US collaboration with authoritarian regimes could change under a Joe Biden administration. Photo: AFP

“We choose truth over facts,” said former vice-president Joseph Biden, in the most profound statement of this or any recent US presidential campaign. Whether or not one agrees with him, he stated a fundamental principle of the modern left, as articulated originally in their founding document.

In 1754, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in his Discourse on the Origin and Basis of Inequality Among Men (the “Second Discourse”) wrote at the outset, “Let us begin, therefore, by laying aside facts, for they do not affect the question.” Rousseau wanted to get at the truth, and the facts did not matter. His position was opposite to that of modern science, which had become the dominant form of knowledge after the publication of Isaac Newton’s Principia in 1687. Feelings mattered more than data in forming Rousseau’s understanding. It was not reason and observation that emerged from the Enlightenment as the dominant force in human affairs; rather, it was feeling, and Rousseau was, and remains, the greatest proponent of feeling.

Have you ever asked yourself why, when talking with a carpenter, mechanic or farmer, the conversation is more grounded than when listening to a politician or academic? The brakes on your car are vibrating and your mechanic tells you that you need new rotors. His explanation is empirically based and exhibits knowledge of his trade. On the other hand, a politician is asked about the large number of murders in the city, and he responds with some grand sociological theory that lacks any solid connection to the facts on the ground.

The mechanic’s understanding is tied to the physical world, how things actually work. He understands how the force on the brake pedal is transferred to the master cylinder and then via the hydraulic fluid to the calipers, whose pistons press the pads on to the rotors to stop the wheels. The politician’s understanding arises from filtering the complexity of the world through some simplifying and distorting ideology. The ideology lifts his understanding to a higher, abstract level, from where those on the farm or in the gas station appear backward. We are confronted here by the objective, the world of the barn and grease pit, where Nature’s idiosyncrasies are ever-present, versus the subjective, the pristine world of thought, where all is clear and distinct.

The fundamental conflict was articulated at the dawn of modern science when, in 1620, Francis Bacon published his Novum Organum, the seminal work in the philosophy of the experimental method. Bacon was keenly aware that many humans were not naturally oriented towards objectivity. They suffer from idols of the mind that impede objectivity. Were farmers to suffer from these idols, they would starve, but academics need not worry. They are fed by farmers, their cars are maintained by mechanics, and their houses are built by carpenters. They can let their reason dance to any tune they wish. Bacon characterizes them thus: “Reasoners resemble spiders, who make cobwebs out of their own substance.”

Today we especially suffer from the idol of the theater. Bacon writes, “And in the plays of this philosophical theater you may observe the same thing which is found in the theater of the poets, that stories invented for the stage are more compact and elegant, and more as one would wish them to be, than true stories out of history.” This is the idol of ideology, and today it dominates our governing institutions, media, and universities.

An ideology is a story that appeals to the believer. It is a system of ideas that cannot be refuted by observation and which serve as dogma governing one’s beliefs, regardless of their empirical or historical facticity. An age of ideology is an age of subjective beliefs about the world that need not be supported by facts, whose justification is the good feeling given to the believer, and whose supportive argument is power.

Ideologies are “compact and elegant.” They describe grand visions with simplicity. They appeal to human desire, and often to resentment. When dogma contradict empirical observations, the observations are rejected, not the dogma. There is no limit to this rejection. If the contradictory observations are people, then they may be rejected, and sent to the gulag.

Modern science is at a huge disadvantage when standing against ideology. While science requires mathematical formulation, careful experiments, and rigorous validation, ideology only requires casuistry, invective, and violence

Modern science rejects the idol of the theater. Beliefs pertaining to observed behavior must be consistent with those observations. The basic scientific epistemology holds that a theory constitutes scientific knowledge only if predictions of future observations based on the theory are concordant with actual observations. Thinking organizes the facts into ideas, but reason is not the arbiter of truth because reason is a sword that can be wielded on behalf of desire. Validation via prediction is the sole criterion of scientific belief.

Modern science is at a huge disadvantage when standing against ideology. While science requires mathematical formulation, careful experiments, and rigorous validation, ideology only requires casuistry, invective, and violence. Science requires an intellect developed through years of study; ideology appeals only to passion. Compare the desire for scientific knowledge with the desire for sex, power or wealth. Science may enhance life, but it is only understood by the few, and the species survived for a long time without it.

At least as important, science cannot provide meaning to life; dogma can. One can march under the banner of socialism, passionately aiming to create some future utopia, and thereby close his eyes to the abyss of nothingness before him. The moral order is defined simply: an action is “good” if it enhances the march of history towards the teleology of universal human equality, and it is “bad” if it impedes that march. The ends justify the means, no matter the unreality of the end, and no matter the carnage perpetrated. The Russian philosopher Nicholas Berdyaev has written, “Our neighbor is more precious than an abstract notion, any human life and person is worth more here and now than some future bettering of society.”

Joe Biden has raised the fundamental issue of modernity: What should be the ground of knowledge? He argues for the subjective (feelings) over the objective (facts). He is a man of the left, and his Rousseauian thinking is in line with much of modern philosophy. Indeed, Immanuel Kant, the greatest epistemologist of all (apologies to Platonists), had a portrait of Rousseau on his study wall, and referred to Rousseau as “the Newton of the moral universe.” Since the former vice-president is 76 years old and attended the university when its mission included the education of the young, it is likely that he has read Rousseau.

It would be a shame if Biden’s opening to a profound issue is unmindfully dismissed. He has given the political class the opportunity to engage on what may be the key issue affecting America’s future. I am not optimistic that they will follow his lead and venture into the profound.

Edward R Dougherty

Edward Dougherty is distinguished professor of engineering at Texas A&M University.

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