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Friday, December 09, 2005

In which I finally reply to Steve Fuller

Well, now that the Steve Fuller thread is over 160 comments long, this little response of mine is going to be a big anticlimax, I’m afraid.  I thought that by posting Steve’s reply to me, I could play host to a discussion of science studies and ID while I put the finishing touches on the ms of Rhetorical Occasions (I mailed off the ms yesterday.  Woo hoo).  But that discussion quickly outpaced my ability to contribute to it—and my reply to Steve’s original reply is going to look pretty thin as a result.  Nevertheless, I promised, so here goes.

Steve’s argument in Dover seems to me to take a very interesting path to a wrong conclusion.  Partly by way of a Popperian critique of Kuhn, and partly by way of a deft juggling of Reichenbach’s distinction between the “context of discovery” and the “context of justification,” Fuller establishes two premises: one, that scientific communities organized under a dominant paradigm work to exclude alternative theories and methods, and two, that many scientists have understood their work as integral to their religious belief.  Hence his invocation of Newton:

ID deserves space less for what it’s done recently than as a representative of the main counter-tradition in the history of science to the one represented nowadays by Neo-Darwinism.  This counter-tradition’s standard bearer is not Paley, of watch-on-the-beach fame, but Isaac Newton who believed he had gotten inside of God’s mind. One cannot underestimate the heuristic value of this belief in the history of science, not only in physics but also in computer science and of course genetics (sometimes with disastrous consequences).

Now, you can read Newton’s breakthroughs by way of the context in which Newton himself understood them (this is an entirely legitimate hermeneutic enterprise), and you’ll get some truly strange results: as I understand it, Newton saw physics not only as a means of access to God’s mind but also as being of a piece with his work on alchemy.  This is great stuff for the historian or philosopher of science; physicists, by contrast, couldn’t care less about whether Newton saw his laws of motion as being related to alchemy or astrology or a flying spaghetti monster.  By and large, later physicists came to Newton for the mechanics, and didn’t stick around for the alchemy.

In other words, from one angle it matters that Newton (or Galileo, or Darwin, or anyone) believed that his work was informed by (or, indeed, proof of) the existence of a Deity; from another angle, it doesn’t.  Fuller’s argument, as I read it, subtly substitutes one angle for another at a critical juncture, on the way to the conclusion that “the fact that contemporary ID is not well-supported by research matters much less to me than its potential for inspiring new directions in the scientific imagination.” This seems to me to argue that Newton’s context of discovery provides support for ID’s context of (eventual) justification: many scientists believed their work was tied to their belief in God, so ID advocates’ belief in God might well inspire new research.  In comments, Brian Ogilvie seems to me to have nailed the problem with this: “[Newton and Galileo] rejected the scholastic notion of ‘double truth.’ So, too, do defenders of Intelligent Design, but my hypothesis is that they place revelation before reason: hence they emphasize on the shortcomings of contemporary natural science rather than focusing their energies on developing a competing empirical research program.”

Most of Fuller’s Dover testimony is pretty fascinating stuff, and I can’t pretend to be able to comment on every twist and turn through the history and philosophy of science.  But the end of the argument ultimately assumes what it needs to prove, namely, that ID is capable of generating real scientific research, and that its research could be tested by means of scientific methods that are not specific to any one paradigm.  Steve compresses the argument neatly in one of his comments on Monday:

If [we] judged scientific theories by what we think of what motivates them, then we wouldn’t have much science left. This is why it’s important to distinguish the contexts of discovery and justification: ID can be as religiously motivated as you like.

Folks, he’s entirely right about this.  And while we’re talking about “contexts of discovery,” I might add that he’s also right about the fact that a philosopher of science can have a more synoptic view of science (and the distinction between science and non-science) than a working scientist, who may be devoting herself full-time to developing a research program and who may not care about the history of her field, or about whether one of her illustrious precedessors saw his work as being part and parcel of his theory that the cosmos is ruled by angry, invisible dogs.  (Note that I’m careful here to say “can” and “may.” I don’t want to suggest that nonscientists necessarily have a clearer view of science—that would be silly.  And by the bye, I mean “research program” in the Lakatosian, open-ended sense (also employed by Ian Hacking in The Social Construction of What?), the one Steve invokes when he writes, “Scientific revolutions typically involve the updating and reinvention of defunct ideas—intellectual history’s Undead that never quite got put down. These often appear as ‘conceptual problems’ that don’t go away but get excused because the dominant theory is so empirically successful.” He’s right about this too.) But then Fuller immediately follows all this rightness with (what I think is) this profound wrongness:

What matters is whether it can be developed, criticised and tested without having the motives. And the answer is yes.

I just don’t see it.  Honestly.  I’m not seeing ID’s potential for being developed, criticized and tested, at least not by any means I’m aware of.  Steve insists that I’m not seeing it because the field is still too young, and I think it’s because the field simply doesn’t have a research program of any kind.

