Metaphysics, Speculation and Science

[Original German blog post]

The scientist looks through the objective – does this render his research objective?

The occasion for this post is a rather persistently held debate on Twitter, I would like to broaden my own points a bit. These touche only a part of this by and large amusing discussion that spun a much wider arc.

The basic motive of this conversation were the “Two Cultures”, how this complex of sciences vs. humanities is called since the famous text by Ch. P. Snow. I want to pin on two aspects, that I find worth telling in the context of Slow Media: the question of the value of metaphysics for the sciences. The second: my hope, that the publicity of sciences that has been changed so much by the Web and platforms like Wikipedia and Blogs with their comments, a “Third Culture” becomes possible.

This Twitter-discussion’s protagonists assumed the according roles in Snow’s play of the two cultures quickly; me – despite my own career – on the side of the humanities. Finally all would just dissolve in consensus, would not an issue have been risen, that immediately made obvious the deep divide between the two cultures: first, the question if the scepticism of the scientific method is to be used on their own foundations, and second – and this came as a complete surprise for me – by a quote that I twittered to illustrate the first point.

Ehlers: ‘ … But in the end the decision [to accept a new theory] is made using criteria on which both sides agree: the representatives of the older and the younger generations.’
Stichweh: ‘Is that always the case? I don’t know a single opponent of Darwin
who became convinced. They actually did die out, some time in the nineteenth century.’

From Reinhard Breuer, Michael Springer: The truth in science.
Interview with Jürgen Ehlers und Rudolf Stichweh. GENERAL RELATIVITY AND GRAVITATION 41, Nr 9, 2159-2167 (Originally published as Breuer, R., Springer, M. “Die Wahrheit in der Wissenschaft”, Spektrum der
Wissenschaft 7/2001)

Christian Huygens, “the most elegant mathematician of his time”, one of the most prominent figures of the enlightenment, had said in the context of Galileo’s defence: “The world is my country, science my religion.” I found this appropriate for our conversation. After that, the der consensus was not to be restored until the end of the discussion. Even a harsh tone came into the rhetoric and – I have sensed it this way, taking the counter positioning – the “scientist’s party” fell in figueres of “authenticity” (Eigentlichkeit), the images becoming almost geradezu martial. The snappishness by which the equalization of science with religion, deduced from the quote, was fought against, surprised me even more, when I was blamed, to insult the scientific side. In return I found myself as faithful catholic suddenly put on one level with creationists and other esoteric cranks.

First law of thermodynamics: What you gain in force you loose in distance. Even though it is tempting to transfer the physical images onto human society, like Francis Bacon had called for, things are not that simple …

After school I had no doubt to choose a scientific education. I studied mathematics and computer sciences. Like many of my fellows I was caught by the joy of data visualisation: it was the time of the “Fractal Geometry of Nature” by Mandelbrot and the invention of the graphic processor. Because of my knowledge in electronic data analysis I got a job in the Institute for Human Ethology in the Max-Planck-Gesellschaft at Andechs.

What was special with the team at this institute was the extraordinary, interdisciplinary mixture: zoologists (mainly ornithologists and primate experts) there were physicians, psychologists, linguists and even art historians. This was due to the research’s objective: human behaviour – from nonverbal communication (where I had landed) to languages, proxemics (behavior in a group) up to the whole repertoire of culture, art, architecture and especially music – the search was for what unifies men, what was universally valid, no matter which culture in the world had been watched, and what would be specific only for some people, evolved through adaptation to different environmental conditions. From the ethological method of comparative behavioural research I have been benefiting up to today – many research projects had been realised by Christiane Tramitz and me since then – although our severance from the Max-Planck-Institute did take place in a rather ungentle way.

In those days, some tropes borrowed from postmodernism and already sunken down to undergraduate seminars had been quite en vogue. Had the humanities’ mainstream in the preceding decade attacked the biologic research of men just as being part of bourgeois defence of power, now every reductionism, characterising the classic scientific method, was dispraised as construct. The arguments of those times had basically been quite harmless and hardly positioned to really disturb the research work – thus different from the class-struggle-rhetoric of the earlier years. As meanwhile graduated statistician I was anyway hardly to be frightened by postmodernism, had I not chosen a discipline dealing with getting and affirming knowledge out of data, afflicted by random or even better: derived from incomplete models.

