Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Pluralist Reasonableness Against Fundamentalist, Reductionist, and Relativist Unreasonableness

The point that scientific progress has non-negligibly depended for inspiration on science fiction, and fantastic literature more generally, is unquestionably true. But I think the force of the point is usually misconstrued, and usually to the cost of a sensible understanding of science.

This misconstrual is exacerbated to the point of crisis in futurological discourses, which endlessly confuse science with science fiction, as well as hyperbolic corporate-militarist press releases and scenarios with "data" for serious policy deliberation: In their mainstream corporate-militarist forms futurological discourses superficially appropriate sf conceits and imagery in order to manipulate undercritical mass assumptions and aspirations about technoscience and deploy them to sell crap products and military spending, whomping up the usual greed and insecurity. And in the superlative varieties of futurological discourse associated with the various sects of the Robot Cult (the transhumanist eugenicists, the techno-immortalists and cryonicists, the cybernetic totalists and GOFAI-deadenders and Singularitarian Robot God priesthood and penitents, the digital-utopians, the greenwashing geo-engineers and techno-fixers, the nano-cornucopiasts, and so on) these hyperbolic marketing and self-promotional discourses are amplified from fraud into outright faith-based initiatives selling not just the usual phony promises of sex appeal and get rich quick schemes and security from all threats, but outright techno-transcendence of human finitude, post-human demi-godhood via superlongevity, superintelligence, and superabundance.

I don't doubt that many serious scholars of Roman history were seduced into participation in its rigors by initial contact with technicolor sword and sandals epics, just as I know many serious practicing scientists who were inspired by Star Trek to begin their careers in biology or aerospace or what have you (just as my own inspiration by Star Trek had a place in motivating me to keep up my reading and teaching of science and technology studies (STS) and environmental justice critique (EJ)).

Nevertheless, the standards on the basis of which we identify serious historical scholarship or the laboratory and publishing practices of actually warranted consensus science are different from the standards on the basis of which we are moved or inspired by gladiator flicks or space operas. A lab cohort working on the nanoscale is a marvelous thing, as is an sf fandom devoted to Caprica, but they are not the same thing even if their participants overlap and the standards on the basis of which we rightly grasp and celebrate their marvelousness should reflect these differences, because they do make a difference.

This can actually be a trickier observation to grasp than it initially seems inasmuch as many paradigm-shifting scientific hypotheses have involved flashes of insight or inspiration that were not themselves scientific per se, but relied on accidents or fruitful analogies that emerged in processes better likened to the creative intelligence of poets than the creative intelligence of scientists engaged in the more routinized observational, testing, publishing practices that yield the contingent but warrantedly confidence-inspiring beliefs of consensus science.

While some scientists were inspired to scientific achievement through poetic inspiration, demonstrably many others were inspired instead through religious faith if we are to take their own accounts of these matters seriously, and no doubt plenty of others would attribute their inspirations to dreams, fevers, hallucinations, intoxications, or chemical highs, or, hell, for that matter, to the provocative nudge of a delicious meal, a rentboy's hard cock, or a particularly intense bowel movement. Are we ready to invite all these prompts to creative expressivity into the domain of scientific method, properly so-called, in consequence of these obvious facts?

Look, I am the last person to deny the role of the non-scientific to our collective and contested arrival at beliefs that are warrantable as reasonable in scientific terms, but I do not agree that such a recognition justifies a wholesale confusion of science fiction with science, or undermines the useful (I would say indispensable) distinction of the scientific as a domain of reasonable warranted belief ascription from other domains of the reasonable with which it is of course narratively and figuratively and historically and interpersonally and environmentally endlessly entangled in actual life.

It is actually important to grasp that many things that go on in labs were better described by Machiavelli than by any text on scientific method, that attention-economies, funding dynamics, reputation building, interpersonal organization in lab settings are often political through and through, that important scientific breakthroughs have often depended on flashes of inspiration and the workings of personal charisma, and so on. It is also important to recall that there is no definitive criterion on the basis of which we know when we have arrived at a sufficient accumulation of inductive weight to shift our mode of argumentation from the inductive to the deductive, just as it is important to insist that every deduction is in fact saturated with prior inductions, just as it is crucial to grasp that none of the criteria met by actually warranted scientific descriptions (coherence, falsifiability, testability, saving the phenomena, elegance, and so on) has never failed to warrant beliefs that were not subsequently replaced with better beliefs and hence that scientific warrant provides confidence but never certainty.

