Sunday, August 01, 2010

Speaking for Nature

Awhile back I made the point that social construction is not arbitrary -- that is, when people talk about the social construction of knowledge, they don't generally mean that in such a way as to imply that knowledge can be just anything at all -- a point which seems to elude many participants in the science wars. Also, I commented on the Climategate affair, noting that it was a pretty good example of the Latourian view of science -- exposing the messy human processes by which scientific knowledge is made. Well, I have Bruno Latour right here and he agrees with me on both counts:
What I found so ironic in the hysterical reactions of scientists and the press [to Climategate] was the almost complete agreement of opponents and proponents of the anthropogenic origin of climate change. They all seem to share the same idealistic view of Science (capital S): "If it slowly composed, it cannot be true" said the skeptics; "If we reveal how it is composed, said the proponents, it will be discussed, thus disputable, thus it cannot be true either!". After about thirty years of work in science studies, it is more than embarrassing to see that scientists had no better epistemology to rebut their adversaries. They kept using the old opposition between what is constructed and what is not constructed, instead of the slight but crucial difference between what is well and what is badly constructed (or composed).
from An attempt at writing a "Compositionist Manifesto" (pdf)

And, in the first chapter of his book Pandora's Hope, he pokes fun at those who seem to doubt that he believes in reality:
Has reality truly become something that people have to believe in, I wondered, the answer to a serious question asked in a hushed and embarrased tone? Is reality something like God, the topic of a confession reached after a long and initimate discussion? Are there people on earth who don't believe in reality? ... I could not get over the strangeness of the question...If science studies has achieved anything, I thought, surely it has added reality to science, not withdrawn any from it. Instead of the stuffed scientists hanging on the walls of the armchair philosophers of science of the past, we have portrayed lively characters, immersed in their laboratories, full of passion, loaded with instruments, steeped in know-how, closely connected to a larger and more vibrant milieu.
I am kind of smitten with Latour lately, not sure why. He seems to have gone from anthropological studies of science that gleefully undermined naive notions of realism, to philosophizing on a much grander scale, where he attempts to undo the whole structure of modernity and undo mistakes that he traces all the way back to Socrates. And for a French philosopher, he's engaging, and usually quite comprehensible, although sometimes the abstractions veer off into the ether. Unlike many cultural theorists, it seems like he's trying to be clear rather than obfuscatory; he even includes a helpful glossary of his technical terms in the back pages of Pandora's Hope. But I can't quite figure out if he is useful, if these radical reconceptualizations have any implications or applications to how science and/or democracy is done.

One of his goals (as far as I understand it) is extending politics all the way down to the supposedly inanimate world of objects. Or more precisely (and this is exactly the kind of subtlety that confuses his critics), he wants to reveal the existing politics that inhere in our view of nature and society and the relations between them. Science, as it is while it is being constructed, is a set of networks that connect people, institutions, representations, and objects. These networks are often in political contention until one emerges as the victor and we now have Sicentific Knowledge with a capital letter. The connection to objects (aka "nature" or "reality") is crucial, of course, and it distinguishes science from mere politics. Social construction of science is not culture making up arbitrary stories; it's a way to let nature speak, to enter into discourse and society.


But Latour goes beyond this. He's not willing to let science take the role of spokesman for nature (which reduces nature itself to an inarticulate and lifeless thing), but wants nature and objects to not only speak for themselves, but act for themselves. Hence his idea of actants to describe the various human and non-human entities that form networks of knowledge and influence. The BRAF gene (eg) is just as much an actor, with goals and interests of its own, as the scientists to work to uncover its functions.

This sounds a bit crazy, but less so on reflection. From the strict materialist viewpoint, there are no actors and actions, just a seamless web of strictly deterministic causality. The stories we tell about each other involving selves, beliefs, intentions, choices, and actions, are just so many useful fictions imposed over this clockwork reality. Given that, why is it any less legitimate to extend these stories to what we normally think of as the inanimate?

For the record, these issues have been obsessing me for awhile. A section of my long-ago dissertation (ostensibly about educational programming environments) dealt with the conceptual underpinnings of animacy and its role in computation. I've moved on professionally to other things but the ideas won't leave me alone, hence this blog.

