- Hardcover: 384 pages
- Publisher: Harper; 1 edition (February 9, 2010)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0060781505
- ISBN-13: 978-0060781507
- Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.2 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 1.2 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 52 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #578,516 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Science of Liberty: Democracy, Reason, and the Laws of Nature Hardcover – February 9, 2010
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Despite dealing with some weighty issues, The Science of Liberty isn't a wonky book written by an egghead, but a passionately crafted and articulate exploration of the relationship between science and democracy. Ferris, a first-rate popular-science writer, combines lucid prose with some serious science chops to show how science and democracy working in symbiosis can thrive and--the author suggests, using the antiexamples of Hitler's Germany and Stalin's Soviet Union--can just as easily die. In any book of this scope, critics tend to cherry-pick their favorite anecdotes and to focus on certain historical periods (and to kvetch a bit when those periods aren't well represented). Ferris, though, treats his subject with equanimity and the advantage of the long view.
Ferris, the prominent science author and PBS series host, champions scientific and classical liberal values in this work. Holding that the rise of science blazed the trail for liberal democracy, Ferris opens with profiles of seventeenth-century philosophical pioneers in each arena, Francis Bacon and John Locke, and continues with embodiments of the Enlightenment’s intersection of science and self-government, such as Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine. Historical episodes in which authoritarianism suppressed liberty and democracy occupy much of Ferris’ subsequent analysis: in his discussions of the regimes of Robespierre, Hitler, Stalin, and Mao, Ferris convincingly demonstrates that the disasters that befell science and scientists under their sway stemmed from the extinction of freedom. In contemporary times, the threat to scientific and democratic values, Ferris writes, comes from deconstructionist philosophers and their pilot fish in academia, and from Islamic radicalism. Disparaging illusions about a perfect society at the base of various stripes of totalitarianism––Communist, Fascist, or Fundamentalist Muslim––Ferris vindicates his thesis that humanity’s progress ensues only whenever science’s anti-authoritarian, egalitarian commitment to free inquiry is allowed to range wherever curiosity will take it. --Gilbert Taylor
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“Modern science and liberal democracy are novelties of recent vintage—considering that, as Whitehead used to say, it takes a thousand years for a genuinely new concept to engrain itself in a culture.” Our culture's concept of the individual did not exist in the ancient world and is a recent innovation outside of Western European culture. The individual was invented by the medieval church to bypass the feudal nobility, adopted by kings to form the nation state and has taken on the form we now assume since the industrial revolution where the individual is the source of authority. This is the end point of a 2000 year process. [Siedentop, Larry (2014-10-20). Inventing the Individual: The Origins of Western Liberalism. Harvard University Press. Kindle Edition. ISBN: 978-0-674-41753-3] I would question whether the individual has more liberty as an untethered entity than when tethered to clan or polis.
The Biblical principle from which the concept of the individual developed is that each person is responsible for their own sin. The Devil does not make you do it. Our modern concept of freedom for each individual is a corollary. Romans chapter 6 describes true freedom as being freed from sin unto righteousness. The first thing to note here is that freedom is a transaction. Whether you believe the Bible to be The Word of God or not, this is still a useful way to view freedom. You are freed from one thing unto another thing. The framers of our Constitution, whether believers or not, were Biblically literate and understood this concept.
The second thing to note is the Biblical definitions of sin and righteousness. Sin in the Bible is defined as rebellion against God. Righteousness is defined as obedience to God. For those who are not Bible believers, the takeaway here is that true freedom is obedience to authority rather than personal autonomy. This is not what most people think of when they hear the term freedom. We all want control and do not want to be controlled. We all want to be in charge of our own salvation. This is original sin.
At the beginning of chapter two, Farris quotes John Stuart Mill that the only legitimate use of power over an individual is to prevent harm to others. I would argue that taxing everyone to pay for health care for all individuals meets this condition. Further, I would argue that this frees the individual from economic risks of illness unto security to pursue any endeavor that seems right to that individual. That individuals want exclusive control of their own fate is the cause of harm to others. For this reason the Bible defines government (kings) as the minister of God for the restraint of evil. This idea is not incompatible with Mills’ rule.
I found Ferris’ definition of Liberal, Progressive and Conservative to be useful. I still do not know into which category I should place myself. Ferris asks the question whether Democracy should be defined in terms of Liberty or Equality. I think he is asking the wrong question. We should be asking what kind of society, political economy, we should have and how best to achieve that end. Democracy is a process by which the members of a society can make these determinations.
Ferris says, “everyone has—or ought to have—equal standing as citizens, because the strength of the society resides in the very diversity of their abilities.” I could not agree more. The Bible teaches that we are all equal before God. It also teaches that each of us is fearfully and wonderfully made each for a purpose. Each person has a role in the community for which they are uniquely suited. The idea of universal education, for which Mr. Ferris advocates, came out of Christian religion. When Presbyterianism invaded Scotland, its leaders wanted all individuals to be able to read and interpret the Bible. Scotland was the poorest country in Europe, in a state of bankruptcy and poverty that would make today’s poorest governed third world country look prosperous. Yet this country had a literacy rate exceeding 70% while the rest of Europe barely exceeded 10%. People who could barely feed themselves were buying books. From this came the Scottish Enlightenment.
