This exchange first appeared on Adam Riggio’s blog “Adam Riggio writes”. On 17 April 2015, Adam and Steve Fuller discussed Steve’s latest book Knowledge: The Philosophical Quest in History. Here, Part Seven , “Making It Politically Explicit”, looks at Chapter 6, “Epistemology as Counterfactual Historiography”, from the book.
One element I want to focus on in my questions for you about the last full chapter of Knowledge is the political aspects of public knowledge and scientific institutions and inquiries. Speaking as a Canadian, one of the disheartening developments of my country’s politics was seeing our Conservative government’s assaults on state scientific institutions.
Canada’s long-form census was made voluntary, meaning that all the detailed data it could collect in its last census period in 2011 incompletely represented the country’s population, making it useless. State scientists in all agencies have had their autonomy to speak officially to the public hobbled, as any investigations which discover facts that would contradict or criticize government policy are effectively silenced.
All of this lies in the modern right-wing opposition to scientific institutions and scientists. The fundamental reason for this is that modern conservatives, driven by the core principles of new liberal philosophy, believe that scientists are hostile to democracy and individual liberty. Much of this had to do with the prominence of scientists and scientific societies in advocating for mass-scale social planning policies.
Now, of course, scientists in our countries (Canada for me, your home of Britain, and your birthplace of the United States) are democrats. They’re raised in democratic, socially liberal cultures where maintaining a population’s freedom is a paramount political value. But our scientific institutions, societies, and cultures should face up to a danger in their origins.
The progenitors of Western science, as a social institution and tradition, were not raised in such thoroughly democratic environments, but in places where authoritarian politics was a live political alternative. You discuss how Francis Bacon and Auguste Comte often conceived of scientific laws as esoteric notions arrived in secret laboratories by societies of initiated specialists. These laws would be used by a society’s ruling elite to legislate over a citizenry. The goal of discovering scientific laws was to control the citizenry of a country, just as knowledge of mechanics lets us control physical bodies.
But the neoliberal hostility to institutionalized science doesn’t engage with the primary virtue ethicist of science, Karl Popper. To Popper, the most socially important power of knowledge is emancipation. And scientific attitudes and discoveries have this potential at the largest level of the social order: knowledge is the power to upend your entire social order.
I think the most brilliant and important idea in the entirety of Knowledge: The Philosophical Quest in History is that scientific knowledge is a force for progressive social, political, economic, and ecological change. Knowledge gives birth to revolution.
The dynamic of counterfactual reasoning, imagination, and investigation that you lay out in this chapter is itself a logic and metaphysics of revolutionary transformation: we can build an alternative world and understand the conditions and histories that would make it real.
Such alternatives can become real because of the way you conceive of time. This is where your project actually converges with my next long-form project, Utopias. The academically acceptable way to treat the scientific epochs of the past has become, following Kuhn, as a strongly incommensurable mode of thinking, utterly alien and alienated from ourselves. We can only describe such epochs, never truly judge them. To judge them would be to port our own values into the past era, which, because our own values never manifested in that era, are illegitimate as grounds for judgement.
You and I agree that this epistemic incommensurability is false. From the perspective of ontology, it’s false because history is continuous. The knowledge and cultural models of the past eventually developed into ours. Not with a sense of telos, of course, but simply out of contingency. We are products of the past, but not culminations. Likewise, the events of the present will produce the knowledge and cultural models of the future.
My own take on your example from chapter six will illustrate where our ideas converge and diverge here. You argue that there is enough overlap in our cultural norms and concepts between North America in 2015 and North America in 1950 that, were we to travel back in time and explain the modern concept of sexual harassment to a young Roger Sterling, he’d be able to understand it.
Not only do I agree, I can take it even further. Even if there isn’t enough overlap in the framework concepts of the present with some particular past era to create a single cultural conversation at once, we can still create a common cultural framework by understanding the continuity in historical development that physically bridges our eras.
Take the ancient Greeks, a civilization that we all accept as culturally contiguous with our own, but which is radically different in many obvious and profound ways that make straightforward conversations about moral principles impossible. We can still create a common space between Aeschylus and ourselves if we all sit down and trace how his history and culture eventually developed into ours.
