Monday, January 5, 2009

The Crisis of the Sciences

There can be no question that in popular culture as well as in scientific culture, science has attained a type of normativity, a type of authority that has established itself over and against every other sort of authority, whether religious, philosophical, cultural, etc. This can be seen very clearly in the way in which we always run to scientific objectivity to resolve disputes. Where no such objectivity can be found, it is simply assumed that we have arrived at a position for which there can be no claim to truth. The simple result of this modern cultural phenomenon is this: all truth is nothing more than objectivity and all objectivity is nothing other than scientific objectivity.

I would submit that inasmuch as science always operates upon this assumption, and inasmuch as it must do so in order to maintain the absoluteness of its authority in contemporary discussion and debate, science always proceeds uncritically, and thus naïvely. Scientific naïveté, then, consists in the fact that science has never grounded the assumption that knowledge and truth consist in objectivity. This has only ever been assumed by science. In part, this is because science doesn't need to ground this assumption in order to arrive at its conclusions. That is, in order to have a scientific understanding of the fact that the chemical composition of water is H2O, one need not have previously grounded the assumption that this chemical composition is an objective fact. For scientific knowledge to work here, this can be taken for granted without difficulty. However, to the extent that science no longer self-critically restricts itself to the performance of its own tasks and field of validity, but seeks to become a totalizing theory, an all-encompassing "philosophical" view of the cosmos, actuality, and being, reducing all to objectivity, science and scientific theory proceeds wholly uncritically and without grounding. That is, inasmuch as it seeks to become "philosophical" is requires a philosophical grounding, but one which it is incapable of furnishing.

Herein one will find the crisis of the sciences. The lack of fundamental grounding in the sciences is connected to a lack of understanding in the sciences of problems of epistemology which then have resulting problems in ontology and indirect problems in ethics, philosophy of religion, etc. to the extent that they become subjected to scientific judgment and critique. Fundamentally, what science forgets is that every object is an object only for a subject which perceives and objectifies it. The object, then, is not object in-itself, but is only an object for me who perceives it. Morever, inasmuch as the validity of scientific objectivism depends upon a notion of the object as wholly self-standing, as primordially objective in-itself, scientific objectivism, or any theory which posits truth as objectivity, could only work by taking up a "view from nowhere" wherein the object can be perceived and understood simultaneously from all its sides and throughout the history of its development. This, however, is impossible and ignores the ultimate ineluctibility of the subjectivity of perception, understanding, and ultimately of truth and being itself. There is no going around the subject, and thus, there is no doing away with the subjectivity that must underly and support every objectivity.

The object, then, is only constituted by an act of objectification which makes it possible as object in the first place. This, however, is the never-understood state of affairs out of which science as an institution arises as a cultural construction of humanity. This is not to say, however, that science and the object, as constructions, are "merely" constructed, or voluntaristically constructed. Rather, they do maintain their spheres of validity. However, the sciences must recognize the limits of their horizons of validity. They can never expect to arrive at any unified theory that can be the expression of all that is and has validity as truth. Instead they must be understood as holding sway within spheres that are limited to mere objectivity, an objectivity which they must come to recognize, if they are to rise out of their naïveté, still requires an explanation which the sciences themselves can never furnish. If the sciences can recognize their limits and, in recognizing these limits, if they can further recognize the validity of other horizons of experience, truth, etc. beyond the limits of the physical, substantial object, then the sciences can recognize that they have nothing to say at all, either positively or negatively, about the phenomena of religion, theology, etc. Failing this, the sciences will remain forever in naïveté and will thus, in failing to be self-critical, fail to be fully scientific in the first place.


samrocha said...

I think this is a wonderful argument against science. I have one point that I'd like to emphasize and two small quibbles.

I think it is very important to notice that when we contrast the phenomena of science from those of religion, culture, theology and so on, we are not speaking of religious fundamentalism. What we are speaking of, primarily, is the flux of experience that floods the person. This drowning state of humankind presents us with a vast array of things to deal with.

Now to my quibbles. One of those things we have to deal with is the natural world and no one, I think, can deny that science has dealt with it in very impressive ways. The reaction, however, after harnessing these things as mere objects has been a destructive technological, political, and social force we call modernity. We named (and only named) gravity and fixed the orbits in our heads (and only in our heads) and now we can blow up the earth and are slowly killing it and each other. So, I want to say -- without being pressed to qualify it right now and without needing to recourse to time travel -- that science does say something very impressive indeed. But that it doesn't say it any differently than anything else that is true that is said.

The bigger quibble is that you seem to treat objects as objects. That is you seem to ignore the subjectivity of object as they contain and give of themselves, albeit without the notion of intentionality that we have for humans. This seems like a rather short sighted way of treating rocks, and waterfalls, I think.

Overall, I'm on your team.

Adam said...

Sam, if anyone other than you had written that last paragraph, I would assume it was a joke.

Also, if anyone in this blog uses the word "inasmuch" for the next week, I'm ordering them shot.

My biggest "quibble." You are attacking "science" (as if it's a monolithic entity) from a metaphysical point of view. "Science" doesn't seek to provide answers in the same way as philosophy does - it merely seeks to understand phenomena. It is not a worldview, despite what you would like to think.

Second, I've said it before, but my biggest "quibble" with you philosophical types is your grounding of weak arguments in convoluted language. Can I understand it? Sure. Does it need to be said that way? No. This is sesquipedalianism as a retreat from intellect.

responds said...

Sam you've surprised me with the broad stroke of hyperbole in this reply. The implication that because of science we are killing each other and the earth "now" is a bit far. First, we're not killing the earth, as if it could be killed, it always has and will continue to be polluted by human activity, but pollution should be defined I suppose at a later time. Science has been both a positive and negative force in this, more recently to the positive. As for killing each other, I don't think we needed science or modernity for that. Both have been a positive and negative influence in our treatment of human dignity. Perhaps a bit of nuance is warranted.

samrocha said...

No nuance to the rise of modernism via science, most explicitly found in technology, as it relates to the ability of humans to nuke itself out of existence. No nuance to that at all. I rarely make statements this strong, but there is no comparison to the level of destructive capability we no possess -- and employ -- as a result of modern innovation. None at all within the general story of human history.

samrocha said...

Also, the whole "I don't like your prose" argument is just about as interesting as airline attendant parodies. I find pleasure in reading different manners expression in the written word, and Bill's is certainly one to be taken seriously, I think. Lets not get down to telling each other how to write or what words to use or not use. Imagine if you were denied the use of the F-word...