TRUST vs PROT: modes and countermodes in the pluriverse

In the introduction to  AN INQUIRY INTO MODES OF EXISTENCE Latour recounts being shocked by the sceptical question of an industrialist to a climate scientist, and being surprised at the lack of appeal to the certainty of expert knowledge in the scientists reply. He was favorably impressed by the scientist’s account of the research process and by his recourse to trust in the institution. Latour sees here the sign of a shift in philosophy of science, in epistemology, in ontology, in this appeal to trust instead of to certainty, and to the institution instead of to unmediated access.

Yet the text does not really explain why this change in behaviour has taken place. “The modernist parenthesis is at an end” is a rather vague explanatory hypothesis, itself in need of explanation. One problem is that the notion of modernism is defined in a variety of ways, such that its extension is quite vague. One definition of the moderns is: those for whom others have beliefs whereas they have knowledge. On this definition the modernist parenthesis goes back to Plato, or even to Moses. More often it is limited to Europe ASR (After the Scientific Revolution).

The explanation given for the change in metaphysics that characterises the change of epoch is the gravity of the ecological crises that beset us. The value of Certainty leads to inflexibility, whereas the times require flexibility and fluidity under the value of Trust. But this notion of the epoch is ambiguous between an internal and an external version. Have the scientists themselves due to new research findings discovered that they must abandon their dogmatic rigidity and authoritarian tendencies? Or has the rise of a less credulous and less deferential attitude in all domains led scientists to revise their epistemology and their rhetorical strategies?

In the anecdote recounted we have a scientist being subjected to a cavalier question by an industrialist who has chosen to relay, according to the text, the sort of objections that the climate sceptics use. The scientist replies philosophically, but why does he do that? One industrialist is easily snobbed and dismissed (unless he represents Big Money needed by the scientists or his colleagues). But many objections made in all sorts of venues from the TV to the classroom, from philosophical journals to SF novels may have played their part in tempering the expert’s attitude. This is the development of what Steve Fuller calls “protscience“, the urge towards a democratisation of science impelled by a sort of protestant revolution conducted by the users of science. This movement has had negative effects, such as making room for the naive or cynical climate sceptics and intelligent designers. But it has also had the positive effect of demanding more concrete explanations, of the type the climate expert gives in the anecdote, than just the assertion “Science says it is so”.

Where the text sees the sign of a new epoch in the scientist’s response, we can also see such a sign in the industrialist’s question. No contradiction with the AIME project, but a slight shift of emphasis.We may follow a lead from Steve Fuller, who describes an attitude that is sceptical of the certainty of science without falling into the opposition between trust and denialism. He calls this protscience, and hypothesises that it may be responsible for the contemporary passage from the appeal to the absolute authority of the expert to the call for reasoned and provisional trust in the scientific community.

Perhaps one should integrate into each mode its own “PROT”, so that we would have not just protscience but also protlaw, protanalysis, proteconomy and even protreligion (gnostics, hermeticists, alchemists included.) Protanalysis is covered already by the integration of Tobie Nathan’s ethnopsychiatry. Protreligion would lead to combining MET and REL as submodes under a more embracing supermode, that one could call IND (or process of individuation).

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2 Responses to TRUST vs PROT: modes and countermodes in the pluriverse

  1. noir-realism says:

    I love it… that last paragraph! I’d love to see you write a full satire of this mode of philosophizing! You’re right of course, the basic attack is on ‘expertise’ and ‘elitism’; or, more bluntly, on those in the know and those who do not: this battle between the priests and the layman no matter what specific cult of expertise, whether of science, law, religion, economy, philosophy, et. al.. Because they too have failed us we no longer ‘trust’ those cults and their declining expertise with the keys to the future… we’re all becoming tinkerers, building out of the ruins the bricolage of a new world. We do not need experts for this since we have no alternatives.


  2. terenceblake says:

    Yes, while “trust” looks softer than “certainty” it still tends to imply a captive audience. It is a mistake to regard all distrust as denialism.


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