Don’t Tread on Me (Epistemically)

This falls into the category of Stop the epistemic power-plays! It comes from a recent article in Scientific American written by Shawn Lawrence Otto:

The Founding Fathers were science enthusiasts. Thomas Jefferson, a lawyer and scientist, built the primary justification for the nation’s independence on the thinking of Isaac Newton, Francis Bacon and John Locke—the creators of physics, inductive reasoning and empiricism. He called them his “trinity of three greatest men.” If anyone can discover the truth by using reason and science, Jefferson reasoned, then no one is naturally closer to the truth than anyone else. Consequently, those in positions of authority do not have the right to impose their beliefs on other people. The people themselves retain this inalienable right. Based on this foundation of science—of knowledge gained by systematic study and testing instead of by the assertions of ideology—the argument for a new, democratic form of government was self-evident.

This definitely puts an interesting spin on what Thomas Jefferson might have had in mind when he wrote, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Read epistemically, Jefferson is arguing that all people have equal access to the tools of logic and empiricism, and because of this they are competent to rationally decide the course of their own affairs and those of their nations. There is no secret gnosis that belongs to just a few. The truth has no favorites. But to reach that truth, the rights of individuals to think and act freely must not be interfered with. Hence the Bill of Rights.

But, of course, there is a problem here. Jefferson’s world is not our world. In our world, science is specialized, experts really do have access to gnosis that the rest of us are poorly equipped to access, and the very science that unleashed human freedom in the 18th century now tells us, in the 21st, that freedom is actually a delusion. We are beings utterly determined by physics and chemistry.

So the irony here is that the above quote appeared in Scientific American, a magazine whose editors actually take for granted expertise, specialization, and material determinism. And the contemporary reality is different from this public spin: the average citizen, truth be told, is not especially trusted by intellectual or monied elites to make good decisions about much of anything at all.

In the West, we no longer have state sponsored religious priesthoods hoarding gnosis and making claims to special authority, but it doesn’t matter because modern civilization has become so complex that gnosis and authority (in the form of expertise) naturally draws away from the average person anyway. If priests abhor the vacuum of equality, and would replace it with religious hierarchy, Nature also abhors equality and would replace it with its own hierarchy (and does).

Charles Darwin was a scientist, obviously, but he came after Jefferson. And it was Darwin the scientist, not Jefferson the scientist, who gave us the real and lasting lowdown: Nature’s hierarchy is determined by competition for mates and resources. Scientists are the priests of that Nature. They read out, for the rest of us, the Book of Nature.

And the reading out of the Book of Nature by scientists is now being combined with the reading out of the Book of Human Nature. Psychology and social psychology are fast merging with neuroscience and evolutionary biology. As a result, mass manipulation is becoming increasingly refined and effective. So much so that, through things like advertising, monied elites can simply purchase the services of intellectual elites to make a mockery of Jeffersonian democratic deliberation and processes. The recent U.S. presidential “election” is exhibit A.

I love Jefferson, but the world has long since run past Jefferson. It is now one based in determinism, Nature’s hierarchy of mate and resource competition, elitism, specialization, expertise, and the scientific manipulation of the broad mass of human beings. This manipulation takes on the veneer of democracy and is called, by Noam Chomsky, “the manufacture of consent.” The revelation from the social sciences is that, by focusing on propaganda tools and the way systems and policies are structured, elites can pretty effectively direct the masses without formally shredding things like the Bill of Rights.

The long march of science–from Newton, Bacon, and Locke to Darwin, Dawkins, and Craig Venter–has thus brought us from innocence to experience; from a Jeffersonian world to a Darwinian, Machiavellian, and Nietzschean one. Shawn Lawrence Otto is right to note that Jefferson was both a lawyer and a scientist, but these are very different professions from what they were 200 years ago.


Jefferson, by the way, would have liked the below song, but the science that Jefferson so revered now tells us that this poor girl is quite simply deluded, and there’s the rub.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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3 Responses to Don’t Tread on Me (Epistemically)

  1. Alan says:

    While true that the average citizen is not especially trusted by intellectual or monied elites to make good decisions the converse is equally true. Op. cite. Exhibit ‘A’.
    The problem, however, is sloth not physics. Reality is equally available to all but without motivation to step away from their screens, Joe Average is content to defer to his expert of habit, whoever best sites his recollection of winning rhetoric. There is good reason monarchy is far and away the most common and most long-lived of any governmental form these last ten thousand years: It quite simply allows the maximum number of people to ignore the responsibilities of leadership. Darwin’s expose’ of nature presents a system which favors minimizing wasted effort. Not getting too interested in a government that one is not particularly qualified to give orders to is an easy way to minimize one’s effort.
    The nonsensical insistence of Jerry Coyne and other such misinformed scientists’ notwithstanding, humans are far from determined by physics or chemistry, but our nature does encourage us to be willfully lazy. Our sloth, combined with our evolved biases, however, does make us typically easy to manipulate.

    • Santi Tafarella says:


      Flipping the tables of suspicion on elites is interesting, but the bottom line is that one of two competing elite classes–one represented by Romney and one by Obama–will win the election by being a bit more successful than the other at manipulating mass opinion and behavior.

      You also make a good point about specialization: politics, like everything else, is most efficiently outsourced to those who focus on it. The Jeffersonian character–a Jack of all trades, including politics and science–is a romantic notion, but not the way capitalism (for example) works. People specialize and focus.

      As for free will, it’s a notion that comes from religion and is undermined by contemporary science. It’s hard to know what moves the body beyond physics and chemistry without positing mind as something non-material coming into matter from the outside–a ghost in the machine.

      I know it’s near to Halloween, but scientists don’t tend to believe in spooks.


      • Alan says:

        How does an intelligent person decide that they cannot make decisions? The premise itself is contradictory.
        Einstein lost the argument for a determined universe to Quantum Mechanics. Not even physics is determined anymore.
        We need no spooks or spirits, no religion to establish the will, only evolution herself. Jerry et. all rather egregiously misinterpret the experiments to suggest it a myth. Language being the simplest obvious demonstration. Understand to reject the silly notion of determinism but a single example is required. Realize as you know well, any human who uses language only in a basic stimulus-response (deterministic) fashion would be considered retarded or brain-damaged. They could not pass as ‘normal’.

        Jerry Coyne offers a reasonable and concise definition of free will: ‘At the moment when you have to decide among alternatives, you have free will if you could have chosen otherwise.’
        Only a single instance is sufficient to demonstrate will, though you experience thousands with every day of your life. Jerry demonstrates his will by rephrasing his description of free will thus: ‘To put it more technically, if you could rerun the tape of your life up to the moment you make a choice, with every aspect of the universe configured identically, free will means that your choice could have been different.’
        By making alternate choices, Jerry demonstrates his ability to choose. He also has a near infinity of choices for venues to air his ideas on will. He choses but a few venues for expressing, however he chooses a wide diversity of prose in his expression to support his argument.
        Any and every use of language requires will with each syllable spoken or keyed. As an educator, in the absence of will, it would be unthinkable (literally) to ask a student to revise a paper (or ask a teacher to revise a grade). Every user of language learns at a very young age that all words have alternatives you must choose between.
        Even the smallest choice is a choice, the least consequential decision is still a decision. Determinism works for plants, not animals with eyes and brains. Will must have evolved early with brains, else prey would be far too predictable and easy to catch, predators too predictable and easy to avoid.

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