Stubbornness of Fact VS Loyalty of Lies

Machine assist­ed translation

Why is it impor­tant for glob­al sci­ence to main­tain ties with the sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ty in Russia? Because this is one of the few social groups for whom loy­al­ty to objec­tive truth still means some­thing. The sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ty in Russia remains an island of rel­a­tive­ly healthy social tis­sue, which is impor­tant to pre­serve for future regen­er­a­tion, says Alexei Oskolski, Associate Professor of Botany and Plant Biotechnology at the University of Johannesburg, South Africa.

For the sec­ond year in a row, we have heard from the Russian author­i­ties the state­ment «We did not invade Ukraine». The truth­ful­ness of this state­ment is refut­ed by a mul­ti­tude of facts, includ­ing those acknowl­edged by the Russian side. We are not talk­ing about con­tro­ver­sial issues of faith, taste, or mil­i­tary secre­cy: Lavrov’s state­ments are quite ver­i­fi­able on the basis of objec­tive data.

But what is a loy­al cit­i­zen to do when a false state­ment becomes the offi­cial posi­tion of the state? Is it accept­able for the sake of loy­al­ty to accept as truth what is refut­ed by the facts? Should you accept, say, that a lemon is blue if the inter­ests of your state require it? Or should fideli­ty to facts be paramount?

Of course, in war, «the truth dies first.» But lies entered Russian pol­i­tics long before February 24, 2022; just think of rigged elec­tions or dis­ser­ta­tions. Against the back­drop of the night­mares of war, this cir­cum­stance may not seem like the great­est mis­for­tune; but per­haps the war would not have start­ed if knowl­edge, based on facts, had had more polit­i­cal power.

But where does fideli­ty to a lie come from? Why do objec­tive facts have supreme pow­er for some and not for oth­ers? In short, because some peo­ple live and act as ratio­nal sub­jects and oth­ers do not.

A ratio­nal sub­ject is not every per­son endowed with rea­son. A bril­liant sci­en­tist, pro­gram­mer, or engi­neer who is good at log­ic, math­e­mat­ics, or phi­los­o­phy can­not be a ratio­nal sub­ject. The ratio­nal sub­ject does not sim­ply use rea­son to process infor­ma­tion: it is itself built upon reason.

Reason is the guar­an­tor of the uni­ty of its sub­jec­tiv­i­ty: it not only binds togeth­er the feel­ings, thoughts, words, and deeds of the sub­ject, but also cer­ti­fies its exis­tence. It is rea­son that acts as the exis­ten­tial pil­lar of his per­son­al free­dom, con­science and respon­si­bil­i­ty. Descartes and Kant wrote about how all this works.

In prin­ci­ple, vir­tu­al­ly any­one can learn to for­mu­late his thoughts in log­i­cal­ly rig­or­ous forms and check them for truth on the basis of facts. However, for the ratio­nal sub­ject to think cor­rect­ly and not lie is not only an oppor­tu­ni­ty, but an oblig­a­tion. Reason gives him the tech­nique to think cor­rect­ly, but it impos­es on him the respon­si­bil­i­ty to ver­i­fy the truth of his judg­ments. By con­scious­ly rec­og­niz­ing the blue­ness of a giv­en lemon, the ratio­nal sub­ject is not sim­ply mak­ing an erro­neous judg­ment; he is in con­flict with his rea­son, and thus with him­self. Objective facts and the rules of log­ic are incom­pa­ra­bly more coer­cive on him than any state power.

Of course, the ratio­nal sub­ject and rea­son itself in ques­tion are the prod­uct of the long evo­lu­tion of European cul­ture. In the mod­ern era, rea­son was pro­claimed to be the basis of both per­son­al sub­jec­tiv­i­ty and social struc­ture. Modernity cre­at­ed mod­ern tech­nol­o­gy and famil­iar social insti­tu­tions, includ­ing the insti­tu­tion of elec­tions. Loyalty to such insti­tu­tions implies mutu­al hon­esty between cit­i­zens and authorities.

Russian state­hood is built on a dif­fer­ent kind of loy­al­ty: it is based not on hon­esty but on per­son­al loy­al­ty to the col­lec­tive, embod­ied by the fig­ure of the leader. The val­or of such a loy­al­ist lies not in rea­son­able action for the com­mon good, but in a will­ing­ness to sac­ri­fice him­self. His sub­jec­tiv­i­ty, which can be called potes­tar, is built not on rea­son, but on «being-to-death.» It is per­son­al death that serves as the hori­zon that sets the inner cer­tain­ty of such a subject.

