Science Is Real, But Not So Damned Real.
An edgy essay by Robert Hanna
You can also read or download a complete .pdf version of this essay HERE.
I teach at Harvard that the world and the heavens, and the stars are all real, but not so damned real.[i]
In my neighborhood, many people have put up signs that look like this:
Now one thing I noticed immediately is that of the six claims colorfully and loudly believed by the people who put up these signs, five of them are self-evidently moral or political claims, namely
BLACK LIVES MATTER
WOMEN’S RIGHTS ARE HUMAN RIGHTS
NO HUMAN IS ILLEGAL
LOVE IS LOVE, and
KINDNESS IS EVERYTHING.
And I have no problem whatsoever in assenting to all of those claims, under a broadly Kantian, dignitarian moral interpretation of them.[ii]
But I also think that the fourth claim in the original list, in super-bright, day-glo green capital letters, dominating the middle of the sign, namely,
SCIENCE IS REAL
is deeply and triply problematic.
First, it is ambiguously poised between being a theoretical, epistemic, or even a metaphysical claim on the one hand, and a moral or political claim on the other. So it is sharply unlike the other five claims.
Second, by being listed with the other claims, it presents itself as being as self-evidently something we ought to assent to, just as we ought to assent to the other five claims. But that is sheer sophistry.
And third, whether we treat it as a theoretical, epistemic, or even a metaphysical claim on the one hand, or as a moral or political claim on the other, or as an essentially blurry or vague claim that somehow runs that theoretical/epistemic/metaphysical vs. moral/political difference together into a single kind of claim, it is profoundly questionable.
In a moment, I will explain what I mean by that. But before I do, let me get something out of the way, in order to avoid misunderstandings: my view is not anti-science. My view is fully pro-science.[iii] And in particular, I think that the formal and natural sciences,[iv] insofar as they are properly (by which I mean, carefully, conscientiously, and self-critically[v]) done, are evidentially and rationally justified, either contingently or necessarily true, and also refer to what is manifestly real. So I am resolutely not “post-truth,” and I certainly do not believe that the formal and natural sciences, insofar as they are properly done, are some kind of “fake news.” It is just that I do not think that the formal and natural sciences are the whole truth; I do not think that the formal and natural sciences are without inherent epistemic or metaphysical limits; and I do not think that the formal and natural sciences cannot cogently be or even ought not to be morally or politically criticized. On the contrary. And that is why I am saying, riffing on Josiah Royce’s famous definition of idealism, that science is real, but not so damned real. And in particular, I am saying that science is not REAL, in the sense implied or purported by those near-ubiquitous signs.
More precisely, it seems to me that in claiming that SCIENCE IS REAL, those signs are asserting without adequate evidence or sufficient argument, or at least presupposing as a dogmatic thesis, a philosophical doctrine and ideology I am calling (and others have also called) scientific naturalism, which consists of the three conjoined sub-doctrines of (i) universal mechanism, (ii) universal ontological and explanatory materialism or physicalism, and above all (iii) scientism, which epistemically and metaphysically valorizes the formal and natural sciences, especially including (iiia) epistemic empiricism (whether classical empiricism, as per Locke, Hume, and Mill, or radical Quinean empiricism), (iiib) the Lockean epistemological “underlaborer” conception of the relation between natural science and philosophy, such that philosophy is the underlaborer of the sciences,[vi] which is also re-affirmed in Wildfrid Sellars’s mid-20th century slogan that “science is the measure of all things,”[vii] and (iiic) the Baconian and Cartesian technocratic ideology according to which, as natural scientists, we are “the lords and masters of nature.”[viii]
