Friday, August 15, 2008

Science and human rights

This is one of the best articles I have every read, it is not merely good, it is magnificent. Excerpts below, however please read the whole thing.

...As Alan Cromer put it in his book Uncommon Sense: the Heretical Nature of Science: "All nonscientific systems of thought accept intuition, or personal insight, as a valid source of ultimate knowledge. Indeed, the egocentric belief that we can have direct, intuitive knowledge of the external world is inherent in the human condition. Science, on the other hand, is the rejection of this belief, and its replacement with the idea that knowledge of the external world can only come from objective investigation - that is, by methods accessible to all."


What truly set Greece apart from other cultures was the respect granted the debater. Argumentative and logical skills were put on the same footing as courage and bravery in battle, and this factor stood out among ancient societies. "A debate is a competition of minds, in which contestants must counter one another with arguments designed to persuade their peers. The key words are competition, argument, persuasion, peers - all aspects of what we mean by objectivity, and, ultimately, science."(Cromer)

In science, as in debate, dissent must be met by beginning on common ground and carefully leading the critic step by step to a different conclusion - and being willing to do the same thing oneself. We're not searching for a final higher Authority above humanity, but a provisional common Consensus among equals. As Daniel Dennet might say, we're building cranes, not seeking skyhooks.


Under the theory of authority, rights are seen as privileges or benefits granted from a greater power to a lesser, and they're secured by an ultimate promise of force. It begins with the given that it's the right of the ruler to rule, and the duty of the inferior to obey. ...

The second way to ground an understanding of human rights is to build it up from the bottom, from a rational analysis which engenders a broad negotiated consent. ... Philosophers such as John Locke changed the way we thought, by reasoning from authority to agreement as the basis for law and obligation.


Science and democracy are interdependent, in that they both rely on many of the same assumptions about values and people - and thus entail the same kind of ethics. ...

First and foremost is the "habit of truth." From this comes a commitment to avoid self-deception as much as possible, and a sensitivity to how very easy it is to fool ourselves. We need checks and balances; we cannot test what is true by consulting no one but ourselves, and nothing but our own personal experiences and interpretations. Thus, a society of assumed equals is formed, bound to each other by a mutual obligation - or social contract -- to tell the truth. Peer review is not an afterthought of science, but indispensable.

As John Dewey once pointed out, science and democracy spring from the same soil. They both require open inquiry, diversity, respect for logic and evidence, and an awareness of the tentative nature of all knowledge. Both allow the empowerment and participation of ordinary people within a disciplined process; both test results by consequences, and allow for self-correction. Both rely on arguments capable of convincing their public. And both science and democracy assume a common ground of equality between their members.

Neither system can hold an authority or dogma as "sacred." Therefore, they value originality - which is a departure from most of human history, where originality was not seen as growth or improvement, but a sign of decay, or disobedience from an original perfection. Progress is a relatively new ideal. So is tolerance. Above all, both science and democracy are social systems that respect - and require -- dissent.


Contrary to some of the modern apologists, then, it doesn't seem to me that a real foundation for human rights can be firmly grounded in any belief system ultimately based on mysticism. Benevolence and fairness - certainly - love and kindness - sure - but a system that relies on hierarchal and elitist claims of connection to a sacred authority will end up being closed and divisive as soon as it meets with dissent. It can't place and meet its critics on an even ground, because it's modeled on higher and lower, Enlightened and Unenlightened, parent and child, king and subject, God and Man. And where there is the authority of certainty, there is no need for - or possibility of -- debate.

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