Wider Than Science, Deeper Than Politics
by Mark English
I once came across a cartoon from the early 20th century depicting a street scene with everyone – pedestrians, business people and even a cart-horse – looking puzzled and slightly confused. The wording of the caption I have forgotten, but it was along the lines that the theory of relativity had suddenly changed the way we see the world.
In reality scientific theories don’t have quite this kind of psychological impact – and certainly not on horses. But, as is the case with most humor, a reality lies behind it that is being exaggerated or played upon in some way. The humor implicit in the childhood version of Alvy Singer (the Woody Allen character in the film Annie Hall) being depressed about the expanding universe represents a variation on the same general theme.
Little Alvy has become lethargic and stopped doing his homework. His mother has taken him to see Dr Flicker. When Alvy explains his concerns about the expanding universe his mother becomes frantic and interjects: “What is that your business? […] What has the universe got to do with it? You’re here in Brooklyn. Brooklyn is not expanding.”
As I say, for these jokes to work there has to be something – something real – which they are perceived to be exaggerating. There has to be a sense that at least some regular folk – and not a minuscule minority – are indeed impacted psychologically. If that Alvy Singer scene still resonates and is still much referred to, it is because there are (still) people around who have experienced something approaching Alvy’s depression in the face of scientific findings or experienced something similar to this or witnessed similar cases. Otherwise it just wouldn’t connect.
This sort of thing is difficult to prove, but I suspect that we have drifted away from science in the sense that it is no longer “mainstream.” From (at least) the late-19th century until, say, the 1960’s and 70’s, the educated public tended to embrace not just technology but science also as an essential part of the general culture, C.P. Snow’s complaints about the “two cultures” notwithstanding. (Snow’s concerns related primarily to what was essentially a local problem deriving from certain anomalies of the English class system.)
Not just positive attitudes to science, even the very notion of objective knowledge has been progressively undermined. Rigorous scholarship of a secular nature was seen to work hand in hand with science. There have always been many different sciences and kinds of scholarship, with different methods and strategies applying in different subject areas. But, until relatively recently, there was always a discernible sense of common purpose across disciplines. For centuries scholars and natural philosophers saw themselves as having a common goal: scientia, knowledge.
In comments on a recent article of mine in which I suggested a link between current intellectual trends (particularly philosophical pragmatism and certain forms of anti-realism) and social decline, E.J. Winner challenged the substance of what I was saying and implicitly accused me of exhibiting and/or promoting fear and bitterness.
I welcome the criticism to the extent that it has prompted me to try and articulate my views more clearly, but I will leave others to judge (if they are so inclined) precisely what dark forces, motives and emotions are driving me.
I alluded in the essay to the decline and falling status of institutions responsible for passing on knowledge from one generation to the next: specifically the family and the formal education system. Traditional educational institutions have played a pivotal role in passing on not just knowledge in a scientific or scholastic sense but also attitudes and values. And there is no doubt that, like families, these institutions are failing and being displaced (by disruptive new technologies, etc.) as drivers of learning and knowledge.
The social consequences of these changes are difficult, perhaps impossible, to isolate. Likewise it is difficult in these sorts of cases to distinguish cause from effect. But it seems not unreasonable to believe that our understanding of the nature of science and scholarship and knowledge in general has profound effects on how we see the world. We also know that ideas and assumptions to which young people are exposed can and do make deep and lasting impressions.
A commenter pointed out that crude and popular forms of anti-realism need to be distinguished from more sophisticated forms. It is the former that pose problems, not the latter. I agree. Moreover, I do not deny that there are problems with many forms of realism, nor that certain forms of anti-realism may be defensible.
It must be said, however, that – over the course of the last century – even relatively sophisticated forms of anti-realism have often been bound up with (and perhaps driven by) political or ideological considerations. Unfortunately, these trends have led educators and activists with no real interest in intellectual inquiry to deploy (usually crude) versions of anti-realism in their polemics. This is done basically for rhetorical purposes: to provide a veneer of intellectual authority to their own positions, for example, or to justify anti-science attitudes.
