Monday, May 09, 2016

Deflation and Deliberation: Some Notes on Science in Public

by Michael J. DeMoor

This post is part of an ongoing symposium interacting with Lambert Zuidervaart's book Religion, Truth, and Social Transformation: Essays in Reformational Philosophy. For more responses to the book, see our table of contents.

Lambert's paper "Science, Society, and Culture: Against Deflationism" covers some of the same concerns as his other reflections on truth, but here uses the occasion of Joseph Rouse's interpretation of Heidegger as an opportunity to examine the question of truth in the sciences. Since Rouse's work is likely unfamiliar to many readers, it may be worth beginning by saying a few words about why Rouse matters and so also why his interpretation of Heidegger matters.

Rouse is a philosopher of science working out of the pragmatist tradition whose various important works attempt to uncover the ways in which the practice of science is shot through with social power and structurally folded toward technological power, rather than being a “pure” or “neutral” method for uncovering the unvarnished truths of nature. On this view “scientific truth” does not stand outside of culture and politics, safely immune to their vices and limitations, but is rather implicated in them even as a primary means in our culture for legitimating the power of the powerful and hence the subjection of the marginalized.

It is worth saying that he says this with “emancipatory” intent – to offer a perspective from which to critique and resist the ways in which science is used to oppress, marginalze and exclude. I take it to be part of Lambert's response that, whatever the intent, Rouse's vision (like Foucault's regarding power and knowledge) ends up undermining the aspiration for social transforamtion and justice by undercutting the possibility of authentic appeal to binding principles and truths.

For Rouse, then, Heidegger – at least on his “deflationist” reading of Heidegger – offers an ontological grounding for this critique of scientific “objectivity.” If “science” claims its disinterested transcendence of politics and culture in the light of the “objective” truth of its assertions, Heidegger, on Rouse's reading, undermines this possibility by showing that the truth of assertions (“assertoric truth”) is both grounded in and limited by “concrete situations, embodied in an actual tradition of interpretive practices...and located in persons shaped by specific situations” such that “understanding is not a conceptualization of the world but a performative grasp of how to cope with it.” (301, quoting Rouse) As such, the truth of scientific assertions (theories, “facts,” “laws” etc.) is inseparably connected to the local situations (including the social situations) that shape those who formulate and those who interpret such truths.

...the truth of scientific assertions (theories, “facts,” “laws” etc.) is inseparably connected to the local situations (including the social situations) that shape those who formulate and those who interpret such truths.

If this is so, then there is nothing pure, disinterested or “higher” about scientific claims compared to political and cultural claims: science cannot be the secular priesthood of society or the source of unvarnished facts to which we can appeal to settle socially disputed questions or to offer an “objective” basis for deployment of public power. On Rouse's reading then, Heidegger reveals from the very conditions that make scientific assertions possible that their “truth” reveals little more than the attitudes, attunements, and patterns of cultural authority of those who assert and those who interpret them. To say of an assertion that it is “true” is just to assert it again, to make a move in the game of public disputation. “Truth” plays no explanatory, no authentically legitimating role in our social, cultural, and scientific disputes. It is in this sense that Rouse's reading is “deflationist” about truth.

Lambert takes issue with Rouse first of all regarding his interpretation of Heidegger but then more broadly with the reductive and hence critically crippling picture he offers of the place of science in culture and society. I will, as far as possible, pass over the first in silence since I – being no Heidegger scholar – am in no position to adjudicate their dispute and, furthermore, I – being an impatient guy with my own fish to fry – am not all that interested in it strictly as a matter of Heidegger-scholarship. Suffice it to say that he faults Rouse for suggesting that the grounding of assertoric truth in “existential truth” for Heidegger limits the truth of assertions to merely local contexts because Rouse's version ignores Heidegger's insistence on the “discoveredness” of what is known; i.e., the role of the object itself in the truth-making process that results in the assertion. In Lambert's own terms, Rouse's focus on predication as a socially embedded practice overlooks the “predicative availability” and “predicative self -disclosure” of the known in the process of knowing which allows knowledge to transcend the mere limits of its context of creation.

