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Scientific Truth, Scientific Pragmatism, & Human History

4,585 words

An important question for those on the Dissident Right to ask is how humans ought to relate to nature; both their own “human nature” as well as the “outside” world. Depending on one’s religious beliefs, this might be the most important question there is. History seems to indicate two conventional approaches to this question. One of them is to view the appropriate relationship between humanity and nature as a question about nature itself. The other approach is to view knowledge about nature as a thing that humans “produce,” and thus to view the relationship between humans and nature in a functional way. Should knowledge about nature tell us what humans should do, or should humans learn about nature in order to better exploit it for their own purposes?

These two attitudes toward science and nature are mutually exclusive, even if they may not appear this way on the surface; in order to use science to control nature, something meaningfully human must intervene in both nature and scientific practice in order to bend them toward a human will. Unless humans are capable of genuinely intervening in nature, they are not capable of “using” nature but only of being used by it, or rather, of simply being part of it.  If humans could not control nature, how could they meaningfully use science to do so? Thus, if humans could use science to reveal the absolute and complete truth of nature, this would include revealing how our use of science is simply another instance of nature playing itself out without our intervention. Alternatively, if humans could genuinely use science to control nature, then we could not reveal all of nature because to do so would include revealing, and perfectly predicting, the natural contingencies which determine our apparent use of science, thus reducing scientific practice to a pseudo-practice that simply manifests a false image of control.

The conflict between these two images of science is misunderstood. There exists a popular image among the Anglo-American intelligentsia of the emergence of an age of “critique” after the 1970s led by a “regressive left.” This notion imagines two opposing camps. On one side are those who are pro-science and believe in objective truth and progress. On the other side are confused relativists who don’t understand science, don’t believe in objective truth, and who waste time asking unanswerable questions in order to prevent scientific progress. The more interesting split, however, is not between the caricatures of airy-fairy humanities majors and STEM superheroes, but between the two competing notions of science that emerge from within the practicing scientific community. Both camps view themselves as opposing irrational misconceptions about science. However, the two camps arrive at astonishingly different conclusions about the role of science in society and often tend to view the intuitions of the other side as typifying a naïve, unrealistic, and misinformed attitude toward what science is and how it works.

Ontological and pragmatic views of “science”

It is a widespread assumption in Western cosmopolitan society that all realistic and rational people believe that science provides unique access to universal and singular truth. This is because, according to the narrative, we now occupy a “modern” age in which humans have moved past naïve beliefs in untestable and unfalsifiable fictions like souls and ghosts. In such a world, what scientific truths could be acquired which are not fundamentally truths about the physical world and about the principles that govern it? Since it is irrational to believe in souls, are we humans not part of the physical world in our entirety? If we are, what kind of information should direct “rational” behavior, if not physical truths derived from science, which include everything from quanta to proteins to neurons?

On what other kind of knowledge could a “realistic” person base public policy or individual decisions if not the best possible “science” of nature, both human and otherwise? Surely, then, all “realistic” people should believe that public policy and individual human decisions and assumptions must always be based exclusively on the best available science about the physical world? On what basis could one not believe this without invoking unrealistic fictions about souls or gods?

The kind of “realistic” attitude to science articulated above holds that knowledge about nature, including human nature, equates to knowledge about how to act individually and as a society. This may be called the “ontological” attitude to science, as it views physical science as a source of absolute truth about the world and humanity’s place therein. This model of physical science is thus believed to inform humanity about the kind of world we occupy and the limits of how to rationally approach it.

This ontological attitude is common among physicists like Lawrence Krauss and Neil deGrasse Tyson. However, the neuroscientist Sam Harris is also eager to derive moral truths from the physical systems that he believes to condition the neurological processes which govern and determine the motions of the human mind. In this progressive model, it is both a logical necessity and moral imperative that science should inevitably reveal the full and utter dependence of human psychology on physical nature. It is believed that this will finally subordinate the unprovable speculations of political theorists and historians to a perfectly knowable and predictable system of human nature that is entirely determined by the explanatory domain of physics. Until then, standards of rationality must demand that we subordinate our discourse of human affairs to the latest peer-reviewed studies of human biology, neurology, and psychology which can be brought to bear on that discourse, no matter how tangentially.

