Science and the Emancipation of Humankind

Lorenzo Lazzerini Ospri

The claim that science is an inherently amoral and thus apolitical enterprise has been repeated so often that it has almost passed unquestioned into the common wisdom of our time. Is science merely one more tool at the disposal of economic players responsible for social injustice? Far from it. The truth, as I will show, is that science and the political Left (properly defined) are the twin heirs of a common intellectual tradition; they rest on the same assumptions about the nature of knowledge and the world and have been pitted throughout their existences against the same philosophical foes while battling for people’s hearts and minds.

The Origin of the Left

If error and ignorance have forged the chains of peoples, and if prejudice perpetuates those chains, it is science, reason and truth which will one day be able to break them.

—Baron d’Holbach

Common definitions of the Left currently in vogue comprise a variety of heterogeneous schools of thought, from Marxism to social democracy, from anarchism to the bland “liberal” politics of the U.S. Democratic Party. Here, I propose that the fundamental nature of the Left, shared at its core with that of science, is revolt. The Left has mounted a metaphysical insurrection against the sacred in society, just as science sprang onto the stage of history in rebellion against the sacred in the workings of the universe. As a consequence, for reasons we will soon see, the Left can be coherently identified with only a great intellectual movement—the first beacon of light inaugurating the struggles of modernity—that began a couple of centuries ago and persists today, known as the Radical Enlightenment. D’Holbach and Diderot, and Bayle and Spinoza before them, were its early prophets and the true forefathers of the egalitarian and democratic ethos that must denote what Progressive politics is today. At its core is the rejection of a state of affairs in society that is recognized as illegitimate. When humanity, educated and gradually enlightened about its rights, awakens to the realization of how sharply socioeconomic relations offend newfound human dignity, revolt becomes inevitable—its goal the emancipation of fellow humans from injustice and oppression. This is a kind of outrage that can unfold only through sacrilege, for, in a world of sacred order, the illegitimacy of tradition is literally inconceivable. This is also why the emergence of the Left is quintessentially a Western development (despite the validity of its lessons being universal), and why it was science that supplied its indispensable requisite: the banishment of the divine from the world.

The backdrop for the “revolution of the minds” that gave birth to the Left was eighteenth-century Europe. There as everywhere else, the vast majority of people, whether peasant farmers or city laborers, lived their lives in wretched poverty, their labor arrogantly exploited for the opulence of a privileged few. The “1 percent” of those days were aristocrats and merchants, along with an embryonic capitalist class that was already coalescing in those wild early days of industrialization.

Social hierarchy was upheld not only through the force of arms, by mercenaries and professional armies. There was then, as there is now, a far more effective “police of the spirit,” a propaganda corps made up of the clergymen of all confessions, who made a point of preaching at every step that the rigid ranks of life were the work and will of the Creator, and that it was the sacred duty of the underclass, as the Bible says, to “obey in everything those who are your earthly masters, not by way of eye-service, as people-pleasers, but with sincerity of heart, fearing the Lord” (Col. 3:22).

Religious faith and respect for those in authority, the foundations of tradition, imparted such unshakable legitimacy that countless young men, many of them married with children, were willing to be sent to kill and be killed in remote corners of the world in wars fought for colonial or dynastic interests—that is, for the exclusive benefit of merchants, profiteers, and monarchs. In times of war as well as of peace, there was bigotry and intolerance, persecution and oppression. Independent thinking of any sort was viewed with suspicion and criminally prosecuted if threatening enough to vested interests. Women were considered weak, contemptible creatures, little more than chattel, to be transacted from father to husband when ready for childbearing. Personal conduct was minutely ordained by religious authorities, with waves of hysteria and attendant trials against homosexuals rippling through Europe. Jews were confined to their own communities, where they suffered under the equally tyrannical yoke of rabbinical authority.

All was justified and endured in the name of God and tradition.

Such had been the state of humanity in virtually every society since the invention of agriculture. But while sporadic acts of defiance driven by hunger and desperation had been fairly common throughout history, from Roman bagaudae to the peasant uprisings of ancient China, they had never been the outcome of a newly discovered awareness (of a shared humanity, of deep injustice), and so they never left lasting changes. They were bound each time to devolve into acts of brigandage, mere matters of public disorder inevitably destined to meet their ends at the edge of a sword. The basic legitimacy of the social order, its hallowed foundations in the minds of even those who took arms against it, could not be questioned in a world where tradition provided all the answers.

