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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.
Alexei Oskolski 8.04.2023