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So I’ve written before about the ClimateGate scandal here as symptomatic of technocratic elitism or the current trend to exhaust all political experience and judgment into the categories of modern science. In other words, the problem is unrestrained scientism , or the view that science has a monopoly on the market of reason and that the explanatory scope of science is unlimited. However, part of the problem is not merely one interpretation of the proper relation between science and politics but the very nature of modern science itself, which struggles to combine its commitment to disinterested, objective inquiry with its attendant moral attachments.  In other words, from its inception modern science has always been a volatile combination of theory and advocacy—the ClimateGate debacle is merely one telling exemplar of this longstanding difficulty.

The tension between theory and advocacy within modern science is noticeable from the very beginning, maybe especially in the account Descartes gives in the 6 th Discourse of the reasons for publishing the Discourse at all. In essence, Descartes attempts to continue the argument already articulated in the 1 st Discourse, that the ultimate standard is what is “useful for life”, and that he could not keep concealed what he discovered about the true nature of physics without “greatly sinning against the law which obliges us to procure as much as is in us the good of all men”. Many commentators have noticed that this is not just the only place in all of the Discourses, even in all of Descartes’ writing, where he ever so brazenly asserts a categorical moral obligation but also that there seems to be no basis for it in the provisional morality sketched out in the 3 rd Discourse. Shortly thereafter, Descartes famously describes the ends of science: it will make men “wiser and more able than they have been up until now” and therefore effectively “renders ourselves like masters and possessors of nature”. Science surely has purposes at which it aims and Descartes explicitly proposes that the “conservation of health” is “without doubt the first good and the foundation of all other goods in this life”. The problem here is that the legitimacy of these goods, let alone their superiority to other claims to the good, is not itself scientifically demonstrable though stated with absolute certainty. Modern science simultaneously claims to be free from moral attachments and openly advocates for a particular conception of the good—it somehow navigates the plane of pure theory and pure practice at the same time.

The problem even rears itself at the level of the actual exercise of science: science begins in hypothesis which drives the application of method but is not itself the result of method. The replacement of prudential judgment by algorithmic method can’t be simply decisive—we still need recourse to our pre-methodical or pre-scientific consciousness or, to borrow from Husserl, our natural consciousness, to be able to develop a hypothesis in the first place. In other words, science is still parasitic upon recourse to experience unvarnished by the mediation of scientific categories. Descartes responds to this problem in the Dioptrics :

For it seems to me that the reasons follow from one another in such a way that the last are demonstrated by the first which are their causes; the first are demonstrated, and reciprocally, by the last which are their effects. And one ought not to imagine that I commit here the fault which logicians name a circle; because experience, rendering these effects for the most part very certain, the causes from which I deduce them do not serve so much to prove them as to explain them. But, quite the contrary, it is they that are proved by them.

Descartes here weighs in on an old problem found in Aristotle’s Posterior Analytics regarding whether logic can be construed as a mode of discovery or a mode of presentation; in some sense, both Descartes and Aristotle have to give experience its proper due. The deeper problem I’m pointing to in this post is the relation between theory and practice, or within the scientist himself, the tension between the nearly self-less experience of wonder and the self-willing project of transforming a hostile, natural world, newly subdued. In the Discourse, Descartes struggles to coherently combine the desire to know with his brand of scientific marketing—transforming the world is a project and that requires some serious public relations work. Our current ClimateGate mess shows how science today has inherited this dichotomy between theory and practice, or between the goodness of knowing and the advocacy of that which is believed, sometimes without clear and distinct evidence, to be known. It is still the case that not just experience but pre-scientific reason must be given its due as the ground of our arguments and intuitions regarding what good is, and towards what our scientific efforts should aim.

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