This note on the concept of "despair in science" was written in 2002, to defend a philosophical statement that was part of my PhD thesis in geophysics. The rules of the Delft University of Technology (The Netherlands) require a PhD candidate to be able to defend original propositions (stellingen) drawn from outside his/her main area of investigation. I therefore discussed statements related to my philosophical view of Science, and this quest lead to the formulation of the following three statements (vii) to (ix):
A phenomenon requires only an act of consciousness from the observer. An event always requires an act of self-consciousness of the observer. A phenomenon is, therefore, substantially different from an event.
An event is always generated by a theory. A theory can never be generated by an event.
The scientist who accepts the view point of representationalism is desperate in the improper sense of Kierkegaard.
Statements (vii) and (viii) were the premise for statement (ix), the more important to me, and that I want to discuss here.
The meaning of proposition (ix)
To explain the meaning of proposition (ix), we will consider the two following steps
- derive an analogy between the definition of self in Kierkegaard, and the theory of knowledge based on intentionality;
- use the above analogy to describe the despair in a scientific context;
The observer external senses are open to the reality, and the nervous system modifies its internal states in an autopoietic way in order to create the idea of light from the external input of the photons coming from the previously uniform landscape. However, it is also clear that the observer is at a higher ontological level since he is conscious of the reality. The phenomenon, by definition, emerges from the uniform: we can only perceive differences. René Thom affirms:
L'expérience première, en réception des phénomènes, est la discontinuité. Mais la discontinuité présuppose le continu. Comme l'expérience primaire du continu est celle de la conscience, c'est-à-dire celle du temps, la discontinuité la plus originelle sera - auditivement - par exemple l'apparition d'un bruit au milieu du silence. Un tintement de sonnette est perçu comme une forme autonome, qui remplit l'intervalle entre deux zones de silence vides de son. J'appellerai forme saillante toute forme vécue qui se sépare nettement du fond continu sur lequel elle se détache. Si l'on passe du temps à l'espace, alors une forme saillante se dira de tout objet visuellement perçu qui se distingue nettement par contraste par rapport à son fond, l'espace "substrat" dans lequel habite la forme. En général une forme saillante vue aura un intérieur dans le champ visuel ; elle présentera par suite une frontière : son contour apparent. René Thom, Esquisse d'une Sémiophysique, InterEditions, 1991, p17.
- We define a phenomenon the relation between the observer and the observed.
A very common way to interpret the simple scene described above, is to invoke the philosophical doctrine of the representationism. This doctrine is rooted in the works of Descartes, Hume, Locke, and later the idealism of Kant, and affirms that the reality finds its foundation in the evidence of the image of the external senses (the representation) to the counsciousness. We disagree with the representationist point of view.
- We claim that a phenomenon is not a scientific observation yet. In order to have a scientific observation we need the introduction of an intentional act, an act of self-counsciousness.
tries to give a scientific explanation, a theory of that idea of light, collecting all the previous ideas in a reflection closed in itself.
- We define an event the phenomenon (a relation), which relates itself to itself.
- Our definition of event is analogous to the definition of self in Kierkegaard as described in the following text:
In a relation between two things the relation is the third term in the form of a negative unity, and the two relate to the relation, and in the relation to that relation; this is what it is from the point of view of soul for soul and body to be in relation. If, on the other hand, the relation relates to itself, then this relation is the positive third, and this is the self.
Such a relation which relates to itself, a self, must either have established itself or been established by something else. If the relation which relates to itself has been established by something else, then of course the relation is the third term, but then this relation, the third term, is a relation which relates in turn to that which has established the whole relation.
If the relation which relates to itself has been established by something else, then of course the relation is the third term, but then this relation, the third term, is a relation which relates in turn to that which has established the whole relation.
Such a derived, established relation is the human self, a relation which relates to itself, and in relating to itself relates to something else. That is why there can be two forms of authentic despair. If the human self were self-established, there would only be a question of one form:
not wanting to be itself, wanting to be rid of itself. There could be no question of wanting in despair to be oneself. For this latter formula is the expression of the relation's (self's) total dependence, the expression of the fact that the self cannot by itself arrive at or remain in equilibrium and rest, but only, in relating to itself, by relating to that which has established the whole relation. Indeed, so far from its being simply the case that this second form of despair (wanting in despair to be oneself) amounts to a special form on its own, all despair can in the end be resolved into or reduced to it. If a person in despair is, as he thinks, aware of his despair and doesn't refer to it mindlessly as something that happens to him (rather in the way someone suffering from vertigo talks through an internally caused delusion about a weight on his head, or its being as though something were pressing down on him, etc., neither the weight nor the pressure being anything external but an inverted image of the internal), and wants now on his own, all on his own, and with all his might to remove the despair, then he is still in despair and through all his seeming effort only works himself all the more deeply into a deeper despair. The imbalance' in despair is not a simple imbalance but an imbalance in a relation that relates to itself and which is established by something else. So the lack of balance in that 'for-itself' relationship also reflects itself infinitely in the relation to the power which established it.
This then is the formula which describes the state of the self when despair is completely eradicated: in relating to itself and in wanting to be itself, the self is grounded transparently in the power that established it.
(Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death, trans. Alastair Hannay, pp.43- 44.)
If we admit the analogy between Kierkegaard's definition of self and our definition of event, we can then conclude that the event defines a sense of self in the observer. The sense of self is denied in the representationism point of view, where the self is self-established.
This leads to the inauthentic desperation of Kierkegaard. The scientist who accepts the representationism point of view is therefore unconscious in the despair of having a self, and not wanting to be itself, wanting to be rid of itself, denies, ``de facto'', the reality around him.
We claim that a theory of knowledge based on the intentionality does overcome the unauthentic despair leading the scientist to an authentic despair in which the observer either does not want in despair to be oneself, or wants in despair to be oneself. This is equivalent to say that event has been established by something else, is not self-established as in the representationism.
The misrelation between the event and the power that established it is the authentic scientific despair.
Our position must not be intended as a new anthropocentric theory, as we believe possible a reality without an observer. We affirm, however, that a reality without an observer is meaningless. In this respect, we intend the verses of Saint Paul's letter to the Romans (8:19-22)
(19)For the earnest expectation of the creature waiteth for the manifestation of the sons of God. (20)For the creature was made subject to vanity, not willingly, but by reason of him who hath subjected the same in hope, (21)Because the creature itself also shall be delivered from the bondage of corruption into the glorious liberty of the children of God. (22)For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now.
Scientific despair can be therefore overcome only admitting an act of creation for the whole reality.
This is, however, a quite provocative and rather personal conclusion
which I do not expect anyone to share, and above all should not be misconstrued as a conclusion in favor of the problematic theory of Creationism, with which I have many points of contention.
But this will be the subject of another note.