The Postdigital Human: Making the History of the Future
Steve Fuller is Auguste Comte Professor of Social Epistemology in the Department of Sociology at the University of Warwick, UK. A product of Jesuit education (Regis High School in New York City), Steve was a John Jay Scholar at Columbia University where he graduated number two in his class of 1979. Columbia awarded Steve a Kellett Fellowship to study at Cambridge University for what turned out to be two of the most decisive years in recent British history (1979–1981). He subsequently earned an M.Phil. in history and philosophy of science, which he followed up with a Ph.D. at the University of Pittsburgh, where he was an Andrew Mellon Fellow. He was awarded a D.Litt. by the University of Warwick in 2007 for sustained lifelong contributions to scholarship. He is also a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, the UK Academy of Social Sciences, and the European Academy of Sciences and Arts.
Steve is best known for his foundational work in the field of ‘social epistemology’, which is the name of the quarterly journal published by Taylor & Francis that he founded in 1987 as well as the first of his more than 20 books. Steve has pursued social epistemology as a profoundly interdisciplinary project, which simultaneously upholds the normative ambitions of philosophy while remaining accountable to the empirical and historical disciplines. Whereas other philosophers of science have associated their ‘normative’ positions with science’s status quo, Steve has drawn inspiration from Karl Popper who saw science as always testing its most cherished assumptions against the evidence. This has led him into some relatively uncharted domains, starting with his active participation in the ‘Science Wars’ in the 1990s, the revival of intelligent design theory, and a robust defence of public intellectuals against the claims of academic expertise.
From 2011 to 2014 Steve published a trilogy relating to the idea of a ‘post-’ or ‘trans-’ human future: Humanity 2.0: What It Means to Be Human Past, Present and Future (Fuller 2011), Preparing for Life in Humanity 2.0 (Fuller 2013), and The Proactionary Imperative: A Foundation for Transhumanism (Fuller and Lipinska 2014). His most recent books are Knowledge: The Philosophical Quest in History (2015a), The Academic Caesar (2016a), and Post-Truth: Knowledge as a Power Game (2018). Steve’s works have been translated into over 20 languages.
About the Conversation
In December 2017 Petar Jandrić emailed Steve Fuller with an idea for this conversation. Steve wanted to converse in writing, so the conversation was conducted through numerous email exchanges between December 2017 and June 2018.
Mapping the Soul of Science
Petar Jandrić (PJ): Please outline the main Science Wars of our times. “As a veteran of these Science Wars” (Fuller 1999: 243), what do you think of their impact and legacy? To paraphrase the title of your 1999 article, “who is exactly the enemy” and who gets the most benefit from Science Wars?
Steve Fuller (SF): The original Science Wars, which occurred in the 1990s, were perhaps an inevitable consequence of the post-Cold War meltdown in government science support around the world. People now forget that the Cold War consisted to a large extent of various science-and-technology-based ‘races’ (e.g. to build smarter missiles, to get to the Moon first) that were basically proxy battle theatres played out on the international stage. Once the Soviet Union fell, science lost that taken for granted primacy, which was most immediately felt in quick shift in funding patterns from physics to biomedicine, from public to private, and – philosophically speaking – from global unity of science projects to locally embedded knowledge practices.
From that standpoint, the emerging field of science and technology studies (STS) was an obvious lightning rod since its generally social constructivist orientation was instrumental – even at the policy level – in demystifying a lot of the more extravagant claims that leaders in the scientific community were making on the public even after the Cold War had ended. What we see now is simply an intensification of that tendency – in ways that have frightened such older STS scholars as Bruno Latour and Donna Haraway. They openly regret the current wave of what I have called ‘Protscience’ (‘Protestant science’) or ‘customised science’ as going a step too far beyond the locally embedded science that they had advocated (Fuller 2015b). What this means in practice is that the STS folks are scandalised that alt-right ideologues, creationists and anti-vaccinationists have joined the ranks of more politically correct minority voices to turn science – and its critique – to their advantage.
I personally don’t have a problem with this turn of events. If STS is any good as a form of inquiry, its findings and methods should be capable of serving both the politically correct and the politically incorrect. If that isn’t a good working definition of ‘scientific objectivity’, I don’t know what is.
PJ: Your book Kuhn vs. Popper carries a telling subtitle The Struggle for the Soul of Science (Fuller 2003). What, for you, is the soul of science?
SF: The ‘soul of science’ simply means what science is ultimately about. Kuhn saw it as primarily the collective activity of the self-recognising professional science community, which the rest of society may wish to support and whose fruits it may wish to use. But all of this is in the spirit of recognising the autonomy of science as an institution from the rest of society. Popper’s view is that what we normally call ‘science’ is simply a more technically rigorous and extended version of critical rationality more generally. In that respect, science knows no institutional boundaries – and indeed, as Popper’s radical follower, Paul Feyerabend maintained, science’s institutional arrangements may impede the flourishing of the scientific spirit. Anyone can in principle treat their beliefs scientifically, if s/he subjects them to strong tests of validity.
PJ: The soul of science, then, is closely related to the way we do science. What is social epistemology? What are its main advantages over older traditions such as analytic philosophy; what are its main drawbacks?
SF: Social epistemology is first of all an interdisciplinary project that basically tries to address normative philosophical questions about the nature of knowledge by considering history and the social sciences. When I came up with the idea in the mid-1980s, I wanted to address two problems at once – the tendency of analytic philosophers to see the ‘social’ as simply some aggregated version of individual epistemology and the tendency of sociologists of knowledge (including STS people) to discount normative issues altogether and simply describe past or present knowledge practices.
When I say ‘normative’ I simply mean a concern with how things ought to be done – ‘performance standards’, if you will: What makes something better or worse at what it does, and what contributes to its improvement or decline. Many philosophical disciplines, including logic, epistemology, ethics, law, aesthetics, have been traditionally normative in orientation. A good way to see this is that these disciplines are critical of what passes for ‘normal’ in, say, human interaction, reasoning, or art.
Analytic philosophy also aspires to be ‘normative’ in this sense but its prescriptions – the practical side of normativity – are hopelessly naïve or unworkable. And here I mean not only its rather self-serving notions of what counts as ‘good evidence’ and ‘sound reasoning’ for knowledge claims (which are usually biased in favour of dominant paradigms) but also its easy deference to concepts like trust, which effectively licences the offloading of epistemic judgement to experts – be they based on scientific or indigenous knowledge. Sometimes analytic social epistemologists give the impression that a more complex social world allows the individual to take less responsibility. This profoundly goes against the Protestantised/customised science trend mentioned earlier, which is all about people taking back control of science by integrating their version of science into their lives.
I am sometimes accused of being too harsh about analytic philosophers, but they operate with such narrow normative horizons – basically propping up the current knowledge system (perhaps by adding a few more countervailing, typically ‘politically correct’ voices) – that they are virtually useless when it comes to charting the future course of organised inquiry, which I think is the ultimate payoff of anything deserving the name ‘social epistemology’.
PJ: According to Collin, your approach to STS is different from mainstream:
A philosopher and historian of science by training, Steve Fuller operates at a meta-level in relation to the rest of STS’s main figures. Rather than illuminating the development of natural science by means of empirical case-studies of his own making, Fuller undertakes a historico-critical survey of the development of STS itself and offers advice concerning its future development. (Collin 2011: 167)
What draws you towards this approach? What are its main advantages and drawbacks?
SF: That’s one of the most perceptive things that Collin has said about my work. It does indeed operate at a meta-level to STS, and that’s one reason why I’m not too upset by the Science Wars – past and present. If STS routinely makes radically demystifying claims about any science or technology it touches, then it shouldn’t be surprised that people take them seriously. In 1990s, STS people thought they were being attacked unfairly by scientists, and nowadays they think that they are being used unfairly by Hillary Clinton’s ‘basket of deplorables’. Both complaints show a general meta-level cluelessness by STS people.
For me, the main advantage of adopting a meta-level perspective is that it keeps one aware that the validity that any move that one makes in a language game depends on what the players take the game to be. Social constructivism as a world-view says that there are potentially multiple games in play at once, as players struggle simultaneously to determine the game they are playing and, as a consequence, who is winning and losing according to its rules. In my most recent book, I basically define the ‘post-truth condition’ in these terms. This is quite different from classic conceptions of relativism, which start with a fairly well-bounded sense of the field of play – i.e. a society or culture, relative to which something is then true or false.
PJ: According to Collin, your social epistemology is normative and naturalistic (2011: 167–168). You already addressed the ‘normative’ part, what do you mean by ‘naturalistic’? More generally, what is the task of social epistemology?
SF: ‘Naturalistic’ simply means that I take historical and empirical research as setting prima facie constraints on the norms of organised inquiry. I say prima facie because those constraints may be removed or mitigated in various ways. Indeed, this is to be expected in any ‘scientifically’ organised inquiry. In my second book, Philosophy of Science and Its Discontents (Fuller 1989/1993), I describe myself as a ‘reflexive naturalist’, by which I mean a naturalist who takes seriously science’s historical tendency to radically overturn its most fundamental theories, even as it accepts the data that informs them. To put the point somewhat paradoxically, if science is our best form of knowledge, then one of the biggest lessons it teaches is that knowers need to be prepared for radical changes of mind over time. Even if Popper didn’t capture the psychology of individual working scientists – who prefer to confirm than falsify their theories – he did capture the meta-psychology of scientific inquiry as a collective movement.
