By: Padraig McGrath
Introduction: To understand why ‘scientism’, (the contemporary vulgarization of ‘the’ scientific method), exists in a perpetual state of cuspness – promoting the view that scientific inquiry is always seemingly ‘on the cusp’ of a final and absolute answer or truth – Gadamer’s ‘Horizon’ metaphor has yet another practical application. Gadamer put’s forward this metaphor in his development of Heidegger’s philosophical hermeneutics as articulated in the latter’s 1927 masterpiece ‘Being and Time.’ The utility of Gadamer’s metaphor goes beyond textual analysis and has application in multiple broad fields. Beyond a criticism of the possibility of applying the same vulgarized scientific method used in the physical sciences to the social sciences and humanities, these criticisms indeed may apply to the physical sciences themselves, which then asks us to make inquiries towards the viability of a revised epistemology. Marxist and later syncretic systems are also raised in relation to how the above is problematized. This allows us to see through a dialectical materialist lens how the ideological abuse of science in the contemporary Occident has not only an economic but also a geostrategic function – J. Flores
n his 1960 magnum opus “Truth and Method” (“Wahrheit und Methode”), Hans-Georg Gadamer attempts to develop a theory of how we might be able to rescue overarching norms from the flux of history. To this end, Gadamer employs his famous “horizon”-metaphor. Gadamer’s idea is that one starts from a certain time and place inside history, and that as one learns and experiences more and more, the individual continuously approaches the horizon (the borders of ones worldview, the delimitations of ones culturally set-up version of reality, etc).
But as one continuously approaches the horizon, something strange becomes noticed – the horizon itself keeps moving farther away.
No matter how much one learns, history is never transcended. A terminus called “objectivity” is never reached. One remains forever embedded in “the history of effect” (“Wirkungsgeschichte”). Gadamer remains one of the twentieth century’s foremost exponents of German historicism.
Gadamer’s horizon-metaphor is applicable, not only to the discourse of history-culture-ethics-politics, but also to the natural sciences.
What we call “the scientific revolution” happened mainly in the 17th century and, ever since then, every generation of scientists there has been has perpetuated the view, “We’ve almost cracked it – we’re on the cusp of uncovering the ultimate nature of reality …..”: the Holy Grail.
And four hundred years later, they are still engaging in the discourse that they are on the cusp of finally finding this “holy grail.”
And yet, our scientific view of reality, although it is radically more complex than it was in the 17th century, is every bit as riddled with anomalies as it has ever been. Every generation of scientists deals with the problem of solving or explaining anomalies in theories – of course, this is within the nature of the work. But if we are really getting closer and closer to the holy grail, then why is the overall number of anomalies not gradually diminishing over time?
Maybe this suggests that something like Gadamer’s “horizon” metaphor is applicable, not only to our investigation of questions concerning history, culture, politics and morality, but also to our investigation of nature.
For a century now, theoretical physics has been coming up with increasingly counter-intuitive theories – maybe those intellectual gymnastics are necessary because nature itself is playing tricks on us. As soon as we get close to the holy grail (“the ultimate nature of reality”), nature itself moves the horizon back – another anomaly emerges at the quantum-level.
So, after 400 years of the natural sciences declaring “we’re right on the cusp,” maybe we should simply decide that there is no holy grail, that our scientific view of reality will simply continue to become more and more complex ad infinitum, but that it will always be as anomaly-ridden as it is now. In other words, we will never reach a terminus called “objectivity.” We just keep approaching the horizon ad infinitum.
Given that this line of argumentation comes out of the tradition of German historicism, it is hardly surprising that it has parallels with how the contemporary Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek reads Hegel’s anti-skeptical arguments in “The Phemonenology of Spirit” – as per Žižek’s paraphrasal of Hegel, we are not simply standing back, looking at the world – we are in it. And therefore, our own cognitive and perspectival filters and limitations are, in themselves, partially constitutive of the world which we are trying to understand. Our worldview will always contain internal contradictions because reality itself contains internal contradictions. It is not an entirely conventional reading of Hegel’s anti-skeptical arguments in “The Phemonenology of Spirit,” but this is a perspective which Žižek imports into it.
Conceding this certainly would not undermine science as a practice, just as it would not undermine historical, political, or ethical discourse. But it would make the ideal of “objectivity” simply unnecessary.
It is precisely because we cling to this superfluous ideological dream of “objectivity” that our conventional historical understanding of how the scientific method developed is simply, straightforwardly wrong.
The scientific revolution did not simply suddenly appear out of a historical vacuum during the 17th century. On different levels, Judaism, Christianity and Islam all supplied components of the conceptual patchwork which we now call “the scientific method.”
For example, the scientific method requires us to investigate the why’s and wherefore’s of the natural world in exclusively materialist terms – if, for example, one analyzes the chemical composition or physical properties of ‘this glass’ sitting on the table, then one is not allowed to invest it with any mystical properties.