What do the doctrines mentioned under (i), (ii), and (iiia) mean, more precisely? Universal mechanism says (i) that everything whatsoever that happens in the world, including all human activity, is either strictly deterministic, strictly indeterministic, or some mixture of both (say, macroscopically deterministic but microscopically indeterministic at the quantum level, or microscopically deterministic at the quantum level with some epistemic indeterminism at the macroscopic level, etc.), and (ii) that all the causal and quantitative characteristics of those happenings are not only (ii.a) strictly fixed by the general causal laws of nature and/or the mathematical laws of probability, especially those laws governing the conservation of quantities of matter or energy, together with all the settled facts about the past, especially including The Big Bang Singularity, but also (ii.b) calculable from those laws and facts on an ideal digital computer, aka an ideal Turing machine.[ix] If universal mechanism is true, then you are not deeply or really free, because, instead, no matter what you may believe about your own freedom, you are deeply and really a deterministic or indeterministic natural automaton, ultimately caused by The Big Bang Singularity. Indeed, we are all nothing but decision-theoretic biological machines, aka“biochemical puppets,”[x] “moist robots,”[xi] or “survival machines.”[xii]
Universal ontological or explanatory materialism or physicalism says that everything whatsoever in the world, including human minds, is either strictly identical with fundamentally physical objects, facts, and properties, or, if not strictly identical with them, then necessarily determined by them (aka “supervenient” on them) either according merely to the general laws of nature that obtain in the actual world (aka “nomologically supervenient”) or according to the strictest kind of metaphysical necessity that obtains in every logically possible world (aka “logically supervenient”).
And epistemic empiricism says that all human cognition not only begins in our experience of sensory, contingent facts, but is also such that (i) the content of human cognition is ultimately and wholly derived from such experiences alone, and (ii) human knowledge is ultimately and wholly justified by such experiences alone.
What is wrong with scientific naturalism? Well, elsewhere I have argued in detail and at length against universal mechanism, universal materialism or physicalism, and epistemic empiricism.[xiii] So I will not repeat all that argumentation here. Instead I want to use a more direct, moral or political, and even visceral argument. In this essay, I am saying that if we interpret formal and natural science according to the doctrine of scientific naturalism — as saying that SCIENCE IS REAL — then science is Frankenscience. But I will also provide a few more words to the same effect, elaborating and unpacking that thought.
Right here and right now, during the fall-out of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, we are not only also caught up in the slow-rolling disaster of global climate change, we are furthermore in the very maw and midriff of a new crisis of civilization.[xiv] This crisis updates and repurposes The Four Horsemen of the biblical apocalypse — Conquest, War, Famine, and Death — as The Four Horsemen of The New Apocalypse: (i) global corporate capitalism, aka “advanced” or “big” capitalism, (ii) political neoliberalism, especially neofascist neoliberalism, (iii) the digitalization of world culture via information technology and social media, and (iv) an all-encompassing scientistic, technocratic, materialist or physicalist, ecologically-devastating, philosophical conception of non-human nature and human nature alike: universal mechanism, aka mechanism for short.
Correspondingly, the essential character of the formal and natural sciences insofar as they are conceived according to the doctrine of scientific naturalism, is nihilism. More specifically, by the essentially nihilistic character of the formal and/or natural sciences, I mean the fourth part of the four-part hegemonic ideology[xv] of (i) advanced or big capitalism, (ii) neoliberalism-&-neofascism, (iii) the digitalization of world culture, and (iv) mechanism and its scientism, in the latter’s social-institutional and political complicity and entanglement with the other three.
What, more precisely, is the nature of this complicity and entanglement? Clearly, mechanism and its scientism are pervasive default assumptions of mainstream logical empiricist/positivist and post-Quinean, post-classical Analytic philosophy, from 1929, when the Vienna Circle published their revolutionary manifesto, “The Scientiﬁc Conception of the World,”[xvi] through the Cold War and post-World War II Anglo-American philosophy,[xvii] right up to this morning at 6am. But over that period, carried forward in the saddle-bags of the The Four Horsemen of the New Apocalypse, mechanism and its scientism have also seeped like poison gas (the science-created doomsday weapon of World War I) and exploded like an atomic bomb (the science-created doomsday weapon of World War II) into the larger cultural and practical world, especially into the coercive authoritarian politics of the modern State, encompassing not just contemporary Anglo-American culture or contemporary European culture, but also world-culture, and contemporary human life, driven from above by the military-industrial-university-digital complex.
