also grounding it in my own way, the scientific “mindset” is akin to the open, mediating, critically inquisitive subject. Many people often think of or evoke the image of a young child openly exploring, enquiring, questioning, searching and orientating within the multifarious world of things. In a bigger sense there is no end per se, no ideological bias, just the open pursuit of knowledge in that reason is a means in itself. All the while, the pursuit of objective reality and truth deepens, our theories become more sharpened and honed. This is, to me, a beautiful account of what science inspires and fosters. Impliedly, and in relation to Pinker’s descriptions and my own in relation to philosophy of the subject, the value of science represents a certain epistemology, anthropology and cosmology (“cosmology” is used here in the sense of the human relation to the phenomenal world, whereas anthropology refers to how we relate with each other). More accurately, I currently think of it as implying the genesis or development of a certain epistemology – in other words, the value of science also refers to practice: how we think of the world, how we relate with the world, and also how we relate with each other and ourselves.

And this is in no way spontaneous philosophical invention. These ideas, these core concepts and concrete values are indebted to such popular and celebrated thinkers as Descartes, Spinoza, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Leibniz, Kant, and Smith (and so on). Beyond the generally familiar, one of my personal favourites is the contributions by Nicolas de Condorcet. But the enlightenment philosophes also include valuable contributions from other perhaps less mainstream names as Marquis de Sade, Montesquieu, Diderot, Beaumarchais, D’Alembert, among others. Their contribution to the history of modern thought and the modern scientific enterprise cannot overstated. Let us also not forget the likes of Sir Isaac Newton, a personal idol, or further back to the infancy of ideas during the humanist renaissance through to important contributions by another personal idol in Galileo Galilei.

Throughout the whole history the modern scientific enterprise, the inspired vision of science can be seen to also inspire an alternative philosophy of life and society. From the tragic story of Giordano Bruno, burned at the stake in the Campo de’ Fiori in Rome, to the progressive struggle by the enlightenment philosophes, who denounced the oppression of the Church and began formulating a scientific and certainly also deeply humanistic vision – the lesson of history, for me, is that the value is as prefigurative as it is institutional. A defense of science against anti-science and post-factualism, as well as post-modern relativism, is more than a defence of our scientific institutions, of entities like NASA’s earth science programme. Science is also lived. And through living science, through the defense and daily practice of reason, one prefigures a better and more rational social world.

And so the deeper reflection is to not limit one’s defence of science to the simple act of protest. What science also fosters is a foundational alternative perspective, a richness and openness of critical and inquisitive experience that helps ensure the vital normativity of progressive horizons of institutional and social practice. In an irrational and pathological social world, the modern scientific pursuit and the wholeness of the value of scientific practice and knowledge evidences, in one way or another, the hopeful vision of a global future society.

Does such an account ultimately, in some way, project social and political values? At present, I’m not entirely sure how to answer this. What I do think is that one should not be afraid of the positive vision that science offers, and seek to repress it in fear of politicization. Carl Sagan, much like Neil Degrasse Tyson, can hardly be criticized for “politicizing science”. And yet, they also embrace the positive and transformative social philosophical appeal in which science and modern scientific endeavour lends itself.

To that, I would like to conclude this admittedly informal essay by considering arguably one of the most important driving forces behind both the enlightenment and science: namely, a critical conception of universalism. Perhaps here the greatest lesson is served to us by the history of physics: science is not a collection of absolute truths, as we always have something to learn. As Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw put it: Science is a discipline that celebrates uncertainty without ever abandoning the idea of truth and the understanding of objective reality. The key to the success of modern science is in its keeping open to new data, new discoveries and to further refined theories as phenomena reveal more of themselves over time.

From Newton to Einstein and beyond, this is an epistemological value to be cherished. It is also a value that very much is embodied in the enlightenment. In that the enlightenment sought to develop a social philosophy based on reason, science (and scientific knowledge); it also sought, as Stephen E. Bronner (2004) points out, to ground a critical conception of progress that owed nothing to dogma or political allegiance. Progress was seen as open, unfolding and almost constant – in a sense, it is an unfolding process, because, epistemologically speaking, the more we learn, the more we understand, the more we can also investigate and interpret our social systems and structures for the benefit of everyone. Thus, celebrated for the advent of modern notions of democracy, there is also something deeply egalitarian about the philosophes and the hopeful scientific vision that they sought to inspire. Empowering these values was the idea of universality and normativity, or, if you like, normative universalism.

To be clear, what I am describing here is a few of the most basic coordinates of a rich account of science in relation to the process of positive social development. And what such an approach does is that it allows us to appreciate the nuances of social development, and the parameters of a progressive philosophy of history, particularly insofar as the relation between social and modern scientific pursuit.

Perhaps what is called for in a post-factual world is, indeed, concern over politicization, while at the same time deep ethical and moral reflection on the social and humanistic values of the modern scientific endeavour? Perhaps, somewhere, a core sense of humanism has been lessened in the pursuit of profit and overproduction and a march for science is also a march for the values of the scientific enterprise? If nothing else, these seem to be important sites of reflection, especially as we face the need for an urgent defense of science in the midst of what seems to be an increasingly irrational social world.


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