Monday, December 3, 2007

Reconstructing Science

Reconstructing Science

In a powerful and influential piece in The Monthly Review for March 1997 ('Against the Social De(con)struction of Science') Meera Nanda raises some tough, deep and important questions about 'the unity (i.e. the universality) of truth, reason, reality and science.' That rather impressive list of questions has occupied philosophers for some centuries and is obviously not going to be unraveled and made plain by the work of a day. Still, they are questions that are important from a Marxist perspective because of the ideological role that has been given to science in the modern era in supporting the world-view of that social system based on market relations that was growing up in Europe in step with the Scientific Revolution. Perhaps the best we can aim at here is to try to disentangle the ideological use of that composite entity 'science' in founding the bourgeois world-view - from the actual human practices and activities which constitute the particular sciences.
The thrust of Nanda's argument is against what is called the 'social deconstruction of science' which gives us a cultural relativism that awards equal status to the knowledge systems of each culture. All that can be required of them, we are told by the deconstructionists is that they serve the needs of that culture and its way of life. Any claim of superiority for that system of scientific knowledge that grew up in Europe in the seventeenth century with the Scientific Revolution, with Galileo and Newton, is from this perspective branded as 'Western cultural imperialism'. Nanda's complaint is that this perspective sells the pass to the religious fundamentalists and cultural conservatives in those countries in which the elites are forced to cling to non-capitalist forms of domination and oppression. She sees this perspective as helping to maintain oppressions of caste and gender because it neutralizes and subverts the power of a crucial weapon in the hands of progressive forces trying to overcome those oppressions by replacing the beliefs and the mind-set and undermining the myths that support those oppressive practices.
Nanda sees as a unifying, internationalizing and universalizing force, the practices and beliefs and canons of rationality and evidence of that science which evolved out of the Scientific Revolution. It is a force tending to undermine those separate, and in this case, oppressive cultural practices and tending to bring all of humanity into a single community of beliefs and practices.
The same, we need to remind ourselves, can be said of capitalism (as was also said of Christianity in the previous era). And as Marxists we may suspect that it is not a historical accident that the Scientific Revolution and the social revolution that replaced feudal relations with those based on the rationality of the market both of them occurred in the same era and in the same place. And we may suspect also that it may not be an accident that they both share in that internationalizing and universalizing character that recognizes neither status nor boundaries. However exploring those interesting questions fully is going to have to wait for another day.
What we have to look at now is the view of 'the unity (i.e. universality) of truth, reality, reason and science' that Nanda counterposes to the fragmented truth and reason that the social deconstructionists seem to be offering us. One can reject the idea of 'separate but equal' sciences, whether Vedic mathematics or Creationist biology, or whatever At the same time one can well think that the deconstructionists have badly misunderstood and misapplied T.S. Kuhn's notion of the 'incommensurability of paradigms' in coming to their conclusion that all paradigms are equally good. Yet at the same time we can find deeply problematic Galileo's image of 'The Book of Nature' in which the sciences are already ‘written in mathematical symbols’. Equally problematic is the picture of scientific progress as the approach to some ultimate and final truth. That view of a truth standing above and outside of all of humanity, human interests, human practices and human languages has a pretty clearly theological character that ought to ring some alarm bells amongst Marxists.
It is not that we have to find some via media between the 'realist' and the 'anti-realist'. We have to see that both positions are incoherent and unintelligible. To do that, I think we have to return to Marx himself.

‘Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it in circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly found, given and transmitted from the past.’
The Eighteenth Brumaire