There is no immediate problem here, but certain historical steps were necessary before human beings could demystify the natural world like this – before we could begin to explain the workings of the natural world exclusively on its own terms, we had to first take God out of the world, and put him somewhere else.
That is to say, the transcendentalization of the divine was a necessary precursor to the demystification of nature. Historically, atheism had to come significantly later chronologically speaking.
Almost all societies wherein atheism is prevalent are post-monotheist societies. Human cultural groups do not transition from polytheism to atheism, or from henotheism to atheism. Human cultural groups transition from polytheism to henotheism, then from henotheism to monotheism, and finally from monotheism to atheism. Historically and philosophically, atheism is almost always a post-monotheist phenomenon. People do not just dream it up in an historical vacuum.
So then, the transcendentalization of the concept of divinity, a step crucially achieved by the development of Judaism, was a necessary historical precursor to the demystification of the world, which was in itself a necessary precursor to the development of a scientific understanding of nature.
Secondly, the scientific method presupposes, as its basic epistemological dilemma (which it seeks to overcome), a distinction between sense-data and the physical forces in reality which indirectly give rise to these sense-data. That is to say, with the scientific method, we’re always trying to perform a conceptual leap from subject to object – we explain empirical (sensory) data by referring to something called “reality.”
Remember Galileo’s essay on “primary and secondary qualities?” But where did this grandiose distinction between “reality” and the empirical manifestations of reality come from, and why did we take this distinction to be so methodologically central to the task of investigating nature in the first place? Why does that distinction seem so self-evident to us?
Well, this is historically inconvenient, but this distinction at least partially developed from the distinction between the transcendental and the immanent which developed in Christian thought during the patristic period. We think of empirical data as “manifestations” of reality, just as Christ was conceptualized as the “manifestation” of logos in the world.
Thirdly, before we investigate the natural world in a systematic way, we must first presuppose that it is intelligible. We must first presuppose that the way that the natural world is structured is amenable to human understanding in the first place.
That’s quite an article of faith to start with. But where did that assumption come from?
The British theoretical physicist Jim Al-Khalili, professor of physics at the University of Surrey, has suggested that the anthropomorphism of Islam had an influence here.
In Islam, Allah does not have a physical body, but anthropomorphic metaphors are still used to describe his judgments, his thought-processes, and so on.
The assumption that the universe was designed by a super-intelligent being, one whose thought-processes were crucially similar to ours in some way, however true or false that assumption may or may not be, was still a very useful supposition in the early development of the scientific method. Remember that scientific disciplines such as optics, microbiology and many others were born during the golden age of Islam. The scientific method requires us to presuppose that the world is intelligible to start with. That supposition is an article of faith – it had to come from somewhere.
So our conventional historical understanding of how the scientific method developed is simply, straightforwardly wrong – what we now call “the scientific method” did not merely “replace” religious views of the world – it is still riddled with concepts and presuppositions which it inherited from Judaism, Christianity and Islam.
Now, there are those who will argue that the scientific method also inherited lots of conceptual baggage from other religions, such as Hinduism, for example. But this question is outside my area of historical competence, and outside the scope of this article. Given the enormous influence of Hindu civilization on the historical development of mathematics, it is a very rich area of historical inquiry, but it is another opera.
Let us look at some examples of what it is currently fashionable to postulate in theoretical physics, and see what genealogical connections we may be able to discern between contemporary scientific fashions and worldviews which were prevalent before the 17th century.
Neither the theory of super-symmetry nor the attempted mathematical “theory of everything” are currently testable, and it is entirely conceivable that they may never become testable. We don’t know.
Let’s take the attempted mathematical “theory of everything.” Firstly, being an attempt to unify all previous scientific explanations, unknown to itself, it is a crypto-monotheism. Why do we assume that there must be some big, beautiful, unified, internally coherent explanation for everything? Maybe there simply isn’t.
We assume that there must be some big, beautiful, unified, internally coherent explanation for everything because 2,000 years of monotheism trained us to assume that. That assumption is an intellectual echo from monotheism, but it is still fashionable in contemporary theoretical physics.
Secondly, insofar as the “theory of everything” attempts to explain all physical reality in terms of pure mathematics – suggesting that the laws of mathematics alone could somehow explain the existence of matter and the laws of physics – this makes the “theory of everything” curiously similar to the Greek “doctrine of the logos,” first articulated by Anaxagoras in the 5th century BC.
Next, the theory of super-symmetry: So this theory postulates “super-symmetric particles,” which we cannot detect, but which correspond to or are in some way equivalent to some of the particles which we can detect. With this ultimately we have a theory about unobservables (therefore, untestable) somehow corresponding to observables. This is Kant’s “Ding an sich.”
