I’m a rocket man

14 12 2010

I try to be good, get off the computer for a few hours, and what happens? I miss an entire conversation on science.

Well, goddammit.

(Actually, given that a large portion of the thread was given over to name-calling and trollist cavils, I guess I didn’t miss that much. Still.)

So, science. I am for it.

I am an epistemological nihilist, it’s true, so this support is caveated with the usual cracks and abyssals, but I’m also quite willing to hop right over those chasms to walk among the ruins that compose our human life—and one of our more spectacular ruins is science.

Yes, ‘our’. ‘Our’ because science truly is a human endeavor (even as its dogmatists assert that science can take us outside of ourselves), and as such, there to be claimed by all of us. And it is important to claim it, both against the dogmatists and against those who find nothing of worth in curiosity and rigor, or in experimentation, skepticism, and discovery.

I can only respond to those opposed to discovery with questions and fiction—as we do not inhabit the same world, argument is stillborn—but to the dogmatists and, it must be said, to those who favor curiosity and thus oppose science because they believe science poisons curiosity, I can offer history and reason and ruin.

To offer the whole of that argument is to offer a book; instead, here is the abstract:

We humans have sought to know, and in seeking, have sought to make sense of what we have found. How we make sense has varied—through recourse to myths, common sense, measurement, extrapolation, generalization, systematization, reflection, etc.—and what we make of the sense we make has varied as well. Sometimes we call it truth or religion or wickedness or allegory or interpretation; sometimes we call it science. Sometimes this science is the means, sometimes it is the end, sometimes it is both. In early modern times [in Europe], in the period now known as the Scientific Revolution, science was thought to reveal truths about God, as it also was by those scientists working under the Abbasids; that it also brought technological advance and political and economic gain helped to preserve it against those who argued that a thirst for knowledge was itself corrosive of the faith.

Yet even throughout much of the modern period science was understood as, if no longer an appendage of natural philosophy, as nonetheless a part of a constellation of knowledge which included the arts, literature, and humanities; its practitioners are all a part of the learned class.

This collegiality faded, and now science is understood primarily as comprising the natural sciences and its methods; to the extent some social sciences adopt those methods, they may or may not be admitted to the realm as sciences, albeit as its lesser, ‘softer’, version. That science has a history is barely acknowledged, and it is unclear if scientists (or their learned critics) would consider them as ‘intellectuals’ rather than (mere) technicians, experimentalists, and lab directors.

This separation (and, often, contempt) is lamentable all around. [Natural] science is more than its tools and methods, involves more [hermeneutic] interpretation than the experimentalists may admit of, and requires greater curiosity than its skeptics may allow. But if we want to know, if we humans truly seek a human science (and, again, I would argue there is no other), then we have to prevent science from sliding all the way into scientism. Some think it’s already so technics-shriveled, that it is already mere methodological fetishism; I disagree.

This saving gesture doesn’t require that artists now refer to themselves as scientists or that neurobiologists become novelists. No, this reclamation project (another ruin) would gather the curious back together, to see if we exiles from one another would have anything to say to one another, to see what we could see.

I don’t believe this every day—yesterday, for example, I had no patience for this.

But some days, some days I think we humans could do this. Some days, this is my something more.