The Scientific Spirit and Modern Society

The scientist inquires into nature to discover what relationships exist between things. By his nature the scientist is one who does not think that he possess the entire truth, as he continues to grasp at it. His quest is to possess this truth and he devotes his life to creating experiments to test hypotheses and theories expressed in propositional knowledge.

The scientist can take many paths as he meanders through the abyss of existing knowledge and ideas looking for new ways test his hypothesis, but two paths are particularly worth highlighting. The first path and the one that is most common within modern societies in that which might be known as that of the builder. This path takes the scientist in the direction of proving theories and developing knowledge that can benefit mankind. The builder sees the great power of scientific knowledge to assist us, and consequently while he is committed to knowing the truth, he must necessarily become more possessed by a spirit of beneficence than a passion for grasping the truth. Over the course of his quest he has gone from experiencing a wide eyed awe towards nature that reaches out to meet it, to an attitude that wishes to merely experiment on nature in order to benefit mankind. While he started as primarily a thinker, he is now primarily an actor or doer.

The path of the builder is the most dominant path for the scientist in modern society as the scientist must justify his worth in terms that the society he inhabits understands. Given that most modern societies are fundamentally oriented around growth, economic concerns and improving material conditions for people the scientist must justify his worth as someone whose work benefits mankind, rather than simply someone who is enamored with the quest for truth. While Socrates was enamored with the spirit of science in that he devoted his life to questioning the nature of reality and knowledge, he would not be funded as a scientist because he refused to produce any tangible artifact that might benefit mankind.

Not always, but typically, the builder becomes a specialist. As a specialist he focuses in one narrow field of study to see what useful knowledge can be grasped within that narrow field for a particular set of practical problems, rather than a builder who wants to grasp the whole. That the builder typically becomes a specialist is not at all surprising as in order to fully experiment on one narrow aspect of nature in depth a scientist needs to devote much time, and study and there are very few scientists who are able to conquer more than one narrow region because of the simple demands of time that are required to fully understand this region.

In addition, the structure of scientific inquiry as it is constituted institutionally in modern society exhibits a structure of divisions in which one must primarily be a botanist, psychologist, physicist or member of another discipline, such that the demands of conformity to a professional discipline confine the scientist to working in a particular field. Of course the professional scientist can examine other fields outside of their work, but this must always be something separate from his professional work, and this pursuit must always compete with other pursuits such as friendship, love, family and other leisurely activities.

The second path for the scientist is far more difficult to pursue in modern society and somewhat ironically it tends to be at cross purposes with the professional scientific discipline. In this path we have those whose fundamental concern is to understand the whole. These individuals typically make unreliable researchers as their task cannot be confined to simply figuring out some particular sphere such as understanding the impact of the consumption of sucralose on appetite. These people are creative seekers who jump from one area of interest to another driven by their desire to synthesize their insights into some coherent understanding of the whole, rather than obedient workers who will be sure to accomplish the task to which they are assigned or have agreed to. Some of them may be able to make a career through scientific inquiry because of their genius and novel insights, but this will always be in tension with the spirit by which they are animated, as those who are driven by this spirit are not necessarily interested in producing treatises but in simply grasping the whole. This last point is one that has been made by many including Arendt, but I think it is worth reiterating because it points to the separation between building intellectual systems for the benefit of mankind or for glory, and to the pure quest for understanding.

This is all to say that the professional discipline of science is not simply a constitution of the spirit that continually pursues an understanding of the whole. Rather, the professional discipline of science is a historical manifestation of many factors, and those of who are captured by the aforementioned spirit may be marginalized and degraded, rather than supported by the institutions of science as they exist in modern societies. Consequently, the institutionalization of science may be as much of a threat to the spirit of continuous inquiry directed at understanding the whole as those who decry science in favour of unreflective forms of faith and tradition.

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The Intergalactic Chronicles of Kesarp

Dear Pisely,

I have been travelling around the universe for far too long. As a result I feel compelled to reach out to you even if it is only to share some of the findings from my missions.

My last mission was to explore the city on Earth called “Toronto.” It was quite a voyage from the other side of the Milky Way, but it was certainly worth it to observe the forms of life that inhabit this city. The squirrels, coyotes and rabbits were all interesting, but the most interesting creatures that I witnessed were those who had built Toronto, and other cities on Earth, the humans.

Unlike other creatures their bodies were soft and fleshy, and did not seem to be suited to survival, but these creatures had clearly figured out a way to maintain their dominance over the seemingly more formidable forces of nature that inhabit the Earth. It is not of interest to me how they came to achieve their dominance, but one thing that does deeply interest me is the relationship humans have to machines.

Within Toronto many human beings packed themselves into capsules that transport them from one end of the city to the other, but generally the human does not see the presence of others within these capsules as an opportunity for interaction with those others. They merely pass each other in silence, avoid eye contact and seem to see the corporeal presence of other humans as a physical obstacle that they must get around. Once in a while one of them will move their flappy food holes and say something in the presence of others, but this is not the norm. It is hard to say whether they are at ease with the presence of others, or too afraid to interact with others when they are on these capsules.

However, one object that did solicit a vast amount of attention from humans when they gathered on these high-speed capsules were little rectangular boxes that humans carry presumably to contact one another, and access information. These boxes appear to be the center of each human’s world when they are in those high speed cramped capsules areas. At regular periodic intervals they will check the box like an attentive mother hen watching over her chicks. It is as if something disastrous will happen if they do not interact with their box. Also, their boxes seem to deeply impact the emotions that the human experiences. Their box will burble or make another odd sound, and they will peer at it, and giggle, smile, frown or cry. The only explanation I can see for the deep attachment that humans have to their boxes is that the box constitutes one of the most significant elements of their lives, as they seem to be far more affected by it, then by the presence of others right in front of them.

