Professional Philosophy and the Moral Ambiguity of The March for Science.
Natural science, as we all know, is the systematic pursuit of truth about the material or physical world in space and time, a systematic pursuit that is grounded on empirical evidence, guided by the formal sciences of mathematics and logic, and driven by general theories.
But natural science, aka science, must be sharply distinguished from three other enterprises:
(i) scientific naturalism,
(ii) scientism, and
(iii) what I’ll call the identity politics of BIG SCIENCE.
By scientific naturalism I mean the philosophical doctrine consisting of
(i) universal deterministic or indeterministic natural mechanism, and
(ii) reductive or non-reductive materialism or physicalism.
By scientism, I mean
(i) scientific naturalism,
(ii) the dogmatic epistemic thesis that all methods of inquiry and knowledge are ultimately reducible to natural-scientific methods, and
(iii) the Baconian/Cartesian ideological-technocratic thesis that natural science is essentially a “lordship and mastery” over nature, including inert physical nature, non-human living or animal nature, and human nature alike.
And finally, by the identity politics of BIG SCIENCE, I mean
(i) scientism, and
(ii) the ideology of the social institution of natural science in neoliberal democratic states insofar as this social institution is intimately involved with the military-industrial-university complex.
Given the identity politics of BIG SCIENCE, it is not only false but also serious bullshit and dissimulation to claim that natural science is essentially value-neutral and independent of politics, as this very good recent article by Francie Diep, “When Did Science Become Apolitical?,” clearly shows.
Now it is well known by contemporary philosophers that scientific naturalism was defended by both W.V.O. Quine and Wilfrid Sellars, the latter of whom coined the apt, catchy philosophical slogan, “science is the measure of all things.”
It is also fairly well known by contemporary philosophers that scientific naturalism remains deeply and widely influential in mainstream professional academic philosophy, especially at the leading universities and in the leading departments.
It is equally true, although substantially less well known by contemporary philosophers, that 20th and 21st century professional academic philosophy has had and continues to have a deep and tangled relationship with scientism, as Susan Haack argues in Lecture 2 of her excellent recent book on this deeply important topic, Scientism and its Discontents.
And it is also equally true, although rarely recognized by contemporary philosophers, that professional academic philosophy also has a longstanding and ongoing, even deeper and even more tangled, relationship with the identity politics of BIG SCIENCE.
The direct involvement of BIG SCIENCE with modern warfare and the killing-technology of advanced capitalism, via the Manhattan Project and the morally scandalous slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocent, noncombatant Japanese civilians at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the McCarthy era and the Cold War, and the mammoth US weapons and national security industry since then and right up to this morning, are all well-documented by historians, e.g., by Gary Wills, in Bomb Power: The Modern Presidency and the National Security State.
So too, the equally morally questionable direct involvement of the professional academy with BIG SCIENCE and its evil associates has been well-documented by historians, e.g., by David Hollinger in Science, Jews, and Secular Culture, especially in “Science as a Weapon in Kulturkämpfe in the United States During and After World War II,” and by Ellen Schrecker, in No Ivory Tower: McCarthyism and the Universities.
And in his recent book, The Philosophy Scare, John McCumber traces the complicit connection between professional academic philosophy and BIG SCIENCE in the McCarthy era, with a special focus on the UCLA Department of Philosophy.
Now let’s fast forward to The Age of Trump-POTUS, and The March for Science on 22 April 2017.
This is what the blurb on The March for Science website says:
SCIENCE, NOT SILENCE
The March for Science demonstrates our passion for science and sounds a call to support and safeguard the scientific community. Recent policy changes have caused heightened worry among scientists. The incredible and immediate outpouring of support has made clear that these concerns are also shared by the support of hundreds of thousands of people around the world.
The mischaracterization of science as a partisan issue, which has given policymakers permission to reject overwhelming evidence, is a critical and urgent matter. It is time for people who support scientific research and evidence-based policies to take a public stand and be counted.
ON APRIL 22, 2017, WE WALK OUT OF THE LAB AND INTO THE STREETS.
