The Invention of Modern Science

Isabelle Stengers’ The Invention of Modern Science is pretty much the best thing anyone has written about the science wars (the disputes between scientists and those in the humanities and ‘soft’ social sciences doing “science studies”: the biggest battles were fought in the 1990s, but I think the issues are still very much alive today). Stengers is close to Bruno Latour (about whom I have expressed reservations), but she goes into the theoretical issues about the status of science’s claims to truth more deeply, and — I think — more cogently and convincingly, than he does.

Stengers starts by asking where science’s claims to truth come from. She goes through various philosophers of science, like Popper, Kuhn, Lakatos, and Feyerabend, and notes the difficulties with their various formulations, as well as how their various accounts relate to scientists’ own images of what they are doing. All these thinkers try to balance the atemporal objectivity of science with their sense that science is a process, which therefore has a history (Kuhn’s paradigm shifts, Popper’s process of falsification) in at least some sense. But Stengers argues that none of these thinkers view science historically enough. The emergence of modern science is an event: in the way he appeals to facts, or more precisely to experiments, to back up his arguments, Galileo introduces a new mode and method of discerning truth into our culture. And every new discovery, every new scientific experiment, is in similar ways a new event.

Understanding science historically, as an event, goes against the claims made for science as revealing the deep truth of the universe, as being the ultimate authority, as promising to provide a “theory of everything.” But it doesn’t really go against how scientists actually work, most of the time, when they perform experiments that lead them to certain results about which they then make theories. The novelty of science, compared to other ways that we make distinctions, account for facts, or explain processes, is that, in science, we put ourselves into an experimental situation, which is to say, into a situation in which we are forced to accept certain results and consequences, which come to us from the outside world with which we are interacting, even when these results and consequences go against our own interests and predispositions. In doing this, science becomes a method for separating truth from fiction — at least in certain well-defined situations.

From this point of view, it’s obvious that science is not merely an arbitrary “social construction” (as scientists often accuse “science studies” people of believing, and as some naive “science studies” people actually may believe). But Stengers’ account also means that “hard” science’s claim to authority is not unlimited, but is grounded in particular events, particular experiments, a particular history. Scientific practice doesn’t vanish into the truth disclosed by that practice. To the contrary: scientific truth remains embedded in the historical practice of science. This is where Latour’s explorations of concrete scientific practices come into the picture. This is also where and why science is, as Stengers repeatedly says, intrinsically political. It’s a matter of scientific claims negotiating with the many other sorts of claims that it encounters, in culture and society, but also in the “natural” world.

In other words: science produces truths, but it doesn’t produce The Truth. It isn’t the sole authority on everything, or the one and only source of legitimate knowledge. To say that science produces truths is also to say that it’s meaningless to ask to what degree these truths are “discovered,” and to what degree they are “invented.” This just isn’t a relevant distinction any longer. What matters is that they are truths, and our very existence is intricated with them. We can’t deny that the Earth goes around the Sun, rather than the reverse, just as we can’t deny the legacy of wars and revolutions that have led to our current world situation. And this is all the more the case when we expand our point of view to consider historical sciences, like biology, alongside experimental ones like physics. Despite the current mathematization of biology, the story of how human beings evolved is an historical one, not one that can be ‘proven’ through experiment. If physics is a matter of events, then biology is even more so. Stengers notes that American creationists explicitly make use of the fact that biology isn’t experimental in the sense that physics is, in order to back up their claims that evolution is just a “theory” rather than something factual. One problem with scientific imperialism — the claim that science is the ONLY source of truth — is that its overreaching precisely encourages these sorts of counter-claims. I’d agree with the creationists when they say that the theory of evolution is not established in the same way as, say, Newton’s laws of motion are established. (Though remember that in quantum situations, and relativistic near-speed-of-light situations, those laws of motion themselves no longer work). Rather, our answer to the creationists should be that denying that human beings evolved through natural selection (combined, perhaps, with other factors having to do with the properties of emergent systems) is exactly the same sort of thing as denying that the Holocaust ever happened.

As for science, the problem comes when it claims to explain everything, when it arrogates to itself the power to declare all other forms of explanation illegitimate, when it abstracts itself away from the situations, the events, in which it distinguishes truth from fiction, and claims to be the repository of all truths, with the authority to relegate all other truth-claims to the status of discredited fictions. As Stengers notes, when science does this (or better, when scientists and their allies do this), science is not just political, but is playing a very particular sort of power politics; and in doing so, science is certainly not disinterested, but in fact expressing extremely strong and powerful interests Whether it is “for” or “against” current power arrangements (in the past, e.g. the eighteenth century, it was often against, while today scientific institutions are more frequently aligned with, and parts of, dominant corporate and governmental powers) science has become a political actor, and a wielder of power in its own right. The point of “science studies,” as both Stengers and Latour articulate it, is to democratize the politics in which science is inevitably involved: both pragmatically (e.g., when the authority of “science,” in the form of genetic engineering, is tied in with the marketing muscle and monopolistic position of Monsanto) and theoretically (there are other truths in addition to scientific ones; science does not have the monopoly upon producing truth; other practices of truth, in other realms, may well necessarily involve certain types of fabulation, rather than being reducible to the particular way that science separates truth from fiction, in particular experimental situations, and in particular ways of sifting through historical evidence).

One way to sum all this up is to say that science, for Stengers, is a process rather than a product; it is creative, rather than foundational. Its inventions/discoveries introduce novelty into the world; they make a difference. Scientific truth should therefore be aligned with becoming (with inciting changes and transformations) rather than with power (with legislating what is and must be). Scientists are wrong when they think they are entitled to explain and determine everything, through some principle of reduction or consilience. But they are right when they see an aesthetic dimension to what they do (scientists subject themselves to different constraints than artists do, but both scientists and artists are sometimes able to achieve beauty and cogency as a result of following their respective constraints).

2 Responses to “The Invention of Modern Science”

  1. shaviro, latour, and the ‘science wars’

    Provisional post.

    Shaviro is blogging about the Science Wars–something I’ve only ever covered implicitly on this particular page–and particularly about Isabelle Stengers’ The Invention of Modern Science. Seems to be all good stuff. Also has a ni…

  2. The nature of Science

    The Pinocchio Theory (Steven Shaviro) on Isabelle Stengers’ The Invention of Modern Science ‘pretty much the best thing anyone has written about the science wars (the disputes between scientists and those in the humanities and ‘soft’ social sciences do…