Wednesday, September 29, 2004

The Quasi-Religion of Philosophical Scientism

My title comes from this piece by Wesley J. Smith. Regarding biotechnology, Smith is one of the most astute observers of the day-to-day events and one of the wisest interpreters of their larger philosophical meanings.

Smith claims that arguments for cloning are now being couched in the First Amendment as if cloning is a constitutional right that deserves protection. Apparently, the First Amendment is now being liberally construed by some to include a "right to research," taking it beyond speech to behavior. Scientific experiments are now understood to be forms of advocacy that deserve the same protection as writing or talking. A kind of Roe v. Wade, establishing this fabricated "right to research" seems to be where we are headed.

Smith argues that these movements represent a quasi-religion of philosophical scientism in which advocates of cloning and libertarians are putting their faith. The "right to research" isn't just a process; it is an end providing mankind a chance for salvation. Smith quotes a paper published by the National Science Foundation arguing that "[t]he twenty-first century could end in world peace, universal prosperity, and evolution to a higher level of compassion and accomplishment."

As a rejoinder to this libertarian mysticism, Smith repeats the obvious: that science can do at least as much harm as good and that government must govern it, setting its limits and making sure that it benefits rather than harms. Modern natural science is morally neutral which means at least that it should serve society without dominating it.

I enjoyed Smith's piece so much because it points to the quasi-religious aspects of libertarianism which claims to be atheistic. Libertarians often resemble zealots in the hopes they hold out for science and its potential improvement of the human condition, willfully ignoring the neutrality of science and its potential problems. Libertarianism often claims to be cynical, hard-bitten, and "realistic," and libertarians often present themselves as somewhat angry and impatient. But if you scratch a libertarian, you often don't have to go very deep to find a rather fanatical optimist, persuaded by the supposedly limitless goodness of science and unfettered human inquiry and unable to give government and the limits it sets their due. Libertarians hide their new-age mysticism or religiosity with a veneer of cynicism.


Post a Comment

<< Home