September 3, 2009

Scientism (1 of 5)

Filed under: Corporatism, Nietzsche, Scientism/Technocracy — Tags: — Russell Bangs @ 7:01 am
The CERN particle collider is a $9 billion, 17 mile metal doughnut dug in the ground in Switzerland. Here subatomic particles are supposed to be accelerated to extreme speeds and smashed together to generate even more fundamental particles.
The physicists who lobbied for this project claim to be something more than extremely high-spending Nascar yahoos waiting for a crash. Their higher edification will come in the form of confirmation of abstruse mathematical equations, and from that the formulation of even more tenuous equations.
On a more practical level, this project, like any other, is promising to make all technology “better” – stronger, faster, tastier, more synergized, more silky-smooth, more job-destroying, more weaponized, whatever. It’s hard to tell what the alleged benefits are supposed to be.
At any rate, any new technology coming out of this publicly-financed venture will certainly be very profitable for some private interest. Corporatism is a constant.
But after all that money and hype, they’re having problems getting this thing fired up. It doesn’t work. Their first attempt to fire it up blew up in a hail of sparks. Also the magnets inexplicably stopped working and need to be “retrained”. They hope to maybe be able to start running it in November at diminished capacity: 3.5 trillion volts, 50% of hyped capacity. then gradually ramp up to 5 trillion over the course of 2010, and if all goes well, maybe reach the full 7 trillion sometime after that. So maybe for now they’ll only be able to work on 50% of their equations, and we can cancel the Theory of Everything parade for the time being.
(“GUT” they call it. Grand Unified Theory. Sounds reminiscent of NUT and MAD, for anyone who remembers those. Came from the same people, too.)
Why, in a time of economic crisis, where the rich world was on a crazed debt binge just cruising for a crash, while billions remained impoverished, did anyone think it was a good idea to sink billions into a glorified pinball machine? The answer lies in the nature of scientism.
Scientism is a form of instrumental reason. A scientist, who is often no kind of creative thinker but usually more of a technician, an engineer, has no underlying principle, but only a tactic. This tactic is simply the scientific process unanchored from any comprehensive frame of reference. In need of an ideology, he takes the tactic itself as the self-justifying principle, and from there seeks world domination with it and for it.
The basic “principle” of scientism and technology runs, “If it can be done it should be done, and there is no other question of ‘should?’ or ‘why?’ “. It therefore dovetails perfectly with fundamentalist economic libertarianism. Both are expressions of what T.H. Huxley called administrative nihilism.
Since there is no principle, in practice science therefore becomes the mere tool of wealth and power.
Scientism, although an enemy of the spirit, is for that very reason part of the spiritual crisis of modernity. When this question is posed there’s seldom a better guide than Nietzsche, and here too he can illuminate the path. Nietzsche began his career asking the question, what is the relationship of science to life?, and he never ceased from asking this.
In part 3 of these posts I’ll trace Nietzsche’s quest regarding the place of science. For this post, I’d like to focus on the ideas he offered in Human, All Too Human. This was the first of his so-called “aphoristic works”, or what he called his travel books (I like that term best). Human is also called the book of Nietzsche’s “positivistic” period, because here, in his first complete traversal of all his thinking, he was most inclined to reduce everything to psychological mechanism. And it’s here that he tentatively tried to offer a self-justification for science, since it seemed to him at that point that only science could truly be said to deal with “real” things. (He would later and definitively reject this position, but I’ll get to that in post 3.)
I’m here concerned with sections 22, 24, and 25 of Human. N starts by recognizing that god is dead (although he doesn’t yet use that famous formulation): “The belief has ceased that a God broadly directs the destinies of the world and..is leading mankind gloriously upward” [25]; we have felt “the cessation of the metaphysical outlook” [22].
Yet at this time he still believes in “progress” in the conventional sense of that term (this is a position he later rejects):
But men are capable of consciously resolving to evolve themselves to a new culture, whereas formerly they did so unconsciously and fortuitously: they can now create better conditions for the propagation of men and for their nutrition, education and instruction, manage the earth as a whole economically, balance and employ the powers of men in general. This new, conscious culture destroys the old, which viewed as a whole has led an unconscious animal- and plant-life; it also destroys mistrust of progress – it is possible. It would, of course, be rash and almost nonsensical to believe that progress must necessarily follow; but how could it be denied that progress is possible? [24]
