Monday November 24th 2014

The Military and the Meaning of Science

Naval base at San Diego with solar panels
Naval base at San Diego with solar panels. Photo credit: U.S. Navy

The other day, I read an article in the New York Times regarding the American military’s turn to renewable energy: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/05/science/earth/05fossil.html?_r=1&hp

I was wondering whether to think that this is forward-looking or whether it’s the military getting up to speed with reality.  Renewable energy advocates have been pushing for increased solar and wind use since the 70′s, but on the other hand, if the military really did switch en masse to renewable energy it would be the first mass deployment of the technology in our country.  “In our country” of course makes things relative again; Germany’s already getting 16% of their electricity from renewable.

In the sixteenth century, the introduction of (relatively) reliable cast bronze cannons into Europe spurred scholars to think about the physics of free falling projectiles.  Hence, Galileo’s famous experiments with canon balls.  The aim was to allow gunners to more accurately predict where their ordnance would land, and it was a big catalyst in the development of modern science.

In social sciences, as well, I suspect that the military’s wholesale adoption of behaviorist psychology helped advance and cement that strand’s dominance in American therapy.  Note, too, that the IQ test was first devised as a way of filtering French soldiers.  Do these count as being “forward thinking”, however?

It depends on our framework.  Universal objectivity and rationality is a product of the Enlightenment, when people began to use the term “rational” as a way of thinking that contrasted with knowledge based on faith, superstition, tradition–or, at least, the advocates of rationalism constructed their arguments in such a way that portrayed themselves as thinking in a new way that was opposed to the “old ways”, or the “medieval” ways, which they then identified as faith, superstition, tradition, etc.  Humanities scholars have pretty much abandoned the notion of absolute objectivity not just a something feasible but as a principle because they’ve come to see that so-called “universal” rationalism isn’t universal at all, and that what we think of in the West (or as men, or as whites, or as members of the bourgeoisie, or as whatever category, all of which have been challenged) as rational seems supremely insensible to others, and vice versa.  Hence, modern science, which is based on rational thinking, is
seen as being relative, as well.

But how can we say that science is relative when the laws of nature are obviously absolute?  Newtonian gravity works the same way here as it does in Africa.  (Interesting aside, the Soviets actually did try to replace “bourgeois” science with “proletariat” science, but the project was quietly nixed after they realized that it didn’t make any sense.)  There are a number of problems with this view.  First, there are many bodies of knowledge that are completely unscientific and totally “irrational” that have been effective and universal for centuries; Chinese traditional medicine is one example.  Second, what we think of as absolute laws are constantly disproven.  Newtonian gravity, for example, doesn’t actually work here the way it does in Africa, because Newton’s model has been surpassed by Einstein’s, which is currently a more accurate description of how gravity works.

That second point can be teased out a bit more.  Max Weber, the German father of modern sociology, delivered a lecture that’s since been printed and translated entitled “Science as a Vocation”.  He makes the point that we can talk about the meaning of science on the one hand and our reasons for pursuing it on the other, that these are in fact two distinct things, and he says that the meaning of science is for it to be surpassed.  So when we come up with a new scientific model, inherent in that model is the assumption–no, the necessity–that it will be superceded.  This is a terribly important point, because it implies that the progress of science isn’t tied to the revelation of universal laws, but rather that it has more to do with the structure
of its enterprise.  We progress with science because science is defined as being progressive.  And how do we measure that progress? By its utility, that is, by how reliably we can use what we’ve discovered to predict how a phenomenon will occur.  But those are two distinct links, and the first link, that we should define science as progressive, is arbitrary.

In that sense, science is relative even though it gets at absolutes. Think about the humanities from the same perspective.  What is the meaning of learning what happened in Constantinople in 1453? Precisely that: to learn what happened in Constantinople in 1453.  The reasons could be manifold: to point to the decline of Christianity in the East, to indicate the end of the Roman Empire, to celebrate the advance of Islam, to identify when the Renaissance started, etc.  But the meaning of the event is simply the event itself.  The predecessor to modern science, known as “natural philosophy” since all scholarly learning was considered to be “philosophy”, had a similar attitude and didn’t get very far compared to science today, but the comparison is false, because medieval scholars weren’t looking to make progress. That concept was alien to them anyway.

The military has its own science and ethic, but disinterested progress isn’t exclusively at its core.  The meaning of finding a new way to power Humvees and tanks isn’t just to put themselves into a position where later they can find an even better way to power Humvees and tanks.  The meaning is a bit more like the humanities, in that it’s more immediate, but it’s also scientific in the sense that a new energy source is about finding a “better” energy source.  The metric is different, namely dollars and blood, which ultimately is translated by the bureaucracy into just dollars.  That they can find this better way assumes, however, that it already exists, since soldiers aren’t scientists.  Hence the industrial-military complex that Eisenhower warned against where the military begins to influence what Weber calls the reasons for science, and it buys that influence with R&D budgets, scholarships, etc.

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