Can’t Get an Election? Try a Candle!

This year’s Beyond Belief conference is up, and it looks like it’s gonna be a doozy. This year, in honor of another very bitter election season in the midst of a number of medium-sized crises, the cadre of scientists and philosophers have trained their sights on public policy.

For those of you who haven’t stumbled upon this conference yet, here’ s a brief history:

The Beyond Belief Conferences started three years ago in response to the culture wars arising from the new era of jihad, the resurgence in American religiosity, the wars over science in school, and the so-called “New Atheist” movement. Meeting at the Salk Institute, a number of America’s (and Europe’s) top scientists joined in a three day interdisciplinary conference entitled Beyond Belief: Science, Religion, and the Future of Reason. At the conference, it became clear that the split between the antireligious and the generically secular scientists drove as deeply as does the cultural divide between fundamentalists and mainstream believers. However, one thing that seemed unanimous was that the future of the West depends upon a culture-wide renewal of scientific inquiry and thinking.

Year two’s conference was entitled Beyond Belief: Enlightenment 2.0 and focused upon the different kinds of relationships people have with science. It got really interesting as several speakers on economics presented their recent research and different attendees talked about the entrenchment of their own political biases and how it effects the way that they cope with different scientific disciplines.

This year, the conference is entitled Beyond Belief 3: Candles in the Dark in honor of the late Carl Sagan’s final book The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. Specifically, the conference gets its focus this year from the following paragraph from the introduction to Demon-Haunted World:

“Science is more than a body of knowledge; it is a way of thinking. I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time — when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.”

Written in 1996, that quite seems remarkably prescient today – even if Sagan’s views on economics were outdated and somewhat simplistic (an argument for another time), the notion of a technocracy where only an elite knows anything about how the technology works, where the common person is swallowed in superstition, and where all dissent is centered around marginal (and, frankly, stupid) issues like “Should we post the Ten Commandments in our courthouses?” and “Did he have sex with that woman?” and “Why do I have to pay money to see a doctor?” is both chilling and familiar. After all, such issues do distract us from debating issues that might actually effect how we make account of ourselves in terms of preserving and furthering liberty and prosperity, intelligently engaging holy wars without and within, limiting nuclear proliferation, and creating alliances that decrease the incentives for warfare.

I can’t speak yet to how year three is, because I’m about to start watching them this afternoon as they become available on Google Video. However, there are a number of reasons why you should take the time to watch it (as well as the previous two conferences):

1) It is easy to think of the scientific community as an ivory tower free from the concerns of the real world. The truth is far more radical: scientific inquiry has advanced to the point where very few things that we discover fail to have a direct bearing on how day-to-day life unfolds. The reach of this phenomenon is astounding. It also gives the lie to postmodernist claims that scientific knowledge is a fictional construct designed to serve white male power structures.

2) If ever you’ve thought that “scientists say xxx” is a meaningful statement, you need to watch these conferences. These are the best and brightest minds in the English-speaking world, and they disagree violently on a number of important issues. As an exercise in critical thinking, watching the conferences is fabulous, as you sit through lectures, presentations, panel discussions, and sometimes shouting matches, you see how prone even the best among us is to the tug of ideologically-driven magical thinking, and how frightening integrating new discoveries can be. There is very little in the way of consensus science practiced here – the constant call from the audience is “show me the evidence.”

3) On the flip side, all of you who keep hearing about The Secret or What the Bleep Do We Know?or the “Intelligent Design” philosophy (no, it’s not a theory, by admission of its proponents at the Dover Trial – read the transcripts) and think that scientific controversy means that there’s support for your claims, you’d do well to give this a watch too. “Controversy” doesn’t mean “a theory in crisis” any more than “consensus” means “it is proven.” Reality is far subtler, and you won’t get a better baptism by fire than watching scientific conferences where such things are discussed.

4) The best reason I can think of to watch it: You’re curious. You want to learn about the world, but it’s too big and you don’t know where to start. Well, start here. These scientists are witty, intelligent folks, many of them have excellent senses of humor, and very little of what gets discussed is dry. And, dammit, it’s *fun.*

And on the topic of this year’s election, economic meltdown, and other things: as I look out over the blogosphere, I see a lot of party-line thinking. In a world as complicated as ours, under an Republican President AND a Democratic Congress with some of the worst records in history, party-line thinking doesn’t cut it. If you continue to go to your party and your partisan activist groups as your primary source of truth, you’re asking for trouble.

