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The Veneer of Objectivity: Mary Shelley’s "Frankenstein" as a Critique of the Inherent Biases of Rational Scientific Paradigms

by Carolyn Janecek

Westminster College

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein presents Victor’s character as someone who is both trained within a rational scientific paradigm and as someone who struggles with his subjective human passions. One may interpret Victor’s demise as being a result of his passions, which corrupted his otherwise objective pursuit of science. Even Victor states, “I suffered living torture. It was to be decided whether the result of my curiosity and lawless devices would cause the death of two of my fellow beings [emphasis added]” (Shelley 124), suggesting that his innate curiosity and lawless passions derail him from an otherwise rational endeavor. However, I argue that it is not Victor’s passions that lead to the corruption of his experiment, but rather his training within a rational scientific paradigm, in which science is supposed to be inherently objective. Using both feminist and narrative theory lenses––such as Longino’s “Can There Be a Feminist Science?” and Fisher’s “Narration as a Human Communication Paradigm” ––I argue that the presentation of rationality as objective is not only faulty, but harmful to the pursuit of science, because rationality historically stems from a largely masculine paradigm constructed from unequal binaries. Frankenstein reveals how ignorance of personal and historical biases distances one from objective truth, unless one actively acknowledges them. I believe that this sort of error is evident in Victor Frankenstein’s case: he believes his rational approach can protect him, but by thinking that his approach outweighs his human passions and biases, he ultimately spirals into tragedy. Thus, Shelley’s narrative and emotional––not scientific––treatment of science in her novel critiques the inherent flaws of rationality through Victor’s beliefs about science as being free from human passions.

Victor spends his childhood interested in alchemy, but upon starting university, his professors set him on a path of rational science. The definition of rationality I will be using will be within the scientific paradigm Victor’s professors train him into, which reflects a desire for objective knowledge through experimentation. Victor’s professors make a great impact on him by describing the power of modern science:

The modern masters promise very little… But these philosophers, whose hands seem only made to dabble in dirt, and their eyes to pore over the microscope or crucible, have indeed performed miracles. They penetrate into the recesses of nature and show how she works in her hiding-places. They ascend into the heavens; they have discovered how the blood circulates, and the nature of the air we breathe. They have acquired new and almost unlimited powers. (Shelley 71)

Victor’s professors look down on alchemy as pseudo-science, because it lacks the method of natural philosophy. “Penetrate into the recesses of nature” suggests influence from the Baconian paradigm, which encourages observation of nature to gain knowledge and mastery over her “for nature is only to be commanded by obeying her” (Bacon), which requires careful observation before one makes their own scientific claims. Victor’s professors then reference three renowned scientists through their accomplishments: “ascend into the heavens” as Newton, “discovered how the blood circulates” as Harvey, and “the nature of the air” as Lavoisier. At this point in time, careful observation and experimentation are the ‘proper’ way to go about natural philosophy–– unlike alchemy––because natural philosophy has a method that leads to truth. These beliefs are central to Victor’s decisions and actions throughout the novel, especially concerning his ideas about rationality and objectivity.

Early Platonic philosophy influences the development of natural philosophy up through the time-period of Frankenstein and these effects of how science treats rationality are visible in Shelley’s novel. Rationality connotes humans’ ability to strive for order and objectivity, because of Plato’s contributions to the canonization of rationality. Plato writes in Phaedrus, “if the better elements of the mind which lead to order and philosophy prevail, then they pass their life here in happiness and harmony––masters of themselves and orderly––enslaving the vicious and emancipating the virtuous elements of the soul” (21). Plato’s idea of mastering the mind in an orderly fashion suggests that a level-headed, rational approach leads to unlocking the human soul’s full potential.

This ideal carries over to modern science, because as people uncover nature’s secrets, they are not just uncovering their own personal potential, but building from previous discoveries to increase the potential of all humanity. At an experimental level, this idea of order and virtue coinciding continues to influence science even now: if an experimental design is orderly and if observations are organized, the results should be “virtuous” and unbiased because the “vicious” parts of the soul––human passions and biases––will be stamped down. What constitutes the non- virtuous? Outside of disorder and other such vices, Plato looks down on the Sophists or rhetoricians, who did not use objective reason, but rather words and argument which Plato views as inherently subjective and suggestive: “oratory is the art of enchanting the soul… a skillful rhetorician has no need for truth” (Plato 35-6). Rhetoric has a reputation of being used to bias others through manipulation and convincing arguments. The emotional and argumentative appeals of rhetoric suggest inherent subjectivity, which becomes the foil for rational thought.