Mr. Ferris makes much of the contributions of Bacon and Newton to the invention of Science. He is in this correct. Where Ferris goes wrong is to denigrate the contribution of Christian religion. If judged by what these two men actually said, they would be considered today to be dangerous fundamentalist Christians. I would argue that the invention of the printing press and the Protestant Reformation were critical to the invention of Science. The Reformation upended traditional authority. People’s minds were freed to think in new ways and seek new authority. It was that “Pauline and Augustinian thought” that motivated those first Scottish Presbyterians to insist that everyone should be able to read and think for themselves.
“The Bible represents God to be a changeable, passionate, vindictive Being;” This statement stands the Bible on its head. The Bible says that God does NOT change and is NOT vindictive. He is passionate about his love for his people. He is infinitely holy and infinitely loving. This holy God cannot have sin in his presence. This loving God wants us, his creation in his presence. We are all sinners, in rebellion against God and cannot stand in his presence. There is no way we can fix this problem, which is why Christianity should not be confused with religion. God himself provided the fix. We may choose to accept what He has done or reject Him. This is free will. God does punish, but those drownings and wars are exceptions and not a rule. The primary way God punishes is to remove His restraint, providence, to let us do exactly as we please. We are quite capable of destroying ourselves without help from God.
In Isaiah chapter 44 God condemns his people for worshiping the good things He has given them rather than the God who gave the good things. Science is a good thing, but it is not a god that will save us or anyone else. The study of Christian theology can, as I have shown by example, provide insight into the secular as well as the spiritual. The confusion of religion and science in this book makes nonsense of some conclusions. Darwinian evolution, creation nor intelligent design are science. They are metaphysics and should be taught as such. Toward the end of the book of Job, God asks whether anyone was there when he created the universe. We weren’t there so why do we think we know so much? The chapter on evolution is a stream of consciousness listing of unsubstantiated assertions. Most of these assertions can be shown to be false or questionable by preponderance of the evidence logic. The basic premise is to look at all the evidence available and determine if any contradicts the assertion. If the evidence is exclusively consistent with the assertion then it is reasonable to accept the assertion. If new evidence becomes available then the assertion can be reevaluated. This is not science as Bacon and Newton would have it. But for much of what must be decided in this life, it is all we have.
I have no objection to chapter five. Our Constitution is not divine revelation. We live in “interesting times” where we must react and adapt to new circumstances almost continuously. This cannot be done by command. There are no all-encompassing philosophies to guide us, as Mr. Ferris points out. Anyone who claims to have The Answer is lying. If some answer seems reasonable, try it. If it doesn’t work, get rid of it. If it needs fixing, fix it. Politicians become invested in the things they champion and refuse to drop what they have advocated. This is why wars seem to go on endlessly and end badly. This is why we need elections.
The chapter on Post-modern philosophy is spot on. I remember reading Martin Perez in The New Republic saying the exact same thing. It is anti-modern, anti-science, anti-Christian, and anti-truth. It is stupid.
The Science of Wealth; Mr. Ferris is right that economics is more amenable to experiment than most of the social sciences. We have seen the National Socialist, the Soviet, and the Libertarian experiments. These are good examples of what Mr. Ferris calls all-encompassing philosophies that purport to solve all our problems. A great deal of mathematical wizardry is used to model national economies attempting to predict where they are going. Unfortunately Chaos Theory is still well down the learning curve. All the curve fitting over the last century has not predicted the financial disasters that have occurred, but a few intelligent people have done so by simply assuming we are all sinners and will continue sinning until everything breaks. The joke that 30 economists asked the same question will provide 30 different answers still fits.
Mr. Ferris sites Adam Smith with favor. I shall do the same. In Book One of Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith coins the term invisible hand. The conclusion to Book One includes a warning that no one belonging to the commercial class should be allowed anywhere near public policy. Those in this class know their self-interest very well, but have little understanding of the common good. In Adam Smith’s day this class promoted mercantilism. In our day they promote a winner take all Social Darwinism. All that has changed is the nature of mercantile self-interest.
The Chicago school does not produce equal opportunity and the Keynesian does not produce equal outcomes. This is a false distinction. The ideal is a mix of government and private initiative focused on the needs of society. Economic incentives are often negative where the individual is rewarded and the community is punished. Private business seeking profit cannot finance generation long research. NASA pioneered the rockets that Space-X launches. The batteries in Tesla autos are built from research funded by the U.S. and Japanese governments. The Internet was invented by the Department of Defense. The World Wide Web was invented by a government researcher at CERN in Switzerland. The graphic user interface on computers was invented by Xerox, but exploited by Apple. The national infrastructure used by private enterprise is built and maintained by government. The workers hired by private enterprise are educated by government. There is every reason to believe that well managed and imaginative government can contribute massively to quality of life and prosperity.
Not long ago I would have passed this book by - simply on the basis of its title and content. The engaging style of writing and fascinating topics covered kept me interested from beginning to end. I particularly enjoyed the many historical references and background that the book covers. Much of it I had a smattering of background in but the author was very good at delivering insightful snippets that brought history to life.
While not everyone will agree with Mr. Ferris, he makes a compelling argument for the value of science in promoting liberty and the general improvement in the quality of life for all those nations that embrace freedom in scientific endeavors. I for one agree with his observations and conclusions.
Great historical review of the problems our founding fathers had with the religious community in the separation of church from state affairs. Most religious leaders wanted Christianity to be intermingled with the language of our founding documents, but the secularist philosophy of our founders, most notably George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine, prevailed. This is evidenced by no mention of God in our US Constitution and only a brief mention in The Preamble to the The Declaration of Independence.
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