Many peo­ple are sur­prised at the equa­nim­i­ty with which thou­sands of adults, draft­ed by mobi­liza­tion, are sent off to a sense­less death. But one always dies on one’s own; par­tic­i­pa­tion in war is, for the poten­ti­at­ing sub­ject, a way of find­ing one­self. Reason, too, offers the pos­si­bil­i­ty of find­ing one­self with­out risk­ing one’s life, but this path is obvi­ous­ly not accept­able to everyone.

The atti­tude of self-sac­ri­fice requires per­son­al deter­mi­na­tion, but does not pre­sup­pose inner coher­ence. The post-estru­sive sub­ject does not have an inner assem­blage point link­ing togeth­er his feel­ings, words, thoughts, and actions. This point is exter­nal: the sub­ject-potes­tate is assert­ed through recog­ni­tion by the col­lec­tive and, ulti­mate­ly, by the leader. The fig­ure of the leader serves as such a point, replac­ing rea­son and conscience.

Not sur­pris­ing­ly, state­ments in the name of the leader act as a source of truth for the post-par­ti­san sub­ject: «the leader (chief) is always right.» Of course, he, too, can think log­i­cal­ly cor­rect­ly and assess the truth of his judg­ments. However, these actions remain for him only an intel­lec­tu­al game: the ques­tion of the truth and fal­si­ty of his state­ments is deprived for him of an eth­i­cal and exis­ten­tial dimen­sion: it is com­plete­ly reduced to the fig­ure of the leader.

Accordingly, facts have no coer­cive force for the poten­ti­at­ed sub­ject: let the lemon be blue if the leader thinks so. Strictly speak­ing, for him there are no facts as such. For him, the observed phe­nom­e­non is not a strict fact imply­ing the coher­ence of sen­so­ry data, con­cepts and words, but a sign or omen refer­ring to an indef­i­nite series of mean­ings and mean­ings. Hence the hyper­tro­phied sig­nif­i­cance of sym­bols, the con­spir­a­cy-like belief in secret mean­ings whose signs are everywhere.

The blurred «I», assert­ed from the out­side and indif­fer­ent to the truth of its judg­ments, is vivid­ly man­i­fest­ed in the pecu­liar­i­ties of «patri­ot­ic» dis­course. These include avoid­ance of «self talk» («Crimea is ours»), resent­ment («we are not loved any­where»), dou­ble entan­gle­ment («accord­ing to the law you can, but you under­stand that you can­not»), and a strict taboo on ratio­nal reflec­tion («don’t you love Russia?»). «Wata,» the com­mon name for sub­jec­tiv­i­ty of poten­cy, is a very accu­rate metaphor.

The clash of dif­fer­ent sub­jec­tiv­i­ties gen­er­ates a fierce con­flict of inter­pre­ta­tions. From the point of view of the potes­ta­tion­al sub­ject, the posi­tion of the ratio­nal sub­ject is per­ceived as betray­al, because it has no place for loy­al­ty, devo­tion, and self-sac­ri­fice, which are not jus­ti­fied by ratio­nal argu­ments. But for the ratio­nal sub­ject it is indif­fer­ence to the truth that is a betray­al of rea­son, and thus of self («There is no greater trea­son in the world than the betray­al of self»).

On the oth­er hand, the ratio­nal sub­ject views postas­ta­sis as insan­i­ty. Indeed, in con­tem­po­rary cul­ture the «mad­man,» along with, say, the «child» or the «ani­mal,» is a fig­ure of excep­tion as a being whose life is not sub­ject to rea­son. This does not mean, of course, that poten­ti­at­ed sub­jec­tiv­i­ty con­sti­tutes a psy­chi­atric diagnosis.

There is much talk these days about the cri­sis of moder­ni­ty, the dis­il­lu­sion­ment with rea­son and the return to archaicism. At the same time, how­ev­er, no one seri­ous­ly con­sid­ers the pos­si­bil­i­ty of aban­don­ing mod­ern tech­nol­o­gy, whose anthro­po­log­i­cal basis is ratio­nal sub­jec­tiv­i­ty. In prin­ci­ple, it is not too dif­fi­cult to con­vince the pop­u­la­tion of the vicious­ness of domes­tic com­fort and sci­en­tif­ic med­i­cine. However, no regime can retain pow­er with­out mod­ern means of social con­trol and war­fare. Therefore, rea­son­able sub­jects have to be reck­oned with-espe­cial­ly if they do not betray themselves.