That observation of Marx's gives us the starting point of the kind of dialectical understanding that is needed to escape the blind alleys, false projects and and incoherent notions that we have been led into by the one-sided and foundation-seeking conceptions of explanation and understanding that have dominated the modern era. The conception that truth and reality come from one side only and must be waiting there in all their fullness simply to be perceived by humans, by contrast to the dialectical, gives us those images of an absolute and ultimate reality which have definite theological overtones. In this picture, humanity can only stand passive in the face of a fully articulated reality, the only function left to humans being to open their eyes, to unstop their ears and to organize their thoughts so that they can arrive at conceptions that correspond to this ‘one true reality’.
It is this quasi-theological conception that the deconstructionists have tried to deconstruct, with the results that Meera Nanda complains of that they seem to have ended by giving equal status to a whole range of systems of knowledge or science that have been developed in different cultures or groups around the world, leaving us no way to choose among them.
All that the deconstructionists seem to require of these systems of knowledge is that they be grounded in and related to the way of life and needs of the culture and its people. This, she complains dismantles science as one great weapon in opposing the oppressions of gender and caste that deface many cultures. A prime example of such an oppression would be the repellent practice of female circumcision and the conception of property in the female and especially her womb that underlies it. In a manner parallel to the cultural relativism that the deconstructionists want to impose on the sciences, some people tell us we are meant to tolerate that appalling practice because it is part of the 'value system' of some culture, and that we are being culturally imperialist and imposing our own values when we condemn it.
What is common to these two forms of cultural relativism is the conception that each culture and way of life is completely enclosed and self-sufficient. If they were really so isolated and faced no form of external criticism or constraint, those cultures and ways of life would have no development and no history. They would be static and eternal.
But of course every culture, even those disappearing few which are sufficiently isolated not to face irruptions from other cultures such as our own, nevertheless faces a material world, a world that may be partly of its own making, but never entirely. Paradoxically, it is those cultures whose world is least of their own making, namely, nomadic ways of life, which leave the terrain much as they found it, that are perhaps the most conservative and resistant to change and development. This is only partly because of their nomadic way of life discourages accumulation, which is the great engine of change and development that fires the world of capital. Another contributor to that conservatism is the constant movement and occasional dispersal of those peoples which requires great stability of institutions, practices, rituals and shibboleths if the cultures are to maintain their identity and not face annihilation.
We can say, echoing Marx, that each culture produces its own world, but not from materials of its own making. Each generation receives from the previous one a world that has been transformed to some degree: fields that have been cleared, bridges that have been built, houses, tools and machinery and the skills and knowledge to use them. Each generation will also have received practices, institutions, traditions and attitudes and a whole language with which to think about, and negotiate a way through that world they have inherited. That world may be a human creation, but it is not a free creation as the deconstructionist might have us think. Its material constructions are made in a struggle with the materials that were identified and recognized by the previous generations through their own struggles to live and prosper, and its intellectual constructions are subject to the material criticism of practice, the criticism of the failure or success that meets its trials and attempts.
But that material and practical criticism of the way of life and the equipment, material and intellectual that a people has forged in its struggle to live in the world and carry out its projects, is not a criticism that comes from an abstracted and idealized 'ultimate reality', a single truth that stands outside and above its everyday working life. We never meet anything like that in our daily living and working, and no such abstraction could be the source of the admittedly universalizing force of that system of scientific rationality that developed in step with the development of the equally universalizing and dynamic system of market rationality that is spreading itself around the world.
That market rationality has also been represented as the one true and natural rationality for human society, a rationality that is rooted in that most mystified of notions, the notion of 'human nature'. Capital's ideologues have constantly appealed to 'human nature' in grounding and justifying the system and rationality of the market, and it is important for Marxists to be alive to the explanatory emptiness and nullity of that notion. It is simply a blank check on which any figures can be written without anyone being able to tell whether there are funds there to meet it .
It is neither Marxist nor helpful to picture scientific progress in the way Meera Nanda wants to, as 'increase in truthfulness', that is, as an approach to to some (presumably unattainable) ideal, an 'ultimate truth'. I have criticized this 'approach' model of progress elsewhere (also in Philosophy and Mystification - ch.11, 'On Misunderstanding Science'). Here I will say only that it is both undialectical and un-Marxist, and that we can make sense neither of the ideal nor of the notion of approaching it. (It has its political counterpart in the utopian socialisms that were roundly and rightly criticized by Marx and Engels.) The dialectical perspective, by contrast, sees progress as an improvement over some definite and concrete previous condition, not as an 'approach' to something indefinable and unattainable.
My progress in drawing or piano playing is hardly an approach to some ideal but simply an improvement over my previous playing or drawing. I can now negotiate passages or capture things fluidly that I could not previously. A dialectical account is a concrete one that is rooted here in this world and has no need of indefinable and unattainable ideals that lie in a Platonic heaven somewhere beyond it.