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The alternative kind of “realistic” perspective toward science tends to frame the ontological attitude as naïve. This alternative may be called the “pragmatic” attitude. Its adherents often occupy experimentalist positions in the labor economy of institutionalized science. They are inclined to dismiss adherents to the ontological attitude by claiming that science is not about individual minds producing grand theories and having complete access to the full and complete truths of all nature. According to the pragmatic attitude, such notions are romantic fictions; the sort of thing philosophers will often believe because they have no idea about how science actually works. Real science, the pragmatists will argue, is about target-driven practical teamwork, which mostly includes activities like analyzing data sets, writing reports, arranging and calibrating experimental instruments, or, if you are very senior, organizing and directing research programs.

The pragmatic attitude includes a strong sense that what the general public view as grand and perfect scientific truths are simply working models which are meaningful only in the context of highly imperfect artificial conditions created for very particular purposes. To the pragmatic realists who observe the day-to-day imperfections, concessions, and data-fudging of even the most precise areas of science, it is simply ridiculous to believe that the moment a particular research program might develop a new piece of data which implies a slightly different picture of physical reality, that scientists and the public must rearrange their entire view of reality to make their behavior conform to the change. It is for this reason that the ontological image of science as a revealed and unquestionable truth upon which all human discourse and activity must articulate rests on the work of philosopher Karl Popper. Meanwhile, the concept of “paradigm shifts,” which informs many of the “airy-fairy” and unscientific speculations of “postmodernists,” rests on the honest reflections of a practicing physicist, Thomas Kuhn.

On the surface, both the ontological and pragmatic attitudes could claim to be the “realistic” perspective toward science and humanity in any modern and rational society. Yet they clearly conflict. Are scientific facts and theories paths to absolute truth, or are they conditional truths contingent on imperfect and complex practices whose epistemic value is defined by the objectives and needs of a human society? Worse still, the pragmatic model opens up the possibility that science, construed as institutions and research programs, might be directed by non-scientists in accordance with the needs of the societies whose resources sustain scientific activity. According to the ontological perspective, it can only be the truths of the physical world which direct what genuine science does. Who is in a position to know such truths if not scientists themselves?

Closely related to the dichotomy of ontological and pragmatic realism is the question of what kind of institution science is in human society. Established religions have historically been the institutions that presented and curated objects of worship. Artisans, tradesmen, and their guilds provided for the skills that materially improved society. Where does the modern scientific institution fit into this schema? Is science an end in itself and should its concepts should be worshipped as the only numinous objects in existence, or is it a pragmatic system whose value is defined by its usefulness to humans? Is the former notion too “romantic” or is the latter notion too “cynical?”

Bernal and Lysenkoism

As we have seen, the question of whether it is most rational to view science functionally in relation to human ends, or as a direct revelation of natural truth, maps onto the political question of whether we should direct or be directed by scientific knowledge. I have discussed the ways in which answers to this question appear to be dichotomous and incompatible. However, there are also possible solutions for resolving this apparent dichotomy. Is it not possible that nature should tell us what humans should do and that humans learn about nature in order to better exploit it for their own ends. After all, how could our ability to control nature improve without a prior and genuine development of our knowledge of nature? If knowledge about nature can be acquired, and humans are a part of nature, then why should we not be able to acquire complete knowledge of human nature? Surely, then, to define the human ends that direct science, one needs to enlist a scientific account of nature.

In one informative moment in history, an effort was made to rationally integrate nature and scientific practice into a single ontology. In the early 20th century, the prominent British physicist J.D. Bernal broke ranks with his Western colleagues and, like hundreds of highly qualified Soviet Scientists, endorsed an alternative to the Darwinian model of natural history, named “Lysenkoism.” Without going too far into the details, Trofim Lysenko was a Soviet scientist who offered an explanation for biological change over time which was purportedly based on his successful agricultural research. In opposition to Darwin’s doctrine of mutation and survival of the fittest, Trofim Lysenko instead argued that other modes for transmitting adaptive changes intergenerationally could potentially drive biological development. These included somatic interventions and Lamarckian style trait acquisition. [1] [2]

Bernal’s decision to reject Darwinism has been portrayed as a disingenuous and stubborn impulse to tow the line of the Marxist political doctrines to which he subscribed. [2] [3] This is because Lysenkoism is used by Western commentators as a politically convenient foil for implying the existence of a Western scientific establishment filled with free-thinking scientists who are unencumbered by their own doctrines of political correctness. [3] [4]

However, Bernal’s decision to support Lysenkoism was actually an elegant solution to a complicated problem deriving from materialist metaphysics. Unlike most scientists, Bernal was willing to honestly take his belief that human knowledge and norms should be based on a “rational” and “scientific” worldview to its logical extremes. Science, for him, was not merely a methodology for acquiring useful knowledge, but the single route to all possible knowledge. He did not buy the American pragmatist copout of simply defining all possible knowledge as useful knowledge. Traditional Christian metaphysics viewed knowledge of what is true, but not necessarily useful, to be the domain of theology or, for Thomists, the domain of both theology and philosophy. This was an entirely rational domain of knowledge, from which moral principles were derived. It was separate from those modes of practical knowledge acquisition which concern what is useful and which mostly relied on empirical methods. Bernal, however, demanded that both domains belong to that uneasy equilibrium of technical methods and empirical and rationalist philosophies that we now call “science.”

Bernal’s socialist ideological commitment demanded an entirely naturalist metaphysics. However, he also believed in the materialist morality of Marxism/communism in which the only laws of history that one could “rationally” accept were the laws of dialectical materialism. In this world, traditional virtues and morals were imagined fictions, as were formerly all sacred norms. The only possible social reality based on a materialist view of cause and effect was one defined by the conflict between those with power over material resources and those without. The only rational morality, then, must be based on equalizing the injustices perpetrated by oppressors against the oppressed.

Darwin’s historical framework was, of course, also entirely naturalist. However, because Darwinism did not include the revolutionary condition baked into a socialist naturalism, the Darwinian natural outlook contended that things were as they are, not because of God, but because they had to be that way. Survival conditions are what they are, the fittest survive, and this is how history brought about the present. In this way, Darwinism justified the status quo of existing relationships between all biological populations, both human and non-human. The Darwinian explanation for the emergence of present conditions could only ever be the fittest out-competing the weakest. Worse still, the only Darwinian possibility for permanently reconditioning inequalities in the future would be to make the weakest fitter in order to cope with reality, rather than equalizing reality to accommodate the weakest.

Darwinism thus undermined the historical justification of socialism. Bernal, however, viewed socialism as the inevitable consequence of a materialist world view that rejected God and the ridiculous and irrational sacred truths of ancient societies. A materialist view of human society implied that no historical or social truths existed except competition in a power asymmetry. Those with power over material resources used their power to oppress those without power, and any other explanation for social equality could only be an irrational fiction used by the powerful to justify their power. To be morally and metaphysically consistent, Bernal would have to view Darwinian arguments as a reactionary fiction used to justify bourgeois privilege. Bernal could only oppose Darwinian logic with an alternative based in material fact, since basing morality on anything else, in Bernal’s mind, was superstition. Thus, in order for Bernal to integrate his moral universe into his naturalist one, and in order for him to package both as the “scientific” worldview, he needed to “scientize” his morality. Hence his adherence to Lysenkoism.

Scientifically-minded liberals may be inclined to look back at Lysenkoism as being “irrational” nonsense. By this logic, then, Bernal, an otherwise rational man, must have been taken in by some irrational passion. Perhaps it was the “romanticism” at the root of Marxism, as Stephen Pinker would be inclined to contend. [4] [5] However, this argument is usually made to gloss over the extent to which this highly informative historical moment reveals the absurd limits of pursuing a “rational” way to integrate nature and scientific practice into a single ontology. In this respect, the Bernal case bothers Western scientific institutions because it invites us to ask which “rational” and “scientific” outlook one is referring to when they use these terms to police the range of acceptable public opinion in the West. What the Bernal affair demonstrated is that there are multiple worldviews that may conform to ostensibly rational and even materialist criteria of truth; and that they can conflict. Such an attitude makes it difficult to suppress dissenting opinion in the interests of however the prevailing orthodoxy of the day defines “progress.”

