Much like our fan-favorite episode from last year on Heraclitus with Eva Brann, on this episode recorded on 6/6/14, we talked to an author, Lynda Walsh (an old friend of Seth’s) about her book, and just as a good chunk of what was interesting about talking with Eva and reading her book was getting a flavor for the methodological practices by which she approaches philosophy–which in Eva’s case involved the St. John’s/Heideggerian use of etymology–Lynda is likewise coming from a tradition strange to most of us philosophy fans: She’s a professor of rhetoric.
Now, we’ve discussed rhetoric as Plato saw (and dissed) it back in episode 69, and we talked to another guest from this tradition in taking on Deleuze, but here I think is the first discussion we’ve had that explicitly takes on the issue of the relation between philosophy and rhetoric as these are practiced in the modern era.
Lynda’s overall project involves analyzing the role of the science advisor in history, and her book is called Scientists as Prophets: A Rhetorical Genealogy. While we’re focusing on chapters 4-6 the role of the modern science advisor in political life, using J. Robert Oppenheimer as a chief example, the book kicks off with, as the title indicates, a historical examination of old-timey prophets, chiefly the Oracle at Delphi.
You may think that such prophets merely as literary devices to provide foreshadowing and screw with the protagonists’ minds, but Lynda deals with them as an element of political science: prophets were consulted because they supposedly had special insight/knowledge/experiences, and their authority could bring about political certainty: it could generate enough consensus so that actions could be taken in a polity that might otherwise be in stale-mate. The prophet was external to the establishment, but had to in general deliver messages already in tune with established mores lest she be dismissed as a false prophet: Lynda describes this as the prophet recalling people to covenant values. While in literature, the prophet is often predicting the future, in practice it was more typical for the prophet to advise re. present action in light of what the community already valued.
Modern science advisors, says Lynda, play a similar political role, and J. Robert Oppenheimer after WWII demonstrated this. Speaking as an expert with access to both arcane science and political knowledge (as an insider and advisor to the government), Oppenheimer wasn’t just delivering technical information for people to take under advisement in making political decisions, but was actively preaching moral attitudes, centered around how fricking scary it is now that we have the power to blow up the world. When a conservative administration came to power, Oppenheimer’s cautionary voice was no longer in tune with the powers-that-be, and he was stripped of his security clearance in an infamous show trial.
Lynda’s thesis is that we put science advisers in an untenable position: we want not just probabilities but certainty out of them, we hear them as making recommendations for action even if that’s not what they intend, yet we slam them down if they tell them what we don’t want to hear. We say “you just give us the facts, and we’ll make the decisions,” even though such “facts” are inevitably value-laden, and in any case a good deal of science is simply going to be inaccessible to lay-people such that scientists really have to play some part in the actual decision-making, in the judgment calls re., e.g., whether some threat (nuclear extinction, meteors, global warming, pesticides) is dire enough that we have to do something about it, and what sacrifices are worth making in our defense.
In addition to reading Lynda’s book, we read and analyzed a speech by Oppenheimer from 1950 that was typical of his rhetoric at the time: “Encouragement of Science,” an address delivered to an awards banquet for young “science talent” that plays with the is-ought distinction. It’s not that science tells us what we ought to do, exactly, but it has “changed the form in which practical problems of right and wrong come before us.” In short, it provides us with great power, which requires great responsibility, and scientists need to extend the “spirit of science” from not merely doing good experiments and constructing astute theories to critical thinking and openness in the political realm. Oppenheimer (quoting F.D.R. quoting Jefferson) relates the advancement of science with the advancement of society, centering on the ideal of progress. Scientists need to not just make cool things but improve human life, which of course means caring not just about what they’re working on, but how it will be applied.
This message is perhaps not very revelatory as philosophy, mixing common sense and strange conceit in a manner familiar to our listeners. It describes not the present state of science (as the only legitimate route to knowledge and the source of all things good in not only material but social life, i.e. scientism), but the ideal of science as CUDOS, i.e. as communal/universal/disinterested/original/skeptical, and not controlled by a political or economic agenda as much funded scientific work is. We’ve seen this connection between scientific skepticism and political openness before with Karl Popper, and in considering Oppenheimer’s story we get to hear about how this failed to play out in the real world, as Eisenhower was none too pleased with Oppenheimer’s suggestions that nuclear technology was too powerful to keep to ourselves and that developing bombs too powerful for us to ever want to actually use was catastrophically wasteful and dangerous, even if thrilling from a purely technological point of view.
You can get lots more information about Oppenheimer’s story from many biographies; the one most often recommended is American Prometheus
I got a lot out of this interview with Clay Jenkinson, and also Jenkinson’s “living history” lecture with him playing the part of Oppenheimer. For even more biography (including some truly crazy stuff about his student life, where he apparently tried to kill two people), watch this lecture by Ray Monk, author of Robert Oppenheimer: A Life Inside the Center: