A starting point for an experiment

Published on: Author: Mark Erickson Leave a comment

We have a curious relationship to science, and this makes understanding science, specifically understanding its role in society and its relationship to culture, difficult. By ‘we’ I mean all of us and, in particular, three groups I would like to focus on here.

 

The general public, the ‘lay public’ as we / they are tellingly called, express high hopes for science to solve problems, but also blame science and are suspicious of it. Why is this? There are many reasons including, for example, the entanglement of science with exploitative and despoiling capitalism, the manipulation of science by political regimes and the failure of science to live up to its ‘promise’ that modernity and scientism have trumpeted. We can summarise these reasons in a stark way: we are socialised into an understanding of and a relationship to science, and this set of experiences, where we relate science to other important institutions and belief systems in our lives, is difficult to escape from.

Scientists themselves have a strange relationship to science, citing their membership of a unified scientific community that is increasingly fragmented, and hailing their shared method and imperatives which are increasingly subverted. Again, we can point to many reasons, but a fairly simple explanatory framework can do a lot of work for us here. Ludwik Fleck’s theory of ‘thought communities’ ([1935] 1979) explains that everyone in a society will be a member of a number of exoteric thought communities – large groupings of people who share a similar style of thought, but formal scientists will also be members of very small, very specialised ‘esoteric’ thought communities which have their own style of thought, norms, values and distinct dialect. The exoteric thought community of science, with its loose and woolly shared styles of thinking is composed of many, many esoteric thought communities which have a loose connection to the exoteric, but are increasingly isolated from one another through the necessity of specialization. Formal scientists cling to a mythic understanding of shared method and imperatives as a way of constructing personal identities in the face of an onslaught of factors that serve to fragment the scientific community.

And we social scientists are, perhaps, the most conflicted of all, looking at science from our social science perspective which, inevitably and nominally, is an impossible task. We are using science itself to make sense of science. Our methods and methodologies – be they quantitative or qualitative, realist or constructionist, retain a relationship to science. For those of us who study science itself, this presents a major problem: we are bound to the object we are trying to make sense of and cannot step outside of this relationship easily.

Meanwhile, we (as a society) are asking more and more of science: now we would like science to solve some pretty big problems, many with social causes like antibiotic resistance and climate change. And formal science publications are increasing at an astonishing rate and technology transfers are abundant. Science proceeds apace and is visible in more and more aspects of our technoscientific lifestyles, cultures and societies.

Put simply, it seems that the more science that we have, the less we understand it.

These three understandings, three discourses, look and feel quite different from one another, express internal contradictions, and conflict with each other. For example, the discourse that formal science uses to explain itself to itself is predicated on an opposition to other discourses. Stephen Hawking expresses this nicely when he argues that the most important questions of life and how we understand the world

“[t]raditionally [were] questions for philosophy, but philosophy is dead. Philosophy has not kept up with modern developments in science, particularly physics. Scientists have become the bearers of the torch of discovery in our search for knowledge.” (Hawking and Mlodinow 2011: 13)

In contrast, and to take a particularly extreme example, there is a strong relativist discourse in Science Studies expressing a position that is diametrically opposed to that adopted by most formal scientists:

“Scientific activity is not ‘about nature’, it is a fierce fight to construct reality. The laboratory is the workplace, and the set of productive forces, which makes construction possible.” (Latour and Woolgar 1979: 243)

In ‘lay’ discourse an ambivalence towards formal knowledge of whatever stripe is visible, perhaps even palpable in post-truth societies such as Brexit-headed Britain or Trump’s America:

“The people of this country have had enough of experts.” Michael Gove, UK Justice Secretary, June 2nd 2016.

Yet for all the different look, feel and positioning of these discourses they share significant similarities.

 

It feels almost trivial to point out that they share the same language, but sometimes the obvious needs to be stated. Our language provides us with a form of life that sets the boundaries for, and limits to, our thoughts. We don’t realise this much of the time, and we often think that we are ‘talking different languages’ but Ludwig Wittgenstein’s philosophy (Wittgenstein 1958; Erickson 2016) tells us that we can not have private languages and that even the most abstruse jargon – polymerase chain reaction, alcohol dehydrogenase – construct their meaning through their deployment in our everyday language games.

Central to this is the shared framework of categories and concepts that we are socialised into and carry with – and modify – through our lives and experiences.