Now looked at from a critical vantage point that profoundly questions scientific naturalism — i.e, that profoundly questions the doctrine that SCIENCE IS REAL — one can clearly see that mechanism-&-its-scientism and Statism-&-its-advanced-capitalism play essentially the same functional role in their respective cultural domains, and that they also mutually support one another, indeed are symbiotic, each taking in the other’s conceptual and practical laundry, and each making the other’s existence and survival possible. On the one hand, mechanism-&-its-scientism tell us that we are nothing but deterministic or indeterministic decision-theoretic “biochemical puppets,” “moist robots,” or “survival machines.” And on the other hand, Statism-&-its-advanced-capitalism tell us that we are obligated to obey the coercive authoritarian commands of governments — powered by sophisticated formal and natural sciences and by advanced technology, ﬁnance, and industry — no matter how absurd or immoral these commands might actually be, without ever daring to think or act or live for ourselves, lest we fall back into the chaotic, evil, pre-scientiﬁc, pre-Statist Hobbesian “war of all against all” in the “state of nature,” and lose the marvelous egoistic or collectivist-utilitarian beneﬁts of neoliberal life as decision-theoretic biochemical puppets/moist robots/survival machines.[xviii]
I call this tightly-circular, dyadic, and symbiotic conceptual and practical system that governs the 20th and 21st century sociocultural and political world, scientistic Statism. Scientistic Statism has its origins in Thomas Hobbes’s 17th century politically-driven materialist/physicalist metaphysics and the contemporaneous dual emergence of modern capitalism and the modern coercive authoritarian State, i.e., what Hobbes called the Leviathan.[xix] And here it is directly relevant to note that Hobbes was Galileo’s friend, and later Francis Bacon’s private secretary, and that Hobbes was actively involved in important natural-scientific debates with Robert Boyle.[xx] So the symbiotic connection between mechanism and its scientism on the one hand, and Statism and its capitalism on the other has been constantly present ever since the beginning of The Enlightenment.[xxi] But now humanity has reached the bitter end of that historical juggernaut: The New Apocalypse. From here on in, it is simply a personal and collective existential choice between do (i.e., rejecting scientistic Statism, and undertaking something essentially better[xxii]) or die (i.e., continuing to ride with The Four Horsemen to the bitter end).
Pictorially, scientistic Statism looks like this —
and also like this —
Thus scientistic Statism is the real-world manifestation of Hobbes’s coercive authoritarian sovereign who commands, “personates,” and impersonally threatens all the biochemical puppets/moist robots/survival machines he governs, and also of Francisco Goya’s all-too-true observation and warning in the Los caprichos (1797–1799) that “the sleep of reason breeds monsters” (el sueño de la razón produce monstruos). Or in other words, in our contemporary world, the sleep of reason, via scientistic Statism, breeds the Frankenscience monster. In Goya’s etching, “the sleep of reason” is the image of death: not only of Death, the fourth Horseman of the biblical Apocalypse, but also and especially of our own looming mass extermination by the apocalyptic cavalry charge of advanced capitalism, neoliberalism and neofascism, technocracy and disastrous climate change, the digitalization of world culture, the nihilism of universal mechanism and its scientism, and all the other sub-monsters released upon the world by scientistic Statism. Fritz Lang’s presciently anti-mechanistic, anti-scientistic, and anti-Nazi films from 1922 and 1933, Metropolis and The Testament of Doctor Mabuse, and the genre of classic dystopian science fiction novels, especially including Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1920–21 We, Aldous Huxley’s 1931 Brave New World, George Orwell’s 1984 from 1949, Anthony Burgess’s 1962 The Clockwork Orange, and Philip K. Dick’s 1968 Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and hundreds of films and novels since then, for example, James Cameron’s The Terminator from 1984 — ominous year! — and Lutz Dammbeck’s The Net from 2003, jointly capture the soul-destroying, freedom-crushing, and murderous spirit of scientistic Statism in its most blatantly authoritarian and totalitarian manifestations.
