State of Science 1: Putting objectivity in its place

February 26, 2016 – 4:37 pm

In my consideration of science and its place, it seems unfortunate, but necessary, to start with the notion of objectivity, its relation to the terms “fact” and “truth”, and the place that this kind of knowledge has in our overall intellectual and consensual economy. If we fail to adopt at least remotely similar relations with respect to this mode of knowing, then our subsequent discussions will surely be pointless.

Most science is done in an objective key. In this key, it is axiomatic that matters of fact can be established that depend upon no mind, opinion, or belief.  At its simplest, this is an admirable framework for pointing out the obvious.  The stars appear above our head at night, and rotate around the northern celestial pole, and it is obvious that no conceptual disagreement between you and me will alter that fact.  In fact, this framework works at its best when we contemplate the elements in the night sky, all of which are vastly removed from our earth-bound circumstances.  You and I each stand in pretty much the same relation to the stars, and consensus is thus possible.  The triumphs of this framework are indeed to be located first and foremost in it success at predicting the trajectories of bodies in outer space (including some we have thrown up there ourselves).

Physics and most of Chemistry are done entirely in an objective key. In order to conduct such science, it is necessary for practitioners to agree on what a measurement is.  Once that is established, we can develop theories that seek to make sense of the act of measurement.  Measurement has been refined to an almost unbelievable degree of accuracy within physics.  Recent measurements confirming the existence of gravitational waves used specialised detectors that registered motion of less than 1/1000000000000000000th of a meter.  That’s far less than the diameter of a single atom. Importantly, when dealing with the measurement of distance, there is little problem in reaching agreement about what a measurement is.  We use dials and scales of various kinds of sophistication, but ultimately we get a single number and we understand this number because we have a grasp of the concept of length.  Our understanding of length comes from our experience of space.  The measurement is closely related to our experience.  This is the case, even when the actual distance measured is so very far removed from our experience, as in measuring the ripples from gravitational waves to draw inference about colliding black holes very far away.

But the alignment of experience necessary to achieve consensus is not always an easy matter.  Things would be so much simpler if we all simply shared the same set of concepts with which we made sense of the world.  When it comes to the notion of spatial extension, or length, we probably do.  That is to say, we have reason to believe that any being possessed of a roughly human-like body, with a characteristic set of human-like experiences, will come to the view that length is the kind of thing that can be measured reliably.  If measurement of length were all we needed to shore up our theories, there is every reason to think we might some day reach a universal consensus, a catalogue of facts, and an account of that which exists.  But as we venture into the sciences of the living, the psychological, and the social, this grounds for consensus rapidly vanishes.

The sciences of the living are fundamentally different from the kind of physics and chemistry just discussed (which is why I excluded some of chemistry: the chemistry of life).  It is not possible to understand living entities with the same degree of disinterest as that with which we observe the stars.  Biology cannot be regarded as an extension of chemistry and physics.  When we study the living, there is a need to acknowledge the perspective of the living subject that is entirely foreign to science in an objective key.  We can illustrate this simply first with consideration of the need to describe function within biology.

It is hardly worth arguing that it is useful to recognize, in the heart, a specific function, viz. acting as a pump in the circulation of the blood within a living body. This mode of interpretation is necessary in biology, and it is foreign to science in an objective key.  In the domain of physics, or inorganic chemistry, there is neither need, nor sense, in appealing to the notion of function.  Nothing, in the objective mode of description, can be coherently said to be for anything else.  Copper is not for sulphur, the orbit of the moon is not for tides, nor for planet Earth.  But biology deals with organisms, and the background assumption of the continued integrity of the organism as a viable entity licenses, and makes necessary, the attribution of function to the heart.  It is our shared understanding of the perspective of the living organism as an entity that endures that makes this possible.

I chose the heart as an example precisely because it is not terribly controversial, yet it illustrates the need for shared framing and agreed assumptions among observers.  Much like the notion of length, it is hard to imagine a person to whom the concept of a viable organism does not make sense, and so there is here a basis for consensus.

But many things observable among the living are not quite as straightforward to understand. Much of what any given organism does is not readily interpretable with respect to the continued viability of the individual life form.  To take a simple and well-worn example, ants within a colony adopt specialised roles such as worker, soldier, nurse, queen, etc., and much of their behaviour makes sense with respect to the continued viability of the colony, but not the individual.  This simple two-level form of organisation is characteristic of eusocial insects (and naked mole rats, as a mammalian example).  In many respects, the ant here is in a similar relation to the colony as the heart is to the body.  Interpreting the activity of the component is only possible with reference to the normative reference frame of the system within which it is embedded.

This situation is still vastly more simple than anything that might be pertinent to human behaviour.  And all humans live enmeshed in many intricate webs of social relations, far exceeding the black-and-white distinction of colony and worker ant.  We are workers, family members, partners, friends, club members, soldiers, citizens, fans, and much more. Some of these collectives are relatively enduring, others are transient, as when I start up a brief conversation with a stranger, thereby bringing a novel dyadic coordination into being. Now any halfway satisfactory answer to a “why” question must rely on some of the innumerable possible framing conditions that license the use of “function” or “purpose”.  Now the confidence that we are employing similar, or even commensurable, framing assumptions in our projection of agency, intention, purpose, and rationality onto our observations dissipates like smoke.  And now the excellent utility of science that allowed us to work together to steer a spaceship to a remote destination crumbles, and all our science seems unable to help us in the regulation of our human business.  Wars, injustice, misery, confusion abound; we are faced with a planet which is changing in a manner that we have no meaningful control over, and no mountain of “evidence based research” seems to be capable of allowing anything like an effective coordination.

The Chilean biologist, Humberto Maturana, has described1 “science in an objective key” as “objectivity without parenthesis”, and contrasted this with the kind of discussion that demands negotiation to establish common ground, which he terms “objectivity-in-parenthesis”.  Maturana’s use of language is self-consciously idiosyncratic, not least by virtue of internal consistency extending over many years of writing.  This laudable internal consistency has as an inevitable corollary that it is difficult to extend his insights to the practice of science in many other domains, where science is done in an objective key, even when this is no longer appropriate.  At least one offshoot of Maturana’s scientific practice and theory of autopoiesis is the theory of enaction2, as developed through the work of Francisco Varela and, more recently, Ezequiel Di Paulo (and many others). This work has parted company3 with many of Maturana’s original proposals, notably through the reliance upon phenomenological concerns, the use of teleological explanation, and the attribution of agency to some classes of systems, but not others. In subsequent posts in this series I will examine the manner in which science as conducted by living beings for living beings needs a corrective if it is to live up to its potential as a means for grounding consensus that is of use to the living. I will make use of much of the technical armoury of enactive theory, but will be intent upon questioning its appropriateness for science conducted among and for the living.


[1] Maturana, H. R. (1988). Reality: The search for objectivity or the quest for a compelling argument. The Irish journal of psychology, 9(1), 25-82.

[2] Stewart, J. R., Gapenne, O., & Di Paolo, E. A. (2010). Enaction: Toward a new paradigm for cognitive science. MIT Press.

[3] Villalobos, M., & Ward, D. (2015). Living systems: Autonomy, autopoiesis and enaction. Philosophy & Technology, 28(2), 225-239.

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