Sunday, March 3, 2013

Speculation, Scientism, and the Art of Wisdom

A speculation is a guess, a conjecture, a thrown-together bit of reasoning unsupported by enough evidence to make the conclusion reliable. We might speculate when we’re in a rush or when we’re not willing to think so rigorously about some question because the question doesn’t much interest us. That’s the proper idea of speculation, but there’s also a slanderous use of the word which lumps in all of philosophy, religion, and indeed the liberal arts or humanities in general--all discourses other than the exact sciences--with speculation or conjecture. Sometimes all nonscientific thinking is called mere opinion, meaning not just that this thinking is subjective and relative, that the thinking hasn’t passed scientific tests to earn the consensus of experts or even that the thinking is therefore comparatively unreliable. So much would be fair, but the slander here is based on the further assumption, supporting the “mere” in “mere opinion,” that because speculation in the humanities is unreliable compared to a scientific theory, that speculation is therefore worthless and ought to be dismissed outright. There’s a scientistic prejudice against speculation in secular, science-driven societies, and the prejudice is very revealing.

Scientism as the Modern Faith

This prejudice arose by way of standard tribal dynamics. Modern technoscientific culture--the rational opposition to authoritarianism, superstition, dogmatism, and elitism--began with the Renaissance and the Scientific Revolution, and this culture proved so economically successful, given its liberal applications in democracy and capitalism, that any opposition to it came to seem like a retrograde brake on progress. Christian Churches suffered the most from the ascents of modern science, engineering, and the attendant liberal values such as the equal worth of all rational, autonomous individuals. But eventually, beginning with positivism several decades ago, philosophy too suffered in comparison with science. People assumed that philosophy was idle and fruitless; that a science-driven way of life is self-evidently justified because of its material success; that philosophy of science is irrelevant because science works. Technoscience was considered part of the grown-up, public world, whereas religion and philosophy were dismissed as merely private matters in the sexist sense, which is to say that nonscientific speculation came to seem like a form of women’s work. In a free society, everyone was entitled to their private opinions, but if their opinions weren’t made public in the reliable scientific manner, those opinions were bound to be fruitless; they would empower no one and were as useful as the ravings of a lunatic, locked away in an asylum.

What actually happened here is that modernists ironically made idols out of technoscience and of the rational individual. Whereas reason and the evidence showed that we’re animals subject to the same irrational instincts as other species, producing our dominance hierarchies and worshiping our alpha males and their virtues, modernists like Descartes assimilated theistic dualism, drawing a metaphysical line between humans and animals so that the modern fruits of human nature could be placed on a pedestal. Religious traditions were savage hindrances, since all along we had the potential to be modern and liberated from Ignorance by Reason. The irony is that modernism was allowed to become so religious, so Scientistic, because we are exactly what science shows us to be. We naturally form religions out of what we ultimately value, and if nothing much mattered to us we wouldn’t go on living. Technoscience produced the modern standard of living and so naturally the social effects of the rational methods (capitalism, democracy, and effectively stealth oligarchy) came to be revered. When something strikes us as sacred, our tribe feels unified by our common relation to that cherished thing and so we demonize outsiders who fail to share our faith, who don’t see the greatness that we see. Critics of the modern philosophy and religion that spring up in science-driven cultures, critics who claim that there’s more to knowledge than what science provides and that there’s more to life than the use of the latest technology are dismissed as holdovers from inferior, premodern ages, as wallowers in woo. 

But whereas Enlightenment skeptics railed against all dogmas, they came to think of their Cartesian dualism and liberal myths of human freedom and progress as self-evident, as was explicitly stated in the most famous line of the US Declaration of Independence. In reality, a truly self-evident statement is merely tautological, as in “Red things are red.” When a more interesting statement is treated as axiomatic, this is due to the same dogmatist’s impulse that takes a religion’s creed on faith. We can always ask further questions, becoming skeptical or pessimistic, because rational work is anomalous in nature: nature goes about her inhuman business and sentient creatures play catch-up, but however effective our arguments or explanations, they will always be incomplete and otherwise imperfect. This isn’t because we’re inadequate to the task; rather, there is no task besides the one we choose to set for ourselves, and because we’re restless mammals struggling to survive, we’re rarely content even when we achieve our self-appointed tasks. Thus, our potential for questioning is inexhaustible. This implies that there will always be mysteries beyond the borders of human knowledge, and speculation reconciles us to that fact.