What I prefer to focus on is Lambert's own conception of scientific truth and the role it can and should play in society and culture. What makes his view interesting and profound is the way he attempts to account for both the the irreducibly assertoric nature of scientific truth and its continual embeddedness in the broader unfolding of human society and culture. Sphere sovereignty and sphere universality are not, to put it in Reformational jargon, opposing directions, but co-relates. Science is never autonomous in the sense of making and authenticating truth-claims without reference to a deeper horizon of social commitment and practice. On the other hand, science best serves that deeper horizon of truth-making when it can be itself (including its assertoric self) without becoming merely the instrument of the legitimation of social power.

Like Heidegger, Lambert insists that assertoric truth or “correctness” (in which science “and more broadly the academic enterprise” (308) specialize) is grounded in a more “comprehensive” truth captured more readily in uses of the term such as “she is true to her word” and “this is a tried and true approach.” (306) Here truth means not merely “correctness” but reliability, faithfulness, and authenticity. The deepest horizon of this kind of truth isn't simply social practices geared toward making statements that accurately represent some aspect of the world but the “dynamic correlation between human fidelity and societal disclosure.” (306) As human actors in history strive to be faithful to societal principles such as justice, solidarity, and resourcefulness, and as – correlatively – new possibilities for authentic human flourishing are disclosed in society, “truth” in the most comprehensive and deepest sense happens.

Assertoric truth is derived from this process of dynamic correlation; it is, if you will, both a particular form of it and done in service to it. It manifests, on the one hand, the attempt to correlate faithfulness to societal principles (in this case that of “logical validity” (307)) and, on the other, the disclosure of possibilities inherent in human social life (in this case the “predicative self-disclosure of asserted entities” (308)). In so doing, however, (i.e., when assertoric truth-telling is being itself) it also “supports the pursuit of other societal principles” and helps to open the possibility of “discursively attuned institutions.” (308) In light of this, the making and testing of assertions is also supported and tested against not only its own particular “dynamic correlation” but the dynamic correlation of “truth in its entirety.” (308)

Assertoric truth is derived from this process of dynamic correlation; it is, if you will, both a particular form of it and done in service to it.

Thus the “integration” of science with other social practices and institutions is both inevitable (since assertoric truth is rooted in comprehensive truth) and normatively desirable (since the practice of making and testing assertoric claims aids the tasks of fidelity to societal principles and the disclosure of society and is in turn supported by those tasks):
Science must include a double translation project. On the one hand, the contextual implications of scientific inquiry need to enter scientist's discourse about their findings, explanations and arguments. On the other hand, nonscientific concerns about societal principles and life-giving disclosure must inform the ways in which scientific inquiry is constituted. (311)
However, not all forms of this integration are equally desirable. I take part of Lambert's point to be that Rouse's deflationary way of imagining this integration – by essentially explaining away the irreducibly assertoric character of inquiry and hence its irreducible social role – risks simply reducing the practice of science to the “politics of science.” This makes science subject to the vicissitudes of power in such a way that it can only serve to legitimate what israther than to cleave in fidelity to either the social principle of logical validity or to serve human actors in their attempts to be faithful to the principles of justice, solidarity, and resourcefulness. Whatever the emancipatory intent of Rouse's critique of scientific “objectivity,” the critique ends up treating as inevitable the idea that science should only serve the powers that be and not serve to resist the “systemic” integration of society, in which the steering media of “economic and administrative systems” – i.e., money and power – increasingly determine the course and shape of society, and hence also restrict and foreclose possibilities for authentic human flourishing.

Since the splendid isolation of scientific practices and institutions from the rest of society is no answer to this problem (it is neither possible nor desirable), what Lambert calls for is a form of integration between science and society that is “normative rather than systematic” (311), one that is open and responsive to societal principles in the service of the life-giving disclosure of society.

