At the root of political understanding and argument is the question of what human beings are and, therefore, how they ought to act. And the answers to those questions seem tied to our understanding of the rest of the natural world we inhabit. How we answer these questions as a community profoundly effects the practical realities of our political life.
In “Skepticism, Experience, and Science,” Glenn Ellmers and J. Eric Wise argue that modern science has sought “to bring the natural world, including mankind, under control by reducing all phenomena—including political phenomena—to their material components.” This led to the rejection of any reasonable or natural basis for morality, or how we ought to act. But it has ultimately led to stagnation and confusion in the sciences themselves, which currently face looming questions of great import for all of human society. Artificial intelligence pushes us to consider what thought actually is. Meanwhile, the notion of human equality upon which America was founded is quietly threatened by certain scientific understandings of human beings.
Ellmers and Wise claim that the skeptical political philosophy that Leo Strauss helped resuscitate in the last century is necessary in order to address the very real political and intellectual problems science has wrought. They say that “For Plato and Aristotle, Strauss emphasized, the ground of justice could be found in the order and ends of the whole or universe; but this ‘cosmic teleology’ had been upended by the success of modern science, according to which nature provides no information that can serve to advise politics.” On the other hand, no one disputes that modern science has given us deeper understanding into the operations of nature. While Strauss sought to address such open-ended questions, Ellmers and Wise claim his intellectual descendants have shied away from the experiential study of nature, and condemn them accordingly.
Ellmers and Wise have touched off a sustained series of responses in conversation with their essay. We feature them here.