As a historical aside, it is worth observing that the older style of ‘naturalism’ represented by, say, the American pragmatists and the original historians and philosophers of science (i.e. the so-called ‘evolutionary epistemologies’ of Donald Campbell, Stephen Toulmin, Dudley Shapere, David Hull, etc.) was very much in the spirit of what I’m talking about here – namely, that science not only teaches us about the world but it also teaches us about how we learn about the world. It does what logicians call ‘first order’ and ‘second order’ work simultaneously. By highlighting this reflexive dimension, ‘naturalism’ functioned as a kind of secularised Hegelianism (this certainly explains Peirce and Dewey). However, latter-day ‘naturalists’, typically enamoured of evolutionary psychology and sometimes retro-fitted with Neo-Aristotelian ‘virtue’ thinking, tend towards a more static and even ‘essentialist’ view of ‘human nature’, in which the recognition of our limitations takes precedent over our overcoming them. In this context, self-avowed liberals and conservatives, such as, say, Steven Pinker and Alastair MacIntyre, respectively, find themselves in common cause.
Put another way, I accept that Kant’s slogan, ‘ought implies can’ can mean one of two things: either that people shouldn’t be held to moral standards that they could never reach or that the standards are sufficiently good in themselves that the barriers to reaching them should be removed. The more conservative former interpretation of Kant’s maxim was promoted in my early career by Alvin Goldman and Ronald Giere, typically as part of a definition of ‘naturalised epistemology’, which following Quine, always presumed the continuity of humans and animals. I fear that evolutionary psychologists have given a sexy gloss to this position for a new generation. However, I became a transhumanist when I started to find the latter interpretation of Kant’s slogan more in the spirit of his largely smouldering revolutionary ambitions – which I think is also truer to the Hegelian roots of modern naturalism. It sees the relevant sense of ontological continuity as existing not between humans and animals but between humans and God.
The Battlefield of the Truth
PJ: What is your take on philosophical realism, and its close cousins, rationality and rational thinking?
SF: What all these terms have in common is the implicit appeal to a standard of judgement. I stress ‘implicit’ because the standard has become ‘naturalised’, ‘unconscious’, ‘taken for granted’, ‘presumed’ – choose your favourite term. In classical philosophy, Plato and Aristotle exemplified two types of realism, each with its own standard by which rationality was judged. For Plato the real is what the external world prompts us to remember, whereas for Aristotle the real is what the external world tells us to believe. Implied here are not only two rather different conceptions of rationality but more significantly two rather different conceptions of what the mind is for. In a sense, Plato thinks that the empirical world is simply the means by which we discover – if not exploit – the contents of our minds, which is the stuff of reality. This at once opens the door to both a highly instrumental and a highly idealised view of reality, a vision that I think has been most fully realised in the West in the history of technology, perhaps even more than the history of science. Aristotle, in contrast, thinks that the correspondence – or as we now tend to say, ‘adaptation’ – to the empirical world is the mark of a ‘realistic’ orientation to the world, in which ‘evidence’ plays a pivotal role as the anchor for what it means to be rational. In modern times, Franz Brentano understood this point very well. It helps to explain the curious affinity between Neo-Thomism and phenomenological approaches to philosophy, both of which aspire to this Aristotelian conception of realism and rationality.
On the Platonic conception of the real, science is about all that is possible, as in the realistic reading of scientific laws as implying counterfactually true statements, or ‘true in all possible worlds’. In contrast, on the Aristotelian conception of the real, science is only about that which is probable, as in the idea of scientific laws as mere inductive generalisations for limited domains of reality, a view upheld in our day by Nancy Cartwright. I’m on Plato’s side of this argument, which is open to a much more constructivist reading of the natural world – that is, as offering clues without corresponding to the real. In a sense, I believe the opposite of what Cartwright believes: I believe that the natural world as the object of our empirical knowledge is a model of all that is real, which in turn is all that is possible.
SF: No debate is ever fought on a level playing field. One side generally holds the presumption and the other bears the burden of proof. One of my earliest insights into social epistemology – drawing on my formal training in rhetoric, the intellectual historiography of the ‘Cambridge School’ surrounding Quentin Skinner, and the historicist philosophy of science of Kuhn and Toulmin – was that incommensurability between paradigms, cultures, historical periods, etc. typically had less to with a radical difference in ideas per se than a radical difference in the plausibility attributed to the ideas. In other words, epistemologically speaking, what’s at stake is less about comprehension than imagination. Were Aristotle to travel in time to the present, he could certainly be taught to understand the basis on which we pursue, say, space travel or nuclear energy, while at the same time questioning what we might loosely call its ‘wisdom’. In other words, were he among us now, Aristotle would probably sound like ‘precautionary’ thinkers who think that humanity is on borrowed time and setting itself up for a massive fall, if it continues down its current trajectory. He would thus place the burden of proof on us to demonstrate that our record of success is more than illusory. Ultimately the difference between Aristotle and us boils down to what in my latest book, Post-Truth: Knowledge as a Power Game, I call ‘modal power’, namely, power over the definition of what is possible (Fuller 2018).
As for replication, my view is straightforwardly constructivist: There is always an open question about what it is about some past event, including an experimental outcome, that needs to be reproduced by some future event to count as a proper ‘replication’ in a sense that might be regarded as confirmation. Here I’m very much influenced by what Nelson Goodman (1955) called the ‘new riddle of induction’, whereby the same series of events could be used to infer any of several different trajectories, depending on what is considered salient in the original set of events. Once again, this is an epistemic decision, not a discovery.
PJ: In Philosophy, Rhetoric, and the End of Knowledge: A New Beginning for Science and Technology Studies, you and James Collier write: “The love affair that Western thought has had with the idea of truth as something that us “discovered” or “revealed” finally comes to an end in the world of tomorrow” (Fuller and Collier 2004/2012: 312). What is your conception of (philosophical) truth?
SF: Truth is something that is made possible – as part of a true/false binary – against the backdrop of agreed assumptions, especially about how to organise the world. In the absence of such shared assumptions, truth is impossible to determine. What I call the ‘post-truth condition’ is just such a state, which prevails not only today but also prevailed at the so-called pre-Socratic period at the start of Western philosophy. I refer here to the sophistic Athens that Socrates encounters in Plato’s dialogues. Plato’s basic lesson, which has been subject to creative variations over history (perhaps most brutally by Hobbes), is that truth is a regime that must be imposed. In our postmodern times, which seem allergic to the idea of concentrated power, truth regimes are ‘constructed’ or ‘co-produced’, reflecting a more diffuse and perhaps even dissipated conception of power. But in any case, reality itself is ‘naturally’ indeterminate.
PJ: Defined as intrinsic good, socially constructed knowledge inevitably produces epistemic injustice. The definition of epistemic injustice is equally concerned with creation and access to knowledge, but let’s take on one challenge at a time and talk about creation. Contemporary science is heavily based on privileging some knowledges over others (e.g. Western knowledges are seen as more important than indigenous knowledges) and privileging some groups over others (e.g. female voices have, for the most of human history, been seen as less important than male voices). Some authors, such as Sandra Harding (2011), have therefore started to look at STS through the lens of postcolonial theory. What are the limits and potentials of Postcolonial Science and Technology Studies?
SF: I see postcolonial theory in its current form as pretty limited. It’s basically a form of inverted colonialism that nevertheless aspires to global reach. In practice, postcolonialism is restricted to undoing the perceived damage caused by Euro-American expansion across the world in the modern period. In that respect, it’s little more than Western imperialism’s ‘evil twin’. The conspicuous absence of postcolonial discourse concerning China (minus Taiwan, of course) is striking – but also explainable given that mainland China remained relatively immune to the more violent forms of Western expansion during the period of most concern to postcolonialists.
But let’s say we interpret postcolonialism generously in terms of its global ambitions. There remains the question of what sort of damage we are trying to redress, which could then be the basis for some sense of ‘epistemic justice’. Are we concerned with, say, giving women as individuals greater voice – regardless of what these women believe – or giving voice to some conceptual understanding of ‘women’ as implying an alternative world-view, regardless of which individuals – male or female – express it? I had already raised this point in The Governance of Science (Fuller 2000) because it pointed to a deep ambiguity in the politics of multiculturalism that was dominant in the 1980s and 1990s. After all, men and women significantly overlap in their opinions and world-views regardless of the gender of their birth. The ambiguity has been exacerbated in recent years by the ‘trans’ movement, whereby, say, individuals born as males claim to speak as women once they’ve undergone a ‘gender transformation’ of some sort (which may involve minimal genital change), after which they claim authority to speak against the opinion of individuals who have retained the female gender of their birth. A somewhat analogous issue arises in ecology with regard to the meaning of ‘biodiversity’: Are we trying to preserve actual organisms or simply their genetic code? As our capacity to mine the genomes of organisms for purposes of reproducing them on demand increases, then one could argue that a species ‘survives’ even if all its living members cease to exist if their DNA is on record. In that case, what matters is not the physical individuals but the code that members of the species share, which could be used to seed new individuals under any of a number of material conditions.
