What Place for Science?

Gilbert Hottois, trans. Sylvia

from: « Quelle place pour la science? », Esprit , Mai 1993, No. 191 (5) (Mai 1993), pp. 98-103

           The representation of technoscience in interaction with other major symbols (God, nature, society…) is solicited by three vectors of interpretation: technoscience as ultimate summary judgement [ultime référé] and symbol of the “non-symbolic”; the symbolic “surpassing” of technoscience and the resurgence of more or less re-actualized traditional onto-theological symbols; the integration of technosciences under a modern symbol (Society) which either denies or recognizes, to a certain extent, their irreducibility to the symbolic.


Technoscience as Ultimate Summary Judgement

           It is the representation according to which technoscience is and should be henceforth the dominant motive force of society (and even beyond: of Evolution) and constitutes the only important type of relation of man to nature (to the universe). Following this conception, the technosciences must continue to develop firstly as a function of the most promising perspectives, i.e., following the ways of research and development that the practicians of technosciences estimate being the richest in potential discoveries or inventions independently of every other consideration. Society (politics, economy, individual and collective behaviors) would—if it wants to preserve the technoscientific dynamic which is that of progress—only have to adjust. This representation of technosciences oscillates between the utopia of a purely technoscientific solution to the human condition's every problem (in sum: suppression of all suffering, physical or moral, whatever it be) and the idea of the mutation of man into something more complex and superior (which comes back to a dissolution of the human condition). A solution or dissolution of humanity is thus exclusively awaited of the exercise of technoscientific operativity which is of a physical and not symbolic nature (or more radically: not spiritual). Certainly, religions equally propose the salvation and the metamorphosis of humanity, but they do not understand these as the result of action and work, i.e., the physical interaction between man and nature.


Returning to Traditional Symbols: The Religious and Metaphysical Reactions

            The religious and metaphysical reactions are critical in two senses. On one hand, they reject content and denounce the presentation of technosciences as an ultimate “summary judgement”. They preserve the traditional “summary judgements”: God, spirit, nature, being… On the other hand, this time at the level of the value of discourse (of the symbolic, of language), they refuse to subordinate it to the efficiency of physical and mathematical operativity: Deus (sive homo) ex verbo and not Deus (sive homo) ex machina. These reactions of an onto-theological nature constitute a vast and complex nebula. It includes a fund of ordinary irrationalism (occultism, astrology, spiritism, etc.); traditional religious expressions, moderate, militant or fundamentalist; a philosophical fund (neo-Thomism, neo-Kantism, Hegelianism, hermeneutics-phenomenology…); and finally, an affirmation renewed by metaphysics, eventually spiritualist, of technosciences themselves… This latter reaction is presented as induced by the technoscientific dynamic and not as come from the exterior. It merits that we briefly linger there.

            Bernard d’Espagnat[1] offers a good illustration. Refusing to think contemporary science as purely experimental and operative (i.e., to think it as “technoscience”), Bernard d’Espagnat finds it a summary judgement (“this” of which “it would be a question” in physics: the real). This summary judgement, exterior to physics, takes an evidently metaphysical turn and its expression breaks with mathematical formalism to reconnect with the language of philosophy or religion (as it happens, a Spinozism reread in the light of hermeneutic phenomenology). If B. d’Espagnat’s step remains prudent, informed and lucid (physics is not renewed on metaphysics but if we pose it a certain type of question, that contemporary physics no more poses), others resolutely take their desire for reality: “We in no way attempted to ‘force’ spirit into physics, it is the natural development of physics [… which] all at once opens upon a domain that the physicists have believed able to deliberately exclude from their field of research: spirit. […] The physicists have encountered spirit by always deepening their research on matter[2].”

            The introduction of an “anthropic principle[3]” is another fashion of conjuring the nihilism which would be associated with technoscience. This conception parts from the observation of the existence of man, a being who finds their finality in themself, but also produced from an extremely long evolution conditioned by some initial physico-mathematical relations (interaction constants, mass of the electron, of the proton, Planck’s constant, etc.). If these relations had been others, neither the universe, as we know it, nor man could exist. The improbability, the singularity, of these physico-mathematical numbers is such that their “choice” is conceived only as a function of their distant product which becomes thus their finality, the “reason” of their choice: man. Besides the critiques that one can address to what is only a re-actualization of finalism on the basis of very questionable reasoning, cosmology—solicited at the center of the argument—invites itself to the following remark: the future duration of the universe being at least as long as the passed duration, all leads to think that Homo is not the ultimate finality—the reason—of the universe. Although is it not contestable that man be a being who finds an absolute finality in itself? Otherwise said only a “theological principle” permits to truly justify the cosmos whose ultimate goal would be thus to produce God and whose initial conditions (of “creation”) should be such that evolution in God is possible (necessary?). The author of these initial conditions remains an enigma: God itself by a cosmological retroaction, looping the origin of time parting from its end by a good hermeneutician. Or the devil, having attempted a new “roll of the dice” seeking to “abolish chance”, i.e., its proper non-justification may be absolute…

            Anyway, the absenteeism [abscondité] of this theologization of the universe in terms of an evolution of many billions of years yet to come is such that the reintroduced finalism is voided of all understandable content by surpassing anthropology, of the sort that this orientation, despite appearances, is not necessarily opposed to the absolutization of the technoscience that we have evoked first.

