Can we best live by dogma or discovery, by religion or science?

It may very well be the principal question of our time, — are President Trump and his hirelings choosing religion and authoritarianism, dogma, and while doing so rejecting science? Too often it would seem they were. 

RALPH WALDO EMERSON says that the world exists to teach the science of liberty.

DICK TAVERNE says that science and democracy are based on the rejection of dogmatism.   (In 1973, Labour MP Dick Taverne caused a national sensation when he stood against his own party as an independent to win a historic by-election in Lincoln. Would there were Republicans in Congress who would do the same!)

TIMOTHY FERRIS  in Chapter 12 of his book, The Science of Liberty, writes:

Dogmas (from the Greek for received opinions that “seem good”) may seek to unify people (as is the implied intent of religious dogma, religio being Latin for “binding together”) but insofar as a dogma must be taken on faith it winds up bifurcating humanity into a faithful us and a suspect other.

Scientific discovery might have divided the world, but instead has found that all human beings are kin—to one another and to all other living things—in a universe where stars and starfish alike obey the same physical laws. So as humans move from dogma toward discovery, we increasingly find ourselves inhabiting one world.

This development raises the prospect that as the influence of science grows, people may overcome old prejudices and parochialisms and treat one another more liberally. To an extent this is already happening—the world today is more scientific and more liberal, better informed and less violent, than it was three centuries ago—but with such prospects have also come problems.

Religious and political dogmatists react against science and liberalism with everything from denial and attempted suppression (of, for instance, the teaching of biological evolution) to terrorism. The liberal democracies have too often responded to such threats with insecurity rather than strength, reverting in times of trouble to illiberal practices little better than those of their adversaries.

Meanwhile scientific findings challenge everybody’s received opinions, while the growth of technology creates conundrums—with global warming currently at the top of the heap—that unless competently addressed threaten to reverse much of the progress our species has so recently made.

Dogmatists like to portray science as just another dogma—to the brazen all is brass—but science is a method, not a faith, and the unity of the universe was discovered by scientists who set out to demonstrate no such thing. When Newton identified the laws of gravitation he did not assert that they held sway everywhere, but wondered whether “God is able…to vary the laws of nature…in several parts of the universe.”

The physicist Ernest Rutherford, whose experiments exposed the structure of the atom, was so skeptical about drawing grand implications that he threatened to bar from his laboratory any scientist who so much as uttered the word “universe.”

When the astronomer Edwin Hubble established that the Milky Way was one among many galaxies, he called them “island universes” and questioned whether “the principle of the uniformity of nature” pertained across such enormous distances.

This is the opposite of starting with a deeply held faith and accumulating evidence to support it. Scientists have a story of discovery to tell, dogmatists a story of obedience to authority. The scientific discovery that everything—and everybody—is interwoven with everything else was a boon for liberalism, which took a unified view of humanity before such a stance could be justified empirically….

The liberal claim that people ought to have equal rights was a theory, vulnerable to test by experiment and properly to be judged by the results. The experiment having since succeeded, while science determined that all human beings belong to the same species, we can now understand that we’re all us; there is no other.

Darwin’s discovery that biological evolution functions through random mutation and natural selection revealed the common ancestry of all human beings, but it did so at the cost of exposing the unsettling fact that we are here by virtue of chance.

Genes mutate randomly, DNA/RNA copying errors altering the genetic inheritance of every organism. Changes in the environment—which are themselves random, to a first approximation—can alter circumstances in such a way that previously marginal mutants are better able to survive and reproduce than are those superlatively adapted to the prior order.

The environmental changes involved may be as slow as the parting of continents or as sudden as an asteroid impact, but they never cease: Stasis is an illusion. Homo sapiens did not emerge because they were superior to other animals, but because their ancestors happened to be in the right place at the right time. This rather stark finding is difficult for humans to absorb; hence we are apt to regard ourselves as distinctly different from the other animals, and to imagine that we are here for a special purpose…. 

Scientific research is practiced in much the same ways everywhere, deriving results that apply throughout the known universe. Therefore it would be surprising if science did not eventually imply and evince invariant ethical standards. Some of these emerging values may strike us as odd—if, for instance, humans are animals, and differ from other animals only by degrees, then shouldn’t the other animals have some rights?—but the teachings of Jesus seemed odd at first, too, and yet have proved lastingly popular. What might a scientific ethics look like?

Two promisingly invariant precepts were suggested recently by the geneticist Sydney Brenner, who when asked by a student at the Salk Institute what commandments should govern the behavior of scientists, replied, “To tell the truth,” and, “To stand up for all humanity.”

People everywhere wish for a better world—a more peaceful and prosperous world, where their children can live healthy, happy lives—and they have long sought the right intellectual tools with which to pursue this goal.

Religion works best when it emphasizes common decency, philosophy when stressing our ignorance, art when exposing us to visions larger than ourselves, history by drawing lessons from the past—but the most effective tools are liberalism and science. They may on occasion lead to harmful results, as may anything else: You can poison a prophet with a Girl Scout cookie.

But science and liberalism have an unequaled capacity for doing good—for reducing cruel ignorance and villainous certitude, encouraging freedom and effective government, promoting human rights, putting food in the mouths of the hungry and attainable prospects in their future. If we keep our heads, use our heads, nourish learning, tend the fires of freedom, and treat one another with justice and compassion, our descendants may say of us that we had the vision to do science, and the courage to live by liberty.


I’ve selected and taken the above passages from Timothy Ferris’s 2010 book, The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature, Chapter 12, ONE WORLD.
Timothy Ferris, born August 29, 1944, is an American science writer and the best-selling author of twelve books, including The Science of Liberty (2010), Coming of Age in the Milky Way (1988),  and The Whole Shebang: A State-of-the-Universe(s) Report (1997).


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s