Going back further, it echoes the distinction between immanence and transcendence which developed in Christian thought during the patristic period. We may refer to Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, “spermatikos logos,” et al.
The Christian fathers appropriated the Greek doctrine of the logos from their pagan antecedents, and you still see it all over contemporary physics. An awful lot of the metaphysical and epistemological presuppositions which modern science is based on, which still influence the outcomes of actual theory-building, are intellectual hangovers from Greek philosophy, as appropriated by Judaism-Christanity-Islam at different times (as previously stated, without meaning to detract attention from the earlier influence of Hinduism). Understanding both the Greek origins and the filter of later monotheist interpretation is necessary to understanding how these concepts historically morphed over time, and how they eventually became buried in the scientific method.
A broader argument: for the first 4,000 years of our recorded history, all knowledge was conceptually mediated through religious systems. That was one of the core-functions of religion; to provide a conceptual framework within which other forms of knowledge developed. So the Chinese, for example, had all kinds of strange religious ideas, but they still produced pretty good practical technology, and they explained how the pretty good practical technology worked through the strange religious ideas.
So if, for the first 4,000 years of our recorded history, religion conceptually mediated all other knowledge, then why should it really surprise us that the 17th century’s scientific revolution was not a complete break?
This is a basic law of history – there are no “complete breaks.” Human beings inherit ideas, which then gradually morph: human beings don’t just dream new ideas in a historical vacuum.
Regarding other currently fashionable theories, while the theory of super-symmetry and the attempted mathematical “theory of everything” may or may not become testable at some point in the future, we already know a priori that string-theory and the multi-verse theory will never become testable.
The question is, why are some scientists so clearly throwing the methodological baby out with the bathwater in this way? Why are the new high-priests of faux-physics (Lawrence Krauss, Stephen Hawking, et al,) discarding empirical falsification as a fundamental epistemological standard for science? For in doing so, they are pilloried by astrophysicists like George Ellis, Sabine Hossenfelder and Marcelo Gleiser, figures who still have some intellectual integrity.
This abandonment of empiricism is as an ideological response to current social and economic conditions in the Occident. In its terminal, cannibalistic phase, capitalism must achieve total atomization of people – all forms of social glue must be eradicated. All capacity that people might have for collective political action must be degraded. There are many types of social glue but, however misguided it may or may not be, religion is incidentally one form of social glue.
We do not need to consider the question of any particular religious worldview’s truth or falsity here – for the purpose of this article, we can bracket that question. Our purpose here is simply to understand the current relationship between the Occident’s currently dominant ideology and religion.
Here we contend at this point in the Occident’s history, the relationship between capitalist ideology and religion has become antagonistic. 150 years ago, religion was still part and parcel of capitalism’s ideological apparatus. Now it is not – capitalism has been gradually discarding religion as an ideological instrument for a century by now. Marx’s 1844 critique of religion was quite appropriate to his own time. Now it is out of date. Capitalism began gradually discarding religion as an aspect of its ideological apparatus not long after the end of the first world war. This is the main reason why most Marxists globally are far less hostile to organized religion than they were a century ago, which partially explains the proliferation of syncretic religious-Marxist popular movements in both the Christian and Islamic worlds since the 1950’s.
So the kind of hubris that we hear from people like Krauss-Hawking, and from people like Richard Dawkins, about how “science is potentially capable of answering all possible questions” (crass, epistemologically naive “scientism”) is part of a culture-war being waged against all forms of social glue in the Occident, but incidentally including religion.
What they seek to construct is a new fundamentalism – “scientism” (as opposed to science) reconfigured as a crypto-religion in itself. They are even willing to abandon empiricism itself to this end. Furthermore, this ideological agenda is not merely targeted at the population of the Occident itself – on a different level, it is also directed outward.
One of the ideological purposes of this relaxation of science’s most basic epistemological standards is to underpin the development of a culturally aggressive, evangelical atheism in the Occident. This “neo-atheism” is directed against Christianity, but more so against Islam. In fact, the demonization of Islam is its most central goal. Ultimately, its ideological function is to rationalize Occidental neo-imperialism in the Middle East. The development of “the new atheism” is an ideological response to the gradual dwindling of petroleum-reserves (etc.) in the wider world. Therefore, while pretending to combat “fundamentalism,” it merely constructs a new fundamentalism, one designed to give the Occident a new post-religious sense of civilizational mission, thereby justifying liberal universalism and neo-imperialist militarism, and, ultimately, cheap resource-extraction.
While this is explained through the lens of dialectical materialism – ‘diamat’, given the uncompetitiveness of its model of financial capitalism, the Occident is making this ideological transition on an emergency-basis. Without continuing cheap resource-extraction, the Occident is doomed. The purpose of the populist end of theoretical physics is ideological. Many theoretical physicists are now just ideological whores, like journalists, economists, psychologists and political scientists. This is just another brand of ideological hubris disguised as science.