Gerry Canavan

the smartest kid on earth

Posts Tagged ‘Norbert Weiner

Brecht on the Future and Suvin on Science

with 3 comments

Faced with all these machines and technical arts, with which humanity could be at the beginning of a long, rich day, shouldn’t it feel the rosy dawn and the fresh wind which signify the beginning of blessed centuries? Why is it so grey all around, and why blows first that uncanny dusk wind at the coming of which, as they say, the dying ones die?
—Brecht

Quoted in Darko Suvin’s excellent “On the Horizons of Epistemology and Science,” which has some nice affinities with the Kim Stanley Robinson talk from last January as well as what he has to say in the Polygraph interview. Here’s a excerpt from Suvin elaborating the difference between what he calls S1 (science that is “good” from the standpoint of global justice) and S2 (the majority of the present kind of science, “whose results are mixed but seem to be increasingly steeped in the blood and misery of millions of people”), using John von Neumann and Norbert Weiner as his templates:

Noble points out how the S1–S2 dichotomy can be followed in the diverging of von Neumann and Wiener paths from the 1940s. Von Neumann’s ‘mathematical axiomatic approach reflected his affinity for military authority and power’, while ‘Wiener insisted upon the indeterminacy of systems and a statistical, probabilistic understanding of their function … [T]he “steersman” [of his cybernetics] was human in social systems and thus moved not by formal logic but by skill, experience, and purpose … [He] urged “a constant feedback that would allow an individual to intervene and call a halt to a process initiated, thus permitting him … second thoughts in response to unexpected effects and the opportunity to recast wishes”.’ He protested against military secrecy, accurately seeing that ‘it will lead to the total irresponsibility of the scientist, and, ultimately, to the death of science’ (the good one, S1). As is well known, he was ignored by a solid wall of scientifico-military bureaucracy, and decided to stop further work in militarily usable cybernetics ‘to kill civilians indiscriminately’. He turned his attention to the development of prosthetic devices in medicine and cooperation with trade unions (Noble, Forces, 71–4; see Wiener’s 1946 ‘open letter’ in Haberer, 316–17).

Last but not least, a Wienerian responsible science, co-directed by other community members, would reopen, as he did, the totally forgotten question of its democratic accessibility and accountability, definitely lost since the atom bomb, with a return to full transparency, to a ‘cognitive democracy’ (Morin, 166–9). This would also mean fully reorganising education, from top to bottom, to prepare citizens for such an understanding.

And here’s a longer excerpt still on what the struggle for S1 might entail, with my emphasis:

This begins by noting that multiplicity entails choice. If science is a human and societal institution with a history, traversed by often intense class struggles, then our Archimedean point necessarily takes a stand on the side of humanity or against it, using all the good insights we can muster from practice, science, art or elsewhere.

We may need a modified version of the felicific calculus. I take my cue from the path-breaking work of Georgescu-Roegen, who pleads for a ‘maximum of life quantity’, which ‘requires the minimum rate of natural resource depletion’ (pp. 20–21; cf. Schrödinger, and Lindsay 440ff.). He starts in the proper scientific way by identifying life as a struggle against entropic degradation of matter, bought at the expense of degradation of the ‘neighboring universe’ or total system – for example Terra. The inevitable price to be paid for any life-enhancing activity reintroduces, as against classical physics’ narrowing of causality to the efficient cause of manipulating matter and its disregard of the time sequence, the importance of purpose, Aristotle’s final cause (pp. 192–5) discussed above, reinforced by Lenin’s cui bono, a choice ‘for the sake of what’ (in whose interest or for whom) is that activity undertaken. As Prigoginian theory puts it, there is never such a full reversibility that time (history) could be left out as a factor: matter has memory (cf. WallersteinEnd 164–6).

Georgescu-Roegen explains ‘life quantity’ as the sum of all the years lived by all humans, present and future. I differ from him by finding this first useful step still too Benthamite in its disregard for quality. True, we can neither properly specify a positive life-quality nor legislate for the horizons of future generations. But we know at least what is to be avoided as bad quality of life: lives traumatised by direct violence, hunger, (mostly evitable) diseases, and also by anxiety and aimlessness. And I think we know enough to say, first, what major financial orientations, and second, what major productive orientations are not to be pursued. As to the first orientation, his main continuator and updater, Herman Daly, points out that even in classical economics it is accepted ‘that in accounting income we must deduct for depreciation of capital in order to keep productive capacity intact. This principle … needs only to be extended to natural capital’ (p. 16). This means that environmental costs must be internalised into prices ‘so that the polluter and the depleter pay’, through tax measures (p. 15). Faced with the uncertain effects of new technologies or substances, ‘an assurance bond in the amount of possible damage [should be required], to be posed up front and then returned over time as experience reduces the uncertainty about damage’ (p. 16). Thus we could approach a Steady-State Economy, which is defined not by the capitalist instrument of GNP but by ‘ecological sustainability of the throughput’, which is NOT registered by market prices. (p. 32). ‘[T]he maximand is life, measured in cumulative person-years ever to be lived at a standard of resource-use sufficient for a good life’ (p. 32; Daly acknowledges that this standard is vague, but vagueness to be worked out in practice is much better than total disregard as in the GNP). Such a Steady-State Economy would also do better for the preservation of all other species.