We can see this clearly when we think about the different thought communities we are a part of. Exoteric ones – a neighbourhood, a congregation, a political party – require members to share ways of thinking, at least to some degree, and a core element of this is to deploy concepts and categories in broadly similar ways. In our esoteric thought communities, if we are members of one, we must do this with much more rigour. To be a member of the ‘RNA polymerase alpha subunit C-terminal domain’ esoteric community requires one to share very precise categorizations and concepts and, most likely, norms and values regarding action, opinion, hierarchy and knowledge. Where Fleck’s work on thought communities is so useful is in showing how the exoteric is ‘imported’ into the esoteric thought community, and how esoteric thought is gradually exported to the exoteric. This occurs through sharing frameworks for understanding, notably theories of how the world operates; the crucial one here is a shared ‘belief’ that formal science provides a better way of making sense of the external (and perhaps internal) worlds we inhabit. Across our thought communities we privilege our theories of the world above our experiences of the world; we construct and share concepts, categories and typologies to order our world. We have been doing this for a very long time and, in Feyerabend’s words, this ‘conquest of abundance’ has resulted in a world that is compacted (Feyerabend 1975).

Of course, this conquest of abundance is vital; were we not to be able to do this, to sort the world into categories and abstract concepts, our lives would be cacophonous. But we need to recognise that as we do this we are losing a lot. Not only that, we simply never question this process of abstraction, of privileging theories over experience, or this ordering of the world into concepts and categories. But that process, that move is at the heart of formal science, social science and most monotheistic religious discourses.

Is there another way – can we break free from this? It is a big task: to get away from a pattern of thinking and language that we have, in Western Europe at least, inhabited for at least two and a half millennia since the time of the Presocratics. And where could we go to?

 

A clue is provided in the chronology: if the structure of our thought changed at the time of the Presocratics – and many philosophers of science, notably those diametrically opposed thinkers Paul Feyerabend and Karl Popper, agree on this – then perhaps we could try and take a step back in time to allow us to see a future pathway?

There is only one significant pre-Presocratic text that exists: the works of Homer. Homer’s Iliad, in particular, provides an amazing exemplar of thinking and writing differently. The differences are legion, but I will highlight three things. Firstly, Homer’s style is paratactic not syntactic: there is no ‘hierarchy’ in a Homeric sentence, unlike my currently language – a flat horizon is produced. Secondly, Homer uses hardly any metaphors, but our language is awash with them. Third, Homer’s method, whilst clearly epic, is to take a very large thing (a 10 year war) and cut it down to something much smaller to focus on important detail. The result is the remarkable poem that is both alien to us and incredibly significant to us.

So, what would Homer say if, rather than writing about the battlefield outside the walls of Troy he were to look at the contemporary science laboratory?  If we were able to do this – to move into the different world of Homer where thought and language work in a different way. This is, of course, an impossibility: we cannot be Homer, and we cannot really escape from our own form of life. But in making the move we can disrupt and destabilise our entrenched thinking about science in a way that allows us to see where the blockages and pitfalls are. I think it is worth the effort to try and break free from our entrenched and repetitive mode of analysis, and using Homer allows us to bring together, to unify, our different understandings. We can unify these by considering them from the perspective of a text that we all can have ‘faith’ in, namely the Iliad.

 

What I am proposing is a thought experiment that can free up and challenge our stagnant ways of thinking. And our thinking really is stagnant: very little new thought about science has emerged for a long time, and much STS is descriptive and focusing on micro, and isolated, case studies. The big picture is, for me at least, important. My proposal is to try and connect the writings of Homer, specifically the Iliad, with the activities of contemporary formal science; trying to find connections across about 2,700 years that will both join different modes of thought but also disrupt and irritate our contemporary understanding of formal science.

 

References

Erickson, M. (2015) Science, culture and society: understanding science in the twenty-first century. 2nd edition, Cambridge: Polity.

Feyerabend, P. (1978) Against Method, London: Verso.

Feyerabend, P. (2016) Philosophy of nature, Cambridge: Polity.

Fleck, L. (1979) Genesis and Development of a Scientific Fact, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Hawking, S.W. and Mlodinow, L. (2011) The grand design, London: Bantam Press.

Latour, B. and Woolgar, S. (1979) Laboratory Life: the Social Construction of Scientific Facts., London: Sage.

Wittgenstein, L. ([1935] 1958) Philosophical Investigations, Oxford: Basil Blackwell.

 

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