Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Science and Progress

I wanted to make one further digression about science (and it seems that I have spent quite a bit of my blogging energy critiquing science; only because I like to attack sacred cows).

It appears that one of the biggest stumbling blocks to envisioning a world beyond capitalism (even valorizing some aspects of the world before capitalsm) is the notion that, if the social division of labor were significantly altered (such that academia and research, in its current state, would not be possible), all scientific advancement would cease and the world would therefore come to an end.

First, I would challenge anyone making that claim to consider all the ways in which the ideology of progress is permeating the assumptions they are making.

But more substantively, I think it is necessary to examine the notion of the "scientific advancement" itself. From an epistemological stand point, there is the question of whether or not our knowledge is increasing, and our worldviews more closely approximateing "the truth." (In these types of contexts, the collect pronoun "our" is used, despite the fact that the knowledge and worldviews in question are anything but shared, because scientists have the special privilege of representing the universalizing goals of humankind.) There is also the practical matter of the material gains (namely technology) which science bestows upon society (once again, the small fraction of the world's population who actually has access to these gains are the only people who matter).

First, the epistemological. Science is underpinned by positivist ideology (or "philosophy" if you prefer... yes, I'm being a dick). This view holds that humans have direct, unmediated access to reality, and to whatever extent that access is mediated, proper scientific procedure can circumvent the impediment. Accordingly, a positivist uses the term "knowledge" to refer to an entity that: 1) corresponds exactly to reality; 2) is discrete and quantifiable; 3) can be possessed as an object; 4) exists somewhere "out there" in the world, waiting to be discovered by humans; and 5) is not altered by human contact. Thus, the view that knowledge is "increasing."

Positivist thought rests on shakey ground. For one thing, it can be quite forcefully argued that human access to reality IS mediated. Reality is far too complex for humans to comprehend in any meaningful way without filtering and organization. For example, people are bombarded with stimuli every second of the day; in order to function at all, most of these stimuli must be completely ignored. In other words, perception is highly selective. Prior experience and mental categories often determine what people pay attention to. [Side note: this is one reason why it is so difficult for people to detect differences among unfamiliar things. For example, individuals of other races ("all ___ people look alike"), or pieces of music within an unfamiliar genre (for people who don't often listen to classical music, all classical music sounds alike!). Over time, people learn to pay attention to meaningful differences, and downplay characteristics that do not have semantic value (like the characteristics common to an "ethnic group" or genre of music).]

Countless observations of scientific practice - primarily from "science studies" disciplines like sociology of science, philosophy of science, and history of science - confirm the "selective perception" inherent in scientific research. This extends to what questions are asked, how they are asked, what aspects of a phenomenon are deemed important (even what gets defined as a "phenomenon"!), and the perceptual/conceptual limits imposed by the tools that are used to answer these questions. Furthermore, scientific thought and all of its conceptual repertoire is saturated with cultural, social, political assumptions, often to which the scientist is more or less blind. (I could list plenty of examples, but for now I will just mention the practice, common among biologists, of using the male as the "norm." I have given other examples in previous posts, and am sure I will provide more in the future.)

If human perception and cognition are mediated, processed, organized, then it would follow that what positivists view as a gradual collection of bits of knowledge, could also be seen as an elaboration of a particular framework for interpretation, proceeding according to its own logic and principles, to fit new or unaccounted for experience. This is not to take a "relativist" stance, as the interpretive framework would have some connection to a reality that does exist, and the ensuing elaboration would likewise have to be corroborated to a certain degree by experience. It merely rejects a total correspondence between any framework and reality. And it does call into the question the notion of an "increase in knowledge," as "increase" is reformulated as "elaboration."

What, then, of the idea that "we" (however that is defined) are more closely approaching "the truth" (however that is defined)? I think the issue was best approached by Thomas Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Throughout the book, Kuhn argues that the progression of scientific paradigms (or, conceptual models, including language, modes of practice, and use of technology) does not follow any evident pattern or logic. In that sense, it is not a true "progression" but more of a sucession. In many cases, scientific communities have reverted back to previous paradigms. Kuhn insists that while the paradigms themselves do not get "better" in any sense, or do not more closely resemble reality, the practical use to which these paradigms are put, including prediction, does become more effective.

I would argue that this is partly a result of the sheer amount of money and resources (human and material) that have been increasingly poured into science. Just to exaggerate the situation beyond probability in the interest of highlighting a truth: if you assemble a whole bunch of people for the purpose of building mouse traps, and give them limitless time and materials, they will probably keep devising better mouse traps, even if only at the most basic level of trial and error, regardless of whether they understand any principles of mouse-trapery.

But there is another aspect of the technical efficacy of science, and that is capitalism. Capitalist relations allocate money and other resources, and capitalist interests, as well as the ideologies on which they depend, provide, for the most part, the "problems" that need to be solved along with the financial impetus to solve them. Because, in the end, as much as scientists might protest, the enterprise of science is oriented toward capitalist ends, and those ends require, in part, the profileration of technology, modes of efficiency, and certain types of technical/managerial know-how, that is what science, in fact, produces. Science bows to the demands of capitalism.

So, then, back to the original problem. If scientific research ceased to function as it does today, would life be worthless? We would not be parting ways with "The Truth" (and, as should be quite obvious from history, it is possible to live a more subsistence-focused lifestyle and still be able to contemplate the world and elaborate interpretive frameworks; this pursuit does not require money, institutions, or special tools.) We would, it is true, inhibit (but not prevent, which should also be clear from history) the production of technology. Once again, though, I pose the questions: Is it only technology which makes life worthwhile or even enjoyable? And are the benefits of technology really worth it, when they are circumscribed within a tiny segment of the human population and entail the suffering and poverty of all the rest (see previous post)?

These questions should, at the very least, be cause for reflection, if nothing else.

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