Letters

Letters Archive
Fall 1994, Vol. 3, No. 1
  • Science & Society
  • The National Conversation
  • Science and Society

    The study of the relation between science and society has become more urgent since the great technological advances of the last half of the twentieth century. The University, and the Humanities Center in particular, makes possible the interactions between scientists and their colleagues that keep this study informed and dynamic. The 1994/95 Fellows Program, "Science and Society," directed by Arleen M. Tuchman, Associate Professor of History, and John A. McCarthy, Professor of German, and including participants from diverse areas within science and the humanities, will explore connections and tensions between science and society. Professors Tuchman and McCarthy recently met with Letters to discuss their views of this year's program.

    MCCARTHY: Arleen and I want to create a history for the Fellows group, to create a sense of organization, of ordered movement, while the actual experience might be rather disordered and in disarray. I am thinking about this in terms of the science of chaos, but not in terms of "chaos the ory." In the field of literature, we are always dealing with various theories, approaches to the study of literature, and its contexts and recontextualizations. The most basic definition of theory has to do with seeing things attentively, not just taking in this or that stimulus. Now what does that mean? Seeing and making connections between individual phenomena—that for me is already theory. That was already theory for Goethe, going beyond action, beyond just the openness to sensations.

    TUCHMAN: When you say you are not interested in chaos theory but the science of chaos, do you mean that you are not interested in the way in which the science of chaos has been misunderstood and applied?

    MCCARTHY: No. In Germany last year, when I was pursuing this topic, I taught an advanced seminar at the University of Munich. It was a large group of about 50 people including mathematicians, philosophers, physicists, chemists, as well as the normal contingent of people in literary studies. I kept talking about the theory of chaos and the natural scientists said, "No, it is the science of chaos." In the English-language literature on chaos, the normal reference is "theory," while there is quite a bit of reference to science as well. On the German side they always talk about "Chaos Forschung," research or science of chaos. I did not want to offend. I wanted to explain why I thought it was possible to talk in terms of a theory of chaos. But after having to confront these students for three months, and they were very recalcitrant, I finally decided that by speaking on theory of chaos what I am doing is preempting a broader understanding of what is involved in this science of chaos. Science tries to be objective, tries to study phenomena without predetermining a perception of everything that occurs and can be taken in and observed by the human mind, by the senses. "Theory" indicates perhaps that there is already a preconceived notion of what is involved in the phenomenon before you even study it. I want to avoid that.

    TUCHMAN: I am not sure that is the distinction I would make between science and theory. While I agree with you that scientists attempt objectivity, no scientist today would deny that the observer is part of the process of interpretation. Chaos theorists have proposed a theory as to how certain natural processes unfold. A theory should never be understood as something that is set in stone. It seems as though you want to call it a science to suggest that there is an attempt at objectivity, but why would calling it a theory suggest that there isn't?

    MCCARTHY: Let me back up for a moment. I would agree that natural scientists are fully aware that what they are doing is an attempt, and only an attempt, at being as objective as it is humanly possible to be. We are always interfering; every time we reflect upon what we have perceived there is already an imposition of the self on the object, and we change things that way. But I was reacting to the perception of these German scientists who were very adamant about not referring to chaos as a theory but rather as a science. For them theory implied the imposition of a human order on a natural phenomenon, and by observing phenomena from that preset position, one could no longer see what was happening because one was looking for certain things.

    TUCHMAN: How does one propose to engage in scientific study without a theory? It almost would be suggesting that it is possible not to have some idea of how things are ordered when one goes out to study nature, which is an impossibility. It could be that we are aware that a particular theory has problems—for instance, the theory of evolution according to natural selection. But to imagine that your understanding of the problems could actually lead you to be so open-minded that you no longer have an ordering system is a philosophical position with which I disagree.

    MCCARTHY: Many people would disagree with the position of the radical deconstructionists who would say that it is all openness and that it does not matter which order you impose and that any order is fine, that the text opens itself to any number of different interpretations.

    TUCHMAN: That is a different question than whether you are able to study nature without some kind of ordering system.

    MCCARTHY: We all need some kind of ordering system, and that is what I find fascinating about this interfacing of science and society as well as society and science. We agree that it is not a one way street of influence—it is not just natural science that acts upon society but it is also the other way around. That is some thing that we must assume is a premise for everything that is discussed.