14 comments:

Caledonian said...

Knowledge is not socially constructed. Period.

Our social agreement on what is correct is constructed - but that's not knowledge. It can be based on knowledge, but also based on other things. Which is precisely why arguing from social agreement is not valid.

mtraven said...

Thanks for commenting, even if you disagree it's nice to know someone is listening.

You seem to be confusing reality and knowledge. Reality is what it is; our knowledge of it is something else -- something that is uncertain, changing over time, and, because we have more of it today than we did 100 years ago, had to have come about somehow. You can argue whether "social construction" is the right way to characterize the process whereby new knowledge comes into being -- maybe it's not that social, maybe "discovery" is a more accurate term than "construction". But construction actually seems to capture the process of science better. Read any story of science (for example, "The Double Helix") and you can see this. The end product of science is new knowledge that wasn't there before, even if the reality it describes was, and bringing this new knowledge into being is a social process, with politics and all that other messy stuff.

Anonymous said...

Is mathematics "socially constructed"?

mtraven said...

Is mathematics "socially constructed"?

In the context of this discussion, yes. What do you think mathematicians do all day long?

Anonymous said...

We are not talking about what mathematicians do but about the nature of the truth with which they deal. Mathematics is not empirical, as the natural sciences are.

If I understand those who claim that science is a "social construct" right, they seem mainly interested in asserting there is such a thing as, say, "Islamic science," which is somehow distinct from other kinds of science by virtue of the social construction Muslims bring to it (see for example Seyyed Hossein Nasr) - or that there is a "feminist lens" on science - or some similar argument.

Clearly the quadratic formula or the Pythagorean theorem or any other mathematical truth is true and is proven to be so by the same deductions from the same postulates, regardless of whether the one doing it is or is not Muslim, female, or whatever. It is possible that there may be different perspectives on empirical propositions but it is hard to see how there can be on mathematics.

Moreover, being aprioristic, mathematical knowledge was always there; it might be deduced at any time or place from first principles, and is not dependent on any "process whereby new knowledge comes into being," which arguably could exist in the case of empirical knowledge arrived at a posteriori through experiment or controlled observation.

mtraven said...

We are not talking about what mathematicians do...

Speak for yourself.

Most mathematicians are platonists, meaning they view themselves as exploring and describing a pre-existing world of mathematical objects. Insofar as this is accurate, they operate much like natural scientists.

If I understand those who claim that science is a "social construct" right, they seem mainly interested in asserting there is such a thing as, say, "Islamic science"...

Some do. That's not really what Latour is about.

It is possible that there may be different perspectives on empirical propositions but it is hard to see how there can be on mathematics.

There is an entire field of study about this (ethnomathematics).

I think what you are getting at is largely correct. That the real world constrains what scientific theories will be successful, that even different cultures will converge on the same theories, and mathematics is the most constrained and convergent of all. But that doesn't alter the facts of social construction. As I said in the first link, social construction does not mean that anybody can invent anything they want.

Anonymous said...

Quite the contrary - mathematics is not constrained by the "real world" - what Kant called the noumenon - but by its purely formal, axiomatic, aprioristic character. Systems of axiomatic mathematics can and do exist without evident connection to what Kant called phaenomena, i.e., human perceptions of the real world. See Riemann and Hilbert.

Caledonian said...

You seem to be confusing reality and knowledge. Reality is what it is; our knowledge of it is something else -- something that is uncertain, changing over time, and, because we have more of it today than we did 100 years ago, had to have come about somehow. Do not confuse knowledge and belief.

in the context of this discussion, yes. What do you think mathematicians do all day long? No. Mathematicians get together to share their results, and even to cooperate on projects, but the work they do is not social construction.

"The correct side of the road to drive on" is a social construction. Do you understand the difference?

Caledonian said...

btw, Anonymous, you're wrong about math. It's as empirical as any other of the sciences. It is precisely because it's empirical that it's so free of cultural issues.

