Guestblogger Sastra checking in:
A few years back the little Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in my area asked me to give a brief talk (!) on the topic of my choice. Seems they were looking for speakers, any speaker, and had noticed that I tend to talk a lot. So I considered the sorts of things that appeal to me, and the sorts of things that might appeal to them, and decided to try to see if I could put together an interesting speech on “Science and Human Rights,” based on the idea “that concepts such as human rights, democracy, and science are historically linked together through similar foundations and assumptions.” I studied and filled myself with great arguments and quotations by such luminaries as Jacob Bronowski and John Dewey, shook it all together, and ended up, as I recall, driving through a blizzard to pour my impassioned argument out on a polite and appreciative crowd of about 6 people (I think (hope) the blizzard was more of a factor there, than it being me.)
Since PZ graciously gave me permission to write on “whatever floats my boat” (unless it be kiddie porn), I’m going to drag out my old notes and give a quick condensed version of my basic theme. It’s ambitious, but I think it might be relevant to Pharyngula. One of the popular stances taken by some religious apologists recently is that the methods of science grew directly from the underlying theology of the Catholic church. You also frequently hear the popular claim that the very concept of people having rights “makes no sense” without a theistic, not to say Biblical, foundation.
I’ll try then to make the secular case: that the human-centered values and rights which we see today as universal, eternal, and even self-evident have actually grown out of our recent past – and were influenced by how we did science.
Is science natural to our species, appearing over and over again throughout history? Depends on what you mean by “science,” I think. Technology clearly is: building better spears, and testing them to see if they work. But the methods of modern science go beyond that, and are much more rigorous and disciplined, with particular goals and modes of explanation committed to being objective, and avoiding and checking error – particularly self-error.
Like philosophers and scientists such as Lewis Wolpert and Alan Cromer, I believe that scientific thinking is a relatively recent phenomena, and actually goes against the grain of human nature, by forcing us to see things as they really are and not as we believe or feel them to be. This undercuts a basic human predisposition – to use personhood as the structure of explanation, with ourselves and our concerns indivisibly connected to the powers and concerns of the cosmos.
As Alan Cromer put it in his book Uncommon Sense: the Heretical Nature of Science: “All nonscientific systems of thought accept intuition, or personal insight, as a valid source of ultimate knowledge. Indeed, the egocentric belief that we can have direct, intuitive knowledge of the external world is inherent in the human condition. Science, on the other hand, is the rejection of this belief, and its replacement with the idea that knowledge of the external world can only come from objective investigation – that is, by methods accessible to all.”
What Cromer calls the “nonscientific systems of thought” are the simple theories of knowledge common to most cultures, and usually expressed through mysticism or religion. The idea is that all real understanding of the true nature of things comes from above, and is based on accepting the unquestionable authority of a personal source, human or superhuman. Our thirst for certainty is only slaked when we transcend the human condition, and seek something Higher – and Other – than ourselves.
Science, however, is firmly linked to human limitations and to this world, so it can’t give us that kind of satisfying certainty. Its conclusions are provisional, tentative, and limited, so we have to be able to test and change them if need be. And far from this sort of approach being a natural part of human development, I believe it arose from unique, contingent historical factors. It’s a fluke. Science, real science, might never have developed at all. Like people themselves, societies can get along and got along just fine without it. There’s no universal self-evident existing value for rigorous objective thinking. On the contrary – it has to be invented and learned.
Its genesis wasn’t in the Mideast, but in ancient Greece. What truly set Greece apart from other cultures was the respect granted the debater. Argumentative and logical skills were put on the same footing as courage and bravery in battle, and this factor stood out among ancient societies. “A debate is a competition of minds, in which contestants must counter one another with arguments designed to persuade their peers. The key words are competition, argument, persuasion, peers – all aspects of what we mean by objectivity, and, ultimately, science.”(Cromer)
In science, as in debate, dissent must be met by beginning on common ground and carefully leading the critic step by step to a different conclusion – and being willing to do the same thing oneself. We’re not searching for a final higher Authority above humanity, but a provisional common Consensus among equals. As Daniel Dennet might say, we’re building cranes, not seeking skyhooks.
