What Science Wants

Essays on technology, psycho­analysis, philosophy, design, ideology & Slavoj Žižek


March 30, 2014

What Science Wants

Reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s essay in the most recent edition of The Baffler left me with the conviction that science desperately needs to be rehabilitated. Consider her critique:

I was educated in this scientific tradition, ending up in cell biology, which proposed that you cannot understand, say, the flight of a hummingbird until you have killed the bird, cut its wing muscles into slices a few microns thick, and subjected them to electron microscopy. Thus, a kind of unacknowledged necrophilia runs through modern, capital-intensive biology: to study something you first have to kill it. You know you have “understood” it when you arrive at a theoretical description that contains no hint of agency—just a series of mechanisms involving organelles, which you have isolated through high-speed centrifugation, and molecules, identified by a series of fractionation processes. The hummingbird’s speed and grace is explained by the density of mitochondria in its wing muscles, leading to an abundant flow of ATP to the myosin. Similarly, maybe the inchworm’s dance will eventually yield to the dissector’s knife, banishing all notions of play or agency or will. … Everything happens “for a reason” as part of some vast, insensate, cosmic mechanism. Insofar as human consciousness survives the gaze of mechanistic biology, it is a solitary beacon in an otherwise dead world. As the great molecular biologist Jacques Monod observed, as if surveying the wreckage: “Man at last knows he is alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe.”

Compare this with a passage from Steven Pinker’s recent article Science is Not Your Enemy, which can be read almost as a reply:

If one were to list the proudest accomplishments of our species (setting aside the removal of obstacles we set in our own path, such as the abolition of slavery and the defeat of fascism), many would be gifts bestowed by science. The most obvious is the exhilarating achievement of scientific knowledge itself. We can say much about the history of the universe, the forces that make it tick, the stuff we’re made of, the origin of living things, and the machinery of life, including our own mental life. Better still, this understanding consists not in a mere listing of facts, but in deep and elegant principles, like the insight that life depends on a molecule that carries information, directs metabolism, and replicates itself. Science has also provided the world with images of sublime beauty: stroboscopically frozen motion, exotic organisms, distant galaxies and outer planets, fluorescing neural circuitry, and a luminous planet Earth rising above the moon’s horizon into the blackness of space. Like great works of art, these are not just pretty pictures but prods to contemplation, which deepen our understanding of what it means to be human and of our place in nature.

Pinker offers a more sophisticated version of the line of thinking advanced by science popularizers like Carl Sagan and Neil deGrasse Tyson over the last few decades, heading off critiques like Ehrenreich’s by inventing a quasi-spiritual, even pantheistic mythology that science supposedly reveals. Where Ehrenreich claims that science banishes all notions of agency, Sagan sentimentally replies “We are a way for the universe to know itself. Some part of our being knows this is where we came from. We long to return. And we can, because the cosmos is also within us. We’re made of star stuff.”

Lurking behind the scenes is the problem disenchantment—the way that science removed all magic, mystery and meaning from the world, and leaving us “alone in the unfeeling immensity of the universe.” Everyone seems to agree that this is an adverse side effect, but scientists like Pinker, Sagan and DeGrasse Tyson say “No no! Science enriches our perspective on the world!” and wax poetic about deep and elegant mathematical principles, images of sublime beauty and contemplation about what it means to be human and our place in nature.

If science needs to be rehabilitated, it must first be saved from the scientists. I think Barbara Ehrenreich is right to find a certain necrophilia in science’s disenchanting spirit that scientists try to distance themselves from. Her essay leaves me with the instinct to defend everything she maligns but only a vague sense of what exactly I’m getting at or what the implications might be.

To frame it succinctly, what if we start from Freud’s claim that psychoanalysis is a Copernican revolution, that it dethrones the rational, conscious subject in the same way that Copernicus deprived us of the conception of the earth as the center of the universe? As Žižek sometimes puts it, the insight of psychoanalysis is that we are the story that we tell ourselves, and that story is a lie.

The conclusion is that science does not so much illuminate as turn off the lights. Leon Wieseltier’s response to Steven Pinker includes the following point, beginning with a quote from Pinker’s essay:

“Behavioral genetics can update folk theories of parental influence with discoveries about the effects of genes, peers, and chance, which have profound implications for the interpretation of biography and memoir.” Profound? I think not. Whatever its genetic roots, a man’s experience of his father is his experience of his father, and the representation of that relationship in a biography or a memoir demands empathy and probity more than a hunt for phenotypes.

Wieseltier is right that behavioral genetics tells us nothing profound about our relationship to our parents, but if there’s one thing that psychoanalysis tell us, it is that a man’s experience of his father is most often not his experience of his father, except perhaps inadvertently through the gaps, mistakes, inconsistencies and omissions through which his unconscious speaks.

People in the humanities tend to have a great pretension that deserves to be taken down more than a few notches, which is that our conscious reflections about our subjective experience has profoundly meaningful things to say about our lives and humanity’s place in the universe and so on. The psychoanalyst reads your biography about your memories of your father not so much with probity or empathy, but as a detective approaches a crime scene, asking where the bodies are buried and which clues have been dropped to throw off the investigation.

In the story of our lives, we are all unreliable narrators. Science has a similar skepticism of our ability to accurately represent reality through our subjective experience. When you write about your father, that he was this kind of man, attributing various events and your own psychological development to the modern version of the soul, your father’s personality, science says no, you (or your father) have this genetic predisposition, your brain chemistry inclines you towards neuroticism, your serotonin is out of balance.

This kind of causal explanation may or may not be correct or even useful. The important difference is that it’s a disenchanted explanation. All the pondering over moral questions, life choices, difficulties overcome or succumbed to, meaning, purpose—the narrative arc of life—is swept away, and replaced with blind biological mechanisms as the motive forces, which don’t add up to anything. Such accounts describe without providing any meaning, which perhaps in an oblique way points to the unconscious, the site of that which is repressed and unsymbolizable.