Reason and Power

Contrary to modern myth, our mind isn’t literally The Mirror of Nature, reflecting everything the world presents to us in a set of statements that corresponds to the facts and that’s therefore True. Instead, truth is, as the philosopher Richard Rorty says, pragmatic, not metaphysically grounded. Science is the optimal means of generating explanations that are practically true, meaning that these explanations empower us. We choose to map the world as best we can, and so we model parts of it, simplifying and reducing the whole to its parts, drawing conceptual distinctions and applying analogies to understand natural patterns and predict what would happen under such and such conditions. There is no perfect map of everything, that we’re destined to discover. Our knowledge which corresponds to the facts says as much about our peculiar interests as clever primates than it does about the objective facts. Maps are human artifacts even when they’re scrawled on a blackboard with arcane mathematical symbols or embodied in a brain’s neural patterns.

When we map the terrain, we acquire power over it. The mythical way of putting this point is to say that when you know something’s true name, you have magical control over the thing; you know its essence and can bend its behaviour to your will. You turn the thing into a piece of technology, into an extension of your body so that it's as subject to your command as your right arm. The map becomes a blueprint that lays out the mechanisms and other interesting features of what you map. Take, for example, Google Earth, which maps the whole surface of the planet, down to individual houses and hills. The existence of that map doesn’t automatically make the planet a human creation, but it adds to our potential to transform the planet’s surface, by empowering us with extensive knowledge. The more we understand something, the more we can reshape it if we choose. Scientific knowledge is esteemed because it maps nature and thus helps us control natural processes.

But there’s something missing from this pragmatic explanation of why we worship technoscience at the expense of nonscientific practices. Suppose you’re looking at Google Earth. So you have that glorious, God’s eye view of the world on your computer screen. Now what? Where should you go? What should you do with that map? You see, the entire technoscientific enterprise is limited to the efficient pursuit of our goals. If you have a goal in mind and you know how things work, you can make it happen; you can achieve your goal. But there are so many possible goals, so many life decisions, so many conflicting ideals. What, ultimately, should you do with your life? No purely rational procedure can prove that a course of action is normatively correct. On the contrary, we use reason so extensively because we already choose to value power, to fight for our survival, and we do so because we love life. As a matter of fact, then, we have certain goals, but the better our map of the terrain, the more options become available to us and so the more we’re faced with an existential choice of whether our goals are best. As existentialists say, the ultimate moral question is whether we should carry on living or commit suicide. Few people take this choice seriously, since we figure we’re all going to die anyway so we might as well get the most out of life while we can, but the point is that there is still a choice here. We’ve mapped the human body, so we have the option of taking our life; therefore, we’re left with the choice of whether we should value life more than death. And this is only the most fundamental normative question we face; there are countless others.

Speculation as the Envisioning of Ideals

Here, then, is where we’re forced to speculate, to go beyond the logic and the evidence and to choose a direction in life, a destination on the map. How do we choose? Well, we come to feel strongly about certain ideals and we let them guide us. But where do ideals come from? They’re the products of speculation. So what else must speculation be besides conjecture in the pejorative sense? At its best, speculation is the imagination’s creation of inspiring art with such raw materials as memories, perceptions, and ideas. Speculation puts together facts into a coherent worldview with the help of myths or other nonscientific narratives. The mapmaker speculates when she labels the unknown waters that presumably lie beyond the mapped lands, “Here be dragons.” “Speculate” comes from the Latin “speculatus,” meaning to watch over, which in turn comes from “specula,” which means watchtower. The idea, then, is that we want to see as far as possible, even if what we see at the furthest reaches is so indistinct that our curiosity compels us to fill in the blanks, to give meaning to the poorly-understood patterns. There are many patterns in human behaviour and when we understand them well we think of them as familiar facts that are explained by certain scientific theories. But contrary to the likes of Richard Carrier and Sam Harris, there is no science of normativity, no logical argument or scientific investigation that tells us what we ought to do.

