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Re: <nettime> Why I won't support the March for Science
Frederic Janssens on Tue, 25 Apr 2017 05:43:14 +0200 (CEST)

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Re: <nettime> Why I won't support the March for Science

On 24 April 2017 at 06:25, Prem Chandavarkar <prem.cnt {AT} gmail.com> wrote:


     Having said that, Nagel refuses to allow the pendulum to swing to
     the other extreme of total relativism, one has to build on the
     utility of the objective viewpoint in order to make a complete
     life.  One cannot deny objectivism totally.

     So if the March for Science is primarily to protest against the
     denial of the sciences in the current political climate, then it is
     both useful and necessary.  But if it seeks to extend that to all
     truth being only objective knowledge, then it is problematic.

     The question is how we can construct and sustain the middle ground.

I mostly agree with what you wrote.

I propose a more constructive, or constructivit, formulation.
(Sorry for the length.)

I begin by quoting a part of a text I wrote for another context :
The best existing organised distributed decision making processes; both
in extent (number of participants) and in 'effective' results.
This critique is not an attempt to denigrate it. Most of the arguments
I use are a result of scientific enquiry.
It is part of the solution, but also part of the problem.
The main problem is that core elements of the scientific method, that
have been central to its very real success, are at the same time
limitations to its reach, and that those limitations are not
acknowledged in a consistent maner.
science strives for objective kwnowledge. To that end, and to the
extent that is possible :
- claims should be independently repeatable
- explanations should be able to predict events, in order to be
- computable, numerical predictions are best, they permit to
discriminate between alternative explanations by their accuracy
Scientific fields are graded by their ability to satisfy those
Mathematics and Physics at the top, human sciences towards the bottom.
This could be considered consistent.
But there are two problems : inconsistency through overreach and
selective attention on control.
Inconsistency through overreach :
One could say that this problem is not of science but of scientism.
The problem then becomes that the distinction between science and
scientism is not clearly made. I propose this to distinguish between
the two :
One could translate the criteria for objectivity as criteria for
effectiveness :
The present theories and concepts are objective/effective because they
permit to predict or produce these events.
But effectiveness can only be an argument for what it it enables, not
for or against what it it does not enable.
You can say :
The present theories and concepts do not enable to predict or produce
these events.
You cannot say :
This event cannot happen because my present theories and concepts do
not permit to predict or produce it.
Another way to present this is to point out that the postulates of
objectivity are usefull for making theories, they are unduely
restrictive as a criterion for what can exist :
repeatable : while it is a justified requirement if the purpose is to
validate a theory, that does not imply that non repeatable events do
not and can not exist
predictible : while it is a usefull property if you have it, that does
not imply that non predictible events do not and can not exist
computable : while it is a usefull property if you have it, that does
not imply that non computable events do not and can not exist
This argument is abstractly absolute. While true, it does not give any
indication of plausibility, and can be used for even the most absurd
proposals. Non exclusion of possibility does not mean affirmation or
validation. You cannot positively prove anything with it, it is just a
reminder not to overreach by excluding.
I would define scientism as the tendecy to think that what is not
enabled or predicted by the present scientific theories and concepts
does not and cannot exist.
The inconsistency of scientism is between two claims :
the claim to be superior to any other mode of knowledge, because it is
evidence based and non dogmatic. It creates new views when the present
views are contradicted by new evidence.
the claim to be able to declare events non existent because the present
views do no enable to produce them.
Explicit scientism is only advocated by a minority. Most active
scientists are well aware of the limitations of kwnowledge in their own
field. But the public is mostly not made aware of that. Even scientists
tend to take the state of other fields at face value.
So the social presence of science is permeated by a diffuse Scientism.
Selective attention on control
The restrictions imposed by the criteria for objectivity are the same
as those that select for the ability to control events.
The tools elaborated under those restrictions enable more control on
By anybody, but generally more so by those who have more social power.
To the extent one is inflenced by scientism, it restricts what exists,
or at least awarenass of what exists, to what can, at least in
principle, be controled.
One can argue about the extent of the consequences of this selective
attention on control, but it has exerted a continuous pressure on our
Attitude concerning science
It is not the direct subject, but as I have exposed the reasons not to
use present science as the unique reference for trust, which is rather
negative, I feel obliged to add a constructive part. How I think
science could evolve in a direction compatible with my proposals
concerning democracy.
First I think that the accent on control is linked to the faraway
origin of abstraction and numbers in Uruk.
To get at the root of this problem, science must really understand all
aspects of that event. To do that it must go beyond the present
subdivision in fields and the temptation of reductionism. There is
already much done in that direction : interdisciplinary studies are
among the most interesting. But it is not known enough, and much more
must be done.
One way it is to allow the possibility of serious study of 'non
repeatable' events.
In fact it happens in a certain sense, but not generally acknowledged :
evolution is an historic process. Most of what I wrote is about
historical processes. There are patterns in non repeatable events. To
see them you have to use methods appropriate to them. The easiest way
to find them is to relate to them instead of subjecting them to a
priori requirements.
My synthetic proposal, I am not alone in that, is to use relations as
primary instead of a lopsided subject/object scheme with elided
If science went in that direction, by the same or another name, it
could evolve into a tool for generalised dialog, by practicing dialog."
I will add some considerations on two concepts you used, and are very
commonly used : "relativism" and "truth".
"Relativism" is a flawed concept. It is an attempt to introduce some
sense of relation in a context where the Absolute is the dominant
concept. The flaw is that it still uses the Absolute as reference, the
ideal that we should be able to achieve but are unable to. So
Relativism presents itself as a defeat.
If you take relations as primary, the Absolute can be considered as the
totality of all relations. Which is a fine as concept. What is flawed
is the idea that you can master that concept. That you can build a
representation of the Absolute which enables you to know what is
possible and what is not.
What you can do is build approximate representations of the Absolute.
To do that you have to, explicitly or not, select the relations you
deem important for a situation, and neglect or negate the other
If you do that carefully you can get an adequate representation of a
certain domain for a certain purpose. But you better remember that it
is an approximation, and that in a concrete situation one of the
neglected relations could intrude.
I think that this explains the absurdity of the expression, "total
relativism", and the associated attitude.
"Truth", as in the binary couple true/false, is a concept with a
limited domain of adequacy. Its use in most contexts is inapropriate,
unless it is accepted as a metaphor.
The domain of adequacy is formal systems, such as used in mathematics.
Truth is the property that, in formal systems, links the postulates to
all the expressions that can be proved by them.
When the Greeks discovered/created geometry they where fascinated by
this mode of understanding. It, and the associated notion of binary
Truth (which did not exist before), had a major influence in the
development of greek philosophy, and by extension, western philosophy
and science.
A crucial step was taken by Plato with his concept of Ideas. Even it is
more complex than that, the main impact has been the notion that
material reality is a corrupted image of the perfect Ideas.
To simplify : instead of saying that a map is an approximation of the
territory, the territory is seen as an approximation of the map.
Science can be seen as a consequence of that step.
To escape the trap that the notion of binary truth has become for sane
thinking, I propose to replace the notion of "Truth" by that of
adequacy as introduced above :
An expression or model can be an adequate representation of a certain
domain for a certain purpose.
The evaluation of an expression or model without context (domain and
purpose) is mostly meaningless.
Saying that an expression is true, without context, is equvalent to
saying that it is adequate for all contexts.
For practical reasons it will probably be easier to to keep the word
"Truth" instead of replacing it by "adequacy". The important thing is
to never use it without a link to the context/domain of approximate


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