Friday, February 27, 2015

Culture Clash part 4: Are Worldviews like Hats (Switchable)? Is Science Morally Prescriptive?

A continuing conversation between Dr. John Robinson and Dr. Kai Chan

This is part 4.  If you missed it: part 1, part 2, part 3 ... part 5, part 6 (conclusion).

KC: How did two amicable colleagues get red in the face discussing sustainability and the imaginary? In part 1 of this exchange between Sustainability thinker John Robinson and myself (Kai Chan), John introduced a fascinating new exhibit on sustainability as an imaginary problem, and I responded with concerns that science was not parallel to religion. In parts two and three, we debated that point using the Dark Ages as an example, and I raised the point that people don't adopt a 'science' or 'religion' worldview whole-hog, but rather piecemeal.... Surely we can reach agreement now!?

From: <Robinson>, John
Date: Sunday, January 11, 2015 at 5:00 PM
To: Kai Chan
Cc: "RobinsonJohn"
Subject: RE: papers; and sustainability, science, and the imaginary


I suspect that we will not agree on this, but let me have another try.

The values that are inextricably embedded in a scientific perspective, it seems to me, lie at a very deep epistemological level. They include positions such as the view that there exists an external world, independent of any views or ideas we may have of it, or that the stars are not alive or possessed of consciousness or intentionality, or that values are something that humans provide to the world. Of course there are lower level values that are in dispute or vary from individual to individual, but that is not the level I am interested in. I think it is well established that in many ways we do not pick our perspectives at these deep levels but they pick us. Put another way, we grow into a set of deep beliefs or understandings through some combination of experience, education and perhaps temperament.

So, at this deep level, it is not a matter of picking and choosing, or blithely combining. The religious view that the modern world is essentially dark because of its spiritual emptiness is not something that is equivalent to, or at the same level as, the recognition that medieval times had great poverty or high levels of starvation. These are qualitatively different judgements, and one is vastly (I used the word “cosmically” in my previous email) more important than the other. The great fear of a religiously minded person of the middle ages was that the world would come to an end spiritually, not physically; that the anti-Christ would come. I think it is plausible to believe that our modern world does in many ways represent those end-times. Indeed, I believe there are many who believe precisely this. This is indeed a major difference. One cannot combine this sensibility with a scientific one.

Note that, just like I am not speaking of specific (or all) scientists, when I talk about the scientific framework, I am not speaking of specific (or all) religious believers, when I talk about the religious framework. There are of course many scientists who are people of faith, and religious believers who are supporters of science. Rather, the claim I am making is that it is possible to postulate three incommensurable frameworks, which ultimately constitute the world at a deep level, and which may have very different implications for how we think about sustainability. If a person is utterly consistent in his or her beliefs, she or he will adhere to one of these positions. But in practice, most of us exhibit a high degree of cognitive dissonance, and can hold multiple inconsistent and even contradictory viewpoints. My argument does not depend on there being large number of people who hold precisely to these frameworks, simply that they exist, and as framework re incommensurable.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                 
I think you are in a bit of trouble with your partial moral argument thesis, since it is hard to see why a complete moral argument (whatever that is) is required for science to be prescriptive. It seems to me that there is a lot of strongly prescriptive advocacy around that does not come close to having a complete moral argument. But in the end my view on this issue is not important here, because I think we are , again, arguing at different levels. Sure there is a lot of diversity and incompleteness in any given set of circumstances. Indeed, as suggested in the previous paragraph, I would argue there always is. But, again, at the level of underlying epistemological premises of the kind in described above, I think these frameworks are homogenous, even monolithic.

So the issue is not so much that science has been used for political ends. We agree that it has, and I think we agree that this is a misuse of science. But this does not detract from the circumstance that both science and  politics, in the modern secular world, are based on a set of deep-lying epistemological and ontological premises that they share. Science does indeed strive to limit the effects of individual values, such as material self-interest, or ideological positions. It is the most successful social enterprise we have in that regard. But it does indeed prescriptively impose a normative framework about, for example, what constitutes understanding, about the meaning and value of “objectivity”, and about the material nature of external reality.

As to speaking to a broader audience, I would be happy to discuss it. In the meantime, do you mind if I circulate this correspondence to the Imaginary World team and some of my grad students?

All the best,
John Robinson 
Associate Provost, Sustainability | UBC Sustainability Initiative
Professor | Institute of Resources, Environment and Sustainability
Professor | Department of Geography
The University of British Columbia
2260 West Mall Vancouver, BC Canada V6T 1Z4 – UBC Sustainability Initiative (USI) – Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability (IRES) – Centre for Interactive research on Sustainability (CIRS)

From: Chan, Kai
Sent: Sunday, January 11, 2015 5:35 PM
To: RobinsonJohn
Subject: Re: papers; and sustainability, science, and the imaginary

Hi John,

We agree that we still don’t fully agree! ;) Again, there are several points of agreement (e.g., that fundamentalist religious folks might feel as you suggest), but there are important remaining points of difference.

I can see that by one argument, it doesn’t matter that very few people adhere to only one of lenses/worlds. But I would argue that this represents a potential source of critical confusion in the exhibit.

I also don’t agree that science requires any of the value premises that you state below. E.g., it does not require that there is an external reality, only that we can probe our surroundings in such a way that there appears to be one. Similarly, it does not state what constitutes understanding, but rather a method for deriving one kind of understanding (a scientific understanding). Nowhere does ‘science’ state that this is the only kind of understanding.

Accordingly, I don’t agree that there are necessarily inconsistencies between science and religion. It all depends on how one interprets each of those. There might be inconsistencies between how you are articulating ‘science’ and ‘religion’, but if most people have understood these concepts in terms that mitigate or eliminate those inconsistencies, then you’re highly likely to talk past your audience (just as we have been talking past each other). The more folks that interpret ‘science’ and ‘religion’ differently than you intend, the fewer folks who will get from your exhibit what you intend. I think that the majority have starkly different views; perhaps you’d only be preaching to the choir and confusing the masses.

Furthermore, epistemological and moral premises are different. An epistemological premise does not provide the prescription needed for a moral argument.

Lastly, the point isn’t whether the complete moral argument is articulated. Sure, activists make moral prescriptions without stating their premises, etc. The point is that science does not contain moral premises, and so science cannot be prescriptive. That is, any moral premises that a scientist might have, or someone arguing ‘on a scientific basis’ might have, are not a sanctioned component of science. Thus, it is not science that is doing the prescribing.

I’d be happy for you to circulate this correspondence, John. Thanks so much for persisting—it’s been interesting!


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