Paths of Curiosity – The Absurd Bifurcation of Nature

When we speak of curiosity, we immediately think of the obstacles in its way. For curiosity, even if we grant that it is the driving force that can take us beyond what is already given, sees itself confronted again and again with limits we place on it— bans on thinking, fears, and warnings to be cautious—as if it were necessary once and for all to dissolve, smooth, and eliminate all the contradictory impulses it feeds on.

Measured against earlier promises and hopes, it may have brought us far—whoever may be concealed behind the collective us. And yet as modernity’s promises are successfully fulfilled, their shadows grow. The stakes of the game seem to increase with every success that is celebrated. Today science and technology intervene overtly and covertly, directly and indirectly in cultural self-understanding and alter our perception and perhaps soon our emotions.

Aren’t we approaching, faster than we could ever have imagined, the time when the human is inseparably mixed with things made by humans, a cyborg epoch that has often been imagined but never realized? A time when we must finally lose or relinquish control over ourselves, now, when we finally believed we had achieved it?

The fear of the new inhibits curiosity, even if curiosity is not completely intimidated by the fear it creates. But curiosity begins to hesitate and wobble. It seeks escapes and wants to insure itself. And so the strategic considerations begin. The game of possibilities becomes a doubled game or turns into games that are played in many places and whose point is to bring forth their own rules, just as evolution produced its own rules, including rules governing how the rules change. Curiosity, insatiable as it is, thereby drives us forward. It seeks new paths and willingly accepts that some are wrong turns. It seeks risk, thereby repeatedly staking what it has already found and achieved. Again and again, it subverts limits that have been reached to fence them in or guide them in certain directions. It poses questions that are not permitted, and unwise as it is, it presses for action even where it should draw back. Questions instruct it and always point beyond what is given. It speculates, tries out, and has great difficulty learning that it should consider the consequences. It can be contagious, but it can also be smothered. It is currently attempting boundary crossings in the grand style, without making a great ado but persistently and with its intrinsic matter-of-courseness. It asks about the quality of the boundary between nature and nature—namely, between “exter-nal” nature and the nature supposedly internal to the human being—and about how much more permeable, indeterminate, and mixed the boundaries between nature and society can be made. What drives it is the pleasure in playing and the impulse to move beyond what already exists. It is fundamentally irresponsible because it is obligated only to itself. But it is a part of us and of our nature. What we do with it, what we make it into, and how we deal with it determine how we live together. It sets the limits we place on ourselves—only to transgress them anew in the future.

The mathematician and philosopher Alfred North White-head saw one of the limits blocking curiosity in the bifurcation of nature into two different systems of reality. One system is an objective part that can be mathematically formalized and empirically verified. This reality consists of units like electrons. It is a reality that is there to be known. But the knowledge we have of it is another reality created by our brain and our senses. Nature is split into two parts—a nature of perception and a nature consisting of the causes of perception. The subjective opposite pole comprises all meaning, beauty, significance, and values that we attribute to the objective reality. But such a separation (still deeply anchored in Western thought in philosophy and in the speechlessness of the disciplines) fails to understand that no fundamental difference exists between our access to knowledge and our ways of knowing.

Isabelle Stengers provides a new reading of Whitehead. She locates the starting point of the “adventure” that White-head’s speculative philosophy embarks on in the bifurcation of nature. This bifurcation is absurd because it sets up bans on thinking, dismisses the questioning of established concepts as inefficient or ridiculous, and precisely thereby contributes to the incoherence according to which nature is divided into two different and incompatible registers of speech. The bifurcation of nature stands for all the other dichotomies and divergences that make a decision necessary, a weighing of pros and cons, with the goal of taking a position. Instead, Whitehead tries to over-come the split and to set in motion a social transformation, similar to a healing process, that grants validity to subjective experience. He is confldent—and here his experience as a mathematician comes into play—that solutions are possible to dis-solve seemingly indissoluble contradictions if one is prepared to introduce new premises. As a mathematician, he creates solutions, but the creativity in finding the solution arises from the limitations imposed on the solution. The mathematician White-head was aware that mathematics finds solutions by inventing them. The separation between experience and experiment, between the subjective and objective sides of reality, becomes dispensable for him.