Later N would sublimate this idea, hold out hope for it on intellectual and spiritual levels, but here he is displaying the thought process by which, in the aftermath of receding religion, science tries to fill the void itself as a self-justifying authority and goalsetter. The spiritually unanchored individual is the target of a new cult of scientism.
N at this time does not doubt that such an authority is necessary: “Man has to set himself ecumenical goals embracing the whole earth” [25]. We have lost religious faith:
Can science, too, awaken such faith in its conclusions? The fact is that science needs doubt and distrust for its closest allies; nonetheless, the sum of unimpeachable truths – truths, that is, which have survived all the assaults of skepticism and disintegration – can in time become so great that on the basis of them one may resolve to embark upon “everlasting” works. [22]
In fact N’s own skepticism and disintegration would eventually lead him to reject both the concept of “unimpeachable” truth as well as finding scientific truth to intrinsically provide the basis for everlasting works. I’ll trace this intellectual journey in part 3.
For now he is experimenting with believing it, asking the question of whether this can be the case. He is careful to stress that we must “doubt and distrust” even science, subject it to our “skepticism and disintegration”, especially from points of view outside science. This is precisely the distrust and skepticism the scienticians and technocrats deny and disparage.
In [25] N already feels the tension between the noble quest for “ecumenical goals” and the nihilistic reality such a quest is likely to manifest. He tries to plunge ahead anyway and, in a spectacular display of cognitive dissonance, engages in the classical totalitarian lie of accusing the opponent of doing exactly what you intend to do (even citing free trade as his alleged anti-example!):
The former morality, namely Kant’s, demanded of the individual actions which one desired of all men: that was a very naive thing; as if everyone knew without further ado what mode of action would benefit the whole of mankind, that is, what actions at all are desirable; it is a theory like that of free trade, presupposing that universal harmony must result of itself in accordance with innate laws of progress. Perhaps some future survey of the requirements of mankind will show that it is absolutely not desirable that all men should act in the same way, but rather that in the interest of ecumenical goals whole tracts of mankind ought to have special, perhaps under certain circumstances even evil tasks imposed upon them.
While Kant was sincere in his call for absolute morality, the perfect harmony of duties, and that no man ever be used as a means but only seen as an end, in practice we know that such a philosophy, wherever instrumentalized, becomes a fig leaf for class war. 
As we see, N both here and throughout his philosophy acknowledges the real-world untruth of Kantian moralism. He correctly analyzes “free trade” as an example of such an ideological Big Lie even though he cared nothing for economic issues. And yet even as he rejects the moral integrity of the real-world process toward such a goal, he still at this point wants to salvage the goal itself, which puts him right back in the position of the alleged absolutist who really seeks relative advantage.
But what can salvage the situation? Science!
If mankind is not to destroy itself through such conscious universal rule, it must first of all attain to a hitherto unprecedented knowledge of the preconditions of culture as a scientific standard for ecumenical goals. Herein lies the tremendous task facing the great spirits of the coming century.
As I said, N would later consider the placing of science and technology in its proper place, as a tool and never an end, as part of this tremendous task. But here he still prefigures the spirit of scientism and technocracy.
(To be sure, N never wanted any kind of gutter tyranny. Here he no doubt dreams of something like a technocratic version of Plato’s Republic. He was still enough of an enthusiast to believe in philosopher-kings, or in this case scientist-kings.)
And yet he already senses how that path cannot avail us. To go back to [22], we find a fitting conclusion:
In the meanwhile, the contrast between our agitated ephemeral existence and the slow-breathing repose of metaphysical ages is still too strong, because the two ages are still too close together; the individual human being himself now runs through far too many inner and outer evolutions for him to venture to establish himself securely once and for all even for so short a span as his own lifetime. A completely modern man who wants, for example, to build himself a house has at the same time the feeling he is proposing to immure himself alive in a mausoleum.   