Bacon incorporates parts of Plato’s rational ideals into his own scientific philosophy, further suggesting that people can harness rationality to reach their full potential. Although he strives for a more observational approach, rather than the deductive reasoning pursued up to that point in history, Bacon does claim: “The sole cause and root of almost every defect in the sciences is this; that whilst we falsely admire and extol the powers of the human mind, we do not search for its real helps” (Bacon). That is to say: yes, the mind is a powerful tool, it just needs to be applied the right way to get at truth, because of how fickle human nature is. This view is also apparent in Descartes’s Meditations on the First Philosophy: “for as often as I restrain my will when I make judgements, so that it extends only to those matters that the intellect clearly and distinctly discloses to it, it plainly cannot happen that I err” (58). If you apply the correct method and do not just rely on human intuition and bias, your science/natural philosophy will inevitably succeed. That sounds great––so how could this have caused Victor to fail? I am going to explore the critiques and inherent biases of perceived rationality and examine how Victor falls victim to these beliefs, illustrating how this glorification of rationality conceals its pitfalls.

There are three major points I will cover on the historical subjectivity of rationality. The first is the use of binaries in reasoning; binaries are an integral part of rationality, because rationality itself is a part of a binary across from irrationality. Binaries, however, set up unequal dichotomies that hold certain ideals above others, which then become innate biases. Genevieve Lloyd writes in The Man of Reason: ‘Male’ and ‘Female’ in Western Philosophy, “The Pythagoreans saw the world as a mixture of principles associated with determinate form, seen as good, and others associated with formlessness… limit/unlimited, odd/even… male/female… light/dark, good/bad” (3). The separation between truth and untruth itself sets up a hierarchy of binaries, when one is obviously superior to the other. With truth or virtue, it does not seem harmful to choose the ‘superior’ half of the binary, but it becomes problematic and adds to implicit bias when one internalizes that ‘male’ is inherently superior to ‘female’ and even when ‘objectivity’ is superior to ‘subjectivity;’ so it goes especially with ‘rationality’ and ‘passion.’

Rationality and passion both reflect opposing analytical outlooks, but rationality is the method that has become socially acceptable. But with that acceptance, rationality becomes a system of values, rather than a method that is not influenced by values. Walter R. Fisher discusses Western society’s reverence for rationality and the problems it presents in “Narration as a Human Communication Paradigm.” Fisher explains how rationality and argument are learned, while humans have an innate propensity for narratives and how both paradigms are vessels for relating truth––this idea supposes that there is a place for an emotional perspective in reasoning (4, 7). Western society specifically upholds rationality as superior, because of the assumption that humans are naturally rational and always make decisions in their own best interest. Again, rationality encompasses this idea of human benefit and progress. However, because rationality is learned, it is most readily available to those who are in power (9-10). The social idea that rationality only leads to truth––although the narrative paradigm is the other option per Fisher––is a form of gatekeeping to the public. This idea frames rationality as a powerful tool accessible to the elite, which makes it difficult to dispute, not only because it would mean disputing those in power, but because it also turns into a social system of values enforced by those in power.

Rationality as a system of power is harmful enough to skew one’s objectivity, but one problem Victor faces in Frankenstein is the belief that rationality is an inherently objective tool that allows one to divorce their personal values from their scientific values. However, one cannot remove their decision-making process from their personal values to remain objectively rational. Helen E. Longino identifies the conflict between two sets of values in modern science in her article, “Can There Be a Feminist Science?”. Longino’s constitutive values are “the rules determining what constitutes acceptable scientific practice or scientific method” (54), while contextual values are the “personal, social, and cultural values, those group or individual preferences… belong[ing] to the social and cultural context in which science is done” (54). Longino explains that many scientists view these two values as existing in separate spheres and that one can set contextual values aside to practice science––but believing that scientific method can counteract the bias of personal context prevents one from actively trying to remove their own biases. Thus, she explains the goals of feminist science as “correcting the errors of masculine, standard science and as revealing the truth that is hidden by masculine ‘bad’ science, as taking the sex out of science” (53). The masculine is one of the contextual biases that exist in science and later she gives an example of how an experiment on sex hormones and human behavior was biased by functioning under gender binary assumptions (57-8). Biases like these stem from the perceived power of rationality in science. Therefore, the constitutive and contextual cannot be separate.

