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Science, Politics, and the New Utopians

By Yuval Levin - September 18, 2003 12:00 AM

In a thoughtful recent article on TCS, Eugene Miller offered a map of the ongoing technology debates, dividing participants past and present into their differing views regarding the harms and benefits of technology, and the need for and possible efficacy of regulatory controls. Among other things, Miller's helpful and clarifying map affords an opportunity for some reflection on the historical relationship between modern science and modern politics, and on the present state of that relationship in America.

 

What follows is a cursory (and therefore necessarily partial and overly general) review of one element of the history of that relationship. It seeks to trace the career of a certain utopian scientism that has followed closely on the heels of advances in science and technology over the years, and that may again be rearing its head. By digging through some history and theory in search of this attitude, we might learn something about the nuances of the contemporary technology debates.

 

The Birth of the Modern

 

Modern politics and modern science have been closely joined since birth, because both defined themselves against the ancient attitude toward man and nature. The ancients understood both nature and politics to be defined by the ends or the purposes of things. "The nature of a thing is its end," Aristotle writes in his Politics, "for what each thing is when fully developed, we call its nature." The classical study of political life, therefore, aims always at a sense of a fully developed and ideal polity, and understands real men and women as strivers toward that perfection. The state exists because without it human beings could not perfect themselves. The study of nature, meanwhile, aimed at a sense of the world in its full flower, and understood individual objects as representatives of ideal categories, and parts based on the roles they play in the harmonious whole.

 

The moderns began by rejecting all of this. Politics, in the terms of Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Locke, takes its cue not from the end of things but from their beginning. The study of political life begins with a picture of one man, alone, in his natural state, and seeks to understand his needs and wants. The state exists because without it human beings would set upon each other's lives and property and would destroy each other; and politics is guided not by human potential but by human necessities and desires. Put this way, modern politics might sound rather low and dark, but it is not: indeed, this way of thinking is the foundation of modern liberty, and likely the greatest source of human happiness and prosperity in history.

 

The modern study of nature takes much the same approach. It understands wholes in terms of parts, and not the other way around; it rejects teleology and ideal categories in favor of materialist causality; and it studies the world based on what it has become, more than what it is becoming. It proceeds by experiments which, like the "state of nature" thought-experiments of Locke and Hobbes, seek to understand the ordinary by placing it in extreme and extraordinary circumstances. There is a deep-seated kinship between modern atomism and modern individualism. And the founders of modern science understood the connection. "We are beholden to Machiavelli and writers of that kind," wrote Francis Bacon, "who openly and unmasked declare what men do in fact, and not what they ought to do."

 

Modern science, far more than modern political philosophy, almost immediately ignited a profound enthusiasm, and even a certain utopianism, among its followers. It offered what ancient and medieval science could not: practical feasible approaches to addressing real material problems. It offered power. And it worked!

 

Moreover, combined with the newly diminished purposes of politics -- survival and prosperity -- some believed modern science might simply end the need for the messiness and unpleasantness of political life altogether. After all, it could probably offer safety, health, and power better than politics could. This certainly seems like the subtle message of Rene Descartes' Discourse on Method (published in 1637), in which he first complains about politicians and academics, and then offers his scientific method as useful "not only for the invention of an infinity of artifices which would enable us to enjoy, without any pain, the fruits of the earth and all the commodities found there, but also and principally for the conservation of health, which is without doubt the primary good and the foundation of all other goods of this life." The new science, not the old politics, is the way to the good life, and along with health and wealth, it could also bring greater peace, he proposes. All that the benevolent scientist will ask in return for this bounty, Descartes writes, is that the community "furnish the expenses he needs, and otherwise prevent his leisure from being taken up by anybody's importunity." Give me funding, and freedom, and leave me alone. A familiar cry, to this day.

 

This very modern notion, which holds science above politics as the route to peace, health, and fortune, did not appeal to everyone, and indeed the fathers of modern liberty -- like Machiavelli, Hobbes, and Locke -- had a much more complicated view of the origin of war and strife. But as the new science proved itself in practical test after practical test, the excitement surrounding it grew, and the utopian zeal infected ever more adherents. It appealed especially to those most intent on rejecting the ways of medieval thought: in politics, in science, and in religion. The new science seemed like a way to throw out all the old superstitions, and replace them with a neat, materialist, rational method of solving all real problems. This was the great ambition of Voltaire, and of the French philosophes and encyclopedists who followed him.