From the perspective of epistemology, we don’t even need to trace our histories to create this common ground. We need only understand the core principles of each of our eras, how we live them out in our technological and ecological environments, and explain them to each other in an abstract sense. This way, we can at least understand intellectually the morals, customs, religious frameworks, and epistemic presumptions of both our societies.
It even works for conversations among truly alien peoples (which, if the most optimistic futures for the human race pan out, will happen in a genuine sense when we begin to travel to new solar systems and encounter organisms that evolved in alien biospheres). All we need to understand any way of life is understanding its epistemic framework principles and contexts of daily life.
The same would go for different scientific paradigms, their being different ways to approach the wider world. The larger question is precisely whether we need a universally unified mission for science to be successful in these conversations across continuous history.
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First, let me say that over the past few weeks I have looked forward to your posts—and have even prioritized responding to them in the face of other obligations. You have a good feel for the spirit of the book, so that even when we disagree, the differences open up to wider issues that can bring more people into the discussion.
I appreciate the credit you give me for arguing that science is a progressive force. And maybe I deserve it in this day and age. However, that just shows how much the world has changed since I was first a student in the late 1970s. In fact, this view of science was one of the few things on which the capitalists and the socialists in the Cold War could agree. It’s what made the ‘space race’ such an effective proxy for military engagement between the US and the USSR.
There was also a propaganda war over which sort of society enabled people to live the longest, healthiest, most productive lives. And all of this happened before ‘transhumanism’ became the name of a political movement—and before the latest round of technological promises and fixes had been unleashed in the names of ‘biotechnology,’ ‘nanotechnology,’ ‘information technology,’ etc.
I’m writing this piece in Glasgow, where a few hours ago I commented on papers by some younger historically and philosophically minded sociologists who are beginning to discover the science progressivism that was widely held by cosmopolitan, interdisciplinary public intellectuals such as Julian Huxley, whose achievements are now largely forgotten—despite only having died in the 1970s.
For example, Huxley gave the ‘modern evolutionary synthesis’ its name and its canonical British formulation, was the principal author of the UNESCO “Statement on Race,” which depicted race as a social construct, and the coiner of ‘transhumanism’ for the prospect that humanity might transcend its evolutionary heritage.
Like so many other science progressivists, Huxley came to be portrayed as ‘eccentric’ because he took it upon himself to leverage his scientific credentials to affect the course of politics and even religion  under the rubric of ‘evolutionary humanism’ as an emerging ideology capable of unifying humanity’s differences—a Comtean Positivism 2.0 for more scientifically sophisticated and democratic times.
To get a sense of how easy it could be to portray Huxley et al. as oddballs, consider a complicating factor about the Cold War, the legacy of which we still live with—and some of your other comments bring out. The Cold War was also the time when the so-called ‘linear model’ of the relationship between science and technology became commonplace on both sides of the Iron Curtain. In other words, scientists do their thing (relatively unimpeded) and then policymakers and other practical types do their thing (again, relatively unimpeded).
This led to the image of the scientist as a heads-down ‘organization man,’ which came under severe criticism—again on both sides of the Iron Curtain—in the 1960s. (The name Andrei Sakharov conjures up the Moscow version of the likes of Chomsky and Daniel Ellsberg in the US.) The underlying assumption of this model is that science must reach a level of maturity before it can be applied effectively, no matter your ends—and that people other than the scientists are the ones to do it. This viewpoint is also presupposed by Kuhn, though he is only interested in the science side of the model.
From this standpoint, today’s Silicon Valley’s billionaire ‘visioneers’ such as Elon Musk and Peter Thiel are nostalgic for the lost world represented by guys like Huxley and the general Cold War valorization of science as the vanguard of human progress. They agree with Huxley—as opposed to the official Cold War line—that we can’t intelligently do science policy if we don’t already have a vision of the sort of being we wish to become.
This is ultimately a hermeneutical point: You can’t say how science should develop without also saying where we want to go—even if both, at any given time, can only be understood imperfectly. My endorsement of the proactionary principle aims to reactivate this point, which leads me to agree with Huxley and the visioneers in rejecting the strong means/ends distinction of the Cold War’s linear model of science policy.
