Authority and Experience

For us, to whom the privileged status of eyewitnesses seems obvious, this great revolution [in epistemology, privileging experience over authority] has ceased to be visible, and it is almost impossible to conceive of ourselves living in a world—a world that was never real, but always imaginary—in which garlic disempowers lodestones and goat’s blood softens diamonds” (David Wootton, The Invention of Science: A New History of the Scientific Revolution [Harper Collins 2015], 283).

However: quarks. (To quote Wallace Stevens again: “pages of illustrations.”)

However: quarks supposedly are based on a chain of inference & testimony that begins in—is founded on—direct experience, replicable and falsifiable, consistent with other observations and experiences, and so on.

However: It seems worth asking how different my world is from that of the garlic and goat’s blood. True, if pressed, my account of my reasons for faith in my authorities will be* different from that of someone who believes Pliny when he says that garlic kills a magnet, but as a practical day-to-day matter, and even often when we debate about these issues, it seems we are just as immersed in a magical world of wonders of which we have no direct experience, nor the capacity to verify them, nor—if we are honest—really anything like genuine comprehension of them. One in which appeal to authority frequently stands in for the forms of argument that we ostensibly prefer, sometimes as a form of discursive shorthand or proxy, sometimes as a substitute, often with elements of both, the lines between them hopelessly blurred.

* Even this “will be” is based on faith in authorities…

And it’s worth asking as well what we mean when we say that quarks are “real” and not “imaginary.” Again, the obvious reply is that their “reality” is part of a system of inference and observation whose rules are well defined and tested; we trust it because it has worked in a vast number of other enterprises, all of which have been subjected to the same tests, and many of which we are better equipped to verify directly, if we are so inclined.

But one has to wonder what counts as “eyewitness” testimony or experience of something that cannot be observed directly but only inferred from a highly elaborate set of procedures, apparatuses, and mathematics that most of us will never understand, and even those who do never directly experience or witness the phenomena they describe.

I suppose I’m asking about the subjective experience of living in this world where the “revolution” has completely taken over and become enthroned as the new authority—a question suggested by Wootton’s framing (“impossible to conceive of ourselves living in a world…”). This is part of what Horkheimer and Adorno are getting at in Dialectic of Enlightenment, and part of what postmodernism wonders about.

So one of my primary purposes here is to question how different my experience is—and thus, how difficult it really is to conceive of that other world that Wootton is describing.

And even this doesn’t capture the whole picture, because the system of inference and observation I alluded to in fact is not nearly so tidy nor so reliable as I’ve made it sound. I’m thinking specifically of the slippage between the scientific discourse that supposedly establishes these “facts” (the quote I started with is from Wootton’s chapter on the invention of the “fact”) and the popular representations, interpretations, and explanations that form, for most of us, our understanding of topics that are too abstruse, too specialized, for direct access.

One obvious index of this slippage is the frequency with which such understandings are revised. While the practitioners themselves—our new authorities—ostensibly understand that their understanding is contingent, provisional, subject to later modification in light of new evidence or better theory, that awareness is frequently lost in translation to the popular accounts. Ideas which start as hypotheses or suggestive findings become “facts” to the rest of us, until the next study or hypothesis undoes them—or seems to, shorn of the qualifications that hedge the scholarly version.

Now those revisions themselves have become a genre in the popular press, which has discovered that headlines about, for instance, how all of physics will have to be re-thought in light of some new study make for great click bait. But even before this latest hypertrophy of the phenomenon—and especially in recent decades as the pace of scientific discovery has accelerated exponentially—we found ourselves living in a world in which most of what we flatter ourselves that we “know” is second-, third-, or fourth-hand, and subject to frequent revision or replacement.

All this only serves to highlight the imaginary quality of the world we inhabit. Arguably much of our so-called knowledge is little better than the garlic and goat’s blood variety, whether it be the health effects of butter (or coconut oil, to take the latest brace of headlines in my news feed) or the existence of dark matter, completely undetectable except indirectly, through second-hand reports of its gravitational effects—unless that’s all a mistake after all.

Again, my claim is not that dark matter is no better attested than garlic’s effect on magnets: that is, after all, the forte of this particular epistemology. Rather, I’m interested in the question of whether this attestation really does make our world—the world of our lived experience—more real, less imaginary. In some sense I agree that it does. But precisely what sense, and what are the limits of that sense? When I read about parallel universes inhabiting fractal dimensions in the interstices of our own, say, or the notion that time can expand or contract depending on how fast I’m moving, relative to some seemingly arbitrary constant which is—so I’m told—an iron law of physics, and when I take such things on faith because (someone told me that) the physicists said so… How different is my world from that of the medieval peasant who believed in wonders she had never seen? Clearly it’s strikingly different in many respects, but perhaps it is also more similar in this respect than we have been led to believe.

Such, at least, is the tentative conclusion to which I am led by my experience, whatever the authorities may tell me.


2 thoughts on “Authority and Experience

  1. A careful and reasoned post, and yet, at this precise historical moment, when expertise is treated with contempt, when a chunk of America has made it clear they prefer comforting lies to uncomfortable truths, when our political authorities are trying to grab authority back from intellectual authorities, with no other justification than an appeal to the mob’s suspicion of ‘elites’, I find myself in full bore retreat back to the comforts of enlightenment-era positivism. Undocumented immigrants either commit more, fewer, or the same number of crimes as citizens do. With all due allowances for the wooliness of social science, police record-keeping, the difference between committing crimes and getting caught, etc, etc, we ought to be able to at least have an informed guess at the truth. Yes, that relies on the experience of people who spend their lives thinking about such questions. But that is different in kind than the authority of royal blood, the conquest of arms, the electoral college, or divine revelation.
    I do agree about the striking similarity of our experience of this world. Even as we are flying across continents, and spending our days not dying from infections, we still hear voices. But look for them in the workings of memory and the brain, not angels or visitations from the dead.
    Also, hi. Hope these last 37 years or so have been good to you.

    • Hi back to you! Sorry to take so long to reply. We were out of town, then we got back, then things happened, then other things… I’m sure you can relate. The past 37 years… sure, um, fine…? And you?

      But to your response to my post: I appreciate the point. Part of the impetus for writing this was the discomfort I feel in the face of such retrenchment—my own as well as others’—which sometimes starts to feel a bit too much like just another form of conformism and superiority. A certain kind of smugness creeps in when people, understandably frustrated by the reign of self-satisfied error, insist ever more vehemently on the validity and necessity of science. It’s not that they’re wrong; it’s just that the tone hints—can hint—at a stance at odds with, not to say antithetical to, the very thing that makes science different, at its best, from older regimes of epistemological authority: its diffidence, its openness to challenge, its relentless self-revision. This is an ideal, of course, often ignored or flouted, but it works surprisingly well surprisingly often. The trouble is that it works through slow, patient accumulation of information and slow, careful reasoning and slow, painstaking dialogue—none of which feels very helpful in the thick of the battle, or very effective at warding off the ignorance of those who are committed to their ignorance and to the facile and superficial.

      I’m not satisfied with this response, except in one respect: it’s actually written, as opposed to the much better one I might write if I just waited another three weeks, or months, or years… or decades, for that matter!

      Thanks for stopping by. Good to hear from you.

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