Congress’ assault on knowledge

Last month, half of Congress decided that political science isn’t worth NSF funding unless it advances economic development or national security. Imagine, politicians making it more difficult to study politics. Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) and the 72 other senators who voted for the bill seem to have forgotten that knowledge is the foundation of the economy and the root of our security. But the congressional assault on knowledge does not stop at political science. Science itself is now the target.

Under the guise of impartial austerity, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) has drafted a bill—ironically named the “High Quality Research Act” (HQRA)—to replace the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) peer review process with an arbitrary value-latent euphemistic circumlocution of funding criteria. Instead of peer reviewing the broader impacts and intellectual merit of scientific research to decide what projects deserve funding, Smith would rather cut the NSF budget and micromanage.

Jeffrey Mervis of Scientific Insider reports:

(FTA): “Specifically, the HQRA draft would require the NSF director to post on NSF’s website, prior to any award, a declaration that certifies the research is:

1) ‘…in the interests of the United States to advance the national health, prosperity, or welfare, and to secure the national defense by promoting the progress of science;

2) … the finest quality, is groundbreaking, and answers questions or solves problems that are of utmost importance to society at large; and

3) …not duplicative of other research projects being funded by the Foundation or other Federal science agencies.’

NSF’s current guidelines ask reviewers to consider the ‘intellectual merit’ of a proposed research project as well as its ‘broader impacts’ on the scientific community and society.”

Regarding HQRA’s first criterion: Is there a nefarious ploy playing out within the scientific community to stagnate national health, prosperity, welfare, or security? Progress in science is a bulwark for national security, so shouldn’t we increase NSF’s budget and make funding more, rather than less, available? Innovation takes freedom. So unless Smith (et al.) can clearly identify other-regarding harm that stems from NSF research, national policymakers should not further limit, i.e. regulate, innovators freedom to innovate. If anything, HQRA would stifle innovative liberty.

To the second criterion: Not all science can or should be “groundbreaking.” Scientific advance is piecemeal. Some research is groundwork for groundbreaking discovery. Think of outwardly banal research like infrastructure: the state must invest in roads before sports cars can cruise. Roads might not be flashy, but they are necessary—and their construction is actually profound when studied in any depth. The seemingly insignificant of today is the foundation for tomorrow’s profundity.

To the third criterion: Duplication is essential to the very nature of science. “Groundbreaking” results should be duplicable. Scientific redundancy hedges against fraud. If results are neither duplicable nor duplicated, how can we tell what research is trustworthy? Precluding scientific duplication de jure strikes me as creating a quack haven. Unless HQRA sponsors intend to protect quackery, stipulating non-duplication is nonsense. More cynically, HQRA’s non-duplication clause would shrink publicly funded competition for “science” advanced by wealthy private political interest groups—re: Oreskes, Conway, & Fox’s concerns about climate change deniers and frackademia.

HQRA smacks of big government—and given its Republican sponsors, libertarian hypocrisy. Congress should not decide what science is worth doing. Natural demand generated within the scientific community should guide research priorities—the invisible hand of the scientific marketplace, in a sense. If Congress shouldn’t “pick winners and losers” in business, why should it in science? Scientists, not Congress, should be the authority on what science is worth doing.

HQRA constitutes an arbitrary imposition of its sponsors’ beliefs pertaining to the value of science—the value of knowledge—in society and policymaking. If HQRA sponsors want to debate the value or proper role of science in society and policymaking, then we should explicitly talk about those values and beliefs. We should discuss the principles underlying the policy. Smith (et al.) should not pretend their motivation is financial. To frame HQRA as a fiscal issue insults public intelligence.

We’re talking about an annual NSF budget of less than 7 billion dollars, people ($6.9B appropriated in FY2013—cut down from the full $7B in FY2012). The US spends $7 billion on defense every three days. Not that defense spending isn’t money well spent, but let’s keep things in perspective when discussing national financial expenditure—and might I reiterate the importance of scientific progress to national defense. NSF’s budget is not the source of US financial woes. In fact, scientific research is among the safest of investments.

Science policy should build roads and get out of the way—unless there are obvious risks of harm related to experimentation, which by rule of the harm principle, can and should be regulated. Scientific innovators do their best work when free to experiment, free to fail without accost, and free to prune the mysteries of the mundane. Of course, freedom means funding. But we, the people, provide that funding via taxes—NSF funded scientists included. We deserve sound public investment with high rates of return. Science satisfies both.

