Janie Dutcher greets wolves

Science Can Be Personal

In an earlier post, I started compiling the passages I like best from the first chapter of Before Philosophy, because there’s something in there that strikes a chord and I want to tease out what it is.

I left off with the notion of “Thou.”

To summarize, when you interact with the world in an I/Thou relationship, you’re participating in a reciprocal connection with a living world whose phenomena are all essentially personal. Which basically how I see things. In this post, I’d like to square that with the worth and usefulness of science.

There’s a conflict here, or at least there seems to be

Because “‘Thou’ is a live presence,” when you’re interacting with the world as such, each phenomenon that you experience is unique — not just another instance of an overarching physical law. Not interchangeable, but individual. While science says, “We have observed this set of humans to behave in this way under these conditions,” the I/Thou way of seeing says, “My Aunt Lida isn’t a statistic.” Here are the Frankforts:

“‘Thou’ has the unprecedented, unparalleled, and unpredictable character of an individual, a presence known only insofar as it reveals itself. ‘Thou’, moreover, is not merely contemplated or understood but is experienced emotionally in a dynamic reciprocal relationship.”

You could say that’s the opposite of science. For example: classing objects into groups and controlling them for variables, that’s an important and useful process. Repeating a study to see if you can replicate its results, that’s a crucial way to test a conclusion. But when you’re interacting with the world as Thou, it’s impossible to treat things interchangeably like that, to construct abstract theories to explain the behavior of an individual whose nature is essentially unrepeatable.

Then again, the problem may be less important than it seems

Your Aunt Lida isn’t a statistic. Still, you can conduct a study on her demographic and learn some things about why her life looks the way it does. You’re not denying her personhood or her individuality. You’re merely respecting the fact that she shares certain things in common with others, that those things are knowable. That there are larger patterns involved.

The Frankforts said that “modern man” views the world primarily as It. They also said that “he” holds science to be sacrosanct. But I’m going to push back against the idea that you’re obligated to treat the world as It in order to do science — that you have to objectify your objects. I think you can respect the life of the world, of existence at large, acknowledge its personhood and treat it as Thou, while also doing science.

Didn’t Jim and Jamie Dutcher do that while studying the Sawtooth wolf pack? Didn’t Jane Goodall, in her 55-year study of wild chimpanzees? Scientists who work and live alongside animals tend to be very level-headed about the personhood of those animals and the respect it takes to get anywhere with them. And no one would suggest that a patient turns into an It when they get on the operating table. Surgeons who treat them as such are generally considered terrible people.

The same goes for any phenomenon one might study, not just humans and animals. I think you can use the tools of science to learn about the world while maintaining a reciprocal relationship with it and respecting all of its phenomena as living, individual and personal.

I think that when you do, you’re more likely to hold onto your humility, less inclined to presume you know everything, to think you somehow possess the objects that you study.

That’s a vibe I think the pop culture of science these days could really benefit from.