You know how the Intelligent Design folks say “teach the controversy?” Well, if you’re a curious person, or you’re a politically or socially active person, then you damn well better understand the controversies you care about – and that means reading the other guy’s newspapers and blogs. A climate skeptic? You’d better be reading A Global Warming believer? When was the last time you read A bioconservative or a transhumanist? Have you read Kurzweil, Bailey, Fukiyama, and the Report of The President’s Committee on Bioethics? Not every issue has two sides – and some issues have ten sides, but if you’re feeding your brain on only the stuff you find agreeable, you don’t have an informed opinion. So, if you’re of voting age and you have a pet issue, and you can’t articulate the controversy from an opposing point of view (in language that the opposition would find agreeable) then, frankly, you probably don’t understand the issues you care about well enough to vote on them, and we’d all be better off if you stayed home.

You want to be informed and involved? Well, then, have a Candle, and maybe it can help you get an Election. If not, you can still have a lot of fun with the Candle.

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  1. I share your desire to re-focus on the efforts to further liberty and prosperity. You are, however, off base with your remarks about the debate on posting the Ten Commandments in courthouses. The Ten Commandments are an important part of why we have Liberty and Prosperity.

  2. Jesse –

    I fear that your assertion won’t stand up to historical scrutiny. Here’s why, in brief:

    According to the fundamental law of the land, the U.S. Constitution, the government may not meddle in matters of religion (either impinging upon freedom of belief and conscience, nor prescribing practices, doctrines, or through sponsorship of religious institutions – yeah, I know there’s a lot of cheating that goes on with this one, but that’s still the law).

    Therefore, four of the Commandments are, right away, not relevant to governance in this country (no other gods before me, no idols, sabbath day, blasphemy). Three of those four commandments are antithetical to the rest of the Constitution (idols and blasphemy prohibitions are impingements upon freedom of speech, while “no other gods” is an impingement upon freedom of religion). The Sabbath Day commandment is sacramental and not relevant as a matter of law (unconstitutional Blue Laws excepted), although a similar idea was brought into common practice through labor activism in the early 20th century and is with us today (i.e. the weekend).

    Of the remaining six commandments, two are social (honoring parents, not coveting), and one of those two is nonsensical in a capitalist economy (which is not to say that unrestrained greed is a good thing, just that capitalism [as opposed to merchantilism, socialism, and feudalism all of which translate covetousness into theft quite efficiently] is a method of channeling covetousness away from theft and into economic activity). Honoring one’s parents – if the parents were good parents – is a morally laudable thing to do, so long as one bears in mind that the entire notion of independence and liberty is at odds with what “honoring” (which implied obedience and stewardship and economic bondage to the family estate and reputation) meant to the ancient Hebrews. Liberty may respect its elders, but it, by definition, does not pay homage to them simply because they are elders.

    Of the remaining four, one of them doesn’t have a good category for us, because it depends upon notions of slavery that we no longer accept as valid. The commandment against adultery was *not* a prohibition on marital infidelity. It was, rather, a prohibition on a woman having male sexual partners other than her husband. The context of the Levitical and Deuteronomic laws, as well as the rest of the Tanakh, make abundantly clear that men had the freedom to visit prostitutes, to keep mistresses and concubines, and to take other wives, while the women (because of their legal status as property and because of patrilineal inheritance laws) were prohibited from such activities under pain of death. The adultery commandment was intended for men who slept with women who were married to other men, not for men who slept with women whom they were not married to.

    That said, of course, the notion that one should not betray one’s word or vows is a noble and highly moral one. That interpretation of the adultery commandment, however, is one that modern westerners have reprojected onto a text that was saying nothing of the kind (indeed, fidelity to one’s oaths is already covered by the Blasphemy and the Perjury commandments).

    The remaining three commandments are prohibitions on: perjury, theft, and murder. These three notions are pretty foundational to the functioning of a civil society. They are so foundational, in fact, that they can be found in ever written legal code in recorded history – including that of the Aztecs. The first appearance in writing of such laws comes from several hundred years before Moses, in The Code of Hammurabi, and they have arisen independently in all cultures that I’ve ever read of. Of course, the definitions of these three crimes vary – most things that we consider murder were considered “justifiable homocide” or “capital punishment” to the Hebrews, the Romans, the Babylonians, etc.. A lot of actions we would consider theft would, in previous centuries, have been described as “the right of the King.”

    The Ten Commandments *do* contain three commandments that are legally interesting, and a further two-and-a-half that are ethically interesting, but they are not foundational to liberty and prosperity in any meaningful sense. The three foundational tenents of liberal (i.e. liberty-based) democracies are these:
    1) the rulers may rule only by the consent of the governed (the foundational rationale of representative democracy)
    2) all people must be equal in the eyes of the law (the foundational rationale of non-property based civil rights)
    3) one person does not have the right to appropriate the property of another without due process of law. (the foundational rationale for a market economy and private property)

    These three foundational concepts were laid down by John Locke and expanded upon by his philosophical descendants. Some of those descendants were religious in one sense or another, some were not. The one important feature that they *all* shared is their determination to ground their philosophies in the realities of this world and this life, rather than in the dictates of divine actors.

    I’m sure you disagree – please elucidate your position, and let me know what I might have missed.

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