The determinist discourse: How science moved away from humanism

Adil Rasheed

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Although proponents of modern science and political thought might not concede it, but they have been taken aback by the growing influence and radicalization of pseudo-religious and illiberal nationalist ideologies in recent times.

It was thought that the strength of scientific and liberal ideals had delivered humanity a decisive verdict with the proverbial ‘end of history’ and that fundamentalist and ultra-nationalist worldviews would never be popular again. This sense of certitude has proven disastrously wrong.

Somewhere down the line the discourse of science started losing its plot. By becoming the preserve of big corporations and government agencies, science started moving away from the common man’s sensibilities

Adil Rasheed

The message of reason

At the onset of the modern age, when religious institutions had become elitist and merely instilled the fear of damnation over hapless souls, the message of reason and empiricism as the reliable measure of truth as opposed to untenable dogma revolutionalized human civilization.

Modern science was able to effectively communicate to humanity its clear, emancipating and universal ideals, such as liberty, equality and progress for all.

In fact, the values preached by modern science helped liberate man from the outdated social constructs of class as well as racial, religious and gender prejudice.

The rapid pace of technological advancements literally put Man on the moon and even incredible ideas like intergalactic space voyages and time travel fell into the realm of possibility. The horizons of human imagination widened, as fantastic new vistas of science fiction rapidly became science fact.

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However, somewhere down the line the discourse of science started losing its plot. By becoming the preserve of big corporations and government agencies, science started moving away from the common man’s sensibilities.

Just like religious institutions of yore, the average Joe now started associating science and technology with a highly influential industrial and political elite — cold, distant if not alien. Science was no longer the problem solving friend of the past, but the cause of many of mankind’s current woes — such as climate change, unemployment (caused by automation) and production of WMDs.

Even computers and the Internet are today being vilified as insidious means of mass surveillance or agents to bring about socio-political unrest. It is in this atmosphere of growing estrangement and mistrust that the irrational and diabolical messages of pseudo-religious and ultra-nationalist ideologies have started gaining traction.

Even in contemporary science fiction, the fanciful flights of futurism, the expanding horizons of space and time and the promise of medical breakthroughs have been replaced by grotesque dystopian constructs, post-apocalyptic futures and irreconcilable moral dilemmas caused by failed scientific experiments.

From freewill to determinism

The public narrative of science has also become vague, and at times contradictory. It is ironic that even prominent advocates of modern science and rationalism such as Richard Dawkins, Lawrence Krauss and Sam Harris espouse hard determinism over the principles of freewill, long championed by votaries of liberalism. Man is no longer an agent of change or progress, but appears more of an insignificant player in a universe that has predetermined his destiny.

The philosophy of determinism has historically been the argument of entrenched socio-political dispensations, averse to reform and progress, as they give precedence to noumenal metaphysics as opposed to the phenomenal reality, which is the domain of science.

This conundrum also raises interesting questions on moral accountability of individuals for human actions, which according to determinists seems illogical. Again, the very existence of irrational thought and action by the very opponents of science cannot be explained by exponents of determinism. Determinism also leaves no room for human freedom and is fundamentally antithetical to modern political thought.

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However, even if one were to stick to the insistence on causality-based determinism as the essential premise for scientific investigation, laws of quantum physics today flout most physical laws at the subatomic level. Even Einstein could not accept this randomness and said: “God does not play dice”. Thus, the quantum realm has led modern science to make unsubstantiated speculations of parallel universes, hyper space etc that seems as fanciful as any medieval mythological or scholastic treatise.

Clearly these rational inconsistencies, moral turpitudes and apparent disregard of humanity in pursuit of technological breakthrough has more to do with the inability of the scientific community to chart the right course for itself in the 21st century, than for the discipline of science itself.

It is time to build a consistent and effective scientific discourse to offset the growing resonance of dogmatic and intolerant narratives of radical religious and nationalistic thought that often make pseudo-scientific claims or reject scientific reasoning altogether to spread their menace.

Dr. Adil Rasheed is Research Fellow at the Institute for Defence and Strategic Analyses (IDSA) based in New Delhi since August 2016. For over 20 years, he has been a journalist, researcher, political commentator for various international think tanks and media organizations, both in the United Arab Emirates and India. He was Senior Research Fellow at the United Services Institution of India (USI) for two years from 2014 to 2016, where he still holds the honorary title of Distinguished Fellow. He has also worked at the Abu Dhabi-based think tank The Emirates Center for Strategic Studies and Research (ECSSR) for eight years (2006-14).

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