Victor Frankenstein internalizes this system of binaries and the power imbalance that comes with them as he centers his ideas around the power structure between creator and creation, which illustrates one of many problems inherent in a purely rational pursuit of science. Victor says, “A new species would bless me as its creator and source; many happy and excellent natures would owe their being to me” (Shelley 81). Victor makes many assumptions based on human- conceived binaries in Shelley’s novel, not realizing that they still constitute bias, even if it is a commonly accepted bias. This dilemma relates to Lloyd’s commentary on binaries, specifically relating to the relationship between man and nature: “rational knowledge has been construed as a transcending, transformation or control of natural forces” (2). Because of the belief that rationality can overcome nature––and science is a method of commanding nature––it seems only natural that Victor’s actions would lead to a successful experiment in which his creation “would bless [him] as its creator and source.” But his creation is not human, therefore, these human ideals do not apply to the monster in the first place. Victor assumes that he and the monster fit into the binary of creator/creation, which is reinforced by Longino’s notion of contextual values. Victor’s own experiences, such as his religious background, inform his understanding of binary power structures and what it means to be a creator. His expectations that as creator he will be in a position of power over his creation lends Victor a false sense of security, because he cannot think outside of his contextual values to realize that the monster does not subscribe to his human binaries. Victor’s contextual values are not the only ones at fault though––his constitutive values also contribute to his flawed rational school of thought.

Victor believes that the constitutive values that Longino identifies protect him and that science actively prevents his human biases from affecting him. As he makes his creation, Victor says,

the dissecting room and the slaughter-house furnished many of my materials; and often did my human nature turn with loathing from my occupation… And the same feelings which made me neglect the scenes around me caused me also to forget those friends who were so many miles absent… I wished, as it were, to procrastinate all that related to my feelings of affection until the great object, which swallowed up every habit of my nature, should be completed. (Shelley 83)

Although the slaughter-house and using human body parts for his experiment disgusts his very “human nature,” this does not stop Victor from continuing his experiment, because he feels like he can successfully can separate his human emotions from his work. In fact, Victor’s description of his dedication to his work is an example of the belief that constitutive values remove one’s personal values from the scientific method. Victor neglects his family and his own health until he finishes his project, which “swallowed up every habit of [his] nature.” If one views Victor’s “nature” as what makes him Victor––his experiences, emotions, and culture––then Victor is claiming that almost nothing of his identity remains that would affect or bias his work. This depersonalization allows him to work rationally, rather than emotionally. Victor believes in what Longino describes as “the value-freedom of the modern natural science [which] amounts to a claim that its constitutive and contextual features are clearly distinct from and independent of one another” (54). If science is value-free, then removing his identity from his work is just a natural part of his method, allowing his goals as an experimentalist––not as a person––to flourish independently. Any fervor he shows toward the progress of his work would be divorced from his emotions and remain within the realm of rational science. However, as much as Victor does not think his emotions affect him, it becomes clear that even when he believes he is acting rationally, his emotions continue to work subconsciously.

When Victor’s creation tries to persuade him to create a companion for him, Victor attempts to go about his decision logically, but his internalized biases prevent him from thinking rationally about the monster’s appeal, debunking the idea that a rational method leads to objective results. Victor has already categorized the monster as ‘inhuman’ versus ‘human’ and ‘evil’ versus ‘good,’ which tints his view of his arguments, but he also looks down on the monster’s argument because the monster uses a rhetorical appeal aimed at Victor’s emotions. At first, Victor responds emotionally toward the monster by hating him and then wondering if he should sympathize with his story. But after Victor calms down, he attempts to set himself back into the rational mindset, saying, “his power and threats were not omitted in my calculations” to clue the reader into his shift of gears (Shelley 230). Victor remembers that rationality tops rhetoric, because rhetoric is an emotional rather than rational appeal. This reveals how Victor’s rational education leads him to shy away from rhetoric and narrative, because he automatically categorizes them as negative. Rhetorical and narrative appeals, as I have discussed in tandem with Plato and Fisher, do not carry much weight in a society in which learned rational argumentation is a symbol of education and power. In Victor’s paradigm, narratives may feel innate to humans, but we have been taught to reject narratives for as long as Plato has been putting down rhetoricians. When Victor reacts to the monster’s appeal with genuine emotion, Victor recognizes the strategy that is supposed to strip away his rationality and he tries to put himself back into a rational mindset to resist emotional manipulation. Yet by immediately resisting a tactic because his paradigm disagrees with it, Victor ignores opinions different from his own and his own emotional reaction, which only adds to his implicit contextual biases.

