Science will not save us. Not even systems science. What systems science above all reveals about ourselves and the world is that both self and world are wholly unsavable, precisely because any concept of the whole eludes us.
Someone once said that if we questioned the possibility of practicing a social science because the realm of the social was too complex, one was in fact questioning the whole basis of science as such. Well, such an objection takes it on face value that there exists only one theoretical/philosophical validation for the practice of science when in fact there are many evolving and contested validations, all of which evolved alongside scientific practices. In fact the rationalist/modernist validation of science, which tries to present a fate accomplai – science as a mode of knowledge acquisition has triumphed over all other modes – is nothing more than a philosophical/ideological stance imposed from above.
Science was once a way of understanding the mind of god. Under that regime science was, of course, successfully practiced. What we now understand as science, had it’s “birth” following the integration of the concept science into a modern philosophical/ideological paradigm. A Newtonian validation for science replaced the old “great chain of being” so that one talks of a birth of modern science. Such validations are naturalised by an unconscious mythological substrata which makes talk of the birth of science seem homey and reasonable while obscuring the real history and the real successes of a science that could be practiced under a quite different philosophical regime and a different set of philosophical presuppositions.
Alongside the validation of science lie the many philosophical attempts to invalidate particular ideological or philosophical grounds for the practice of science. This too is an old story and, while such philosophical and ideological conflicts were being waged, scientists continued to practice science with varying success. Feyerabend has convincingly shown that it is not only possible to practice science without an agreed and overarching theoretical validation but that this is in fact what we have always being doing!
In Feyerabend’s way of saying it, “being” sometimes “responds” to analysis, empirical investigation, intuition, imagination, and at other times resists. The resulting “truths” are relative to an ultimately unknowable entity which resists the designation “Being” as something fixed by absolute laws identical with an independently existing structure of the real. Such laws are constructed approximations which are always in some respect deficient and therefore contestable in principle. In reality both empirical practices and theoretical validation are contested and evolve in the ordinary run of the practice of science. In other words, as Feyerabend insisted, “rule of thumb” applies. Both empirical practices and theoretical validations are contingent and indeterminate. Contestation, aporia, re-evaluation, mistakes, chance discoveries and unexpected paradigmatic revolutions are the order of the day.
Rather than diminish the importance of science, this form of skepticism about absolutist or exclusivist claims about science, establishes the practice of science and philosophical thinking about science on a more sound and humane footing.
In practice, the objects of science reveal themselves to be multi-dimentional and infinitely complex interdependent processes available for investigation, which is always also a form of mediated interaction in which the strict division between subject and object is shown to be untenable in reality while continuing to be essential in theory. How, otherwise, could science function as a way of generating “objective knowledge” relative to a particular domain? And how could a process in which the presence of the investigator is systematically excluded come to be the basis for a rigorous practice of science?
In fact the exact designations of competence and the evolution of general theory in each domain overlaps and is contested. The existing consensus about the proper basis on which science can be practiced is spurious and is in fact an element of a particular iteration of the rationalist philosophical stance and not an absolute or eternal condition for the practice of science. This is not a problem for working scientists but is a problem for those scientists (really scientist-philosophers) who advocate a concept of science that delivers incontestable and absolute laws of nature while insisting that this form of knowledge is the only form or is superior to all other knowledges past and present.
There is nothing new, of course, about this sort of relativising of science. It’s the mainstay of post- modernist thinking. Despite it’s helpful deconstruction of totalist notions of science as the only valid mode of knowledge it, is not radical enough.
I agree with Laruelle who called the so called human sciences – sociology, economics, psychology, anthropology etc- forms of melange made out of unexamined philosophical presuppositions, scientific jargon and adhoc practices. I would extend that scepticism to the so called exact sciences, while noting that the concept of a “melange” does not have to have negative connotations. One could just as easily talk of a “conceptual assemblage” or, as Laruelle does of his own work, a “phylo-fiction” in which scientific and philosophical elements play off against one another in a creative way. At any rate, all cognitive events are conditioned on the human, and on the transcendental subject/object structure which makes possible the reflexivity necessary for forms of abstract thinking such as mathematics, geometry, logic and propositional thought.
The human already and always precedes and conditions any act of cognition. For that reason no exact ( in the sense of a strict co-relation between theory and practice) science of the human – sociological, psychological or anthropological, or of the material, biological, or quantum sciences, is possible. We can think from within the transcendental to do something useful with philosophy, namely break up the dyad:
Philosopher (scientist – object of science – absolute laws of nature)
and install a radical non-philosophical axiom:
Human (scientist – object of science – rule of thumb)
When science allows itself to be conceptually straight-jacketed by philosophical presuppositions about the human, disastrous consequences follow for the humans who became its objects – in psychology, to cite just one example, unexamined philosophical presuppositions about the human produced regimes of incarceration and the practices of drug induced passivity and disorientation, shock therapy and lobotomy. Each science has it’s own sorry tale to tell. What each horror illustrates is that the philosophy of science as it has been practised is nothing other than the continuation of a form of theological transcendence under a secular guise, a transcendence in which the laws of god have become the laws of nature and the scientist/philosopher the new priest of rationalism exercising omnipotent powers by way of the miracles of science and technology.
It might be that the various iterations of systems science will escape becoming just another way of capturing the human. After all, the very definition of complexity seems to foreclose on any such capture. But I wouldn’t bet on it.
The future looks increasingly dark as the limitations on the application of science and technology to formally sacrosanct biological and cognitive processes fall away. It seems likely that the practice of psychology, sociology and economics will continue as an adhoc conflation of philosophy and empirical investigation in which regimes of social engineering – psychological, sociological and economic – are imposed on captured populations. No calls for the implementation of new ethical guidelines will be effective once the philosophical presuppositions which underpin the practices of science and the application of technology to the human remain unexamined. All attempts at solving the ethical dilemma by rationalist/scientific means are self-contradictory, reinforcing the conflation between science and philosophy which is at the root of the difficulty.
Thomas Nail’s Essay “The Climate-Migration-Industrial Complex” , available here, is an example of a positive, anti-capitalist systems science/philosophy/politics melange (or conceptual assemblage). Perhaps this sort of analysis will become more common as we enter fully into the age of the Anthropocene.