Correspondingly, Hitler’s totalitarian fascist German state and Stalin’s totalitarian communist Russian state are, to be sure, scientistic Statism’s most brutal, destructive, and horriﬁc real-world instantiations. Scientistic statism is how The Enlightenment, by 1945, had turned into The Terminator.
Nevertheless, throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries, and here and now in the The New Apocalypse, the very same monster-breeding, Terminator-creating symbiotic system of scientistic Statism has been and is fully at work worldwide, not merely in countries with blatantly authoritarian or totalitarian regimes, most of which nowadays are also neoliberal, but also in neoliberal democratic nations, including the most scientiﬁcally-sophisticated and technologically-advanced, ﬁnancially rich, and industrially powerful ones. Indeed, the richest and most powerful scientistic Statist neoliberal democratic nation in the world, “The Land of Liberty,” dropped two atomic bombs on hundreds of thousands of Japanese non-combatants, co-authored The Cold War’s doomsday-level nuclear weapons build-up, still supports capital punishment in many states, as well as the individual and collective right to bear arms everywhere within its borders, has one of the biggest economic-welfare gaps in the world between the richest and the poorest people, no universal system of free healthcare for its citizens, and regularly invades other countries, all without rational or moral justiﬁcation. It also claims, backed up by coercive violence or the threat of coercive violence, that its citizens and other residents must mechanically and passively obey its political authority over all these and many other rationally unjustiﬁed and immoral acts, decisions, and laws. Because it is The Land of Liberty. Yet its police forces are all-too-frequently brutal, racist killers. And even despite — or, more accurately, precisely because of — all its scientistic Statist super-power, its approach to the COVID-19 pandemic has been a miserable, tragic failure.
Now according to the universal mechanism of scientistic Statism, we are really nothing but biochemical puppets/moist robots, that is, nothing but natural automata, or natural machines, whose evolutionary and neurobiological mechanisms continually generate the serious cognitive illusion that we are free agents. But if this were actually true, then we would be in an even worse cognitive place than Pinocchio, a wooden puppet who longed to be a real boy. We would be nothing but “meat puppets,”[xxiii] dreaming that we are real human persons. Indeed, some contemporary philosophers even think that once we are liberated from this serious cognitive illusion, we will finally see clearly see that we are nothing but highly complex biochemical puppets/moist robots/survival machines and that “physics makes us free” in a deterministic block universe.[xxiv] But radically on the contrary, I want to say that any philosophical doctrine which holds (i) that we are nothing but biochemical puppets/moist robots/survival machines, no matter how highly complex and amazing these puppets/robots/machines are, and (ii) that “physics makes us free” in a deterministic, block universe, is something straight out of Orwell’s 1984 and The Terminator.
Indeed, it is not hard to see the stomach-turning unintentional similarity between the blatantly scientistic slogan “physics makes us free,” and the hideously sanctimonious slogan posted over the gates of Auschwitz, Dachau, and other Nazi concentration camps, Arbeit macht frei. How politically expedient it would be for any 21st century equivalent of Big Brother — now updated to Big Scientist — to mind-twist us into thinking that our being nothing but highly complex decision-theoretic, deterministic (or for that matter, indeterministic) neoliberal natural automata and our being “free” are the same thing.