Congress is constitutionally empowered to appropriate the national budget, but to do so on the basis of arbitrary values and beliefs disguised as objective financial necessity is morally questionable at best. Congress is not a group of generous feudal benefactors with absolute prerogative over we peasantry as it seems to have forgotten. Our representatives must be held accountable and to a higher standard of moral sense, which this recent assault on science—on knowledge—offends.

Science is iconic of American idealism: exploration, new frontiers, adventure, accomplishment, mystery, unexpected wealth, innovation, freedom and progress. Unless Congress is in the business of curtailing freedom and progress, the Coburn and Smith policies are a mistake. For all our sakes, Coburn’s anti-political science amendment should be rejected in the House and Smith’s anti-science policy should never see the congressional floor. But only time will tell. Progress in science may be a fact, but progress in ethics is often phantasmal.



Human consciousness: The normative question and the creation of value

When consciousness flickers into being, into self-awareness, it faces some basic philosophical questions. The existential question: What am I? The topographical question: Where am I? And the normative question: What should I do?—which essentially amounts to asking: What is worth doing?

And thus is born the idea of value: Asking the normative question presupposes the possibility of value because it assumes some answer, some purposive skill, is more or less worthwhile than another, or (in relativistic pluralist egalitarian fashion) that all answers are of equal worth.

Among all possible purposes, we then either choose to cultivate non-arbitrary purposive skills (biologically necessary functions), or, if we encounter an ease in fulfilling the biologically necessary, we conceive of arbitrary purposes with which to occupy our time. Whatever one’s choice in a given moment, we ascribe to that purposive skill its value through our behavior: our prioritization of its cultivation. We choose what purposes are worth the dedication of our finite existence, and in doing so, denote their value. Admittedly, this presumes that value is somewhat a function of mortality–that without finiteness, without a sense of urgency, the creation of value to make life feel meaningful is less of a pressing concern.

The value of non-arbitrary purposive skills are seated in nature—in the natural evolutionary process by which we and all life are subsumed—but we alone are the inventors of arbitrary purpose and arbitrary value. Beyond what is necessary for survival, it is left to us to determine which skills are worth cultivating. Neither God nor intrinsicity gives us this purpose—it is a matter of our creation, of our dedication.

For a purposive skill and its value to be “arbitrary” is not an evaluative claim, however, but observational. Arbitrariness is not good or bad, it simply is or is not. The cultivation of arbitrarily purposive skill is no less worthwhile or valuable than that of non-arbitrarily purposive skill. Indeed, we derive much of our sense of meaning in life from arbitrary purpose. But we must recognize ourselves as the creators of arbitrary purpose—of arbitrary value. We cannot forget that we are the arbiters; we are the source. Nor can we forget that we must fulfill non-arbitrary biological necessities (nutrition, rest, shelter…) before we can even begin to focus on arbitrary ones—a privilege not shared by all. The former comes prior to the latter as a matter of necessity—something of a biological order of operations: only once our bellies are full and our minds safely rested do we concern ourselves with the arbitrary.

In this sense, having the time and energy to focus on the arbitrary is an exquisite privilege: a joy of being human, of being conscious. It is through creating value that life feels meaningful—or at least that we overcome the sense of futility about living. Human beings are ultimately animals, but the cultivation of arbitrary skill is one of our distinguishing characteristics. It makes being human feel special—even if we are insignificant by any cosmic scheme.

The cultivation of arbitrary skill is a celebration of life! Arbitrariness is cause for ebullience. The arbitrary purposes we create make life exciting—they give people an interesting uniqueness amongst one another. Dance, art, sport, scholarly intrigues, cultural exploration—the arbitrary richness of human existence: these make living human life feel over and above the predominately non-arbitrary cycles we observe in other animals.

But the non-arbitrary is worth celebrating as well. Food, water, shelter from the frequent harshness of nature—these are fundamental to comfortable living, and thus (perhaps even more so than the arbitrary) worthy of our deep, humble appreciation. To be reminded of this is especially important in places where such amenities have become taken for granted.