  1. […] fascism, scientism/technocracy — Tags: cash for clunkers, CERN — Russ @ 5:33 am In post 1 we saw how something like CERN comes about. From the scientistic point of view, society is simply […]

    Pingback by Tech Monuments as Consumerism and Class War (Scientism 2 of 5) « Volatility — September 4, 2009 @ 5:33 am

  2. Nice essay, I’ll look forward to reading the subsequent

    The quote that jumps out to me the most is the one at the
    end, from Nietzsche (just because it speaks to where I
    feel I’m at in life…):

    “In the meanwhile, the contrast between our agitated
    ephemeral existence and the slow-breathing repose of
    metaphysical ages is still too strong, because the two
    ages are still too close together; the individual human
    being himself now runs through far too many inner
    and outer evolutions for him to venture to establish
    himself securely once and for all even for so short a
    span as his own lifetime. A completely modern man
    who wants, for example, to build himself a house has
    at the same time the feeling he is proposing to immure
    himself alive in a mausoleum.”

    Well, specifically, it’s odd to me that I run myself ragged
    thinking about “jobs”, and then soothe my spirit with
    an evening walk by the lake, then have the nerve to say
    I’m “managing my mood”. What about practicing Zen
    24/7? That seems like it would be a better idea, but
    instead I’m out of practice and “agitated”.

    Anyway, this essay reminds me a lot of the work of one
    F. Soddy that I’ve been looking into. One of the key
    common questions is “specialization”. Well, for example,
    Soddy is unabashedly and offhandedly anti-Semitic.
    He’s trying to criticize “stockholders”, and the word
    comes out “Jews”. So of course I find this somewhat
    tedious, but what’s really at stake here seems to be
    the conditions that create ghettos, classes, in short,
    specialization (whether we speak favorably or
    unfavorably of “Jews”, “Mandarins”, or “Scientists”,
    it’s worth paying attention to the fact that these
    are not pure auto-creations).

    Soddy is very much inclined towards the programme
    of “managing the earth as a whole economically” that
    Nietzsche talked about. As far as I can tell, the main
    part of Soddy’s plan is to disallow debts on which
    interest rise for eternity. Maybe not quite the same
    as getting rid of “stakeholders”, but the idea of
    making perpetual profits by dint of an initial investment
    is Soddy’s target. I don’t really know enough about
    macroeconomics to get much more into a critique.
    But on the level of broad outlines, I can say that
    Soddy ignores the fact that people tend to do
    “doublethink” about the rich; i.e., that we both
    respect and mistrust capital. I think Nietzsche is right,
    switching over to an integrated economic/engineering
    mode of life would “destroy mistrust of progress” —
    well, the whole idea of “progress” would change!
    Becoming, I think, more peer-produced and less
    Industrialist/Ivory Tower. It certainly would be less of
    a Triumph. It may be premature to say what it would
    be more of, however.

    (I’m thinking of the sculpture in what I think is the
    Philadelphia train station depicting the Triumph
    of progress; cf. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Roman_triumph)

    Comment by Joseph Corneli — September 4, 2009 @ 9:06 pm

  3. Anti-Semitism is just the most typical of ploys by which the real corporate predator distracts attention from himself.

    What you say about specialization and compartmentalization is true, typical, and unfortunate about this society.

    Starting with the educational system, and from there through every ramification of the economy we’re systematically prevented from developing and living as whole, integral human beings.

    That’s what you get when you commodify everything, turn men into commodities, make all of society into a Taylorian factory, and do it all so that a handful may accumulate a hoard of stolen wealth.

    Everything kleptocracy touches it infects with its evil. This system is simply institutionalized anti-humanity.

    Comment by Russ — September 5, 2009 @ 3:54 am

  4. […]   Before this we confront a pivotal question: can science and reason justify themselves?   2. In post 1 I explored Nietzsche’s flirtation with the self-justification of science in HH. As I said […]

    Pingback by Nietzsche and Science (Scientism 3 of 5) « Volatility — September 5, 2009 @ 4:17 am

RSS feed for comments on this post.

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

%d bloggers like this: