If we are to achieve things never before accomplished we must employ methods never before attempted.Francis Bacon
Nominalism is silly no doubt, but its simpler varieties are easy to overcome. Empiricism is trickier. We’re not going to try to deconstruct it or dodge it or ignore it. We can’t do this – not without leaving rationality and the sciences behind; not without falling into some form of quiescent relativism or subjectivism.
Nominalist empiricism is the commodified version of empiricism – but it is not the only way to understand this crucial scientific practice.
We’re gonna try and outline an alternative, creative (and fun) way to relate to, understand, and do empiricism. This will be a maximally materialist empiricism, as opposed to the much more common nominalist (or idealist) empiricism. Which is to say – we treat the entire feedback loop between (historically/symbolically constituted) subjects and empirical objects – and their histories – as ontologically equivocal components of the empirical process.
Empiricism is, like nominalism – a theory of knowledge. Specifically, it is the view that our senses are the only source of knowledge. Practiced socially as an epistemology and well, you probably know it as the scientific method.
Here’s a simple version of an empiricist epistemology: Only replicatable tests that can verify/falsify hypothesis are capable of generating the facts. Facts are facts because they can be checked. They are self-correcting.
Or at least – they’re supposed to be.
Now, we have no beef with the facts – not here. The progress of the scientific fact generating machine cannot be denied. The final authority! The fortress of scientificity! The Cathedral. The discourse of the university.
But like, we just defined empiricism as being built solely on sensory knowledge. So if we adhere to that closely, ask yourself this: how many scientific experiments have you actually personally done in your life?
It’s only the ones you actually replicated yourself that generate properly empirical (experientally proven!) facts – for you! The rest are tests that you just heard or read about someone else doing. They are reports of the facts – discourses around the facts – and there is no other access to the facts, unless you wanna try replicating the entire history of science all by your lonesome.
Yeah, sensory information is a bitch that way. There’s an existential leap of faith built into the heart of empiricism! In order to access the scientific theoretical terrain that empirical tests generate – we have to trust that the other guy did the test right, did the math, made the measurement. We have to trust that the symbolic accounts we are using to understand said testing practices are capable of minimally durable semantic integrity and not just hallucinatory gibberish. We have to fling ourselves onto the mercy of history just to state a fact!
So then we mostly have access only to socially constructed accounts of scientific practice. Far from being certain knowledge, past a certain point of simple, amateur experimentation – empiricism and its tale of the facts must spread among humans on an equal playing field with every other discourse/practice – just another story at the Great Feast of Knowledge.
Fortunately – we can also try to be empirical in how we sort through socially constructed reports of factic generation. In fact, we can try to be empirical about just about everything, if we want to be.
Beyond Mere Facts: Empiricism as a Discourse/Practice
We have access to contemporary professional empirical practices only as discourses – so let’s treat them as such.
One of the immediate consequences of this is that we have to accept that facts do not exist in a vacuum. No fact or group of facts is self-sufficient. Facts always come to us embedded with other things too: epistemological assumptions, ontological assumptions, and a slew of historical and personal context, much of which is external to the necessarily reductive pursuit and refinement of the facts.
While there are certainly facts – it is also certain that there is no such thing as a neutral perspective on a fact. When a fact is passed to us it also comes with a cluster of unfactuals, nonfactuals, counterfactuals – all of which may jive with or grind against our current conceptual horizons.
Let’s put all this into a conceptual structure for easy lookins:
It’s not that the fact aren’t facts – it’s that they always come preinterpreted for us, enmeshed in the socio-historical web of the Symbolic Order.
This is true for every empirical experiment – even the isolated Robison Crusoe garage researcher (a common thought experiment used by nominalist empiricists) can only interpret the results of his experiments with the Symbolic (socio-historical) context he has ready-to-hand.
By learning how to change the epistemological, ontological, and historical context that the facts always come with, we give ourselves access to more sets of facts.
And more epistemologies. And more ontologies. And more historiographies. And more understandings of oneself! And so on.
By doing this we also enable all of these aspects of knowledge to become self-correcting – each aspect will continue to change and develop as you rotate facts through contexts and contexts through the facts.
And as a bonus! – we neither fall into relativism, nor the blind automatism of the nominalist fact-memorizer and regurgitator.
If the facts are only the facts because they can be tested – then we must test everything. This is a way to do just that.
Speculative Epistemological Consequences
Building from this we can claim wild stuff like:
- This process is an empirical (experientally error-correcting) process when it deliberately throws itself against the brute density of Some Real in order to test itself. Without an external error correction mechanism, a process can’t be empirical.
- Something like this process is already happening in all forms of empirical practice – but not always consciously (as is the case with nominalist empiricism, which does not easily update its concepts with its process). It is also embedded in forms of human practice that are not self-consciously empirical, without a systemic error correction mechanism or a truth-seeking telos.
- When present in non-empirical practices, this structure has different functions. (For instance – traditional medicinal practices also generate facts and rely on epistemo-onto-historical contexts, but the very notion of and application of these facts will be completely different from and sometimes uninterpretable from a nominalist context. These are facts that have been generated unconsciously by an historical process that is not consciously empiricist – but the process nonetheless carries along with it some verifiable facts, and useful contexts – but not a fact that could call itself a fact). If it is a part of a surviving life practice – it is a replicatable experiment and it must touch some Real somewhere, even if unintentionally or unconsciously or orthogonal to empirical reality or w/e. In the Post-Holocene, life is experimental. We are all already climate refugees.
