Friday, August 16, 2013

Lewontin - "A Reasonable Skepticism"

Read the full essay.

For almost the entire history of European society since the empire of Charlemagne, the chief institution of social legitimation was the Christian Church. It was by the grace of God that each person had an appointed place in society. Kings ruled Dei gratia. Occasionally divine grace could be conferred on a commoner who was ennobled, and grace could be removed. Grace was removed from King Charles I, as Cromwell noted, and the proof was Charles's severed head. Even the most revolutionary of religious leaders pressed the claims of legitimacy for the sake of order. Martin Luther enjoined his flock to obey their lords, and in his famous sermon on marriage he asserted that justice was made for the sake of peace and not peace for the sake of justice. Peace is the ultimate social good, and justice is important only if it subserves peace.

For an institution to explain the world so as to make the world legitimate, it must possess several features. First, the institution as a whole must appear to derive from sources outside of ordinary human social struggle. It must not seem to be the creation, of political, economic, or social forces, but to descend into society from a supra-human source. Second, the ideas, pronouncements, rules, and results of the institution's activity must have validity and a transcendent truth that goes beyond any possibility of human compromise or human error. Its explanations and pronouncements must seem to be true in an absolute sense and to derive somehow from an absolute source. They must be true for all time and all place. And finally, the institution must have a certain mystical and veiled quality so that its innermost operation is not completely transparent to everyone. It must have an esoteric language, which needs to be explained to the ordinary person by those who are especially knowledgeable and who can intervene between everyday life and mysterious sources of understanding and knowledge.

The Christian Church or indeed any revealed religion fits these requirements perfectly, and so religion has been an ideal institution for legitimating society. If only people with special grace, whether they be priests, pastors, or ordinary citizens, are in direct contact with the divine inspiration through revelations, then we must depend upon them completely for an understanding of what has been divinely decreed.

But this description also fits science and has made it possible for science to replace religion as the chief legitimating force in modem society. Science claims a method that is objective and nonpolitical, true for all time. Scientists truly believe that except for the unwanted intrusions of ignorant politicians, science is above the social fray.

From this perspective, the battle in the US between the religionists and scientismists is over which is the legitimizing institution.