Conservative Colloquium

An Intellectual Forum for All Things Conservative

Conservatism & Science: Why Politics is Not a Science

Posted by Tony Listi on January 1, 2011

Science is conservative in some respects:

  • It generally changes incrementally and gradually as new evidence comes to mind.
  • It tests everything against experience. Results matter, not just theories or intentions.
  • It inherently looks to the past. Past occurences and observations are the foundation of science. Without faith in the past, science could not function.
  • It sees the world as inherently orderly, functioning according to certain reliably consistent laws of nature.

But science is not conservative with respect to the fact that science is fallibilistic. The foundations can and have been uprooted several times. The notion of science as the slow, steady, and conservative accumulation of knowledge was destroyed by a series of revolutions at the biological, cosmic, and atomic levels. Copernicus, Darwin, Einstein, and Heisenberg in partcular were instrumental in proving that science sometimes radically uproots the current paradigm of empirical/scientific knowledge. Strictly speaking, nothing is ever really “settled” in science.

True conservatism does not allow for epistemological revolutions in moral and political philosophy:

Conservatives do not deny the existence of undiscovered truths, but they make a critical assumption, which is that those truths that have already been apprehended are more important to cultivate than those undisclosed ones close to the liberal grasp only in the sense that the fruit was close to Tantalus…. Conservatism is the tacit acknowledgement that all that is finally important in human experience is behind us; that the crucial explorations have been undertaken, and that it is given to man to know what are the great truths that emerged from them. Whatever is to come cannot outweigh the importance to man of what has gone before. (William F. Buckley Jr. in Up from Liberalism)

Marxists and libertarians of almost all varieties think that politics is a science. But it isn’t, strictly speaking.

Conservatism is a more humane political philosophy because it recognizes the reality of human nature and the influences upon it. People are not mere physical material, mere combinations of atoms and molecules, who react in the exact same way to certain external stimuli, whether economic or political. Sure, human nature in general doesn’t change, but culture and nurture mould the raw material human nature. Also, people are individuals and thus sometimes deviate from nature, culture, or nurture by willful choice. No nation is perfectly virtuous, but some nations are more virtuous than others in certain respects. 

Thus, while there are certainly timeless political principles, their direct and pure application will not yield the same results for every single group of people under any and all circumstances. Prudence cannot be dispensed with, and thus politics should be considered an art ultimately. Of course, just because something is an art doesn’t mean that reason should be ignored. Orderly art requires reason, the faculty that creates order.

Moreover, it is actually the notion itself of politics as a science that has been so harmful to American politics. Science became largely about experimentation and knowledge for its own sake or for the sake of power, unhinged from moral considerations. Regressives applied hubristic, reckless, and immoral political experimentation in America, irrationally disregarding experience and time-tested experience (not to mention constitutional law). The consequences have been devastating.

Science in itself has no moral compass. To say that politics is a science is to introduce the element of amorality (or rather immorality) into politics.

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