Mises Wire

Decolonizers’ Assault on Science

Those who have (wisely) not been following the “decolonization” debate may be surprised to learn that decolonizers characterize reason and rationality as cultural constructs that ought to be rejected, as these are said to be “based upon epistemological assumptions deeply rooted in the Western philosophical tradition” and therefore “perpetuate hegemonic thinking.” The decolonizers argue that reason and rationality ought to yield to “other ways of knowing” that are said to be derived from non-Western cultures.

Bringing down the West is seen as an essential step in promoting “multiculturalism” and ultimately “social justice.” One of the most surprising features of this movement is that it attacks not only the humanities and social sciences, which might have been relatively unremarkable, but also the natural sciences. Nature offers teachers of science a “decolonizing science toolkit” with “examples of how institutions and scientific departments are recasting curricula and addressing racism’s influence,” further informing us that “we have nothing to fear from the decolonization of mathematics.”

This assault on reason and science is not a recent invention but is rooted in longer-running attempts to undermine the idea that there is an objective reality or that reality can be objectively analyzed. As Nature observes, the decolonization movement is rooted in “an older, more academically focused debate on whether—or to what extent—scientific knowledge is socially constructed.” The academic debate has drawn inspiration from critiques of objectivity such as “deconstructionism,” according to which, as Murray Rothbard explains, “there is no objective truth or, if there is, we can never discover it. With each person being bound to his own subjective views, feelings, history, and so on, there is no method of discovering objective truth.”

Nobody knows what is best for humanity, so we are left to fall back on our different opinions with no objective standard by which to evaluate what is best for society or, to put the point differently, with no common concern for the welfare of society. Each person closes ranks with other members of his own group and seeks to promote the group’s welfare and to defend their group rights against attacks from other groups. This is the justification given for “protected groups” in civil rights law: each group is classified as “vulnerable” and in need of special protection, and all groups are pitted against one another in the quest to protect their own interests. Paradoxically, it is those who trumpet about “social justice” whose concept of justice merely involves the enforcement of their personal and group priorities and who have no regard for whether they destroy society in the process of fighting with other groups.

One criticism levied against reason by its detractors is that human beings are not always reasonable. In making choices, we are admittedly prone to irrationality and error, our decisions often influenced by our emotions or personal idiosyncrasies, so it would be unwise to suppose that we are always governed by the dictates of reason. The critique is that holding people to expectations or standards dictated by reason is therefore unrealistic and unfair.

However, defenders of universal human reason do not suppose that people will always choose to follow the dictates of reason. In Human Action, Ludwig von Mises explains: “The honest and conscientious truth-seekers have never pretended that reason and scientific research can answer all questions. They were fully aware of the limitations imposed on the human mind.” Rothbard further explains: “It is not, of course, that Mises believes that men will always listen to reason, or follow its dictates; it is simply that, insofar as men act at all, they are capable of following reason.”

Nor does a defense of reason presume the absence of errors. In Human Action, Mises explains that “human reason is not infallible, and that man very often errs in selecting and applying means.” As Rothbard further explains, the fact that we make errors does not mean that we are not rational beings. On the contrary, it is only through reason and rationality that we can live:

Man is born with no innate knowledge of what ends to choose or how to use which means to attain them. Having no inborn knowledge of how to survive and prosper, he must learn what ends and means to adopt, and he is liable to make errors along the way. But only his reasoning mind can show him his goals and how to attain them.

In Human Action, Mises debunks the claim by opponents of reason that all they are concerned about is the threat from hubristic demagogues who delude themselves that they are all-wise and all-knowing and must therefore subjugate lesser mortals. Mises points out that the “revolt against reason” is not driven, as claimed by its standard bearers, by apprehension that the pursuit of reason is predicated upon the omniscience of man. Their revolt aims not to remind us of human fallibility and propensity to err, as its proponents claim, but to promote socialism.

Mises further points out that in its origins, the revolt against science “did not aim at the natural sciences, but at economics. The attack against the natural sciences was only the logically necessary outcome of the attack against economics. It was impermissible to dethrone reason in one field only and not to question it in other branches of knowledge also.” Mises observes that “the economists had entirely demolished the fantastic delusions of the socialist utopians,” and it was this—rather than any concerns about omniscience—that explain their revolt against reason:

The communist ideas were done for. The socialists were absolutely unable to raise any objection to the devastating criticism of their schemes and to advance any argument in their favor. It seemed as if socialism was dead forever. Only one way could lead the socialists out of this impasse. They could attack logic and reason.

It was inevitable, therefore, that the attempt to destroy capitalism would end up also attacking science. It is from the anticapitalists and antiracists that we hear the slogan “science must fall.” Drawing upon Karl Marx’s view that logic is determined by class (Mises calls this “Marxian polylogism”), they have promoted the idea that logic is determined by race (racial polylogism) and therefore argue that scientific principles developed by members of one race are invalid for other races.

As Rothbard explains in Economic Controversies, the science of human action is based on the nature of man as a being with free will and the ability to choose: “To ignore this primordial fact about the nature of man—to ignore his volition, his free will—is to misconstrue the facts of reality and therefore to be profoundly and radically unscientific.” When polylogists deny that human beings share in common the ability to choose and deny that reason and rationality are essential attributes of human nature, they are rejecting both human nature and science as a discipline based on rational inquiry.

One of the gravest implications of this assault on reason and science is that it leaves people from different cultures with no foundation for cooperation and peaceful coexistence. As Mises warns in The Clash of Group Interests, “If the members of the various groups are not even in a position to agree with regard to mathematical and physical theorems and biological problems, they will certainly never find a pattern for a smoothly functioning social organization.” At present, we cannot even agree on what is a woman, much less on the meaning of justice. If we cannot reason together, we must resign ourselves to endless conflict, lacking a common foundation or even a common language with which to understand the world. This is ultimately why science is worth defending—not simply because it enables humanity to make progress and thrive, but also because without objective scientific principles, we are left with nothing but endless conflict.

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