Please do not interpret what I am saying as politically partisan in a simplistic left-wing/right-wing kind of way. Note that the physicist Lee Smolin, whose style of scientific realism I have in previous essays presented somewhat sympathetically, has left-wing political views. His concerns about knowledge were (I claimed) wider than science and deeper than politics. There are issues at stake here which transcend technical and strictly scientific questions as well as partisan-political considerations.
Elsewhere I have suggested that recent internecine conflicts amongst self-described progressives derive from deep-seated contradictions and flaws within certain forms of progressive and radical thought.
Some of these problems relate to the Enlightenment view of the mind as infinitely malleable, a tabula rasa, a blank slate. Even the myth of original sin has more psychological plausibility than this view.
Another fallacy of progressive ideology is the belief that complex problems of ethics and society are amenable to theoretically-elaborated solutions (based on discursive reason). Strangely, even feminist thinking – typically (and irrationally) hostile to science and mathematics – often falls into this trap. Though core feminist ideas are anti-rationalistic in certain ways, they are presented nonetheless as “theory.”
Theory necessarily involves abstraction, and abstraction is a necessary (and extremely powerful) intellectual instrument. But, like any tool or instrument, it can be misused and misapplied.
It seems obvious to me that judgments regarding moral, social and political matters depend on a multitude of factors which no theoretical construct or ideological narrative can adequately represent. The classical and conservative notion of practical wisdom – encompassing as it does both personal and cultural contingencies – is far more closely aligned with lived experience than any theoretical construct or ideological narrative could ever be.
The errors of progressivism have been compounded and exacerbated by the notion that objective knowledge of the world is not possible. This idea has deep roots in radical social thought and philosophical pragmatism. But it is self-defeating; and perhaps it is the realization of this fact which lies behind the attempt to present traditional – and commonsense – views of objectivity and truth as being not simply in error but also as somehow morally or politically tainted.
Various forms of radicalism, feminism and identity politics rely heavily on this kind of rhetorical moralizing. We are dealing here, in effect, with emotional manipulation, ploys designed to promote or prop up ideas which cannot sustain themselves in the absence of a particular kind of value-laden belief system or set of narratives.
An article by Sonia Zawitkowski is worth looking at in this context. She comes across as reasonable and moderate and makes some good points, but her basic thesis (as I see the matter) is flawed. The article is a defense of standpoint theory, and standpoint theory entails a highly politicized approach to knowledge and value. The “oppressors” tend to see everything in distorted, self-serving ways, while oppressed groups tend to see things more truly.
Zawitkowski writes: “[T]he complexity of today’s most controversial social problems coupled with an increasingly polarized political climate means that we need standpoint theory more than ever.”
Do we really? Sure, we need to take account of social situation, self-interest, etc. when assessing people’s opinions (including our own) on various controversial social issues, but we don’t need standpoint theory or any other kind of theory to do this.
I have points of agreement with Zawitkowski. She speaks, for example, of:
a glaring disregard of the moral and normative nature of [early arguments concerning universal suffrage and the status of women]… There exist rational arguments for and against most egalitarian policies, but ultimately people are arguing for their preferred state of affairs based on their conception of the Good. This necessarily involves the prioritization of different rights, each conferring benefits and drawbacks for different groups.
Yes, it is always unfortunate when values-based and ideologically-driven arguments are presented as if they were not values- and ideology-based.
As I see it, social harmony is a function of the extent to which moral and social values are shared within a population, and the social fragmentation we see today in most Western countries is directly associated with the loss of a shared culture. That shared culture has, in the West in the modern era, included a commitment to the twin institutions of science and secular scholarship and the ideal (or myth, as radical skeptics see it) of objective knowledge.
I recognize that it is difficult to draw a clear line between real scholarship and pseudo-scholarship. There is no simple algorithm for doing this, just as there is no algorithm for distinguishing between good science and bad science or between science and pseudo-science. But distinctions must be made.
If all knowledge is deemed to be subjective or ideology-driven, if neither science nor rigorous scholarship has a privileged position (epistemically speaking) vis-à-vis other kinds of discourse, then everything becomes ideological, everything is up for grabs. Such a view, far from providing a solution to our problems, only serves to exacerbate social and political tensions by undermining the neutral epistemic space that science and scholarship once provided.