Irish Crimean: Does science need to chase the holy grail of objectivity?


September 17, 2017 – Fort Russ News – 

Op-ed by Padraig Joseph McGrath – “The Irish Crimean”

In his attempt to develop a theory of how we might rescue overarching norms from the flux of history, Gadamer employs the “horizon”-metaphor in “Warheit und Methode.”

Gadamer’s idea is that you start from a certain time and place inside history, and that as you learn and experience more and more, you continuously approach the horizon (the borders of your worldview, the delimitations of your culturally set-up version of reality, etc).

But as you continuously approach the horizon, you notice something strange – the horizon itself keeps moving away from you.

In other words, no matter how much you learn, you never transcend history. You never reach a terminus called “objectivity.” You remain forever embeded in “Wirkungsgeschichte.”

I think that Gadamer’s horizon-metaphor is applicable, not only to the discourse of history-culture-ethics-politics, but to the natural sciences too.

Let me put it this way:

What we call “the scientific revolution” happened mainly in the 17th century and, ever since then, every generation of scientists there has been has told itself “We’ve almost cracked it – we’re on the cusp of uncovering THE ULTIMATE NATURE OF REALITY…..”

The Holy Grail…..

And four hundred years later, they’re still telling themselves that – that they’re on the cusp of FINALLY finding the holy grail.

And yet, our scientific view of reality, although it is radically more complex than it was in the 17th century, is every bit as riddled with anomalies as it has ever been. Every generation of scientists deals with the problem of solving or explaining anomalies in theories – sure, that’s just part of the job. But if we’re really getting closer and closer to the holy grail, then why is the overall number of anomalies not gradually diminishing over time?

Maybe this suggests that something like Gadamer’s “horizon”-metaphor is applicable, not only to our investigation of questions concerning history, culture, politics and morality, but also to our investigation of nature.

For a century now, theoretical physics has been coming up with increasingly counter-intuitive theories – maybe those intellectual gymnastics are necessary because nature itself is playing tricks on us. As soon as we get close to the holy grail (“the ultimate nature of reality”), nature itself moves the horizon back – another  anomaly emerges at the quantum-level.

So, after 400 years of telling ourselves that “we’re right on the cusp,” maybe we should simply decide that there is no holy grail, that our scientific view of reality will simply continue to become more and more complex ad infinitum, but that it will always be as anomaly-ridden as it is now. In other words, we will never reach a terminus called “objectivity.” We just keep approaching the horizon ad infinitum.

This reminds me a little of how Žižek reads Hegel’s anti-skeptical arguments in the Phemonenology – as per Žižek’s paraphrasal, we’re not simply standing back, looking at the world – we’re in it. And therefore, our own cognitive and perspectival filters and limitations are, in themselves, partially constitutive of the world which we are trying to understand. Our worldview will always contain internal contradictions because reality itself contains internal contradictions. It’s not a conventional reading of Hegel’s anti-skeptical arguments in the Phemonenology, but that’s the spin Žižek likes to put on it.

Conceding this certainly wouldn’t undermine science as a practice, just as it wouldn’t undermine historical or political or ethical discourse. But it would make the ideal of “objectivity” simply unnecessary.

Padraig McGrath was born in the Republic of Ireland in 1973. He has lived in Britain, Germany and the Czech Republic, and has published journalism and commentary on social and philosophical issues for a number of media for 15 years. He moved to Simferopol, Crimea in December 2013, 3 months before Crimea’s re-unification with Russia, and still lives there.

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