Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Interdisciplinary Culture Clash, part 3: If Not a Religion, Is Science an Ideology?

An ongoing conversation between Dr. John Robinson and Dr. Kai Chan

This is Part 3.  If you missed it:  Part 1, Part 2 ... Part 4. 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 part two, we debated that point using the Dark Ages as an example. Here we start really talking past each other, even more than we initially realized (you may read a little exasperation between the lines)....

From: <Robinson>, John
Date: Saturday, January 10, 2015 at 8:04 PM
To: Kai Chan
Cc: "RobinsonJohn"
Subject: RE: papers; and sustainability, science, and the imaginary


I think we are still talking past each other, which is perhaps to be expected since we are just beginning a discussion of very complex questions.

On the Dark Ages issue, your claim about the difference in material circumstances is quite correct, but simply serves to further illustrate my point, I think. The reason that medieval devout Christians might call our age “dark” relative to theirs has nothing to do with “the prevalence of disease, starvation, war, etc.” They would presumably care about those things, but also believe that such issues are far less important, indeed cosmically less important, than religious questions. And, from the point of view of unquestioning belief in a single, Catholic and apostolic Church, deeply integrated with all forms of governments and social life,  the idea of a mostly secular age like ours, not to mention the separation of Church and state, would presumably strike them as roughly equivalent to the reign of the anti-Christ. In other words, from the point of view of a deeply religious perspective (“religious” in this case meaning medieval Christianity), theological, spiritual  and religious issues are much more important than merely material ones. Of course, from the point of view of a modern secular culture, the opposite is the case. So the modern secularist can truly call the Dark Ages dark, in terms of the criteria that matter to him or her. But a medieval Christian could just as well call our time Dark Ages, with just as much justification, using a different set of criteria. That is of course the point, that the very criteria to be used to evaluate such a question are fundamentally different. (By the way, ignoring issues such as this in dealing with fundamentalist Islamicist movements in the world today is, I believe, a recipe for disaster.)

Turning to the question of the role of science in society, note that my claim isn’t about what scientists think but more generally what people in a modern secular culture, including scientists, think. In our case, that culture is deeply impregnated with a view of science as the fundamental epistemological arbiter. We thereby equate scientific understanding with our best approach to the truth about the nature of a reality which is independent of us. Those views, that there is a reality independent of us, and that science provides us with the best understanding of that reality, are characteristic of our culture. They were not the views of pre-modern Western world, not of most of the rest of the world for most of history. Yet they are so deeply embedded in our culture that most of us never even consider that they are historically contingent in this way. They are simply seen as descriptive viewpoints, not contested claims.

It is in this sense that I would disagree with you when you say that science is not a world-view (though in another way, which I think you will disagree with, I agree with that statement; see below.) The view that science is descriptive, not prescriptive, is, I believe, a contestable viewpoint. The distinction between facts and values, which underlies your claim that science is not about determining objectives but about interpreting process, has been strongly challenged (and of course also defended) in the history and philosophy of science, for many  decades. The huge debates sparked by the work of Thomas Kuhn were largely about this question. My reading of that work, and the half century or so of science studies (sociology of scientific knowledge, STS [science, technology and society], social studies of science, etc.), is that there is a very compelling critique of the view that science is essentially descriptive, that facts can be separated from values, and that observation can be theory independent. I myself subscribe to the view that observation is unavoidably deeply theory-laden, so facts and values are inextricably entangled at a deep level, and that science is, as Habermas argued, a “knowledge-constitutive interest”. I completely agree that if we want to describe “process” in terms of prediction, and potential control of physical behaviour, then science represents the most socially reliable process we know today for doing so (perhaps largely because of its essentially social processes of verification: peer review and replication). Yet such prediction is not a value-neutral goal at all, but reflects a set of deep assumptions about the way the world works and what we mean by understanding. In that sense, science, as a social enterprise is indeed rooted in a particular set of values and meanings. It is indeed literally a meaning-making process, not simply a neutral description of the world.

I accept that this value-ladeness and prescriptiveness exists at different levels, and I would agree that the way science is used by, say, the regenerative design scholars may represent a more egregious approach to being prescriptive than you or other scientists may agree with. But my experience with climate change issues, and lots of other sustainability questions, is that such an approach, which says that science tells us how to act, is very common. And in a curious kind of way, it is more (though unconsciously) consistent with the description of science that I am arguing for, than is your claim that science is purely descriptive. In other words, the view that ecological science, for example, is the “operating manual for planet earth” (to pick a famous claim) is common to more than regenerative design scholars, and at least acknowledges that science is indeed value-laden.