Victor’s dependence on his rational paradigm to ensure his objectivity reaches a point when he discards empiric values completely, in favor of the false sense of security his rationality gives him. Hoping to anticipate the monster’s next attack, Victor begins carrying a gun with him always. Victor’s gun expresses both his flawed rational approach and acts as a symbolic representation of the rational man attempting to overcome nature. Victor states, “I carried pistols and a dagger constantly about me and was ever on the watch to prevent artifice, and by these means gained a greater degree of tranquility” (Shelley 300). Unfortunately, this self-defense is probably the least rational decision Victor makes in the novel. He does not recognize that the monster is not a man or an animal and therefore the effectiveness of the gun against him is completely untested, which pushes back against this being a rational decision. Without empirical evidence, Victor’s decision does not fit into even the Baconian paradigm of observation and it reflects even less the experiments of the scientists of Victor’s time-period. Instead, this assumption exemplifies how a seemingly rational decision––using a gun for self-defense––can have no testable basis, because it relies on assumptions from Victor’s previous experience with guns having the power to kill humans and animals.

Symbolically, Victor’s gun reflects man’s subjugation of nature and the power structures that Lloyd brings to attention in her writing. Man versus nature is a binary unto itself, where at one point, man marveled at the power of nature and simply tried to explain its forces. With the rise of rationality and experimentation, nature lost its mythical power and soon man gained the power to pick apart its secrets and became more adept at capitalizing off nature. Victor’s gun is a symbol for man’s ability to subjugate nature; the gun’s ability to kill from a distance shows the emotional detachment of rationality and the way it has evolved to put nature in her place for man’s own benefit. Yet the monster is neither man nor nature, so the gun––or man’s rationality can never destroy him. The monster is man’s creation that turns against him, just as the rational paradigm promises objective power over nature, yet is full of holes as man ignores the subjective effect of human passions on science.

By examining Victor Frankenstein’s actions through the lenses of philosophers of science, one can begin to see how someone who is educated on and believes in the objectivity of ‘rational’ science can spend most a novel not realizing how much their emotions affect their decision-making process. The historical reverence for logic and reason in the works of Plato and Bacon lead to a perceived infallibility of rationality, but the theoretical critiques of rationality by writers such as Longino and Fisher bring light to Victor’s actions and explain why his supposedly rational decisions lead to unfortunate results. Binaries, power structures, and the perceived infallibility of scientific method all affect Victor’s decision-making process, but are also an integral part of the paradigm he uses to hide from his emotions.

Through Victor, Shelley shows that removing human passions from science is not only impossible, but ignoring their effects can be dangerous. Frankenstein is a critique on deep-seated beliefs about rationality, showing that rather than pretending we can be objective, subjectivity is a part of human nature that we should account for. The biases Victor falls prey to exist as broader dangers for science if we continue to uphold rationality without questioning its objectivity. Longino writes, “We cannot restrict ourselves simply to the elimination of bias, but must expand our scope to include the detection of limiting and interpretive frameworks and the finding or construction of more appropriate frameworks” (60). I believe that Victor, who disavows his biases even as his emotions rule over him, would benefit from Longino’s advice. Instead of trying to take human passions out of science, those biases need to be acknowledged, rather than ignored, while they implicitly influence knowledge-projects. Actively recognizing one’s biases in science could become a part of the new framework Longino hopes for: a framework which even recognizes the goal of objectivity as a form of bias. Examining which biases are acting upon one’s actions could allow for a more dynamic experimental design, such as adjusting for biases as they come up, rather than trying to account for biases in hindsight or ignoring them altogether.

References

Bacon, Francis. “Francis Bacon, Novum Organum 1620.” history.hanover.edu. Accessed 10 December 2016.

Descartes, René. “Meditations on the First Philosophy.” Modern Philosophy: An Anthology of Primary Sources, edited by Roger Ariew, Watkins, 2009, pp. 35-68.

Fisher, Walter R. “Narration as a Human Communication Paradigm: The Case of Public Moral Argument.” Communication Monographs, vol. 51, pp. 1-22. MLA International Bibliography, doi: 10.1080/03637758409390180.

Lloyd, Genevieve. “Reason, Science and the Domination of Matter.” The Man of Reason: ‘Male’ and ‘Female’ in Western Philosophy. University of Minnesota Press, 1993. pp. 1-17.

Longino, Helen E. “Can There Be a Feminist Science?” Hypatia, vol. 51, no. 3, pp. 51-64. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3810122.

Plato. Phaedrus. Translated by Benjamin Jowett. Microsoft Word file. Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Lancer Books, 1968.

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