Fields composed of statements whose truth values depend only on the opinions of humans vary wildly by culture and even within them, for all the obvious reasons. Fields composed of statements whose truth depends on reality converge and are the same no matter which culture investigates them.

mtraven said...

Do not confuse knowledge and belief.

What's the difference? Haven't you been exposed to enough Bayesians on the net to know that knowledge is just beliefs with a high enough P? Mathematical knowledge excepted, perhaps.

Latour is pretty far from a Bayesian but I just realized there's interesting parallels between the approaches. Where Bayesians talk about networks of beliefs, Latour talks about networks of actants. Latour's networks are spread through society and nature rather than being a mathematical abstraction. But both kinds of networks are in the business of solidifying beliefs, or turning beliefs into knowledge by raising their strength.

No. Mathematicians get together to share their results, and even to cooperate on projects, but the work they do is not social construction.

Humans are social animals and everything they do is rooted in the social -- even the most asocial mathematician (Grigori Perelman, maybe?) is building on the work of others.

Whether what mathematicians and scientists are engaged in is better described as "construction" or "discovery" is a more interesting point. I find the constructionist viewpoint illuminating. If you don't, that's OK with me, but flatly telling me I'm wrong is probably not going to get very far, since I daresay I've thought about these things quite as much as you have.

Caledonian said...

What matters isn't how much thought has been given to the subject, but which position is correct.

Yours is not.

From the Wikipedia discussion of social constructionism: When we say that something is socially constructed, we are focusing on its dependence on contingent variables of our social selves rather than any inherent quality that it possesses in itself.

Knowledge is never socially constructed, because knowledge is derived from the natures of facts and their interrelationships. A map of the mountains, with its arbitrary symbolic representations, is socially constructed. The mountains themselves are not constructed, socially or otherwise.

Systems of thought are constructed. The things those systems are about, aren't. Mathematics cannot be made other than what it is on the most fundamental level. Like all other empirical disciplines, it concerns objectively observable realities.

mtraven said...

What matters isn't how much thought has been given to the subject, but which position is correct. Yours is not.

Let's say you are right. Do you think you are going to convince me by flatly stating I'm wrong? Try presenting some arguments and engaging with what I'm actually saying, rather than your misinterpretations of it. That's how the game is played.

Wikipedia can be a very useful resource but it doesn't substitute for actual understanding of the issues.

Knowledge is never socially constructed, because knowledge is derived from the natures of facts and their interrelationships. A map of the mountains, with its arbitrary symbolic representations, is socially constructed. The mountains themselves are not constructed, socially or otherwise...Systems of thought are constructed. The things those systems are about, aren't.

You seem to be agreeing with me, except maybe you have some weird definition of "knowledge" that is different from "systems of thought" and "maps" and "arbitrary symbolic representations", but is also different from reality. But it's "derived" from reality. Who do you think does this deriving? How do you think it happens? What do you think it's composed of?

I'm going to drop this conversation unless I detect a minimal effort from you to understand what it's about.

Anonymous said...

Caledonian - there is indeed a disagreement amongst mathematicians about whether their discipline has anything to do with empirical (a posteriori) knowledge. Clerk Maxwell was a realist - his mathematical work was undertaken with the intention of applying it to certain problems of physics, which is an empirical discipline. On the other hand, Hilbert was a formalist who viewed mathematics solely as a set of axiomatic systems.

It is perhaps an indication of the nature of mathematical truth that the intentions and motivations of the two mathematicians, different as they were, made no difference to the application of their work to real-world questions. For all his realism, the full implications of Maxwell's equations for such questions were not realized until well after his death. Despite his formalism, Hilbert began to focus on physics after having established himself as a pure mathematician. He published an axiomatic derivation of the field equations at nearly the same time as Einstein, and made essential contributions to quantum mechanics that were recognized as such during his lifetime.

The essential difference between mathematics and the natural sciences is that theorems of mathematics can be proved, whereas theories of natural science can only be disproved. You would not say that mathematics was empirical if you understood the nature of proof.

exuberance said...

I love Latour, he's where I learned to treat the project and it's parts as a full fledged actor; as difficult as the other participants.

http://niemann.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/05/25/the-haunted-household/