And I, a non-scientist but also a fully pro-science philosopher, am not the only one who thinks that way. For example, the Nobel Prize-winning physical chemist Ilya Prigogine also wrote this in 1997:
The attempt to understand nature remains one of the basic objectives of Western thought. It should not, however, be identified with the idea of control. The master who believes he understands his slaves because they obey his orders would be blind. When we turn to physics, our expectations are obviously different, but here as well, Vladimir Nabokov’s conviction rings true: “What can be controlled is never completely real; what is real can never be completely controlled.” The [scientific naturalist and mechanist] classical ideal of science, a world without time, memory, and history, recalls the totalitarian nightmares described by Aldous Huxley, Milan Kundera, and George Orwell.[xxv]
Along with Prigogine, then, I think that it is precisely those who believe and want to convince us that we are deterministic or indeterministic neoliberal natural automata — the scientific naturalists and the scientific Statists — who are in the grip of a serious cognitive illusion, not we who conceive of ourselves as purposive, living, essentially embodied, conscious, self-conscious, intentional, caring (i.e., desiring, feeling, and passionate), really free, and inherently sociable rational, moral, social, and political animals. All of that is why I think that science is real enough, insofar as it is properly done, but not so damned real. And also why we should be very careful and reflectively critical about what signs we put up, colorfully and loudly proclaiming our basic beliefs.[xxvi]
[i] J. Royce, The Letters of Josiah Royce (Chicago, IL: Univ. of Chicago Press, 1970), p. 217.
[ii] See. e.g., R. Hanna, Kantian Ethics and Human Existence: A Study in Moral Philosophy (THE RATIONAL HUMAN CONDITION, vol. 3) (New York: Nova Science, 2018), also available online in preview HERE.
[iii] See, e.g., J. Torday, W.B. Miller Jr, and R. Hanna, “Singularity, Life, and Mind: New Wave Organicism,” in J. Torday and W.B. Miller Jr, The Singularity of Nature (Cambridge: Royal Society of Chemistry, forthcoming in 2020), ch. 21.
[iv] For the purposes of this essay, by “the formal sciences” I mean formal logic and pure mathematics; and by “the natural sciences” I mean the so-called “hard sciences”: physics, biology, and chemistry.
[v] We should not naively assume that this is always or perhaps even normally the case in contemporary science. See, S. Turner and D. Chubin, “The Changing Temptations of Science,” Issues in Science and Technology (Spring 2020): 40–46. You will also notice that I did not use the word “rigorously,” which all-too-often is simply a code-word for science done according to the philosophical doctrine and ideology I am calling (and others have also called) “scientific naturalism.”
[vi] See J. Locke, Essay Concerning Human Understanding (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1975), “Epistle to the Reader.”
[vii] W. Sellars, “Empiricism and the Philosophy of Mind,” in W. Sellars, Science, Perception, and Reality (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1963), pp. 127–196, at p. 173.
[viii] See, e.g., See, e.g., F. Bacon, Novum Organum, available online at URL = <https://archive.org/stream/baconsnovumorgan00bacouoft#page/n3/mode/2up>; and R. Descartes, “Discourse on the Method of Rightly Conducting One’s Reason and Seeking the Truth in the Sciences,” in R. Descartes, The Philosophical Writings of Descartes, trans. J. Cottingham et al. (3 vols, Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985), vol. 1, part 6, p. 142/AT VI, 62.
[ix] See A. Turing, “On Computable Numbers, with an Application to the Entscheidungsproblem,” Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society, series 2, 42 (1936): 230–265, with corrections in 43 (1937): 644–546; and G. Boolos and R. Jeffrey, Computability and Logic (3rd edn., Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989), ch. 3.
[x] See, e.g., S. Harris, Free Will (New York: Free Press, 2012).
[xi] “Moist robots” is Daniel Dennett’s deflationary epithet, borrowed from the comic strip Dilbert. See J. Schuessler, “Philosophy That Stirs the Waters,” New York Times (29 April 2013), available online at URL = <http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/30/books/daniel-dennett-author-of-intuition-pumps-and-other-tools-for-thinking.html?emc=eta1&_r=0>.
