Work in Progress: Ideals and Institutions of Science
Friday 16 September 2022
The bulk of the past week I spent working on my presentation “Becoming Homo Historiensis: Scientific History and Its Discontents,” and in thinking about habitability. My thoughts on habitability are as yet inchoate so I cannot give a good exposition of them. The former project is coming together, albeit slowly, but I am going to save the ideas of this project for that presentation (assuming it comes off), though much of its content is derived from my Frontiers column in the IBHA EMERGENCE newsletter, so many of these ideas are not absolutely new. The context in which I present the ideas, however, will be novel, and the peroration will be highly speculative. I thought of skirting the speculative material, but I actually like to throw in something that is pretty “out there” to give my audience something unusual to think about.
Also this past week I managed to finally finish reading to the end Jacob Bronowski’s Science and Human Values, which I wanted to read for its pertinence to my upcoming space ethics events mentioned in previous newsletters. Before I could finish the book, I had to find it; my copy had been missing for several months. Eventually I found it (incidentally, looking for a different book), under my bed. Obviously, I had fallen asleep reading it and it had fallen behind the headboard and was forgotten by me sometime earlier this year. In the same place I also found my missing copy of Walter Ullman’s A History of Political Thought: The Middle Ages, which is a wonderfully clear exposition of medieval political ideas.
I ended newsletter 200 by mentioning that I have an unfinished essay on the intellectual virtues, and I found that the third essay in Science and Human Values, “The Sense of Human Dignity,” is more or less an exposition of this idea, with a particular focus on the intellectual virtues of science. I read this last essay in Science and Human Values with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I agreed with almost everything he wrote, though my agreement was with the implied ideal of science and the community of scientists. On the other hand, I could see how far science, that is to say, institutional science, has come to diverge from the ideals of the scientific community. I argued with every sentence as I read to try to clarify exactly what it is that I think has gone so terribly wrong in much (not all) of the scientific community, as represented by the formal institutions of science (educational institutions, research grants, science communications, journals, press releases by universities, and so on).
Some of the essay was rather predictable. For example, Hegel, a favorite whipping boy, receives his due and comes in for a minor beating from Bronowski. (“By the beginning of the nineteenth century, Napoleon did not find a scientist to elevate tyranny into a system; that was done by the philosopher Hegel.” Section 9) In a more serious vein, Bronowski mentions Lysenko and Claus Fuchs, primarily discussing their cases in the endnotes (notes 4, 6, and 7), the pair of which nicely illustrate the institutional and personal challenges to the integrity of science. The story of Lysenkoism in the Soviet Union is a story of institutional corruption that retarded the development of Soviet science; the story of Claus Fuchs is the story of an individual corruption of the sort that might occur within any institution, essentially being the work of a rogue individual — a lone wolf, as it were. If science is based on a set of intellectual virtues, as Bronowski argues, then cases like this of both institutional and individual failure of intellectual virtues are a challenge to his thesis. One must show that these are exceptions to the rule, and not the rule itself. If Bronowski had written a book-length exposition of this, instead of a few essays, he might have devoted a chapter to each to flesh out the distinctive problems and to argue for the exceptional nature of each case.
There was other material in the book that will be useful to me. Some time ago in Pathways into the Deep Future I wrote about an offhand comment by Bronowski about scientific civilization. I plan to adapt and expand this as a chapter in a book about scientific civilization, and there is much in the first essay in Science and Human Values that deepens the conception of the role of science in civilization that Bronowski held. We could argue, on Bronowski’s basis, that ours is a scientific civilization, in which the above problems of institutional and individual corruption in matters of science are, at the same time, matters of civilization. Reading between the lines of Bronowski, I don’t think he would disagree that these problems of science are now problems of a civilizational scale, and, if they are, they require a more detailed and patient exposition.
Another problem that needs to be taken up is the relationship between institutional corruption and individual corruption. I doubt many would disagree that corrupt institutions foster corruption among individuals who are part of these institutions. Even within a corrupt institution there can be an individual of great virtue and merit, but the general run of men will not be so. This is likely to be the case not least because corrupt institutions attract corrupt individuals, so there is a selection pressure that makes corrupt institutions worse over time, and therefore nearly impossible to reform.
The contrary case, that of the influence of corrupt individuals upon institutions, is, in part, a sorites paradox: how many corrupt individuals make a corrupt institution? We could proceed by replacing meritorious individuals with corrupt individuals one-by-one, until we could no longer say of the corrupt individuals that they are mere bad apples, but that they had taken over the institution. Sometimes it is only one individual in a position of exceptional authority that is enough to spell disaster for the institution. A single bad apple in a position of authority can rapidly corrupt the whole of an institution, but then we have to ask serious questions about the nature of the institution that allowed a bad apple to gain control; an institution that cannot defend and maintain its own integrity is already a compromised institution.
