Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Modern European Philosophy: The Philosophy of Science

In the past weeks, we have been covering the debate between Positivism and Pragmatism about the nature of truth and whether it’s pursuit is based in certainty or in practice.  We are now well positioned to cover philosophy of science, as well as the debates between Thomas Kuhn, Karl Popper and Paul Feyerabend.  Feyerabend was very aware that few science majors take a history of science class, offered by history departments, or a philosophy of science class, offered by philosophy departments, which results in universities producing scientists who have little understanding of the evolution of science, of its history and philosophy.  A friend of my family who is a professor in the Paleontology department at UC Berkeley told me that he was taught by a professor who had been taught by John Dewey, whom we covered last time, and that science is essentially Pragmatism, but the public and many of his fellow scientists do not understand this.  Clearly, our entire culture, including scientists, need to better understand science.

Science plays a large role in the modern world, guiding many if not all aspects of life.  It seems impossible to imagine life without science, and many consider progress to be almost entirely identical to the investigations of science and the development of technology.  Recall Schopenhauer, who saw society as quite incapable of social progress, and said that the history of a village is the same as the history of an empire.  Schopenhauer would, of course, have to concede that technology has evolved even if humanity hasn’t.  We still do much of the same good and bad things we have done for hundreds of thousands of years, but now instead of roving nomadically in small tribes we have constructed continental nations and global empires.  Are we better off today than we were in tribes?  Some, like the Positivists and Pragmatists, point to the incredible achievements of medicine, engineering and media and wonder how such a question could even be considered, while others, like the Existentialists, point to the horrors of modern warfare, propaganda and oppression and wonder how we can refrain from asking the question.

In the beginning weeks of this class, we discussed Rationalism and Empiricism, which split over the issue of deductive certainty and inductive assumption.  While many would argue, such as Plato, that reason and passion are two separate things and thus objectivity is possible, Hume, Nietzsche and others argue that reason is always directed by passion, and that it is foolish to think otherwise.  Nietzsche argued that science was replacing religion, and that this was merely one more case of seduction, another period of history where the sublimely angelic, the pure, steady and symmetrical, would seduce humanity into believing in objectivity.  Popularly, science is understood to be objective, but Nietzsche would have us remember that this was the guise and mask of religion, the home of scholarship and inquiry for thousands of years.  Today, philosophers of science are in disagreement over the objectivity of science.

In popular culture, while science is equated with the production of functional and enabling technology, we find many heroes but also many villains who are scientists, using science for both noble and selfish purposes, famous in comic books and action movies.  Last time, we discussed the Utilitarian paradox of the bad as good example and the Tuskegee study.  It is not merely the fictional mad scientist, who wants to rule the planet as a dictator, who uses science selfishly, disregarding the harm done to others.  Like the Tuskegee study, it has become clearer to historians of science in the last few decades that, up until the 1970s, there were terrible experiments conducted in America that were driven by interest in eugenics and maintaining a racist society.  Just as Fichte and Heidegger would argue, our selves are also social selves, and one can be selfish in the name of a group with which one identifies, some call this “group-selfishness”, in the same way that I can be selfish in the interest of my left hand.

That which is called “objective” can sometimes later be seen as not so much in the interests of everyone as in the interests of the dominant, the wealthy, and the powerful.  Feminist critics have said that science has been largely a white male upper/middle class phallus, an “ivory tower” if you will, that is used to satisfy its own needs.  If one is not on the right end of those needs, one’s needs are hardly satisfied.  Social critics point out that science is increasingly turning to corporations and private funding as public funding dwindles, and that an individual who believes science to be simply objective and working in the interest of everyone likely lives in the first and not the third world.  science is funded by the wealthy and the powerful, such as corporations and militaries.

The public questioning and funding of science is important, as this makes science democratic.  Consider that in the Netherlands, there has been experimentation with university “science shops”, where scientists and students work on problems brought to them by members of the public.  This not only solves particular problems of the public, but brings new problems unrecognized into the view of those who can best solve them.  All of this, of course, works by funding for public welfare, not privatized investments.