None of this should be taken as going against Meera Nanda's objections to the deconstructionist setting of all knowledge systems as equally valid and of equal value. That deconstructionist view is not so much a defense against cultural imperialism as a prescription for it, as we, from on high as it were, allow those other cultures to hang onto their particular belief systems that will never compete with our own scientific and technological power. They will be allowed to remain as quaint customs and beliefs for the amusement of intellectual tourists from the developed world.
The deconstructionist account is in any case mere attitudinizing, even though it may play into the hands of fundamentalist ideologues. Of what effect is it, really, to be told that we must treat all systems of knowledge as equal? Will this really stop the march of 'Western science', its penetration and displacement of local systems? That injunction will have no more effect than Hitler had in trying to displace and downgrade Einstein's relativity theory by calling it 'Jewish science'. He may have had a brief influence on some German scientists and held up for a time the work toward an atomic bomb, but not for long. In the same way the religious fundamentalists may have some temporary success in resisting the advances of capitalism and its 'universal' rationality of the market, but as we have seen in recent history, this is driving them to more and more extreme and destructive measures. Nowhere is this more evident than in Algeria, where the fundamentalists, with government complicity, have taken to slaughtering hoards of innocent women and children in aid of reestablishing the ‘purity’ of their way of life and faith. One wonders about the 'purity' and the 'faith' that can allow themselves to be restored in that way.
There is still an essential question to be dealt with: if we reject as unintelligible that picture of scientific progress as an approach to some grand, single, universal truth standing outside of, and confronting humanity and all its peoples equally, how are we to understand and account for the great universalizing force of science? That force, we are confident, has the potential to displace and overwhelm other competing belief systems. And it is no doubt a half-conscious recognition of this that has steeled the fundamentalists to take outrageous defensive measures. They are threatened by the universalizing force not only of science, but of capital and its rationality of the market. Embattled, they are turning up the volume on the oppression of women and tightening control on whole populations by increasingly brutal methods. We are seeing the reverse of that secularizing process which took place in Europe in the transition from the feudal to a market society.
My contention is that the notion of an 'external reality' goes no way toward explaining the notion of scientific progress nor can it help us to understand the universalizing force of the sciences. The phrase itself sets us onto a path of mystification. 'External to what?' we need to ask. External to me as a historical individual? Or external to humanity as such, humanity considered abstractly and ahistorically? This latter sense, the one which is needed for its would-be role in explaining the universalizing force of the sciences, that sense leads us straight away from history, the dialectic and Marx and into quasi-theological mystification. What we need is an understanding which appeals to concrete historical forces rather than one that sets before us mystical entities of which we can have no direct knowledge.
I think that the source of the universalizing force of science and of capital is much the same, and that to see this we have to start by looking at the difference between those social systems, institutions and practices, and systems of belief which have a strong inner dynamic for change and development, and those which are inherently defensive and conservative. Add to that self-critical and developmental dynamic of science, the orientation toward manipulation and control of the material world that issues in ever more powerful practices and products, and the sources of its appeal and its power are not hard to understand. Because that universalizing force of the sciences can be understood materially and concretely in a way that is independent of the metaphysical appeal to an 'external reality', we need have no worry that it will be in any way disabled or diminished by the deconstruction of that metaphysical story.
What I am saying in all this is that we need to make a concrete social and historical analysis of the working of science and to understand its interaction with other cultures and knowledge systems in a way that is parallel to the way that we understand the globalizing power of capital and its power to swamp other cultures - for example by turning hunting or agricultural peoples into pitifully paid wage-workers producing its jeans and trainers. As Marxists we would never accept the 'human nature' accounts of that global force of capital. As Marxists we should not accept appeals to the metaphysical abstractions of 'ultimate reality' or 'absolute truth' to explain the universalizing force of science any more than we should accept tales in terms of ‘human nature’ as explanations of the globalizing force of capital. Those notions are neither explanatory nor even coherent. Appealing to them also involves turning one's back on dialectical analysis and historical explanation, turning from the concrete to the abstract, from real to ghostly explanation.

There are many deep issues I have not touched on about our relation to other cultures and what respect for them might consist in. What it would not consist in would be encouraging the people of another culture to hold onto beliefs that are false and potentially stunting or damaging. It would not consist in condoning or encouraging practices that are oppressive and degrading to a section of their people.
But before setting out to remove the mote from our brother's eye, we had better first try to cast the beam out of our own, since no serious person could pretend that the rule of capital and of science has eliminated oppression and exploitation from the world in which they reign, and has brought 'liberty and justice for all'. The slogan 'Knowledge will make you free' which the Enlightenment emblazoned over our capitalist social order has about the same force as the 'Arbeit Macht Frei' that was set over the gate of the Nazi camps.

Guy Robinson

1 comment:

Rosa Lichtenstein said...

Great stuff!

I wonder if you have read Richard Hadden's 'On the Shoulders of Merchants?', which seems to me to be a minor modern classic.