Episode 6 - Steve Fuller - Social Epistemology and the Pandemic

Alan: Hi everyone! Welcome to In Limbo Conversations. Today, we have with us Steve Fuller. He is a Professor of Sociology at University of Warwick. He has initiated and developed the research program of social epistemology. Also, he has worked quite a bit on the future of humanity, or as he calls it, ‘Humanity 2.0’. You can read more about his research here. Thank you for joining us, Professor Fuller!

Could you tell us a bit about yourself and the work that you do?

Fuller: My academic background is in the history, philosophy and sociology of science. I am generally regarded as the founder of ‘social epistemology’ as an interdisciplinary research field that brings together the insights from history and the social sciences to chart the future course of knowledge. I’ve published twenty-five books in this field, and in more recent years that work has focused on the future of the university and the future of humanity as such, what I have called ‘Humanity 2.0’, which we’ll get to at the end of this interview.

Alan: I’d like to begin by talking about a recent article where you write about how the pandemic has turned the UK into a “post-truth” and “proactionary” state. These are terms/concepts we find in other works of yours as well. Could you tell us how you interpret these terms?

Fuller: I have a particular take on ‘post-truth’ which is not as negative as most of the accounts out there. I don’t see ‘post-truth’ as forsaking reason and evidence in favor of emotion and prejudice. Rather, I see it as a ‘second-order’ move, logically speaking, to define the terms on which reason and evidence are decided. In more concrete terms: Don’t trust expert authority; you’re smart enough to decide for yourself! This imperative shifts the rules of the game in a way that you might expect in a society where an increasing portion of the population is educated and has access to information – which is our world. In this respect, ‘post-truth’ is nothing more than a by-product of the democratization of knowledge. The big mistake of latter-day ‘Enlightenment’ thinkers (e.g. Juergen Habermas) has been to believe that once everyone got educated and informed, the judgements of the newly educated would converge with those of the already educated. In this context, ‘populism’ is simply democracy that doesn’t turn out as the elites expected/wanted.

In terms of the pandemic, and this brings us to the UK context of the article you cite, the UK government has been smart from the start in stressing the multiple standards by which ‘success’ or ‘failure’ might be judged in managing the pandemic, especially in terms of cross-national comparisons. This is the ‘post-truth’ moment. Part of this awareness – so I believe – related to the government’s early realization (based on its own scientific models) that it was going to fail by the most obvious standards. The UK is one of the most crowded countries in the world, its population highly mobile and international, with a large segment pursuing lifestyles (very much like that of the US) that make them susceptible to COVID-19. Add to that the privatization of the social care sector and the strong tradition of civil liberties (e.g. none of France’s military style of policing), and the government realized that its ability to act effectively was limited – and that casualties were bound to mount. However, the moment that the ‘post-truth’ and the ‘proactionary’ coincided was when the UK quickly committed to developing a COVID-19 vaccine. Here the UK joined the elite league of the US and China, playing on its strengths as a scientific superpower to deal with a problem that was unlikely to disappear from the world stage by itself in the foreseeable future. In this respect, the UK got ahead of the game – was ‘proactionary’ -- by converting its status as a loser in the short term into that of winner in the long term. We’ll see if that works.

Alan: At first glance, the article seems to suggest that the proactionary lens lets us view the pandemic in a positive light, or at least see some positivity in the whole situation. What then is the upside of this proactionary approach in the pandemic? How can proactivity help us in dealing with the pandemic and post-pandemic situation?

Fuller: Bluntly put, the pandemic can be used as a pretext to hasten changes in areas that virtually everyone believes are inevitable. The most obvious – and potentially salutary –one is the energy conversion of the economy away from fossil fuels. The near total grounding of the global airline industry by the pandemic exemplifies the unprecedented opportunity available to rethink how we get around and do things in the world from scratch. All of this should be music to the ears of Green activists. China, as the major world economy likely to suffer least from the pandemic in the short term, is in a position to provide a strong steer if it wishes – by radically shifting its energy investments to a ‘cleaner’, climate-friendly basis. Here its authoritarian political structure, which extends to the business sector, can prove an advantage in terms of being able to take action much more quickly than liberal democratic societies, where relations between state and business are much looser and often adversarial. Were China to take such a proactionary stance, it could easily become the world’s number one economy within ten years.

However, the other side of the equation, which also involves China as a harbinger, is that the pandemic will license greater surveillance and control of people’s lives that will not disappear after there is no longer need to ‘track and trace’ people who are infected with the virus through their smartphones. To be sure, it is likely that more agents (both state and corporate) will know more about our lives as time goes on. But most of that is due to our spontaneously providing that information for free whenever we use the internet and social media to publicize ourselves and buy things. However, one could imagine something like China’s ‘social credit system’ becoming a kind of norm, whereby the entirety of your behavior – ranging from the people you associate with to your tax returns and medical records – could forge a tighter bond between state and business, even in liberal democracies. It could be used to customize, say, insurance premiums or even the price of ordinary goods and services. All of this assumes, of course, that this glut of personal information can be analyzed effectively, which is an open question. However, even if the full array of such personal data cannot always be carefully analyzed, simply the threat of publicizing all of one’s personal records can be enough for purposes of brute compliance. This ‘shaming’ strategy is routinely used in China.