Critics have noted that NASA funding in America is drying up, as there is not much profitable out in space, but neither is it profitable to solve poverty, cure hunger and end war.  Problems are profitable, and so the endurance of problems is more profitable.  This is the reason why science, if it is to improve life, cannot be merely profit driven for the same reasons that an economy cannot be merely about profits and neglect quality of life.  Just as a traffic jam stimulates the economy, it is much more profitable to create cancer drugs than to cure cancer.  In the same way, curing cancer gets priority over preventing cancer, as preventing a problem is not as profitable as solving a problem.  Also, marketable attractive problems get more funding, and the rest gets neglected.  Consider that far more money is gathered for breast cancer research than lung, stomach or prostate cancer, all of these equally lethal.

As private corporations increasingly fund science, and government public funding decreases, there has been a shift from the majority of funding going to physics to the majority of funding going to biology.  It seems that biology is more profitable than physics.  If you are pro-market and privatization, you would argue that this is good, as the market shows what people actually need and is more efficient than government direction in determining the public good.  If you are skeptical of market forces and privatization, you would argue that this is bad, as the public good is being equated with profitability.

The poor and the third world become neglected, and the expensive products for upper and middle class first world people become the area for investment opportunity.  The overpopulation of the third world, when considered, is seen in terms of contraception, not in terms of poverty.  If the third world was less impoverished, there would be less, not more, third world children, and thus less overpopulation, but this is not discussed as an option.  Cheap impoverished labor for the first world is being prioritized over global quality of life.  The third world is very much the results of empire and colonialism.  Consider the motto of London’s Imperial College: “Science is the pride and shield of empire”.

At the same time, first world corporations go to shamans in Central and South America, ask them about cures for their diseases, analyze the plants they use, and then synthesize new pharmaceuticals which they patent, showing the surprising effectiveness of ancient medicine and the indebtedness of modern medicine to the most primitive of methods.  Similarly, bacteria evolve at a much faster rate than higher order animals, so scientists will put bacteria in dishes, watch them fight each other with ‘germ warfare’, and then take the results to determine if anything of this is useful.  This is beyond the simple idea of hypothesis-test-result, instead letting the world do the testing and trials, strip-mining the useful, and then defending patents in court against any counter-claims, including those of the shamans, and I would presume, those of the bacteria if they acquired legal representation.

Before we get lost in praising and criticizing the successes and costs of science, we must ask: What is science?  The physicist Rutherford famously said, “Science is what scientists do”.  Strangely, this seems to be the only thing upon which philosophers and historians of science are in complete agreement.  Science is clearly associated with investigation and inquiry, but it must be more than this or trying a new sandwich place would be a scientific undertaking.  Science is “figuring things out”, but is it merely figuring things out in ways that require massive investment and complex forms of technology?  Recall that last time, Dewey argued that before science, things were not understood systematically, each thing merely containing its own autonomous power.  Clearly, science can not claim to be the only systematic culture of thought, but is there a coherent system of science that produces good results compared to other cultures?

Scientists are often misled by their professors to believe that there is a single scientific method which results in objective, universal results that serve humanity as a whole when pursued for its own sake.  If the public is mistrustful of science, these professors say, it could only be that the public is ignorant, and if they were better informed they would embrace science and each of its many advances.  Unfortunately, it may be that the scientists are also ignorant, and might be more mistrustful themselves if they were better informed.

Many scientists have, increasingly since the 1960s, become critical of science and the idea of simple objectivity.  American President Dwight Eisenhower famously warned all future hippies as he left office that “we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the military-industrial complex”.  Along with the Neopragmatists, in the sixties there were scientists who became historians and philosophers of science to counteract what they perceived as the military and corporate domination of the sciences in America.  Student activists uncovered plans in locked drawers on their campuses, sometimes while searching for draft cards to burn, for the use of university sponsored research for purposes other than those made public.  I myself had an Art History professor in graduate school who switched from being a physicist, telling the class that he was “tired of building bomb hatch doors for Boeing”.  Also in the sixties, the environmental movement began questioning the use of chemicals and plastics that had exploded in the forties and fifties, bringing America the swell of consumerism that the Frankfurt School denounced as the new form of fascism.

Many of these critical historians and philosophers of science began studying the ways in which science and technology affect culture.  Pragmatism says that science is a tool.  Heidegger argues that what is not at issue remains unarticulated in the background of our experience, such that tools which are used often are often left unthought, used without critical examination.  While the growth of American consumerism in the fifties left many with the view that science and America are pure sources of prosperity, the sixties brought the tools of science into view and brought up unsettling issues, pointing out that what was simple prosperity for some was far more problematic for others.

As history and philosophy of science became official university disciplines after the sixties, this predictably turned into a Hegelian struggle between the conservative and the progressive, between those who wanted the new field to become accepted, professional and established, which required cozying up to the science departments as established in the universities, and those who wanted to carry on the revolution and continue to radically question science and its relationship to prosperity.  There were many scientists and science professors who were deeply averse to the critical relativizing of science of the more radical and progressive, and like Russell they argued that the objectivity of science must be defended from outside influences.

Much like in politics, various critical voices were not perceived by these “defenders of science” as part of the whole but rather “special interests” who are biased and put their own perspective before that of the common objective good.  Some thus perceived it as an unwelcome encroachment of philosophy, history and other humanities departments on the science departments.  Today there is still a culture clash in universities between Positivism and Postmodernism, which we will study in a few weeks.  Postmodernism, which follows Nietzsche very much in saying truth is relative and can always be variously interpreted, is a hated enemy of Positivists and those who defend the objectivity of science.  We will see this in examining the feud between Searle and Derrida, captured in Derrida’s book, Limited Inc.

Critics of scientific objectivity, of course, perceived the resistance to their ideas as bias and ignorance, a charge that any intellectual, but particularly a scientist, would find deeply insulting.  I mentioned in the first lecture that the Analytic tradition tends to be ahistorical, seeking truth not in the dynamics and situation of history but in the static and universal, much as Russell had tried to do via mathematics, Wittgenstein with his early logic work and later Positivists in “common sense”.  Critics of science, within the sciences and outside them, argue that scientists often lack an understanding of the history and social behavior of science, externalizing everything but the particular data they are examining and theory they are testing.  These critics hope to make cultures of science more aware of the social effects of their practice as well as make science more democratic such that it is working in the interest of people and not profits.

The traditional story of science, which many know I enjoy bashing, is that science is a Western thing, as European culture has traditionally valued freedom and individuality, and thus the ancient Greeks were free to begin reasoning scientifically, the first being Thales of Miletus, on the West coast of what is today Turkey.  Then reason slept for awhile, until the Renaissance, when reason awoke again in Florence, Italy.  This led to the European Enlightenment, when genuine scientific understandings began to rapidly replace the pre-scientific understandings of the world much as Dewey argued, and Rationalism and Empiricism fell into disagreement over what this meant about science and the human mind.  In spite of this traditional story being called into question after WWI, WWII and Vietnam in debates that still rage to this day, this remains the way scientists and the public are taught to think about science, though I have already taught you differently by beginning this class with the Tang and Song Dynasties of China and the Golden Age of Islam.  I disagree with those who say these periods are “pre-scientific”.


In the early sixties, Thomas Kuhn (1922 - 1996) came up with his idea of paradigm shift to explain why great scientists made great discoveries while also being terribly wrong about other things, which he explained in his 1962 book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions.  Kuhn’s work was a major blow to the Logical Positivism of Russell and the Vienna Circle.  Kuhn argued that scientists solve particular problems within the frame of their worldview.  He was thinking particularly about Aristotle, and how he believed that objects in motion naturally slow down, which conflicts with Newton’s idea that objects in motion naturally stay in motion and that objects in motion slow due to resistance.  Kuhn argued that Aristotle and Newton were working with different paradigms or models, and that great discoveries caused models to change.  Aristotle was thinking in terms of ancient Egyptian, Persian and Greek cosmology, and Newton was thinking in terms of algebraic science as practiced by muslims and Renaissance Florentines, which is the reason Newton was mostly concerned with what today is dismissed as alchemy.  Newton spent much time seeking the philosopher’s stone, so that he could turn lead into gold.  Consider that the Incas of Peru had no iron, and used gold as a common metal for everyday objects, such as spoons, tweezers and combs, and would not have sought this stone.

