The intrusion of reality into discourse

by sociologist of religion Detlef Pollack

© unsplash/Tom Radetzki

Thinking scientifically consists in challenging what we take to be our natural perception of reality. It may be that most of us agree that the coronavirus is dangerous. But to deny its effects is perfectly in keeping with a scientific worldview. Science does not repeat what everyone thinks, but places what we assume to be the normal understanding of reality in a different light, and science is in this respect closer than we think to conspiracy theories, which we judge to be alien and remote. Both conspiracy theories and scientific analyses participate in the basic problem of epistemology: that we cannot know with certainty what is really the case.

There is a suspicion behind this problem. It is the suspicion that our perception is deeply influenced by sensory delusions and presuppositions, by likes and dislikes. Does membership of a political or ethnic group not already determine to a great extent what we perceive in reality and what we ignore? Our knowledge is preformed by cultural conditions and driven by individual interests. Even when we try hard, and even when we try to control our efforts with the help of scientific methods, our tools of knowledge do not grasp reality. There remains a gap between concept and thing. Things as they are can touch our thinking as little as a car can drive through our thinking.

Was the experience that we had with the sudden appearance of the corona virus not in some way similar to this basic inconceivability of reality? First it was a disease in faraway Asia, something that would certainly not reach Europe. Then it was individual cases in identifiable areas. Then it was not possible to determine whether the increasing number of deaths was really due to the virus. At some point, however, it became clear to us that the death rate was above the average for a normal flu epidemic and could only be explained by the spread of the corona virus. Now most people take the virus seriously and protect themselves against its spread. It was the sharp line between life and death that forced them to do so. Events of this clarity are rare. Today, with more than half a million people having died of corona, the deadly effect of the virus can no longer be argued away. And so a majority of the population in Germany are if anything opposed to an easing of the lockdown, and 80% of people in Great Britain are in favour of maintaining the contact ban. Have we ever had such a high level of consensus on other issues?

But hardly had widespread agreement on the danger of the virus gained a foothold than conspiracy theories sprang up and torpedoed the unanimity that had just been achieved. Such theories are the inevitable reverse side of the consensus, with consensus apparently inviting us to attract attention by creating difference. Prophets, interpreters of the world, and those preaching caution look behind the façade of established institutions, correct the findings of science, have deeper insights into the hidden interrelationships of the world, and know which agents are behind it all. Previously underestimated counter-elites unveil the true causes of the crisis and shape their interpretations of the world in opposition to the knowledge of experts, politicians, and intellectual elites. They appear outlandish to most of us, but, now that the consensus on the dangerousness of the virus has begun to wane and the familiar variety of opinions on how to implement the desired easing of the lockdown has reappeared, the appeal of the conspiracy theories in circulation, which in any case have always been able to attract only a few people, is also diminishing.

Can we chalk up this retreat as a triumph of science and expertise over unempirical and holistic theories to explain the world, as a triumph of common sense over the unreasonableness of remote know-it-alls? Not necessarily, since the dispute within the natural sciences, in politics, and also among ourselves (whom we perhaps consider to be normal) over how to interpret the virus and its consequences has after all not ceased. We cannot agree on what is really the case. Neither science, which lives from criticism and contradiction, nor common sense, which has anything but a privileged access to reality, can help us out of our epistemological uncertainty. And the situation becomes no better when we remember that scientific analysis and common sense are by no means on the same level, and that the scientific approach emerges in virtual opposition to common sense – the first step in scientific thinking is after all doubt, the interruption of our everyday understanding of reality. Science builds reality in contradistinction to the perception assumed to be normal, as indeed do conspiracy theories, too. Science is a constructivist project, even if, and unlike conspiracy theories, it considers its interpretations to be falsifiable. Science, both the humanities and the natural sciences, has long been aware of the constructivist character of scientific thought. We know that data are not what the name suggests, i.e. something given. Rather, they are something made, something that science produces for its own use. There is therefore no such thing as an unequivocal reference to reality, and not even for the scientific way of approaching it. Does this mean that we cannot escape discourse, and that all attempts, including all scientific attempts, to understand reality can only expand the discourse, but not go beyond it?

That may be so. There is no way to know from the hermeneutical circle. Nevertheless, the corona crisis may teach us something. If scholars think, and I have in mind here primarily those in cultural studies, sociology, and anthropology, that there is nothing beyond discourse and that what is to be deemed real can only be negotiated, then the power of the corona virus imposing itself on the majority of the population may be able to persuade them to consider the existence of such a discourse-transcending reality – indeed, of a reality that is even capable of overpowering us. Scientific knowledge, if it does not want to lose itself in fictions, would be well advised not only to interrupt everyday knowledge with its constructions, but also, in a second step, to take a closer look at itself and to test its constructions against that everyday knowledge. This step, it is clear, is not one that those who consider all knowledge to be a construction and who think that data of all kinds can be traced back to the conditions under which they were produced want to take, since science for them is nothing but discourse. The intrusion of the corona crisis may be a good opportunity to prove them wrong. But all the corona discussions can show even the diehard realists that reality is greater and that science is more than facts can say.