Alan: It seems that the pandemic situation can be a site for a deep, conceptual revolution (as you mention here), a new way to think about certain things. What would such a revolution entail and how do you see such a revolution playing out?

Fuller: A conceptual revolution is basically an act of metalepsis, which is a rhetorical term for reversing ‘figure’ and ‘ground’, as the Gestalt psychologists used to say. The basic idea is that something that was previously an object of knowledge becomes the conceptual frame through which objects are known. Perhaps the most obvious example is the Copernican Revolution, whereby the Earth and Sun reversed roles as frames of reference, which allowed the founders of modern science to understand the Earth as a moving heavenly body. Conversely, the Sun was no longer just a body circling the Earth (as Aristotle had thought) but the frame of reference for understanding all heavenly motion. Something similar happened in the mid-eighteenth century as a result of the great Lisbon Earthquake, which led European intellectuals – including Voltaire, Rousseau and Kant – to think about the metaphysical implications of ‘building on shaky foundations’. In Kant’s hands, this became the dominant frame of reference for understanding knowledge in modern philosophy. (If you think about it, neither deduction nor induction as forms of reasoning naturally lends itself to the ‘foundations’ metaphor.) However, that 1755 event in Lisbon made all the difference. So, in 2020, the virus may metaleptically shift from being the object of our concern to the framework through which we are concerned with objects. As it happens, viruses are something that not only attack us but that we also deploy, both in research and in practice, to benefit us – increasingly in gene therapy, where viruses are the vehicles by which genetic enhancements are delivered. So, the virus turns out to be a multiply deployable weapon that both ‘we’ and ‘nature’ (understood as antagonists) have at their disposal. That might be a useful frame for thinking about long-term challenges such as climate change.

Alan: Before we move on, perhaps we should define the term “transhumanism” a bit first. When talking about transhumanism, there are a lot of varieties that exist. All of which get further muddled up by popular depictions in media, academic discourse, and independent thinkers. So, could you tell us what you understand by the term “transhumanism” and how it differs from other conceptions of the idea?

Fuller: I started with the phrase ‘Humanity 2.0’ simply to describe two opposing long-term futures in which we are increasingly drawn. One amplifies and the other diminishes the centrality of the ‘human’ as a value in the word. The former is called ‘transhumanism’ and the latter ‘posthumanism’. Transhumanists treat the recent term ‘Anthropocene’ (i.e. the fact that humans are the first species ever to remake the entire planet in its image) as a positive development, whereas the posthumanists treat it as a sign of massive ecological imbalance that will lead to our downfall. I’m on the transhumanist side of this argument, but I believe this means that we need to increase nature’s capacity to realize the human – that is, I support cyborgs, androids, animals etc. as in principle eligible to be included in what I have called the ‘Republic of Humanity’, a point that I have developed in chapter 2 of my latest book, Nietzschean Meditations.

Alan: In the end, I would like to ask: what does the pandemic mean to such a transhumanist? Is it an opportunity? If so, then what are the ways in which such a transhumanist may avail of these opportunities?

Fuller: Given what I have said about the multiple ways in which the pandemic might affect us, the idea of ‘virus’ is an interesting test of the trans/post-humanist distinction, given that both ‘humans’ and ‘non-humans’ can deploy viruses to their advantage. This ultimately relates to one’s attitude toward risk, which is a key point of difference between transhumanists and posthumanists. Transhumanists embrace risk, and so are comfortable with the idea of our manufacturing viruses for research and medical purposes. Of course, these viruses may ‘escape’, in some sense, and infect the general human population in some unintended and largely unwanted ways. Moreover, one doesn’t need to engage in advanced science and technology for this to happen. After all, the most lethal viruses historically have come from prolonged interaction with animals in domestic, agricultural or military field contexts. For example, COVID-19 appears to have emerged from a Wuhan wet market. In any case, from the transhumanist standpoint, all of these developments are by-products of humanity’s expansion over the Earth, which carry enormous risks but also the potential for enormous benefits.

For their part, the posthumanists are focused mainly on the risks. They support the precautionary principle, which looks skeptically at innovations that threaten to upset the ecosystem. They believe that the rash of pandemics is the direct result of our inappropriate appropriation of nature. Thus, there should be no wet markets, no exploitation of the land for breeding animals or fighting wars – or, for that matter, setting up factories. The last is especially crucial, since viruses tend to become most lethal as respiratory ailments, the chronic nature of which has massively increased with the rise of industrial pollution. And by the same logic, posthumanists are skeptical of vaccines because they too involve the artificial engineering of nature for human purposes. Their preferred strategy is for humans to reach an accord with COVID-19 through ‘herd immunity’, whereby most of the population becomes infected but by surviving the infection develops a ‘natural’ immunity to future infections of the virus. Of course, this means that vulnerable people with underlying health conditions may die in the process. But remember, posthumanists don’t fixate on the human as the locus of value in the world! They are more concerned with the maintenance of ‘life’ as such, which means that humans are valued only insofar as they can live in harmony with other life forms.

Alan: Thank you for joining us professor Fuller!