In what Kuhn called “normal science”, the model works well, but sometimes the model encounters a crisis, problems that cannot be solved that become important, and it is then time for “revolutionary science”, which makes necessary changes to the paradigm.  Recall that Heidegger argued only that which is at issue for us becomes articulated and the matter of our attention.  Very much like Hegel, Kuhn saw this as a process by which what was revolutionary becomes the new orthodoxy, which then must be challenged and changed again.  Each and every groundbreaking scientist who made major discoveries was also quite wrong about other related matters, Kuhn discovered, and scientists are not quick to talk about that which does not fit with their theory or which they do not understand.  Unfortunately, Kuhn argues, textbooks simply summarize what is still considered true, disregard the aspects of old theories that are no longer true, and make the revolutionary leaps in science appear to be ‘normal’ science, normalizing the revolutionary process very similar to what is seen in politics.  By the time scientists get to working on unsolved problems, they have only been exposed to updated standardized textbooks, and this makes them reluctant to question dominant paradigms.


Also in the early sixties, technically 1959, Karl Popper (1902 - 1994) rewrote his work The Logic of Scientific Discovery in English, making changes to the earlier 1934 work in German.  Popper had connections to the Vienna Circle in earlier days, but his work on falsifiability, like the paradigm shift of Kuhn, was a blow to Logical Positivism and the Vienna Circle.  Popper however, like the Positivists, saw the work of Kuhn as a threat to science, and his work on falsifiability was an attempt to cut Kuhn’s relativism off at the pass.  Popper called a philosophy of science conference in 1965 to debate and debunk Kuhn, but Kuhn’s work continued and he remains a problem for Positivists and realists today.  Kuhn centrally questioned the Positivist principles of verificationism, that there is an objective reality against which theories can be verified, and coherence, the unification of the sciences into a common system.

Popper’s idea of falsification has become an important part of the debates about science and how it should be questioned.  Popper is concerned with distinguishing when a theory can be called scientific, interested like the Vienna Circle in drawing the boundaries of science.  Popper wants to distinguish science from pseudoscience, knowing that a pseudoscientific theory might stumble onto the truth without being scientific.  This means ‘science’ is not about whether or not a theory is true or accepted by the community.  A scientific theory may turn out to be false, or may be true but not accepted by the community.  Science, unlike metaphysics, is inductive and empirical, but is this all a theory must be to be scientific?  Astrology and alchemy rely on empirical evidence.  Does this make them scientific?

Popper wants to distinguish “pseudoempirical” theories like Hegelian metaphysics, Marxism  and Freudian psychoanalysis from “genuinely empirical” theories like Einstein’s relativity.  Like Dewey, Popper argues that there is a distinction between prescientific mythology and nonscientific theories that pose as sciences and genuine sciences.  Logical Positivism had upheld verificationism as the criterion for science, but Popper argues that Hegelians, Marxists and Freudians, like genuine scientists, see verifications of their theories everywhere, the Hegelian in the process of history, the Marxist in the daily newspaper, the Freudian in the protests of the patient, and so constant verification cannot be separated from consistent interpretation of the evidence in accord with a theory.  To this extent, Nietzsche and Heidegger would agree.

If a theory cannot be proven wrong, Popper argues, if it cannot be falsifiable, if it cannot help but be verified by its interpretation, a theory is unscientific.  A genuinely scientific theory is one that can be proven wrong, but continues to not be, like Einstein’s relativity.  Popper would have argued today that Einstein’s theory being modified by Quantum theory is not proof that it was unscientific, but that it was scientific and is partly wrong.  Confirmation must involve risk.  A theory must forbid certain events, which are imaginably possible.  The greater the theory, the greater the risk, the greater the precise predictions.  Astrology is vague enough that anything can be interpreted as supporting it, while Astronomy is precise enough that various sub-theories can be proved wrong and others left standing, though not proven right.  Astrology, Hegelianism, Marxism and psychoanalysis are not entirely wrong, but they are not precise enough to be testable.

This move flips verificationism completely on its head.  While scientific theories should be verified, they cannot be completely verified, or they would cease to be scientific.  Scientific theories must be both verified, somewhat, and falsifiable, possibly wrong and testable.  Also, this does not leave science as the exclusive domain of truth, because pseudoscientific theories like Hegelianism, Marxism and psychoanalysis can be very true and quite verified within a given interpretive scheme even if they are not testable.  Popper might even argue that Einstein’s determinism was itself a pseudoscientific aspect of his theory, as no event can prove determinism wrong, but neither can it prove chaotic flux wrong, for that matter, as all events can be called determined just as all events can be called chaotic.  Similarly, if Popper is right about falsifiability, then the principles of noncontradiction, sufficient reason and the coherence of science are all pseudoscientific metaphysics.

