Thursday, 21 October 2010

Science: The Art of Living (an interview with Steve Fuller about his latest book))

Q1. Science: The Art of Living is the third book you've written on the science/religion relationship. In what sense does it mark a logical progression in your treatment of this theme?

A1. If you look over the three books – i.e. Science vs. Religion?, Dissent over Descent, and Science: The Art of Living -- you’ll see that I am becoming increasingly explicit about the kind of science-religion world-view that I would promote in the name of ‘humanity’: on the one hand, ‘science’ understood in the broad ‘Wissenschaft’ sense that includes the humanities and theology as sciences; on the other hand, the Abrahamic religions (Judaism, Christianity, Islam) that presumes the unique proximity of humans to God amongst the creatures of nature. A book that precedes these three, The New Sociological Imagination (Sage, 2006), speaks of this unique combination as the ‘anthropic world-view’, which I believe has also justify the interest – perhaps (regrettably) diminishing in our own time – to carve out a special body of knowledge called ‘social science’. I deal with the future prospects for this world-view in my latest book, Humanity 2.0: Foundations for 21st Century Social Thought (Palgrave Macmillan), due out next year. ‘Intelligent design’ (ID) is central to this conception mainly for its sustaining intellectual content, not its current cultural politics, which as everyone knows tends towards the conservative and sometimes even the reactionary. The idea that the natural world might be constructed as the best possible machine has always been a powerful force in motivating the significance attached to scientific inquiry, the intensity of its pursuit and the extent of its application. ID is responsible for that idea – God as The Big Engineer -- which when seen against the backdrop of the world’s creation stories appears very counter-intuitive. The additional degree of specificity that Science: The Art of Living provides that was not present in my earlier work is ‘Protscience’, the idea that science is not merely indebted to the Protestant Reformation for is itself now undergoing its own version of that movement, with people taking science increasingly into their own hands (say, via the internet) in much the same way the Protestants took the Bible into their own hands (via the printing press). For this idea, Richard Dawkins recently interviewed and condemned me as an ‘Enemy of Reason’ in one of his television programmes.

Q2. I gather you're not too crazy about the academic sport of routing and scaffolding works in relation to their forbears, so I hope you can forgive me for asking this question. I guess it speaks more broadly as well to the issue of historical continuity and rupture, so I'll persist: is it at all helpful to contextualise the book in relation to classical sociology? Specifically, I'm wondering if your demonstration of the compatibility of science and religion is designed to avoid the Scylla of scientism and the Charybdis of obscurantism? No less an authority than Weber had warned of the ascendancy of "specialists without spirit" and the "sensualists without heart", operating in a world where the powers that bear down on humans and ordain their callings are not divine, but rather the conditions of modernity itself- specialization, rationalization, and intellectualization. I suspect though you might want to qualify the comparison. Perhaps we could speak then of science as an art of living as a corrective to Weberianism rather than the intellectual and superstitious retreat he himself feared? This would mean that the pursuit of truth and understanding is placed in a communal context within which they can flourish most fully. St. Bernard of Clairvaux might even be cited as setting an early precedent, along with the scientists you positively refer to in your book.
A2. A couple of points here, the first about classical sociology. Just sticking to the Holy Trinity of Marx, Weber and Durkheim, it’s clear that ‘sociology’ began with a focus on ‘religion’ as what ‘modern society’ sought to both supersede and perfect. All three thinkers – as well as sociology’s founder Auguste Comte – appreciated the power of especially the salvation religions to motivate people to organize themselves to do great things for long periods of time. They also realized that the secular world continues to piggyback on this sentiment, while disavowing the underlying metaphysics. This results in various forms of ‘bad faith’ and ‘disenchantment’, which sociology might then address directly (Marx, Durkheim) or indirectly (Weber). I should say that this side of classical sociology was pretty evident when I was a student 35 years ago. But back then, the Holy Trinity was complemented by Pareto and Freud, the great theorists of how old sentiments never entirely disappear but return in new expressions. I believe that the lack of recognition of the religious roots of sociology today reflects the decline of ‘society’ (understood as a unitary entity) as an object of concern within the discipline.

The second point concerns ‘superstition’, which I do not see as something over which religion has a monopoly. In fact, most of our beliefs in science are, strictly speaking, superstitious (a point I made in the first book of mine called Science, published in 1997). Very few people know much about the science in which they believe – they simply know which scientists and theories to name-check when pressed on matters of epistemic authority. Moreover, there is very little cost-accounting for science: The publicity given to ‘brilliant discoveries’ tends to overwhelm science’s failures and disasters, very much like a religion that strings along its believers with periodic miracles amidst the ambient misery of their day-to-day lives. I am not saying that we should therefore junk science altogether: Rather, we should be just as rational when appraising science’s performance as we suppose science itself to be when doing its job properly. Our belief in science’s rationality should not cause us to hold that belief irrationally. A similarly paradoxical point originally led the Protestants to question Catholic authority: The Catholics simply required the believer to declare loyalty to the Church and perform various rituals without necessarily ever encountering the doctrine first-hand to decide for themselves whether they truly believe it. While this practice certainly kept a lot of Christians under the same tent, it emptied the act of believing of any specific epistemic content. ‘Protscientists’ of the sort described in Science: The Art of Living feel exactly the same way vis-à-vis science – which is why they engage so actively with internet-based projects, most impressively Wikipedia.