Instead, our choice of ideals and goals rests ultimately on an existential act of will; in particular, we choose to follow our taste in ideological art. A myth moves us, speaks to our sensibilities and so we let it guide us. This myth could be religious, political, or pop cultural, or it could be accrued by your own years of confabulation as you struggle to make sense of your experience. Likewise, a myth’s creator often feels driven or possessed. This is because the best art rises straight from the unconscious, from the part of our mind over which we lack conscious control. There’s artistry in speculation, because the further out you look, the more the details are left to your imagination. And so there’s an artistic side of all knowledge, because even a map containing symbols that correspond perfectly to a wealth of facts doesn’t count as knowledge by itself. Just because you understand how natural mechanisms work doesn’t mean you know what you’re talking about. Knowledge is justified true belief, and the search for justifications, for reasons to support what we say includes a search for answers to the normative and existential questions which take us beyond science and engineering, to myth and philosophy. For example, suppose you say you know where a certain mountain is, because you’ve seen the mountain on Google Earth. Is your belief rationally justified? This depends on the standards that are suitable to different contexts, but however impractical the deepest skepticism may be, about whether you can trust the technology that produces the map or natural selection which produces your eyes that see the map, the fact is that we still presuppose answers to such philosophical questions whenever we claim to know something, and those answers are, at best, speculative artworks.

The standard distinction here is between knowledge and wisdom, but actually this distinction is part of the problem. In the old Aristotelian framework which governed European thinking for many centuries, mechanistic knowledge of efficient causes was assumed to be subject to teleological, normative understanding of purposes, or of how things ought to be. After the Scientific Revolution, mechanistic knowledge was taken to suffice and normative inquiries were given short shrift. Science was thought to be the best or the only institution for supplying us with knowledge, and wisdom, the art of knowing what should be done, was downgraded to a matter of mere opinion. But this was all embarrassingly wrongheaded and the ironies involved are rich. Again, wisdom was carved off of mechanistic knowledge and denigrated, as it were, because science could enlighten us by supplying us only with the latter, and the modern European tribe idolized technoscience, having been as awestruck by its successes as the ancients must have been by what they assumed were the works of gods.

Of course, for practical purposes, mechanistic knowledge may indeed suffice. If you already want to build a bridge, you need only the relevant technoscience and can safely ignore the philosophy of science or the guiding Western myths. But what if your goals aren’t so straightforward? What if there’s reasonable doubt because your whole society has taken a wrong turn, as with the rise of Western Scientism or the ironic worship of technoscience by wannabe ultrarationalists? What if you’re shirking your existential obligations, settling for low taste in art because you absorb your materialistic ideals from a dubious monoculture, one that ends by serving stealth oligarchs at the expense of the majority? In these cases, philosophy and religion should come to the fore since science is less relevant. But the opposite tends to happen in precisely such situations, because the hypocritical, Scientistic idolatry is itself a symptom of what Sartre called bad faith, which is to say existential inauthenticity. The problem is that modern secularists don’t truly know themselves. Like the theists, they too can live in a fantasy world in which humans aren’t just clever primates, since we have technoscience which charts our course into the progressive future; Reason is good and Faith is bad, and speculation is no worthy part of the cognitive enterprise. For a Star Trek Vulcan, this might well be true; for a sweating, hairy mammal who longs most of all to get naked with someone and exchange bodily fluids, those liberal, rationalistic ideals can only be modern articles of faith.