As to the second orientation, according to Georgescu-Roegen’s ‘thermodynamic calculus’, only pursuits as minimally entropic as possible can be allowed if civilisation is not to collapse. This is directly opposed to the pursuit of unnecessary quantity: ‘“bigger & better” washing machines, automobiles and superjets must lead to “bigger & better” pollution’ (p. 19). But it is fully consonant with the post-Einsteinian concept of nature, from quantum physics to the catastrophe theory (cf. also Collingwood, 13, and Grene, ch. 9 on ‘Time and Teleology’). His approach can thus be usefully continued by using the notion developed by Nussbaum of ‘central human capabilities’ to be used in order to establish ‘a basic social minimum’ (pp. 70–71) for a life of human dignity. Her list of capabilities which also constitute entitlements is rich, and I shall mention from it only what seem to me two central groups and one precondition. The two groups are entitlements to life, bodily integrity and health, and then to a development of sense, imagination, thoughts, and emotions. The precondition is what I would rephrase as control over the relationship between people and the environment, which could be expanded to encompass all the inextricable political and economic means to the above ends (cf. pp. 76–7). These entitlements as rights supply a ‘rich set of goals … in place of “the wealth and poverty of the economists,” as Marx so nicely put it’ (p. 284).

Further, our technical competence, based on an irresponsible S2 yoked to the profit and militarism that finance it, vastly exceeds our understanding of its huge dangers for hundreds of millions of people and indeed for the survival of vertebrate ecosphere (cockroaches and tube worms may survive). For humanity to survive, we imperatively have to establish and enforce a graduated system of risk assessment and damage control based on the negentropic welfare of the human community and its ecosystem (which includes the fauna and flora) as an absolutely overriding criterion. This means retaining, and indeed following consistently through, Merton’s famous four basic norms of science–universalism, scepticism, public communism, and personal disinterestedness (cf. also Collingridge, 77–85 and 99ff.) – or Kuhn’s five internal criteria – accuracy, scope, fruitfulness, consistency, and simplicity – as well as strict scientific accountability in the sense of both not falsifying findings and accounting for them. However, it also means practising science from the word go (say, from its teaching) as most intimately co-shaped by the overriding concerns what and who is such an activity for, and thus why would it be worth supporting or indeed allowing by the community: ‘A stronger, more adequate notion of objectivity would require methods for systematically examining all the social values shaping a particular research process …’ (Haraway, Modest, 36, building on Harding; cf. also Wallerstein, End, 164–7, 238–41 and 264–5, and Cini). All theories can today be seen to have powerful biases, the goodness or badness of which must be treated in each case on its epistemologico-political merits.

But probably even this is not enough. We are today irreversibly steeped in technoscience: very little technology is to be had apart from the science that produced it, very little science is to be had apart from complex technology. It is a time not only of particle physics and molecular genetics, but also of nanotechnology and untold further possibilities of highly risky forays. We therefore have to draw on, encourage, and discuss all suggestions for limiting risks, such as the one by Kourilsky and Viney on precautionary steps before prevention, and many other debates for a ‘University of Disaster’ (Virilio). Yet, furthermore, we have to pick up the suggestion by Denis Noble ‘that there is an obligation on the part of creators of this stockpile of knowledge to work out how to disarm its ability to destroy’ (p. 184). ‘First of all, do not harm’: this old Hippocratic oath must be amplified by adding, ‘Whatever else you do, put up barriers against destruction.’ These would be still recognisably scientific debates (cf. Collingridge, 189–94), only enhanced by the wider horizon of a life-oriented S1, where the opponents are transparently honest and explicit about their presuppositions, and thus allow both an understanding of how rival interpretations of data may be arrived at and, where necessary, a questioning of the presuppositions (for example, not just where to build a highway and how to build a nuclear power-station but also whether). As mentioned above, this profile of decision-making should, after the original decision, be preserved for needed corrections as consequences unfold.

I do not pretend the above is more than a first orientation. Among its huge gaps is, for example, lack of discussion on who should establish and administer such reviews and controls, and how to prevent an unnecessarily cumbersome bureaucracy from taking root. These are, however, not beyond human ingenuity, if transparency and accountability are achieved. What ought to be stressed is that today science (S2) is fully accountable to and strictly steered by capitalist interests, while pretending to be technical and apolitical. It has therefore grown ecocidal and genocidal (for the genus Homo), with almost all scientists as ‘craftsmen of power’ (Haberer, 303), ‘barbarian experts’ (C. P. Snow), and today willing mini-entrepreneurs of destruction. We need a science for survival (S1), which would look anew at its reason for being by openly acknowledging its civic political responsibility, and which would be steered – probably, in the long run, less tightly than today – by the interests of community and species survival.