What happened for the first time in eighteenth-century Europe was that a small minority of educated “new philosophers” started to attack the intellectual foundations of the old regime. They had reached an understanding of the world that was utterly new to the human mind: materialistic, secular, and naturalistic, the spawn of science, this new worldview was—justly—recognized as socially revolutionary. The writings of these philosophes reveal the mad lucidity with which they laid out their mission, as they saw it: they had to make the world profane in the eyes and hearts of everyone.

Widespread ignorance about the fundamental questions, they averred, was the root cause of all social evils that beset humanity. Wrote d’Holbach: “All error is damaging. It is by being deceived that mankind has made itself unhappy.” Enlighten people on the true nature of the world, by proclaiming science and reason, to turn defiance into revolt—and individual revolt into social revolution—and a new kingdom of liberty and justice will be born on the ashes of old privilege and oppression.

It is important to realize that none of this is obsolete or passé. To the extent that the world today has progressed beyond oppression and exploitation, it is due to the striving, effort, and often personal sacrifice of those early blasphemers and their intellectual scions. The march of progress, however, is far from over. The first “general revolution” (what we now call the American and French revolutions) failed to bring about a perfect society. In fact, we are today only marginally better off than a few centuries ago in terms of social justice (though matters have arguably been deteriorating since the 1980s).

The struggle continues. And it remains a crucial responsibility to explain how and why exactly science is at heart a subversive ideology so central to attaining a better world, not just in terms of material comfort but “with liberty and justice for all.”

It just so happens that issues as concrete as not having enough money to buy your next meal while Wall Street feasts on caviar boil down (or up) to apparently lofty metaphysics.

Matter and Soul

A common refrain that is often repeated of late in polite conversation is that science and religion are supposed to be “non-overlapping magisteria,” that is, domains of knowledge having nothing to say about each other. Yet clearly this is nonsense.

Not only does religion rest its moral prescriptions on statements of facts about the world that are scientific claims (Did Moses receive the tablets of the covenant from God on Mount Sinai or not? Did Jesus rise from the dead or not?), but the very founding axiom of science—the conviction that nature is objective, that there are only efficient causes—is outrightly incompatible with religion’s postulate that final causes direct history and the world.

This goes even beyond the simple problem of theodicy. You know the recitation: there is obvious evil in the world; ergo, if a god exists, it is either not benevolent or not omnipotent. While this is a perfectly valid confutation of the existence of an all-powerful benign deity, it shows only that religion contravenes logic. Science goes a step further. Science assumes that everything happening in the world has only natural, material causes.

Suppose that indeed there is no evil in the world. Imagine, for instance, that only would-be serial killers contracted cancer, invariably dropping dead before they could commit their crimes. God would then pose no more problem for logic but would still be denied by science.

Science would have to assume (without evidence, before any empirical datum) that whatever neuropsychiatric anomaly causes murderous impulses must share a common etiology with cancer development and that in turn could be reduced to molecular events, nothing but blind chance and hard necessity. I repeat: this is not an empirical truth, it is a choice that a person is making in accepting the scientific method—a choice plainly incompatible with the religious worldview.

More realistically, since there is plenty of undisturbed evil in the world, this very argument was invoked by the radical Enlighteners more than a century before Darwin to refute the so-called “argument from design”: there is the appearance of design in nature, ergo there is a designer. This argument was convincing enough for Voltaire to rest his deistic faith entirely on it. The radicals, by contrast, countered that the appearance of final causes must be just that—an appearance—and that science, if its founding assumptions are true, would one day be able to explain design by a naturalistic mechanism. They had, in fact, predicted evolutionism.

Again, this only demonstrates that religion and science are incompatible; there is no empirical probe, no observation in the shimmering mirrors of phenomena, to conclusively settle the question of which system is the valid one.

The primordial choice one is required to make, the one between finalism and naturalism—that is a moral choice, and one with vast political implications.

God Wills It

If finalism is true, if Providence is guiding human history toward a preordained end, then the general order of society, and specifically its traditions and hierarchy, must be valid. Social injustice is either the least that it can possibly be or actually required by God’s mysterious plans and therefore not morally objectionable. Conservatism of rank and privilege, or minor reform, must be the way forward.

As Locke pointed out, if men have souls, they can be spiritually equal—equal in the eyes of God—even while they are ruthlessly exploited in the material world. Thus, true equality, the only one that really matters sub specie aeternitatis, is divorced from any real-world moral obligations, and the grand banquet of exploitation may go on undisturbed. Outright slavery was justified this way.

