The Left, Right and Science: Relativists and Materialists

None of the seventeenth-century founders of modern science – Bacon, Descartes, Boyle, Hooke, and Newton – could have imagined the peculiar world of contemporary anti-science polemics. They thought that having some control over nature, particularly over human health, was – however desired – almost an unimaginable goal.  They believed that certain methods – experience, experiment, inductive and deductive thinking, and mathematical reasoning – might provide access to the intelligibility of nature.  Only when their ideas got in the way of religious doctrines taught by the clergy – or by their own religious scruples – did natural philosophy come under attack.


At the University of Utrecht during the 1630s and well beyond the followers of the philosopher/theologian, Gisbert Voetius, would have run Descartes out of town, more precisely out of the Dutch Republic, if only the Voetians had the backing of magistrates willing to persecute. Voetius rightly concluded that Descartes’ mechanical philosophy could not be reconciled with Aristotle. Shrewdly, fellow clerics offered other skillful arguments, arguing from the pulpit, for example, that if the educated elite took up a mechanical understanding of man and nature they would renege on their obligations to the poor. Always the objections to Cartesianism included the fear that it would lead to materialism, and hence atheism.

Newton thought that Descartes’s system would do just that, and devout English, if heretical, Protestant that he was, Newton was intemperate on the subject of atheism.[1] In 17th century Holland, as in England, religious passions and interests infiltrated when it came to assessing the worth of science, or what the age called natural philosophy. Not much has changed since that time, only the nature of the clergy.

Sometimes commentators in our science wars, the new clergy, try to hide their intentions and attack the left or the right for being anti-science without mentioning that they are imposing distorting comparisons.[2] Or they dress up the polemics by recourse to science, especially studies in psychology. Certain character traits belong to conservatives, suggesting – according to the polemicists – that conservatives have a harder time separating their beliefs from the information provided by science about climate change, stem-cell research, or human evolution.[3] It follows inexorably: the right wing lies more often, or suffers from denial, delusion, or engages in a dramatic amount of biased and motivated reasoning: “many American conservatives don’t even know who or what we are.[4] Each side postures as the true friend of science while making misleading or distorting statements about the other.

Into this tainted ideological quagmire we might reasonably expect that academic commentators who study the nature of science, as distinct from doing natural science in field or laboratory, would enter the discussion and sort through the polemical debris. There are approximately sixty units or departments in the United States where science is studied for its history or its philosophical meaning. In a few of them, generally known under the label “science studies,” orthodoxy requires that no explanation for the historical development of a science can invoke its relative truthfulness as the reason why contemporaries chose a particular approach or embraced a body of factual material. In some places such as Edinburgh, the British academy also excels in science studies, and smaller outposts can be found in The Netherlands and France.

Guidance through the quagmire is thus in short supply, especially when we look to the practitioners of science studies. Let me begin with one of its founders, the ever fashionable, Bruno Latour, found generally at Sciences Po in Paris.  His critics accuse him of epistemological relativism, a charge that amounts to the ultimate heresy against the academic pursuit of truth. The accusation must have hurt enough for him to answer it in an essay that appeared in Critical Inquiry (2004) during the Bush administration when the anti-global warming, anti-stem cell crowd were riding high. Latour, to his credit, wondered if the science studies movement with its recourse to social construction and discourse analysis had made the crowd’s life easier.[5]

Urging his compatriots in science studies to take stock, Latour asked if the questioning of scientific facts had led to our forgetting “a realism dealing with what I will call matters of concern, not matters of fact. The mistake we made, the mistake I made, was to believe that there was no efficient way to criticize matters of fact except by moving away from them and directing one’s attention toward the conditions that made them possible.” Facts, Latour is saying, are not the real issue, “Matters of fact are only very partial and, I would argue, very polemical, very political renderings of matters of concern and only a subset of what could also be called states of affairs.”[6] Thus liberated from the burden imposed by an excessive zeal for facts, Latour is free to question any narrative about the way the world might be, whether it be mathematical, empirical, or, of course, historical.

His major complaint centers on the narrative of Western modernity. Contrary to what many historians and the general public might believe, Latour proclaims modernity an illusion, and the source of the false dichotomy we imagine between “the social” and “the natural.” In effect he lays blame on the experimental science that emerged out of the work of Boyle and Newton. It rendered nature passive, subject to mechanical laws, and awarded agency only to humans.

