Thursday, January 03, 2013

A mind free to roam

Joseph Priestly, the English scientist best known as the discoverer of oxygen, expressed to Thomas Jefferson his hope that "politics will not make you forget what is due to science."

Not much chance of that. A keen scientific curiosity was a central part of Jefferson's makeup. In his best-selling biography of Jefferson, Jon Meacham writes:
Jefferson, in fact, saw [science and politics] as connected. A politics of personal liberty created a sense of free inquiry. A man liberated from monarchical or hereditary limitations stood a greater chance of possessing a mind free to roam and to grow and to create and to innovate in a climate in which citizens lived together in essential harmony and affection. This was Jefferson's ideal republic –- and he was committed to making it real.
It is an unending battle, keeping Jefferson's ideal alive. The "hereditary limitation" of religion, especially, threatens free inquiry when it tends towards dogmatism, as is the case in many parts of the world today, including, sadly, Jefferson's own country. Keeping the political arena free of dogmatism is a Jeffersonian principle to which all of us who love free inquiry remain committed. We would not wish to suppress anyone's religious belief, but neither do we want the stultifying influence of dogmatic belief to become dominant in political or social discourse. We do not forget "what is due to science," in both directional senses of that phrase.