Unleashing Science

After a great delay, I finally complete my list of the three major areas where philosophy can do the most good in the modern world.

3. Unleashing Science

Trying to have an original thought in philosophy is not easy. Trying to have an original idea that isn’t absurd is probably close to impossible. A far more realistic goal for the philosopher is to take credit for spit-shining an old idea. The powers of re-branding never cease to amaze. A case in point: I learned last week that a fellow named Aristarchus of Samos living around 300 B.C.E. proposed a heliocentric model of the universe in which the Earth orbited the sun once a year, and rotated on its axis once a day. This was widely rejected in favour of the Ptolemaic / Aristotelian model. Then, a mere 1800 years later, our hero Copernicus finally comes up with some calculations that show this rejected view was all along the more accurate model of our planet’s motion. Perhaps you were already aware of Aristarchus and his literally revolutionary theory – he does have a crater on the moon named for him, after all. But if you’re like me you didn’t know that for 1800 years this perfectly good idea was sitting around in history, overwhelmingly ignored by the intellectual class and essentially non-existent as far as the general public was concerned.

Given this realisation, one cannot help but wonder how many similar ideas sit in forgotten texts, only to be vindicated at some future date by an intrepid thinker. Opening science is so crucial for the simple reason that it lets every idea have its day in court. And there is a rigorous appeals process. An idea that was recent nonsense can quickly become a gleaming symbol of the future, provided the right circumstances change. And it is humbling to remember that the circumstances that most often change are our own social and technological arrangements and not the properties of the universe we seek to describe. The way we organize ourselves and implement science limits to a great deal what we will learn.

This is likely uncontroversial. As I hope to defend in future posts, many of our decisions concerning society and its organisation have a deep scientific component. In his book Why Empathy Matters J.D. Trout proposes that the US House of Representatives establish a Social Sciences Committee to advise Representatives on the latest, relevant findings in their fields. I agree with him. More broadly, I think we need to adopt a view of our social institutions that reflects our best understanding of what they are – constructions that closely resemble our other technological achievements. To the degree that we can understand our political, judicial, social and educational institutions as solutions to engineering problems, the need for scientific understanding is proportionate. Science is how we can properly define the engineering problems that our social institutions purport to solve. If we misidentify the problem, our attempted solutions will necessarily be misguided.

Consider the outcome of framing ilicit drug use as a criminal problem rather than a matter of public health. Our societal response to the issue of narcotics addiction and abuse would differ sharply if we changed how we understand it conceptually. So too would our success at ultimately lessening the problem. Science also informs our collective moral decision-making. Without a rigorous scientific culture, we would have no reason to concern ourselves with certain concentrations of atmospheric gasses. Climate change is one of the biggest moral challenges of our generation, and it only came to light with extensive field research and theoretical modelling. I believe that my point is a simple one; science needs to be made explicit in our social decision-making. Philosophy can do much to show just how undervalued scientific reasoning is in our current democratic systems.

In my upcoming posts I want to defend a technological conception of social institutions and an interlocking naturalistic account of morality.  Stay tuned!

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