Latour seems unacquainted with, or forgetful of, the basic tenet of the pre-modern Christian West, namely the separate existence and superiority of Creator over creation. All that modernity does is supplant God and offer the social in his place; social construction should mean but a fancy way of saying “people make or do science.”  Latour wants to escape the dichotomy between the natural and the social, opting instead for the posture of a “non-modern.” He wishes to award equal agency to all entities – things, objects, humans and beasts – and in the process find a definitive way out of the social constructionist-anti-realist vs. realist/positivist confrontation that so plagues the discipline of science studies and its critics. He wants to rescue passive nature from being subjected to socially constructed maxims posing as facts or laws. One adoring acolyte finds Latour’s philosophical move so brilliant as to make him “the Galileo of metaphysics, ridiculing the split between the supra-lunar world of hard scientific fact and the sub-lunar world of human power games.” [7]

What are we who value the creativity of all human and natural sciences to do with allies like Latour?  How would a Latourian address the evolution deniers or the critics who think that the right wing is “hard-wired” to be intellectually dim? Or – to pose the question in an historical context – how would he explain the 17th century Dutch Calvinist minister who thought Cartesianism would lead to the neglect of the poor, or Newton’s fear that Descartes’ science would lead inexorably to atheism?

The Latourian might have recourse to human power games as the long and short of what motivates these critics of science or natural philosophy.  Science Studies might take a close look at who finances the anti-global warming initiatives. Following the money would lead to naked self-interest posing as serious intellectual inquiry.  A power game, indeed. But does that approach work in an historical inquiry into the motivations of 17th century actors, where no profit-making motive can be discerned? As with the controversy between Hobbes and Boyle that set off Latour’s rejection of modernity – power determined which kind of science triumphed and Newton, like Boyle, had powerful followers. Newton was anti-science when it came to Descartes’ science and understandably keen on his own.  It made him famous, and unbeknownst to Latour, Newton even died with £14,000 safely tucked away in the Bank of England.[8]

The problem with the Latourian – or the science studies – approach to the evolution of science derives from the inability of its practitioners to think historically. Knowing that Newton wrote his comments about the implications of Descartes’ science before the publication of the Principia (1687), and in a manuscript that never saw the light of day in his life time, suggests that private religious commitments figured centrally in Newton’s anti-Cartesian science posture. Something similar can probably be said about the Dutch minister. “Cogito ergo sum” was seen at the time, and subsequently, as a license for individualism. So emboldened, might the Dutch urban elite, once seen as singularly responsible for charity and poor relief, abandon the communitarian impulse as sanctioned by much of Aristotelian thought?  What looks like anti-science tout court begins to look like an articulation of core values about the nature of society, or God, or the fate of a Godless nation.

Similar contextual approaches might enable us to disaggregate the motives of a present-day crowd of anti-science polemicists, where each in turn must be seen in relation to their broader interests and commitments. These can range from the will to make a profit – the environment be damned -to belief that Godlessness can only be abetted by explanations about natural change that leave God out of the scientific narrative. Such disaggregating does not make the threat to the integrity of science, or historical enquiry, any less real, but it does provide a multi-purpose tool kit that addresses the difference between greed and piety.

Finally my readers, without any direct experience of science studies or the writings of Latour, might well be asking, how did a field so promising become laden with dead-end philosophical disputes?  Nothing about this situation can be understood without reference to the Cold War. To put it as my generation being trained in the 1960s said it, how would we write a history of Western science after World War III? The whole notion of the control of nature, the Baconian discourse about the improvement of man’s estate, would become unthinkable, even immoral.

The enormous power of post-war American science and technology (in constant competition with the Soviets) demanded deconstruction, an exposure to the power relationships imbedded within the entire structure of Western science, beginning at its seventeenth-century origins.  A classic intellectual move, derived from the ancient Greeks, required a turn toward skepticism, more precisely relativism. Science Studies was the result – but so too was the license to question any scientific finding.   No one thought until very recently that the anti-science forces would receive powerful backing and make their way into actual policy formation. Only relativism justifies advocating the teaching of creationism and evolution in the same curriculum.[9]

It would be naïve to think that anti-science critiques, with longevity back to the seventeenth-century if not before, will disappear if only science education were more widespread.  Western metaphysics with its dichotomous thinking about mind/body, Creator/creation, matter/spirit or consciousness makes the proponents of God, spirit or consciousness fear that their intellectual and spiritual commitments will be swamped within a universe where only matter and motion account for all of nature. To them such a universe is bleak and impoverished, and materialism – often called reductionist – rules unopposed.

