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We just don't seem to know what to do with scientists. One day we are conjuring up images of drooling maniacs in white coats, leaning over bubbling test-tubes, and fiddling with things that, frankly, should not be fiddled with; the next we are imagining wise old sages who speak from unfathomable depths of understanding about those things that have been, those things that are, and those things that will be. And whilst scientists may complain about this Janus-faced perception (or, at very least, feel frustrated by the image of scientist as drooling maniac), Peter Dear's book The Intelligibility of Nature: How Science Makes Sense of the World suggests that this is a perception not limited only to Hollywood blockbusters and tabloid newspapers, but instead is born out of a deeper-rooted tension in the ideology of the sciences.
Dear's book begins by drawing a distinction between science as natural philosophy and science as instrumentality. Under the guise of natural philosopher, the scientist appears in our culture as a high priest of nature, a disinterested observer of the universe who can communicate deep truths about the way things are. Stephen Hawking's claim that, were we to discover a complete theory of everything, we would then know the mind of God, is almost the locus classicus of this perception of scientist as priest. Yet, as Dear points out, there is another face of science, for science is also about "power over matter, and, indirectly, power over people." Scientists are not just disinterested observers, but they also frequently work to achieve various practical ends. And a glance at the allocation of research funding in countries across the world suggests that many of these practical ends – born out of corporate, government or military interests – are ones that are, ethically speaking, somewhat murky.
Dear's book is an attempt to deconstruct the apparent straightforwardness of the relationship between science as natural philosophy and science as instrumentality by means of an historical analysis of some of the key moments in the development of the sciences. In the first chapter, he considers the rise of mechanistic philosophy from the sixteenth century onwards and the historical development of the philosophical conflation of instrumentality and natural philosophy. This is followed in the second chapter by an account of the development in the eighteenth century of systems of classification of the things in a world-picture in which there is established a "place for everything." Chapter three considers the chemical revolution and is followed, in chapter four, by a consideration of the implications of Darwin's thinking for overturning the kind of teleological models that date back as far as Aristotle. In chapter five, Dear turns his attention to the relationship between the physical sciences in the nineteenth century and the Industrial Revolution. Finally, the sixth chapter plunges into the world of quantum weirdness, a world in which the intelligibility itself needs to be recast, no longer as a matter of picturing the world, but rather as a matter of building models that, even if they cannot be pictured, nevertheless make the sums turn out right.
Dear concludes with the claim that there is a formal inconsistency between "science as natural philosophy" and "science as instrumentality", if only because the former sees instrumentality as the natural product of the truth of science, and the latter sees truth as justified by science's ability to attain practical results. This, he writes, leads to a vicious circle; and hiding within this circle can be found the play of forms of power that may, at best, be questionable. It is perhaps only towards the beginning and the end of Dear's book that his larger purposes become clear; for this
is not just an academic exercise in the history of science, but is also an attempt to take to task a kind of duplicity in contemporary presentations of science, and to call into question the way that this duplicity masks power relationships that function all too frequently to our collective detriment.
However, not all circles are vicious. The sciences may indeed proceed by pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps, yet this kind of bootstrapping may not be quite as problematic as Dear suggests. Surely, we might protest, the sciences – with their Janus-like concern with instrumentality on the one hand and natural philosophy on the other – are indeed successful on both counts, and even if the two faces do not look in the same direction, they are at least attached to one and the same head. Dear's critique of the ends to which science as instrumentality is put is no doubt important and urgent, but his critique of the success of science as natural philosophy is less convincing. Whilst he does not dismiss the possibility that there can be progress in the natural-philosophical understanding of the world gleaned through the sciences, Dear asserts that if there is progress, then it does not take the form of an ever-closer approximation to a true picture of things. Really? The ether may have come and gone, as may have billiard-ball Newtonian atoms, and today's grand theories are no doubt only provisional; yet it is precisely because of the patient efforts of natural philosophers who have pointed their spectroscopes at the stars, who have lain on their bellies on the savannah for hours on end squinting at insects so small and curious that they have been hitherto overlooked, or who have spent their days hurling even more minute particles at each other at considerable speed, that we know a vast amount more than we ever have about the universe and about our place in it. A robust defense of this progress in knowledge and understanding neither rules out a recognition that the relationship between science as natural philosophy and science as instrumentality is less than straightforward, nor does it rule out the urgent need for a critique of the often frankly dubious ends and purposes to which this instrumental enterprise is put.
Dear is surely right, however, to raise the question of the dubious moral nature of much that goes under the banner of "science as instrumentality." For on this particular subject, most of our public advocates of the sciences are lamentably silent, taking refuge instead in claims that they are mere natural philosophers, whilst turning a blind eye to the very real questions of power and responsibility that are bound up with the complex cultural and intellectual exercise that we designate with the term "science".
© 2009 Will Buckingham
Will Buckingham holds a PhD in philosophy from Staffordshire University and currently teaches in the Department of English and Creative Writing at De Montfort University, Leicester, UK. His novel, Cargo Fever, is published by Tindal Street Press