Chemistry of Concepts
A tension exists between philosophy and science. I was at the cafe working on Discipline and Punish. An older man, bearded wearing khakis and a navy windbreaker approached me at the table where I was sitting. “Is that Foucault’s Pendulum you are reading”, he asked. I told him I was reading Michele Foucault, another French guy, the post-modernist philosopher. This didn’t resonate with the older man. Curious I asked him about the book he was referring to. He explained It was about the 19th century French physicist, Leon Foucault, who demonstrated in an experiment open to the public how the earth rotates. While physicists had long understood how the earth rotated Foucault’s experiment in 1851 was the first easy-to-see proof of Earth’s rotation. Are you a physicist your inquirer profoundly inquired? No a chemist.
The chemist took a seat at the table next to me. I asked him if he worked for Monsanto (jajaja). “I’m a teacher, at Rhode Island Community College”, he corrected me. We began discussing climate change, in particular the effect of flourocarbons in the atmosphere and how the concentration of carbon molecules has been steadily rising since the onset of the industrial revolution.
The chemist started questioning the validity of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s consensus. The IPCC found that global climate change is anthrogenically driven, although to what degree and at what rate the climate will change is highly disputed. Being the irreverent jackanapes
that I am I asked him if he also did research for the American Petroleum Institute. No, he responded. I still don’t believe him.
Our conversation wound down. The chemist told me he didn’t think a philosopher would “be interested in the hard sciences because scientific discoveries can’t be, ya know, bull shitted”. He asked me if I was a student, to which I responded: not officially.
The chemist wanted to know about Foucault, about Discipline and Punish. I summarized what Foucault was up to. This book is a critique of power. It pertains specifically to bodies of knowledge, like science, I told him. I continued, Foucault explores the relationship between human bodies and the sciences, illustrating how humans become subjects of science and science inscribes knowledge on their bodies. According to the DSM IV you exhibit all of the symptoms of having ADHD. I used this diagnostic example to show the inscription of knowledge on bodies at work. Some science says this person is a leper, a cancer patient, a psychopath, a social deviant. Science is used to facilitate the categorization of many phenomena, much of which has advanced mankind immeasurably. But science has also been used to categorize human beings for political purposes. One need look no further than the pseudo-sciece phrenology and it’s application to determine criminal tendencies in the late 19th and early 20th century. Criminology is another glaring example of a politically charged science. In sum, I told the chemist, Foucault and postmodernists in general attempt to unravel how scientist/subject relations, gender, cultural bias, prejudice and unspoken assumptions effect the scientific process.
It’s all malarkey. The soft sciences don’t stand up to physics, biology or chemistry. Such critiques are attempts to halt human progress, to tear discredit remarkable discoveries. Do you believe in God he asked me.
I chuckled and told him humans invent all sorts of masters to enslave them. We shook hands and he walked off.
My exchange with the chemist brought me back to something Nietzche talks about in Human All too Human. In aphorism 6 The Spirit of Science Rules It’s Parts, Not the Whole Nietzche talks about the unconscious drive of philosophy to ascribe the greatest significance to the world. To the philosopher chemistry or physics seems so insignificant when compared to “knowledge for life”. It’s not that the philosopher deems physics or chemistry unimportant. In fact both fields respectively are part of life’s panorama of perspectives. Explaining the phenomenon of boiling water in terms of phase changes, pressure and boiling point gives indelible insight into what is happening in the pot. But so too can a poetic description. The water is boiling because the steam is trying to escape life’s cauldron of boiling motherfuckery. Something longs for escape, refuge in the cool alpine heights. And the steam dissipates out of the cauldron rising towards the peaks. Whatever…
I guess what I’m trying to say here, where I’m channelling Nietzche is that science and all it has to offer is magnificent. We’ve come so far (well?) and please my friends keep going. But in the end all we are given is this “chemistry of concepts and sensations”; a religious, moral, scientific or aesthetic way in which we create knowledge for life. And cleaving to the immediate “certainties” of this or that science, no matter how luring it’s discoveries is foolish. The chemists’ dismissal of philosophy and denunciation of critiquing science all together highlights the antagonism between philosophy and science. “Philosophy wants as art to bestow on life the greatest profundity and significance whereas science seeks knowledge and nothing further”. And science attains knowledge until some mischief maker comes along and demonstrates how that field of knowledge is bunk. A new body of knowledge emerges. A new discourse begins. But todays truth is tommorrows lie and truth has a way of serving the good and just, who all too often become tommorrows liers.
Maybe I’m reading too much into my exchange with the chemist. Perhaps our exchange was merely a standoff between a gerontocrat and an impertinent inquirer. Either way no one will ever be proven right. We are men of such a limited period of time. There are no facts, no eternal truths. “Everything has become”.