Bronowski wrote, “The dilemma of today is not that the human values cannot control a mechanical science. It is the other way about: the scientific spirit is more human than the machinery of governments.” It might also be said that the scientific spirit is more human than the machinery of science, that is to say, scientific institutions. An institution is a government of sorts, and being so it has its internal machinery, which might work well or it might work poorly. Often what we find is that mediocre institutions will work fine when they are constituted by meritorious individuals on the whole, but as soon as a few bad apples are part of that machinery, it declines rapidly. Thus the sorites paradox of corrupt institutions may have different answers in different cases: an exceptionally well-constituted institution would endure longer, and be more amenable to reform, as compared to a mediocre institution.
The problem of scientific institutions has been on my mind for some time, and I tend to see institutional corruption as the greater threat to scientific integrity. Last year I wrote a blog post, Science as an Institution and an Ideal, in which I made the distinction between scientific ideals and scientific institutions. Using this distinction, one way to express the problem with contemporary science is that the ideal of science has been captured by the institutions of science. The letter dictates the spirit, rather than vice versa. The spirit and the letter of science would dog any scientific civilization in a way that the problem of the spirit and the letter of religious texts has dogged traditional civilizations that take Axial Age mythologies as their central projects. Insofar as Bronowski explicitly identified contemporary civilization as being scientific, it would already be captive to this dynamic.
Also for my space ethics events I have been reading the little known monograph Science and the Structure of Human Ethics by Abraham Edel, which is the ethics volume for the International Encyclopedia of Unified Science, which was Otto Neurath’s big collaborative positivist project. It is, thus, very much a product of its time, of a piece with the rest of this encyclopedia, but there are a lot of surprising and illuminating moments in reading through these often-neglected monographs. As regular readers will know. I have relied heavily on Carl Hempel’s Fundamentals of Concept Formation in Empirical Science, which was published in the same series (and which continues to influence me, at present in relation to habitability in particular, which is a recently formed concept, and therefore in need of explication).
Bronowski and Edel cover some common ground. Here is the final paragraph of Edel’s monograph:
“Perhaps the chief criticisms of the scientific temper have centered on misunderstandings of its nature — the contrast between the scientific and the creative. This reflects what is sometimes the parochial scientism of a limited period, the blind emphasis on the mechanical and the measurable. A less stereotyped view of the scientific temper is to be found in its greatest geniuses and in the history of science at critical periods. There it is the imaginative, the grasp of new possibilities, the ability to see things never seen before and to pose questions in a new way, to strip off blinders rather than to impose a new brand of them, which strike the investigator. Then the scientific temper and the creative temper become two faces of a single coin. It would indeed be a strange retribution if mankind, so prone to seek its salvation in the act, to conjure up romanticisms of the heart and the will, were to find the stoutest ally for both heart and will in the quest for knowledge.”
Where Edel concludes, Bronowski began, as the creative nature of science was his point in the first of the three essays that make up Science and Human Values. For some reason (I haven’t yet made the connection on a conscious level, but it has something to do with science being of the same creative order as art) when I read Edel in the light of Bronowski, I was reminded of Joseph Campbell’s lectures on James Joyce, Wings of Art.
Unfortunately, it is quite difficult to get a hold of a copy of Wings of Art. I was able to listen to this some years ago because a local library had the lectures on cassette, but I haven’t heard it in quite some time, which is a shame, as I remember it as being of compelling interest. Campbell’s interest here is in Joyce’s implicit theory of art; the gist of it can be derived from a short outtake on Youtube, Aesthetic Method of James Joyce, and can be read (in a slightly different form) at The Way of Art.
Campbell ascribes to Joyce a distinction between proper and improper art. The way in which this theme is developed is throughout applicable to the creative function of science, such as Bronowski described in his first essay in Science and Human Values, “The Creative Mind.” We can make a distinction between proper and improper science, though substituting epistemic arrest for aesthetic arrest. In pure epistemic arrest, we are utterly free from the scientific equivalent of pornography (being attracted to the object of knowledge) and the scientific equivalent of didacticism (being repelled by the object of knowledge). And scientific truth, like beauty for art, should possess integrity, harmony, and radiance.
There is a lot that could be done with this approach, going deeper into the matter proposed by Bronowski in the first of his three essays. This is the weakest of the three essays in Science and Human Values, as he gets a bit tiresome on the idea that science is not just a collection of facts; he could have noted this once and then moved on, but no doubt he thought he needed to drive the point home to his audience.
A related work that touches on scientific creativity is G. H. Hardy’s A Mathematician’s Apology, in which Hardy attempts to set forth a distinction between trivial and non-trivial mathematics, and to explain from an informal point of view the properties that characterize a non-trivial mathematical idea. I have been drawing on this book for another project that I work on occasionally, and I come back to Hardy’s exposition time and again. As with Campbell on Joyce on art, there is much in Hardy on mathematical creativity that could be applied generally to scientific creativity.