Scientizing liberal rationality and common sense

As I stated earlier, Bernal adhered to Lysenkoism because he was logically consistent. It was an effective solution to a fundamentally irrational incoherence that emerges from any effort to honestly deal with the question of scientific practice from within a fully “scientific” and materialist worldview. This incoherence would cause far more anxiety for those who Mencius Moldbug calls bugmen and who Vox Day calls midwits if only the group these monikers describe were not so astonishingly incapable of logically articulating their own positions. The problem can be stated as follows:

If what is objective is all that is true, and physical nature is all that is objective, then physical nature is all that is true. If physical nature is all that is true, then the only source of knowledge for what is true is that knowledge taken from physical nature. If the only source of knowledge about what is true is that which exists in nature, then nature is the only source of knowledge about what is morally true. Wherever scientific work is clearly a functional enterprise directed by moral ends, whomsoever is interested in those ends will have to justify them by normalizing a particular model of human nature. After all, how can you know what is good for humans unless your claim considers the latest science about humans and human nature? Would it not be irrational to resist a new moral provision if it was based on such science?

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This is not particularly profound philosophy, which is why it is so amazing that it is not discussed more often. Rational liberals inform us that those who mistake convention for truth are thinking in an “unscientific” way. However, wherever science is justified or describable in functional terms, the work it performs in society is clearly not in the interest of finding truth but in serving convention. How could functional ends be anything other than conventions? As the argument of scientific pragmatists demonstrates, it is irrational to assume science is not a functional enterprise because of how it operates institutionally. It need not be viewed as common sense that the work institutional science performs in a society is in the interest of finding truth. Often, that truth is coextensive with the prevailing moral doctrine.

It is unclear what lesson to take away from the J.D. Bernal case study. Lysenkoism was necessary in order to incorporate a coherent notion of the functions of science within a naturalist worldview, assuming one’s moral commitments were Marxist. Lysenkoism was the “rational” theory for polite society in the context of the Soviet state. This was because Soviet metaphysics and the morality it implied had been made common sense. Thus, in a formally Marxist society, adherence to Lysenkoism appeared to be value-free, because the values on which it was contingent were assumed to be objective truth. What does that say about modern efforts to make sense of scientific practice in the context of materialist metaphysics? What is the common sense that we in the liberal West might take for granted when we accept the proclamations of scientific institutions which function with a self-aware concept of collective purpose? At the very least, this question should inspire careful thought in the Dissident Right about when it is, or is not, appropriate to make nationalism contingent on scientific truth claims. Perhaps it is better to think of things the other way around?

Reflections from the Dissident Right

The question of whether science is about revealing nature, or about controlling nature in order to serve human purposes, splits the Dissident Right community as much as any other. American conservatives who believe that preventing barriers to technological and economic progress define right-wing morality are accused of being “cucks.” This is because this brand of right-wing thinking does not recognize human populations as natural formations. Their view of humanity’s relationship to nature lacks any concept of European-descended communities, and thus cannot articulate a value system interested in preserving those communities. The only concept of nature this right-wing ideology envisages consists of infinitely malleable and exploitable resources. The ideology’s only value system is to manipulate and modify these physical resources to attain ever-greater economic and technological complexity and power.

However, there are also positions on the ethnically self-aware extreme Right whose ideology is ultimately the same thing. Consider the common notion in the Dissident Right that white people are defined by a unique collective competence in building civilizations. The moral mission of this ideology is defined against the modern Western Left and its insistence on “equality” for the less able and less competent. This is often viewed as a regressive force that handicaps white people, thus holding back their Faustian spirit of technological progress. One often hears lamentations coming from this side of the Dissident Right. These lamentations ask where white people would be by now if this race of people who were space-faring and moonwalking in the 1960s had not been held back by the new morality of “diversity” and “equality.” In accord with this historical image, the purpose of the Dissident Right becomes reclaiming the developmental destiny of white people by intervening in history to undo what went wrong from the 1970s to the present day.

Those with this attitude intuitively take the position that the purpose of science is to control nature in order to serve human purposes. It also seems to believe that it is this activity that most foundationally defines peoples of European descent. If, then, it is the destiny of all peoples of European descent to have their histories converge on their shared Faustian impulse to strive for the infinite and the beyond, what is the telos of the Dissident Right? It seems to be defined by liberating peoples of European descent to finally realize an infinite age of unlimited technological progress, which could only end with them augmenting themselves psychologically and physically to transcend their biological limits. The telos, then, seems to be a future that converges peoples of European descent on a common destiny which makes this former family of peoples something entirely unrecognizable from what they are today.