PJ: In 2016, after Oxford Dictionaries announced post-truth as their Word of the Year (Steinmetz 2016), the concept suddenly gained a lot of popularity. However, as you indicate in your answer, and also in the recent article in The Guardian, “science has always been a bit ‘post-truth’” (Fuller 2016b). Please situate our current post-truth condition in a historical context. Why has it arrived into prominence today?
SF: Well, this is the subject of my latest book (Fuller 2018). Basically, the distinction between what is true and false is clear only insofar as there is agreement on what could be true or false. This is what I call ‘modal power’, and it’s not as pedantic as it sounds. Plato believed that the sort of social and political instability that resulted in the fall of Athens was due to a plethora of competing frameworks for making sense of reality, a situation that was routinely exacerbated by free public theatre. Thus, Plato advocated a kind of ‘monopoly intellectualism’ in which control over the production of truths and falsehoods was in the hands of a unitary regime, ideally one governed by philosopher-kings, who would actively restrict the scope for expressing alternative modes of governance and even modes of being; hence, his notorious ban on the poets and playwrights. And while Plato believed in presenting philosopher-kings as entitled to rule by virtue of their superior intellectual nature, he well knew that such matters are not straightforwardly decided. Indeed, he was a pioneer in such ideas as ‘talent scouting’ and ‘intelligence testing’, as well as ‘hothousing’ intellectually promising children to mature into candidate philosopher-kings. However, there is bound to be internal disagreements among these elites, basically between those who want to retain the status quo and those who want a new order.
Following successive updatings of Plato first by Machiavelli and then his early twentieth century follower Vilfredo Pareto, I interpret the differences between defenders of the status quo (‘lions’) and advocates for a new order (‘foxes’) as being about whether to maintain or change the ‘rules of the game’. It is this sort of ‘meta’ level of conflict, which has the potential to change what people regard as true or false, that characterises the post-truth condition. But while its historical lineage extends back to Plato, etc., the post-truth condition has become more evident in our own time through a combination of greater mass education and greater access to means of both accessing and generating information. And of course, advances in information technology, especially the internet, have been instrumental in all these developments. The negative gloss typically given to ‘post-truth’, as in the Oxford Dictionaries’ definition, simply reflects that the lions are now in a position to be more easily challenged by the foxes.
PJ: In a recent book chapter, I concluded that “a poisonous public pedagogy that can be counterbalanced only by a fully developed critical pedagogy of trust” (Jandrić 2018: 110). Would you agree with this conclusion? If so, how should we go about establishment of trust within the post-truth conditions?
SF: I must confess that I have never found ‘trust’ a helpful concept when discussing matters relating to knowledge. In fact, relatively early in my career, I dubbed it ‘phlogistemic’ (after ‘phlogiston’), basically because I think the concept is trying to identify a genuine phenomenon but in an obtuse and potentially obscurantist manner (Fuller 1996). What gets talked about in the context of ‘trust’ is mainly the distribution of risk in society. (Here I’m somewhat in agreement with Niklas Luhmann.) If you trust someone, you basically offload your uncertainty to them, enabling them to act on your behalf, which includes their taking responsibility for the consequences of their actions. Seen this way, trust looks more like a form of moral cowardice that hides behind background claims that we live in such a ‘complex’ world that we have no choice but to trust others who ‘know better’. Of course, I don’t deny that we engage in such activities all the time, but I’m not sure that valorising them as ‘trust’ helps us clearly understand what is at play.
In terms of your original claim, I think that the only truly meaningful sense of ‘trust’ that is required to counteract ‘poisonous public pedagogy’ is our own trust that our audiences will judge appropriately the various things that they hear or read. This means that we must make our own arguments as clearly and forcefully as possible, in full awareness of the spaces into which we speak, which include the audience’s default settings. In this context, appeals to more high-minded paternalistic notions of ‘trust’ and ‘truth’ can easily backfire for patronising an audience that regards itself as capable of making up its own mind. And if the audience decides against our own positions, then we should not assume that this is because they were uneducated, misinformed, etc. They may simply weight the various values at play differently from us. I would have thought that if we learn nothing else from the Brexit referendum and Trump’s election, we should learn that.
The Question Concerning Disciplinarity
PJ: You are a sociologist by training, yet your works are deeply philosophical. Please outline the relationships between philosophy (epistemology) and sociology of science.
SF: Actually you’ve got this the wrong way round, though it perhaps reflects something about when you have come to my work. It should be pretty clear that my work has been always driven by philosophical premises, which in turn reflects the bulk of my formal training and my underlying interests. It is true that I have only held full professorships in sociology, and that started once I moved to the UK from the US in 1994. (So there is a point here about the cross-cultural non-translation of disciplinary differences.) And I’ve now spent more than two-thirds of my academic career in the UK as a ‘Professor of Sociology’ but my qualifications in the field are basically one-half of an undergraduate degree, which I chose because its discipline-based requirements were light and I believed – even at an early age – that one should formally study philosophy only after having become acquainted with some empirical disciplines. (By the way, this is the source of my long-standing scepticism of ‘expertise’. I don’t feel I have an expertise nor have even aspired to it. However, I do believe that I can think for myself.) In this regard, I was strongly influenced by the nineteenth century philosophers whom I read about in my teenage years – Hegel, Comte, Mill, Spencer, Nietzsche – all of whom were really grounded in some other field (s) before they turned to philosophy. It’s perhaps worth mentioning that analytic philosophy – which had an undisputable grip over the discipline even in my youth – already had the reputation for being excessively self-regarding and intellectually self-contained. So that certainly turned me off in my undergraduate years.
In any case, the main thrust of your question is easy to answer. If you think that science is the most impressive epistemic enterprise that humanity has undertaken, then it’s impossible to make sense of science without a sociological understanding of it, since science involves many people dispersed in space and time whose collective product is greater than the sum of its individual constituents. That’s my starting point for social epistemology – and it should be a no-brainer to any reflective philosopher who isn’t still spellbound by Descartes.
PJ: And what about psychology, Steve?
SF: Popper, who received his formal training in the field, had basically the right idea. Psychology gives you an inventory of the capacities and liabilities of the human mind, on the basis of which you need to decide how to organise people to realise the sorts of achievements of which science is capable. I think Popper’s dualistic view of matters – we are our own best conjecturer and the other’s best refuter – works as an opening move in the game to get the epistemic whole to add up to more than the sum of its cognitive agents. But cognitive and social psychology offer a lot more to flesh out this guiding intuition – and this has been a constant theme in my work. (In fact, I was one of the proponents of a distinct ‘social psychology of science’ in the late 1980s and early 1990s, culminating in [Shadish and Fuller 1993], which is still worth reading today.) Analytic social epistemologists have tried to go down this route as well, but they are usually trying to rationalise what they already find acceptable or unacceptable about science rather than envisaging a better way for science to work. It’s the latter, more prospectively oriented project that has always interested me.
PJ: Social epistemology works across disciplines. Looking at various sources, I recently compiled several mainstream strategies for such work (Jandrić 2016). “Multidisciplinarity concerns studying a research topic not in just one discipline but in several at the same time” (Nicolescu 2008: 2). In interdisciplinary research, “an issue is approached from a range of disciplinary perspectives integrated to provide a systemic outcome” (Lawrence & Després 2004: 400). Transdisciplinary research focuses “on the organisation of knowledge around complex heterogeneous domains rather than the disciplines and subjects into which knowledge is commonly organised” (ibid). Finally, antidisciplinary research “provides the grounds for a critique of the limits on knowledge production in other disciplines” (Kristensen & Claycomb 2010: 6). Which (of these) approaches suit best to social epistemology? Why?
SF: To be honest, there is too much second-order discussion about interrelating disciplines and not enough first-order practice, and so my eyes glazed over when I read your question. But since you ask, this is what I think. ‘Transdisciplinarity’, so-called ‘mode 2 knowledge production’ assumes that the important (socio-economic) problems arise from outside the disciplines, and disciplines simply provide the means to address those problems in the spirit of collaboration, in which each discipline brings something to the table (Gibbons et al. 1994). I see this mentality as common to the old ‘social democratic’ and new ‘neo-liberal’ way of thinking about the value of academia in the welfare state (Fuller 2016a: Introduction). In this context, ‘transdisciplinarians’ can comfortably co-exist with ‘disciplinarians’ because once the latter have solved a given externally defined problem, they can return to what they normally do in their home disciplines. In this respect, transdisciplinarity is multidisciplinary without necessarily being interdisciplinary. At a deeper epistemic level, we might say that transdisciplinarity exists in symbiosis with disciplinarity because they ‘instrumentalise’ reciprocally. Transdisciplinarity instrumentalises the disciplines to solve a real world problem, which arguably arises because the system of disciplines itself instrumentalises reality in the Kuhnian sense of imposing templates, or ‘paradigms’, to make reality easier to process. This effectively blinds the disciplinarians to certain ‘real world’ issues that in turn create the need for transdisciplinarity.
In contrast, ‘interdisciplinarity’ outright problematizes disciplines by suggesting that they are inadequate even to solve their own problems. They take the above ‘blindspots’ much more seriously. As Kuhn pointed out for scientific paradigms, a discipline is a path-dependent entity, whose research horizons are constrained by the world-view implicit in its foundational theories and methods. This invariably leaves gaps, not only in the literal sense of disciplines ignoring certain areas altogether but also in the more figurative sense of their ignoring those researchers who have actually published in those areas. The one field that has truly come to grips with this matter is Library and Information Science, which coined the phrase ‘undiscovered public knowledge’ to characterise the vast majority of published research that remains un- or under- utilised by the academic community of researchers.