Conversely, if naturalism is true and chance and necessity account for everything, society’s present order can be outrageously wrong. Without a heaven awaiting humans to compensate them for all the wrongs and abuses suffered in life, drastic redress on this plane becomes imperative. Tradition loses all its claims to legitimacy, and reason alone must guide human affairs. Aristocracy (no matter whether of birth or wealth) is laid bare as morally repugnant. The first Leftists on the scene of the world, the radical Enlighteners, determined that society, now without gods or transcendent masters, should be organized according to rational justice, which in its turn leads to three guiding principles.

1. Equality. As everyone is equally endowed with reason, basic fairness and reciprocity dictate that all should have equal say in matters of public interest. This does not imply a leveling of society. Indeed, since not everyone contributes equally to the common good because of differences in talents, circumstances, and abilities, fairness requires merit to be rewarded. What is of the essence is social equality: the overthrow of hierarchies, the application of rights and duties equally to all citizens, and the elimination of extreme inequality of wealth. The last point was deemed, for reasons we will see soon, as essential to the survival of a self-governing republic as ensuring to reward merit.*

2. Secularism. A democracy can function only through rational public debate (that is, debate that is accessible to all, no matter one’s private beliefs); theocracy, as any other expression of will-to-power, is incompatible with it. “God wills it” is the peremptory cry that shuts down rational debate—and democracy with it. The only public egress of religion needs to be limited to allowing worship (to the extent that that does not infringe on the rights of others).

3. Individual freedom. The right and duty to exercise one’s reason on all matters in the context of an egalitarian society must be guaranteed by the Republic beyond the reach of any passing majority to curtail. Individual liberty is first and foremost the liberty to dissent.

A leftist political agenda today is one devoted to realizing fully this ideal of radical democracy. It runs counter to still-widespread superstitions, obsolete moral systems, and powerful entrenched interests, but if the French revolutionaries could do it in the teeth of the ancien régime’s fiery backlash, and if (most) World War II partisans could draw their afflatus from it for fighting the Nazis, we of all people should not shirk from perseverance.

Constant revolt inevitably follows in the shadow of naturalism, and its rewards are worth the unpleasantness of the struggle.

Even today—after the defeat of Nazism, the supreme counter-enlightenment—a true democracy still does not exist anywhere in the world. Its three simple requirements of equality, secularism, and individual freedom are anything but simple to realize. The straightforward principle of “one person = one vote” has demanding implications: citizens must be free from violence and intimidation (otherwise the one with the most bullets rules) and from corruption (lest the sleaziest prevail). Finally, and most important for today’s Western society, citizens must be free from need (thinking through issues and candidates on the ballot is impossible if you are desperate to eke out a meal) and from ignorance and manipulation, which requires not only a truly free press (as in “free from concentrated media ownership”) but also a free public education to teach people to think critically. These last two points are so crucial that a strongly redistributive welfare state designed to root out extreme wealth inequality becomes paramount; likewise, citizens should be required to have a lifelong continuing education beyond their school years to deepen their awareness of the facts and their own interests. Being a member of a self-governing republic is neither simple nor convenient.

If science and reason have freed us from dogmas and the scourge of religion, they have also made us autos-nomos: the moral law is not imposed by authority or revelation, yet at
the same time it becomes the responsibility of everyone to reason out and give the law (universal and equal for all) to ourselves. The carefree subjection of the slave is replaced with the grave liberty of the citizen. “The emergence of people from their state of self-incurred nonage” is no easy task.

Science and the Right

In conclusion, if the Left, according to its most coherent definition, is whatever political force strives to bring to full fruition a radical egalitarian democracy, the Right is the constellation of forces actively opposed to that goal. The features all of those reactionary forces share include anti-intellectualism, veneration of authority, and fateful attraction to a finalistic ideology. I am going to consider mainly the modern religious Right, with only a few words about Nazism and Marxism-Leninism.

The Power of Emancipation

The power of the Enlightenment’s emancipation of radical philosophy is hard to overstate. Consider: eighteenth-century France was as repressive and unequal a society as any other at that time. By 1793, after a thirty-year deluge of radical tracts advocating reason and naturalism, the Revolution had become a reality. Slavery was abolished, Jews were emancipated, homosexuality was decriminalized; the immemorial privileges of the clergy were wiped out and women were allowed divorce. The National Assembly came very close to granting women suffrage. The right of the people to work, to education, and to a decent life was enshrined in law and placed on a par with property rights. Robespierre’s most enduring crime is having sullied the historical memory of the Revolution. Yet it is important to understand that his rule was a short and fundamentally alien experience during the Revolution. He imposed a fanatical ideology that was implacably hostile to the Enlightenment: “Cold reason” was constantly vilified, to the exaltation of the general will and sentiments of the “common people.” Enlightenment philosophers were deliberately targeted during the Terror. Diderot, with usual prescience, had foretold: “Exaggerating his principles, Rousseau’s disciples will be nothing but madmen” (“Réfutation de l’ouvrage d’Helvétius intitulé l’Homme“).