Western philosophy has a way of entrapping even its most sophisticated practitioners. Reductionist materialism, most commonplace among physicists, meets its match when philosophers such as Thomas Nagel assert: “My guiding conviction is that mind is not just an afterthought or an accident or an add-on, but a basic aspect of nature.”[10] Mind and body are separate, and Nagel wants to award agency to both. Both Nagel and the materialists write as if there is no escape from the mind/body dichotomy. They know their Aristotle when they should be boning up on their Spinoza. Modern neuroscience is suggesting that brain and mind are intimately connected, and future philosophical constructions, at least when it comes to the nature of mind, will need significant revision.[11] Such a revision to Western metaphysical categories might have been unthinkable to Newton, or to contemporary creationists. For the rest of us it suggests progress tied to cutting-edge science.


[1] Sir Isaac Newton, “De Gravitatione et Aequipondio Fluidorum.” Translated by W. B. Allen: “If we say with Descartes (that) extension is body, do we not rather manifestly spread the way to atheism, for then that extension is not being created but was from eternity, whereupon we have an absolute idea of it without any relation to God, and thus we are able to conceive existence for the time being as if at that time we would suppose God not to be. And no distinction of mind from body, according to this philosophy, is understandable, lest simultaneously we say that mind is by no means extension, and thus is substantially present in no extension, or is no place; and so too if we say it is not that by means of which it is seen; however, I have plainly restored its minimum understandable union with body, not saying (it is) impossible. Moreover, if the distinction of substances into thinking and extended is lawful and perfect, then God does not eminently contain, and hence he cannot create, extension within himself; but God and extension are two substances severally called absolutely complete and singular.”

[2] Witness the discussion of Bill Maher and Rush Limbaugh in Alex B. Berezow and Hank Campbell, Science left Behind. Feel-Good Fallacies and the Rise of the Anti-Scientific Left (New York: Public Affairs of Perseus Books, 2012), p. 216.

[3]  Chris Mooney, The Republican Brain. The Science of Why They Deny Science – and Reality (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2012), pp. 60-61.

[4] Ibid. p. 181-86.

[5]  Critical Inquiry, vol. 30, 2004, p. 227, “entire Ph.D. programs are still running to make sure that good American kids are learning the hard way that facts are made up, that there is no such thing as natural, unmediated, unbiased access to truth, that we are always prisoners of language, that we always speak from a particular standpoint, and so on, while dangerous extremists are using the very same argument of social construction to destroy hard-won evidence that could save our lives. Was I wrong to participate in the invention of this field known as science studies? Is it enough to say that we did not really mean what we said? Why does it burn my tongue to say that global warming is a fact whether you like it or not? Why can’t I simply say that the argument is closed for good? Should I reassure myself by simply saying that bad guys can use any weapon at hand, naturalized facts when it suits them and social construction when it suits them? Should we apologize for having been wrong all along? Or should we rather bring the sword of criticism to criticism itself and do a bit of soul-searching here: what were we really after when we were so intent on showing the social construction of scientific facts?” For the history of science studies at one of its founding centers see

[6] Ibid. p. 231-32.

[7]  See Graham Harman, The Prince of Networks. Bruno Latour and Metaphysics (Melbourne, Australia: Re Press, 2009), pp. 58-61. For a different perspective see Margaret C. Jacob, “Reflections on Bruno Latour’s Version of the Seventeenth Century,” in Noretta Koertge, ed. A House Built on Sand. Exposing Postmodernist Myths About Science (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), pp. 240-254.

[8] Bank of England Archives, London, AC 27/444 Bank Stock #21   I-Q Anno 1725-1732, Folio 1105; May 18, 1727 “Sir Isaac Newton deceased,” with £14,000 being willed to various named inheritors.

[9] Bush Remarks On ‘Intelligent Design’ Theory Fuel Debate, By Peter Baker and Peter Slevin, Washington Post Staff Writers, Wednesday, August 3, 2005, “President Bush invigorated proponents of teaching alternatives to evolution in public schools with remarks saying that schoolchildren should be taught about “intelligent design,” a view of creation that challenges established scientific thinking and promotes the idea that an unseen force is behind the development of humanity.  Although he said that curriculum decisions should be made by school districts rather than the federal government, Bush told Texas newspaper reporters in a group interview at the White House on Monday that he believes that intelligent design should be taught alongside evolution as competing theories.

[10]   Thomas Nagel, Mind and Cosmos. Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature is Almost Certainly False (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), p. 16.

[11] Antonio Damasio, Looking for Spinoza. Joy, Sorrow, and the Feeling Brain (New York: Harcourt, 2003).


Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1

Latest Issue

2024: Vol. 23, No. 1