Q3. Quantum mysticism has been used as an example of the Charybdis of postmodern obscurantism. This brings us to the elephant in the room. One of the biggest misconceptions about you is that you are a postmodern "relativist" for whom "anything goes". You've previously expressed a preference for metarelativism instead. Can you relate this term to what you call "Protscience" in this, your new book?

A3. No one who is sympathetic to my work – and that includes people who would call themselves postmodernists and relativists -- considers me a postmodernist or a relativist. This misconception is a great example of how people who may have some of the same intellectual/cultural/political enemies are seen as sharing a common world-view. The relevance of Protscience to this issue is that Protestants do not give up on the universal aspirations of Christianity, and neither do Protscientists. Protestantism is not a relativistic form of Christianity; otherwise, it would not so actively proselytise for people to join their particular denominations, even to the point of provoking conflict. Relativism tends to be associated with a quiescent politics in which tolerance is taken to be an end in itself. (This is a ‘metarelativist’ point – i.e. it relativises relativism.) Yet, science requires the sort of conflict whereby people routinely challenge each other’s grounds of faith because they presume to be in a common project to reach some (divine) endpoint, aka Truth. Science’s great institutional innovation has been to pursue this potentially quite volatile project in dedicated spaces within clearly defined rules of play. As Popper said, echoing Goethe, in science our ideas die in our stead. However, nowadays the scientific establishment, very much like the Catholic Church in the 16th century, is institutionalised almost to avoid conflict altogether, even if that suppresses critical lines of inquiry.

Q4. Did you consider including a discussion of bioethics in your book, as they too would seem to inform science as an art of living? You would be aware that there is a substantial body of work in Christian bioethics, which would surely have some bearing on the science/religion themes you discuss? I suspect you steered clear of it though because it lacks the left/right association with liberation theology you foreground through Protscience, substituting instead a moralization (Good vs Evil) of politics. Charles W Colson comes to mind, for example. Is this a fair summation?

A4. You raise an interesting point. It’s difficult to deal with Christian bioethics – or, for that matter, any bioethics underwritten by a strong sense of natural law – if you take seriously the idea that humanity is collective project ‘under construction’, as it were. The main stumbling block is the tendency for believers in natural law to essentialise the human, as if there were demarcation criteria for human nature that could be read off a hereditary feature of our animal being, e.g. a moment in antenatal development or a pattern of nucleic acids on the genome. Here a remarkable – and often diabolical – alignment of followers of Aristotle, Aquinas and Darwin (at least conservatives ones) sing from the same bioethical hymn sheet. They have similar views about the boundaries of the human, even in terms of judgements of ‘abled’ versus ‘disabled’. Where they differ, of course, is that Christians would not demean or exterminate the ‘disabled’. In that respect, I find Gregor Wolbring’s doctrine of ‘able-ism’ a useful antidote to this whole line of thought, as it points to the status of ‘ability’ as what welfare economists call a ‘positional good’, such that one’s standing as ‘abled’ or ‘disabled’ depends on an ever shifting norm of societal expectations about human performance. Thus, what it means to be a fully able-bodied human is something in principle always up for negotiation, which is to say, that all rights are civil rights.

Q5. I want to come at the science as an "art of living" ideal from another angle. At least initially, it brings to mind how "art for art's sake" can make an activity appear to be an end in itself, which would put us back in the camp of Weber's "sensualists without heart". Because the book does not use your preferred title, I have to ask whether aestheticism per se is a central concern?

A5. As normally understood, ‘aestheticism’ is not central to the book. I interpret the ‘art of living’ motif of the series in terms of ‘artifice’ – that is, life is not something naturally lived but only lived with a sense of purpose, which implies some sort of discipline designed to realize that purpose. Science, with its valorisation of intellectual focus and constrained observation, clearly constitutes ‘art’ in that sense. Max Weber was clearly one of the master performers and interpreters of this art. But there is no denying that the “art for art’s sake” ideology was partly motivated by a Romantic analogy between God and human as artificer, which was central to intelligent design’s role in motivating the Scientific Revolution. However, the Scientific Revolutionaries were much more inclined to convert the analogy into an identity – that is, they thought they could not only create like the deity but also discover how the deity creates.

