Traditionally, we envision the concept of freedom in two ways: as negative freedom, in the sense of lack of constraint on what science can do or be; and as positive freedom, or the power science has because of what it does (or the truth it tells).
A third conceptualization of freedom in science has emerged in the last few decades: freedom as the power to transgress the limits of what science is presently capable of being or doing, rather than merely the freedom to be or do those things.
That is, a real and dynamic – rather than merely ideological and abstract – possibility of overcoming the stupor of memory, identity and history, all of which, due to their inherent tendency to conserve that which is by its nature fluid, infantilize its subject, in this case science.
But what exactly does it mean to transgress what we are capable of being or doing? And how can we accomplish that which by definition we are incapable of undertaking and even imaging at this moment?
Suppose I hide a coin in my pocket. I then look for it again and find it in the same place. What have I accomplished in my search? I have indeed discovered a reality, but it is a reality of little value, a thoroughly anthropomorphic and self-centered reality – I have merely found that which I’ve set myself up to find in the first place.
Yet this is precisely how matters stand with regard to our understanding of scientific freedom today: We set up science as a trusty scientific method (or worse – a set of facts), as something that is in principle in hand, controllable.
We believe in a kind of benign, domesticated version of what is a profoundly violent act capable of destroying entire social and cultural orders.
If we are serious about science, however, must we not find, instead, the highest horizon of science sovereignty to be a space in which the questions of freedom and its limits do not arise at all – where the freedom of science, if effectively practiced, is so radically unpredictable that it can never be contained by culture, custom, laws and regulations? The point at which science becomes an explosive, unpredictable form of art?
While we may well agree that practicing such radical scientific discovery is important, for most of us – and certainly for our traditional social institutions – scientific freedom does not mean transformation in any deep sense. It merely means re-description – a change in how we think about what is going on and who we are – for we take a change in knowing, language and narratives that describe the world as enough to ensure change in fact.
This popular position on science, however, is extremely weak because our cultural, social, economic and media structures turn conservative not at the point at which they stop science from expressing itself, but – and precisely to the contrary – at the point at which they force it to express banal truths.
In other words, the very way we tend to conceive of radical possibility for change – evident in how we practice knowing, storytelling and symbolic representations more generally (e.g., the media and governmental portrayals of science, culture, politics, etc.) – all but ensures stagnation.
Yet perhaps starting to dawn on us today is the fact that real change is never about interpreting reality; instead, it forces itself upon us, unrecognizable and unexpected, as a new reality. And in so doing it presents us with a radical wager: exercise the freedom to transgress the status quo and experiment thoroughly with the unknown and the unknowable, or become irrelevant.
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