            A third form of reaction with an onto-theological dimension, which is presented as induced by the development itself of technosciences, is first announced as ethics. It denounces the nihilism which is expressed in the technoscientific imperative: “One must do every experiment, actualize every possible, without any a priori limitation”; it is in search of a foundation from which to impose absolute "safeguards”[4]. Although all of bioethics does not come to this tendency and that we could also conceive of it as in solidarity with a space of secular reflection[5], it had firstly been a creation of theologians and its moral renewal is principally borne by a wave of spiritualist fund.

            All these reactions, which are presented as consequences of technoscientific research and development, as if “at the butt of technoscience” a sort of reversal had to be operated, proceeding from an acute sensibility to the effects of de-symbolization, de-ontologization, de-finalization, etc., of modern and contemporary science. The void of nihilist operativity would arouse its proper “remedy” under the form of a re-substantialization. But whatever be the actuality of contexts in which these reactions are produced (genetics, field physics, cosmological hypotheses…), they come back to reanimate traditional metaphysical and religious thought. Without always daring to say it neatly, they see no other way out of what they experience as the nihilism of technoscience than a stop and backward return.

            Nothing in research and development is necessarily conducted to this genre of turnaround: contemporary science can, apparently, indefinitely be pursued on the purely experimental mode if it is accompanied by a solid and pragmatic sense of responsibility and a certain prudence.


A Symbolic Absolute and New Referential: Society

           This orientation contests the two precedents. As all tendencies which flee the extremes, it is relatively elusive, hesitant, and finds its good left and right, between the “two cultures” or beyond. It gravitates around an epistemologically controverted lieu: the “human sciences”, and particularly sociology. The manner in which “sociocentrism” is situated vis-à-vis philosophy and religion will not be taken up again here. We import firstly its critique of the absolutization of technoscience and of the thesis of its autonomy. Autonomy and absolutization would be dangerous ideological illusions.

            Technocratic research and development are an aspect of society and its becoming; whatever be its importance, this aspect is not isolable from other aspects: economic, political, sociological, psychological… The reality of technoscientific practices is complex because individual and collective human factors come into play. Every research and every development cannot be pursued at the same time (fault of material means), one must choose axes of priority (national and international) and inside these general axes, one must select particular projects. Choice and selections are the occasion of debates and pressures where argumentation and rhetoric (and all the “human, all too human” factors) weigh heavy. The applications and the diffusion of inventions-discoveries are no less the stake of an equal complexity traversed by divergent forces. Technosciences should therefore not be isolated from the global problematic of society (and more and more in a planetary optics: humanity in becoming forming the veritable global society). Every research, every development, every technoscientific solution should be evaluated according to the ensemble of social, political, economic, ecological… aspects.

            Thus far, we can only recognize that this description of the reality of research and development appears much completer and more nuanced than the representations exposed precedingly. But save to deliver us to this complex technoscientific society curiously close to Hobbes’ state of nature (except that the state of nature has in fact become the state of the artifice where technical and rhetorical warfare permanently reigns) that must be managed in the most pragmatic, i.e., the least dysfunctional possible fashion, this description is the prelude to responses and questions that reveal the limits and risks of sociocentrism.

            The description, analysis, and management of social complexity should be done as a function of a “society project”, i.e., from a social philosophy having some idea of what the “good society” should be and the means to produce and preserve it. The first effect of sociocentrism is to therefore institute social, political, and juridical thought as ultimate discursive and symbolic lieu massively occupied by the “human sciences”. This is not without consequences on technosciences and the traditional symbols of transcendence. Concerning the former, they will have to bend to the norms of the “society project”; otherwise said, sociocentrism hardly leaves any place to fundamental and disinterested technoscientific research of which it moreover denies that it still exists (if it ever existed). Concerning the major signifiers of onto-theological thought (being, God, physis…), sociocentrism receives them at best as archaisms of historic or folkloric interest, at worst as a symbolic or rhetorical force that must be denounced and combatted because it represents a danger of dogmatism and totalitarianism. This danger is partly real (and it should be combatted as such), but it is also, for a considerable part, fantasized by sociocentric thought. This is an effect incapable of taking onto-theological, speculative, religious, or metaphysical thoughts into account. Now, the targets of transcendence can signify a desire for liberty as much as a will to totalization, an insistence on maintaining the open thought of simply questioning that resents sociocentrism as suffocating and narrow. Since sociocentrism also prolongs a typically Comtian, i.e., positivist desire: substituting sociology for philosophy. Useless or dangerous, the philosopher (not reconverted to the human sciences) is then discovered asocial, a bearer of free and vaguely indecent questions.

            If from a practical (i.e., also political) point of view, sociocentric thought is often a better source of inspiration than metaphysics or religion, the other side [le revers] of its pragmatic fecundity and speculative misery. Its authentic challenge is learning to manage not only social conflicts and problems but also the transcendence of man. What will be of the “societal bubble” in a hundred million years… a duration that isn’t too long on the scale of the “universe bubble”? What is man? What is the sense of being? What is time? What is society in the breakaway [échappée] of these questions and the becoming of the universe?



[1] A la recherche du réel, Gauthier-Villars, 1980.

[2] J.E. Charon, J'ai vécu quinze milliards d'années, Albin Michel, 1983, p. 50-51.

[3] Cf. J. Ladrière, « Le principe anthropique. L'homme comme être cosmique », in Cahiers de l'école des sciences philosophiques et religieuses, Brussels, 1987.

[4] Cf. for example, Hans Jonas, le Principe responsabilité, Éd. du Cerf, 1990.

[5] 5. Cf. T. Engelhardt, The Foundations of Bioethics, Oxford Univ. Press, 1986.