Dialectical Biology // Cognitive Maoism

Modified from my forthcoming, ‘Epistemic Dynamics of a Revolutionary Science.’

Of course the speed of light is the same under socialism and capitalism, and the apple that was said to have fallen on the Master of the Mint in 1664 would have struck his Labor Party successor three-hundred years later with equal force. But whether the cause of tuberculosis is said to be a bacilus or the capitalist exploitation of workers, whether the death rate from cancer is best reduced by studying oncogenes or by seizing control of factories – these questions can be decided objectively only within the framework of certain sociopolitical assumptions (Levins & Lewontin 1985, 4-5).

By ‘science,’ we speak of variously many things.  There are scientific theories – explanatory hypotheses about the natural world – and even technological commodities, which are the products of science.  Then, there is a network of social actors, orthodoxically thought to consist primarily or even exclusively of ‘scientists,’ the fruits of whose collective efforts constitute the social production of these products.  Finally, there is a third respect in which we speak of science; in this sense, there is a worldview, approximately but not exclusively defined by the socially productive modes and products of science, which presents the manifest image of reality as the scientific image (see Bas Van Fraassen, The Scientific Image (1980) on the distinction between the manifest vs. the scientific image of reality.)  I do not mean to suggest that there is a single ‘worldview’ that is consistent across the endless spectrum of scientific disciplines and subdisciplines; worldviews differ significantly between Mendelian and molecular genetics, between Newtonian mechanics and relativity theory; indeed, historical cases abound in which some such cases of collisions between worlds had significant sociopolitical consequences.  Here, I mean only to articulate the relation between the historically contingent social worldview and the productive modes of science.  The mode of this scientific worldview is primarily ideological; by understanding this ideological mode in an Althusserian vain, we see that social relations of knowledge production in science are both materially and ideologically productive; in this sense, both the theoretical products of the first, and the scientific worldview of the third senses in which we speak of science are essentially ideological.  The dominant Western scientific ideology operating in and between each of these layers has been variously critiqued by philosophers of the Left: for its deeply methodologically entrenched oppressive patriarchal values, exposed by feminist philosophers of science; for its bourgeois Capitalist values and culturally imperialistic violence, decried by epistemological anarchists and Marxist scientists alike.  Arguments for the value-ladenness at each of these levels abound.  The Mertonian myth of value-free objectivity of the early twentieth-century has only served to engender a certain disinclination among interested parties of scientists and stakeholders to challenge (or even to see) the framework of sociopolitical assumptions in which these social and material relations of knowledge production are arranged.

The scientific worldview sets epistemological boundary conditions that narrow and define our conception of ‘truth.’  When this feedback loop is allowed to continue, the result is a paradigmatic period of Kuhnian ‘normal science’; for many, this is not a vicious circle, but rather a precondition of scientific progress.  I hardly need to state that the story of stable progress along the lines projected by the status quo characteristically fails to convince those who detect oppression in the orthodoxy.  Epistemic features of theories are designed to aim at ‘truth’; however, minimally insofar as our conception of ‘truth’ is refined by ideological production and for the sake of ideological reproduction (a further Althusserian notion), we should expect that the idea has a material existence that exerts its force on the social means of knowledge production.  The ‘framework of sociopolitical assumptions’ raised by Levins and Lewontin is an idea which directly challenges the question of ‘truth,’ by challenging the proper construal of standard epistemic features in biological theories.  They reject Cartesian reductionism as a manifestation of oppressive ruling class values being insinuated into scientific methodology as a guiding epistemic principle, presenting work from across the fields of evolutionary and population sciences, molecular biology and zoology, to demonstrate the value in adopting a dialectical ‘truth-concept’ as an epistemic aim in the sciences.  The selection of truth-concept is established with express political motivation.

An epigraph is set in the beginning of The Dialectical Biologist (1985); it reads,

To Frederick Engels,

who got it wrong a lot of the time

but who got it right where it counted

So too did Levins and Lewontin get ‘it right where it counted.’  The form of ideological revolution presupposed by dialectical biology amounts to scientific or cognitive Maoism; it is thereby ill-equipped to fulfil its mandate, to be an ideologically emancipatory science, counterposed to the dominantly Cartesian orthodoxy.  We can conceive of an alternative view – with a Trotskyist spirit – in Longino’s contextual empiricist approach to the study of the social relations of knowledge production.  Longino’s view pushes for greater diversification among practitioners of science, to maximally widen the array of background beliefs employed in the production of knowledge; however, diversification within the constraints of Western science is effective only up to a point.  Barring the revolutionary abolition of class antagonisms, the material reality of Western science is such that oppressed beliefs remain alienated from the centralized, sanctioned body of permissible bourgeois-ified background beliefs.  Thus, the ideological erosion of the scientific worldview on a material basis must serve as a precondition for ideological emancipation; furthermore, this erosion must proceed from the bottom-up, under the unity of an educational program, rather than from the top-down, under the forcible instilment of dialectics.  As is so often seen in the realpolitik of emancipation, spontaneous solidarity builds between sectarian pockets of the revolutionary Left.  Likewise, my predominantly Marxist analysis benefits here from the groundwork laid by Feyerabend’s epistemological anarchism.

The question may arise as to what sorts of concrete results we might be entitled to expect as a result of the program of ideological erosion, and of the transitional program of a subsequent dialectic reconstitution of science in society.  Feyerabend argues that separate and distinct traditions of knowledge are likely to be mutually enriched as a result of open theoretical discourse.  If correct, then epistemic enrichment is a beneficial consequence of the ideological erosion of the scientific worldview on the material basis of the elevation of the intellectual and cultural authority of non-scientific worldviews.  But however serendipitous, the matter quite misses the point.  My argument proceeds on the basis of the view of sociopolitical emancipation as historical necessity, in a Hegelian sense.  What would it mean, say, to have one’s body of theories epistemically enriched in the sense that they now more reliably produce justified true beliefs, when epistemological reliabilism is fed back into science methodologically as an epistemic aim inspired by evolutionary biology and psychology? – only that we have successfully reinforced the status quo, ‘progressing’ in a dull Lakatosian vain.  While I do consider enrichment of this sort to be likely, it is merely a coincident to the final emancipatory cause.


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