Science Can Be Personal

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Scientists and Wolves

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 is 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," I/Thou 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."

Scientists aren't waiting for the person that is the world to reveal itself to them. They act upon the world in specific ways to learn specific things.

'Thou', moreover, is not merely contemplated or understood but is experienced emotionally in a dynamic reciprocal relationship."

Scientists aren't looking to experience their subjects emotionally. They certainly are aiming to understand.

So you could say this paradigm is the opposite of science. Classing objects into groups and controlling them for variables is an important and useful process; repeating a study to see if you can replicate its results is necessary to test a conclusion — but when you're interacting with the world as Thou, you can't treat things as interchangeable in that way. You can't construct an abstract theory 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. But 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, and 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 in order to do science, you're obligated to treat the world as It; that you have to objectify your objects. I think you can respect the life of the world, 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. Again, 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. And 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.

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