The University of Chicago library scientist Don Swanson (1986) coined the phrase to dramatise how solutions to long-standing problems may already be present in the academic literature, but academics are not motivated to read across fields sufficiently to put the pieces from different disciplines together. So the critique here is at least three levels: 1) there’s more stuff than can be reasonably read; 2) disciplinary specialisation exacerbates the problem; 3) as a result, when we ask money for ‘new research’, we may end up reinventing the wheel, in the sense that the answer may already exist and we just don’t know it. The last point, which I think is quite profound, goes to question of whether research funding is spent efficiently, given the general state of ignorance by academics of their own avowed body of knowledge. If library and information scientists were taken more seriously in research policy-making, we could address this problem properly.
PJ: In your approach to social epistemology, how do you resolve the problem of commensurability?
SF: Well, you’re assuming that commensurability is something that should be resolved, as opposed to be simply managed. After all, when incommensurability is resolved, it is normally because the previously incommensurable parties have come into regular communication. This leads them to develop a hybrid language, which linguists chart as going through pidgin and creole stages before becoming full-fledged languages in their own right that then supervene over the original incommensurable languages. That’s basically the story of Latin and especially Arabic, both of which developed their global reach as trade languages. Indeed, while Latin is the older language, Arabic was the lingua franca of science until the mass Latin translation of Arabic translations of Greek sources in the early thirteenth century. In Philosophy, Rhetoric and the End of Knowledge (Fuller and Collier 2004/2012) I observed that the logical positivists were striving for something similar with regard to their project of for an ‘International Encyclopaedia of Unified Science’, with symbolic logic and primitive observations constituting the lingua franca. More recently, the Princeton historian Michael Gordin (2015) has recounted this trajectory, focusing on the rise of English as the universal language of science after the First World War, a time when artificial languages such as Esperanto and Ido also appeared to be in the running. However, the US science translator Scott Montgomery (2000) has really got into the cross-cultural side of this matter in seriously global way, via several books, which I have supported from the start.
I devoted the mid-section of Social Epistemology (Fuller 1988/2002) to incommensurability. There I noted that both Quine and Kuhn drew inspiration for their contemporaneous yet somewhat divergent accounts of translatability from the Biblical translator, Eugene Nida (1964). His key point was that there are two competing aims of translation – one is, so to speak, faithfulness to the original source and the other is faithfulness to the intended audience. Put bluntly, the Bible translation that is most likely to have the intended effect on today’s Christians is probably not going to be very faithful to the original sources, since the ancient and modern Christians operate in radically different semantic spaces. In that respect, incommensurability is never resolved but only managed – at least from an intellectual standpoint. Of course, incommensurability in this sense of competing temporal demands on translation can always be ‘resolved’ quite literally, once the ancients disappear from both view and memory, and only the modern translations are left standing for the original. (Once this point is taken seriously, the classical conception of the humanities becomes justified.)
PJ: Analysing your work, Collin writes:
Can you clarify your position about the question of explanation? Do you agree with Collin’s conclusion?
In our original discussion of explanation in the context of the Edinburgh School, we distinguished between Type I and Type II accounts, the former explaining the genesis of theories, the latter only their reception. Fuller never indicates very clearly which kind he endorses, but we may infer from other discussions that he sees explanation to be of the latter type. (2011: 190)
SF: I actually think we need to explain both the genesis and reception of theories, but the normative import of these two activities – the former of which might be called ‘psychological’ and the latter ‘sociological’ for the sake of convenience – is different, at least as far as my conception of social epistemology is concerned. And when I say ‘normative import’, I mean whether the explanation justifies the phenomenon explained. My main concern in all this is to avoid ‘path-dependent’ conceptions of knowledge that effectively turn the existing class of knowers into rentiers who force those in search of knowledge to follow in the footsteps of those who started the path (e.g. by passing excessive costs in time and money to get access to the relevant knowledge, as is commonplace in higher education). This is why I have always opposed Kuhn’s paradigm-driven account of science, which is basically about tying the fate of inquiry to extending the vision represented by some exemplary achievement, such as Newton’s Philosophiæ naturalis principia mathematica (1687). To my mind, this is comparable to what historians of technology call ‘lock-in’, whereby once some significant innovation takes hold in a market, then all alternative paths that had been moving in the same direction lose their incentives to continue, which then leads the innovator to capture the market, which in turn results in monopolies and their attendant bottlenecks on capital flow. Put in more familiar epistemological terms, from the standpoint of the growth of knowledge as something we wish to promote (i.e. the normative question), it is more important to learn how a particular solution to a problem became the solution to the problem than how the particular solution itself was reached. After all, that ‘locked in’ solution may have inhibited the development of more efficient solutions, which in turn may have resulted in other benefits. I hope you can see how this line of thinking is related to my long-standing interest in counterfactual historiography as a policy instrument.
PJ: I’m glad you mentioned Newton! My first degree was in physics – at the University of Zagreb, following Newton’s (and later Einstein’s) footsteps, we were taught (and many accepted for granted!), that the role of science is to find the theory of everything or the grand theory. As I developed an interest in philosophy, however, I became aware of various counter-arguments including but not limited to the Gödel’s incompleteness theorems. Please describe your philosophical take on the grand theory.
SF: My answer here will be short. There’s nothing wrong with pursuing grand theory as long as the payoffs are made clear not only to those pursuing grand theory but also to those whose status would be changed as a result of it. But Gödel’s theorems are beside the point when it comes to such issues. People who don’t like grand theories generally believe that such things are indeed possible but they don’t like the consequences – especially in terms of their misrepresentation of the phenomena that are covered under them.
The Curious Relationship between Science and Religion
PJ: Speaking of grand theories, we are just one small step from religion. In The New Sociological Imagination, you write:
There is nothing inherently antagonistic about the relationship between science and religion that requires ‘bridging’. Modern science is an outgrowth of the secularization of Christendom, itself a descendant of the medieval Islamic quest for a unified understanding of a reality created by a God who is bound by his own actions (Fuller 2006b: 131).
A bit later, you say continue: “The idea that Science and Religion – in their capitalised forms – have been in perennial conflict is a Western myth invented in the last quarter of the nineteenth century“(ibid: 132).
How do you define religion, Steve? Please outline your views to the relationships between science and religion.
SF: People get unnecessarily aggravated by this issue. The current usage of ‘religion’ dates from the mid-19 century to describe ways of governing people over large regions of space and time without the modern nation-state. In short, it was originally a synonym for ‘non-modern’ or ‘pre-modern’, but in any case it was a residual category. This accounts for the fact that the great world-religions range from being polytheistic to atheistic, from being inward- to outward-looking, from being highly ritualistic to being very anti-ritualistic. While religions are naturally clustered according to common intellectual ancestry, they really share nothing that could be characterised as an ‘essence’ that might help or hinder the advancement of science. In particular, the tenacious holding of beliefs is certainly not unique to religion. Yet it is this last point that usually animates people when they ask me about the science-religion relation. They seem to assume that scientists are more sceptical than religious people, even though both parties display considerable scepticism towards common sense, while advancing their own quite counter-intuitive views. (In this respect, Thomas Reid’s ‘common sense’ philosophy in the late 18 century should be seen as a tactical retreat for religion comparable to science’s own tactical metaphysical retreat via ‘operationalism’ and ‘instrumentalism’ in the mid 20 century.) Where science and religion might be said to decisively diverge is over the methods used to validate their respective claims.
PJ: Our views about the relationships between science and religion may differ, yet I think we can easily agree that science is not religion. Please describe the general problem of demarcating science from non-science. What is the difference between believing that E = mc2, believing that the meek will inherit the kingdom of God, and believing that vaccines are bad for your kids?
SF: My view about the science vs. non-science distinction is rather close to Karl Popper’s – namely, that it has nothing to do with the content of knowledge claims but rather with the conditions under which those claims might be given up or substantially revised. In particular, Popper stressed that a ‘scientific attitude’ seeks the falsification of even one’s most cherished beliefs. Of course it doesn’t follow that those beliefs will be eventually overturned, but it does mean that you really can’t be considered ‘scientific’ if you’re not willing to undertake a high degree of risk. In my graduate school days, I had already intuitively seen the similarity between Popper’s falsifiability principle as a basis for continuing – rather than abandoning – faith in science as a mode of inquiry and Pascal’s wager as a basis for continuing – rather than abandoning – faith in God’s existence. While my Ph.D. already bore evidence of this insight, I have spent much of the rest of my career trying to appreciate and articulate its full implications.
PJ: Please describe your position in the debate between intelligent design and evolution.
SF: The most persuasive argument for intelligent design is that it would never have made sense for us to try to understand the entirety of the universe unless we thought that we had some special relationship with the (divine) agent who is ultimately responsible for it. It’s certainly not necessary to understand all of reality – let alone in terms of a systematic set of laws or organising principles – in order to survive and even flourish within the constraints normally provided by our bodies and senses. Indeed, most of the world’s cultures have conducted themselves within just those constraints, so that even when they have admitted a much larger world beyond immediate experience, they have generally regarded it as unfathomable at the cognitive level. (Of course, many cosmologies stress the need to be in harmony with nature, but this attitude does not generally involve turning nature into an object of knowledge.) Their cosmologies have not stressed as much as ours the fundamental ‘intelligibility’ of reality, which is to say, its inherent tractability to our minds. As Leibniz, Kant, Whewell, Peirce and other modern philosophers of science have stressed, such intelligibility is ‘transcendentally’ required of scientific inquiry. (Of course, they differed over whether this point was sufficient to prove the existence of God.)