I will let Feyerabend make his attack on Popper’s verificationism before I criticize it.  Before we turn to Feyerabend, however, we should mention Popper’s political theory of open societies, his hatred for Hegelianism, and his argument with the later Wittgenstein.

Popper has been criticised for his hatred of Plato, Hegel and Marx in the interest of the “open society”.  In his political philosophy work, The Open Society and its Enemies, Popper argues that theories of history that see progress towards an end, namely Hegelianism and Marxism, are the source of most forms of totalitarianism and authoritarianism.  Historicism is a pseudoscience, as the future, just like the total verification of a scientific theory, cannot be known.  Popper argues that this is the fault of the ancient Athenian Plato who gave us the generality of metaphysics,  which does not limit itself to the particular predictions essential to genuine science.  

Popper was, as a youth, a Marxist, but after several of his friends were shot by police at a rally and the Marxists told him that the sacrifice was necessary for the cause, Popper saw that this could be said of any setback or any triumph, and so the political theory could not be questioned.  Popper famously argued that intolerance cannot be tolerated, and so Marxism and other intolerant elements must be eliminated in the interests of an open society.  Needless to say, critics respond that Popper is blind to the domination, empire and intolerance that exists on both sides of the capitalist and communist divide, and that dogmatic belief in science or anything else can easily lead to intolerance as much as speculative metaphysics.  Ironically, Popper’s student George Soros, the billionaire investor famous in America for funding left wing causes, founded his Open Society Institute in honor of Popper’s political work, and yet he is repeatedly accused of being a Marxist by American rightwing media.

In the pop-philosophy book Wittgenstein’s Poker, there is an interesting presentation of Popper’s famous argument with Wittgenstein.  In 1946 at Cambridge, Popper gave a visiting lecture about the nature of philosophical problems to the Moral Science Club, of which Wittgenstein was the president.  There are various accounts of what happened, and many agree that Popper gave a somewhat falsified account to make it appear that he had triumphed over Wittgenstein.  Popper, Russell and Wittgenstein began heatedly arguing about the nature of truth, and Wittgenstein, pacing the aisles in frustration, grabbed a poker from the fireplace and began to gesture with it wildly as he spoke.  Russell asked Wittgenstein to put the poker down, but he refused.  Wittgenstein demanded that Popper give him one example of a universal moral principle, to which Popper replied, “Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers”.  Wittgenstein, furious that Popper had made a joke rather than offer a serious example, dropped the poker and left the room in disgust.  Clearly, Popper thought he had bested Wittgenstein, though Popper did not in fact answer the question or provide a single example.


Paul Feyerabend (1924 - 1994) was Popper’s student and supporter early on, but by the time of the anti-Kuhn conference he had come to agree with Kuhn and took Kuhn’s ideas to more radical extremes.  I gave you some of his central work, Against Method (1975), in which he argues for “epistemological anarchism”.  Like the Existentialists and Pragmatists, Feyerabend argues that there are no principles upon which science is founded, nor is there a single specific unified scientific method or structure.  Like Wittgenstein, Feyerabend tried to show science as a family resemblance and form of life, a set of cultures that has never needed an underlying consistency to grow and develop.  Thus, he argues, the scientific method is “anything goes”, remarkably similar to the actual practice of most if not all human cultures.  Feyerabend calls for the full democratization of science, with full participation and criticism of the public.

Much as Pragmatists argue, Feyerabend says that science is not about universal objective truth, but about localized practices, and this should be recognized.  This is similar to Popper, who argues that science is more useful when it is specific.  Notice here that Feyerabend is not only saying, like a Pragmatist, that there is no static universal truth, but also that there is no unified pragmatic method.  Just as the Pragmatists argued that there is no necessary unification of the sciences against the Positivists, Feyerabend, taking it a step further, argues that pragmatically there is no unified scientific method, so Pragmatism itself should be recognized as a disunified, localized practice.