    LETTERS: It seems unavoid able to see it as a two way street, given how you are thinking of the theoretical in relation to the scientific. I am wondering if you are thinking of theory, or if you were warned off of theory, as a sort of synonym with ideology.

    TUCHMAN: When I hear "chaos theory" I think of it like "theory of evolution" or "relativity theory." I do not think of it as ideology at all.

    MCCARTHY: There are many who have come to think of it as ideology and I do not want any association with ideology. With respect to the difference between ideology and theory or science, I am thinking along the following lines. With the decentering of the universe with the Copernican turn, there has been a switch beyond the rather limited spheres of interaction and reach out to the margins of the universe. Nevertheless, this shift in perspective from an ideal state in the past to the possibilities of the future into a decentering of that point of view. That is to say, this shift has privileged scientific endeavors in their effort to reshape the world, to create the perfect human being, to create the perfect society. This has been particularly obvious since the 16th century, and of course it picked up speed in the 18th and 19th centuries and it still dominates. So that there is, even in our endangered world, a general perception that we can turn to science to save us from our own mistakes, that science will be able to correct its mistakes. I am not sure that it is appropriate to talk about the mistakes of science, but rather the scientific paradigms that have evolved. We are evolving, we are playing with our genes and with our environments, in the same sense that we are hoping to get our students to play with ideas. It is no longer a question of finding a focal point, a place, a locus which gives us meaning, it is now a question of the perimeters. The corner markers are being shifted around all the time, and so the perimeters are being shifted, but we still have our coordinates. So I agree that we need order, we cannot operate without any kind of order, but we have now from an emphasis on the past and from the hope that one could return to paradise, to Plato's mythical Arcadia, or achieve the state of lost innocence associated with that more perfect realm. With this change in emphasis, there has been a shift to the future. It comes with the development of scientific tools which have extended our sensory perform an emphasis on the past and from the hope that one could return to paradise, to Plato's mythical Arcadia, or achieve the state of lost innocence associated with that more perfect realm. With this change in emphasis, there has been a shift to the future. It comes with the development of scientific tools which have ex tended our sensory perception. We have been able to go out beyond the rather limited spheres of interaction and reach out to the margins of the universe. Nevertheless, this shift in perspective from an ideal state in the past to the possibilities of the future is translated, into a decentering of that point of view. That is to say, this shift has privileged scientific endeavors in their effort to reshape the world, to create the perfect human being, to create the perfect society. This has been particularly obvious since the 6th century, and of course it picked up speed in the 18th and 19th centuries and it still dominates. So that there is, even in our endangered world, a general perception that we can turn to science to save us from our own mistakes, that science will be able to correct its mistakes. I am not sure that it is appropriate to talk about the mistakes of science, but rather the scientific paradigms that have evolved. We are evolving, we are playing with our genes and with our environments, in the same sense that we are hoping to get our students to play with ideas. It is no longer a question of finding a focal point, a place, a locus which gives us meamng, it is now a question of the perimeters. The corner markers are being shifted around all the time, and so the perimeters are being shifted, but we still have our coordinates.
    So I agree that we need order, we cannot operate without any kind of order, but we have now come to understand that our ordering systems are not permanent, that they are constantly undergoing change.

    LETTERS: Would you see the development of science in the same light?