At its worst, I should add, speculation is the handiwork of irresponsible, postmodern phonies. You have to take the bad art with the good, though, because there is no rigorous way of proving which interpretation of a vaguely perceived pattern is best. There are lazy thinkers, charlatans, and demagogues who exploit our ignorance and use their rhetoric to beguile and manipulate the masses. There are nihilistic philosopher-artists who think speculation is just a game, who don’t respond to our existential predicament with appropriate feelings of pity and disgust, and who reduce philosophy to empty, jargon-ridden poetry that has no emotional power. Instead of trying to discern the spirit of our times, the ideal that’s most suitable to us here and now, Tea Party demagogues relay the shallowest propaganda to reinforce the American dominance hierarchy, while New Age mystics resort to pseudoscientific gibberish and conspiracy theories to further their fantasy of happiness through a return to nature. Their speculations are uninspiring and transient, whereas I think modern secularists would be gratified to find something worth trusting, to be captivated by visionary tales told typically by social outsiders who are well-positioned to imagine what lies beyond the familiar world.

Those who speak, then, of philosophy or of religious myth as mere idle speculation should look in the mirror and ask themselves if they really presuppose no such speculation, if they have no ultimate concern or ideal which can only be nonscientifically defended. They should ask, too, whether the scientistic prejudice against speculation persists because technocratic liberals, secular humanists, and scientific atheists are invested in pretending that they’re ultrarationalists who stand against all theistic religions, the latter being fountains of speculation. Instead, these modernists have settled for a religion--for the modern faith in liberty and technoscientific progress and for the materialistic, effectively stealth oligarchic way of life--that's so fragile, even speaking of the religious aspect of this modern culture is taboo. And they’re inured to the deficiencies of this religion because they have a Philistine’s taste in the art that’s made of ideas.


  1. that because speculation in the humanities is unreliable compared to a scientific theory, that speculation is therefore worthless and ought to be dismissed outright.

    I think any such treating it as a faith is simply a provoked reaction by those humanities and philosophy claimants.

    Okay, when can any declaration of the humanities or philosophy be outright dismissed?

    The people who declare them grant no such condition as to when they may be outright dismissed.

    So these claims are to hang around like so many flies.

    And yes, that provokes others to get the scientific fly spray and spray it around.

    But that's because it's like the humanities and philosophy people keep changing the damn station on the radio in the car then say it's mere faith when someone else changes it back?

    When do we get to change the radio station back?

    This is merely hijacking conversation and then when the other person doesn't grasp a hijack is going on and resorts to blunt force trauma eg 'that's all mere opinion', it's even more of a hijack to say they are reverting to faith. Heck, it's only because there is no other way of changing the radio station back again apart from faith, because the humanities/philosophy give them no other method of doing so. Humanities/philosophy simply switched it and gave no method by which it could ever be switched to something else.

    If I've mixed my metaphors too much, it's a crime I'll hold my hand up to.

    1. Well, Callan, you seem frustrated by the debate, but I'm not clear about which side you're taking. Are you saying there's no one in the sciences who rejects the humanities as beneath contempt? We're talking about C.P. Snow's point about the two cultures, the sciences and the humanities. I think you're saying here that both cultures go too far, right?

    2. I'd say I'm taking a side, but not as you anticipate.

      The pitch is, what other way do they have to dismiss the ideas of the humanities other than contempt, when the humanities provide no criteria by which their ideas can be dismissed?

      If you don't think the 'banking up of ideas' problem occurs, okay, then I guess I wouldn't seem to be underlining a problem.

      Otherwise the humanities keeps producing ideas that are to be taken seriously and...more to be taken seriously, and more. How else do you reject this banking up of ideas, when the other person doesn't provide a criteria for any of these ideas to be dismissed?

      What other method is there but contempt? Is there another method to get the ideas of others out of your head?

      Again, perhaps it might seem that ideas don't bank up like that. I should probably break up what I'm saying into two parts, the first being the hypothesis that ideas fill up a mind and that the mind has a limited capacity for them.