What do we say when we say ‘she couldn’t have done otherwise’? Does science tell us she could only do as she had done? Or does conscience tell us that, in her position, we would, probably, have done the same? It is a question that fascinated philosophers for a simple reason: it fascinates all of us and fascinates us all the time. It is a question whose upside is that she can go on with clear conscience and whose downside is science treats her, and therefore us, as believing in the quasi-religious myth of conscience. In the latter case, as I will argue, we are captive to the quasi-religious myth of con-science; science as a con act, or, in French, science as practiced by ‘un con‘. The former case teaches us something very interesting about science: it is something that we do together, something that’s intimately linked to conscience.
Bergson denounced science as a con act (and an act of cons) insofar it claimed to be able to infallibly predict what she could or couldn’t have done at any given time of her life. He put this in a too little known thought experiment about the philosopher Paul claiming to be able to predict whatever some guy Pierre would do (philosophy back then did not yet understand the value of trying to be gender neutral). Bergson concedes that Paul would be able to predict more accurately, or with higher likelihood, what Pierre would be prone to do. However, the more accurately Paul’s prediction is to be, the more information he’ll have to obtain of the exact conditions and life history of Pierre. Well, if Paul wants to be – as he claims he can be – 100% accurate then he needs to know everything Pierre knows – and this includes having experienced everything as Pierre experienced it. At that time, it is clear that the fully accurate prediction comes at the expense of giving up all difference between Paul and Pierre. Paul has become Pierre and his prediction has become just the experience of Pierre in choosing, i.e. it has ceased to be a prediction.
This thought experiment reveals the smoke and mirrors behind the illusion of science as ‘exact’ science. Not all exact scientists are cons, of course, they know full well the limits of their science. That said, they are, in fact, conned into believing that the stuff out of their reach is only out of their reach for now. And philosophers conning them into this thought ‘could have done otherwise’. They could have seen that the leap of faith they make in the progress of science is a leap that goes against ‘the facts as we know them’ which, for sure, include Pierre’s experience that right up to the moment of doing what he, in fact, did he could, in fact, have done otherwise.
The problem with Bergson though is that he construes ‘the facts as we know them’ in the most subjective way possible. So he says that: ‘to act freely is to retake possession of one’s self’. And now the scientist might rightly say: OK, maybe we are not justified to make our leap of faith but we are not prepared to make that leap of faith as it would lead us into an utter mysteriousness. And so it goes unless we include in ‘the facts as we know them’ the fact of conscience, including how we come to know something together. Enter Strawson, the person who coined the phrase ‘the facts as we know them’. Indeed, what we know for sure includes that she can go on with a clear conscience if we see that we would not have been able to do otherwise as far as we know her situation.
‘The facts as we know them’ include this knowledge that for some things she did, we can excuse her or we cannot (in which case we blame her). Or that we cannot give her credit for it or we can (in which case we praise her). We might be in murky waters in all of this blaming or praising stuff but we are for sure not in mysterious waters. We can be wrong sometimes to blame or praise but we cannot sensibly be wrong all of the time. If we were we would not be able to make sense of our own actions. We could not take responsibility for anything. So, you see, a conscience is a prerequisite for any science. It is also the only non-mysterious spur for science because muddy as these waters may be it matters for us to clear them up as much as we can. It matters to the extent that one could or could not – probably! – have done otherwise.
And in all this there are qualifiers (probably, to the extent that, …) that, as Bergson rightly has it, cannot be eliminated at risk of turning our conscience via science into con-science. Con-science will defraud us at the same time of a sense of liberty and of the requirement to take responsibility, the two things that conscience makes us conscious about enough to wish to seek scientific knowledge in the first place.
Con–science is mostly applied to others. It’s notoriously difficult to deny the fact of one’s own conscience. Con-science then tends to see others as crazy and ourselves as superior. Conscience tells us we can do otherwise.