Over at An und Fur Sich, Adam Kotsko has written a response to my defense of naturalism and materialism (here and here), accusing me of everything from believing that science gives us unmediated access to reality, is capable of explaining everything, and seeks to reduce everything, to advocating totalitarianism. Anyone familiar with what I argue in my ontology and epistemology will find this to be a peculiar set of charges, but so it goes. I posted a lengthy response there, but I’ll post it here as well:
I’m hesitant to respond here as Adam has already said he didn’t want to lure me over and that he’s found discussion with me unedifying, but I feel compelled to say something as I have difficulty recognizing myself in what is described in this post. Nowhere do I make the claim that science explains everything, that we have an unmediated access to the real, that everything should be reduced to elementary particles, genes, or neurons, or that we should ignore our knowledge producing practices. In fact, the ontology and epistemology I propose, the opposite is entailed. I argue that nothing has direct access to anything else. This would include scientific researchers in their relationship to the world. My central argument for the independence of objects– drawn from philosopher of science Roy Bhaskar –revolves around the experimental setting and how knowing requires us to carefully construct closed systems in which we perturb objects in a variety of ways to determine how they respond under these conditions. Here I would disagree somewhat with Adam. Science is not just conceptual. It involves instruments and practices as well and these contribute as much to our knowledge of beings as concepts. Indeed, often the way in which entities respond to our instruments and actions upon them ends up undermining concepts.
The philosophy of science and epistemology I’ve defended is based on the work of sociologists of science such as Pickering and Latour. As others have noted in this thread, these philosophies of knowledge are perfectly in accord with what Adam argues here. They are sensitive to the political and social contexts in which knowledge is produced, they emphasize the way in which knowledge is constructed, and they are attentive to how the history of ideas inform how we see the world. Their difference from hardcore social constructivists such as Luckmann and Berger in The Social Construction of Reality is that they refuse to treat construction as issuing from power, concepts, narratives, and discourse alone. The entities investigated, the materials used, the instruments used, etc., play a role that cannot, in their view, be reduced to the conceptual, social, and semiotic. Latour and Pickering’s constructivism is closer to what takes place in building a house and spinning out being from ideas and signs. Part of building a house will involve conceptual elements such as ideas found in engineering and architecture, part will involve social and political elements such as laws and cultural traditions in architecture, part will be real materials used such as the tools, the wood, nails, etc., and part the techniques or practices that construction workers have learned. Their point is that we need to avoid social constructivism that sees only ideas, power, signs, concepts, etc., as constructing being and also take into account the role that nonhuman entities play. I suspect many here– including Adam, I hope –would see this as a perfectly sensible proposal.
Nor do I advocate reductionism. In my published work and numerous blog posts I have again and again defended the irreducibility of entities. Societies can’t be reduced to human individuals, nor to neurons and genes. Trees cannot be reduced to cells, nor atoms or particles or strings. Mind cannot be reduced to neurons. Biological development can’t be reduced to the unfolding of genes as they contribute to the assembly of proteins. None of these things are possible without these other things, but at each level of scale we have the appearance of powers or capacities and qualities that we don’t find at the lower-levels. H2O, for example, is able to do things that neither oxygen nor hydrogen are capable of doing. There are dynamics of society that aren’t found at the level of human individuals.
In defending naturalism and materialism, all I’ve claimed is that whatever else being might be, it is natural and material. Even culture, for me, is a natural and material phenomena. That doesn’t somehow entail that history and culture disappear, that we can ignore what Bhaskar calls the “transitive” dimension of knowledge (the succession of theories throughout history, as well as how knowledge-producers are subjectivized), the role that power and politics plays in knowledge-production, etc. Nor does it entail that science is appropriate for explaining everything. It’s difficult, for example, to see what science has to tell us about novels and works of art.
I don’t think however, that we can or should simply ignore the natural sciences. We are living in the midst of the greatest period of scientific discovery in human history. Neurology, biology, physics, chemistry, cognitive science, astronomy, and contemporary mathematics, etc., have revealed things about ourselves and the world that were unimaginable a hundred years ago. We should be bringing our intellectual tools and talents to bear to think about the implications of these things and what they tell us about ourselves and the nature of being. Like Plato with the new mathematics, Aristotle with biology, Descartes, Leibniz, and Kant with the new physics, etc., we should be asking ourselves how these things call for us to transform our philosophical understanding of ourselves, our place in the universe, and the nature of being. We should also, as is always the case in the Continental tradition, bring our tools of critique to bear, calling out ideologies in common understandings of knowledge-production, and revealing the blind spots in knowledge production (especially in how neurology, mental health, and genetics are often deployed in the political sphere). The problem as I see it, is that too much of Continental thought behaves as if these things don’t even exist and as if they’re not worthy of thought (Badiou, Deleuze, Stengers, Latour, Serres, and Haraway among others excepted). I think this is at best a missed opportunity, and at worst the result of science envy and insecurity, borne out of the fear that there might be nothing left for the humanities (fears that I think are completely unfounded).