Thursday, September 29, 2011

Believing What You Know Ain't So

I just finished reading Bruno Latour's On the Modern Cult of the Factish Gods (Duke, 2010), and am still stirring it around in my head. Latour is (in)famous as an anthropologist of science, whose fieldwork consists of observing the savage scientist in his natural habitat, the laboratory. I haven't yet read any of that work; all I'd read before was We Have Never Been Modern (Harvard, 1993), whose title signaled to me that the author was someone whose ideas would make sense to me; and so it proved.

Here's a nice passage from the newer book, which caught my attention after I listened last night to three people on the community radio station talking about ancient astronauts and the like. None of them believed that the Great Pyramid was built by extraterrestrials, because that wouldn't be scientific; yet I got the impression that they believed that extraterrestrials had crashed at Roswell and been sequestered at Area 51.
Does the only example of naïve belief we have, then, come from a naïve belief on the part of researchers that ignorant people believe naively? Not quite, for ignorant people do exist who quite resemble the picture that researchers would like to paint of them. Photographers of flying saucers, archaeologists of cities lost in space, zoologists tracking the Yeti, people who have been contacted by little green men, creationists fighting against Darwin – all the sorts of people that Pierre Lagrange studies with a collector’s passionate interest – are all trying to pin down entities that seemingly display the same properties of existence, the same specifications as entities that, according to the epistemologists, come from laboratories. Curiously enough, these people are called “irrationalists,” whereas their greatest fault comes more from the reckless trust they display in a scientific methodology, dating to the nineteenth century, in order to explore the only mode of existence they are able to be imagine: that of the thing, already there, present, stubborn, waiting to be pinned down, known. No one is more positivistic than creationists or ufologists, since they cannot even imagine other ways of being and speaking than describing “matters of fact.” No researcher is that naïve, at least not in the laboratory. This is so much the case that, paradoxically, the only example of naïve belief we have seems to come from the irrationalists, who are always claiming that they have overthrown official science with stubborn facts that some conspiracy had hidden away [44].
The last section of the book is a sermon on the relation between science and religion, and even though I disagree rather vehemently with a lot of what he says there, he still raises valuable questions and points to important problems. And I appreciate the almost Wildean paradoxes he plays with, which (as he admits) catch him in his own contradictions.
What would happen to me if, in criticizing the critics, I was simply trying to create another scandal? What if this essay, in its pretension to re-describe iconoclasm, was nothing but another boring iconoclastic gesture, another provocation, the mere repetition of the endless gesture of the intelligentsia’s most cherished treasures? We don’t know for sure [88].
… it is science that reaches the invisible world of beyond, that ... is spiritual, miraculous, soul-fulfilling, and uplifting; it is religion which should be qualified as being local, objective, visible, mundane, un-miraculous, repetitive, obstinate, and sturdy [111].
What I have argued in this lecture is very different: belief is a caricature of religion exactly as knowledge is a caricature of science. Belief is patterned after a false idea of science, as if it were possible to raise the question “Do you believe in God?” in the same way as “Do you believe in global warming?” except the first question does not possess any of the instruments that would allow the reference to move on, and that the second is leading the interlocutor to a phenomenon even more invisible to the naked eye than God, since to reach it we have to travel through satellite imaging, computer simulation, theories of earth atmospheric instability, or high stratosphere chemistry [121].
I'll probably have occasion to refer to Latour again, but for now it's time to hit the sack.