The value system of this narrative seems to subordinate peoples of European descent to their technologically progressive destiny. Indeed, the main focus of attention appears to be the relentless drive to the beyond, a self-justified virtue, which just happens to be contained within a vehicle we call “white people.” Articulating this telos demonstrates the similarities between the “march of the Titans” narrative in the Dissident Right and the maligned “conservative” value set typified by American Baby Boomers. Both views of historical meaning hold technological progress, which is to say, the manipulation of natural forces, above the preservation (or at least recognizable continuity) of European descended peoples. The two views seem to differ only in their preferred time frames. This observation invites a disturbing question. What is the difference between a future in which European-descended peoples have converged and transcended themselves to the inevitable point of unrecognizability, and the new post-ethnic man at the end of the Left’s mission to converge all humanity through their ideology of cosmopolitan progress?

There are voices in the Dissident Right which take a different view of science and its relationship to nature and history. The popular YouTuber Morgoth, for instance, articulates a right-wing morality based on honestly identifying and pursuing the natural state of man and his natural place in nature. [5] [7] However, he also notes the alienation and nihilism faced by modern man as a result of the international fusion of the cultural left with techno-capitalism. He sees this as a crisis brought about by a cultural obsession with science, productivity, and technological progress which is itself rooted in a conventional image of nature as a resource to be exploited. Morgoth’s vehement disgust for this image and its social effects puts him at odds with what I have called the pragmatic view of science and nature. However, Morgoth also opposes what I have termed the ontological view of science, which construes science not as a function but as a singular source of truth in all times and places.

Morgoth’s idea of how humans should relate to science is unclear. However, he notes that the concept of science — as it is currently practiced — as being a morally neutral source of truth is a fiction. He correctly notes that any such notion is currently a rhetorical tool for advancing Leftist moral dogma. This is because Leftist moral axioms limit acceptable scientific discourse and thus guide the moral frame that directs how science intervenes in human affairs. Such interventions include proclamations of scientific truth, which makes science a tool for “naturalizing” Leftist moral dogma. Put differently, if science is governed by the pursuit of natural truth, and science says that men can become women and that and that populations, nations, and races don’t exist, then those two Leftist dogmas have become “naturalized,” which is to say that they have been framed as natural truths rather than the revolutionary social projects that they are.

For Morgoth, it is “naïve” to assume that science is not simply a human activity or that industrialized institutional science is a special and privileged kind of human activity that will always reveal truth. In this sense, Morgoth typifies a highly nuanced position that holds that natural truth should direct human affairs, but that science is a pragmatic affair, one which may or may not be directed to reveal the truth about nature. The route to natural truth for Morgoth is simply to observe what humans naturally do when left alone by those who wish to intervene in or “improve” nature.

Morgoth’s observation should inspire a profound skepticism of any claim made by polite society concerning a single “rational” and “scientific” outlook on nature and society. As J.D. Bernal demonstrated, at any moment in time there is the potential for at least two such “rational” outlooks, and they contradict each other. This is probably because any conceptual synthesis of nature, society, and scientific practice will always be relative to the moral commitments of the synthesizer. A competition between moral communities is a zero-sum game. To accept an opponent’s synthesis of nature, society, and scientific practice is to accept their morals.

Nationalists like Morgoth have some notion that the only rational reference of morality in our modern and secular age is the existence of a self-recognized community which gives rise to its own moral conventions. Thus, there can be no objective morality higher than identifying one’s moral community and preserving its existence. One’s moral community is prior to, and conditions all, subsequent moral demands. I personally believe, or hope, that it is possible to have moral communities who extend basic courtesies to humanity at large, and I believe this is desirable. However, any morality that risks the continued existence of the moral community, which includes the recognizability of its history, present, and future, is fundamentally amoral. This remains true with and without the presence of scientific institutions and regardless of the latest theory or data set they produce, which will always be provisional and will always be conditioned by institutional morality.

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Notes

[1] [9] Dimitri Stanchevici, Stalinist Genetics: The Constitutional Rhetoric of T.D. Lysenko, Taylor & Francis: 2017, p. 4.

[2] [10] Andrew Brown, “J D Bernal: Genius yes, sage no,” Physics World, 11 August 1999.

[3] [11] Loren Graham, “What have we learned about science and technology from the Russian experience?” Stanford University Press: 1998, p. 22.

[4] [12] Steven Pinker, The Better Angles of Our Nature, Penguin Books: 2011.

[5] [13] Morgoth’s Review, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=g9wkS-jZwtc [14]