Tuesday, June 13, 2023

A Disquieting Suggestion

Imagine that the natural sciences were to suffer the effects of a catastrophe. A series of environmental disasters are blamed by the general public on the scientists. Widespread riots occur, laboratories are burnt down, physicists are lynched, books and instruments are destroyed. Finally a Know-Nothing political movement takes power and successfully abolishes science teaching in schools and universities, imprisoning and executing the remain- ing scientists. Later still there is a reaction against this destructive move- ment and enlightened people seek to revive science, although they have largely forgotten what it was. But all that they possess are fragments: a knowledge of experiments detached from any knowledge of the theoretical context which gave them significance; pans of theories unrelated either to the other bits and pieces of theory which they possess or to experiment; instruments whose use has been forgotten; half-chapters from books, single pages from anicles, not always fully legible because torn and charred. Nonetheless all these fragments are reembodied in a set of practices which go under the revived names of physics, chemistry and biology. Adults argue with each other about the respective merits of relativity theory, evolutionary theory and phlogiston theory, although they possess only a very panial knowledge of each. Children learn by hean the surviving portions of the periodic table and recite as incantations some of the theorems of Euclid. Nobody, or almost nobody, realizes that what they are doing is not natural science in any proper sense at all. For everything that they do and say conforms to cenain canons of consistency and coherence and those contexts which would be needed to make sense of what they are do- ing have been lost, perhaps irretrievably.

In such a culture men would use expressions such as 'neutrino', 'mass', 'specific gravity', 'atomic weight' in systematic and often interrelated ways which would resemble in lesser or greater degrees the ways in which such expressions had been used in earlier times before scientific knowledge had been so largely lost. But many of the beliefs presupposed by the use of these expressions would have been lost and there would appear to be an element of arbitrariness and even of choice in their application which would appear very surprising to us. What would appear to be rival and competing premises for which no funher argument could be given would abound. Subjectivist theories of science would appear and would be criticized by those who held that the notion of truth embodied in what they took to be science was incompatible with subjectivism.

The universe didn't begin with the word; science didn't begin with the the definition of scientific method; no one will ever ban the chemistry of plaster and concrete, the metallurgy of steel, or the mathematics of the arch. Science, like politics, begins in experience and the mud. The "disquieting suggestion" is the portentous language of a moralizing pedant; it's intellectually backwards and it's stupid, the equivalent to claims for the "science" of economics based on the existence of a God.

I'm back in the Berkshires watching MSNBC proclaim the victory of democracy, the Democratic Party, and the United States, over barbarism, Donald Trump, and Russia.

And a last update to the previous post. Politics is for adults.

Trudeau made no pretense to philosophy; he did what he thought was necessary, arguing from the specifics in a crisis, not generalizations from the library. Theory simplifies the messiness and slop of politics, and more than anything it's used as an excuse, as if it could grant permission: "I was only following orders." Trudeau's quote is famous because it was so blunt it still makes people laugh. He takes full credit, or blame, and shrugs. Schmitt was a fascist, defending violence as a general truth about the world, and taking responsibility for nothing. He was a weakling defending weakness. The passivity is the root of the sleaze. Passivity reinforces itself, and political passivity is a biggest threat to democracy. MacIntyre is a putz.

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