The limits of science are the limits of scientific civilization.

21 August 2015

Friday


Ludwig Wittgenstein

A Wittgensteinian Approach to Civilization

One of my most frequently accessed posts is titled following Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus section 5.6, “The limits of my language are the limits of my world” (“Die grenzen meiner sprache sind die grenzen meiner welt”). I noted in Contextualizing Wittgenstein that this earlier post on Wittgenstein was posted on Reddit and as a result gained a large number of views — a larger number, at least, than my posts usually receive.

If there is a general principle that can be derived from Tractatus 5.6, one application of this general principle would be the idea that the limits of science are the limits of scientific civilization. In the same vein we could assert that the limits of agriculture are the limits of agrarian civilization (or even, “the limits of agriculture are the limits of biocentric civilization”), and the limits of technology are the limits of technological civilization, and so forth. Another way to express this idea would be to say, the limits of science are the limits of industrial-technological civilization, in so far as our industrial-technological civilization belongs to the genus of scientific civilizations.

Recently I have taken up the problem of scientific civilizations in Folk Concepts of Scientific Civilization, Types of Scientific Civilization, Suboptimal Civilizations, Addendum on Suboptimal Civilizations, David Hume and Scientific Civilization, The Relevance of Philosophy of Science to Scientific Civilization, and Addendum on the Stages of Civilization, inter alia. None of this, as yet, is a systematic treatment of the idea of scientific civilization, though there are many ideas here that can some day be integrated into a more comprehensive synthesis.

What does it mean to live in a scientific civilization constrained by the limits of science? One of the points that I sought to make in my earlier post on Tractatus 5.6 was a scientific interpretation of Wittgenstein’s aphorism, acknowledging that the different idioms we employ to think about the world involve different conceptions of the world. In that post I wrote, “…scientific theories often broaden our horizons and allow us to see and to understand things of which we were previously unaware. But a scientific theory, being a particular idiom as it is, may also limit us, and limit the way we see the world.” This is part of what it means to be constrained by the limits of science: our scientific idioms constrain the conceptual framework we use to understand ourselves and our civilization.

Significantly in this context, different scientific idioms are possible. Indeed, distinct sciences are possible. We have had an historical succession of scientific idioms, which could also be called a succession of distinct sciences — something that could be presented as a Wittgensteinian formulation of Thomas Kuhn — according to which one scientific paradigm has replaced another over time. There is also the unrealized possibility of different origins of science, and different developmental pathways of science, in different civilizations. This is an idea I explored in Types of Scientific Civilization.

A civilization might develop science in a different way than science emerged in terrestrial history. A civilization might begin with a different mathematical formalism or a different logic. Perhaps logic itself might begin with the kind of logical pluralism we know today, which would contrast sharply with the logical monism that has marked most of human history. Different sciences might develop in a different order. The ancient Greeks developed an axiomatic geometry, but no scientific biology. But the idea of natural selection is, in itself, no more difficult than the idea of axiomatic geometry, and could have developed first.

A civilization might fail to develop axiomatic geometry and instead develop a scientific biology in its earliest history — its equivalent of our classical antiquity — and this kind of early biological knowledge would probably take agricultural civilization in a profoundly different direction. There may be (somewhere in the universe) scientific agrarian civilizations that are qualitatively distinct from both agrarian-ecclesiastical civilization and industrial-technological civilization. Thus the developmental sequence of sciences in a civilization — which sciences are developed in what order, and to what extent — will shape the scientific civilization that eventually emerges from this sequence (if it does in fact emerge). Is this sequence an historical accident? That is a difficult question that I will not attempt to answer at present.

There are, then, many possibilities for scientific civilizations, and we have not, with the history of terrestrial civilizations, fully explored (much less exhausted) these possibilities. But scientific civilizations also come with limitations that are intrinsic to scientific knowledge. In my Centauri Dreams post, “The Scientific Imperative of Human Spaceflight,” I argued that the science of industrial-technological civilization, essentially narrowed by its participation in the STEM cycle that drives our civilization, is riddled with blind spots, and these blind spots mean that the civilization built on this science is riddled with blind spots.

This should not be a surprising conclusion, though I suspect few will agree with me. There is a comment on my Centauri Dreams post that implies I am arguing for the role of mystical experiences in civilization; this is not my purpose or my intention. This is simply a misunderstanding. But, in fact, the better I am understood probably the less likely it will be that others will agree with me. In another context, in A Fly in the Ointment, I argued that science is a particular branch of philosophy — that philosophy also known as methodological naturalism — which subverts the view (predictably prevalent in industrial-technological civilization) that if philosophy has any legitimacy at all, it is because it is a kind of marginal science in its own right. More often, philosophy is simply viewed as a kind of failed science.

Philosophy is not a kind of science. Science, on the contrary, is a kind of philosophy. This is not a common view today, but that is my framework for interpreting and understanding scientific civilization. It follows from this that a philosophical civilization would not necessarily be a kind of scientific civilization (the philosophy of such a civilization might or might not be the philosophy that we identify as science), but that our scientific civilization is a kind of philosophical civilization.

Philosophy is a much wider field of study, and it is from philosophy that we can expect to address the blind spots of science and the scientific civilization that has grown from science. So the limits both of science and scientific civilization can be addressed, but only from a more comprehensive perspective, and that more comprehensive perspective is not possible from within scientific civilization.

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2 Responses to “The limits of science are the limits of scientific civilization.”

  1. maphisto86 said

    Actually I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment that science is a kind of philosophy and that by living in a STEM specific world we have blind spots in our civilization. While religious belief is nowhere near dead, “God” is (at least in the urban world). A lot of people such as those in the so-called “New Atheist” movement have a narrow, scientististic view of the world. While scientific endeavor can broaden our scope of how the world is it can only inform but not determine how things ought to be. This is one of the biggest holes I see in modern society.

    • geopolicraticus said

      I make a distinction between science itself and scientism, which latter I take to be an ideological position derived from science but not established as a body of scientific knowledge based on the scientific method. (Cf. my comment on Folk Concepts of Scientific Civilization.) Scientism covers up some of the holes in scientific knowledge, but it is ultimately dissatisfying, because an honest thinker will eventually come to realize that scientism does not possess the same epistemic status as science itself.

      One response to this dilemma is to retreat to previous worldviews that provide a place for everything and everything in its place. (Freud wrote of the German idea of a Weltanschauung that it provides, “an intellectual construction which gives a unified solution of all the problems of our existence in virtue of a comprehensive hypothesis, a construction, therefore, in which no question is left open and in which everything in which we are interested finds a place.”) But this approach is bound to fail in a scientific civilization, because the growth of knowledge has made the worldviews of earlier ages seem quaint. To be sure, many convince themselves that they believe these things, but the maintenance of such “belief” requires compromises that cannot be countenanced by the kind of intellectual integrity required by science.

      I don’t see any real option but to go forward, intellectually speaking, and to try to stake out a new position. At the same time, I see very little evidence that this is, as yet, happening. I try, in my own way, to point in the direction I think we need to go — expanding science so that it becomes more comprehensive, and a frank recognition of its philosophical character, and that other philosophical conceptions of the world are possible — and hope that others will explore the genuine possibilities for our future that I have overlooked.

      Best wishes,

      Nick

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