Q6. In a recent article published in History of the Human Sciences, you argue that the legacy of aestheticism has been mostly harmless, while the more subjective advocacy journalism has been tainted to some extent by its historical association with authoritarianism, citing the examples of H.G. Wells, J.G. Crowther, and Waldemar Kaempffert- all of whom "leveraged contemporary developments into visions of future utopias". Are you willing to characterize your own book as a form of advocacy journalism?

A6. Actually, in one sense, the book is a piece of advocacy journalism, since I do believe that science requires the kind of world-view-style justification that theology has traditionally given it. Whether theology is up to the task nowadays is another matter, especially given that so much theology is, in practice, bound up with pastoral functions. Science, understood as the ultimate risk-seeking collective enterprise in human history, sits uncomfortably with forms of theology that seek mainly to provide a sense of solace and security in an uncertain world. Of course, not all theology is like this. More millenarian, emancipationist forms of theology have played on Biblical themes that stress the empowerment of humanity through recognition of its godlike character. But it is difficult to push this line consistently without challenging church authority, a problem that especially Catholic clerics ranging from Pierre Teilhard de Chardin to Gustavo Gutierrez (the founder of liberation theology) have experienced in recent times when they have pushed the implications of theology into anti-establishment readings of contemporary science and politics, respectively. But of course, science itself suffers as much from the problem of authoritarian lockdown as theology. This is acutely registered by the Popperian purist – perhaps me – who upholds that science is really in its own element when it is in what Popper himself called (with a nod to Trotsky and a slight to Kuhn) ‘permanent revolution’, which is to say, testing even fundamental assumptions by using one’s own reasoning and experience – not by deferring to expert opinion.

Q7. Why does it appear to be the case though that the people who most publicly condemn the human condition’s casualization in the modern world are conservatives, (i.e. Charles W Colson Syndrome again) who often turn the natural law tradition to their own ends? In this vein, the writings of Teilhard, who you positively refer to in your book, could become caricatured by some as an authoritarian form of advocacy journalism. After all, Teilhard entrusted the leadership of socialization to an elite, who were to guard against the "mass of humanity", who he regarded as "profoundly inferior and repulsive". With the hierarchic structure of nature left unchallenged, Teilhard was free to recommend eugenic measures to deal with "life’s rejects" (Human Energy [Collins, 1969], pp. 132-133). This doesn't appear to sit too well with your previous critical stance towards Peter Singer's expressed desire to expand the "moral circle" at the expense of disabled humans. What should we be looking for here?

The sanest attitude towards ‘eugenics’ is to regard it as a politically incorrect term for the most basic feature of the normal processes of social reproduction. One does not need to contemplate breeding farms, sterilisation clinics and gas chambers to engage in eugenics. Persistent class differences, and their associated patterns of nutrition, health and income flows, have always carried out the workings of natural selection in the guise of social structure. This point was very clear to Francis Galton, who coined ‘eugenics’ in the 1860s in the aid of rationalising an otherwise mindless reproduction of social structure. (His main bugbear was the hereditary UK House of Lords.) Indeed, Galton thought he was providing the foundations for a scientifically self-conscious social policy – not merely an extension of evolutionary biology to human beings, as eugenics now tends to be seen. I make this point because the main ethical cloud that continues to hang over eugenics is the tendency of its advocates – and this was especially true in Nazi Germany – to present eugenic policies as if they were simply carrying out the orders of ‘Nature’ rather than taking personal responsibility for engaging in a quite specific risky policies to design the future of humanity. Had the eugenicists consistently presented their work as a political project, rather than as an anonymously imposed scientific imperative, then it could have been discussed more in the agonistic spirit of, say, radical economic policies calling for massive income and resource re-distribution. In fact, I hope that eugenics comes to be normalised in political discourse in just this way, whatever its concrete outcomes. However, at the moment, as you say, we are living in a time when eugenics is simply carried out ‘casually’, that is, through many individually made choices about whether to abort, mercy kill or genetically modify – the collective effect of which is then, by definition, a by-product. In The New Sociological Imagination, I called this state of affairs, whereby a free market approach to eugenics approximates the indirect workings of natural selection, ‘bioliberalism’. In that respect, we seem to be (regrettably) making the long march back to the time before Galton entered the picture.

Q8. I assume minimising these kinds of risks gets back to the principle of epistemic justice integral to social epistemology: i.e. holding people accountable for not only the intended consequences of their discourses/actions? Is this sense of justice intended to complement one of your stated objectives of science as an art of living, where you discuss (page 135), "the ease with which we normally declare someone’s death an “injustice”, describing how this ease "first of all, capitalizes on some sense of its prior improbability, combined with a foreshortened view of the person’s past and an indefinitely extended view of his or her future. This leads us to treat the death as having happened “before its time’”. One objective of science as an art of living would be to redress this temporal asymmetry, enabling us to acquire the affect needed to put the value of a person’s life in a more historically balanced perspective. This may include, for example, a realization that, given a rounded view of the relevant biosocial background, the deceased had already reached his or her potential, leaving others now better placed to carry forwards that achievement". Could you please elaborate on what standard of proof is indicative of "potential", "achievement", and "the relevant biosocial background", when determining if a "temporal asymmetry" is unjust?

