We are a commune of inquiring, skeptical, politically centrist, capitalist, anglophile, traditionalist New England Yankee humans, humanoids, and animals with many interests beyond and above politics. Each of us has had a high-school education (or GED), but all had ADD so didn't pay attention very well, especially the dogs. Each one of us does "try my best to be just like I am," and none of us enjoys working for others, including for Maggie, from whom we receive neither a nickel nor a dime. Freedom from nags, cranks, government, do-gooders, control-freaks and idiots is all that we ask for.
Levin shows that the Joe Friday ideal of science-"Just the facts, ma'am"-overlooks the woods for the trees. It ignores the reality that science, as we take it for granted, is a relatively new phenomenon in human history and was brought about by men who saw science and healthy politics as inextricably linked. Modern science came into being in the 17th century through the thought and action of a handful of great thinkers, foremost among them Francis Bacon and René Descartes. They successfully sought to change the character of scientific activity for distinctively human and political ends.
Ancient science was contemplative: It sought to understand nature, but was content to let it run its course. The scientific project founded by Bacon and Descartes saw nature as hostile to human prosperity, as penurious and arbitrary. Far from being a source of guidance on how to live, nature was something to be overcome or conquered. Science was, in Bacon's famous phrase, to be put in the service of "the relief of man's estate." A new order was to emerge in which science would progressively conquer poverty and disease and hold out the prospect of the indefinite extension of human life. Empirical science was to be the means of political reformation. Levin nicely sums up the less sober aspirations born of the modern scientific project in this way:
From the very beginning, the modern worldview has given rise to peculiar utopianisms of various stripes, all grounded in the dream of overcoming nature and living, free of necessity and fear, able to meet every one of our needs and our whims, and able, most especially, to live indefinitely in good health. This brand of utopianism generally begins in a benign libertarianism, though at times it has ended in political extremism, if not the guillotine.
We're far from the guillotine, but you only have to think about the relative capacities of smoking, on the one hand, and blasphemy, on the other, to generate indignation and see precisely to what extent this peculiarly modern moralism has taken hold.
To be sure, Levin is not the first to observe the hidden political foundations and aims of modern science, but you would be hard pressed to find a treatment that is equally accessible, engaging, and precise. What is new here is the manner in which he uses his scholarly knowledge to illumine the character of our contemporary (and future) political life.