The Era of Science and Democracy

on September 11, 2009

In the first of this series of posts, I began a discussion of how human history has been shaped by a series of differing visions of the fundamental nature of existence.

These visions are of three distinct types, depending on whether they are based on insights drawn from the observation of nature, from the prevailing social structure, or from inner experience. As the extent of human knowledge in all three areas increases, new visions are formulated that provide an ever-broader perspective — but the same three types recur over and over again.

Throughout the course of history, one vision of each of the three types has been present in every culture. Except during relatively brief periods of transition, however, just two visions actively influence the day-to-day functioning of the society, while the one which is undergoing reformulation develops in relative obscurity on the sidelines.

The two dominant visions gradually establish a tightly integrated partnership, which provides the culture with a set of universally accepted consensus beliefs that help maintain its integrity, coherence, and sense of purpose.

From the 1930’s to the 1960’s, for example, the consensus beliefs of the United States grew out of a partnership of two visions that were most commonly known at the time as “science” and “democracy.”

“Science” was then understood to mean not only the practical business of research and theory, but also a vision of the universe that might more specifically be called “scientific materialism.”

According to the vision of scientific materialism, the universe consisted of particles of matter zooming through empty space and occasionally bumping into each other in ways that could be perfectly described by simple, inexorable physical equations. There was nothing outside the universe, and everything within it, including life and mind, was no more than the product of random collisions among atoms.

This chilly and ultimately futile view of a universe without intrinsic meaning or purpose was a source of despair for many in the 1920’s and early 30’s.

However, there was also a far more optimistic outlook available — one drawn not from physics but from contemporary society. Democracy as a system of government based on the consent of the governed had been growing in scope and self-assurance all through the 1800’s, and by the early 20th century it had given rise to a vision of freedom and self-determination as the ultimate grounds of human existence.

In the early years of the Great Depression the democratic ideal was felt to be under siege. It was often suggested that more ruthless systems, such as fascism or communism, might do a better job of battling the problems which beset the world’s economy.

In the long run, however, the hardship of the Depression served as a crucible in which the vision of science and the vision of democracy were forged into a highly effective and long-lasting partnership.

It was not easy to combine two such divergent visions, in one of which human aspirations and ideals counted for nothing while in the other they meant everything.

But by the end of the 1930’s, a working relationship had been established in which democracy provided the dream of a better future and science the nuts-and-bolts of how to get there. The universe was still perceived as a vast, impersonal machine — but a machine that could be put to good use as long as it was subordinated to human purposes and made to serve human needs.

World War II provided the crucial test of this partnership. Once the war was over, the potent new combination of scientific know-how and democratic idealism was regularly given credit for the victory over the Axis powers.

By the 1950’s, belief in the limitless potential of science-and-democracy had become the cornerstone of American society — as may be seen from the regularity with which it was invoked in presidential inaugural addresses.

In 1953, at the height of the Cold War, President Eisenhower spoke of the challenge of living at “a moment when man’s power to achieve good or to inflict evil surpasses the brightest hopes and the sharpest fears of all ages. We can turn rivers in their courses, level mountains to the plains. Oceans and land and sky are avenues for our colossal commerce.”

A few paragraphs later, he went on to say, “Freedom is pitted against slavery; lightness against the dark. The faith we hold belongs not to us alone but to the free of all the world. … The strength of all free peoples lies in unity; their danger, in discord. To produce this unity, to meet the challenge of our time, destiny has laid upon our country the responsibility of the free world’s leadership.”

Words like “destiny” and “leadership” are a sure sign that the dominant partnership is no longer as fresh or creative as it once was, but is starting to harden into a ruling ideology. As of the early 50’s, however, the creed of science and democracy still had a good deal of juice left in it.

For his second inaugural, in 1957, Eisenhower repeated the same themes on a more cheerful and less portentous note. “The air rings with the song of our industry,” he declared, “rolling mills and blast furnaces, dynamos, dams, and assembly lines — the chorus of America the bountiful. This is our home — yet this is not the whole of our world. For our world is where our full destiny lies — with men, of all people, and all nations, who are or would be free.”

The ideology of science and democracy may have attained its most perfect expression, however, when John Kennedy framed it in stirring rhetoric as part of his appeal for an end to the Cold War:

“Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors,” Kennedy proclaimed. “Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths, and encourage the arts and commerce. Let both sides unite to heed in all corners of the earth the command of Isaiah — to ‘undo the heavy burdens … and to let the oppressed go free.'”

In 1961, Kennedy’s words appeared both memorable and deeply inspiring. And yet something fundamental had changed only four years later, when Lyndon Johnson launched into his own inaugural by announcing, “Even now, a rocket moves toward Mars.”

That statement, immediately followed by a ringing endorsement of justice, liberty, and union, might appear on the surface to follow the well-worn formula — but the details were starting to shift dramatically.

In part, this was because Kennedy’s thrilling exhortation to “explore the stars” had morphed into the far more modest reality of an unmanned Mariner 4 probe that would fly past Mars the following July and send back 22 fuzzy pictures.

But there was more to it than that. The truth is that Johnson was not really interested in the conquest of space. What he actually wanted was for his audience to imagine themselves looking back at Earth from a distance and seeing both it and its many peoples as a whole.

“Think of our world as it looks from the rocket that is heading toward Mars,” Johnson urged. “It is like a child’s globe, hanging in space, the continents stuck to its side like colored maps. We are all fellow passengers on a dot of earth.”

Whole Earth 1968

In retrospect, Johnson’s image of the Earth as a child’s globe with continents “stuck to its side” is almost laughable — but understandably so. The first photograph of the whole Earth as seen from space would not be taken until 1968.

What is more significant is that Johnson was, astonishingly, one of just a handful of people who in 1965-66 were starting to articulate the concept of “Spaceship Earth” which would become commonplace only after the publication of that pivotal photo.

A concept of that sort could never have been imagined within the reductionist philosophy of scientific materialism. It represents an outlook far closer to the holistic and ecological philosophy of someone like Buckminster Fuller.

Johnson’s image of humanity as “fellow passengers on a dot of earth” marks the emergence of a viewpoint completely different from that which had given rise to Eisenhower’s chorus of blast furnaces or even Kennedy’s invocation of “the wonders of science.” It testifies to a radically altered understanding not only of the scientific universe but of our place within it.

As of 1965, however, that understanding was not yet ripe. Johnson’s own administration would be destroyed by a final spasm of misplaced faith in science-and-democracy that led him and his advisers to seek a World War II-style victory in Vietnam.

And with that apocalyptic failure, the 30-year-old partnership of science and democracy would lie in ruins.


A listing of all my posts on the cycle of visions can be found here.

A general overview of the areas of interest covered at this blog can be found here.

A chronological listing of all entries at this blog, with brief descriptions, can be found here.

A simple list of all the visions can be found here.

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