Pragmatism

2002-09-28

I just read (and re-read) the text of a dogma-busting speech that science fiction writer David Brin gave at the national Libertarian Party convention this year. Brin's insights apply to more than just libertarians -- they apply to anyone who cares about the future. It's been a long time since I've read something that questions so many assumptions and false premises. His perspective is that of someone who values freedom and the future above any ideological "ism". He points out that people live better and more freely now than at any time in human history, and that the best platform for paradise is near-paradise (no, paradise is not an option, and he knows it). Despite the continuing power of elites in our society and rise of bureaucratic power, more people are more free and more self-actualized than ever. Rather than hearking back to some time when everything was perfect (I hate to break it to you, but the past was dismal), we need to look forward. And not forward in a revolutionary, ideologically-pure, holier-than-thou, I-know-the-truth-whereas-you're-a-clueless-schmuck manner, but in a spirit that is hopeful, progressive, evolutionary, and scientific. He advocates a practical, cheerful libertarianism that seems somewhat similar to my idea of a progressive libertarianism.

Brin's perspective comports with a lot of the thinking I've been doing of late, spurred by continued reading in the fields of history and science. Sure I started out my intellectual life as a fire-breathing radical Randian. But more and more I see that ideologies and isms are not the answer, no matter how good it feels to think that one has all the answers because of the special philosophical insights one has gleaned from reading whatever authors one holds dear. In the long run, philosophy is nearly useless. What matters is verifiable truth in the form of scientific knowledge. And that comes about only when a field separates from philosophy, when it matures enough to stand on its own. Philosophy has been the nebula from which stars such as cosmology, anthropology, economics, and psychology have emerged. With the advancement of neuroscience and psychology and such, we are just beginning to witness the emergence of epistemology as the science of knowledge. And I think eventually we will experience the scientific emergence of even so fractious a field as ethics (or politics!). And science leads inevitably not to ideology but to practical knowledge, even to pragmatism (that bugaboo of all good ideologues). And um, yes, pragmatism is good. For the point of knowledge is not intellectual hygiene but the success of human life on earth (and perhaps the stars if we get that far).

There is much more to chew on in Brin's speech, which is simply brimming with challenges to all good ideologues. But don't take my word for it -- read it!


Peter Saint-Andre > Journal