Science and Principle: Building a Better Society

23 Apr

Science and Principle:  A Vision of Science can help us better form our Values and Concepts in order to Build a Better Society

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The U.S. Presidential election is just six months away and already the campaign politics of Republican ideology versus Democratic has gotten into full swing with Barack Obama pitted against his GOP challengers, most notably Romney, with the Ron Paul movement in close pursuit trying to pull off an upset for their favorite Texas Congressman.

What a time then to look back on the U.S.A’.’s roots and consider the ideas that made it what it is today as a nation.  Thomas Jefferson, one of this country’s most well-known Founders, and major drafter of the Declaration of Independence, was a man of contradictions – slaveholder and advocate for liberty, humanist but unafraid to use the civil theologies of the time in order to advance the causes of freedom and republicanism he believed in.

So it should be no surprise then that we today face the kinds of political frictions we do, when from the very beginning of the nation and before, and indeed right at the advent of the American Revolution itself, the colonies were as rife with these contradictions as they are now, and that such incongruities were cemented into the very core of it from the start through the very people who lived through such times and made them what they were.

Not surprising either that the “big issues” we confront at present – questions of Reason and Truth, Science and Philosophy, Freedom and Equality – were major areas of concern for the peoples of Jefferson’s day too with about as much consensus around them as we have today over atheism, empiricism, and liberal values in society [and whether gov’t has a duty to assist the less fortunate].

Take, for instance, this famous passage of the Declaration:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. — That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

Nothing all that controversial about these ideas; and, yet, look at them more closely. … They are framed in exactly the same sorts of concepts we’re having such trouble with today viz-a-vis the fight over free will, the science-philosophy debate, religion versus non-belief, and the role of government to provide for its citizens versus the idea of ruling over them as subjects.

The right to pursue happiness, to live, and be free of lordly restraints in society … We can all for the most part agree with these ideas. … But should we accept them on word of authority or even social convention without considering reasons WHY we embrace them and the evidence FOR their being adopted, let alone any idea or value we choose to adopt as thinking human beings?

SELF EVIDENCE:  It is enough to accept things on self-evidence alone (taking something as a given) or, in our day and age, should we even be looking beyond these truisms and philosophical postulates to actually discover the true bases behind why we really believe in human equality, affirm human rights, and so forth?  … At best is the notion of self-evidence a cop-out and at worst, is it in fact, a form of reinforcing a kind of dogmatic, metaphysical thinking about the world? … If that’s the case, then we have to honestly reassess the founding values of Western republicanism and democracy in place like the United States.  We have to scientifically and humanistically probe these ideals for the real merit they bear us and the challenges they present us in carrying them out.

“CREATIVE” DISSONANCE:  We may agree on issues of social equality and championing it, but what if its roots are up for grabs?  What then?  … What of being “created equal” if there is no God-Creator to “create” men [and women] “equally?”  What of the “endowment” with “unalienable rights” if no God-Being is around to “endow” them on humankind? …  Where then do these values and these principles come from if they were not “given” by a “Creator?”  … That question needs to be further explored and strongly weighed as an idea (by secular humanists especially) rather than just taking it for granted they exist and arose up ‘out of the blue.’ … Where did they arise from? …

It’s not enough to say these inalienable rights arise [and arose] from social convention. … Social conventions alone could never have provided the justification for asserting self-rule and breaking away from the authoritarian governance of kings and princes as was done by the American colonists.  Some other factor or set of factors had to be in play here in order to provide the basis on which Independence and Revolution were successfully argued for and won.  … A notion of natural rights, deriving from natural law, is the only instrumentality through which such a justification could have come, and thus be able to carry forth a case for separation w/o immediately being put down by the British imperial force and the idea for “liberty” being squelched as a result. … In other words, if a Creator didn’t endow these rights and establish this principle of human equality, then they must have arose out of a context of historical and evolutionary development … And that’s how these ideas could achieved the impact they did in lieu of a God-Creator bestowing them on humanity.

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I hope I’ve convinced you these founding ideals of the United States/Western democratic-republicanism  aren’t as set in stone as is sometimes it’s assumed they are in public discussion and popular civics … that they were shaped in fact out of the very problems we’re struggling with today as peoples of the modern world in terms of secular values, liberal democratic principles, and palpable reason … and that just as science has something to offer in terms of illuminating contemporary philosophy as a whole, it can also shed light on many of these founding principles of the U.S government and society.

True, maybe it’s not needed … Maybe we can get along without science taking a scalpel to the major concepts of the Constitution, The Federalist Papers, and the Declaration of Independence to plumb them for better knowledge of ourselves and our world while extricating them from the irrationalities of the past … But if the surgery of science is needed on such things as Biblical ethics and Greco-Roman philosophy, gleaning from them their essential and worthwhile parts while cutting out the excess baggage of religionism and metaphysics, then why not on the very precepts that founded American society in the United States? … That’s why we should pay attention to a document like the Declaration of Independence.  Its ideas deserve greater scrutiny.

A vision of science can help us better frame our values and ideas about the world.  Not doing so only condemns us to remain chained to the nonsense of the past.  For the sake of our future, we owe ourselves and our children the understanding that comes from combing these principles for their empirical merits and particulars.

Our future and the future of our society depends on it.

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