The existence of consciousness is itself a sort of contingently orchestrated celebration of and by the universe. That matter-energy has slowly and stochastically evolved toward subjective self-awareness is the universe’s manner of perceiving itself, of celebrating its own existence—for despite our temporary sense of individuality, we are no more or less part of the universe as a single whole. Conscious creatures constitute the universe capacity to recognize itself. To perpetuate this awareness, we fulfill our non-arbitrary purposes—we survive as long as we can. To enrich this awareness, we indulge the arbitrary: we cultivate artistic, athletic, scholarly, specialist, and cosmopolitan skills.

This is not a hierarchy of values—the arbitrary and the non-arbitrary—but my observation of how human beings tend to answer the normative question: how we make life feel meaningful; how we make life seem worth living. Thus we give thanks. Thus we celebrate. To the sun god!

Non-arbitrary v. arbitrary – axiologically speaking

I was asked for an explanation of what I mean by “arbitrary,” so I’ll make the distinction again below. I’ve also touched on this distinction in The problems of society, The roots of oppression, and Is electricity a non-arbitrary need?

Here’s another quick explanation:

When we confront and answer the normative question (what should we do?) we make a value judgment about what’s worth doing. To put it another way, we judge what end is good enough to be worth our time. Some of those judgments are arbitrary, some of them are non-arbitrary. Non-arbitrary value judgments are rooted in human ontology, which, to me, means that if the good you decide to pursue is necessary to survive or to fulfill a biological precondition, then the value of that good is non-arbitrary. An “arbitrary” value judgment, on the other hand, is made when the value of a good you decide to pursue is nonessential to survival or fulfilling biological precondition. “Arbitrary” is a sort of catch-all for values that don’t pertain to necessity — an “everything other than, until proven otherwise” set. For example, the judgment that decorating is good and the subsequent decision to decorate in a particular way are arbitrary. You would be perfectly fine if you did otherwise, so decorating is arbitrarily valuable. If you could prove that decorating in a particular way is ontologically necessary, then perhaps it could be considered non-arbitrary, but I think decorating is a good example because it’s so heavily based on personal preference. On the other hand, the judgment that eating is good and the subsequent decision to eat are non-arbitrary. Eventually you’ll die if you decide otherwise, so eating is non-arbitrarily valuable. I would also argue that the life-enabling environmental conditions of the Earth are non-arbitrarily valuable.


Is electricity a non-arbitrary need?

I’ve previously discussed the arbitrary v. non-arbitrary distinction in the problems of society, as well as more recently in the roots of oppression. This distinction creates two categories, that is, “arbitrary” and “non-arbitary,”  in which we can group and understand the value judgments we make when puzzling over the normative question — when deciding what is worth doing.

Human beings, like other animals, have certain basic biological needs that must be fulfilled for survival: we forage for food and drink, seek out shelter from the elements, search for mates, and sleep. Because these needs are rooted in biology rather than preference, the value judgments one makes when deciding to fulfill them are non-arbitrary — basic biological necessity is a mark of the non-arbitrary.

However, distinct from other animals, humans have become extremely proficient in accomplishing our non-arbitrary ends, and so many of us are left with large gaps of free time each day. Most importantly, we seek to fill this free time with purposive activity so that we feel our lives are spent doing something meaningful. But what purposes are meaningful, the answer to the normative question what should be done? depends both on who you’re talking to and what his or her cultural, social, and historical context provides. As such, the answer to what should be done beyond fulfilling non-arbitrary needs will be based on one’s own personal sentiments about what’s valuable in life – that is, based arbitrarily on one’s own judgments about what is worth doing. Of course, such judgments are partly shaped by cultural, social, and historical context, but these factors are contingent, in that they could have been anything, and so answering the normative question by appealing to the culture, society, or history you were originally thrown into remains arbitrary – indeed, upon seeing that there’s more than one’s native culture, society, or history (history as hermeneutical) out in the world, the culture, society, or history that one decides to look to in answering the normative question will, again, be a matter of one’s arbitrary preferences and judgments about what is valuable in life.