[xii] See, e.g., R. Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2006).
[xiii] See, e.g., R. Hanna, Rationality and Logic (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2006) [Pbk., 2009], also available online in preview at URL = <https://www.academia.edu/21202624/Rationality_and_Logic>; R. Hanna and M. Maiese, Embodied Minds in Action (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2009), also available online in preview at URL = <https://www.academia.edu/21620839/Embodied_Minds_in_Action>; and R. Hanna, Deep Freedom and Real Persons: A Study in Metaphysics (THE RATIONAL HUMAN CONDITION, vol. 2) (New York: Nova Science, 2018), also available online in preview HERE; and R. Hanna, Cognition, Content, and the A Priori: A Study in the Philosophy of Mind and Knowledge (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2015), ch. 2, preview available online HERE.
[xiv] See also A. Gare, Philosophical Foundations of Ecological Civilization: A Manifesto for the Future (London: Routledge, 2017).
[xv] I’m using “a hegemonic ideology” in a broadly Marxist or at least neo-Marxist way, to mean any system of more-or-less mind-controlling, often unreflectively-held, and generally pernicious beliefs, images, and affects — aka “a narrative” — that’s imposed, or at least importantly enabled, by a dominant social group that possesses the power of coercion and also controls its means.
[xvi] The Vienna Circle, “The Scientific Conception of the World,” in S. Sarkar (ed.), The Emergence of Logical Empiricism: From 1900 to the Vienna Circle (New York: Garland, 1996), pp. 321–340, also available online at URL = <http://www.manchesterism.com/the-scientific-conception-of-the-world-the-vienna-circle/>.
[xvii] See, e.g., G. Reisch, How the Cold War Transformed Philosophy of Science: To the Icy Slopes of Logic (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 2005).
[xviii] See, e.g., R. Hanna, “Statism, Capitalism, and Beyond,” (June 2019 version), available online at URL = <https://www.academia.edu/39591836/Statism_Capitalism_and_Beyond_June_2019_version_>.
[xix] See T. Hobbes, Leviathan (Harmondsworth, UK: Penguin, 1968), and esp. the “Editor’s Introduction” by C.B. Macpherson, pp. 9–63.
[xx] See, e.g., S. Shapin and S. Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air Pump: Hobbes, Boyle, and the Experimental Life (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985).
[xxi] See Shapin and Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air Pump, ch. VIII; and Hanna, “Statism, Capitalism, and Beyond.”
[xxii] What do I mean by “essentially better”? See, e.g., R. Bregman, Humankind: A Hopeful History, trans. E. Manton and E. Moore (New York: Little, Brown, & Co., 2020); R. Hanna, “The New Conflict of the Faculties: Kant, Radical Enlightenment, The Deep(er) State, and How to Philosophize During a Pandemic” (April 2020 version), available online HERE; R. Hanna, Kant, Agnosticism, and Anarchism: A Theological-Political Treatise (THE RATIONAL HUMAN CONDITION, vol. 4) (New York: Nova Science, 2018), esp. parts 2–3, also available online in preview HERE; and R. Solnit, A Paradise Built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities That Arise in Disaster (London: Penguin Books, 2009).
[xxiii] See, e.g., the edgy 90s rock band, The Meat Puppets, “We Don’t Exist,” available online at URL = <https://search.yahoo.com/yhs/search?p=the+meat+puppets+we+don%27t+exist+youtube&ei=UTF-8&hspart=mozilla&hsimp=yhs-003>.
[xxiv] See, e.g., J. Ismael, How Physics Makes Us Free (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 2016).
[xxv] I. Prigogine, The End of Certainty: Time’s Flow and the Laws of Nature (New York: Free Press, 1997), pp. 153–154.
[xxvi] I am grateful to Michael Cifone and Otto Paans for extremely helpful conversation and correspondence about and around the topics of this essay.
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