I have written elsewhere that technology is a two-edged sword that can be used for either good or evil. For example, technology has created many powerful weapons that it would be best if they were never used. Similarly, something like electronic money sounds good until you realize that it will all but force homeless people to starve as they will no longer be able to beg for cash.
As with its implementation-technology-there is a dark side to reason itself that few recognize. It is as insidious as a snake and has been slowly growing stronger over the past several centuries. It concerns our psychological assessment of reason and the place we give it in our intellectual and political lives.
First, let us begin with the Rule of Reason in the political domain. In this wonderful world of ours, government is the authority. They make the laws.
There has always been a practical necessity for laws. Anarchy, as a rule, does not work. However, practical necessity is not the sole progenitor of laws. In ancient and medieval times religion had a powerful influence. Through the centuries, though, this influence has waned. Some view this development in a good light, others in a bad light. In more modern times, science has moved to the fore. I doubt there is a major government left on earth that does not consider the opinions of science experts before making important decisions. Indeed, science has become society’s intellectual authority.
In their private lives, individuals must learn to strike a balance between religion and science. Increasingly more and more individuals are abandoning religion entirely and turning to science as the ultimate authority on everything. In many intellectual circles, religion is typically disregarded as fantasy, an impotent relic of the past. Despite its many shortcomings, though, religion has been the source of some of humanity’s noblest ideals: compassion, mercy, brotherly love, and of course, freedom. The promise of freedom has been one of the pillars of our government since its founding. I believe that through much of the 20th century, Western Society established an almost optimal balance between law freedom, science, and religion.
However, as the strength and influence of science grows there is a danger we need to recognize: we may be presented with a stark and difficult choice between science and reason on the one hand and freedom and democracy on the other.
For many years, science and democracy have gone hand in hand. Democracy is about the equality of individuals before the law and the right to have your voice heard, especially regarding decisions that affect your own life. Initially, science seemed to support such a form of government. Our scientific “knowledge” was scant enough that an expert could explain in terms of basic cause and effect, what the likely consequences of a decision would be to almost any reasonably intelligent lay person. Thus, was born, the notion of informed consent. Furthermore, the free exchange of ideas allowed us to continually progress in our “knowledge.” And although this may seem wonderful, it is here that the insidious problem has been slowly been growing. We are becoming slaves to “knowledge,” slaves to “science” and “reason.”
Let me explain.
Once upon a time, it was possible for an exceptionally gifted individual to educate themselves in virtually all the “knowledge” the human race had obtained up to that point. I believe it was around the beginning of the 20th century that that started to change and specialists began to arise, those who were exceptionally skilled in a very limited field of science. Nowadays, our “knowledge” base has become so vast that it is impossible for any individual to be fully versed in its entirety. In fact, I believe by now we have reached the point that it is impossible for a single person to become an expert in something as general as a field of knowledge; he or she must usually settle for a subfield. We are being overwhelmed with information. And if we are not careful, we will become enslaved by it. The human brain can only handle so much.
Let’s assume for the sake of argument that we lived in a true democracy where everything was settled by a group vote. In light of the above, does it truly make sense for an expert in quantum mechanics (physics) to have the same voting rights as an expert in environmental science when it comes to voting on an issue that affects the environment? How long would it be before the physicists’ (and everyone else’s) voting rights were stripped away on issues of that nature? Of course, we live in a Republic where we have reasonably intelligent politicians who rely on the testimony of science experts from various fields to make environmental decisions. Arguably that is a somewhat better scenario as the politicians are, theoretically, supposed to look after the interests of the population. However, look what happened in the recent economic meltdown of 2008-2009. Here the experts painted a particularly grim scenario and urged the politicians to act, perhaps with too much haste, and certainly with little transparency although they promised otherwise. The point here is not whether or not any of the bailouts were needed, but rather the enormous influence the financial experts wielded on our politicians. The United States was founded with the idea of freedom ensconced within our Constitution. This idea was cast to the side because of the urging of then President Bush’s economic advisors. We had a choice between science and freedom and we chose science (if one accepts economics as science-at the very least it should be accepted as a rational discipline). Perhaps, it was necessary (although that is debatable), but I find it disturbing to note that that choice is repeatedly presented to us and almost invariable our choice is the same.
To look at this in a different light, once upon a time, businesses could pretty much do what they want. Now, however, the government can use the intellectual authority of environmental science or other sciences to impose regulations on the businesses. This seems innocuous, or even necessary, at first. However, the more involved and detailed our science becomes, the more and more regulations the governments feel obliged to impose.
The most controversial arguments these days usually revolve around environmental science. For example, global warming a.k.a. climate change has been used as justification for a number of initiatives and laws in our society. For myself, I figure the earth was much hotter during the time of the dinosaurs and much colder during the ice ages, yet life managed to survive. Hence, I’m inclined to think that we have a certain degree of wiggle room and we should be wary of alarmism which can lead to overregulation and the stifling of creativity. For the sake of argument, though, let’s suppose the earth is warming to dangerous levels and it is caused by humanity by virtue of our excessive reliance upon carbon-based fuels. Our other options for energy include: solar, nuclear, wind, geo-thermal, bio-fuels, and perhaps a few other things of which I am unaware.
