The New Picture of the World 2
Earth’s Twilight — Chapter 05.2
Knowledge and Power
It falls to pieces, therefore, the assumption that gave momentum and character to modernity:
the quest for a theory that would allow mankind to understand and predict the behavior of the physical universe.
The endeavor appeared to be within human range in the century of Galileo an Descartes. The world resembled, to their eyes, to a huge mechanical clock. In a memorable page, Descartes narrates how, while strolling inside the king’s gardens, he was struck by some automata running on a simple clockwork.
His obsession became to explain the complexity physical world by reducing it to the simple machinery of such robots.
This method seemed so functional that in the last years of his life he tried to extend it to the human person, both as biological organism and moral subject. Human passions, brought down to six primitive drives, were, in Descartes’ mind, nothing but particular motions of the ‘human machine’.
Descartes’ mechanistic doctrine, that simplified the interaction dynamic between bodies to the collision of one mass against the other, left too many aspects unexplained, as the activity of the mind upon one’s body or the relation between two distant ones. To overcome the latter issue came Newton’s gravitational theorem, for which two bodies attract each other with a force that is directly proportional to the product of their masses and inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them.
The mechanistic project seemed to be proven successful, freeing the world from the last shadows of irrationality.
It’s clear how beneath the surface of the presumed coincidence between Reason and Cosmos were secretly appeased aspirations of another kind. Francis Bacon’s famous equation between knowledge and power could be finally fulfilled. In his well known passage about the Prince of ‘Nature-Female’, Bacon maintains
“she must be taken by the forelock”, “bidden to your service” and “made your slave”. The goal of the scientist was to “put her on a rack”, and to “torture Nature’s secrets out of her”.
That’s how knowledge becomes power: by revealing its secrets, nature becomes subjugated by mankind
whose ideal virtue is that of absolute intelligence, instrument of absolute domination, Laplace’s demon: “An intellect which at a certain moment would know all forces that set nature in motion, and all positions of all items of which nature is composed, if this intellect were also vast enough to submit these data to analysis, it would embrace in a single formula the movements of the greatest bodies of the universe and those of the tiniest atom; for such an intellect nothing would be uncertain and the future just like the past would be present before its eyes”.
Can we spot the connection of this pretentious ideology both with the 18th century’s technological revolution, which translated the new knowledge into new merchandise, and at the same time with the colonialist expansion of the European nations, whose power had meanwhile passed in the hands of the entrepreneurial bourgeoisie?
The same aspiration – an absolute dominion of Reason upon the world – would find its definitive seal in Hegel’s epistemology, at the beginnings of the 19th century:
all that is rational is real, and all that is real is rational.
It doesn’t really matter if Hegel’s Reason differed from Descartes’: they both refer to the same ‘spirit of the ages’, aiming at the reduction of all physical and historical reality under the rule of the Kingdom of Man. As in Newton’s physical universe the supreme reason of God and the reason of Man coincide, in Hegel’s historical universe the European domination assumes the legitimacy of absolute Reason: the history of this tiny headland of the Eurasian continent becomes the History of the World.
The axiom that stands before our science and philosophy is neither scientific nor philosophically accurate, it predates the research methodology and preconditions it horizon.
The cognitive paradigm of the modern era was in fact born from this combination of pure research and predetermined horizon.
It’s important to stress that even in this case modernity was not completely univocal. In the last glimpse of the 19th century, in the field of mathematical research, the classical geometrical model was challenged by a number of non-euclidean alternatives, the foundations of knowledge were questioned in a radical way, and in physics, after the discovery of infra-atomic motion, even the uniformity of mechanical laws on the different levels of reality was contested.
The modern paradigm collapsed under the deadly blows of the same experimental method that had once aided its own birth.
Einstein’s Relativity is also to be considered part of modernity, since it still aims at explaining rationally the universe with a single grand-unified Theory.
But in practice Einstein was able to break up the central core of modern epistemology,
that of the separateness of time and space, by placing both in a 4-dimensional continuum totally incompatible with the old mechanistic model.
The immediate consequence of this step was the revelation of the intimate bond between matter and energy: mass is energy, and energy has a mass.
In the wake of Einstein was then the turn of quantum theory, the set of statistical laws that apparently govern the interaction between the smallest subatomic particles.
Not only they exclude any mechanistic determinism, with the uncertainty principle they introduce a new powerful concept:
the interaction between observer and object,
upon which the post-modern paradigm was built .
“In the classical theories — explains Heisenberg, who formulated the principle – this interaction would be considered negligibly small or controllable, as if were possible to later correct its inference through calculus. In atomic physics this admission is not permitted, since, because of the discontinuity between atomic events, any interaction can produce partially uncontrollable variations of relevant size at all times”.
The acknowledgment of the reciprocal involvement between subject and object during an observation is the decisive step towards overcoming our misleading rationalistic bias by down-scaling ‘human reason’ to a temporary stage in the evolutionary path of our awareness.
The turning point
Einstein never gave up the hope of finding a unified deterministic theory of the cosmos able to integrate both the universal macro-laws and the micro-dynamics of the quanta. While being the father of relativity, he held tight to the fundamental principle of western positivist thought, from Aristotle to Laplace:
the world is given some fixed rules and human reason will be able to figure them out, regardless of any randomly occurring interference.
But in the second half of the last century, as more study and research was carried out outside the biosphere, the scientific consensus abandoned the chimera of a definitive theory and started aiming at something more humble: to produce theories that cannot be proven true, and can be held valid only until they are falsified by new decisive experiments. It’s Karl Popper’s thesis, that his followers in recent years have carried on to the brink of anarchy.
“From the amoeba to Einstein, the growth of knowledge is always the same: we try to solve our problems, and to obtain, by a process of elimination, something approaching adequacy in our tentative solution”.
The research of a theoretical solution follows, for Popper, the same approach chosen by the living organisms (as an amoeba) in the adaptation processes. If we look at it in its three fundamental levels – genetic, behavioral and cognitive – this adaptation sets out from preordained structures such as the genetic code, the repertoire of behaviors handed down by the tradition, the dominant theories, upon which it attempts new responses to the environmental stimuli.
The ones that prove more true are the ones that best react to the challenge, and are mostly achieved by trial and error, hence by provisional solutions progressively ‘falsified’ and corrected by the experience.
A historical perspective proves that this is the case for the whole scientific discourse.
As the perspective changes – and the perspective changes each time the social conditions evolve – both the cognitive horizon and paradigm follow. Gregory Bateson would repeat that every human thinks “through stories”, and thus always thinks from within a certain historical situation and while it believes to describe reality as it is, it is merely interpreting its appearance according to a particular nexus between history and context.
There’s no escaping history, especially when, with the presumption of pure academic research, it is formally put in brackets.
The historicity of every paradigm derives from the fact that the researcher always has before him a society to which it belongs and from whom it assumes the contingent anthropological standard as his own point of view.