The Magazine


The uses and abuses of science in political life.

Dec 8, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 12 • By STEVEN J. LENZNER
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Imagining the Future
Science and American Democracy
by Yuval Levin
Encounter, 145 pp., $21.95


Among the many authorities we adhere to today, only science rivals that of equality. This is not thought to be a problem because, as everyone knows, science is morally and politically neutral. Or so we are informed by luminaries ranging from Albert Einstein to George W. Bush. As such, science cannot come into conflict with our democracy. But is science as innocent as scientists claim?

Science, the argument goes, offers knowledge of the inner workings of nature that bestows upon us the power to alter the physical and material conditions under which we live. Yet that knowledge does not come with an instruction manual. Whether science is used for good ends or bad-in the service, for example, of freedom or of tyranny-is beyond its purview. Science stands outside of, indeed above, politics.

Henceforth, all who read Yuval Levin's Imagining the Future will refrain from availing themselves of this plausible, but deeply misleading, piece of conventional wisdom. Levin has a deep understanding of American political life, but he also has an expert knowledge of political philosophy, and puts both to good use in this important and enlightening book.

Levin shows that the Joe Friday ideal of science-"Just the facts, ma'am"-overlooks the woods for the trees. It ignores the reality that science, as we take it for granted, is a relatively new phenomenon in human history and was brought about by men who saw science and healthy politics as inextricably linked. Modern science came into being in the 17th century through the thought and action of a handful of great thinkers, foremost among them Francis Bacon and René Descartes. They successfully sought to change the character of scientific activity for distinctively human and political ends.

Ancient science was contemplative: It sought to understand nature, but was content to let it run its course. The scientific project founded by Bacon and Descartes saw nature as hostile to human prosperity, as penurious and arbitrary. Far from being a source of guidance on how to live, nature was something to be overcome or conquered. Science was, in Bacon's famous phrase, to be put in the service of "the relief of man's estate." A new order was to emerge in which science would progressively conquer poverty and disease and hold out the prospect of the indefinite extension of human life. Empirical science was to be the means of political reformation. Levin nicely sums up the less sober aspirations born of the modern scientific project in this way:

From the very beginning, the modern worldview has given rise to peculiar utopianisms of various stripes, all grounded in the dream of overcoming nature and living, free of necessity and fear, able to meet every one of our needs and our whims, and able, most especially, to live indefinitely in good health. This brand of utopianism generally begins in a benign libertarianism, though at times it has ended in political extremism, if not the guillotine.

We're far from the guillotine, but you only have to think about the relative capacities of smoking, on the one hand, and blasphemy, on the other, to generate indignation and see precisely to what extent this peculiarly modern moralism has taken hold.

To be sure, Levin is not the first to observe the hidden political foundations and aims of modern science, but you would be hard pressed to find a treatment that is equally accessible, engaging, and precise. What is new here is the manner in which he uses his scholarly knowledge to illumine the character of our contemporary (and future) political life.

The problem, as Levin diagnoses it, is that our constitutional order depends upon modern science and its blessings, yet science also works as a subtle moral corrosive that threatens to undermine the moral judgment essential to a healthy liberal democracy:

In our time, we are perhaps less inclined to recognize science as a set of ideas with aspirations to universality precisely because the scientific enterprise has been so successful. But the authority we cede to science, both as the servant of health and as the master of knowledge, weakens our allegiance to those other sources of wisdom so crucial to our self-understanding and self-government. Those other sources serve to ground our moral judgment, while science avoids or flattens moral questions, since it cannot answer them and rarely needs to ask them. .  .  . For all its power, science risks leaving us morally impotent.