From both the left and the right I have received exasperated e-mails pronouncing that I simply don't understand what democracy, science, and progress consist of and depend on in some deep sort of way. For these critics democracy, science, and progress appear to rely for their intelligibility and force on the stalwart defense of certain "realist" intuitions that look to me more or less indistinguishable from the claims of religious fundamentalists.
I want to illustrate my point by disagreeing with the spirit of a passage from which many generations of good progressives have drawn inspiration in their struggles for democracy and social justice. My inspiration for this argument comes from Richard Rorty's similar use of the same passage in a chapter of his book, Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. The passage is from George Orwell's incomparably bleak and influential depiction of the workings of a modern mediated police state, 1984:
His heart sank as he thought of the enormous power arrayed against him... And yet he was right! ... Truisms are true, hold on to that! The solid world exists, its laws do not change. Stones are hard, water is wet, objects unsupported fall towards the earth's centre. With the feeling that he was speaking to O'Brien [the novel's unflappable and accomplished intellectual villain, a representative of the Inner Party of the police state], and also that he was setting forth an important axiom, [the novel's protagonist Winston] wrote: "Freedom is the freedom to say that two plus two make four. If that is granted, all else follows."
For Winston it is the solidity of the world itself (which he mistakenly treats as one and the same thing as the certainty he maintains in scientifically warranted beliefs) that buttresses his poor personal strength in the fight against overwhelming social injustice and organized violence. It is in the truth of our truisms that we are equal to the overbearing forces arrayed against us.
Needless to say, I myself draw no strength at all from such romantic fancies, and in fact I consider such faithful commonplaces to be deranging distractions from the actual work on which humans must depend to preserve some measure of peace and justice in the world. It is only fair to point out that even in the novel itself Winston's faith is exposed as heartbreakingly naive. If he thinks that his knowledge that 2 + 2 = 4 will somehow protect him from the suave O'Brien's taste for torture he discovers soon enough just how wrong he is.
All of this reminds me of the way I sometimes feel myself to differ in my own passionate and longstanding advocacy of nonviolence from the faith that lies at the heart of the commitment to nonviolence of many of my own heroes. While I am moved by the example and by the vision of Tolstoy, Gandhi, King, Day, and so many others, I have to admit that as a cheerful nonjudgmental atheist of more than two decades' conviction my own nonviolence lacks the "secure" foundation they confidently claim for their own. I cannot share in that moment which seems to recur so often in their writings and in the story of their lives when, confronted by the unfathomably monstrous scale of oppression and aggression, they testify to the faith that they ride an irresistible tide of history, that injustice and tyranny will be impelled to a devastation they can somehow discern in the very grain of the world.
Of course, Dostoievsky once famously worried that if god does not exist then all is permitted. Winston Smith maintains a faith in a sort of regulatory power inhering in scientifically warranted descriptions, just as many spiritual champions of nonviolence maintain the faith that their vision is not only righteous but freighted with inevitability. It is as if these faithful ones are untouched by Dostoievsky's quandary altogether. Truth exists and is captured in full by our scientific truisms, God's love will prevail and is implemented in full by our nonviolent struggles against injustice: and because truth exists, because God's love exists then evil is not permitted to prevail in the world.
But I do not believe the Universe has preferences in the matter of how humans describe it. I do not believe the Universe has preferences in the matter of how humans arrange their social affairs.
Because I do not believe in God I find that I pin my hopes instead on the people with whom I share the world.
I think that the norms, protocols, and institutions of consensus science provide us with the most reliable candidates for belief when what we want from a belief is more power to control our environment and anticipate experience. I think that the norms, protocols, and institutions of democratic governance, universal rights and general welfare provide us with the fairest, most prosperous, least corrupt, least violent social order.
I think that the warranted descriptions of consensus science are every one of them defeasible, and every one of them freighted with the values of the political practices and social worlds in which they arise, just as I think that democratic attainments are unspeakably fragile and susceptible to corruption. The views that seem to be derided and denigrated under the banner of "postmodernism" seem to me to diagnose exactly the difficulties of sensible clear-headed advocates of consensus science and democratization in a world for which technological developments have confounded traditional comfortable pieties on which people normally rely in times of threatening change and confront them instead with an overabundant inassimilable plurality of differences, demands, dangers, and problems.
Those who think I do not grasp what science, democracy, and progress depend on for their continued existence could not be more wrong. With no God to depend on to show us the Way, with no manifest Truths to invest our convictions with certainty, it is we who are called upon to make a world in the midst of our distress. Democracy, like science, needs no priests... only collaborators.