The Doxa of Science
I am slowly working my way through Latour’s We Have Never Been Modern – a very dense work that I will try to lighten up for you.
I have also wondered what the Modern World was, but didn’t get much help in understanding it. The thinkers of the world seem to have avoided the subject. Not Latour, he is perfectly willing to come up with his own theories – even though they are nothing like anyone else’s.
I want to give you a feel for his writing, and section 2.10 The Power of the Modern Critique does this:
The Laws of Nature allowed the first Enlightenment thinkers to demolish the ill-founded pretensions of human prejudice. Applying this new critical tool, they no longer saw anything but hybrids of old but illegitimate mixtures that they had to purify by separating natural mechanisms from human passions, interests, or ignorance. All the ideas of yesteryear, one after the other, became inept or approximate.
The obscurity of the olden days, which illegitimately blended together social needs and natural realilty, meanings and mechanisms, signs and things, gave way to a luminous dawn that clearly separated material causality from human fantasy. The natural sciences at last defined what Nature was, and each new emerging scientific discipline was experienced as a total revolution by means of which it was finally liberated from its prescientific past, from its Old Regime.
Anyone who has felt the beauty of this dawn and thrilled to its promises is modern.
People are no longer thrilled by this – and he goes on to explain why. His reasoning here is not as satisfying as mine. I see a flip into opposite social values – into a destruction of the Modern World, even as technology advanced at a rapid pace. This extremely pessimistic viewpoint is not attractive (to say the least) and I am the only one who has it.
But let us return to the beginning of the Modern World. From page 18:
Boyle and his colleagues abandoned the certainties of apodictic reasoning in favor of a doxa.
This send me to the Merriam-Webster Unabridged for apodictic:
expressing necessary truth : absolutely certain <categories of human action … are apodictic and absolute and do not admit of any gradation — Alfred Sherrard>
This type of reasoning goes back to Aristotle, and was the type of reasoning used in the Middle Ages. Modern science did not use this, it used a doxa.
The dictionary had no definition for doxa, but Wikipedia did:
Doxa (from ancient Greek δόξα from δοκεῖν dokein, “to expect”, “to seem”) is a Greek word meaning common belief or popular opinion, from which are derived the modern terms of orthodoxyand heterodoxy.
You might want to read the rest of this definition, as it goes into its special meanings in the New Testament.
Instead of seeking to ground his work in logic, mathematics or rhetoric, Boyle relied on a parajuridical metaphor: creditable, trustworthy, well-to-do witnesses gathered at the scene of the action can attest to the existence of a fact, even if they do not know its true nature.
Note his specification of well-to-do witnesses. Science, as well as politics, was still the domain of men of property – as it still is, for that matter.
Let me bring that up to date, with the latest discoveries of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC). This technique – smashing particles together to break them apart and find out what they are made of – has a built-in problem. These subatomic particles come in bundles (such as hadrons) and when they break apart all hell breaks loose. Extremely sophisticated detectors are used in combinations to try to figure out what goes on in very short time periods. And the results are incredible amounts of data that have to be sorted through very quickly.
The first observers are a huge bank of computers that sort through the enormous data stream, looking for something significant. These computers have been programmed by teams of international experts to do just this.
After trillions of collisions a pattern begins to emerge from all the noise of everything else going on. The experts then have to examine these conclusions more carefully, and form a consensus among themselves. Finally, a press conference is called to announce the results to the public – who has paid for this extremely expensive experiment.
They are disappointed to find the scientists expressing themselves so carefully. Much more work will be necessary, they say, before anything useful may emerge.
This process is the same one developed by Robert Boyle in the 17th Century. Except that it takes much longer.
And instead of people being thrilled – they are disgusted.