How do the myths of positivists, those spirited defenders of ‘Science’, come to bear upon our commonly shared world? When it comes to the relationship between science and ethics, is the wall that separates ‘facts’ from ‘values’ a valid inference from the evidence, or just another positivistic myth?
One of the essential traits of our mythologies is our difficulty in perceiving them as such. Other people’s mythic stories stand out to us as obvious deviations from what we know is true, but our own beliefs – being necessarily true, or we would not hold them – are excluded from this kind of judgement. At least, this is the broad strokes version; I find I can hold beliefs without expecting them to be true, and Nietzsche also pushed boldly forward in this general direction. Even theists, notoriously tarred by others with the stain of self-deceit, may acknowledge that their own beliefs must be in error somehow: to claim otherwise would be to confuse faith in God with faith in one’s own image of God, a kind of idolatry that is arguably prohibited in the Abrahamic traditions.
Positivists – those that limit their beliefs to the boundary of the testable – are no worse victims of this blindness than anyone else but many have a unique mental defence against mythic self-realisation, namely justifying their entire beliefs as validated by science. This, on closer inspection, is a rather odd claim since positivists wildly disagree with one another – sometimes passionately, and often forcefully – despite claiming identical foundations for their beliefs. The reason for this queer state of affairs is that science does not represent a clean cut box of neatly stacked facts, but rather a haphazard, sometimes contradictory, never quite complete scrapbook of theoretical models and practical measurements. Seeing this edifice as the best foundation for truth is one of the most basic positivist myths.
The original positivist myth, however, is that touted by the person who coined the term ‘positivist’ in the first place, the nineteenth century French intellectual Auguste Comte. Comte was the founder of sociology and (not unrelatedly) of positivism, and believed in “the Law of three stages”, whereby societies (and sciences) evolve from a theological stage, through a metaphysical stage to a final positivist stage, where it is purified of all metaphysics and theology. This ‘science supersedes religion’ story – which I've heard voiced out loud by sci-fi author Ian Banks and others – is reminiscent of the mythologies the early Christian church deployed to stamp out ‘heretical’ religious traditions pre-dating its foundation. It seems positivists are just as prone to mythic visions of progress as their religious cousins.
Another common positivist mythology is what Mary Midgley has dubbed ‘science as salvation’ - the view that whatever problem we face, it can be solved by further research into new technologies. Positivistic faith in technological immortality is one example I’ve discussed before, a bizarre way of wishing for doom and believing it to be liberation. Equally odd is the ‘flee the dying planet’ myth embedded in a great many science fiction stories: if we cannot co-operate sufficiently to stabilise our terrestrial environment, the colossally impractical expansion beyond our world is a tall order indeed. It is striking that after the detonation of the first atom bombs, some of our finest nerds were convinced our civilisation had a life expectancy measured in mere decades – this eschatological myth would seem to be in direct opposition to ‘flee the planet’, yet it often feeds directly into it.
Eschatology - the “study” of the end of all things – is where positivist mythology really puts itself on a par with its religious predecessors. Man has always been obsessed with stories of his own destruction (women, thankfully, have been rather less enamoured with this kind of doomsaying). Science fiction, the mythic wellspring for positivists, is packed to the gills with stories of our extinction, or post-apocalyptic stories of our near-extinction. Some philosophers, stoically abandoning philosophy in favour of their own engaging mythologies, turn extinction into the centre point of a myth that might be uncharitably called ‘doom worship’ (or perhaps ‘dead certainty’). I’ve always found these kinds of stories oddly reminiscent of the eschatologies of early human cultures, many of which accepted as a given the transitory nature of existence.
For myself, the crucial difference between human civilisation lasting for millions of years compared to just thousands of years utterly exceeds the relatively trivial facts of eventual extinction. Besides, on this as with so many matters I am ultimately agnostic: without knowing how this universe came to be, I cannot rule out absurd survival scenarios in the far future (time loops, successive universes and so forth). But either way, what matters now is what happens here and now – the attempt to substitute time as a non-deity in some kind of metaphysical goal-line drive strikes me as rather silly. While this kind of eschatology is a venerable tradition in human culture, it's not much of a foundation for anything worthwhile beyond epic navel gazing.
One striking difference between positivist mythologies and their religious predecessors is a lack of overt moral content. Conventional mythic stories have always highlighted ethical considerations – consider the implications of the Epic of Gilgamesh or The Iliad, to give just two ancient examples. Positivist mythology, by contrast, tends to sidestep moral concerns, often by presenting itself as factual and thus immune from concerns of values. This supposed separation between fact and values, the blight of twentieth century moral philosophy, is incredibly strange! As Bruno Latour has noted, the idea that any kind of scientific fact emerges without any influence from the researchers values is absurd; at the very least, the decision of what to research could not be value-neutral. More than this, however, the idea that fact and value come apart cleanly is entirely farcical – moral values intimately entail facts. The force of the ethical injunction against murder comes in part from the facts of death. If life were more like (say) a videogame, the morality of killing would necessarily differ.
The erecting of an ever-taller wall between ‘facts’ and ‘values’ is the shadow of the now defunct Vienna circle – the logical positivists that inherited Comte’s crown and modernised his dreams. Although logical positivism as such was a dead end, those early twentieth century philosophers and partisans of science did radically affect the mythic landscape of science, helping to give birth to the contemporary split between a science that was supposedly wholly factual and value-free, and a moral philosophy which was then inevitably left with next to nothing once the divorce was finalised.
Ironically, the effect of sidelining ethics in positivist mythology is not to render them value-neutral, but to escalate their moral content to an incontestable status. The mythology of genetic medicine, for instance, presupposes the moral acceptability of its actual research outcomes – or at least, it did until stem cell research collided this issue with contrasting stories. The unstated yet overriding myth of the researcher has always been ‘my research is neutral, and I am blameless for what society does with it’s outcomes’. As Hannah Arendt complained in respect of the nuclear bomb, such indifference to consequences does not paint scientists in a very appealing light. The belief in the neutrality of scientific practice becomes an amoral smokescreen, obscuring matters of concern deserving of debate long before technological genies are released from their respective bottles.
Ultimately, as I assert in The Mythology of Evolution, there is no science without mythology, and positivism is inevitably as riddled with narrative myths as any traditional religion. This is not to say that science or positivism is a religion, per se, this is simply humanity being human, and no great cause for concern. However, the denial of any ethical dimension to science itself takes terrible risks not only with scientific credibility but with the planet we all share. The “Vienna wall” between facts and values must be torn down for the benefit of all, including the researchers whose work can no longer be considered entirely in isolation from their societies. But this is particularly difficult when the primary metric applied to research is that of its market value. The wall conveniently obscures the alliance of greed between science and industry.
Science cannot replace religion, but positivistic non-religion can supplant traditional religion, as it has done to some extent in the UK and France. What we should neither expect nor hope for is the transformation of our mythic landscapes into purely positivistic terms. Older myths still have their role to play – and not just for the practitioners of long-standing traditions. The ethical resources of mythology are just as available to us as they have ever been – we just briefly forgot that there was a vast world outside of the fenced-in domain of ‘fact’ we cannot afford to lose touch with.