So, in short, our non-arbitrary needs are food, drink, shelter, sleep, and sex (because while individuals can survive without sex, human beings as a species could not). Every purpose beyond fulfilling these biological preconditions should be seen as arbitrary by default unless it becomes clear that some new element has become necessary for survival. If, for instance, you were born on an island where the only source of food is located high atop a rock wall, then the ability to climb would, in these circumstances, become non-arbitrary, as being able to climb well would be necessary for survival. So you can see how activities and judgments that would otherwise be arbitrary can work their way into being non-arbitrary depending on the conditions one faces. With this in mind, I turn to electricity.

Is electricity a non-arbitrary need? Is creating electricity a non-arbitrary purpose? Life has become, and is becoming, increasingly energy intensive, particularly in the realm of electricity consumption. But has the need for electricity become non-arbitrary? Obviously there are people living today who get along without access to electricity, and in theory one could survive in developed society without being “on the grid.” But to the extent that agriculture, medicine, sanitation, and home heating rely on electricity, and because an insignificant number of Western households are self-sufficient in those regards, I’m confident that without electricity, billions would starve to death, die of otherwise preventable or treatable disease, and freeze to death in their homes. Because electricity has become so essential to survival and the fulfillment of basic biological necessities, the need for electricity can no longer be understood as an arbitrary one. Like the need to climb rocks well on the hypothetical island considered earlier, electricity has worked its way into being non-arbitrary. How one thinks we should produce electricity (ie – with renewables and/or non-renewables) is a function of other values and judgments about the human place in nature, but whether it’s through solar power or natural gas, our ways of living, our very lives themselves, non-arbitrarily require electricity.

So, with some confidence, I think we can expand the list of non-arbitrary human needs to include food, drink, shelter, sleep, sex, and electricity. And we must be open-minded to adaptations of this sort, for there was a time in evolutionary history when the bacterial human ancestor was autotrophic, reproduced asexually, and knew nothing of shelter or sleep. As we evolved into modern humans, so too evolved our non-arbitrary needs. We certainly cannot imagine ourselves as the end of evolution, and so as life itself changes, we must be willing to change our minds about what counts as non-arbitrary. Electricity, it seems to me, has made the cut.

JM Kincaid

The roots of oppression

Oppression, so we agree, is a social injustice, which, by nature of its being unjust (whatever “unjust” means in today’s cultural, philosophical, and historical sociopolitical context) is something we ought strive to eliminate. At the very least, the elimination of oppression as a manifestation of injustice gives us an ever-evolving project with which to occupy ourselves. From Plato to Rawls, I think we’re well due to admit that defining injustice, much less eliminating it, is a delightfully Sisyphean task. Yet we must imagine Sisyphus happy, remember, and be content in engaging the problem of injustice, despite its likely intractability, because pondering the philosophical dimensions of our existence is simply something that we human animals cannot help but do. Philosophy is, or is part of, our nature. To affirm or deny the truth of this is itself a philosophical endeavor, and so quite literally, paradoxically, we cannot help ourselves from being philosophical. Moreover, any prolonged attempt to deny or step out of the cycle verges on infinite regress, insanity, and the despair of futility. So, preferring affirmation to denial, I choose to roll the boulder up the mountain rather than lose my mind to it.

With that preface, I’ll briefly engage the problem of oppression as a form of injustice. First, then, I must explain what exactly I mean when I say “oppression.” More accurately, because oppression inherently involves an oppressor and an oppressed, what I mean when I say “I must explain exactly what I mean when I say ‘oppression'” is that I must explain what fundamentally drives the oppressor to oppress. That is, the paradigmatic origins of oppression as it stems from the oppressor.

In the oppressor I see (among other less seemingly pertinent qualities) intolerance, closed mindedness, judgment, and arrogance. Intolerance of diversity and difference. Closed minded to alternative ways of living and thinking. Judgment about value, purpose, meaning, importance, the good and the bad, wrongness and rightness, propriety, hierarchy, and intrinsicity. Arrogance about the ultimate significance and objectivity of his or her own judgments. Therefore, one might take it upon his or her self to expose and vanquish intolerance, closed mindedness, judgment, and arrogance.

