Wednesday 31 October 2012

Pro-scientism or Anti-scientism? Yes!

Adam Kotsko has an interesting post on the "hottest new trend in continental philosophy", namely "scientism."

The question of scientism is an interesting one and it's not an easy question to resolve, despite the 'with us or against us' way that most people deal with it.  There are two things I have to say about it:

Firstly, I am a fully subscribed Latourian insofar as I see science as one kind of knowledge practice among others, albeit one that is tied into very peculiar and massively powerful networks and perhaps one that has its own modes of reference and so on.  So, I don't accept that on the one hand we have science and the other we have all other kinds of knowledge or that scientific knowledge is necessarily better in any given instance.  Science is itself a plurality and while it is quite different to other practices (politics, religion, pseudo-science etc.) these are differences within a plurality, not a duality.  So I'm rather anti-scientistic in how I specifically and explicitly cognise scientific practice -- I'm anti-scientistic, intellectually speaking.

But, then, secondly, am I not quite naively scientistic in my everyday practices?  Do I believe in evolution, global warming, atoms?  Of course I do.  When I get sick do I follow medical science or voodoo?  The former, of course.  Do I accept the claims of geocentrism just because it's just one cosmology among others?  Of course not, I accept whatever I understand of the prevailing scientific consensus is, however complex and processual I understand such consensus to be.  Insofar as science has a widely accepted answer for a question of fact I basically accept it (this probably isn't absolutely true but it's true enough).

So, I actually feel slightly dishonest when I repeat the Latourian/Foucauldian, etc. slogans about science .  I preach these lessons and I hold them to be true but don't I practice a whole different kind of truth, generally?

Of course the Latourian pluralism with respect to scientific knowledge qua practice that I describe above isn't actually *incompatible* with this kind of naive, 'grade school' scientism that I otherwise assume but nor are the two things really harmonious.  They're not irreconcilable but nor do they sit easily together.  I do experience some cognitive dissonance between the two -- why is this?  I don't know.

Science is one kind of knowledge among others, yes.  But am I prepared to give other kinds of knowledge an equal hearing on questions of fact?  Hardly.  Am I anti-scientism or pro-scientism?  Both!

Just a thought rather than an argument but hopefully people can see where I'm coming from.  For the time being I think that scientism makes for a more interesting open question than it is a debating topic with sides pre-decided, as if anyone has all the answers.  We should take its contradictions as indication that no one has adequate answers yet.

Nature and Influence

To my last comment Levi replies:
"Given that naturalism and materialism have historically been the underdog positions, it’s difficult to see how they have been guilty of self-righteous entitlement. It’s hard to see how anything could be more self-righteous than Heidegger’s talk of enframing and the destining of being, or Derrida’s bombast about metaphysics. I also have a difficult time seeing naturalism and materialism as responsible for historical atrocities. Aren’t these more accurately laid at the feet of religion, fascisms, and totalitarianisms?"
I should have been more specific: within the Continental arena, yes, it's historically been an underdog.  But that's hardly true outside that specific arena, is it?  If we look at most other Western discursive traditions -- in science, technology, politics, even Anglophone philosophy -- naturalism and materialism have hardly been the sickly, downtrodden relatives, quite the contrary.  And which has had more ideological influence over the years, Continental philosophy or natural science?  Hegel or Darwin?  Heidegger or Spencer?  Zizek or Dawkins?  I'd bet on the latter each time, particularly in the first case!

The picture is complicated, of course, and idealism has its tendrils everywhere but you can hardly ignore the centrality of naturalism to the entire modernist mindset -- a mindset hardly troubled, in terms of its practical preponderance, by anything post- or anti-.  I definitely know far more hardcore naturalists than I do even mildly militant anti-naturalists (if I know any at all) and the vast majority of people who have no particular interest in one side or the other tend to accept 'grade school' naturalism as a given -- at least where I'm from.  Britain is rather more secular and science-friendly than other parts of the world, of course.  I was taught evolution and climate change as facts strictly separate from religious education and the difference was never an issue.  Your mileage may vary, as they say.

Anyway, the basic point is that while naturalism/materialism might be all shiny and new in Continental climes they have been the default setting elsewhere in the West.  The fact that it's new and exciting for Continental philosophers says more about that tradition than anything else.