Nevertheless, the linear model still operates in science policy today, often as a flag of convenience to absolve both scientists and policymakers of full responsibility for their actions. Suppose a science-based policy goes wrong. On the one hand, the scientists can say that they’re not responsible for the policy, while highlighting the underdetermined and otherwise inconclusive character of their data. On the other hand, the policymakers can say that they’re working with the best science available, which always has room for error, which means that ‘hard decisions’ need to be taken. Thus, in the division of labour implied by the linear model, everyone ends up looking honest and professional.
I think what you describe as the ‘conservative’ (i.e. neo-liberal) political attitude towards science sums up this situation. After all, in many circumstances, the scientists themselves would be the first to admit the potential weaknesses in any practical inferences that might be drawn from their research. This even includes the fallibility of models used to forecast long-term global warming. Of course, scientists would not then use such fallibility as an excuse to kill climate change legislation.
But remember, if politics is ‘the art of the possible,’ then there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with policymakers trying to take advantage of the uncertainty, even though it carries significant risk. To be against such moves is simply to be against politics.
What this means is that scientists need to be more explicit about their own politics and hence contest policymakers on political grounds. This will involve revealing the sorts of risks that they believe are acceptable and unacceptable to take. This point has special relevance to science and technology studies (STS), which in the post-Cold War period has been invoked to cut or otherwise politically realign the public science agenda. Because STS tends to deconstruct scientists’ legitimizing discourses and practices, it is not such a stretch for enterprising budget-conscious legislators to appeal to STS to justify cuts to areas of science that display significant long-term uncertainties.
Against this backdrop, Bruno Latour—quite remarkably—said that STS needs to row back from its deconstructive ways so as not to unwittingly legitimize the ‘bad guys’ like your conservative politicians. This is like saying that we need to stop genetics research on humans (but continue to allow it on animals) in order to prevent Hitler’s second coming. Indeed, such calls were being issued after the Second World War, and Julian Huxley helped save the future of genetics as UNESCO’s first scientific director by strategically detaching the science from the politics of genetics, as in the ‘race’ statement.
On the use of counterfactual historiography to forge common values to drive humanity forward: I put considerable stress on this because I actually don’t think that you can know the values of people from the past (or other cultures) without appreciating their decision-space. Your invocation of ‘common ground’ and ‘core principles’ (all of which reminds me of Alasdair MacIntyre) strikes me as reading the history too much on its face: i.e. focusing too much on what people said/did to the exclusion of what they didn’t say/do—but could have. From Social Epistemology onward, this has been a continual preoccupation of mine in terms of defining one’s normative horizons, typically discussed in the context of the role of silence in translation.
In other words, people in the past may have behaved radically differently from us because (a) they saw no alternative that would have allowed them to agree with us; (b) they really operated with radically different values. There is also the flipside of this problem, which normally leads us to create a lot of ‘false positives’ with the past, perhaps especially with the ancient Greeks.
In other words, the reason why, say, the Greeks seem so much like us is that they weren’t presented with options that would have demonstrated just how different they really were—or perhaps we have forgotten the alternatives that they refused, which would have brought them still closer to our way of thinking. An obvious example here is the restricted scope of the ancient Greek conception of ‘humanity’, which is what made Christianity such an intellectual revolution in the ancient world.
There is so much more that could be said on this topic, which gets to why I originally thought that history, philosophy, sociology (and psychology and economics) of science should become a composite field of ‘science and technology studies’. But alas, things didn’t turn out that way, but the ideas are worth pursuing, perhaps flying under a new flag of convenience…
Finally, on a minor point. Here, and earlier, you have referred to Karl Popper as a ‘virtue theorist’ of science. I don’t think that Popper was sufficiently ‘naturalistic’ in his approach to normativity to want to associate the falsifiability with a virtue of individual scientists, which they realize when they’re on their best behaviour, etc.
Rather falsifiability is more an emergent property of self-interested, overweening scientists who nevertheless are forced to negotiate their differences with each other in order to move forward collectively. In other words, if falsifiability is a ‘virtue’ of anything, it is of a specifically organized scientific community but not of its component individuals. Scientists as individuals are motivated to overstate their own claims and cut down those of their fellows. But like the invisible hand, falsifiability is the overall result of this process. This is why institutional design in science is much more important than improving the mindset of individual scientists.