 

They were driven by a profound faith in reason, which led them to reject -- with venomous fervor -- both political and religious authority. "Men will not be free," wrote the prominent encyclopedist Denis Diderot, "until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest." The French Revolution sought to achieve just that, and its hopeless (and bloody) utopian ambitions were motivated, among other things, by the dream of a science of politics that might emulate physics or chemistry in rationality and exactitude. This was the epitome of scientism (which Merriam Webster defines as "an exaggerated trust in the efficacy of the methods of natural science applied to all areas of investigation.")

 

Early Conservative reaction against the French Revolution, from men like Edmund Burke and Alexander Hamilton, had much to do with a revulsion at precisely this starry-eyed utopianism and cold-hearted rationalism -- the notion that a precise technique could replace the prudent muddling through of everyday political life.

 

But even in the wake of the murderous revolution, such zeal did not fade. Auguste Comte, in the early 19th century, argued quite explicitly for the replacement of politics by a kind of rational science. "The general situation of political science today," he wrote, "is exactly analogous to that of astrology in relation astronomy, of alchemy in relation to chemistry, and the cure-all in relation to medicine." He foresaw a science of politics -- which he called the "social physics" -- which might rationally calculate all our problems away.

 

Utopia and Its Enemies

 

Comte then made the leap that would characterize this form of utopianism for centuries. The new science would mean that the governing of society would be taken over by social engineers, and every detail of the polity's life would be planned and organized. "The aim and purpose of such an organization," Comte writes, "are so clear and determined that there is no longer any room for arbitrariness of men or even of laws." The new science, he argued, should define for each person "the entire system of ideas and habits necessary for initiating individuals into the social order under which they must live."

 

The zeal of scientism now directed itself to the replacement of laws by a rational order, enforced with the authority of the state, and drawing on the allure of technical expertise. The leap from here to the oppressive "scientific" historicism of the Marxists is not simple, but it is surely apparent. At Marx's funeral, Engels gave him the greatest compliment he could muster, calling him "a man of science."

 

This is not real modern science, though. In dragging their methods from the natural world to the political, the technocratic utopians abandoned any insistence on genuine empiricism, or methods of verification. They kept only the reflected glamour of so-called "scientific laws," the authority of "technical" language and methods, and the magic of quantification. The horrors propounded under this flag should not taint the name of scientific knowledge and technology.

 

But the story of the murderous utopianisms of the 20th century should nonetheless teach us a lesson about the danger of allowing the promise of science to blind us to the necessity of politics. Essentially all of the most destructive utopian fantasies of that dark age -- from the eugenics of early 20th century American progressives, to the historical science of the communists, to the genetic theories of the Nazis and beyond -- advanced themselves under the banner of what they called science, and succeeded as they did because too many people were open to the proposition that science held all the answers, and could provide relief from the pain and the trouble of politics.

 

Ironically, that very belief, and that very utopian zeal, led to the birth of the most oppressive and intrusive governments in human history, culminating in the Soviet state. By the middle of the 20th century, the focus of most utopian fancies was government.

 

In America, where classical liberal ideals had settled in most deeply, this murderous experiment elicited a strong reaction. In the post-war years, a coalition of conservatives and libertarians joined together to advocate a firm stance against the Soviets, both ideologically and geopolitically.

 

The conservatives reacted most deeply against the ends of the project: the utopian ideals, which struck them as inhuman, profoundly misguided, and certain to end badly. Their reaction had the flavor of Edmund Burke's early response to the French revolution.

 

Libertarians (and in both cases I generalize, of course) tended to respond against the means of the Communist state: authoritarian government, oppressive economic planning, the total denial of freedom of conscience. They were in essence vindicating the original faith of the enlightenment, reacting against authority and rejecting government as a source of all-encompassing solutions.

 

The two sets of concerns were by no means mutually exclusive, and the two groups fought the good fight together, even seeming at times to meld into one, most prominently perhaps in the persons of Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. The movement was generally called conservatism, and the most die-hard libertarians never did pledge allegiance to it, but it owed a great deal of its animating spirit to the rugged individualism and reasoned economics of the libertarians.

 

The New Utopians

 

That battle having largely been won, however, divisions are again appearing between conservatives and libertarians in America, and we can learn something of the reason why from their slightly differing reactions to the utopian nightmares of the last century.

 

Most Conservatives opposed utopianism as such. Many libertarians did too, and they championed an ethic of humility toward large complicated systems like societies and economies. But some libertarians, in rejecting communism, were fundamentally opposed to authoritarianism, not utopianism. They did not, and do not, essentially oppose the underlying zeal for science that -- carried too far -- made totalitarianism possible.

