Scientists as Modern-Day Prophets

Have scientists become our modern-day prophets?

| September 2013

Scientists as Prophets

Lynda Walsh argues why science advisors are modern-day prophets in “Scientists as Prophets."

Cover Courtesy Oxford University Press

In Scientists as Prophets (Oxford University Press, 2013), author Lynda Walsh argues that science advisors are our modern-day prophets. Walsh demonstrates how scientists resort to prophetic ethos when they need to persuade the public in policy change or funding research. Both scholars and citizens alike can appreciate the roots of scientific authority in debates such as climate change and evolution. This excerpt was taken from the prelude.

“There is no god, and Sam Harris is his prophet.” This comment appeared on an Internet forum discussing a new editorial by Harris, a neuroethicist who has published a series of provocative arguments with titles like “The God Fraud” and The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Moral Values. Harris claims in these polemics that human well-being is paramount and we should promote moral systems that increase it and dismantle systems that don’t. If you haven’t read Harris’s work or can’t guess from the above titles, he believes science increases well-being while religion doesn’t, particularly for women and poor people.

While Harris is not presently practicing science, he does hold a PhD in neuroscience from the University of California, Los Angeles. He promotes science-based morality through his nonprofit, Project Reason, as well as on an active lecture circuit. In his 2010 Technology Entertainment Design (TED) conference talk, Harris was by turns witty, tear-jerking, and caustic as he implored his audience to turn to science as humankind’s only hope for peace, progress, and fulfillment.

It is not surprising, then, that Harris’s performances have triggered responses like the one quoted above. Michael Dowd, a self-identified “evolutionary evangelist” and commentator for Minnesota Public Radio, recently lauded Harris, Richard Dawkins, and Christopher Hitchens as the “New Atheists” who are not enemies of religion; they are modern-day prophets. Prophets traditionally were those who chastised their people for having fallen out of sync with their time, with “God’s ways.” “Come into right relationship with reality,” they warned, “or perish!” Today’s science-oriented atheists call us scientists as prophets into right relationship with our time, and that means using all of our best information and cross-cultural experience. While Harris has not identified himself as a prophet, neither has he rejected any of these recurring attributions. In fact, he calls himself a “heretic,” and he gave Project Reason the evangelistic motto “spreading science and secular thinking.” He titled one of his books A Letter to a Christian Nation, a phrasing strongly reminiscent of St. Paul’s admonitions to the early Christian church.

What I argue in this book about Harris’s reception as a prophet, he might find vexing given his sentiments on religion: I argue that Harris’s prophetic performances, conscious or otherwise, are far from anomalous; in fact, they’re the norm. When Sam Harris steps up to convince the audience at TED or the readers of the Huffington Post that science is the only rational basis for human morality, he steps up to an invisible bully pulpit shaped by thousands of years of religious tradition. This stance, which I call the “prophetic ethos,” preexisted science as Harris would recognize it by millennia and developed in the inner sancta of the very religions he calls “absurdities.” Yet, without the special rhetorical privileges it affords, Harris would be preaching his brand of salvation to the crickets.

The prophetic ethos is a role that a polity—a group of people who must work together to stay together—authorizes to manufacture certainty for them. Now, given that uncertainty is our perennial and inescapable political condition, certainty—in the sense of absolute knowledge—is a chimera. But there is another meaning of certainty that most of us recognize, and that is a sense of conviction. This kind of certainty, which I call “political certainty,” is very much achievable, at least for short periods of time. Political certainty is an argument that frames a crisis in terms of “covenant values,” which are what I call the values that a polity shares and that distinguish it from its neighboring polities. When we reference American values, scientific values, or conservative values, we are talking about covenant values. It is because we hold these values ourselves (or profess to) and recognize performances of them by those around us that we count ourselves together as a polity of Americans, scientists, or conservatives. These values underpin such arguments as “free markets are best,” “the simplest explanation is the best,” and “preserving our traditional way of life is best.” The temporary political certainty expressed in such arguments can motivate political action or policy.

9/24/2013 10:58:37 AM

Since the invention of agriculture and the wheel, humans have used every product of human ingenuity and (prophetic) leadership to wage war on each other and on the planet's life resources by increasing without limit the human population and human's addictions to consumption. Science today is the chief tool used by global corporations to pursue their headlong rush to destroy all life on the planet…

9/24/2013 10:47:23 AM

From Archimedes to Einstein, scientists have always been in the business of giving matches to babies and then walking away as the house burns down. Their engineering creations have put all life on the planet in jeopardy. Science is without morals, and scientists like it that way. They collect their salaries and rewards, and life on the planet pays the price of their egotism. I am a P.Eng. and I know first hand their arrogance and sureness,lack of humility, and willingness to do what the boss wants..