Thursday, November 03, 2005

Universal and necessary history

My posting yesterday on Michael Novak of the conservative American Enterprise Institute brought to mind Emerson's essay The Conservative, which every American might profitably read in these distressingly polarized times, and which should be in the curriculum of every school.

This is the essay in which Emerson famously said: "Conservatism makes no poetry, breathes no prayer, has no invention; it is all memory. Reform has no gratitude, no prudence, no husbandry." If any institution -- state or church -- is to prosper, it must find a way to balance conservatism and reform, past and future, wisdom and wit, wrote Emerson: "Each is a good half, but an impossible whole."

Those of us who incline towards liberalism have been discouraged in recent years by the dismaying rise of muscular conservatism. But we can take solace in the knowledge -- as Emerson reminds us -- that both conservatism and innovation are part of organic nature (they are in fact at the heart of evolution by natural selection), and popular opinion will eventually swing, as it must, our way.

Meanwhile, one of our institutions -- science -- maintains a rather steady course between the Scylla of fixity and the Charybdis of anarchy.

Any system of ideas that makes a claim to truth must be conservative. If every idea has equal currency in the marketplace of ideas then truth becomes a matter of whim, politics, expediency, or the tyranny of the strong.

Science has evolved an elaborate system of social organization, communication, and peer review to ensure a high degree of conformity with the existing orthodoxy. This conservative approach to change has allowed for an orderly and exhaustive examination of fruitful ideas. It has allowed science a measure of insulation from fads, political upheavals, religious conflicts, and international strife.

Offbeat ideas have a hard time of it in science, but not an impossible time. Revolutions are few and far between, but they do happen. The mantra I have used here on several occasions is this: Science is radically open to marginal change, and marginally open to radical change.

So, yes, science is conservative, but of all truth systems that have helped people organize experience, science has proved to be the most reliably progressive. And all of this by institutional consensus with a minimum of strife. Scientists affirm in their very devotion to research Emerson's belief that the hopes of humankind transcend all previous experience.