For my own part, I regard the intelligibility condition as basically a secularisation of the Abrahamic religious conception of humans as having been created in imago dei. Historians of science and religion such as Alistair Crombie, Amos Funkenstein and Peter Harrison have detailed the relevant theological moments, which focus on the 13 century revival of St Augustine’s emphasis on the fallen state of humanity as both a reminder and an incentive for humans to appreciate that our grasp of reality has been in the past – and could be in the future – much more profound than that provided by the ordinary deliveries of the senses, which can too easily seduce us to remain in our fallen animal natures. It is not too much of a stretch to see in this fixation on overcoming the Fall as the basis for, say, the experimental approach pioneered by Francis Bacon, which basically uses the senses to interrogate the senses. Equally it provides the theological basis for distrusting induction in the manner that Popper popularised for the secular 20 century.
PJ: Are you saying that religion is a precondition for science?
SF: The point is that we wouldn’t have gone down the path of modern scientific inquiry at all without the predominance of the world-view associated with the Abrahamic faiths. As Thomas Henry Huxley very much realised in the ‘Romanes Lecture’ (1893) that he gave near the end of his life, if the 20 century proves to be totally devoid of divinity with regard to our understanding of humanity, then it is difficult to see how science will continue to progress. As Huxley himself admitted, science’s seemingly boundless progress has been based in a self-aggrandising sense of humanity, of the sort exemplified by Newton’s world-system, which Darwin himself – a product of this progressive spirit – has radically undercut by reducing us to simply one among many animal species.
But perhaps more to the point is humanity’s very high metaphysical self-regard: Why else would we continue to devote so many resources to this very pursuit of science, given the radical transformation – not to mention destruction – that has resulted for our planet? After all, even if one – as I do – inclines to believe that science’s balance sheet shows many more benefits than harms, there is no denying that science has increased the level of risk in the world. But as I have argued in The Proactionary Imperative (Fuller and Lipinska 2014), risk is something that can be feared or embraced, and ‘science’ understood as a challenge for us to recover our divine birthright, a project whose both religious and scientific sides have been in recent times most clearly understood – including the heroic attitudes that are required – by the Russian ‘Cosmist’ movement (Young 2012). To be sure, most of the world’s cultures have now adopted a broadly ‘scientific’ perspective – largely through the triumph of capitalism in its various forms, if we are to be brutally honest. I think that philosophers – and even theologians – have yet to take seriously the distinctiveness of thinking about the world as having been brought about in a way that enables us, at least in principle, to understand it as a systematic unity. I think that this is the great contribution of the Abrahamic religions, and it explains why the original theories of evolution – most notably Lamarck’s – were progressive in orientation. In short, I think that science could turn out to be a fool’s errand unless we believe that we really have a chance of acquiring ‘God’s point-of-view’ in some literal sense.
PJ: Some critics dismiss your opinion about intelligent design on the base of argumentum ad hominem and claim that you do not have enough knowledge about biology, chemistry, and physics, to make informed judgements. As a typical (and sometimes very poisonous!) fallacy of irrelevance, argumentumad hominem is inevitably wrong – and engaging in such behaviour is a clear display of bad manners. Looking beyond personal offence, however, an interesting question remains: How much knowledge about the physical world is required to make an informed opinion in this debate? More generally, please describe your take on the rule of experts. Should it remain, or should it be replaced by the rule of everybody, the rule of somebody, the rule of nobody?
SF: I don’t begrudge my critics for their ad hominem arguments against me. I think their arguments are wrong but not unfair. As long as speaker competence matters to establishing a knowledge claim, argumentumad hominem is unavoidable. This point becomes obvious if you think of the appeal to expertise as no more than the positive version of the ad hominem argument. A good way to see this point is in my testimony as an expert witness for the defence in Kitzmiller vs. Dover Area School District (U.S. District Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania 2005), the major US court case involving the teaching of intelligent design. The bone of contention was whether public high school science teachers could be obliged to read a statement saying that there are alternatives to Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection – including intelligent design – books about which could be found in the school library. Teachers were not forced to teach intelligent design, but simply to say that it exists. Nevertheless, given the rather broad interpretation of the US Constitution’s ‘separation of church and state’ clause currently in fashion, the fact that the school board was promoting intelligent design for largely religious reasons made it easy for the judge to rule in favour of the plaintiff. Afterwards I published two books on the larger philosophical issues surrounding the case and offered a reflection on the tenth anniversary of the decision, where my attitude was one of je ne regrette rien (Fuller 2015c).
One of the first things I said under oath during the trial was that historians, philosophers and sociologists are more expert on the nature of science than professional scientists. No doubt this statement by itself earned me a lot of enemies, but I stand by it. After all, scientists are primarily trained as specialists, which inclines them to defer to other specialists whenever they feel they’ve exceeded their epistemic jurisdiction. Of course, if they understood science as something with a common nature that transcends specialist differences – in the manner of a historian, philosopher or sociologist – they might be bold enough to offer an argument in their own name rather than simply defer to their own positive version of the ad hominem.
PJ: So what, then, is expertise?
SF: Expertise in the first instance is about control over epistemic jurisdiction – who has the right to frame an issue, on which a judgement might be reached and a decision taken. Thus, there is no straightforward answer to the question of ‘how much knowledge of the physical world is required to make an informed opinion’. It depends on how the issue under discussion is framed. In this respect, appeals to expertise often involve epistemic overkill. You don’t need to invoke Newtonian mechanics to explain why you’ll fall to your death if you walk out of the window of a tall building. (I raise this blunt example because scientists frequently invoked it in the Science Wars to ‘refute’ their imagined opponents.) Moreover, Newtonian mechanics scores no big victories because it can explain that fact. Newtonian mechanics scores big only if you want to connect that fact with the movement of all the other bodies in the universe – post-Einstein, moving much slower than the speed of light. For Newton, this was a big win because he ultimately wanted to provide an account of the physical reality that does justice to God’s capacity to know and act in all places at all times. However, if you are free of that metaphysical burden, then you can explain why walking out the window is fatal in ways that are much closer to people’s default ways of understanding the world. This is basically what Aristotle had done – and his practice is mirrored across most of the world’s cultures.
And so, if experts are primarily expert in framing, then it is certainly incumbent on people to understand the frames of references that are proposed by various competitors who are presenting themselves as ‘expert’ on some issue, but in the end it is up to the people to decide what to believe and how to act on the basis of it. The ultimate test of a democracy is whether it allows people to live for a specific period – say, an election cycle – with the consequences of their own collective decision-making even when they might entail significant hazard. Representative democracies of the sort championed by, say, the UK’s parliamentary system amount to half-hearted endorsements of democracy, since the citizenry rarely vote directly on specific policies – except in the case of referenda, à la Brexit, which gives one food for thought (Fuller 2018: chap. 1).
PJ: The world of science is not all sunshine and roses, and our validating procedures for accepted scientific knowledge are far from perfect. What does it mean to validate scientific knowledge?
SF: I think of validation pretty straightforwardly. Validation is the process whereby knowledge claims are submitted to various tests, which are then publicly available for inspection, on the basis of which people decide how, if at all, to take the claims forward. What makes Kuhn-style ‘normal science’ distinctive in this matter is the paradigm-driven scientific community’s willingness to cast something approximating a bloc vote, such that everyone in the science draws more or less the same conclusions from, say, the result of a particular experiment. But of course, in the social sciences and the humanities, people display much greater variation in their response to such ‘tests’, which in turn serves to differentiate their various ‘schools’. And the difference between ‘Kuhnian’ and ‘non-Kuhnian’ epistemic world largely boils down to a difference in training in how to interpret empirical phenomena. I don’t think that the non-Kuhnian world is any less intellectually ‘rigorous’ than the Kuhnian world. But it is much more tolerant of opposing views co-existing in the same general field of inquiry. And to his credit, Kuhn was pretty honest that normal science requires an authoritarian mode of governance – that was because he believed that too much tolerance of different interpretations of empirical phenomena simply destroys the validation process altogether. Any debate about scientific validation should start by examining that specific claim of Kuhn’s.
PJ: In 1996, the physics professor Alan Sokal conducted a famous practical experiment in validation of scientific knowledge. Sokal submitted a fraudulent article to the academic cultural studies journal Social Text, and after the article was peer reviewed and published, he revealed that its content was nonsensical (Sokal and Bricmont 1998). This experiment, popularly known as Sokal’s Affair or Sokal’s Hoax, has provoked wide public debate. Few months after Sokal revealed his hoax, in a ‘A Letter to the Editor published’ in Times Literary Supplement, you wrote that the editors’ “actions seem to imply that they believed Sokal’s piece to be sufficiently well-crafted to merit academic discussion”, and that you “would stand behind the editors in arguing that it is better to have this point revealed in open debate than to have had the article censored in the editorial board room” (Fuller 1996). Later on, you wrote about the Sokal’s affair in several occasions, including but not limited to your book The Philosophy of Science and Technology Studies (Fuller 2006a: 102 ff). Please describe your position in the Sokal’s affair. After more than two decades, please assess its (historical) significance.
