Nature & Value

In my previous post I referred to a collision of historical forces. The forces in that case were nothing but ideas, attempts by our forebears to make sense of the world they knew. And they collided, because, as good as we may be at avoiding open conflict, and at developing new horizons piecemeal, eventually we no longer can defend two very different positions without elaborating to the point of writing a book or two, or twenty. What is interesting about studying history is that it allows you to zoom in on these timeframes when you know substantial issues were fought over, resulting in the general direction of where we are now, at a more impressionistic level. As you do, things may well get more subtle, and intellectually messy, inasmuch as most of us do not relish conflict at all, including the historical authors that have filled their pages brushing over as many contradictions as they hoped the readers would permit them. I have to admit that this doesn’t sound like advertising the joys of getting up close to history, but I hope you will dive in with me.
The particular collision I wrote about, on these pages as well as back-in-the-days, was the struggle of a particular group of philosophers to create a vision of man, one closer to the perspective that was being developed to scientifically understand nature. Isaac Newton’s description of the mechanism ordering the heavenly bodies on their inevitable courses was a challenge for any thinker who wanted to think about more than theological subtleties, as dangerous as even those could get. Another factor stimulating the development of new perspectives was the discovery of pre-Adamic man, in far-off places. Pre-Adamic man was the noble savage, Defoe’s (that is Robinson Crusoe’s) Friday, man who had somehow escaped being exiled from Paradise, tainted be neither civilization nor shame. It was one of those instances when a discovery meant carrying man beyond the scope of his imagination. And one shouldn’t interpret this within the constraints of the natural sciences. Columbus was not the first to understand the world was round, but he was no more prepared for whom he would be meeting on his travels than the rest of them, whether they were adventurers or theologians.
The ‘state of nature’ became exemplified by the societies of peoples and tribes that were discovered as Europeans traveled to territories that lay further and further away; it was not a reference to the relatively undeveloped environment they lived in. The reason this concept had any importance at all, was because it enabled the study of man in his natural state, that is, in his state prior to his fall and therefore untainted by original sin. All studies of man’s behavior in the Christian West until then had been monopolized by Christian ethics, by the prescriptions issued on the moral authority of the clergy in order to control the behavior of a man who was duly considered sinful. The discovery of so many pre-Adamic societies made it possible to think of man as a being that was not necessarily sinful. At the same time, material progress, and particularly the varying levels of it in different territories, begged for an explanation.
The answer offered by Bernard Mandeville, as briefly described in the previous post, was as simple – and Biblically consistent – as it was unwelcome. Could it have been that the selfish passions, unleashed in man upon his exile from terrestrial paradise, were the driving force behind the progress of nations? This discomfiting proposition led to the furious condemnation of its author, and subsequently to the production of a formidable quantity of theory that intended to prove it wrong. A major part of the so-called Scottish Enlightenment was dedicated to this task, culminating in Adam Smith’s Theory of Moral Sentiments and Wealth of Nations. And this is where the art of reconciliation I referred to above manifested itself. It’s also why I titled my study of this intellectual pursuit by a series of Scottish philosophers, ‘Nature and Value’.
In order to sate the wolves of morality while keeping the sheep of progress intact, the Scottish philosophers proceeded to demonstrate that what their contemporaries were accustomed to seeing as a conflict – well, how it really wasn’t there to begin with. And they did this by superimposing the values of the ethics they inherited and did not challenge on top of their vision of man’s nature. Man, the declared, had been a benevolent, social animal all along. And the passions he was endowed with by nature – as God receded from the stage of actors – did not preclude progress, either. They basically turned the generally accepted view of man’s nature, the metaphysics of man, upside down, so they could save Christian ethics. Most remarkably, at least from our standpoint a couple of centuries later, as we zoom out again, is that this happened within the framework of a serious attempt to create the science of man. Volition, when considered as the eternal struggle of the divine aspect in man’s soul against his sinful nature, was an obstacle for the creation of a more mechanical conception of society and its participants. But the drive – or let’s even say the ’instincts’ – of these thinkers was first of all to save morality as they knew it. The objective of their narrative was this.
Today, the concept of science has taken over the role of authority in (public) debate, at least in the West. And I would be the last person – just to get this immediately out of the way for clarity’s sake – to argue against the importance of the scientific method. I just hope to demonstrate some of the ways even science is subject to more fundamental forces, that is, to the choices we make in philosophy. Whereas science teaches us how we observe, our philosophical choices determine what we observe. And what we don’t even see.