Some colleagues however where effected in a hard way by this criticism, for this aimed on a pecular aspect of many human biological projects: from their alleged scientific hypothesis they derived ethical norms. Just the sociobiology, examining the behaviour of man under his conspecifics under biologic aspects is extremely prone to take its reductionism (“group”, “clan”, “people”, “culture” etc.) for real objects. I don’t want to go into the problems of postmodern anthropology and ethnology here. Another topic I had – so to say – to learn the hard way: these norms were not to be criticised, how I was told, because they had been obtained by scientific method. To make this clearer: it was a moral framework that could be called Darwinist in a broader sense. Darwinism – this may be stressed here – is not evolutionary thought, but a social teaching deviated from it. In this, a behaviour is morally judged good or bad, to what extent it helps men – individual or in a kin group – to give their genes to a next generation as numerous as possible; brought to its end this is the “nature, the cruel queen” in her realm – I think I do not have to get more explicit; so much for my career in biology

There is no escape from this logic, if you stay in this biological positivism; this is what is called “Dialectic of Enlightenment” since World War II. But their is a chance, not to slide into barbarism with enlightenment, namely by making a step outside.

Euclid’s Elements. By changing some of the axioms, that are pretended evident to our assumption, one does not get to antinomies but to new worlds: the non-euclikic geometry

Meta means behind, beyond, and metaphysics has been another space for thought, into which we may step back to look on the physis, the nature and think ponder on what comes after having watched nature.

Stichweh: ‘If I compare science with art or religion, from outside, then science is
different in the sense that it claims that its statements are true.. […] Niklas Luhmann said that truth is science in a state of exhaustion.’
From Reinhard Breuer, Michael Springer: The truth in science.
Interview with Jürgen Ehlers und Rudolf Stichweh. GENERAL RELATIVITY AND GRAVITATION 41, Nr 9, 2159-2167 (Originally published as Breuer, R., Springer, M. “Die Wahrheit in der Wissenschaft”, Spektrum der
Wissenschaft 7/2001)

Metaphysics, this I have learned yesterday once again, is not rated high. But the question for meaning, for the essence of the unearthed scientific insight cannot be answered within the system itself. The “remaining risk” of civilian use of nuclear energy that its advocates happyly take for all men (no matter if these agree), the question if genetic engineering should be promoted, if climate change is a necessary evil of our civilisation or a crime – all are not scientific questions. Doubts with research were likly placated by politicians. “Discussion without blinkers” was the mantra of the so called Ethikrat in Germany – in plain text: stay away with your boring moral from our science!

“Limitation on cut-out, sharply isolated objects […], by the desire for exactnes aspiring to create laboratory-like conditions – refuses not just temporaryly but in principle the dealing with the totality of society. This enails that the assertions of social research often carry the character of the fruitless, peripheral […]. Unmistakably is there the danger of becominging petitfogging with stuff […]. In the effort to keep to watertight data and by discrediting every question for essence as metaphysics, it is imminent for social research to remain limited to the inessential in the name of the undoubtably correct. Often enough their objects are dictated by their methods, …” Theodor W. Adorno, “Empirische Sozialforschung” in Gesammelte Schriften, 9.2

Speculation is a second metaphysical field closely tied to sciences. Speculation does not mean to get nailed down by the normative power of the presumingly factical. By speculating we look into a “mirror and view puzzling contours”. Just by getting up from immediate experience of the collected data and abstractly think farther, a shift in paradigm can be achieved.

“No difference should exist between an animal totem, the dreams of a visonary and the absolute idea. On the way to modern science men abandon meaning. They replace the idea with the formula, cause by rule and probability.” Theodor W. Adorno, “Dialektik der Aufklärung”.

By denying an external theory discussion in the sciences, science itself becomes dogmatic. I would not go as far as Adorno by accusing the sciences to have become myths in new clothes. But by contemptibly placing metaphysics, speculations and ethic founded on faith on the same level of irrationality as esoteric and idolatry in opposition to science, science wastes the chance to reflect on itself, to keep a critical distance.

But indeed there is a lot going on regarding the Two Cultures. On platforms like Wikipedia exponents of both blocks confront each other regularly and have to find consensus, if there effort should not lead to endless edit-wars. The arguments sit well documented and traceable on the discussion page. There is a considerable number of blogging researchers (both sciences and humanities). In the comments the positions can be negotiated in transparent way, like it had never been possible in the past. Opinions not shared can be criticised here; everyone can contribute and cross tie via links. This participating in scientific publicity was exclusively reserved to peer-review in the old days.

The good thing of this publicity: incomprehensible and arcane terminology has bad chances to stand the discussion; bad times to curl up, make your own bed and lie in it. An open system that is by its mere way of publication – available for everyone – invites to participate. I believe that thus a “Third Culture” will evolve – like Snow had hoped in 1959.

The quadrature of the circle: take a step back, out from the flat ring of ratios into the lofty field of real numbers (what metaphor!), the radius is put in relation to circumference easily.