Open on the New Mexican desert. A fresh mushroom cloud dissipates in the distance.
Cut to a youngish, haggard J. Robert Oppenheimer is mumbling about the Trinity Test. It's July 16, 1945 and he looks like he hasn't slept for days. Maybe he's drunk. There's terrible remorse in his eyes and he quotes the Bhagavad Gita. "I am become death, destroyer of worlds." He will spend the rest of his life trying to undo what happened here, at great personal cost. He will be called a Communist and be blacklisted for speaking out for nonproliferation.
Star wipe to last Saturday when thousands of secular humanists marched for the largely ambiguous cause of “science”. The march was mostly in response to the Trump administration’s proposed budget cuts of scientific research programs and the administration's general antipathy towards facts as a whole.
We live in a time when facts and reason seem to have less and less bearing on our culture. Climate change is being denied en masse, flat earth theory is coming back, and people listen to Gwyneth Paltrow for health advice, which includes paying $70 for a rock to put in your vagina. The state of discourse is dire indeed.
In response, the veneration of science has arisen among many liberals as the singular appeal to reason. And science is an invaluable tool for many of the major issues of the day. But here’s the problem: science does nothing to address the ideological problems we face culturally. It is merely a method of evaluating data. Luckily, we’re given a tool to address those problems and it invented the scientific method. It’s called philosophy, and it’s pretty fucking rad, y’all.
Remember when Jeff Goldblum said that infinitely quotable line in Jurassic Park? “...your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn't stop to think if they should.” The could is science. The should is philosophy. Whenever discussions on science veer into ethics, like say in the biogenetics field, at that moment we’re talking philosophy. Philosophy, of course, is not limited to this, but this is part of its function.
Let’s look at climate change, as it was one of the most cited issues at the Science March. How did climate change happen? Scientific and technical innovations, starting in the 18th century, fueled by capitalist frenzied production, produced a series of industrial and technological revolutions that emitted obscene amounts of carbon and other greenhouse pollutants into the atmosphere over centuries.
Philosophy said as early as the 1840’s, “Hey, guys, maybe unlimited commodification and consumption isn’t such a good idea.”
In response, scientists said, “Sit the fuck down and shut up, hippie. I’m working on inventing a lung-killing machine that runs on whale fat and endangered puppies.”
The point being that science unto itself bears no inherent qualities of moral or ethical predisposition. It compiles premises and reports on the probability of effects. Philosophy utilizes all available information to grant humanity broader perspective. It comes from the greek roots philo (love) and sophia (knowledge). Philosophy literally means “love of knowledge”.
For many of you dear readers, this is super obvious. But lately in the scientific community there has been an anti-philosophy rhetoric surfacing. Pop science deities Bill Nye, Neil Degrasse-Tyson, and Richard Dawkins have all spoken derisively of the field in recent years. A statement that is now recanted by Bill Nye shows how shockingly little he knew about philosophy before denouncing it.
Isn’t a major critique these science scions make against, say, conservative evangelists that their minds are made up about a subject before observing the information? A philosophy professor took the time to dissect the Science Guy’s muddled word soup here so I don’t have to. Bill Nye read that article and now he’s really enjoying philosophy, which is awesome.
The cool part about scientists is a lot of them are overjoyed to be proven wrong. And right now a lot of them are like kids refusing to try ice cream for the first time. However, once they actually bite into philosophy, they’re going to be hooked for life.
The March for Science website states plainly “On April 22, 2017, WE MARCHED. NOW WE ACT.” I see these calls for action all the time. As soon as the day after the presidential election, Democrats were calling for action. But is action the first impulse we should have? On what should we act? The same failed policies and rhetoric and infrastructure which lost the election? So far none of the token ecological gestures of recycling and biking more have curbed our march to ecological ruin. Why do we insist on acting in ways that don't work?
The philosopher Slavoj Zizek commented on action ecology:
Does the predominant ecological discourse not address us as a priori guilty, indebted to mother nature, under the constant pressure of the ecological superego-agency which addresses us in our individuality: “What did you do today to repay your debt to nature? Did you put all newspapers into a proper recycle bin? And all the bottles of beer or cans of Coke? Did you use your car where you could have used a bike or some means of public transport? Did you use air conditioning instead of just opening wide the windows?” The ideological stakes of such individualization are easily discernible: I get lost in my own self-examination instead of raising much more pertinent global questions about our entire industrial civilization.
We are so often urged and guilted into action, we are not given time to consider whether the prescribed action is truly worth acting, or if our efforts could instead be channeled towards a more fruitful direction.
I heard about this guy who wanted to bike down to see his family in China. The trip was slated to take 30 days. However, he got bad directions and ended up biking some 200 miles in the wrong direction.
This biker acted. Nobody can say he didn’t act. But after those 200-400 extra miles biked, do you think he was happy for that action regardless of the consequence, or do you think he was cursing himself for not reading his map better and planning more carefully? Do you think J. Robert Oppenheimer and the rest of the Manhattan Project wish they'd asked more questions about how their work would be used?
We are at a critical juncture in history. A whole bunch of old ideas and action plans are proving themselves useless or actively harmful. It’s time to go back to the drawing board and restructure all of this. Our dialectics require new syntheses.
Some folks will tell you that we’re at the end of history--all the best ideas have already been thought, and the structure of our world is not ours to change. They will tell you that even modest changes to the economic system or the social order are completely unrealistic. They will call your degree junk unless it can be exploited by Capital. They will tell you Philosophy began with Plato and ended with Rousseau. They will call you an idealist or a reactionary if you dare contradict them. And coincidentally enough, these are usually the same folks telling you to act immediately and never mind the rationale.
You don’t have to listen to these people. You are allowed to stop your action for a minute to think. Philosophy gives you that right. You can stop. You can learn. You can think. You can then act in a manner that more resembles your learning.