Let’s look at another example of science being recruited for the formulation of a political philosophy. We transport ourselves half-way down the road from Mandeville’s days to now, to briefly concern ourselves with Darwin’s legacy. The theory of evolution was, and continues to be, a cause of conflict between the religious and the science-oriented among us, I’d like to focus now on what his legacy was used for. It was only a matter of decades before his theory regarding the survival of the fittest, which is still the single most important theory in biology today, had been co-opted and tainted. The invention of Social Darwinism was, in a sense, a revisiting of Robinson Crusoe’s dimension in the age of imperialism. This particular theory did not seek to address the relationship between the individual and society. While the first modern theories of ethics, rights and political philosophy which were drawing conclusions as much from the devastating experience of two centuries of civil (and religious) wars all over Europe as from the newly discovered lands the world over, Social Darwinism was theorizing on the grander perspective of those European powers, and their ability to dominate and conquer all others.
Leave aside the tainting by association of poor old Darwin, whose ground-breaking insights in the development of biological species is regularly referred to as ‘Darwinism’, as if it were an ideology itself. Aided by the augmented clarity due to the distance over time, we can identify the ‘scientific language’ that was applied for Social Darwinism on the one hand, and distinguish it from the actual drive behind the people seeking to use it. The motivation for developing the theory was not to achieve a more accurate understanding of observed facts. The idea was to find both an explanation of and a justification for imperialism. If interaction between countries/societies/civilizations is governed by the principle of the survival of the fittest, one group’s advantage on the chessboard of peoples is at the very same time its permit. To the extent (human) nature becomes an explanation, it can also serve as the most general of encouragements to keep mastering and conquering as much as you can, because by doing so you simply act as destiny’s right hand.
Now today, of course, we have a less lenient view of the Social Darwinists who, from hindsight, seem to have been at the very origins of a series of (World) Wars. But hindsight makes it rather easy to forget that none of us – and I do mean none of us, which will be a starting point for future observations – has a monopoly on ‘good intentions’, yet we continue to confuse tools and drive, equipment and motivation. We may not like to look at it this way, but one can wonder how often we develop a theory to confirm or even salvage the ideas we have about the world anyway. We try to save the values we have. And in order to do so, we look for the right ingredients for our story; our narrative needs components. About two, three decades ago, Darwin finally got competition in the form of the introduction of a concept from biology which was popularized to such an extent that over the course of an extremely short time-span (at least in historical terms) it has entered daily conversation. Because it’s in your DNA.
Discovering such a treasure-trove of hard genetical data gave a new angle to many nature/nurture debates, or at least created a new tool to pull the weight of those debates towards the side of the innate and the predetermined, right on the edge of the unalterable. As I read about the scientific hopefuls in those days, honing in on the criminal gene, the anti-social gene, the gene for chronical illnesses, or the john’s gene, and so on, I started to imagine how a new age of eugenics was going to dawn upon us. Identification means prioritizing, and sooner or later it will be those obstructing the taking of action on the basis of the new wisdom who will be called fascists, while the venerable scientists proposing to implement their principles of selection on their subject matter will insist on being called the next benefactors of mankind. Now – thank goodness – I’ve been proven overly concerned since and so far. We have seen, however, over the course of approximately the same period, the rise of another theory that has become ever more emphatic in its appropriation of scientific language. If we look at how it has developed as a scientific theory, however, it does not make all that much sense.
The theory has been waved to warn us of impending disaster with increasing intensity, but both the moment of the apocalypse and the exact nature of it have changed every five years or so. From the top of my head, I remember the greenhouse effect, the hole in the ozone layer, acid rain, global warming, the rising sea level, and climate change, where ‘the science seems to have settled’ most recently. What is bizarre about this order of things, is that it is not observation that leads the way to new understanding, but that apparently a certain understanding is leading observation. Because, if climate change should be a reason for alarm for us, we clearly should have been in a panic for more than a few millennia. And this is what the plot has thickened into. Man has been a victim of the climate for millennia, but now that he is finally extricating himself from that vulnerable predicament, it is climate change itself which has been declared anthropogenic. In order to save ‘the climate’ – as if it were an eternally stable, divine entity – it has fallen to man to do penance for disturbing it. And the ways in which he is supposed to disturb it is the object of many, multi-billion-dollar, publicly funded research projects; that he disturbs it, is the driving force behind them. The narrative is clear, so to speak. It is value, still, which dictates our views of nature. Now I do have an idea about why the climate entered the debate as an issue when it did. I hope to address that question, in a slightly different context, soon.


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