Science and Philosophy?
I realized that a complete response to Harman and Levi regarding my relationist tendencies requires much more work and time than I expected. This aims at a highly ambitious (and speculative!) reworking of a Latourian relationism, rejecting his ‘secular occasionalism’ via some borrowings from Buddhist metaphysics, while at the same time trying to: avoid correlationism and upholding the Meillassouxian refusal of the principle of sufficient reason. It’s a mouthful and it’s a highly problematic project on many levels, the most evident being the one related to this kind of cross-cultural philosophical synthesis, one which would lead me to single out the Judeo-Christian-Islamic philosophical subtext at work in Latour and in Meillassoux. As I said, it is probably too ambitious given that it is meant to be the theoretical structure of a thesis (and I mean the material-bundle-of-papers-which-leads-to-a-PhD kind of thesis) which is actually meant to be around the issues of ‘science and religion’.
So, given 1) all of the above and 2) the fact that I am –at least nominally– on vacation, I want to defer this discussion and, in the meantime, comment on some ‘science related’ passages that figure in Harman’s response to my Dundee afterthoughts, which to me are equally –if not more– momentous than my own metaphysical proclivities.
[But before that, a brief comment: both Levi and Graham have expressed irritation at my mention of 'middle-sized dry goods'. They are right and I expressed myself badly. What I meant was of course not that OOP is about privileging a certain set of (middle-sized) objects, but is precisely about establishing a 'democracy of objects' where even the middle-sized ones enjoy full ontological status and cannot be reduced downwards or upwards to either quarks or ideologies. I don't want to promote further the misconception that OOP is just a philosophy about apples/tables/bottles.]
So, in my post about Dundee I ‘complained’ (Michael, if you are reading this, note the scare quotes) about the absence of scientists during our discussions which touched the issue of ‘philosophy and science’. Harman replied that
the implication seems to be that scientists and mathematicians would have taken the side of Ladyman, Ross, and Badiou, and I’m not even convinced that’s the case.
But no, this is not the case indeed. So let me clarify. First, I think (and this is a general remark, not addressed to Harman in particular) that we should be much more aware of the profound differences between ‘scientists’ (physicists, biologists, chemists and so on) and mathematicians. For one simple reason: the only thing they share is the manipulation of a symbolic system, i.e. mathematics,which is certainly a language for, say, physicists, in their usage of it as a formalism to express regularities in nature, but it is much more than a mere language for a mathematician (even as a language, mathematicians ‘handle’ mathematics it in a far more sophisticated way than most ‘scientists’ do). They do not share a metaphysics just because they employ mathematics in their work. So when we bunch them up, we should be careful not to bunch them up as ‘those upholding some variety of scientific naturalism because they believe in the mathematization of nature’.
Second, my claim that our philosophizing should be more open to direct dialogue with scientists does not imply that the scientists would be immediately happy to join in. I don’t want to build up straw-men but I do have a reasonable familiarity with at least one kind of scientist (the astrophysicist), and I think that our perception of the ‘scientist’ is often over-influenced by those that are more closely involved in philosophical discussions. These are the exception, not the rule. The rule –the average scientist– is the lab worker, the experimenter, the data gatherer, the ‘science in practice’ actor. This average scientist would be extremely skeptical, or even downright uninterested, in talking metaphysics. And if forced to do so, would take for granted the ‘metaphysics’ suggested by contemporary physics (the irony). This means that he or she would probably see no need for philosophy at all to ‘do metaphysics’, except in those blurry fields like ethics and morality, fields mostly deemed unquantifiable enough to be of scientific competence. And this leads me to another passage from Harman’s response, regarding the possible modes of interactions of philosophy and science. Harman is correct in differentiating between independence and foundation, and I was not trying to bunch them up together. He claims
“Parallel” is a different case; sure, why not parallel? As I see it, the fact that there’s one universe does not entail that we need to rush toward a premature unification of all knowledge.
