IN PRAISE OF NESCIENCE - THE ANTIDOTE TO AN EXCESS OF BRAWLING SCIENCE
1st November, 2020
In the time of the Covid emergency there is one disquietingly compelling imperative that, if you glance at Social Media, seems to be working on most people. It demands that we hold a hard and fast opinion on the subject, and that we do so while exhibiting a robust cognitive machismo, sternly, confidently and uncompromisingly castigating those who are foolish enough to disagree with us. This phenomenon is witnessed in its most exaggerated form amongst libertarians. Their time is devoted to busily and loudly reassuring us (and themselves?) that they certainly haven’t been taken in by the efforts of the Davos ‘Great Reset’ crowd to hoodwink them or of Bill Gates and Klaus Schwab of WEF to steal their freedoms. This is true to such an extent that you could be forgiven for thinking they care less about their freedoms (about which, of course, we should always be vigilant) than not being or, perhaps, most importantly, not being seen to be, fooled by what the Covid pandemic really is. Cognitive credibility often seems the most important commodity of all. Trenches are dug, positions are taken, mortars lobbed as we all compete for the prize of having the best intellectual handle on Covid and what it signifies. Covid-19 is now how we display our intellectual pectorals.
In contrast to this, as the second wave hits around the world, the WHO and large numbers of those who hold responsible executive positions as Medical and Scientific Officers impose lockdowns. As the Great Barrington Declaration then arrives signed by 4000 medical ‘experts’ and practitioners who beg to differ diametrically, cue a simulacrum of a war between the two sides of the world’s brain. Things begin to take on a Swiftian perspective. It may well turn out in retrospect that the Great Barringtonians were right and the WHOvians were wrong (even they have begun to have their doubts about lockdowns) but one can surely sympathise with governments who went to lockdowns in the opening sequences of the pandemic while under a hail of fire from political and press enemies willing to settle political scores using whatever came to hand, including Covid. This included, of course, daring them not to be seen to care enough about their populations. As a result governments have been held prisoner and, indeed, tortured by hostile and partisan media which exploit the very natural fact that they don’t have 360 degree omniscience on the pandemic and suggest that they ought to have it. This has even been true to the extent that governments can’t learn and adapt as they go in these extremely novel circumstances without the press condemning their versatility as inconsistency.
The interlateral war taking place in the world’s brain is evidence of how woefully lacking the mechanisms of ‘knowing’ still are in a modern world which flatters itself that it has most things taped. Covid, it seems, is a perfect example of an event that exposes the actual inability of scientists to furnish the certainties that science promises us. Science derives from the Latin word scire – to know – and, since the times of Francis Bacon and René Descartes when modern scientific method was born, the aim has been to give us the illusion of our being able to control reality by means of the unequivocal kind of certainty of knowing afforded by geometry or maths. Recent experience suggests that certainty is, unfortunately, not instantly available. Rather than rushing to judgements we may have to wait a while. This is not a prospect that modern technocratic man enjoys contemplating or acknowledging. The present, we fear, is out of control of the scientists.
Our terror of not knowing and of being seen not to know might remind you of the fear of Adam and Eve clutching fig leaves to cover their nakedness at the moment of their expulsion from Eden (ironically, for eating of the Tree of Knowledge). Such exposure, it seems, is simply intolerable. What is the alternative to putting such efforts into convincing others that you have a perfect grasp on reality? Is there a remedy to not having the present and future so neatly summed up and pigeon-holed?
In earlier centuries the relationship of human experience to knowledge was different. In the 19th century the poet, John Keats, praised William Shakespeare for being a ‘...a man (who) is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason –‘. Keats christened this capacity ‘negative capability.’ A little earlier than Shakespeare the French sage, Michel de Montaigne made ‘Que sais-je?’ (What do I know?) his motto. And the conservative political philosopher, Michael Oakeshott, quoted the Rule of the Dutch scholar, David Ruhnken – Oportet quaedam nescire (sometimes it’s important not to know). Oakeshott went on to recommend the acceptance and even benefits of what sounds like the opposite to science – nescience.
Not irritably ‘reaching after fact and reason’ might actually be good for us at times and even represent the healthy, sane way in which we operate naturally. The fearsomely rational and intellectual Thomas Aquinas said ‘Nihil est in intellectu quod non sit prius in sensu.’ (Nothing is in the intellect that was not first in the senses). Our physical, sensory experience and our emotions are places where we begin, where we rest and where we are our simplest selves. Sometimes it can be preferable to relax willingly and acceptingly into the shadows of nescience or pre-science grateful to be out of the unforgiving glare of reason like a cave dweller peering out into the world. Indeed, from such a vantage point it is sometimes easier to observe while waiting for real insights regarding reality to come. The operations of our intellect emerge from this state giving proper sense to the term ‘post hoc rationalisation’. Constantly pretending to each other that we have everything perfectly resolved, understood and explained at the front of our minds may not be advisable or psychologically healthy. It may, in fact, come as a relief to stop such striving and ‘irritable reaching’. Accepting that we cannot or do not always achieve a state of perfect rationalisation requires a modicum of humility however. This is because the self-flattering illusion of an omni-scient and god-like perspective is rather tempting.
In speaking against the absolute primacy of science and reason and putting forward the benefits of occasional and sensible acceptance of nescience I am not, in any sense, recommending things that may seem similar to nescience but which are very different – ignorance or irrationality. Deliberately recommending not knowing and accepting sometimes that we do not know and need to wait for reason to crystallise properly are not the same thing. Nor am I saying that we should not hold opinions regarding Covid. I am simply saying that those opinions should be held with a sense of their provisionality against the background of how realistically we can aspire to immediate certainty. I am saying that the wisest course is often to wait, reflect, not rush to judgement and to keep our powder dry. It’s a big ask when cerebral flexing is de rigueur and so tempting.