Out of the absurd division of nature arises the incoherence that can escalate into the incompatibility of different registers of speech and ways of thinking. To be communicated, the new always requires language, but it often presents itself in two different languages that follow the pattern of bifurcation. For example, if the latest research on the neurosciences and the biotechnologies, which have the potential of altering the entire prior spectrum of human feelings, are presented to the public solely in the language of the neurosciences, then this provokes the other, subjective register of language to reply and contradict. The subjective language then speaks of the threat to human subjectivity or to freedom or to the illusion of this freedom. The incoherence could not be greater. While the one side celebrates freedom or its illusion, the other insists on the description of a world that is cold and indifferent toward this freedom or its illusion. This absurdity led Whitehead to radically question the existing concepts and terms. He wanted to renew them and modify them accordingly. To this purpose, he opened himself up to a “wild thinking” and a speculative philosophy that trusts that there are possible solutions.

For Bruno Latour, the original sin consists in the split between nature and society, which is also manifested in two different practices whose separation and distinction are the necessary preconditions for their efficient functioning. Modernity’s original sin is its foundation, enabled its triumph, and lies in its hypocritical ambiguity. In We Have Never Been Modern, he accuses European modernity of always having spoken with a forked tongue and of having acted differently than it spoke. The one bundle of practices produces continual mixtures between various species of organisms. These practices create hybrids between nature and culture, both of which we belong to. The second practice, however, denies the first. Through a process of “puriflcation,” what was initially brought together is ontologically separated again. Sharply separated zones arise; the one zone contains human beings, while everything nonhuman belongs to the other zone. This ambiguity of European modernity is the source of its efficiency because the work of mixing (that is, of the creation of hybrid products between nature and culture) would be slowed without the work of “purification” (that is, of separation). At the same time, the work of mixing the human and the nonhuman, nature and artifacts created by humans (which is denied with the next breath), is the foundation for the great distinction between modernity and all the societies that have remained behind—the premodern societies.

Thus, according to Latour, modernity consisted of the separation between political power and the power that is based on scientific reason. In their deeds and their actual relationships with the others, the Europeans have always known how to support themselves with the rationality of violence and the violence of rationality. They remained undefeatable, while the subjugated were forced to become premodern. How could they have withstood and with what concepts and terms could they have put up resistance when these can always be recombined: terms like a transcendent or immanent nature; a society created by humans or a transcendent society removed from human influence; a distant or a personal God? Latour pleads to include the nonhuman actors—structures like neutrinos and crystals, viruses, tectonic plates, frogs, and other nonhuman things with which scientists interact and that quite obviously act them-selves. In the parliament of things, Latour wants to give them a seat and a voice, and in the face of ecological crises, the division between nature and culture should be suspended since it was never actually carried out except in the conceptual work of purifying categories.

There is no doubt that today there is a manmade proliferation of hybrid mixtures of all kinds that outdoes all the monsters, chimeras, and bizarre creatures that nature has thus far brought forth in the blind process of evolution. This continuing production of an artificially created nature, which itself in turn transforms itself into society and culture, brings together in creative and productive, destructive, or indifferent manner what nature never foresaw and what society need not have intended. It prepares the ground for further experiments and establishes the framework conditions for the people of tomorrow—how they will live and feel, how they will deal with each other, and how they will reflexively perceive themselves. A coevolutionary process is at work here, simultaneously blind and seeing, wanting to foresee the consequences and yet having to accept the unforeseeable. It is this condition moderne in which the absurdity of the split triggers so many emotions. For nature and its part in the technically and scientifically possible interventions remain morally neutral, even if moral sensibility may have evolved through evolution. Nature offers no answers to moral questions. It can at best mirror what we project into it and remind us that there is no inherent reason to prefer the natural and no reason to realize everything that is technologically feasible. The new battle zones opening up in the fields of bioethics are not really that new, at least in terms of the content of the conflicts. The explosive power inherent in them leads back to questions that were already being vehemently discussed in the 1930s and whose roots can be traced back to the Enlightenment.

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