Finding Meaning in Politics, Science

Without ideological struggles that test our values and beliefs, how can we know what is "truth"

By | December 1, 2008

The wave of euphoria across the globe triggered by the election of Barack Obama as the next American president set me thinking on what constitutes meaning in our lives. One man with a lot to say on the subject is Václav Havel—playwright, political dissident, president, and a hero of our time.

In his book Living in Truth, Havel described the worth of a life of struggle against an oppressive regime. One passage that resonates with us as scientists reads: "The warning voice of a single brave scientist, besieged somewhere in the provinces and terrorized by a goaded community, can be heard over continents and addresses the conscience of the mighty of this world more clearly than entire brigades of hired propagandists can."

You get the sense from Havel's writings that, although certainly not preferable to our current comfortable circumstances, life is more vivid and meaningful when lived against a domineering counterpoint that is actively preventing you from pursuing your ideals. I imagine that few readers of The Scientist are put in the position where they have to demonstrate bravery for the cause. Perhaps those standing up for evolution in the face of overwhelming local opposition and advocates for animal research in Europe know the feeling.

Today we don't even have a good example of an alternative political ideology. Anyone from a Western country who is under the age of 40 has no appreciation of the great struggle between capitalism and communism that Havel was caught up in. In my youth, we at least had the abstract notion of communism as favoring equality and justice; it served as a parameter (an imaginary one as it turned out) against which to measure our system of liberty.

So where today can we—especially younger generations—find larger meaning in our lives, without being in the midst of a great ideological struggle? A pursuit of science may be one way. For Havel, living in truth "has a metaphysical anchoring in the infinite and eternal"; science offers a physical rather than metaphysical anchoring in reality. Havel's domains are drama and politics. He wrote that the literary arts try "to deal with [the] fundamental amorphousness of life, to uncover something like the structure of Being, to display in vivid terms its internal weave, its hidden structure, and its real articulation." So too, does biology. Except that biology provides an iron-clad set of rules to work within, rather than to react against.

Part of Havel's charm is that he doesn't consider himself to be an outstanding artist: "I do not belong to that fortunate class of authors who write constantly, quickly, easily, and always well, whose imaginations never tire and who—unhampered by doubts or inhibitions—are by nature open to the world." How many of you experience the same feelings about your research? I know how much I struggle with these editorials!

Long before the Obama-fever that triggered this editorial, Havel had also encapsulated the possibilities of politics. He acknowledged that it may "appear to be hopelessly boring, a gray, dull administrative grind," and a "strange, never-ending process with no clear turning points and no unambiguous and immediately recognizable outcomes." To counteract this, Daniel J. Mahoney1 wrote that Havel attempts to awaken his readers to the "structure of Being" that underlies even prosaic political life. His memos and diary entries jump from period to period in an effort to reveal the underlying connections and "real meaning."

With the current new dawn here in the United States, we see what Havel means about politics. And as scientists we are in a strong position to adopt his attitude and to live meaningful lives.




Posts: 1

December 4, 2008

Re: "Finding Meaning in Politics, Science". I liked Richard Gallagher's editorial, but I'm not sure that he has touched on the core of the issue he raises. It is vitally important that scientists learn how to connect their work in science with other domains of social life, particularly culture and politics. It is not so easy to do. Caught up in the demands of a life in science or technology, one can lose sight of the many social problems that are loaded with scientific and technological implications. Now that the "great ideological struggle" that Richard refers to has subsided, we can see more clearly than ever that our attention to it was distracting us from a host of concerns that should have been in our sights: global warming, radical fundamentalism, irrational policies with respect to energy, agriculture and health care, the dominance of special interest groups in political life - the list is long. Scientists should not lack "causes" to connect to in their search for meaning in their lives and work. Rather the challenge for them is to pry themselves away from their work to learn more about many grave problems that confront humankind, and to figure out how they can contribute as scientists to solutions. Science has failed to exercise the authoritative leadership in public affairs that society needs from it. The problem is not, as some scientists love to believe is the case, that nonscientists don't know enough about science. It is that nonscientists don't know enough about scientists and what they stand for - in their local communities, in political action and advocacy groups, and at all levels of the political process. Scientists need to get involved. \n By the way, some of Havel's concerns were anticipated many years ago by Max Weber, who in 1918 wrote "Science as a Vocation". (Weber, Max. 1918. The Vocation Lectures: Science as a Vocation, Politics as a Vocation. Trans. David S. Owen, Tracy B. Strong and Rodney Livingstone. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett Publishing. 2004\n,_Science_a15767A.pdf ) Writing in the aftermath of World War I Weber addressed himself to those who were entering the ranks of academic science. While parts of the lecture are outdated, Weber had things to say about science's relationship to art and political life that are relevant today. \n\n\n

December 18, 2008

Scientists have a lot of specific issues to be engaged with (in addition to what normally a person has that in general are linked to the love of the proximate and human dignity), a brief (and incomplete) list:\n1) To dare to say no to pure repetition of the already known, already judged as useless, 'safe and established' reseearch that now constitutes the grat majority of biological science, only done for possible profits or (worse) for ideologically giving the impression of a total control of human feelings and actions (e.g. a gene for everything, the neuroimage map of your souls and other amenities..).\n2) To dare to say 'I want to push onward the knowledge, even without being immediately traslational' and for doing so I need to follow still unexplored paths.\n3) To dare to be simple and to be understood outside the strict range of super specialists.\n4) To go against an over-simplified scientism \n5) To put 'science in culture' and thus to make an effort to explain the general implications of a given research.

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