 

Today, in some limited but prominent libertarian circles, utopianism is back. The focus of its hopes and energies is not government, of course, but rather, once more, modern science -- in this case particularly biomedical science and biotechnology. Advances in biotechnology in recent decades, and the plausible promise of much more significant advances to come, has convinced some that the way to radical liberation leads through the laboratory. In its extreme form, the desire for this liberation has been expressed as a genuine wish to escape our human bonds -- in transhumanism and extropianism. In more moderate forms, it shows up as a profound enthusiasm for new biomedical possibilities beyond medicine, and an ardent committed desire to hold back all attempts at political regulation of biotechnological techniques.

 

To be sure, this does not appear to raise the prospect of a new social physics. Biotech is real science, not the misbegotten technocracy of the French philosophes and of Marx. But real though it may be, utopian dreams based upon it are still dangerous.

 

Like Descartes and Voltaire, and other early enthusiasts, the more extreme adherents of the new utopian scientism have high hopes indeed for the project. Converging Technologies for Improving Human Performance, a report released this year by the National Science Foundation, offers a glimpse of this worldview. New technologies for radically improving and remaking human performance, the report argues, will initiate a process of "changing the societal fabric towards a new structure." If it is not held back by ignorant critics, the report continues, the convergence of nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology, and cognitive science, may bring to pass "a golden age that [will] be an epochal turning point in human history." Indeed, in the familiar parlance of modern utopians, the report promises more than technology: "technological convergence could become the framework for human convergence -- the twenty-first century could end in world peace, universal prosperity, and evolution to a higher level of compassion and accomplishment."

 

This is madness, of course, and this sort of talk certainly marks the extreme edge of the new utopianism. Not many libertarians think this way. But in more measured and more reasonable ways, many do seem to accept the proposition that science should in principle be above politics, and that science offers a way toward something like the ideal libertarian society: where power and choice are in the hands of individuals, and a world of endless possibilities lays open before each of us. Even those libertarian observers who are far from utopian (Reason magazine's Ronald Bailey -- a serious, insightful, and knowledgeable writer on the subject -- comes to mind) often incline to see in science the promise of true liberation, and to downplay all worries about extreme uses, misuses, and abuses. The true libertarian scientism takes these inclinations to extremes.

 

Some of today's libertarians therefore appear to offer an example of what Thomas Sowell calls the "unconstrained" vision of human affairs, which argues that there is really no limit to what human beings can achieve (in this case through science, rather than politics.) But of course Sowell had mostly libertarians in mind when he described his "constrained" vision, which operates from a sense of human limits and humility about the power of mankind, and from a faith in ordered liberty.

 

Like most utopians, this newest lot believes that their ideal will be realized without coercion or force, without discord and malevolence, because what it offers is what everyone wants, or should want.

 

Perhaps they're right. But an important element of the conservative reaction against certain biotechnological advances has had to do with a profound mistrust of all utopian visions, and so with a distaste for the utopian flavor of the project, and a trembling before the awful prospect of so great a source of power as biotechnology run amok.

 

Advocates of unrestricted biotechnology do not pay enough heed to this feature of their opposition, and so too easily mistake their critics for simple-minded religious fundamentalists or heavy-booted authoritarians. They think they are still facing Voltaire's enemies. But in many cases, they are facing a conservative suspicion of big promises, and a desire to moderate the zeal of the enthusiasts by mooring their project to the firm soil of some familiar moderating institutions: including, it is true, political oversight.

 

It is likely that the critics of biotechnology are over-reacting in certain respects. But that is what conservatives do: they over-react, and by so doing they restrain the over-action of the progressive strains of modern life who seek always after the allure of the new, and who will trample on the old to get it. The interplay of these two forces is what keeps modern societies functioning, and the interplay is most legitimately and productively acted out in the democratic political arena. And so the fight goes on.

 

American libertarians on the whole have a healthy (and at times maybe excessive) skepticism about human power when it is exercised by governments and polities. But somehow they have not applied the same skepticism to the potential for a far greater and more extreme exercise of the power of man over man, through science. They (or, to be precise, a subset among them) are the new utopians -- strident, rationalist, atheist, materialist proponents of a technical substitute for political authority. But they are also deeply committed to liberty, and this makes them different and better than most of the cold-blooded dreamers of old. We could certainly do worse.

 

Yuval Levin is a senior editor of The New Atlantis magazine, and a member of the staff of the President's Council on Bioethics. All views expressed here are his own.
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