Feyerabend, like a good relativist, argues that he cannot prove without a doubt that there is no common exclusive scientific method, but that he can provide historical examples of human thought that are and are not considered science to show that it is implausible.  Scientific success cannot be explained as adherence to a set procedure or coherence with any accepted theory.  New investigations need not use present procedures or cohere with present theory.  Science is more than mere quantification, requiring leaps of interpretation that defy standardization.  Note the coherence with Existentialism.  Feyerabend quotes Kierkegaard, saying that the leap to inferring rules and new hypotheses always involves particular passions.

Like Popper, Feyerabend argues that science cannot be distinguished by success, truth or acceptance, but unlike Popper he argues that science is merely more detailed than earlier human thought.  Science should not limit itself by confining itself to a single method, theory nor insulated identity which cannot identify with “nonscientific” or “prescientific” cultures of thought.  Feyerabend compares this to ancient Chinese foot-binding, binding the feet of young women to deform them in a way that is considered to be beautiful by a culture.  Note the similarity with Nietzsche saying truth is seduction by what one finds beautiful.

Feyerabend argues that there is no need to fear chaos, lack of reasoning or opposition to reasoning, as these are a part of all cultures, including the various cultures of science.  Not only is violating rules good for the positive development of truth, but great thinkers such as Galileo and Newton bound themselves to rules out of superstition, unknowingly violated those rules, and had great success in spite of not understanding this.  Great thinkers should contradict accepted theories, sometimes even speculating about alternatives for which there has been no verification whatsoever, searching where no one has bothered yet to look.

Unlike Dewey, Feyerabend argues that there never was a “pre-scientific” period of human reasoning that was followed by a clarified objective period.  Much as James argued that religions evolve to function in a particular situation, Feyerabend argued that science is merely doing the same, and that philosophers and scientists who believe in objective truth are merely superstitious in the newest fashion, like modern day shamans or orthodox theologians.  Galileo and the Catholic Church theologians opposed each other with reasoning and evidence, which did not guarantee that either side would win.  All cultures of truth require funding and propaganda, and unfortunately these impede the questioning and growth of truth.

In one of my favorite examples of the book, Feyerabend says that Voodoo is often used as a symbol for the illogical and unscientific, but its material benefits are not understood and studying it can teach us more about humanity and culture, even the culture of science and the humanity of scientists.  Traditional Chinese medicine, like that of the shamans previously mentioned, is found to have health benefits imperfectly understood long after they have been dismissed by modern medicine.  Popper argued that science alone is falsifiable, avoiding the over-general.  Feyerabend counters that counter-examples do not simply destroy great theories, as they have been modified again and again in the history of science to preserve them, “renormalized”, sometimes being confirmed by new discoveries, other times falling out of fashion.  Also, many systems that Popper would call unscientific are quite detailed, and can be disproved or fall out of favor in a culture given particular experiences.

Feyerabend says that questioning the modern mythology surrounding science “evokes taboo reactions which are no weaker than are the taboo reactions in so-called primitive societies”, and that, “The similarities between science and myth are indeed astonishing”.  I agree with Feyerabend that we should reapproach cultures of thought with this new perspective, particularly considering the West’s domination of other cultures.  Feyerabend goes so far as to argue that there should be a separation between science and state in America just as with religion, and that no one should be forced in school to learn particular forms of science, religion or politics.  I myself would prefer our schools to teach all forms of thought, including all religions, as cultures of thought that prefigure science.  I do agree with Feyerabend that the way science is taught in schools, as discussed earlier with the limited vision of textbooks, is not conducive to the growth of science or knowledge as would be a rich and critical history of science.  Feyerabend is right that science today is not democratic and not taught as something that can be questioned, a form of propaganda that serves political nationalist interests.  We should teach children about the genius and folly of all cultures, the voyages of the Polynesians, the building of the Egyptian pyramids, and the rocket science that led to the moon landing.


Bruno Latour (1947 - still alive) is a French sociologist of science who has been a critic like Feyerabend of the separation of scientific truth from the rest of human culture.  He has also argued against the distinction of subjective and objective.  Latour is known for his radical critique of modernity and science.  In his first major work, We Have Never Been Modern, he argues that Western society is only different from other cultures by minor differences, and that the distinguished period of modernity never happened.  Because of this, he argues that he is not a Postmodernist, but an Antimodernist, against the idea of a specific period of time that can be labeled “modernity”.  Postmodernists, who we will study soon, typically believe that modernity was a period following the European Enlightenment that was different from previous periods but failed to achieve its goals and must be rejected in the interests of plurality and diversity.

