The Right Side of History, or Simply the Right Side?

This election season is full of colorful characters, among them the Green Party’s candidate, Dr. Jill Stein. (No pun was intended between “colorful characters” and “Green Party,” but a pun having been found, it is happily accepted.) A Harvard physician with an open warrant out on her, Dr. Stein is, among other things, a proponent for drug legalization. A recent tweet stated: “I’m going to ask our federal agencies to do something really radical: Use science to decide which drugs should be legal.”

How precisely would this work? Science can tell us of the many properties of various drugs, and their effects on the human person. But how would science then tell us which drugs ought to be legal? How do we ask science which drugs ought to be legal? Do we consult the Oracle of Science? Is a magic 8-ball more reliable if it’s used while one is wearing a lab coat?

I jest, of course. I realize that the proposal involves more than that. Dr. Stein argues that drugs such as marijuana do not have serious negative effects on humans, and that the effort expended to combat its use is not proportionate to the harm caused by the drug. (I disagree whole-heartedly with Dr. Stein, but that is a separate issue.) But surely Dr. Stein must see that the “deciding” factor in that scenario is not science at all, but rather the weighing of harms and goods for individuals and society in prohibiting certain substances? And that that is a philosophical question, not a scientific one?

Alas, were that but the case. Unfortunately, this mantra of “let science decide” has crept into our discourse as an authoritative declaration, a suggestion that the question actually has already been decided: Scientia locuta est, causa finite est. One is reminded of Neil DeGrasse Tyson’s tweet from June about his dream of an empiricist utopia called Rationalia “with a one-line Constitution: All policy shall be based on the weight of evidence.” Likewise, President Obama asserted in the midst of the stem cell debate that we must “make scientific decisions based on facts, not ideology.”

Now, “ideology” is a much-abused word. It has gained the connotation of a blind unwillingness to consider anyone’s position other than one’s own; but denotatively, it means “a system of ideas and ideals, especially one that forms the basis of economic or political theory and policy.” The proper meaning of ideology is much more akin to “worldview.” And worldviews cannot be generated by science. Certainly they should be informed by science, and should not conflict with the discoveries of science—a worldview that denies gravity will prove both foolish and unsuccessful. But science can at best provide us a collection of facts, and as Thomas Kuhn demonstrated in his revolutionary The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the organization of those facts, and even the ability to collect certain facts by asking the proper questions, is largely pre-determined by the presuppositions and assumptions one brings to the lab.

Before we examine the phenomenon more closely, let’s examine this phrase’s rhetorical cousin: “on the right side of history.” This phrase seems to be especially favored on the port side of politics, as folks from vegans to LGBTQ activists use it to further their causes and nudge people to support their policies. The goal is to short-circuit debate on a given subject by asserting that the issue is already decided, or rather, will be decided by the impersonal force of “history.” So, President Obama lauds Chancellor Merkel’s acceptance of one million refugees from Middle East conflict by saying she is “on the right side of history.” (Jay Nordlinger has pointed out President Obama’s particular fondness for the phrase.) Questions such as how to handle the sudden influx of such a large population of people with a foreign language and culture, the danger of clandestine terrorists infiltrating the ranks of the truly suffering, and the difficulty of properly vetting asylum-seekers—all of these are swept aside, and an historical judgment is made. The rare future perfect tense is invoked: “This act will have been judged by future generations to have been the correct one.”

Why should “history” be the judge? What does this even mean? Much as “let science decide,” “the right side of history” transforms a field of human inquiry into a semi-personalized force capable of will and judgment, of itself moving events and evaluating past ones. We might call this phrase fuzzily Hegelian, a micro-version of the “Protestant Aquinas’” notion that all of history is moving inexorably toward a fundamental unity and harmony. The British historian Robert Conquest has gone a step further and noted its “Marxist twang.” What is implied in such a concept? That history always unfolds as it should? That the victors in social conflicts were necessarily right, because “such was the movement of history”? Is this not potentially a mere disguise of the doctrine that “might makes right,” of asserting that the strong will prevail because they ought?

The question can be put this way: “Do history and science tell us what is good?” But we must remember that “good” is meaningless without a referent: good for what? For whom? And that can only be determined if we know what a thing is and what it’s supposed to be. A thing is good when it helps something to fulfill its nature, to be what it’s supposed to be. But our society has lost any serious sense of metaphysics, of things having natures and being fulfilled by this and not that—indeed, the transgender advocates would have us believe that “a boy is a boy” is no longer a tautology. Science and history can inform our knowledge about the natures of things, but they cannot answer the moral questions. They cannot tell us what is good. That is a question for the higher sciences, for theology and philosophy, the queen of the sciences and her handmaiden. These are the disciplines that bind the others together.

In other words: in our moral reasoning, sciences provide minor premises only. Theology and philosophy provide major premises. Science can tell us that drugs affect human cognition. Theology and philosophy tell us to what degree or in what ways in might be acceptable for human cognition to be altered. Science and history, as with most disciplines, are tools. Philosophy and theology are blueprints. A hammer can help you to build a house, but it can’t tell you what a house ought to look like. A tape measure can tell you how long something is, but it can’t tell you how long your supporting beams need to be to keep the roof from crashing onto your head. Science and history can’t tell us right from wrong. Nor should they try to.

Nicholas Senz

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Nicholas Senz is Director of Faith Formation at St. Vincent de Paul Catholic Church in Arlington, Texas and a Master Catechist. A native of Verboort, Oregon, Nicholas holds master's degrees in philosophy and theology from the Dominican School of Philosophy and Theology in Berkeley, CA. He is on Twitter @nicksenz and his own blog, Two Old Books.

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