We are people who value science and recognize how science serves. We come from all races, all religions, all gender identities, all sexual orientations, all abilities, all socioeconomic backgrounds, all political perspectives, and all nationalities. Our diversity is our greatest strength: a wealth of opinions, perspectives, and ideas is critical for the scientific process. What unites us is a love of science, and an insatiable curiosity. We all recognize that science is everywhere and affects everyone.
Science is often an arduous process, but it is also thrilling. A universal human curiosity and dogged persistence is the greatest hope for the future. This movement cannot and will not end with a march. The relationship between science and democracy must not continue to erode. The application of science to society is not divorced from politics. Our plans for policy change and community outreach will start with Marches for Science world-wide and a teach-in at the National Mall, but it is imperative that we continue to celebrate and defend science at all levels — from local schools to federal agencies — throughout the world.
To my mind, if that’s not the identity politics of BIG SCIENCE, then nothing is.
Correspondingly, here is my big worry about The March for Science, prefaced by three caveats.
Caveat 1: I’m completely in favor of Trump-resistance, on serious moral grounds, because Trump, his alt-right backers, and his fat cat Republican bandwagoners are greedy, ruthless, even neo-fascist, neoliberals who don’t give a shit about human dignity or human oppression.
Caveat 2: Trump, his alt-right backers, and his fat cat Republican bandwagoners, as proponents of what can be called the logic of MINDFUCK, are clearly at war with even minimal classical logic, hence they are enemies of even minimal consistency in thinking and public speaking.
Caveat 3: And I think it’s indisputable that climate scientists, and all those who care about global climate change, have a serious moral objection to Trump, his alt-right backers, and his fat cat Republican wagoners.
Nevertheless, I think it remains highly ambiguous whether The March for Science —
(i) is truly based on serious moral objections like the ones mentioned in the caveats, or, instead,
(ii) is, in fact, covertly based on an entirely calculating, venal professional academic worry that public and government support for BIG SCIENCE at universities might be eroded in The Age of Trump-POTUS, even as funding for the military sees sharp increases.
In view of all that moral ambiguity, what are we to make of this recent Statement from the APA board, which reads, in part (the full Statement is given below this essay)?
The American Philosophical Association endorses the March for Science on April 22, 2017. Science, as we know it, emerged gradually from philosophical inquiry, from which it was not at first distinguished. And even as modern science came into its own, during the 17th and 18th centuries, many philosophers defended the new science and corresponded with scientists of the day; some even conducted their own scientific investigations. Today, important areas of philosophy — e.g., philosophy of science, philosophy of mind, cognitive science, philosophy of biology, philosophy of neuroscience, philosophy of physics — are devoted to understanding the concepts and methods of the natural and social sciences and to making use of scientific research in framing philosophical views. Other areas of philosophy — e.g., environmental philosophy, bioethics, computer ethics — investigate the ethical, political, and legal issues raised by advances in scientific knowledge and their practical implications. It is here especially that the humanistic aspects of philosophy come into their own, helping us to reflect on how best to respond to these advances and the opportunities they make available to us.
The American Philosophical Association thus affirms the importance of the mutually beneficial relationship between the sciences and humanities disciplines and stands in solidarity with the sciences. We join the March for Science and its partners in affirming the value of science to society, supporting robustly funded and publicly communicated science as a pillar of human freedom and prosperity, and calling for the enactment of evidence-based policies in the public interest.
Wow. “A pillar of human freedom and prosperity.”
Tell that in platonic heaven to all the vaporized and mortally burned or radiation-poisoned victims of the A-bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and to all the victims of deadly US military technology over the last 72 years, driven by BIG SCIENCE — up to and including Trump’s Syrian missile strike and Afghanistan MOAB drop on 6 and 13 April — not to mention to those millions who’ve suffered from the devastating technological impacts of BIG SCIENCE on the natural environment, via global corporate capitalism.
Three cheers for climate science, yes!, and also for serious moral concern about global climate change.
But, as you can plainly see, then, there isn’t a shred of critical moral or political reflection in the APA Statement.
Nor are there any careful distinctions drawn, or qualifications noted.
Nor are there, in fact, any arguments at all.
It’s nothing more than ideologically-disciplined, cheerleader-style, gung ho support for the identity-politics of BIG SCIENCE at universities, full-stop.
In short, it’s pathetic.