    TUCHMAN: I would be more comfortable than John is about talking about mistakes. However, John has pointed to an interesting irony, that as a society we blame science and technology for the problems that we are grappling with in the 20th century, and yet we turn to them to solve those very problems. There is a similar kind of tension in medicine as well. We have a population that is growing increasingly dissatisfied with what modern medicine produces while its expectations of what modern medicine should deliver are rising. Part of the problem is that science, understood as the natural sciences, has emerged as the body of knowledge to which people turn to answer fundamental questions. Who are we? Why is nature what it is? What are we capable of? With the turn to the natural sciences, an expectation also arose that the natural sciences could do only good. There was a shift away from any kind of discussion about ethics, and an expectation that the questions that were being asked and their answers would only further human progress. The collapse of ethical discussion is something that we are continuing to struggle with today, most directly in societys unwillingness to police the internal activities of the scientific and medical communities. The claim by the scientific community is often that people who do not have the knowledge cannot possibly police those who do have it. Yet a lot of the decisions that we are confronting today about our society and where it is going have to be debated in an environment that moves outside of science, that works with the scientific community but that is conducted on a much broader ethical plane. I was recently reviewing some essays in which a number of students were asking why the Nuremberg medical trials had absolutely no impact on the American medical community at the time, why there was very little response to them, and most importantly why they generated so little self-reflection or self-policing. The medical community thought that what happened in Germany was barbarism, but that it had nothing to do with ethics because it had been bad science, and since it had been bad science then that was the central issue. Had it been good science . . . they did not even pursue that. Where I would differ with John is that I think it is important that we start a discussion about mistakes, those we have already made, and those that we are about to make. For instance, I am very concerned about the human genome project.

    MCCARTHY: You are?

    TUCHMAN: Yes. I am concerned not only about what is going to be done with the knowledge, but also about one of the ways in which the project is being promoted—that we are go ing to learn about human identity. I cannot see what decoding the human genome is going to tell us about human identity.

    MCCARTHY: I am not sure that we can determine or alter human identity by simply rearranging gene sets. If we are not capable of objectively perceiving external reality without changing it by the very act of attention to certain things, because we are prioritizing by attending to them, we may be altering the game plan even as we think we are determining how that game plan works. What sets chaos apart from other paradigms is its indeterminacy, its openness, its unpredictability, its non-linearity. Because of all those fuzzy terms which do not allow us to come up with a strictly ordered structure, what we find is that instead of having something concrete to work with, we are opening up spaces. By defining spaces we are opening up the margins and the periphery. In between these defined spaces, there are holes. We all know this. If we take a microscope to our skin, our skin is very porous, it has got to be because we need its interaction. This table is not really firm and solid. Particles could pass through it. What I see here is a parallel to opening up spaces in the science of chaos.
    In terms of science being perceived as an instrument for the good, yes, that was absolutely the case. There was actually no question in the 18th century that science and technology could be used to bring about a better life. But that usually translated into material goods. It is clear, however, that the quality of the good life is determined by moral components as well as physical, while science and technology had been too long focused only on the material side.

    TUCHMAN: Unless you think about the sciences of man. The real hope in the 18th century was that the sciences would provide us with an understanding of human nature and enable us to shape it in the same way that we shape our environment. They hoped that they would be able to enhance human evolution, and the material ends were certainly a part of it. It was a translation of science into technology. Perhaps what concerns me is that the craving or thirst for knowledge will end in a Faustian nightmare.

    MCCARTHY: The Faustian nightmare? I thought it was an ideal!

    TUCHMAN: This ideal will sometimes lead to a disregard for values that a particular culture holds dear. I am not saying that people who engage in science do not have any understanding of ethics so that they need people from outside who can consider such issues. But any group will sometimes lose perspective if it functions in isolation. The kind of knowledge the scientific and medical communities are producing is so powerful that it is altering all of our lives all the time at every moment, and I am not certain that we should leave it up to scientists and medical researchers alone to determine what is good and what is bad. We as a society need to be engagining in a dialogue. I am too much a realist to think that we could ever stop certain avenues of reseach so the most I could hope for is that they are being discussed.

    MCCARTHY: I could not agree more. We need to break down the disciplinary boundaries and apprise one another of the distinctive parameters of the discipline. Without those parameters, no discipline. Obviously, we cannot do without the disciplines. I could talk in terms of convergent and divergent forces. Thomas Kuhn uses those terms in his notion of a paradigm change. The convergent forces are those which are disciplinarily focused. The divergent ones would be those which would take the attention off the task at hand and force the researcher, whether in the humanities or in the sciences, to look at a related field and say: "Well, what impact might my project have in another area."

    TUCHMAN: I would want to argue here that ethics should be part of the scientific enterprise.

    MCCARTHY: I agree with you. But on the other hand I am also firmly convinced that any thought which is capable of being formulated will be formulated. And if it is capable of being formulated and thought privately for oneself, we are also communication bound." As social creatures, we are driven to share those thoughts with others. Once you have thought a thought, there is no way you can police it or censor it. It is going to come out.

    TUCHMAN: No, but you can perhaps, if there is enough discussion, develop a consensus that this is something on which we do not want to act.

    MCCARTHY: You have reminded me of the dilemma faced by Robert Oppenheimer in the development of the atomic bomb as thematized by the Swiss writer Friedrick Durrenmatt, in his black comedy The Physicists. The chief protagonist, Johann Wilhelm Mobius, feigns insanity to prevent his theory of field unity from becoming public knowledge. If it got into the wrong hands, the consequences could be deadly. However, he was a scientist, an atomic physicist, and he continued to work in his cell. He thought only for himself, but his manuscripts were spirited outside and he was no longer in control. "All these years," he said, "I have tried to protect the world from the abuse of this knowledge, but at the same time I could not stop from developing my ideas." There seems to be some genetic coding in us, something that forces us to dare to toy with ideas, to dare to expand those parameters just to see where they will lead, and we cannot always anticipate whether the outcome is going to be good or bad. If we take a perspective which is far removed from that of the human race, what happens to the human race is of little concern within the cosmic perception.

    LETTERS: There is a difference between the two of you of which I am sure you are well aware. John, you are willing to use scientific terminology and the products of science itself in metaphorical terms to help you with your theoretical work and your understanding of the world. Whereas, Arleen, you do not seem to do that at all. You also seem to be slightly suspicious of it. Is this merely an aesthetic, stylistic difference?

    TUCHMAN: This is one of the things about which I am curious to learn in the course of the year. I do not know whether it is be cause of my training in the sciences or because of my upbringing, but I do not tend to use a lot of metaphors when I speak, at least not consciously. John does. I often do not know how metaphorically he is speaking and how literally. My sense is that what he says functions more on the level of metaphor and then I just think we have a difference in style. I am actually intrigued to move around in that space. If he is speaking more literally in these moments, then we will get into more disagreements about this, because, for instance, I am uncomfortable with claims that somehow we can explain our creativity through our genetic code. But I do not think that is what he means. I also keep think ing, "I do not need to do any thing with John, the scientists will!"

    MCCARTHY: Yes, I know. I am looking forward to that. I was not aware that I was using metaphors. I thought I was talking about things.

    TUCHMAN: I was actually surprised when you first said suspicion, but I may indeed be suspicious. This was apparent when we were constructing the project and we had a similar discussion about whether there was a two way street between science and culture or not. My sense is that John accepts the power of the scientific paradigm more than I do. I do not think that there is any difference between us in how much we admire the knowledge that science is producing. Some times I think that John's fascination with science translates into a willingness to give it an explanatory power on broader questions than I am willing to give it.

    MCCARTHY: What I am hoping is that my obvious bias which is predetermined by my own profession and what I do on a daily basis will be corrected toward the middle. That means that maybe some of the metaphorical language, some of the fuzzy thinking which is endemic in this kind of endeavor will be corrected. But on the other hand, "fuzzy thinking" is what goes on in every creative individual; it is part and parcel of the aesthetic in the humanities. So I am looking forward to this chance and opportunity for a correction of the imbalance.
    I do not mean to privilege the stance and the attitude of the natural sciences. They give us a different perspective, but it is a perspective on the same questions which concern humanists deep down beneath the surface. We are all looking at the same thing, and it is a question of identity, as you said before. "Who am I?" "What am I doing here?" "Where am I going?" We no longer have the comfort of a telos which has been passed onto us. God has disappeared. Maybe she died, right? As Nietzsche mused. We no longer have this light to follow and we are sort of groping in the dark, and any theory or any hypothesis is valid until it is proven to be inappropriate within a given context. Meaning that maybe given the appropriate context, even the wildest of hypotheses might be appropriate.

    LETTERS: Are you taking science as roughly well-situated within an accepted and unquestionable metaphysical enterprise?

    MCCARTHY: Yes.

    TUCHMAN: So you do have this idea that with science, it is possible to figure it out once and for all.

    MCCARTHY: Isn't that what the human genome project is all about?

    TUCHMAN: That is what some believe it is all about.

    MCCARTHY: Well, OK. This is what the particle physicist believes it is all about.

    TUCHMAN: Yes, but you are accepting it! As critics of the scientific enterprise we are supposed to point out the questionability of that belief.

    MCCARTHY: That belief is a function of what scientists do. They examine and they dissect and they try to understand. It is entirely logical and appropriate for them to act that way. We can not just simply go off in all directions at once, we have got to study the needlepoint.

    TUCHMAN: I agree with you. But I wonder about your claim that this reductionist path will lead inevitably to a point where we will have "figured it out."

    MCCARTHY: I am not that convinced that even if we were able to decode the genetic codes so that we can recut it the way we want to that we would in fact be entirely successful on a more global plane. The global perspective is something we are always paying lip service to, and indeed we need to try to keep the big picture. Nevertheless, all our endeavors are in the small realm, in the very restricted and limited area, because we can police that and we can measure progress and movement.

    TUCHMAN: You and I differ here as well. I agree with you about the global, but I disagree with you about the small. Every time a question is answered, a thousand others are raised. I have never seen the development of science as ever leading to the point where something has been figured out. It is constantly changmg.

    MCCARTHY: That is why finding the top quark does not constitute an end.

    TUCHMAN: It is the beginning,

    MCCARTHY: It is the beginning of something else, though we do not know of what it is the beginning. We do not know because it is unpredictable.

    TUCHMAN: When I look at the search for the top quark, what is interesting to me is why at a particular time, in a particular place and context do people believe that finding the top quark would answer an important set of questions. I distance myself from the knowledge, though at the same time I am fascinated by it. I distance myself from the particular knowledge and what it might be saying about how the real world is structured. I do want to know what they are finding out. There is a part of me that is as much a materialist as you are, but I tend much more toward a social constructionist position than you do.

    MCCARTHY: I will accept that. I am motivated by a search for philosophical unity or wholeness, a theory of everything.

    TUCHMAN: You are looking for some kind of truth, with a capital 'T', but I do not know what it means to tell the truth here. It depends what is meant by "truth." When I say that there is a material world that sets constraints, I do not mean that it dictates one possible answer. We are constantly changing what we are asking of nature. For example, in genetics when one starts talking about the central dogma where information travels in only one direction, from the gene out into the cell, there is a lot riding on that interpretation. The central dogma regards DNA as an autonomous structure, uninfluenced by its environment. This picture dominated genetics for decades and is consistent with ideas of biological determinism. Yet as early as the 1950s, Barbara McClintock argued for a different picture of DNA. She viewed DNA in a dynamic relationship with the environment. Yet her work was ignored until recently. What fascinates me is how this dynamic picture of DNA raises interesting questions about the divisions we make between biology and environment, or nature and nurture. I would imagine it is the same with the physical world. Sure there is some kind of truth about the discovery of the structure of DNA and how it replicates itself, but the way scientists interpret these processes is much more than a self-evident description of natural events.

    MCCARTHY: If we are in fact products of nature in our biological and mental make-up, if we are willing to grant that the information flow or knowledge flow is not just from the sciences to the humanities and social sciences, but also the other way around, then it seems to me logical to expect that it is not just we human beings who are making demands of nature, but in a very real manner nature is also making demands of us. Nature is provoking us to respond to natural phenomena, to our physical environment, and to notions of what the good life is to be. And I see therefore a dialogue between human consciousness and physical reality, and that is what motivates me. I am not sure I would be very happy with consensus. I am not expecting the Fellows' seminar to reach a consensus. I do not care if we all agree upon the actual existence of material reality or not. What I am hoping for is a consciousness raising. That I will know a lot more about modernity in Spanish literature, and a heck of a lot more about molecular biology than I did at the beginning. And that enhancement of the knowledge and the perspective hopefully will impact upon what I am thinking about and what I am trying to do.

    LETTERS: Do you have the same kind of hope?

    TUCHMAN: I would have to say yes and no. I do not want a lot of consensus because that would be sterile. I also do not want there to be such fundamental disagreement about the basic assumptions about who we are in the world that it becomes impossible to talk to each other. So, I hope that there is enough consensus that we can have a very stimulating discussion about our disagreements.

    MCCARTHY: Arleen and I have agreed to disagree.

    TUCHMAN: We have no choice, do we!

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