A8. This is quite a complex but important issue. The first point is that the very idea that one can live ‘scientifically’ presumes that God and humans differ in degree, not kind. This is the sense in which the Abrahamic religions and modern science are joined at the hip: God is the creator of that which science can know. In practice, this means that scientific judgements are always inferior versions of godlike judgements, which may be improved over time. Moreover, ‘God’ in this context is not only the source of reality’s intelligibility but also a being who stands equidistant from all points in time and space, which I take as an operational definition of ‘transcendence’. This implies that God knows the past as well as he does the future because everything is equally present to his mind. In contrast, a creature who knows the past so much better than the future that it is inclined simply to repeat the past indefinitely is an animal. Humans, of course, are at least animals in this sense and, philosophically speaking, it explains the lure of induction as way of knowing the world. However, one of the godlike goals of science is to produce symmetry in our knowledge of the past and the future, which means both distrusting the security of our attachment to the past and empowering us in our capacity to determine the future. Modernity is largely about striking just this temporal balance in order to raise us above the animals: a deconstructive attitude to the past and an experimental attitude to the future, both pursued simultaneously. Now, this general strategy clearly has implications for how we think about individual lives, especially in terms of whatever ‘injustices’ we currently ascribe to unexpected deaths, which may come to be seen as exaggerated, once we grant ourselves greater knowledge of future prospects.

Q9. Finally, I understand you cannot divulge much here about your two forthcoming books, which sound intriguing- particularly for readers of this blog- Humanity 2.0. I get some clues from Science as an Art of Living where you might take a discussion of transhumanism, but wonder if you have anything to add? Any idea yet on a publication date?

A9. Humanity 2.0 should be out in the first half of 2011, since it is already with the publisher (Palgrave Macmillan) and being looked over by reviewers. I am broadly supportive of transhumanism, but I definitely see it as a movement that continues Abrahamic theology by other means – which is something that I think only some self-described ‘transhumanists’ realize. For one thing, transhumanism is a completely counter-Darwinian idea, since it projects all sorts of normative utopias about the successor species to Homo sapiens that Darwin’s specific brand of evolution would deem a folly. Here it is worth recalling Darwin’s own refusal to embrace eugenics, when Galton, his cousin, approached him for an endorsement. Darwin really believed that humans were just one more – perhaps the latest – species to spend a few million years on the planet and then become extinct like the others. There is nothing in Darwin to suggest the sort of capacity, let alone entitlement, ascribed to humans that motivates the often science-fictional enthusiasms of transhumanists. Bluntly put, Darwin did not believe that humans could take control of evolution – but transhumanists do. I am with the transhumanists on this one, and they should be as well! I believe that it is not accident that the likes of Norbert Wiener, Herbert Simon and Ray Kurzweil are all Unitarians, the Abrahamic faith that posits the most direct connection between humans and God.

It is here that one might find the basis for mounting what I have begun to call a Creationist Left, that disembeds intelligent design theory from its current cultural-political moorings in American Christian fundamentalism. Since such a negative social stigma is attached to the label ‘creationist’, it’s perhaps worth belabouring what I consider very obvious based on the historical record: namely, that the strongest motivation we have for pursuing science in the manner and with the intensity that we have for the last 400 years or more has been that we have supposed reality to be ‘intelligible’, which is to say, constructed so as to enable our rational understanding of it. This is a ‘creationist’ position because it imagines that reality is itself an artefact comparable to ones made by our own hand – only much greater. And of course I am talking about some high-tech secular descendant of the Abrahamic God as the grand artificer. If we really believed, as Darwinists insist, that reality has come to acquire the order we perceive by essentially random processes that produce at best transient stabilities, then we would never have focused so much effort on science in the first place, nor value its results so highly. Such a metaphysics would doom the scientific enterprise to long-term failure. Nevertheless, the exceptional value placed on science and its ‘mechanical world-view’ has been the calling card of modern Western culture, especially when seen against the backdrop of the world’s cultures, including the ancient Greeks and Romans. This point about the world-historic significance of Creationism is true and can be made quite independently of any specific claims about particular churches or dogmas. Here readers of a sociological bent are instructed to look at the work of Rodney Stark, who has documented this point over several books. Of course, it is ideologically convenient to pigeonhole ‘Creationism’ as an aberration from the general decline of religion in an increasingly secularised world – but it would be misleading, both in terms of understanding the science-religion relationship in world history and where it is likely to head in the future.

No comments: