Column on Scientism versus Liberty

Scientism versus Liberty

Tibor R. Machan

The steady but slow march toward liberty has for some time come up against the appeal of scientism. This is the idea that everything in nature behaves just like matter-in-motion. So people, too, move only when moved by stuff around–or within–them, never on their own initiative. (The only but sadly unacknowledged exception is the scientists who advocate scientism.)

No sooner did philosophers make room for the idea of self-causation, the idea that some (few) things in nature are capable of causing their own movement (have the capacity for initiative, to be first causes), social scientists vetoed it since it appeared to them to exclude the scientific method in their study of human behavior. So what took the place of initiative was mechanical motion. We do what we do because we are forced by our environment or hard wiring to do it.

In political morality and political philosophy the implications turned out to be devastating. The very thing that makes people different in the world, namely, their capacity to take the initiative, was slowly eliminated, denied. Never mind that the denying itself exhibits such initiative. That went unnoticed. Instead the urgency to make people subject to the machinations of social science and technology lead many thinkers to declare people just complicated machines, complex billiard balls being pushed around by the cue ball (that’s under the control of the technocrats, no one else).

This urgency also led to the re-empowerment of governments. They use to get their warrant for using power over us mainly from divine authority; but then science took its place. The small gain made in support of human freedom, the liberty of ordinary men and women to govern themselves, was this way quickly undermined (except, of course, for the rulers who claimed for themselves the very liberty they denied to the rest of us).

Sure, for a bit the ideas of human liberty and sovereignty triumphed but not for long. The champions of the nanny state, welfare state, fascism, socialism, communism and such all preferred it if human beings could be regarded as passive and in need of being pushed around. (Just think of the Keynesian stimulus device that is advocated as the way to make us all go to work! Never mind entrepreneurship!)

Is the philosophical base of this reductionism and scientism sound? Well, it is certainly not consistent with the belief that government officials have the capacity to get us all moving. They are people, after all, so how come they have this capacity but the rest of us don’t? So then where is the problem?

Let me drag out once again one of my favorite observations from a psychologist, Professor Bannister of the UK, who noted that “… the psychologist cannot present a picture of man which patently contradicts his behavior in presenting that picture.” In Borger & Cioffi/Bannister, eds., Explanation in the Behavioural Sciences (Cambridge UP, 1970), p. 417. But, unfortunately, noting this is not enough. How would we be capable of being first causes in nature, of taking the initiative and thus for doing without the prompters that statists so eagerly volunteer to be? Wouldn’t that be odd?

The problem lies with the widely embraced but impoverished idea of causation. As if all causes were of the same type, mechanical, the kind witnessed on the pool table. But this makes no room for the kind of causation evident in biology, psychology, economics, ethics and politics where individual entities, in this case people, produce things and make things happen. That kind of causation is every bit as much part of the natural world as is the limited, mechanical kind.

If one remembers that things have the causal capacities their nature makes possible and then also recalls that our causal capacity is based on the kind of consciousness we have, a faculty that doesn’t work automatically but needs to be put into gear by the individual person, then the mystery of sovereignty and initiative can begin to be solved.

We are indeed in need of freedom from interference so we can live our lives productively and creatively. The full story is a pretty complex one but this is the gist of it. Unless it is understood and integrated with our private and public affairs and policies, we are going to have a mismanaged society all around us.

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