I won’t attempt eloquence at this. Many people, like National Review correspondents Jonah Goldberg or Kevin D. Williamson, have eloquently criticized famed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson’s ill-conceived Tweet of last week: “Earth needs a virtual country: #Rationalia, with a one-line Constitution: All policy shall be based on the weight of evidence[.]” His Tweet was followed by a compilation of photos of prominent scientists such as Carolyn Porco and Richard Dawkins holding a sign stating, “Citizen of #Rationalia.”
The reason this reductionist type of thinking—beyond its simplicity—is problematic should be quite obvious: Evidence alone is not enough.
An evidence-based approach is not equivalent to being reasonable or rational. But let me put on my majored-in-economics-and-psychology thinking caps for a moment for a stroll down hypothetical lane.
Economists will have heard of positive statements (facts) and normative statements (value-based). Just because the facts are there doesn’t mean they imply the same conclusions. What if the evidence supports multiple policy approaches, as politicians often disagree over what appears to be minutia, to significant effect?
How do we determine whether the weight of evidence for one policy is stronger than the other? How do we even decide on what weight means? How could some quantifiable, enduring value exist on an “intrinsic” and stable weight of evidence for a policy? How would we ever be able to test policy against moving targets—against the complex, intersecting systems of thought and social function that guide our societies and change over time?
What about policies that have yet to be tested? Ones without a supporting body of research? Do we build hypothetical models and forget that they are only representations of reality but not reality itself? Because I’m sure that’s sensible and has worked out for us in the past. (Not.)
But these questions are moot because in a simplistic hypothetical situation, the hypothetical factors to be questioned multiply.
What’s more worrisome are the people who don’t see #Rationalia as problematic, or even if they do, they believe that an ideal model for which all human life should be governed exists (and some even purport to know what that model is). Sadly this “smarter-than-thou” attitude is evident within the secular movement, as well as within progressive and liberal demographics.
Humanism accepts its transitory nature humbly, knowing its place as a reflection of how we think we can live best with the guidance of existing evidence—evidence that is not necessarily the unattached and objectively “weighty” evidence that Dr. Tyson might prefer. A blindly smug preference for the so-called “hard” sciences makes an ironic mockery of their own human identities because human beings, whether we like it or not, are driven by emotion—even in our pursuit of logical perfection. Call it neurochemicals and synapses or call it sadness, happiness, fear, but we are not separate entities from our imperfect biological and evolutionary selves.
Yet many atheists love to use this type of faith in scientism to discredit lived experiences, social justice, and the very nature of being human. I’m sorry, but we are not in an era of transhumanism (where we may be closer to achieving some sort of abstract objectivity) quite yet, even if some of our technology hints at it.
Philosopher John Kekes, in his latest work, Human Predicaments and What to Do About Them, writes of intersectionality, though he calls it “evaluative frameworks” and explains it from a societal scale. He argues that we are guided by these frameworks and our own self-knowledge, not by Rawls’s nonexistent ideal theory or eudaimonia:
It is a system of widely shared aesthetic, economic, educational, legal, literary, medical, moral, political, religious, scientific, and other modes of evaluation. The evaluations derived from them often conflict, their relative importance is frequently controversial, and the conditions to which they guide possible responses continually change. The evaluative framework is not a rigid structure but a flexible social construct always in a state of flux.
Ideological and religious differences, waves of immigration, multiculturalism, and secularization have transformed our society and made it much less homogenous than it used to be. Now several evaluative frameworks coexist in greater or lesser harmony.
The many weights of evidence are not so easy to distill when the whole is not equal to the sum of its parts.
While #Rationalia may seem to have harmless intentions in its message, it is dangerously invalidating. We must not forget that life is never as simple as our ideals. As much as we long to distill the complexity of being human into pithy axioms, the experience is still much more profound.