No context: no science

As it is Christmas how about a little bit of Morecambe and Wise… a response to those who might want to decontextualise scientific knowledge.

Among the comedy duo’s many catch-phrases and recurring visual gags was the one where Eric would swing a Karate chop and press his open hand under Ernie’s chin saying “Get out of that without moving”, often followed by “you can’t, can you.”

It is both simply absurd and absurdly simple. As a “martial art” it is ridiculous; as an example of the impossible it is sublime. Try to get away without moving. Aha, you can’t, can you.

I often think of this when I hear claims that science is somehow independent of its socio-historical context, or when such contextualisation is dismissed as “cultural relativism” or “postmodernism”.

I suppose you might think of it as The Importance of Being Ernie. How do you do the impossible? Aha, you can’t, can you.

Yet that is what those who wish to decontextualise science seem to expect. So let me swing an Eric-style Karate chop in response.

Give me a thought without a thinker. (Get out of that without moving)

Ideas are always embodied; whether that is generated by the meat in our heads, printed on paper, or flickering inside a computer. More than that, our knowledge of the world is always through people; sometimes enhanced by technology but always human. Science is what people do. The ideas of science are ideas that people have.

This is not to deny that there is a reality that exists independent of us, but it does assert that whenever we discover something or point something out there is always somebody doing the discovering or pointing. Whenever and wherever we know something, damn it, there’s always somebody there.

This really should be a canonical part of that school of thought known as Stating the Bleedin’ Obvious. I am truly puzzled by those who reject it, especially those who profess to be committed to a rational, empirical and sceptical form of science. What kind of metaphysics would they have us believe: some sort of transcendent realm of disembodied pure thought existing outside time and space? Isn’t that the kind of “woo woo” they get so upset about?

But there are consequences.

We are all in this world and each of us is an intricate cat’s cradle of physical, biological, political, social, cultural and historical threads. There is something fundamental here about the nature of human existence and I could refer you to Heidegger’s ideas of Dasein and Geworfenheit. Instead, I’ll quote Eccles from the Goons: “Everybody gotta be somewhere.”

And (unless we accept that realm of disembodied pure thought) every idea gotta be somewhere.

Without context there are no ideas. Without context there is no science.




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