Suppose the government decrees that we must switch to an alternative, cleaner energy supply. All right, there are two relevant questions to our discussion. First, what can the government force industries to do? Second, and more significantly, what can the government force the individual to do? (And there is also a third, and even more disturbing question, which sums up the problem: what can science force government to do?) Clearly, our society has decided that, to a certain extent, government is allowed to impose standards and regulations on businesses. But individuals? True, there is some obvious need for legislation prohibiting rape and murder, but not all cases are so neat. There comes a point where government legislation seems to fly full in the face of the spirit of freedom ensconced in the Constitution. Can the government force a large family, which clearly requires a larger car, to use on
ly smaller, more energy-efficient cars? Can the government force a poor family to buy a more modernized energy-efficient vehicle instead of their old, yet reliable, gas-guzzling clunker? Both these questions strike to the heart of the matter. The science supports the government’s intrusion into the private lives of the individuals involved. But freedom indicates it should restrain its hand.
I think part of the problem is that we, the human race, fail to fully understand and appreciate the laws of the unintended consequence. Let’s consider the auto industry, again, looking at it in terms of environmental and societal impact. The problem is, of course, the pollution from the cars. Suppose, the government decides to regulate the industry, forcing the car-makers to only make cars of such-and-such environmental integrity. The implementation of such involves adding electronics and computers to squeeze more juice from the car. The result is a cleaner car.
The first unintended result is that cars become radically more complex and require special equipment to be fixed and maintained. Hence, auto-mechanics must be retrained. Plus, the number of individuals who once fixed old cars as a hobby will gradually fade, unless they can afford the special equipment now needed.
The second unintended result is that the understanding of the car moves one more step further away from lay people. Hence, if you break down on the highway, chances are, you will remain broken down. Self-reliance is inhibited.
Third, and most importantly, mechanics (like scientists) become more and more specialized and more dependant on the industry as a whole. If the industry goes down, the mechanic’s skills become obsolete. Or, is it so unimaginable that mechanics will be forced to specialize in one or two car makes and models in the not so distant future? What then happens when the industry cancels that model? Obviously, the mechanic should be able to retrain, but he or she seems to have lost a serious amount of control over his or her life as the decision to cancel a model is made by someone else.
Other examples abound, and not just in issues involving environmental science or even science for that matter. Take, for example, the situation of a doctor who took some creative liberties with the structure of his private practice. He, like many doctors, was fed up with the hassle of insurance companies and paperwork; he just wanted to treat patients, so he did something entrepreneurial and quite clever-he simplified. Instead of charging on a per visit basis, he began charging monthly membership fees. Basically, patients were treated as needed as long as they paid their dues. For a general practitioner, this seemed the perfect solution. Then, the government got involved. They threatened to close him down. Fortunately, his situation came to the attention of news media and the government backed off a little: ultimately, they were satisfied by reclassifying his business as an insurance agency. This forced his rates up a little, but he could remain open.
The point here is that laws, rules, and regulations seem reasonable or at the very least arguable when they are first presented. They may provide some inconvenience, but it is viewed as a minimal evil. However, the next generation grows up accepting them as the norm, and the next wave of minimal inconveniences come into place. Ultimately, I think we seem to be moving closer and closer to the regulation of personal behavior. Consider the following examples, which strike a more personal note:
Cigarette Smoking-once upon a time we could smoke wherever we chose, until we learned it was bad for one’s health. Then, the government started an education program to get us to stop. Then we learned that 2nd hand smoke was bad as well. Laws were passed. Certain buildings were off limits. It’s so ridiculous now, certain campuses are off limits (for the record I don’t smoke).
Flatulent People-Seriously, courtesy of global warming alarmism there have been suggestions to tax the flatulence of farm animals. How long before it becomes a tax on flatulent people?
Fast Food-I’ve already seen on the news people arguing that fast food places should not be allowed within so many yards of a school. Basically, the argument is that the children will pester their parents into bringing them to eat there too often, and we already have an obesity problem. It seems people are hesitant to state that parents should be parents first, friends second.
Lawn care-I’ve already heard ads on the radio indicating that they are thinking about banning gas-powered lawnmowers. Excuse me, that’s personal property! I don’t think the problem is simply carbon based fuels… it’s the fact that there are no other options. One gas-powered lawnmower won’t melt the icecaps. 12 trillion might.
Just out of curiosity, how many laws are there in this country? The answer I’m sure is far too many. And science, or at the very least reason, has become the justification for many of them. The tax code alone is 10’s of thousands of pages long. How many other laws have we passed? We’ve passed so many laws, there is no way any individual could be versed in all of them. Like science, the study of Law has given rise to specialists. I must wonder if we really need all these laws or if there is some way of reducing their number. Perhaps, we should borrow a principle like Ockam’s Razor and apply it to our law books, among other places.
It seems clear to me that we are being slowly, methodically enslaved by laws of our own making, justified by reason (be it science, legal precedent, or simple rational analysis) because we have given it (Reason) absolute intellectual authority. I believe the logical end to this relentless advance of reason is socialism. And the logical end to socialism is totalitarianism. Unfortunately, I am not sure this progression can be stopped.