Perhaps humans have an internal adaptive function that allows them to be unaffected by the presence of other human beings in crowded spaces in order to better pursue their peculiar goals. But this is only conjecture, and I have no way to prove it, as we are banned by the bureaucrats on Lixillika from dissecting any creature on another planet, no matter how fascinating, and must make due with scanning through anal probing which only gives us modest information. Sometimes I wonder if these bureaucrats fail to understand what would be gained if researchers like us had greater authority. Surely, if we were able to dissect humans then we would uncover the secrets that lie behind the human’s relationship to the box.

But to return to the topic at hand, one other peculiar thing about these boxes that I just must share with you is that these boxes seem to be indispensable, and yet utterly replaceable. There are piles of them throughout cities, and if a human finds himself without one he does not grieve, as he would the loss of a child, but nonetheless he must necessarily get a new box as soon as possible. How can something be so fundamental to a life, but yet be so replaceable? I still feel like I am missing something in understanding the human’s relation to these boxes, but one thing I am certain of, Pisely, is that fully understanding these boxes is necessary to fully understanding these strange creatures.

I hope you are well, and the desk work you are engaged in is not too repetitive for a seasoned field researcher like you.

I hope to see you soon.

Yours truly,

Kesarp

The deGrasse Tyson Philosophy vs. Science Debate: The Authority of Science, Instrumentalism and Technology

Recently, Neil deGrasse Tyson made some comments questioning the value of philosophy. Massimo Pigliucci who writes on the blog Scientia Salon has addressed his comments directly in a recent article, but the whole debate on the value of philosophy as opposed to the value of science raises some interesting questions and concerns that I would like to consider.

Often, critics of philosophy, condemn philosophy as a useless practise because it does not seem to lead to any tangible benefit for society. This was not deGrasse Tyson’s exact criticism, but this critique is so prevalent within society that it has become a banal commonplace that philosophy is a useless endeavour that does not benefit mankind in any way. Interestingly, this is the same critique that Francis Bacon made of the Scholastics within the New Organon, and the critique that Marx makes of previous philosophers within the Theses on Feuerbach; apparently the philosophers will never learn to just get in line already and devote themselves to improving the world. However the fact that this critique of philosophy is prevalent reveals that the popular conception of value within postindustrial societies is one that is fundamentally instrumental. Or to put this more clearly, it is a conception of value that sees something valuable if it can help us efficiently pursue desirable ends. This instrumental conception of value is theoretically problematic, as it cannot explain some of the most basic experience of value that appear within everyday life. Furthermore, the prevalence of this conception of value is problematic as it reinforces the idea that science’s authority derives from its ability to contribute to the development of technology. Consequently, this conception of value distorts our understanding of authority of science itself.

Our everyday experience of value attests to the fact that activities can be valuable for instrumental reasons, but it also attests to the fact that activities can be intrinsic valuable (be valuable on their own account). For example, even though it is true that we might say that a dishwasher is only valuable because it allows us spending less time washing dishes, and consequently only valuable for instrumental reasons, it does not make sense to say that friendship is valuable only for instrumental reasons. Friendships might be valuable because they open doors for people, but the main value of friendships seems to be an intrinsic one as opposed to an instrumental one, as what we value about friendship is not some end-state that friendship produces, but rather the fact that we are in a position of sharing our lives with another being who we respect or admire. The value of such a state cannot be made sense of from an instrumental perspective, so from a purely theoretical angle it seems that a purely instrumental conception of value is fairly implausible, as it is not able to adequately explain the everyday experience we have of value.

The prevalence of a purely instrumental conception of value which not only condemns philosophy, but also the arts, is not only problematic because it does not stand up to criticism at a theoretical level, rather it has a pernicious influence on the way that people understand the authority of science. People tend to see science as an authority within postindustrial societies and associate science with the development of technology. As a result of this people tend to think that what gives science its claim to authority is that science has lead to the development of extensive technology and technological systems. This is quite clearly not a logical deduction, but if you ask non-scientists why we should listen to science they will ordinarily point to its ability to produce various forms of technology and technological solutions. The awe that surrounds science has less to do with the fact that people find that science explains the world, and more to do with the fact that people think that science has led to the great technological progress that society has experienced. Furthermore, a purely instrumental conception of value reinforces the idea that science’s claim to authority derives from its ability to facilitate technological progress, as a purely instrumental conception of value can only see value in the ability of science to contribute to the production of particular ends like technology, not in the ability of science to develop theories that adequately explain the world. Consequently, the prevalence of a purely instrumental conception of value reinforces the idea that science gets its authority because of its ability to facilitate technological progress.

The notion that science gets its authority from the production of technological progress is deeply troubling because this neglects the fact that science ought to have authority in society, over mere conjecture, not simply because it makes our lives more convenient, but because science give us reasonably reliable way to understand the physical world. Science is not only a machine from which great technological gifts are bestowed upon the faithful, rather it represents the human attempt to understand. Consequently, while a purely instrumental conception of value seems to justify the value of science while rejecting the value of philosophy and the arts, in so doing it encourages the vulgarization of the value of science within the public, as science begins to be seen as an assembly-line for society rather than as a spirited attempt to understand the world. Interestingly enough then a conception of value that can recognize the intrinsic value of truth is better placed to provide the public with a proper appreciation of the authority of science than a purely instrumental conception of value, as the former conception of value can recognize that science has its authority because it provides s with a reasonably reliable way to understand the physical world. In this way it seems that in order to truly appreciate the value of science we must move past thinking of value in purely instrumental terms.