But where do rea­son­able sub­jects come from in the first place? The most impor­tant insti­tu­tion for their repro­duc­tion is basic sci­ence. Science, by its very pres­ence, instills in soci­ety an atti­tude of loy­al­ty to objec­tive truth and a crit­i­cal atti­tude toward author­i­ta­tive opin­ions. Participating in sci­en­tif­ic research places the indi­vid­ual before the pro­duc­tion neces­si­ty of being intel­lec­tu­al­ly hon­est and judg­ing the sub­ject mat­ter being stud­ied inde­pen­dent­ly. Of course, not all sci­en­tists are rea­son­able sub­jects, just as not all church-going peo­ple are Christian right­eous. Nevertheless, with­out sci­ence, it is impos­si­ble to cre­ate an envi­ron­ment in which it is pos­si­ble to edu­cate intel­li­gent cit­i­zens capa­ble of devel­op­ing, main­tain­ing, or sim­ply using mod­ern tech­nol­o­gy intel­li­gent­ly. This idea, which formed the basis of the Humboldtian mod­el of the uni­ver­si­ty, remains rel­e­vant today.

In Russia, an empire that has lost its mis­sion and become hostage to its own his­to­ry, ter­ri­to­ry and infra­struc­ture, the oppo­site ten­den­cy pre­vails. Today’s Russia is a post-Soviet enti­ty that views rea­son as a threat to its own exis­tence. Over the post-Soviet decades, it has demon­strat­ed a strik­ing inabil­i­ty to cre­ate and pro­mote even any orig­i­nal pos­i­tive ideas, mean­ings and val­ues. The only com­mon «sta­ple» is the archa­ic pagan rit­u­al of mass human sac­ri­fice, that is, war.

Victory in war is a sign that the sac­ri­fices made are accept­ed by high­er forces: they favor the leader and give him the right to rule. Defeat is the rejec­tion of sac­ri­fices, the loss of legit­i­ma­cy and mean­ing. For Russia, the cur­rent war has no ratio­nal pur­pose; it is only a des­per­ate — and most like­ly the last — attempt to hold on to the mean­ing of its own existence.

The sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ty in today’s Russia is one of the few social groups for whom fideli­ty to objec­tive truth still means some­thing. I am not ide­al­iz­ing Russian sci­en­tists: there are peo­ple with dif­fer­ent val­ues and beliefs among them. Nevertheless, they still adhere to their pro­fes­sion­al ethics about the pri­ma­cy of facts and the inad­mis­si­bil­i­ty of delib­er­ate lies, and few dare to open­ly chal­lenge them. For a state dom­i­nat­ed by the prin­ci­ple «the child is always right,» this goes a long way. The sci­en­tif­ic com­mu­ni­ty in Russia remains an island of rel­a­tive­ly healthy social fab­ric, which is impor­tant to pre­serve for future revival.

Many sci­en­tists have left Russia; the clash of «those who left and those who stayed» is painful­ly divi­sive. They should not be a cause for dis­cord. If a schol­ar does not sup­port in words and deeds the war unleashed by Russia, if for him objec­tive truth pre­vails over loy­al­ty to the state, then it makes absolute­ly no dif­fer­ence where he is at the moment. It is only eth­i­cal, not state bor­ders, that mat­ter now. Ukraine’s strug­gle to regain its ter­ri­to­ries is a mat­ter of ethics, a strug­gle between good and evil.

Science in Russia is now in a cat­a­stroph­ic sit­u­a­tion, but the prospects for sci­ence out­side Russia are not very clear either. No one has can­celled the cri­sis of moder­ni­ty: the rejec­tion of rea­son as the foun­da­tion of soci­ety is going on every­where. No one can say what place sci­ence will occu­py in the soci­ety of the future, it is clear only that it will be quite dif­fer­ent. In the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion of post-truth, sci­ence is los­ing its for­mer influ­ence: its rel­e­vance and use­ful­ness for soci­ety are no longer accept­ed by default, but must be con­stant­ly proven.