None of these crucial observations is meant to denigrate or disqualify science or deny its reasonableness or indispensability to human flourishing.

I will admit that I do hope they would provide useful constraints, however, on those who in the name of "championing" science would seek to invest it (and usually themselves, thereby) with inappropriate authority… Or who would reduce other modes of reasonable belief-ascription (the moral, aesthetic, ethical, political, among them) to the terms of the scientific… Or who would re-write contingent scientific beliefs in the faith-based image correspondence -- note that at the heart of both fundamentalist religiosity and faithly scientism is the fantasy of a Cosmos that has preferences in the matter of the language humans use to describe it, preferences would-be priests claim to be authoritatively qualified to speak in The Name of -- or the fraught capacitations of technique in the faith-based image of transcendence.

For me, to be reasonable is not to pretend to be scientific in every aspect of life -- nor even to pretend that all that is reasonable in science is itself reasonable in scientific terms -- because of some facile fetishization of superficial scientificity -- any more than I approve of those who would seek to reduce proper human life to the terms of aesthetic appreciation and expression out of a comparably foolish fetishization, or those ferocious moralizers who do the same with morals, or those cynics who do the same with politics. No, for me, to be reasonable means both to apply the criteria of warrant proper to each mode of reasonable belief-ascription as well as to grasp the actual mode of belief relevant to a case at hand in relation to other modes on offer. Mine is a pluralist conception of the reasonable, which is to my mind the furthest thing from the relativism fundamentalists (whether judeochrislamic, scientistic, moralistic, fascist-aesthetic, or what have you) will want to charge it with being.

I cherish proper scientific practice and its many accomplishments. And I happen to regard imperializing inflations of the scientific into other domains as a profound disrespect to its proper work and a dangerous derangement of the practices on which it actually depends to accomplish its proper work. And I regard the damage to science done by these self-appointed self-congratulatory Enlightenment champions no less devastating to reasonableness than I also so regard (as is more usual) superstitious and irrationalist and faith-based wish-fulfillment fantasies treated as competitors for reasonable warranted belief on proper scientific terms:

And that is just as true, whether these are Creationists who demand folk-poems be taught in biology classrooms, or climate-change denialists or safe-cigarette apologists who insist that any outcome sufficiently profitable to the few undermines the credibility of any claim, however warranted, that interferes with that profitability, or Robot Cultists who derange the qualified contingent consensus assertions of science into promotional and self-promotional promises of techno-transcendence.


jimf said...

> . . .in order to manipulate undercritical mass assumptions
> and aspirations. . .
> . . .transhumanist eugenicists. . .

You know, there was a memorable episode of _The Twilight Zone_
from 1962 whose theme was the unacknowledged manipulation
of fear, narcissism, and technology by a self-styled
benevolent government to shepherd its unprotesting citizens
into a radical program of eugenics (or at any rate a radical
program of mental and physical homogenization). An effective
abridgement of _Brave New World_.

It had only been 20 years since the Holocaust when that show
aired, and the story it was based on was written 10 years before
that. A lot of "thoughtful" TV shows from the time were very
conscious of those recent historical events (and I'm not talking
about _Hogan's Heroes_). In this Zone episode, there's a
German-accented "Professor Sig" ("Sigmund Friend", wearing a rather
alarming-looking bat-winged medallion) who lays out the
rationale for the "Transformation":

"Many years ago, wiser men zan I decided to try and eliminate ze
reasons for inequality and injustice in zis world of ours. Zey saw in
physical unattractiveness one of ze factors which made men hate.
So zey charged ze finest scientific minds wiz ze task of eliminating
ugliness in mankind. . .

Zere is more to it zan zat, of course. As we learned to reshape ze features,
remold ze body, we also learned to eliminate most of ze causes of
illness, and thus to prolong life. Before ze Transformation
you could have expected to live 70 or 80 or perhaps 90 years, but
now you can live twice zat long, perhaps three times. Zis is
a good thing, is it not?"

What Professor Sig neglects to mention is that the Transformation
also alters the mind.

"For lack of a better estimate, let's call it the year 2000. . ."

I guess these days that kind of stuff is considered just too much
of a "downer" to make good entertainment. On the other hand, there
was a Jockey underwear commercial a couple of years ago with
a similar theme (reduced to a 30-second vignette). There's
nothing that can't be co-opted to sell underwear! (Notice the narcissistic
spin the ad is given, though -- "Dare to be you." In other words, buy what
we tell you to buy.

