In the Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle ingeniously deadpans that “fire burns both here and in Persia” (1134b). It is this same singular insight that underlies the work of modern scientists such as Abdul Qadeer Khan, the father of the Pakistani nuclear program. The West, Khan saw, might indeed call the shots politically and economically, and as a result the ideology implicit in Western cultural products insinuates itself everywhere in an asymmetrical fashion. But in Pakistan as in America, fire burns the same, and nuclear fission works the same, and for this reason science is a great equalizer and leveller — it can level entire cities, in fact.
Khan would have no patience at all for talk of Pakistani tribal villagers’ traditional theories about what makes fire burn in, say, a lecture on nuclear physics at the University of Karachi. Arguably however, Khan is not a scientist in any rich sense that ought to be of interest to a philosopher of science, or in any sense that is continuous with the legacy of what was once called scientia, or yet in any sense that ought to be modeled to a future citizen-scientist contributing to the civic life of a free society. His concerns —though they are an Islamic and nationalist variant that on the surface have a distinct appearance— are rather continuous with those of the ideology we call, under neoliberalism, “STEM”. This ideology reduces science to engineering in the service of power.
It’s true, fire burns the same everywhere, but what is most interesting to me, as a philosopher and as a student of the remarkable varieties of human endeavor, are all the different ways human beings, in the face of this uniformity, are still able to conceptualize what fire is, and all the different ways they are able to incorporate it into their societies as a result of these different conceptualizations. I do not think I am merely expressing a me-centric idiosyncrasy when I say that this interest of mine should be shared by other philosophers.
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