Scientific Epistemology as Moral Narrative

The latest hierology is hitting the big screen in November, director James Marsh’s The Theory of Everything.  Based on the trailer, the film sets out to tell the “love story” between world-renowned astrophysicist Stephen Hawking and his (first) wife, Jane Wilde. Nevermind that Wilde and Hawking divorced in 1995, after years of what she has called absolute “misery” (but which had little to do with his motor neuron disease ). The same year they were divorced, moreover, Hawking married one of his nurses, Elaine Mason, whom he also later divorced in 2006.

Upon watching the trailer, however, one of course only sees Hawking’s nobler traits. At least that is how the narrative unfolds. This reminds me of George Levine’s fascinating book, Dying to Know: Scientific Epistemology and Narrative in Victorian England (2002). In this book Levine examines the narratives underlying Victorian scientific epistemology, which he locates in themes of self-sacrifice, self-denial, self-effacement, self-abnegation—in other words, in dying to self. “There is something in our culture,” he writes,” that drives it to find things out, even at the risk of life.” This is the central metaphor underlying Western culture’s quest for truth as well as the underlying narrative of scientific epistemology. The narrative of renunciation is found, for example, in Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes; in the dying-to-know narrative of Thomas Carlyle, which he seems to have derived from Goethe and a “rigid Calvinism”; in John Stuart Mill, Charles Darwin, John Tyndall, Thomas Henry Huxley, Anthony Trollope, and Francis Galton, among others; and finally in the autobiographical texts of Mary Somerville, Harriet Martineau, and Beatrice Webb.

Levine - Dying to KnowThis “new” narrative of science was also the “new” narrative of morality. Levine argues that the narrative of scientific epistemology had ethical underpinnings, which are still present in discussions today: the notion that to gain reliable knowledge, observers must die as individuals. The scientist must repress his or her desires, emotions, and “everything merely personal, contingent, historical, [and] material that might get in the way of acquiring knowledge.” Paradoxically, then, “all who rightly touch philosophy, study nothing else than to die, and to be dead.”

“The model for scientific investigation,” Levine writes, “is heroic, self-humiliation; the seeker of natural knowledge puts aside worldly things, the idols of theater, cave, and marketplace, and prepares to submit to the blows of reality for the sake of a pilgrimage to the promised land of pure knowledge, human enrichment, and material progress.” In short, universal, valid, and objective knowledge required a kind of pilgrimage from “humanness.”

This narrative of pursuing knowledge, a secular pilgrim’s progress, however, cannot be fully trusted. Levine cites philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre’s argument that the narrative of repudiation is impossible, for the language we use is part and parcel of the same intellectual inheritance we are trying to repudiate! In other words, these narratives were often self-serving and disingenuous. Nevertheless, what emerged from writers such as Bacon and Descartes, Herschel and Whewell, and from Huxley, Tyndall and the scientific naturalists, is a narrative of scientific epistemology, a kind of “heroic epistemology.”

The Victorian narrative of scientific epistemology, much like the one we see in the trailer on Hawking, implies moral rigor: impartiality, patience, self-denial, the rejection of authority for experience, a strong intellectual independence, a willingness to face the facts, no matter how detrimental to tradition—in short, the total surrender of self to the thing being studied. Levine demonstrates that the story of dying-to-know has become the dominant story in our times and that the propagation of that story allows science to displace religion as the ultimate authority for all knowledge.

But in an ironic twist, as Steven Shapin has shown in various works, but which Levine only hints at, the narrative of scientific epistemology is undeniably intertwined with the religious—and particularly the Christian—ideal of self-renunciation: “If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me” (Luke 9.23).


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