Well I’m not sure what it adds but somehow reading through the various views on ontological pluralism I found myself compelled to add my own pontifications. Ontological pluralism has been doing the rounds quite a bit on some of the blogs I like these last few weeks, arguably, it seems to me, in the wake of Latour’s AIME. Some of the key links that I have seen are here (Jeremy Trombley), here (Levi Bryant) and here (Adam Robbert) – though if you visit these pages, I’m sure you’ll find they have more to say and will offer links to plenty more worthwhile contributions. Though the horse has probably been flogged beyond its death, as someone who has read AIME and, perhaps equally importantly, Stengers 2006 book ‘La vierge et le neutrino’ (The Virgin and the Neutrino, which really ought to be translated into English!), I feel compelled to share my take on it all.
Firstly, ontological pluralism is clearly not the idea that different cultures have different ontological beliefs. That is simply a description of how different cultures perceive or comprehend the world. Ontological pluralism is the idea that there is more than one type of entity that is real – i.e. that there are different ways of being real and that none is more real than any other. As such, ontological pluralism is pretty much opposed to physicalism or materialism or any other such monist ontology that denies the reality of those entities that cannot meet the criteria of the particular monism in question. Passionate appeals to ‘science’ as the ultimate test of what is real begin to look pretty flaky face here and point at a rather worryingly flawed conception of what science is and what science is capable of.
Clearly scientists cannot make up whatever they want; they are constrained by their obligations to ‘make nature speak’ in a reliable way that can force their competent peers to accept a new interpretation of reality – or, more often, some specific aspect of reality. There is of course, no unified scientific method for proving whether something – regardless of what it is – exists or not. Rather, the specific methods must be constructed in entirely unique ways in order to enable the particular entities in question to register in a manner that can make competent peers, for whom it matters, unable to ignore what has been demonstrated to them.
It is against a unified vision of science that Stengers writes so meticulously in her Cosmopolitics series which take the reader on a journey through the history of the sciences from the invention of mechanics, through thermodynamics to quantum mechanics, dissipative structures, life and psychology. In doing so, Stengers details the fabrication of subtle fictions that are so central to the history and development of scientific practices: fictions like the Carnot cycle that describe ideal systems that reality simply cannot approximate, of frictionless worlds, or worlds where time is reversible… Her aim with this is not to diminish the value of science, or to argue that what goes by the name of science – or rather ‘fact’ – is just a social construct. Not at all. Rather, she takes great pains to highlight precisely the manner in which, amidst all the social activity of humans, non-humans too must be made to intervene in order for scientists to be satisfied with the reliability of what they go on to defend as facts.
But when it comes to the question of what is real, it is hard not to see Stengers’ point, that the sciences too have their limits. Experimental practices might work well for showing that atoms or neutrinos exist (entities whose existence was in question) but are hardly required for tsunamis (we might turn to science to define the cause of a tsunami, but not to ascertain whether it actually occurred or not). Moreover, when humans are made the subject of supposedly scientific experiments, the experiments rapidly break down. Of course, great pains are made to attempt to cancel out the very qualities that make such subjects so particular: i.e. their capacity to question and change their behaviour to defy the experimenters. Behavioural psychology is a case in point. If experimental methods struggle with human subjects how much more would they struggle with those beings that have been relegated to the realm of superstition, what could be called ‘invisibles’, ‘more-than-humans’ or ‘other-than-humans’, beings that feature prominently in many human relationships.
The idea that only that is real which is independent of human mind or culture, is a position that one may take. By doing so one draws a boundary that ascribes reality to certain things and denies it to others. One can claim that this is the truth and that science is the only way to get at it. Personally, I am not so sure. I am interested in what happens when those entities relegated to the Enlightenment’s dustbin are given a place at the table along with atoms and neutrinos. I believe that a well-crafted fiction, woven systematically into the very fabric of social existence, into the words, buildings, artefacts, landscapes that people inhabit are able to obtain an agency and efficaciousness that can no longer be reduced to ‘mere belief’. I don’t think this is always good. But then, I don’t think that it is always bad either. Similarly, I don’t think that what happens in the name of science is always good either. Indeed, I think the judgement of what is good and what is not good is a very different matter altogether. At the end of the day, someone can tell me that a fiction, however well crafted, however efficacious, cannot be real because it does not have its own material, mind and culture independent reality. If that is how that person chooses to define what is real, is it worth me arguing? Ultimately, humans cannot live without fictions. Fictions are a part of what enable us to invent, to imagine, to dream – whether as scientists, as activists or as mundane consumers. We will never be rid of them and I don’t think we should be. Perhaps, instead, we should turn our attention to how we craft our fictions and what their consequences are. To me, they are real enough to warrant that we pay attention to them and fundamental enough to our survival and co-existence that they should be treated with the same respect as quarks, DNA and earthquakes.
Along with Niyamraja, the creator ‘god’ that resides in the mountains, forests and streams defended so valiantly against a massive bauxite mine by the Dongria Khond (a so-called ‘primitive’ tribe from the Indian state of Odisha that I have written about before on this blog and who have probably done more to protect this planet from destruction than most readers of this blog could hope to achieve in a life-time), ‘human rights’ are also a fiction. Just sayin’.