Commercial - Jockey Underwear - Factory Escape

Martin said...

Or who would reduce other modes of reasonable belief-ascription (the moral, aesthetic, ethical, political, among them) to the terms of the scientific

What do you think of Sam Harris's moral realism?

It is actually important to grasp... that attention-economies, funding dynamics, reputation building, interpersonal organization in lab settings are often political through and through

The Double Helix by James Watson is a fascinating and brutally honest exposition of the culture and politics of (at least 1950s) science, complete with Watson's own blatant misogyny. Although the science may be beyond most lay readers, I highly recommend it, since you can still get a lot out of it without understanding nucleotide base pairing.

Martin said...

BTW, I don't know if you read Paleo-Future, but it's an excellent study in the folly of futurism. In a recent post, they present a 1970 opinion piece by someone named Russell Kirk, who suggested that "If the people of the year 2000 ever bother to read our predictions for their time, probably they will acquire a lesson in the vanity of human wishes."

I love that phrase: the vanity of human wishes. Sums up a lot of transhumanism and futurism.

jimf said...

> I love that phrase: the vanity of human wishes. Sums up a lot
> of transhumanism and futurism.

"Unluckily, it is difficult for a certain type of mind to grasp
the concept of insolubility. Thousands... keep pegging away at
perpetual motion. The number of persons so afflicted is far
greater than the records of the Patent Office show, for beyond the
circle of frankly insane enterprise there lie circles of more and
more plausible enterprise, until finally we come to a circle which
embraces the great majority of human beings... The fact is that
some of the things that men and women have desired most ardently
for thousands of years are not nearer realization than they were
in the time of Rameses, and that there is not the slightest reason
for believing that they will lose their coyness on any near
to-morrow. Plans for hurrying them on have been tried since the
beginnning; plans for forcing them overnight are in copious and
antagonistic operation to-day; and yet they continue to hold off
and elude us, and the chances are that they will keep on holding
off and eluding us until the angels get tired of the show, and the
whole earth is set off like a gigantic bomb, or drowned, like a
sick cat, between two buckets."

-- H. L. Mencken, "The Cult of Hope"

Dale Carrico said...

I distinguish morals from ethics, that is to say we-intentions deriving from mores, involving the policing of continuity within a normative community made continent through its exclusion of theys outside itself, and we-intentions that attain toward a formal universality -- eg, universal declarations of rights, commitments to nonviolence, considerations of the good opinion of sentient beings or posterity -- repudiating constitutive outsides. Although formal universality is always exposed retroactively as parochial, and hence takes on the character of the moral after all, it derives its character from the projection of an ethos toward the hearing of an audience radically more capacious than the moral communities to which one currently belongs (the dignity of such belonging is the key deliverable of morality), in fact potentially enormously subversive to moral(istic) normative deliberation, the practice out of which abstract legal subjecthood emerges as a substantial concern in fact. The point for me is that the standards of the moral and the ethical yield crucially different normative deliberations and rely on different warrants for their reasonableness in practice from moment to moment.

Harris' moral realism seems to be battling against the menace of a relativism that I don't personally think has much life in it outside of abstruse cocktail party chatter in the philosophy 101 set -- I don't think the criteria of warrant that render moral and ethical beliefs reasonable are "purely subjective," I think they obey real rules and sustain real facets of actually flourishing human life, but I cannot say that I think much is clarified by trying to shoehorn these real rules or real benefits into the ways we talk about the different real rules and real benefits delivered in the way of confidence about our capacities for prediction and control connected to warranted scientific belief. Inasmuch as science gives us a reasonable confidence as to what outcomes to expect under certain circumstances we might have a hand in but cannot tell us which outcomes to prefer or how or whether we should have a hand in them, it has always seemed to me that the role of the normative as a motor of scientificity should be treated as at least as important as the difference (which I cheerfully grant) of scientificity from the normative.

I can't ever make much sense of the charges of relativism I tend to hear when I say things like these. I have a feeling Sam Harris might be inclined to make them himself. I also know that Harris is one of the "new" or "militant" atheists, and even though I have been a convinced and cheerful atheist myself for twenty-seven years I don't exactly find the New Atheist line congenial. Just as my pluralism gets accused of relativism, I tend to want to accuse certain newly popular modes of atheist militancy as reductionist -- maybe neither of these charges are exactly fair or useful, I dunno.

Sorry that this comment is probably a bit rambling, it's off the top of my head and I'm buried in grading at the moment!