Professor Keith Peterson enlightened us about Bruno Latour’s line of thinking that humans have never been modern or revolutionary. I haven’t taken a philosophy class, so I admit I had some trouble following, but a few of the key themes I found to be very interesting. Rather than focusing on whether humans have ever been revolutionary, since that just seems like a matter of definitions, I’m going to focus more on the aspect of scientific inquiry. I found the distinction between scientific knowledge and inquiry as a social construct vs something real, or not clearly real, to be very interesting. Something that isn’t commonly known is just going to seem unnatural or bizarre. There is often just no way for us to relate to a cutting edge scientific finding, and even if it is a concept that we think would be impossible to relate to, if enough people start to believe it, then that shared knowledge all the sudden starts to seem more legitimate and accepted. Eventually something scientific, like microbes, will move to the cultural mainstream, and seem ‘natural’ and be taken for granted. The idea is now the new way that we understand the world around us.
This reminded me of a discussion I’d had with a friend a few weeks before the lecture. We were talking about the current state of scientific knowledge. If we think of the way physics is taught in secondary school vs college, for example, we see that things are very much watered down Newtonian physics in high school rather than including the more “correct” knowledge behind Einstein’s work, relativity, quantum mechanics etc.– basically modern physics – and therefore if you take PH241 at Colby, you learn a lot about why much of what you learned before was wrong, or breaks down under certain conditions. Basically, our scientific knowledge is on a need-to-know basis. Science is a way to explain the world around us, and if I don’t question too much or explore too deeply, then high school physics can more simply, fully, and intuitively explain my world. In this example, behind the simplification of science is a timeline. We still teach the physics of hundreds of years ago in secondary school even though the fundamentals of it aren’t necessarily held up in college or grad school. Even modern physics is up to a hundred years old. Hence, we have this idea of scientific progress, and what’s newer is better (and more complex). Will everything we know today be discounted in the future? Very possibly so. As Professor Peterson said, as it is for all scientific knowledge, everything is relatively tentative and can be updated or modified in the future, even though it may seem relatively stable now. I think it was described as moving from essence to existence to essence again, then back to existence etc. But the way Latour thinks humans understand this phenomenon, and the general perception of the passing of time, is as the abolition of time before the present. Our idea of progress would then be one of a future that is unlike the past. Thus, Latour sees us as detached from the past since we separate ourselves from previous times by events (progress), rather than just the passing of time.