SF: Well, much more than I had realised at the time, the Sokal Hoax marked the beginning of the end of STS as a radical movement within the study of science and technology. As you quoted, I originally urged that the validity – or not – of Sokal’s article should be determined by the use – or not – that people made of the article. After all, that standard would have been more in line with the broadly ‘deconstructive’ spirit of STS, which holds that meaning is not something invested in works by their authors but rather something that is derived – if at all – by those who read the work. Indeed, had a lot of scholars found Sokal’s piece so illuminating as to contribute productively to their own work, then whatever errors or frauds that Sokal seeded in his article would lose epistemic significance. I realise that saying things so baldly makes it appear that I’m indifferent to the truth. On the contrary, I am very much concerned with the truth – but I also realise that things are never quite as they seem. Put bluntly, the search for what’s true in false theories has probably done more to advance the history of science than the simple building on theories that are already presumed to be true.
The Postdigital Human
PJ: Between 2011 and 2014 you extensively published about the idea of a ‘post-’ or ‘trans-’ human future. What does it mean to be human, Steve? What is the difference between posthumanism and transhumanism?
SF: We shouldn’t be sentimental about these questions. ‘Human’ began – and I believe should remain – as a normative not a descriptive category. It’s really about which beings that the self-described, self-organised ‘humans’ decide to include. So we need to reach agreement about the performance standards that a putative ‘human’ should meet that a ‘non-human’ does not meet. The Turing Test serves to focus minds on this problem, as it suggests that any being that passes behavioural criteria that we require of humans counts as human, regardless of its material composition. While the Turing Test is normally presented as something that machines would need to pass, in fact it is merely a more abstract version of how non-white, non-male, non-elite members of Homo sapiens have come to be regarded as ‘human’ from a legal standpoint. So why not also say ‘non-carbon’ in the case of, say, silicon-based androids?
The difference between posthumanists and transhumanists turns on whether the ‘human’ is itself the ultimate locus of value. Transhumanists say ‘yes’ (but humans haven’t yet distinguished themselves sufficiently from animals) and posthumanists say ‘no’ (and humans have already distinguished themselves too much from animals). The affective issues aside, these two sides are in disagreement about appropriate performance standards. Transhumanists believe that the advanced levels of intelligence to which we have held ourselves and machines are necessary for the granting of legal rights, whereas posthumanists are less preoccupied with intelligence than with life itself and thus a standard that places humans on the same level as other animals in terms of entitlement to flourish as a species.
SF: The short answer, referring to my answer to the previous question, is that ‘human’ is a normative not a descriptive category. Homo sapiens is the prime candidate for being counted as ‘human’, but the history of the concept of humanity shows that even Homo sapiens has had to earn the title. ‘Sociology’ as an idea that links Auguste Comte and Emile Durkheim – the one who conceived of it as a political movement and the latter as an academic discipline – is ultimately about accepting the assumption that you cannot be ‘human’ on your own, simply because you have, say, the right genetic makeup. Humanity is a collective achievement or nothing at all. This is a truth that applies not only to the Abrahamic religions but also to both of their main secular incarnations, capitalism and socialism. In the case of capitalism, where this point may seem less obvious, the relevant site of the ‘collective’ is of course the market, which doesn’t exist unless there is a division of capacities – or ‘labour’ in that broad sense – that requires the need for trade between at least two parties, each offering what the other lacks. (It is interesting that in the Abrahamic theologies, there has been a long-standing discussion about whether God needs to create the world in order to prove his own divinity. Some theologians argue that this would make God seem too much like humans. However, the alternative would seem to be that the world’s creation is an arbitrary divine act.) It is also worth adding that the great two modernist traditions in ethics – Kantianism and utilitarianism – which on the surface seem ‘individualistic’ in fact presuppose a collective orientation in the passing of moral judgement. Kant’s categorical imperative compels one to imagine a world in which everyone did what one now proposes to do under similar circumstances, whereas Bentham’s utility calculus, while extracted from individuals, requires their aggregation to deliver a piece of legislation.
PJ: At the Second International Knowledge and Discourse Conference, held at the University of Hong Kong in June 2002, you and Bruno Latour staged a very popular public debate. You “suggested the motion of the debate, that ‘A strong distinction between humans and non-humans is no longer required for research purposes’” (Barron 2003: 78). Sometime in the middle of the debate, you said: “actually I don’t draw your sharp line between the moral project of social science and the empirical project” (In Barron 2003: 87). What is the relationship between the moral project and the empirical project of social science?
SF: The ‘moral’ moment in social science is exactly what Max Weber meant by the ‘value relevance’ of research – namely, what you choose to study, most importantly at the level of ontology. It is significant that when Weber and his colleagues formed the first German professional society for sociologists, they excluded race from their considerations, even though that was a hot topic among those who might be considered founders of this emerging discipline. They also excluded animals, even though the anti-Durkheimian version of sociology that came to France via the translation of Herbert Spencer had offered a vision of sociology rather close to today’s ‘sociobiology’ or ‘evolutionary psychology’ (Gabriel Tarde, whose fortunes Latour has revived in recent years, was the leading figure of this group). Indeed, these same French thinkers also had a rather robust conception of technology’s role in shaping the human life-world, including the sorts of human-organism-machine analogies that Norbert Wiener would popularise in the mid-twentieth century as ‘cybernetics’ (Alfred Espinas, who received the first French Ph.D. in ‘Sociology’, is especially noteworthy here). In contrast, for their part, the Germans tended to regard technology in purely expressive or instrumental terms – in other words, with Homo sapiens always in the driver’s seat. Taken together, all of these choices about what to include in and exclude from the purview of ‘sociological’ inquiry frames his/her understanding of the ‘human’, which in turn determines which sort of data are considered relevant, meaningful, etc.
PJ: Please describe your position on Kant’s distinction between autonomy and heteronomy in the context of social science.
SF: The distinction is pretty straightforward. It involves two different perspectives from which the human may be understood. If you’re ‘autonomous’ you regard yourself as the ultimate source in anything you say, think, and do. In that sense, you are always the responsible party. If you’re ‘heteronomous’ you see yourself as simply a site where various forces play themselves out – class, race, gender, the usual sociological variables – and you are not responsible. Existentialism is the philosophical and cultural movement that has most creatively played with this tension. After all, both perspectives exist simultaneously in the human condition, something which the criminal justice system routinely needs to resolve. But Kant’s original point was that you’re not really human unless you conceive of yourself as autonomous, regardless of your material circumstances. In this respect, he was drawing on classical Stoicism but also his own rather stripped down Christian upbringing, which frowned upon the rather mythopoeic idea that morality was about choosing God over Satan in some eternal battle for control over our souls. Kant doesn’t allow you to say ‘I am doing God’s will’ to justify your actions. You may think you’re doing God’s will, but if your actions are truly moral then you must personally authorise them as well. It’s at that moment that you claim your birthright as having been born in imago dei. The bottom line is that you present yourself as a moral agent, not a mere moral vehicle.
This point relates interestingly to social science, when one considers that Kant’s version of Christianity is often associated with Calvinism. The key point about Calvin is that a Christian never knows whether God regards what s/he does is the right thing because of humanity’s fallen state, but s/he does it anyway because s/he thinks it’s the right thing to do – and it may well turn out to be right. This open embrace of radical uncertainty in the face of unknown consequences is the hallmark of not only Kant’s ethic but also Popper’s falsificationist ethic, which purposely does not presume that everything that has been thought to be true is necessarily so. This in turn makes life one big test case. In Fuller (2003), I remark on Popper’s having been influenced in his youth by the German translation of Kierkegaard. I think this makes the historical connection reasonably clear.
But in terms of today, what might be called the ‘rump end’ of socialist social science comes dangerously close to the sort of paternalistic attitude to which Kant’s vision of Enlightenment was opposed. In other words, by so heavily stressing the heteronomous side of the human condition, these so-called ‘leftists’ are in fact disempowering the very people that they claim to want to empower. More concretely, I mean leftist claims, which when stripped of euphemism, amount to saying that ordinary people these days can’t think straight because they’re too busy doing ‘bullshit jobs’ (when they still have jobs), being distracted, being fooled, etc. Even though no one disputes that we live in an increasingly globalised capitalist economy, nevertheless people are also increasingly informed about that fact – through social media, if nothing else – and hence are in an increasingly better position to decide for themselves what to do. To be sure, many of the decisions taken in this newfound state of freedom have contradicted what the social science ‘experts’ would deem to be in those people’s best interests, and it’s by no means clear that those decisions were the right ones. Nevertheless, what matters from the standpoint of autonomy is that the people taking the decisions are assuming responsibility for the consequences. A telling indicator is that claims that people were ‘systematically misinformed’ about the Brexit campaign and the 2016 US presidential election continue to be seen by the general public as patronising.
PJ: In Humanity 2.0 you write: “Here we move into what may be the most controversial aspect of my position, namely, that the active promotion of a certain broadly Abrahamic theological perspective is necessary to motivate students to undertake lives in science and to support those who decide to do so” (Fuller 2011: 180). A bit later, you write: “It is very unlikely that science would have taken the course it has – and valued as much as it has been – were it not for the Abrahamic belief that humans were created in the image of God” (Fuller 2011: 183). In her review of your book, Sabrina Weiss questions “the presumption of Abrahamic theology as the best tradition to use is ignorant of benefits offered by other religions” (Weiss 2012). Why do you think that the Abrahamic tradition is the best direction for future development of science?
SF: First, it’s a no-brainer to say that there are benefits to the human condition offered by non-Abrahamic religions. Of course! But whether non-Abrahamic religions would have ever produced science in the form that we recognise – let alone an improved version of it – is another matter entirely. Notwithstanding the strictures of political correctness, I seriously doubt that science in our modern sense would have arisen outside of the Abrahamic cultural orbit. Certainly Buddhism and Daoism – the two most frequently touted candidates – had plenty of time to produce something comparable but didn’t manage to do it, and it wasn’t because Westerners prevented them from doing so. The most obvious reason is that they had no interest in doing so, which was due partly to their lack of a strong sense of humanity’s privileged standing in the cosmos. However, people who call for a ‘Buddhist’ or ‘Daoist’ approach to science today are generally mindful of the destructive and destabilising consequences of the science-driven technology over the past 200 years that has been motivated by Abrahamic hubris. Certainly no one on either side of this argument denies the destabilising effects of modern science. Here it is worth recalling that Herbert Butterfield, who in the 1930s first proposed the idea that a ‘Scientific Revolution’ had occurred in seventeenth century Europe, deemed it as the second greatest moment in human history after the birth of Jesus. As a Christian, he meant this as a compliment. And even an avowed atheist like Richard Dawkins promotes science in the same spirit as the Protestant evangelists began to promote the Bible during the Scientific Revolution. (Recall that both Galileo and Francis Bacon saw the Bible and Nature as the two ‘books’ through which God communicated with us.) The question is whether all this disruption has been for good or ill, especially in its current manifestations.
I am thus led to read charitably the current enthusiasm for non-Abrahamic approaches to knowledge as expressing a desire to impose a ‘precautionary’ regime on today’s science and technology, scaling back the dreaded ‘Anthropocene’, whereby we have come to be the most decisive causal factor on the disposition of the planet – much for the worse, according to these critics. And while I don’t wish to downplay anthropogenic climate change, etc., nevertheless I believe that these problems will be solved only by greater application of science and technology. But that still leaves many options on how to proceed. My own view is that we shall simply adapt as a species to climate change. Of course, some populations will be at greater existential risk than others, but those are likely to be the same populations who have been vulnerable since the start of the Industrial Revolution, namely, the poor and the chronically disadvantaged. In that respect, I think that much of the moral censure surrounding inequality and underdevelopment has simply carried over into the critique of science and technology – which of course is not to render that critique any less legitimate.
PJ: In Humanity 2.0 (Fuller 2011) you explore the relevance of theology to the future of humanity. What is ‘Theology 2.0’; why do we need it?
SF: Well, as many of my previous answers have indicated, the modernist impulse that resulted in the strong identification of humanity with the advancement of science and technology was just a secular continuation of the original Abrahamic motive for the full-throated pursuit of knowledge from a presumptive state of ignorance. In a nutshell: if there is a path to salvation after the Fall, it is through science and technology. In the modern era, we called this belief ‘progress’, which was often portrayed as ‘building a heaven on Earth’. I’m still a believer, but I think that the next phase for this ‘faith’ is to explicitly remove the barriers that separate science and religion. We live in a time when it is politically correct to follow Steven Jay Gould’s influential formulation that science and religion are ‘two non-overlapping magisteria’ – or ‘separate but equal’, to put it in the more brutally realistic terms of the US Supreme Court. While this settlement has been portrayed as a stopgap to prevent conflict between science and religion, all that it has really done is stunt the growth of both sides of the divide. My embrace of intelligent design theory was motivated by my felt sense that this situation needs to be reversed – even in nominally ‘secular’ societies; hence the need for ‘Theology 2.0’.
PJ: In recent years I have conducted many interviews with Peter McLaren on liberation theology (McLaren and Jandrić 2017a, 2017b, 2018; see also McLaren and Jandrić 2015); these days, we are wrapping up these interviews into a book. What is your take on liberation theology and especially José Porfirio Miranda’s claim that “The eschaton of Marx, which is the same as that of the gospel, is what gives meaning to history” (Miranda 1980: 307)?
SF: As should be clear from what I have said so far, I think that Miranda is essentially correct, especially in terms of the collective nature of salvation. Under many interpretations of both Christianity and Islam, one’s own salvation cannot be secured unless one has also tried to save others. Hence the stress that these religions place on proselytism and evangelism, which in turn has been a source of tension with secular authorities in the modern era. This is a feature that socialism and other modern progressive movements have picked up from these religions. One can see Marx evolving to this position in his famous early work, The German Ideology (1932), basically a critique of the Hegel-inspired liberal theology that inspired the strategy of ‘consciousness raising’ that would be explicitly articulated a few years later in The Communist Manifesto (Marx and Engels 1976/1848). This became the signature idea of Marxist-inspired socialism in the twentieth century, epitomised in the idea that socialism is impossible in one country: No one is liberated until everyone is. Liberation theology easily made common cause with Marxists under those conditions, especially in Latin America and Africa.
PJ: What is the place of liberation theology in your Theology 2.0?
SF: I was actually trained by the Jesuits during the period – the 1970s – when liberation theology was probably at its peak, both as a political strategy and a mode of theological inquiry. My teachers, who were very hostile to the US involvement in the Vietnam War, gave a ‘liberation spin’ to much of their religious pedagogy. They basically argued that it was impossible to live a full Christian existence if one’s soul is in a state of captivity because of excessive political and economic strictures. The Marxo-Freudian term ‘alienation’ was the preferred way to talk about this captivity when I was a student – especially in theology classes. I should also say that my teachers had a much more ambitious sense of an ‘unalienated’ human being than their Marxist fellow-travellers. Here the role of the heretical Jesuit scientist-theologian Pierre Teilhard de Chardin should not be underestimated as providing a metaphysical framework for understanding liberation theology. The Vatican permitted the publication of Teilhard’s works only after his death – and that was largely due to eminent biologists like Julian Huxley and Theodosius Dobzhansky, who were sympathetic to his rather spiritualised version of ‘evolutionary humanism’.
It is easy to forget that the intellectual traffic between science and religion was markedly better 40–50 years ago than it is today. You’ll see that Teilhard is discussed in some detail in Humanity 2.0 (Fuller 2011), since he clearly anticipated much of the agenda associated with contemporary ‘transhumanism’ as part of a species-wide spiritual awakening, which he characterised in terms of the emeregence of a ‘noosphere’. That was his own version of H.G. Wells’ ‘world-brain’ and Marshall McLuhan’s ‘global village’, all of which referred to technologically-driven step-change improvements in human telecommunications, starting from the telegraph and the telephone to radio and television – and of course nowadays distributed computer networks – all running in parallel to permit in principle any individual to have the collective knowledge of humanity at their fingertips. Very much like today’s transhumanists, Teilhard believed that this technological trajectory would open up new paths for development that would accelerate the sorts of changes that biological evolution had made possible.
PJ: With some wisdom of hindsight, please give your opinion to the motion of the debate between you and Bruno Latour: “A strong distinction between humans and non-humans is no longer required for research purposes“(Barron 2003).
SF: Although the debate got considerable local press coverage, the results were pretty inconclusive, and I’m not even sure that the italics in the published version really captured the emphases that Latour and I were placing on what we said. It’s worth recalling that the debate took place in 2002 in Hong Kong, where it was treated as something of a spectacle. There was a page-long story in the South China Morning Post, the leading English-speaking newspaper, with photos of Latour and me in full flow. But I’m not convinced that the audience really understood all the different levels of contestation. In any case, Latour’s position was prima facie the more plausible, since he seemed to be simply arguing that all phenomena should be treated equally, whether it comes from something human, natural or artificial. I don’t think that people saw the abdication of responsibility that this position implied – going back to the point I earlier made about Max Weber and the importance of ‘value relevance’ of research. After all, to say that everything that exists has a bearing on everything else that exists, avoids the question of what matters and what doesn’t matter. (Around this time, Latour was beginning to introduce the idea of ‘matters of concern’, but that is really more about our receptiveness to phenomena rather than any valuation of them.) From that standpoint, I appeared to be arguing for a style of ‘politically engaged’ research that had largely gone out of fashion with Jean-Paul Sartre and the ‘68 generation and certainly had no place in the emerging neo-liberal world order in the wake of the fall of the Soviet Union. If nothing else, Latour was attuned to that transition and has repeatedly made a point of distancing himself from anything that might recall the ‘critical’ sensibility of the ‘68ers – and hence in his native France he was always a thorn in the side of Pierre Bourdieu.
