A little story about science

Once there was simple science. It studied objects and their relations, and it tried to characterise them truthfully, for it was an ethical science. To do this, it had to remove its own biases and opinions from the discussions it curated. This resulted in an objective picture that commanded assent precisely because it was so very free of subjectivities.

This simple science was conducted by subjects of a particular sort, the scientists. As long as the objects that they studied were completely indifferent with respect to these subjects or their friends, and did not interact with them, things went well. An objective picture was drawn of orbits and vast interstellar voids, of galactic collisions and planetary perambulations. There was also tiny stuff which they gave whimsical names to, like charm quark.

But the scientists, their friends, their pets, farm animals, crops, gardens and even those folk they did not like all lived together on a thin film called the biosphere. They lived so closely together that they were inseparable from each other. The science they pursued could not address only the very big and distant, or the very small and hidden. Sometimes the things they wanted to know about included their lives, their bodies, their farms, pets, gardens, neighbours, and even some strange people who they were not sure they liked. Science seemed like a good way to get to know this familiar world, and maybe to improve it a bit.

Now the separation that had seemed to work so very well for studying stars, planets, atoms, quarks, became something of a puzzle. It became increasingly clear that an objective picture of the reciprocal activities of many kinds of subjects could not be understood if one viewed these subjects as mere objects. It was not just the playboy bunnies who had had enough of being treated like objects. The world of the living, as a whole refused the objectivising gaze. The subjects each demanded to be understood as subjects.

And the scientists became aware that subjects cannot be viewed as mere objects, and that the questions you can ask of an object are rather different from the questions you might ask of a subject. Subjects have perspectives on the world, and things matter to them. In this respect, they are quite unlike dead things. And when one subject asks questions of another subject, both of their subjectivities come into play. Neither the scientist nor the subject observed can leave their subjectivity at the door like a wet umbrella. Science, conducted among the living, must, it seemed be cautious, hermeneutical, and negotiated. Or so it appeared to some scientists, anyway.

Others tried to ignore the subjectivities they lived among, in part by hiding them in secret places called brains. Brains were so complicated that they could comfortably accommodate any mystery whatsoever with room left for dessert. Subjectivities of individual animals were treated rather differently, through a largely unexplored fusion of instinct (which makes an object of the animal) and animal cognition, which made little people of the animals studied. This resulted in some very entertaining nature documentaries, but the animals were not particularly interested in those, and did not recognise themselves.

This is roughly where the story has reached so far. As we look ahead to the next series, we find the social, political and economic systems to be far more fragile than anyone recognised. We also find that the heedless activities of industrial populations have affected other subjectivities they live among to such an extent that many of the human population will not survive to the end of the series. Under these circumstances, the scientists who have learned to negotiate, and to retain some awareness of the contingent ground from which they speak, may yet prove useful.

 

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