—Lorenzo Lazzerini Ospri

The religious Right is the most straightforward case: it is plainly the same old same old, a perpetuation of the original reaction against the “new philosophy” when it first spread in the 1700s, only marginally tamed in the West by two and a half centuries of enlightened polemic. Its votaries still maintain that faith and tradition are the legitimate rulers of human existence. Their involvement in the politics of nominally democratic Western states is fraught with deliberate equivocations: their value system is not compatible with democracy, yet its political legitimacy is never even questioned. This is partly because relatively few people are made aware of the moral-philosophical underpinning of modern liberal democracy: declaring the United States a Christian nation, for instance, is not met with the roar of laughter it deserves but deemed a respectable opinion. The other, possibly more important, reason is the usefulness of this ideology to people in positions of power eager to maintain their privileges (precisely the same role it played for the ancien régime). The United States is the prototypical example, with its plutocrats bankrolling an army of evangelical fanatics and media hacks beguiling voters in Kansas to back tax cuts, union-busting, and deregulation in order to be saved from gay marriage. Their contempt for science manifests most clearly in their rearguard action against Darwinism. But the same authoritarian tendency makes them distrust the science of global warming as well, or in fact whatever particular discipline happens to threaten the interests of their trusted leaders. Science itself, with its free-thinking, authority- and faith-negating ethos, is but grudgingly tolerated, and that only because of its lucrative technological by-products. When inconvenient, science is denied, stripped of funding, or outrightly politically suppressed (think here of all the “politicization of science” scandals during the George W. Bush administration).

Again, things come down to d’Holbach’s warning that truth is the lethal enemy of privilege and injustice.

Nazism and Marxism, somewhat counterintuitively, have plenty in common with each other and with traditional religions. They vary in their stated motivation for subjugating humanity, “philanthropy” in the latter case, and “a taste for the superhuman” (as Camus expressed it) in the former. But first and foremost, they both profess that human history tends toward an ultimate telos: any means is legitimate on the path to it; any scientific fact is to be discarded that stands in the way of it. The Soviet Union did this with genetics, decreeing it an idealist doctrine (the distinction between gene and phenotype reflecting that between noumenon and phenomenon); so it was at odds with Marxism and so perforce false. Lysenkoism was conjured up as the orthodox replacement.

During its relatively brief (yet all too long) existence, Nazi Germany sought to impose its system of values—racial and social hierarchy—on all aspects of life. Science had to undergo Gleichschaltung like everything else. “German Physics” and “German Mathematics” reflected the Nazis’ determination to find truth by banishing “Jewish influence,” while Ahnenerbe was their new archaeology, tasked with finding the inevitable proof of the primordial supremacy of the Aryan race over the ancient world.

In sum, the historical evidence as well as theoretical considerations should make it perfectly clear that the search for truth is not a morally or politically neutral endeavor. The social order known as radical democracy, born out of naturalism’s original moral value, follows in the footsteps of science—not by coincidence—in rejecting the spurious edifice of dogmas and authority. Inexorably it applies the lesson that nothing should be shielded from criticism, no ambitious hypocrite allowed resort to the mask of faith to evade the scrutiny of reason, no injustice or privilege brooked under the shroud of ignorance. And so must we continue the fight to make liberty, equality, and fraternity more than just the hypocritical pieties they have become under our modern regimes.


* Certain empirical research appears further to support these conclusions. For instance, game theory suggests that cooperation and reciprocity are demonstrably better evolutionary strategies than violence and exploitation. Research in experimental psychology points to extreme wealth as a factor associated with decreased ability to experience empathy, and increased unethical behavior.

Lorenzo Lazzerini Ospri was a student of philosophy before he turned his focus to science. He is currently a neuroscience PhD candidate at Johns Hopkins University, where his research focuses on the effects of light on the brain.

Lorenzo Lazzerini Ospri

Lorenzo Lazzerini Ospri is currently a neuroscience PhD candidate at Johns Hopkins University, where his research focuses on the effects of light on the brain. He has a background in philosophy.

The historical evidence as well as theoretical considerations should make it perfectly clear that the search for truth is not a morally or politically neutral endeavor.

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