With regard to the politics of it, weren't the colonial administrators who turned up to rationalise and administer the 'inferior races' doing so in the name of naturalism, materialism and science?  Okay, they were doing so in the name of 'Empire' too but not only that.  What gave them their 'white man's burden' in the first place?  The ideological basis of their venture was that, as Latour put it, they had access to 'Nature' while everyone else merely had culture.  Of course their 'Nature' is rather unlike yours but if you want the good of naturalism you have to at least acknowledge its baggage too -- and this it has in abundance.  Nothing that's been so powerful for so long can pretend to be innocent.  Making a bonfire from your enemies' beliefs makes for powerful polemic but you have to stop and consider that some people have put this into practice -- and it's not usually the fallacies and nonsense of the rich and powerful that get consigned to the flames.  Are you prepared to look someone who believes that the spirits of their ancestors watch over and protect them in the eye and tell them that their cherished beliefs are worthless and should be immolated?  That's what it takes -- and that's the been the political programme of naturalism over the years.

If you have the stomach for that kind of missionary work, fair enough.  Personally, I'd rather turn my scrutiny towards the phonies and cynics who mouth anti-naturalisms but don't really believe them at all -- the people who laugh off the naive realisms of scientists but still pop whatever pill their doctor tells them; those who decry all semantic closure as 'violence' but still believe that global warming is a fact that should be acted on; those who endlessly 'problematise' everything except their own problematique.  These are far more numerous in academic (and blog) circles than true believers, I'm quite sure.  A bonfire of their half-thought, myopic intellectual balsa wood would be a spectacle that I could enjoy, especially given the season!  (It's Guy Fawkes Night on Monday -- we're all about communal pyromania, us Brits.)

Tuesday 30 October 2012

Do Anti-Naturalists Really Exist?

It is not unusual for people to respond to claims I make such as the thesis that Continental thought has tended to systematically ignore naturalistic and materialist orientations with rebuttals to the effect that “thinker x is a naturalist and materialist and works in the Continental tradition!”  In other words, the idea seems to be that a few counter-examples are sufficient to rebut claims about what is dominant in a population.
I think that part of the general disagreements with regard to whether or not the Continental tradition is 'anti-naturalist' or 'anti-materialist' may have to do with the difference between rejection and ignorance.  Does Derrida, for example, reject naturalism/materialism or does he simply ignore the issues that these -isms are concerned with and focus on something else?  As I understand it, Levi generally argues that Derrida rejected them but others seem to assume that he simply ignored them and, consequently, that his thought is, in principle, compatible with them in some way shape or form.  Of course the problem with Derrida et al. is that they never really rejected much of anything.  To reject something is an affirmation in reverse, after all.

Anyway, whether it's rejection or ignorance it surely must be one of the two -- and, whichever it is, this is a problem for these thinkers.  In fact I think ignorance may even be more of a problem than rejection.  If one genuinely believes that the things and forces of naturalism are fallacious bunk then I can see how language- or phenomena-centered philosophies can be justified.  However, if you secretly believe in these things but nevertheless place them beyond your philosophical purview and limit yourself, your peers and your students to just a small corner of the wider natural reality then, far worse than rejection or ignorance, this constitutes abandonment -- abdication, indeed.

I might disagree with an anti-naturalist who genuinely believes that speaking of anything beyond the socio-linguistic is absurd and nonsensical but I would respect their opinion far more than someone who readily accepts the existence of things and forces other than the human but who has given up on them, refused to speak of them and done their best to prohibit anyone else from doing so.  The former might be silly but the latter is intellectually unjustifiable, politically malfeasant and morally reprehensible.

If there are 'true believers' in anti-naturalism or anti-materialism out there (and I have my doubts about this) then their cherished beliefs should not be so hastily 'consigned to the fire' as Levi put it.  We must avoid the very worst historical tendencies of Naturalism towards self-righteousness and automatic entitlement in defining what is -- at gunpoint if necessary.  Let's not paper over how cruelly this has worked out in the past or how necessary the philosophical reactions -- even overreactions -- to this history were.

However, let us also call out the phonies for what they are.  If you find a place for nature, science, medicine, technology and so on in every part of your life except your philosophising then there is something seriously amiss.  The real enemy is not idealism or correlationism but ontological double standards and the philosophical ignorance that they breed.