Rights and duties can be thought of in much the same way. Just as you might say there are two basic ways of grounding knowledge – through revelation and through science, from above and from below – there are the same two ways of grounding human rights: authority or common consent.
Under the theory of authority, rights are seen as privileges or benefits granted from a greater power to a lesser, and they’re secured by an ultimate promise of force. It begins with the given that it’s the right of the ruler to rule, and the duty of the inferior to obey. The creator possesses what it creates. The parent rightfully controls its child. A king may grant his knight the ‘right’ to cross a bridge which the king owns: anyone who seeks to prevent the knight will face the force of the king’s retribution.
People who see human rights as something “granted by God” are usually acting under this understanding of rights, as something that can be “given” by an unquestioned and unquestionable Owner Authority, working from the top down. Seen this way, there are no individual rights as such, only the duties of those in a community to honor and obey God by respecting what He values. It’s very hierarchal. You might say that humans don’t have ‘rights’ – they have ‘permissions.’
The second way to ground an understanding of human rights is to build it up from the bottom, from a rational analysis which engenders a broad negotiated consent. Again, use cranes – not skyhooks. And that was the great “paradigm shift” of the Enlightenment, when modern democracies were formed. Philosophers such as John Locke changed the way we thought, by reasoning from authority to agreement as the basis for law and obligation.
I think there’s a parallel between the processes. Science and democracy are interdependent, in that they both rely on many of the same assumptions about values and people – and thus entail the same kind of ethics. Although the scientific study of the world won’t directly give us what morals we ought to follow, the practice of scientific study itself requires a preexisting system of ethics.
First and foremost is the “habit of truth.” From this comes a commitment to avoid self-deception as much as possible, and a sensitivity to how very easy it is to fool ourselves. We need checks and balances; we cannot test what is true by consulting no one but ourselves, and nothing but our own personal experiences and interpretations. Thus, a society of assumed equals is formed, bound to each other by a mutual obligation – or social contract — to tell the truth. Peer review is not an afterthought of science, but indispensable.
As John Dewey once pointed out, science and democracy spring from the same soil. They both require open inquiry, diversity, respect for logic and evidence, and an awareness of the tentative nature of all knowledge. Both allow the empowerment and participation of ordinary people within a disciplined process; both test results by consequences, and allow for self-correction. Both rely on arguments capable of convincing their public. And both science and democracy assume a common ground of equality between their members.
Neither system can hold an authority or dogma as “sacred.” Therefore, they value originality – which is a departure from most of human history, where originality was not seen as growth or improvement, but a sign of decay, or disobedience from an original perfection. Progress is a relatively new ideal. So is tolerance. Above all, both science and democracy are social systems that respect – and require — dissent.
“Dissent is the mark of freedom, as originality is the mark of independence of mind. And as originality and independence are private needs for the existence of science, so dissent and freedom are its public needs.” (Jacob Bronowski)
Contrary to some of the modern apologists, then, it doesn’t seem to me that a real foundation for human rights can be firmly grounded in any belief system ultimately based on mysticism. Benevolence and fairness – certainly – love and kindness – sure – but a system that relies on hierarchal and elitist claims of connection to a sacred authority will end up being closed and divisive as soon as it meets with dissent. It can’t place and meet its critics on an even ground, because it’s modeled on higher and lower, Enlightened and Unenlightened, parent and child, king and subject, God and Man. And where there is the authority of certainty, there is no need for – or possibility of — debate.
On a recent television show, Ben Stein infamously declared that “science leads you to killing people.” There is a more famous, and memorable, quote, taken from the PBS series The Ascent of Man. Mathematician-biologist Jacob Bronowski is standing among the ashes of Auschwitz, and he says:
“It is said that science will de-humanize people and turn them into numbers. That is false, tragically false. Look for yourself. This is the concentration camp and crematorium at Auschwitz. This is where people were turned into numbers. Into this pond were flushed the ashes of some four million people. And that was not done by gas. It was done by arrogance. It was done by dogma. It was done by ignorance. When people believe that they have absolute knowledge, with no test in reality, this is how they behave. This is what men do when they aspire to the knowledge of gods.”