Now, back to my original question, which had to do with how Fuller could blurb Nanda’s book, writing that this “first detailed examination of postmodernism’s politically reactionary consequences should serve as a wake-up call for all conscientious leftists,” and then show up in Dover to provide a philosophy-of-science justification for a politically reactionary movement. 

I had two aims in raising this question.  One was simply polemical: to point out how very, very sloppily “postmodern” gets thrown around as a catchall term of abuse in philosophy-of-science debates (and, indeed, everywhere else).  One effect of this throwing-around is that some worthy social-constructionist babies get thrown out with the bathwater, so to speak, just as Gross and Levitt used some truly unsupported and unsupportable claims by people ranging from Stanley Aronowitz to Sandra Harding to Jeremy Rifkin in such a way as to delegitimate a whole wide swath of science studies.  (For the record, my short-version position on the Sokal Hoax is basically that of John Brenkman, who said, “The parody itself, it seems to me, was brilliant, but Sokal’s explanation in Lingua Franca of what he’d done makes two massive claims, neither of which I think is true: On the one hand, that the whole of cultural studies is a morass of relativism and confused logic and lack of interest in empirical reality, and on the other hand, that we should espouse a very narrow realist position on the nature of scientific inquiry—which puts him out of tune with mainstream philosophy of science.” To which philosopher of science David Albert replied, “that’s right.  The character of the opposition (if there is one) between mainstream analytic philosophy of science and science studies or cultural studies attitudes towards science doesn’t seem to me to be helpfully characterized in terms of a disagreement about the philosophical propositions like realism or anything like that.” See The Sokal Hoax: The Sham that Shook the Academy, 253-54.) The other effect, of course, is that the history of postmodernism (and intense debates over postmodernism on the left) since 1980 gets obliterated, as postmodernism becomes a synonym for obscurantist bullshit.  About that I will simply say this.  Anyone who persists in using postmodernism as a synonym for obscurantist bullshit on this bullshit-free blog will be directed to the work of Andreas Huyssen and made to stay in their room until he or she has read issues 22 and 33 of New German Critique. You have been warned.

My longer-term aim was to raise yet again the broader question of theory’s relation to politics—or, I should say, “theory”’s relation to “politics.” While (as I said) I’m largely sympathetic to Nanda’s argument about how the BJP has found in postmodern anti-universalism a convenient support for Hindu fundamentalism (and in What’s Liberal About the Liberal Arts, I have my own argument about why so much of the academic left developed a kind of fetishistic relation to “local knowledges,” as if these were always a matter of supporting the independent organic-produce market against Wal-Mart), I know also that the religious right’s opportunism knows no bounds, and ideas sometimes wind up in strange places.  At some moments it pleases the religious right to appeal to postmodern anti-universalism, and at other moments it pleases the religious right to insist that moral laws are observer-independent and immutable.  Go figure.  That’s just the way the process of “rearticulation” works, people.  After all, at one point in our recent history, in certain contexts, virile, heterosexual masculinity was signified by lots of makeup, tousled hair, platform shoes, leather-studded body suits, and screaming, high-pitched vocals.  (Update:  I’m trying to paraphrase the point Andrew Ross made about camp, drag, punk and pop in No Respect.) It’s a wacky, multiaccentual world out there, in which a Nortel ad can quote Lennon’s “Come Together” and the BJP can quote Donna Haraway.  Get used to it.

But it’s one thing when a position in philosophy or the philosophy of science gets “rearticulated to” (or, if you prefer, hijacked by) a reactionary political movement.  Steve Fuller quite properly warns us about this possibility in his comment on Nanda’s book.  It’s quite another thing—a far more damaging thing, I think—when a renowned philosopher of science shows up in person to provide philosophical justification for (what I truly believe is) pseudoscience, a set of religious beliefs masquerading as science.  No one can claim that Fuller is being “hijacked by” the Discovery Institute, because in this case, Fuller himself is flying the plane.  For his part, Fuller simply doesn’t think ID is pseudoscience; and he is, in principle, indifferent to the question of whether its backers are part of a reactionary political movement.  I fully understand the latter position; I still don’t get the former.

One final thing, as if all this isn’t enough.  I’ve never understood why advocates of Design focus so exclusively and obsessively on living organisms.  Sure, they’re cool.  I like many of them.  But isn’t the very existence of matter even more fundamental, and even more amazing?  Especially when you reflect on the fact that the elemental forces of the universe have to be just so in order for matter to exist at all?  So maybe there were (or are, or will be) quintillions of universes that collapse within femtoseconds because the strong force was just a tad too strong, and we’re the only one that’s stable enough to sustain matter.  The fact that some of that matter got organized and grew up to ask about the laws of matter and the origin of life is secondary, I think, to the fact that there is matter in the first place.  Which is to say, in a not particularly original fashion, that no one has yet explained why there is Something rather than Nothing.  It was on my To Do list when I was a teenager, but I got sidetracked, and now I’m just another curious agnostic.

Posted by Michael on 12/09 at 01:09 PM
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