As for myself, it was clear that I was thinking about the ‘human’ as a future projection, which is continuous with the idea that ‘humanity’ is a progressive project, regardless of the historicity of the Fall. (I remember Latour becoming very incredulous when I used the Enlightenment phrase ‘project of humanity’ in response to a question after the debate.) So I have remained committed to privileging humanity in the order of things. But I have become more open-minded about what form the ‘human’ might take. After all, the idea that humans are even related to – let alone descended from – apes, stems only from the mid-eighteenth century. Before that time, thinkers who speculated about other intelligent creatures both on Earth in the Heavens imagined something closer to the relatively featureless androids of old science fiction movies than, say, Planet of the Apes (Schaffner 1968). Indeed, I have come to think that there is something to the transhumanist idea of ‘morphological freedom’, which might be regarded as liberalism’s final frontier. Now that we allow people to change class and even gender, then switching race cannot be too far behind, and behind that is the prospect that we might cognitively ‘uplift’ animals while we ourselves shift from carbon to silicon form, via brain emulation or mind uploading.
In contrast, my sense of Latour since the 2002 debate is that he’s become even more ‘grounded’ and ‘materialist’ in his orientation to social research – and, ideologically speaking, he’s become more conservative. For example, he has taken the ‘Anthropocene’ much more at face value than I have. We debated this topic in 2015 at the Breakthrough Institute, the ‘eco-modernist’ think-tank in San Francisco (The Breakthrough Institute 2015). Eco-modernists believe in the idea of a ‘good Anthropocene’, and I’m on their side, while Latour is opposed. To be sure, we both agree that humans are the biggest source of climate change. But he sees it as an existential threat, whereas I see it as a challenge that poses new opportunities for human advancement, along the lines of ‘necessity is the mother of invention’. Latour appears to be nowadays motivated by fear in the face of risk, whereas I remain hopeful.
Postdigital Science and Education
PJ: Every time we log into our social networks, we have (more or less) meaningful interactions with artificial algorithms. We usually know that we are not talking to other people, so these interactions do not qualify as Turing tests – and yet, in many ways, we do treat these algorithms as equals. In consequence, as of recently, a lot of (posthumanist) research speaks about radical equality between human and non-human actors (Bayne and Jandrić 2017; Jandrić 2017). What is your take on this type of interaction between humans and machines?
SF: This is really about transhumanism because the ‘human’ is used as the standard of performance, tbe terms of which depends on how we respond to what these created things do and say. That’s the whole point of the Turing Test. As my previous response suggests, I’m not terribly vexed by this phenomenon as such. The real social justice problem is that we don’t treat fellow flesh-and-blood humans as seriously as we treat these algorithms.
PJ: In Humanity 2.0 you write:
When the social sciences are presented as the most progressive of the three main bodies of knowledge – that is vis-à-vis the humanities and the natural sciences – a story is told whereby the social sciences provide voice and direction for what the 18th century Enlightenment philosophers had called the ‘project of humanity’. (Fuller 2011: 16)
What about today’s social sciences? Are they the most progressive of today’s main bodies of knowledge? What kind of voice and direction should today’s social sciences provide to our current project of post/trans humanity?
SF: A general case can be made for the social sciences remaining the most progressive body of knowledge in the academy, but it’s hard to say which is the most progressive discipline. Strange as it may sound, I’m inclined to say that economics is always ahead of the curve – at least at a conceptual level, if not a predictive one. When I’ve sought clarity in my own thinking, I’ve always found the codified intuitions of economists the most bracing and challenging. A key advantage that economics as a discipline has is its abstractness. Economic principles can be applied to just about everything – not merely human behaviour. Indeed, as Philip Mirowski and others have observed (often critically), many of those principles began in classical mechanics and thermodynamics. As a result, economics may be best positioned of the social sciences to capitalise on the post/trans-human turn, since it probably carries the least ontological baggage of any of the social sciences. (People who think that economics is inherently ‘individualistic’ are too focused on how economic principles have been applied, rather than the principles themselves, which are ontologically neutral.) Perhaps the economist who has perhaps most distinguished himself in the post/trans-human arena so far is Robin Hanson, whose work I recently reviewed (Fuller 2017).
In contrast, my own home discipline of sociology has really lost its way for a variety of reasons, which add up to a loss of salience of the general concept of ‘society’, mainly due to the end of socialism as a viable worldwide political movement. Indeed, we may even be seeing the slow death of the welfare state, since it is difficult to see how the tax system will be ever again capable of redistributing wealth as it did so effectively in the third quarter of the twentieth century. This was the backdrop against which I wrote The New Sociological Imagination (Fuller 2006b). One of the consequences of our ‘brave new world’ is that the very idea that there is something uniquely ‘human’ about the idea of society is quickly disappearing, which in turn has opened the door to reviving the more ‘sociobiological’ approach to sociology that I earlier mentioned in connection to the anti-Durkheimian origin of the field, which effectively undermines any privileging of the ‘human’, indeed along the lines that Latour now advocates. So the burden of proof is firmly on the side of defenders of the ‘human’ to indicate exactly what they’re trying to defend.
In these matters, I’ve been strongly influenced by the political philosophy of republicanism, which I first discussed in some detail in The Governance of Science (Fuller 2000). The basic idea is that a society should consist only of beings who regard themselves and each other as equal participants in public affairs – what after Philip Pettit is often discussed as ‘freedom from domination’. Historically this condition has been associated with city-states, whose self-consciously artificial character meant that they had specific entry requirements that could be met in a variety of ways but the bottom line was that candidates would contribute to – not subtract from – the polity as a result of their residency. Our modern notions of citizenship and especially civil rights derive from this tradition, and of course it has led to endless controversy about who should be ‘in’ or ‘out’ of a given polity. Both John Calvin and Jean-Jacques Rousseau endorsed republicanism, and it also figured in late nineteenth century voluntary attempts to ‘repatriate’ American Blacks to West Africa and European Jews to Palestine. So republicanism – like all interesting political philosophies – has had a chequered career in practice, not least in its most complex, scaled-up version, the USA. Nevertheless, I am sympathetic to the general spirit of the approach, which is why with an eye to our impending post/trans-human condition, I have been a champion of Turing Test-like criteria – such as formal examinations – to determine the sorts of beings who should be allowed in the ‘human’ polity. The ultimate value of focusing the mind in this way is twofold: on the one hand, it requires the polity to take collective responsibility for deciding who does and does not count as an ‘equal’ in the politically relevant sense of ‘human’, and on the other hand, it also requires that the polity decide how to do deal with those who fail to meet the relevant criteria. In the latter case, there are several options – ranging from principled hostility, through indifference and limited reciprocal arrangements, to eventual incorporation (e.g. through a training or probationary period). This last possibility becomes especially interesting if one thinks about the prospects for, say, upgrading computers or enhancing animals to enable them to flourish as autonomous agents in a human-centred environment.
PJ: This interview is published in the inaugural issue of the new journal Postdigital Science and Education – and its mission statement can be found in (Jandrić et al. 2018). Please comment on the concept of the ‘postdigital’. What are its theoretical and practical potentials?
SF: I’ve now read your journal’s mission statement, and it’s very much of the moment. As you yourself observe, there have been already a series of ‘post’ movements over the past 50 years, starting with ‘postmodernism’. So, there is a question about just how long ‘postdigital’ will remain meaningful as a coherent organising rubric. Here I would offer the following observation. When ‘post-’ is prefixed to a term of periodization, it can refer to one of two things: either to a time when, say, ‘modernism’ or ‘humanism’ will have passed as a moment in history; or, to a time when ‘modernism’ or ‘humanism’ will have become the self-conscious agent of history. It is this latter, more reflexive understanding of these movements that makes the ‘post-’ more ontologically radical and, as a result, more intellectually interesting. To anticipate some of the issues that we discuss below, I find the idea of ‘posthuman’ in the sense of ‘after the human becomes obsolete’ to be less challenging and attractive than in the sense of ‘after the human drives history’. Whereas the former treats the ‘human’ as, say, Foucault does in The Order of Things (1994) – namely, as simply an occurrence (or perhaps even an accident) of natural history – the latter treats the ‘human’ coming into its own as the responsible agent and principal driver of history. It was this latter prospect that led Julian Huxley to coin the term ‘transhumanism’, as well as to lend his support to the publication of Teilhard de Chardin’s prohibited works.
Now, how would this distinction apply to ‘postdigital’? On the one hand, ‘postdigital’ could simply mean ‘after the digital has lost its novelty or salience’; on the other hand, it could mean ‘after the digital becomes the master narrative of our world’. Your manifesto appears to vacillate between the two readings, perhaps because you also seem to want to canvas the different uses of the term ‘postdigital’, which of course aren’t necessarily compatible with each other. But here too, the latter, more ambitious sense of ‘postdigital’ is more illuminating. And here I would trace the concept back to Erwin Schrödinger’s famous 1943 Dublin lecture, ‘What is Life?’ (Schrödinger 1944), where he introduced the idea of a ‘genetic code’ by analogy with digital code. It seems to me that this connection, which helped to inspire the molecular revolution in biology, is what gives the ‘postdigital’ its intellectual power, which has now been greatly extended through the computer revolution, ranging from the digitisation of organisms (i.e. the sequencing of genomes) to the creation of digital organisms (i.e. entities in virtual reality). To be sure, Schrödinger’s connection has been always contested, especially by thinkers keen to resist ‘physical reductionism’ in biology. The late historian of twentieth century biology, Lily Kay (2000) published a very well informed albeit critical account of this early period, in which Norbert Wiener’s cybernetics also played a significant role in collapsing traditional metaphysical differences between the human, the organic and the mechanical. In any case, I think this sort of understanding of ‘postdigital’ is bound to have a long half-life.
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