Amen and amen, I say. But Lambert stops here just when things start to get really interesting (to me, anyway). It is deeply obnoxious when people criticize short articles for what they don't include, so I won't try to phrase what follows as criticism, but as questions that I hope one day Lambert will help me to answer (though I will say something about what concerns I have about some ways I suspect he might answer them).

My primary question is what a “normative” rather than a “systemic” politics of science will look like concretely. Does avoiding systemic integration mean avoiding mediating the science-society integration through the state and the proprietary market, since those are “operationally self-contained systems,” and instead mediating it through civil society, the public sphere and the civic sector (see his article on "macrostructures" and the responses to it in this symposium by Chaplin and Fulman)? What would this mean for the funding, promotion, and regulation of science? I am concerned that Lambert's employment of Habermas' “system/lifeworld” schema tends to cast the state and the proprietary economy as intrinsically “systemic” social (macro)structures bent on the “colonization” of social institutions and practices that still seek to dynamically correlate fidelity to social principles and the life-giving disclosure of society.

My primary question is what a “normative” rather than a “systemic” politics of science will look like concretely.... What would this mean for the funding, promotion, and regulation of science?

If this is so, and thus the integration of science and society should avoid these colonizing systems, this would potentially both unduly burden civil-society institutions and prevent political and economic actors and agencies from doing necessary work that only they can do, since they have particular concern for other societal principles (viz. public justice and resourcefulness). In very concrete terms: Who should help pay for science? Who should decide what kinds of inquiry are social priorities and which ones are absolutely off the table? Who should call science to account if it fails to ask “whether its 'applications' and their 'effects' serve life-giving disclosure”? (311) Who is responsible for seeking out and giving standing to scientific authorities in matters of public concern? To pose the issue in terms of “systemic” versus “normative” integration risks loading the dice against the meaningful participation of state and market in these practices and over-burdening civil-society actors with parts of these tasks that they are not well-positioned to fulfill.

My second question is about the other direction of fit between science and society: How should scientific knowledge and expertise be integrated into the working of our various social institutions and practices (whether “systemic” or “lebensweltiche”)? To what extent should, say, public policy be directed by “experts” equipped with scientific credentials and knowledge (as seems to be the upshot of the push for “evidence-based policy making”)? Scientists and scientific practices are not the only social agents concerned with raising assertoric validity claims in ways that bear on matters of comprehensive truth. How then can Lambert's way of connecting assertoric truth and the scientific enterprise help to sort out the vexed question of whose truth-claims get public standing and whose don't, particularly when some of these carry the cultural prestige of “science” and some of them do not? Lambert offers a pretty winsome, inclusive, “wissenschaftsliche” understanding of the sciences, but even that runs the risk of turning over the critical function of assertoric inquiry and deliberation only to an elite (and an elite that is politically and culturally non-representative of the population as a whole). I'd love to hear a few words about the connection between scientific inquiry and public deliberation (after all, one of the promises of science is that it creates the conditions for “deliberatively attuned institutions”).

I could raise a few more questions and quibbles, but this blog post is already vastly over-long. I am aware that I am asking Lambert now to do what he did not set out to do, and so it is crucial to remember that critiques of the “I wish the author had said some more about X” are usually testimony to the excellent and promising character of the work. So it is here.

Michael J. DeMoor has the pleasantly baroque title of "Associate Professor of Social Philosophy in Politics, History, and Economics" at The King's University in Edmonton. He wrote his less pleasantly baroque dissertation (entitled "Brandom and Hegel on Objectivity, Subjectivity, and Sociality: A Tune Beyond us, Yet Ourselves") under Lambert's long-suffering supervision and still has a few copies kicking around if anyone wants one (you don't). His current research concerns the idea of reason in deliberative democracy, particularly models of societal rationality and their connection to public policy and architectonic critique. This work is exactly as interesting as you think it is.

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