This is a most interesting remark. My déformation professionnelle of someone that spent some time reading the ‘science and religion’ literature leads me to superimpose on this discussion a similar debate. In the 1966 ‘science and religion’ classic ‘Issues in Science and Religion’ I.G. Barbour laid out what later became the standard classification of possible ‘interactions’ between science and religion(still used today in UG courses) fourfold. They are: conflict, independence, dialogue and integration. When it comes to philosophy and science gone are the days of integration (in ‘natural philosophy’), and under the ‘conflict’ rubric we can probably place (where the conflict is to be won by science and the defeated adversary is –mainly– phenomenology with its reliance on the manifest image) all varieties of eliminativism and scientism. Harman seems to favour an independence model, with occasional avenues for dialogue. Responding to my (incorrect) claim that he ‘dismisses science’ Harman indeed welcomes the possibility of parallel domains, favoured against a ‘premature unification of knowledge’: good science and good metaphysics can coexist.
If I think that it is a respectable position, my skepticism towards it arises from the fact that I suspect it to be a position that doesn’t deal with the reality of the mindset of the majority of the scientific community, or one that is at least too utopian. To make skeptical claims against the necessity and the imminence of the ‘unification of knowledge’ is already a conflictual statement: even if it is not motivated by dismissal of science on Harman’s side, it is destined to be dismissed by the other interested party, the natural scientists. These can be perhaps led into conceding that perhaps some human-related matters do and will escape the scientifico-mathematized unification of knowledge (but many already reject this possibility: see Metzinger and the like), but they will definitely not concede that there is a discipline (philosophy) capable of articulating a discourse (systematic metaphysics) that deals with the essences of and interactions between non-human (and human? I suspend my judgment until a full blown OO Ethics is out) entities independently from the presence of a human witness (object-oriented philosophy). Especially since the metaphorical, post-phenomenological language used by this discourse may produce –in the non-philosophically trained reader– impressions of vitalism or panpsychism, and since its ‘ontological democracy’ puts social collectives on the same plane as physical stuff, and rejects a primary level of ‘more real reality’ (I am thinking here about Levi’s OO Mereology).
Take care though: I am not claiming that this is good and holy and that scientists are justified by default in having this skeptical reaction. But I am claiming that the sizable majority of those belonging by training to the scientific community will have this kind of reaction. I mean to make an observation of facts, not to be the grumpy science-partisan killjoy, and to come to terms with the reality of different allegiances of different groups of individuals.
As a matter of fact, I would like things to be different, and I deeply agree with Harman when he claims that it is a matter of historical (correlationist) development that ‘philosophy’ gave up a large slice of reality to the newly born natural sciences. Just as I am seduced by Ian Bogost’s rhetoric of a ‘return to wonder’ for philosophy (in the abstract of his talk at the Atlanta Symposium). However –and again I will summarize in a sentence what I have tried to say so far– I suspect that even if OOOntologists do not perceive their philosophy as being in any way dismissive of science the first contact with the scientific community (which, however, is all but inevitable given the relatively air-tight disciplinary boundaries of our academic discussions) will surely stir up recent memories of reprehensible philosophical incursions into scientific turf. Of course, the science wars were caused by a very different set of philosophical and sociological positions, often in open hostility towards science, which is not the case with OOP. And yet, if we do deem it necessary to increase and improve the dialogue between science and philosophy (as I think we should) it won’t be easy to introduce to the scientific community a philosophy presenting itself as an ‘alternative’ or ‘parallel’ and self-sufficient inquiry on the status of reality which openly traces its conceptual debts to Bruno Latour – the philosopher prince of networks to us, the constructionist prince of anti-science relativism to most scientist.
Come to think of it, there is one thing I could do in order both to put my ‘theory’ to the test and to contribute to the larger goal of a new kind of dialogue between science and philosophy: taking the cue from Paul Ennis’ famous cycle of interviews with contemporary philosophers (soon to be out in book form) I could set up a new series of interviews, but with some selected natural scientists and mathematicians, about their opinions about the new kinds of realism that continental philosophy is developing. I have some names in mind already, and I guess it all depends on how busy and how willing they are to dedicate some time to answer ‘speculative’ questions. I’ll think about it and keep you posted.