In his second book, Laboratory Life, Latour studied scientists in laboratories the way anthropologists study tribespeople in primitive conditions.  He argues that simple conceptions of the scientific method have little resemblance to laboratory practices.  Being trained as a scientist means learning what data to throw out or keep, which is always a subjective interpretation.  Much of the time, data that contradicts orthodox reigning theory is thrown out, as it is disregarded as anomalous.  Occasionally, the scientist makes the rarer choice to keep the heretical data and investigate further.  Methods, beliefs, and oral history form the social construct of laboratory life, an evolving culture rather than a stable method.  Needless to say, Latour has been criticized and mocked by Positivists for doing this, such as John Searle, who argues Latour’s “extreme social constructivist” views have “comical results”.

I was very pleased to find a book of Latour’s recently translated into English, On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods.  He argues that we interpret primitive people as small children, who play make believe but are foolish enough to fear the reality of their creations.  However, just as Nietzsche said the philosopher has been the creature so far fooled best on Earth, Latour argues that it is we so-called modern people who invent the most convincing mythologies.  This is very much the position of Roland Barthes, who we will study next time.  Latour says that we make believe that our minds have made a choice of “icy reasons” over “fiery illusions”, but we, like the most primitive of cultures, passionately fashion our beliefs and then pretend that we found them just as they are.  While we had to believe in reason to see through all previous foolish human idols, this prevented us from questioning our foolish and all-too-human idol of reason, and how this latest idol did not set us apart from all previous fools.

Latour sets out to show that facts are the new fetishes.  Like Wittgenstein, he argues that beliefs, whether facts or fetishes, are not merely states of mind but cultural situations.  Just as Christians said that all gods are false save their own, Moderns say that all beliefs are mere beliefs, unlike facts.  Latour has us imagine the Portuguese landing in West Africa, where they inform the Africans that their gods must be false, as the Africans clearly made idols with their own hands.  The Africans, stunned, could have asked the Portuguese about their statue of the Virgin Mary and whether it had fallen fully formed from the sky, but the Portuguese would have considered this an unforgivable act of heresy.

The Portuguese invented the word ‘feitico’ from the Latin ‘facticius’, artificial, and is from this that the French ‘fetiche’ became the English ‘fetish’.  Of course, Latour’s point is that our word ‘fact’ also derives from this same Latin root, and facts are fashioned, as are fetishes.  Just as the Portuguese asked the Africans to choose between factual god and fictitious fetish, while refusing to make this choice themselves, we Moderns fashion our sciences and then claim they are found fully formed in nature.  That, or as Rorty argued, we claim that our sciences and facts are mere mirrors, with little distortion.  Something similar occurs when the skeptic tells the dogmatist, “We are all biased”, to which the dogmatist replies, “So you admit you are biased”.  Latour might say that something similar also occurs when Popper attempts to separate science from pseudoscience.

The Moderns smash the primitive idol, replacing it with their own, thus asserting their relative freedom.  “We are free”, they say, “to fashion our idols by choice, based on our desires, but the primitives, slave to their desires, fashioned their idols impulsively”.  Who is the puppet, and who is the puppeteer?  Do we fashion our beliefs, or do our beliefs fashion us?  Recall that Nietzsche said that thought comes when it wants, not when I want it to.  How freely does thought fashion itself, in ancient or modern times?  Latour mentions that good novelists are often carried away by their characters.  Does the book write the novelist?  Today we fashion crude idols of paper, staples, tape, and pixels, and we believe that they are true within and beyond themselves.


Two hundred years earlier, Claude Adrien Helvetius (1715 - 1771), French philosopher and writer, argued as a follower of Locke in his Essays of the Mind that all people are born with an equal capacity for understanding and it is education that makes the difference in intelligence.  Voltaire, his friend, read the book and wrote to him, “Your book is dictated by the soundest reason.  You had better get out of France as quickly as you can”.  Helvetius’ work was an influence on Bentham and Mill, both quite progressive in their understandings of our common humanity.  Hopefully we will have a shift in the old paradigm, the old idol of the European Enlightenment, and discover that we are human.