I won’t attempt eloquence at this. Many people, like National Review correspondents Jonah Goldberg or Kevin D. Williamson, have eloquently criticized famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s ill-conceived Tweet of last week: “Earth needs a virtual country: #Rationalia, with a one-line Constitution: All policy shall be based on the weight of evidence[.]” His Tweet was followed by a compilation of photos of prominent scientists such as Carolyn Porco and Richard Dawkins holding a sign stating, “Citizen of #Rationalia.”
“Neil deGrasse Tyson’s #Rationalia: A World Where Evidence is God? ”
Tyson has taken plenty of heat for this, and probably rightly so. One of the better commentaries was published at New Scientist and is called “A rational nation ruled by science would be a terrible idea”
Tyson is a very smart man, but this is not a smart idea. It is even, we might say, unreasonable and without sufficient evidence. Of course, imagining a society in which everyone behaves logically sounds appealing. But employing logic to consider the concept reveals that there could be no such thing.
There has always been a hope, especially as elites became less religious, that science would do more than simply provide a means for learning about the world around us. Science should also teach us how to live, pointing us towards the salvation that religion once promised. You can see this in any of the secular utopianisms of the 20th century, whether it’s the Third Reich, scientific Marxism, or the “modernisation thesis” of Western capitalism.
Yet each of these has since been summarily dismissed, and usually for the same two reasons.
Tyson is a rational person and from his perspective, what better basis is there for a society than rationality? He and Star Trek’s Mr. Spock would probably get along well, except…
Spock (Leonard Nimoy): “History is replete with turning points, Lieutenant. You must have faith.”
Valeris (Kim Cattrall): “Faith?”
Spock: “That the universe will unfold as it should.”
Valeris: “But is that logical? Surely we must…..”
Spock: “Logic, logic, and logic….. Logic is the beginning of wisdom, Valeris, not the end.”
As the character of Spock continued to age and develop, he saw that blind devotion to logic was a dead end and that sentient beings did not have (nor should have) complete control over how their universe would continue to emerge based on rationality alone.
Or hasn’t Neil deGrasse Tyson ever read Aldous Huxley’s 1931 novel Brave New World?
I’ve also recently read two articles that add dimension to this issue, A Crisis at the Edge of Physics and Has Physics Gotten Something Important Really Wrong?. Both commentaries are based on this rather startling thought:
A few months ago in the journal Nature, two leading researchers, George Ellis and Joseph Silk, published a controversial piece called “Scientific Method: Defend the Integrity of Physics.” They criticized a newfound willingness among some scientists to explicitly set aside the need for experimental confirmation of today’s most ambitious cosmic theories — so long as those theories are “sufficiently elegant and explanatory.” Despite working at the cutting edge of knowledge, such scientists are, for Professors Ellis and Silk, “breaking with centuries of philosophical tradition of defining scientific knowledge as empirical.”
Since, at least in cosmology, it may not always be possible, at least using currently available methods, to empirically test a hypothesis, should it be acceptable to forego experimental confirmation as long as a theory is “sufficiently elegant and explanatory?”
How far a leap is it from there to accepting a theory as fact based on its popularity with the scientific community, with the currently ruling governmental regime, and with the mainstream social and news media?
Now let’s flip back to the idea of forming an entire nation, culture, and society based on “weight of evidence.” What do we call “evidence?” Who decides what is valid “evidence,” and then who decides and implements decisions, social policies, laws, based on said-evidence.
Like I said, Huxley’s “Whole New World”. Or is that George Orwell’s “1984?”
No, I’m not a Luddite. I believe in the scientific method as a process in which we can examine our observable universe, devise some theories regarding how the universe operates based on observation, and then objectively test those theories to see if they pan out. Rinse and repeat.
But I also don’t suffer from scientism either. Like Spock, I believe certain truths can’t always be derived from scientific observation. If you subscribe to the notion of a supernatural creator, one that acts as meta to the universe, then you tend to accept that there’s more to existence than what we can observe. There’s a profound mystery to our lives and the universe around us.
I think that’s why in spite of all the science and the technology and the human “smarts” involved, we still don’t know what’s going on with our universe much of the time. Heck, we can’t even build an adequate and self-consistent climate model for our one little planet.
Of course the systems of government we’ve got now are hardly immune to corruption and abuse, and I wouldn’t want to live in a world based solely on irrationality, but things like compassion, accountability, and humanity need to be present to balance things out.
This isn’t to say I have some perfect solution. I don’t. I just don’t think blind devotion to a system, even one that supposedly is unbiased and empirically based, is necessarily good for human beings.