A Science of Humanity II: Living Without Purpose, Research Time, 26/10/2015

Continued from last post . . . So there’s something weird about this idea that all natural motion is a strict mechanism. Yes, it’s wrong. But it was still pervasive in the culture, since mechanism – A causes B always and forever – was the dominant way of thinking about scientific law in the 19th century.

Probability was an innovative concept, and really weird to people. Normally, we only see one event at a time, so we think of the bat hitting the ball in a particular way that the ball has this arc. Only when that event repeats itself a few hundred times can its variations become visible. Our perception doesn’t really work that way.*

Leo Strauss and a lot of others who distrust modern
science never understood the revolution in scientific
thinking where we realized that probability and
variation weren't failures of knowledge, but the way
the world really works. Every pitch is unique.
* A note on my sci-fi ideas. Wouldn’t it be interesting if there were some creature that did see every motion unfolding in its actuality and its possibility at once? That would be a weird kind of creature to describe. Very difficult to imagine their thoughts.

Mechanism had an incredibly easy metaphor that anyone could easily turn to. Clocks. Each part of the universe fits together as if it were the gear of a clock, and we each move with complete necessity and rigidity.

Leo Strauss clearly thought about science this way. Because he describes the social sciences as describing humanity in a totally unfree way. The sociologist’s guiding presumption was that every aspect of human society and thought could be explained with mathematical laws of the same necessity as a clock’s gears.

If you want to read more on how the 19th century prominence of the clockwork metaphor messed with people’s attitudes about knowledge, go read The Taming of Chance by Ian Hacking. I don’t really have much more to say that isn’t just a riff on that.

What he pulls out of that image of man as pure mechanism more interesting. The idea that the social sciences all presume that Man is not free.** A science of humanity means complete mechanistic knowledge of humanity. 

** I hate these old-fashioned, patriarcho-normative turns of speech. But it’s good to remind ourselves that they were common currency in intellectual circles not too long ago. It’s also a good marker for a perspective I find obsolete.

Plenty about humanity is mechanistic. But our knowledge
of our mechanisms is power over them.
So if all of reality – even human existence and thought – runs according to a mechanism, then we have no responsibility for our actions. This is true whether we’re individuals or the whole cosmos. 

In philosophy, the individual scale of this idea is the moral argument against determinism. Because a totally mechanistic humanity would make morality nonsense, it can’t be true. 

But Strauss is looking at this conclusion from the cosmos, and seeing more cosmic meaning in it. If everything in the universe is a mechanism, then the universe – humans included – has no purpose. It’s simply a mechanism that runs as it does because there’s no other way to move. 

The universe, being entirely a mechanism, has no inherent purpose. Nothing in it has any inherent purpose either, including humanity. We’re all just mechanisms, after all. So there’s no true right or wrong – no natural human rights, no should, must, or ought. Only mechanistic machinery moving as it must.

Must and is become the same thing.

This is what Strauss believes science does. He’s not the only one. He’s the tail end of a long tradition of people who think scientific knowledge narrows the sphere of morality until it winks out of existence. Again, read The Taming of Chance. But follow his false belief to get to the heart of this argument against the benefit or truth of social science.

Human reason needs some minimal amount of purpose to the universe, something that escapes blind mechanism deceiving itself with delusions of grandeur. Human reason’s moral investigations are about discovering natural human rights, the universal and necessary political rights for human societies. 

If no such rights exist, then all moral thinking is absurd, meaningless, nonsense. Strauss thinks that a science(s) of humanity would narrow the field of human thinking to nothing by making all human thought and action a product of mechanism. Without choice and agency, there can be no rights, no good, and no justice. Only stuff that happens.

But that’s not the only reason why Strauss hates the social sciences. And so it’s not the only reason floating around modern conservative politics why sociology has become something you commit like a crime.

There’s also the matter of history. . . . To Be Continued.

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