- This (my) discourse in particular is a (para?-, meta?-) modernist discourse, because it is able to give pre-modern and less-than-scientific discourse/practices their due while nonetheless maintaining crucial qualitative distinctions between them. We are built out of absorbing contemporary postmodernisms rather than capitulating to them. We take the basic ontic equivalence (and reciprocal semantic interdependence) of every discourse/practice as a given, but refuse to take it seriously as an end in itself; nor do we derive any moral imperative from it.
- The social practices of historical materialism and psychoanalysis both fit this definition of an empirical practice (and this changes our understanding of the empirical process). These practices try to be consciously empirical in the investigation of phenomena that were once considered to be offlimits to empirical investigation, and as such generate discourses that are qualitatively distinct from their folk variants and from unconcious empirical/nominalist approaches.
- We can use a macro-empiricist approach like this to try to be empirical about lots o’ things – including our own conceptual and experiential horizons. Hegel’s project is something like this – an attempt to be empirical about one’s concepts. The Logic can never be closed, if it is to be empirical in the sense delineated here (external error correction mechanisms).
- One of the consequences of facts always being epistemologically mediated (in ways that exceed sense-certainty’s grasp) is that mass quantities of facts can lead to a change in epistemological paradigms. Facts can change what a fact is!
- One of the consequences of facts always appearing to us in (ideally speculative-empirical) ontologically constituted horizons is that all facts and fact groupings appear differently and generate different theories in different conceptual universes (you can stack them on top of each other and swap them out and stuff).
- One of the consequences of facts always coming to us embedded in a historical context (both subjective and objective) is that the practices of empiricism have an irreduceably political element.
- Another is that empirical practices always have an irreducabely sexual element.
Science is Always Political (and Politics is Always Sexual)
This should unsettle enough to pique further investigation. For is not science supposed to be the very avatar of an apolitical (and certainly asexual!) process?
Sure – but ‘supposed to be’ doin a lotta work here.
The sciences are social practices. Of course they’re political – they’re infested with jockeying careerists. It doesn’t get any more political.
Scientific theoretical terrains are battlefields. They are fields of struggle – and there is always a line. The facts generate a contradictory symbolic space, which is then fought over by competing factions, all advancing their line. Then the paradigm sublates, and the process begins all over again with new lines and new struggles over the new facts.
The peer review process is nothing if not absurdly political – an attempt at democratic regulation of scientific production. It does not work very well – political/economic imperatives routinely determine what gets published and dictate paradigms. Go figure.
Because the social practices of the sciences are always already political in these and many other ways, there’s always going to be a political context to any fact or group of facts.
So, if you swap in say – something like Pinker’s Panglossian Liberal Optimism and browse through an IPCC report, you get a predictably sanguine set of facts.
And if you go through the same IPCC report with a 21c critical materialist outlook – you get this blog.
The irreducible political element in the heart of any empirical practice introduces an epistemological distinction – between facts, and truths.
The concrete social process of empiricism in its entirety including the facts – this is a truth process, and it includes the immanent and ineliminable line struggle over the political content of the truth process.
The wager of this dead author is that: if truths are (also) the outcomes of our social practices, and our collective practices right now are are, well – y’know: then it is only conscious assumption of this Truth that can give the sciences their final purpose.
In other words – the only theory of everything that matters now is the communist theory of everything, bitches.
Shit starts to get Real when Lacan also insists that what is political can also be found to be sexual.
The only theory of everything that matters is the radical feminist theory of everything!
You laugh and sneer – but this line struggle is already being waged at every moment in all human practices, including the sciences. Find the antagonism in any scientific theoretical terrain, and there you will find:
Inertia vs Change. Acceptance vs Evolution. Determinism vs ‘free will’. Capitulation vs Struggle. Obfuscation vs Clarification. Justifications for what Is vs the Necessity of Contingency (It could be otherwise). The Defense of The Symbolic vs the Dissolutive Injunction of the Real.
Extinction vs Survival.
There’s always a political element in human practices, kids. The necessity of overhauling our productive/metabolic practices only becomes more acute in each successive moment – no human practice is exempt from its influence.
Which is all to say; Mr Hawking – your grand cosmological discursive production lacks a scientific understanding of its own production and structure as a discourse, and of the socius doing the producing. No adequate Theory of Everything can remain historically inert and idealist at root – waffling around shamefully in ancient conceptual vagaries, riddled with blindspots and problems long overcome:
or would that be too ‘philosophical’ for you, son?
The Process Must Continue
When one part of this grid gets stuck, and tries to force the other parts of the grid into conforming – this is called dogmatism.
Dogmatism is just this getting stuck, forgetting the search goes on forever.
Getting stuck sucks. There’s always more to learn, and all knowledge is historically contingent. What was true yesterday may be false tomorrow. What seemed impossible may seem to have been trivial in hindsight. The pursuit of truth is a process, as is truth itself.
This process is always retroactive, simply because of the structure of human experience. Sensory input comes first, but is only accessible via conceptual mediation. Thus – thinking comes temporally after experience.
So, there really is no such a thing as raw sensory data upon which to base empiricism – in not realizing this empiricism remains pre-rational. If our experience is always conceptually (historically) mediated, then we have to be empirical about our concepts too.
We learn after, and always too late – after the mistakes have been made. And then we change.
New experiental data can always radically change the thinking process retroactively and in totally unexpected ways – so dogmatism is a hindrance. We can be open to constant critical revision of all aspects of this process (facts, epistemology, ontology, history) and our minds will auto-update as shit happens.
When we get stuck, we stop updating.
When we stop updating, we stop evolving.
When we stop evolving, we die.