Montessori education and training in the history of philosophy, are, I believe, at least partial remedies for intolerance and closed mindedness. Montessori schooling encourages the flourishing of diversity in talents, interests, and values in children. It creates an environment that enables young minds to take on the world as Socrates without the threat of hemlock (suppression being one sort of oppression with which I am concerned). Montessori education, contrasted to dogmatic, standardizing, and normalizing pedagogy, allows children to naturally arrive at and explore the salient questions of life as unique individuals, encouraging and appreciative of diversity. Tolerance is implicit in Montessori education, making permanent, instead of stifling, the natural open mindedness of children so that it extends into adulthood.

Training in the history of philosophy is important to cultivating tolerance and open mindedness in people for a similar yet distinct reason. If undertaken transparently, the history of philosophy exposes the philosopher to ideas, values, and worldviews different from, and perhaps inconsistent with, his or her own. In exploring the history, complexity, and evolution of human thought, one becomes witness to the paradigmatic diversity and multiplicity that being human naturally involves. So much so that one must inevitably admit that intolerance of and closed mindedness about diversity are fundamentally in conflict with the possibility of amiable participation in human social life, and indeed, ecologically speaking, incompatible with the preconditions for natural selection and evolution.

In confronting judgment about value, purpose, meaning, the good, and the rest, I’ve found the distinction between arbitrariness and non-arbitrariness to be helpful. Non-arbitrary judgments are those that pertain to the objective biological conditions of being human, namely, involving the fulfillment of our non-arbitrary needs. Exhaustively, our non-arbitrary needs include foraging for food and drink, seeking out mates, searching for shelter, and sleeping. Thus, judgments about anything beyond this short list, which certainly means the myriad of normative, existential, and teleological judgments for which one might be oppressed, are arbitrary. That is, made on the basis of one’s own personal inclination, however capricious it may be.[1]

The line of argument is then that the normative, existential, and teleological judgment that an oppressor believes justify his or her oppression are entirely arbitrary. The arbitrariness of oppressive judgment undermines the self-proclaimed legitimacy of the oppressor, for such a proclamation reveals his or her motive for oppressing to be a function primarily of an unwarranted arrogance about the importance, significance, or objectivity of his or her judgment. Arrogance, then, must be overcome.

Arrogance about the importance, significance, and objectivity of one’s own judgment reflects one’s more fundamental conviction about his or her place in nature and the universe. This includes notions of hierarchy, dualism, centricism, propriety, cosmic significance and importance, purpose, divinity, intrinsicity, and progress. For undermining such arrogance, deconstructive postmodernism is quite apt. Yet deconstruction comes up short when faced with concrete political questions, for in deconstructing the metaphysical ground works of all universalistic judgments and distinctions, deconstruction renders itself unable to put forth any positivistic claims of its own. In effect, deconstruction can reveal the contingent cultural and historical contexts upon which the oppressor derives his sense of objective legitimacy in oppressing, but deconstruction, by nature of its being a negativistic methodology, cannot suggest an alternative, inherently value-latent interpretation of justice or injustice of its own to fill the void it leaves behind without contradicting its philosophical presuppositions. Deconstruction can show why arrogance about one’s judgment is ultimately unfounded, revealing the cultural and historical contingency of such judgment’s origin, but in doing so prevents itself from recommending a virtue of its own. This is the challenge of overcoming arrogance on any scale, individual, national, or international, in a sociopolitical environment that so often demands strict relativistic pluralism and pluralistic relativism. How might we defeat “arrogance” without ourselves becoming arrogant about our own worldview about overcoming arrogance?

Confidence and humility are compatible in my opinion, but any judgment, construction, or distinction I could offer would be, to a significant degree, a product of my own cultural and historical environment, which therefore axiomatically precludes me from developing any universalist or absolute moralism without contradicting myself. Indeed, the modern progressive liberal paradigm that determines oppression to be a categorical, absolute injustice is historically and culturally situated — a position with which I most certainly agree. But oppression was considered both just and necessary in ancient Spartan society, and up until the 1960s in the United States, de jure discrimination and other vestiges of slavery were understood as the natural order of things. These social conditions are easily detestable from where we sit today, but in their own times such inequities were seen as normal, not objectionable. So where does one begin, left flailing in utter contingency, to find solid, non-arbitrary ground from which to contest oppressive arrogance? When does insisting on the virtue of diversity and demanding universal toleration itself become oppressive and dogmatic?

[1] For more on the arbitrary v. non-arbitrary distinction, see The problems of society – Part one: The normative question.

JM Kincaid