Some have attributed the resurgence of right-wing populism as a reaction to the abrogation of traditional values. It’s easy to see the truth of this. However, it is not immediately obvious that it is distinctly right-wing phenomenon. Modern conservatism traces its intellectual roots to thinkers like Edmund Burke, who assigned traditional values and norms an important role in the maintenance of social order. Around the same time, Jean-Jacques Rousseau was laying down the groundwork for the myth of the noble-savage, romanticizing tribal societies as somehow purer and more natural than those in the intensely hierarchical, increasingly market-oriented West.
In both cases, we see a peculiar reverence for traditional order, just differently construed. For Burke, inter-generational change is worthy of resistance. But for Rousseau, it is Western civilization’s centuries long fall from grace that we ought to eye with suspicion. On the right, you can see these views reflected in elderly men and women who hearken back the idealized simplicity of their childhood or a romanticized picture of the world inhabited by their recent forebears as a model for what society ought to be like. Meanwhile, staunch lefties esteem fantasies about the dietary wisdom and delicate conservationism of indigenous and preindustrial societies. What both views have in common is a fallacious tendency to equate antiquity with efficacy.
I once worked part time at a small local library. My first temptation would have been to describe myself as an “accidental” librarian, but that’s a bit misleading. I didn’t get the job by accident. A better description might have been “reluctant” librarian. I got the job on purpose, to float me through the final year of my graduate studies after I was unexpectedly left adrift without a research assistantship.
My duties at the library included the management of books catalogued and shelved among the 500s – “pure science”, according to the Dewey system. My professional and educational background is in science (not pure science, per se, but the peculiar nexus of science and humanities occupied by archaeology) so I approached this assignment with more than a little enthusiasm. It was a good excuse to indulge in a bit of healthy intellectual promiscuity, diving into topics outside the parochial confines of my native discipline.
It is with this background in mind that I ask you to consider my surprise (and chagrin) when, shelf-reading the 570s, I noticed a book by the name of Darwin’s Doubt. For the unfamiliar, Darwin’s Doubt is a 2013 book by a fellow named Stephen Meyer, advocating the position that certain features of the biological world are inexplicable absent the intervention of some kind of intelligent designer. In particular, Meyer argues that the Cambrian Explosion – a massive flourishing of multicellular life that witnessed the emergence of the majority of currently recognized animal phyla – doesn’t make sense when viewed through the lens of modern evolutionary theory. A better explanation, in Meyer’s view, is that the Cambrian Explosion is the work of some unspecified and generally invisible cosmic engineer.
The world can be a scary place. This is a view exacerbated by popular media, which tends to focus attention on sources of violence and despair in disproportion to their prevalence. No surprise there – these things translate into ad revenue more readily than a cold assessment of reality. So it is that polls have the public rating ISIS and North Korea as greater threats than climate change. An exceedingly large portion of Americans also see their own government as a top threat.
There are some good reasons for this. Foremost among them is the loss of legitimacy brought about as private interests seize more and more of the public domain, bending government action toward narrow aims and away from the public interest. The U.S. government has grown exceedingly expensive and unwieldy over the years, even as it has grown less and less capable of acting in the interests of the majority. A desire to rein it in is not misplaced.
However, disguised beyond all this concern over ISIS and North Korea and the U.S. government is a more fundamental threat to the American way of life. That it is so poorly recognized, despite being so well evidenced, is both depressing and disturbing. Because the fact of the matter is that there are forces working to reshape American democracy in a manner most citizens would likely find objectionable. And to significant extent, they are succeeding.
Currently, a cadre of wealthy Americans and right wing intellectuals is working to transform the United States into something rather twisted. Their core motivating principle is that the accumulation of capital takes precedence over all other values. Indeed, it is in their view the ultimate arbiter of value. To them, human worth scales with earnings.
There are a lot of ways to define science. The broadest might characterize it as a systematic process for uncovering facts or explanations about the way the world works. From there, individual scientists sometimes differ over the exact features that distinguish science from other enterprises, but they all tend to accept the basic proposition that it is an empirical enterprise. The degree of agreement between theory and observation is what ultimately decides whether a scientific idea offers a good or bad explanation of natural phenomena.
This is why science is often depicted as a naturalistic enterprise. Which is true, but there are different strains of naturalism. It’s worth taking a moment to distinguish them. First, there is metaphysical or ontological naturalism. This is the view that the universe is entirely of matter or other measurable stuff, governed exclusively by natural forces. This stands in contrast to methodological naturalism. Advocates of methodological naturalism grant that the universe may be filled with or influenced by supernatural or immaterial forces, but stipulate that those are irrelevant to science.
Both ideas have their weaknesses. In The Big Picture, Sean Carroll introduces the concept of poetic naturalism as a way of getting around them. Poetic naturalism (PE) grants breathing room for concepts that don’t necessarily relate to the steely, unforgiving rudiments of physical reality. It is traditional naturalism’s less conservative, more ecumenical progeny. PE grants room for higher order concepts like consciousness and protons in a world populated by more fundamental stuff. It even allows room for the “supernatural”, so long as it produces some measurable effect and offers some explanatory merit.
Now, for your enjoyment, a substantial deviation from routine:
This is an open letter to a friend – a dispatch from heart, if I might be so trite – precipitated by my revulsion at the breathing (is that breathing?) distillation of animal suffering you’ve been keeping in your house.
Allow me to explain.
Look at your pug’s hideous face. Search its bulging eyes. Listen to its labored breathing. This creature is a twisted abomination, a Frankenstein’s monster sculpted to the perverse and decadent tastes of ancient Chinese autocrats, spared from the gaping maw of extinction by dissipated European aristocrats. It’s an obsolete status symbol with a heartbeat, an avatar of depravity.
I recently wrote a couple of brief op-ed for the website Atheist Republic, an online community for folks inclined toward secular thinking.
I figured I would link to them below. Follow the links for the full text.
Religious Belief is Hard Work
Religious belief stands in belligerent indifference to information about what the world is like. It persists in spite of nature, not because of it. The scales started to fall from eyes as I developed a deeper and more expansive understanding of science. In a panicked state of youthful naivety, I tried to justify my religious beliefs despite the fact that they were contradicted by many of the more elegant and substantive truths derived from science. It was an exhausting struggle.
…an embrace of reason need not stop at recognition of and resistance to the harms of superstitious belief. It can also inform our sense of what we want for ourselves and our fellow humans. Reason leads us to reject religion, but it also leads us to recognize our shared humanity. It leads to the eradication of disease and the recognition of individual human rights. Embracing reason is the groundwork for unleashing human potential and building a world increasingly amenable to the business of human thriving.