So while I myself don’t believe that modern science provides “redemptive truth”, to use Rorty’s phrase (i.e. knowledge that tells us how to live), I do believe that such a claim is inherent in the very fabric of modern science, and the claim that it is just value-free description is not defensible. I take you to be also arguing against science as redemptive, but for the opposite reason: you believe that science is, in principle (if not always in practice) value-free and morally neutral.

In other words, I think you are arguing that science is not redemptive because it is, or should be, value free and morally neutral. I agree that we should not look to science for redemptive truth, but, since it is unavoidably value laden, this cannot be by simply purifying our practice so that we exclude discussion of values from the scientific enterprise. Those values are too deeply embedded to be removable; they are inherent in the very practice of science. My approach is, rather, accepting what is sometimes called a post-modernist or social constructivist point of view, to challenge the intellectual monopoly of science as epistemological arbiter of our world. That is, let’s celebrate it for what it does well (predict phenomena), but recognize that that is just one set of values and descriptions. Science doesn’t tell us anything at all about objective reality, independent of humanity, since the idea that there is such a thing as objective reality is itself just one of the products of a scientific world-view.

It is in this sense that what Rorty calls the literary perspective exists as an alternative viewpoint. This viewpoint suggests that there is no reality independent of our various constructions of it. We only have each other, to use Rorty’s language. In this sense the literary perspective in indeed an alternative to both the religious and scientific perspectives, which of course are very different from each other, but share the belief that there exists an absolute truth, independent of us.

And from the point of view of the literary perspective, these three perspectives (religious, scientific and literary) are not simply world-views, but actually constitutive of the world itself (as suggested above, I suspect you would not be happy with this version of the argument that science is not a world-view). That is, the literary perspective claims that each of the three perspectives implies a completely different concept of the nature of the world and how we exist within it.  Of course from the point of view of either of the other two perspectives, this claim is false, since there is, from either of the other two viewpoints, a real world independent of our consciousness. This leads to an unavoidable meta-problem in that each description of the three perspectives is itself perspective-dependent: there can be no neutral way of describing them that is acceptable to all three.

It is this line of argument that gives rise to our choice of these three perspectives as the basis for the world-making process in the Sustainability in an Imaginary World project. In my view, lying behind the specific policy, behavioural and technological choices we need to make (important as they are) are more fundamental choices about which world we live in. This is a matter of decision, not description. The purpose of the SIW [Sustainability in an Imaginary World] project is to try and illustrate the link between such decisions and sustainability.

If you have waded through this email to this point, you may feel that my position leads to an unacceptable from of social constructivism and relativism, where anything goes, there is no real world, and there is no basis for deciding what views are legitimate in any circumstances. Astrology and astrophysics are simply collected sets of opinion, with no basis to choose between them. I would argue that, on the contrary, there are always very compelling reasons to choose among such frameworks, just that these reasons are essentially social, not matters of objective truth. But, even if we accept such a position, it seems to call into question the very idea of an external world, which in turn seems to be a rather odd position for someone in the sustainability field to adopt.  So let me end by saying that I think Latour has much to offer us here. If I am right in interpreting his arguments (always a question with respect to his work), he is calling for an approach that dissolves the artificial distinction between facts and values, and gives the material world real agency. So, the literary approach may be consistent with a view that is not just about the social construction of reality, but about an active collaboration between us and our world in a kind of mutual constitution of reality. That reality is not fixed in time or place; much less is it absolute or objectively true. But it is the most fruitful approach and position to take at our time and place in history, given all our current cultural resources and behaviours, including, of course, modern science itself. This is why I adopt what I call a procedural approach to sustainability, which sees sustainability as an essentially contested concept, and therefore local in time and place in the sense that it must be worked out for each time and place. Sustainability does not mean the same for us as it will for others in the future, any more than democracy or justice means the same for us in Canada today as they meant for the French in the 18th century, or the Romans in the 4th century. Sustainability is this an inherently local, ethical and normative concept.

Sorry for the long email. You inspired me to a lengthier response that I intended.

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 3:43 PM
To: RobinsonJohn
Subject: Re: papers; and sustainability, science, and the imaginary

Hi John,

Yes, we were talking past each other, and I think now I see how I might clarify my position so that we are more in line.

I completely agree with the Dark Ages; my point there was that many people who see themselves religious also agree that the material values mean that the Dark Ages were indeed dark. And the purpose of making that point was that people do not actually choose one of the three lenses, but multiple; the worlds that you would be forcing a choice between are not mutually exclusive. By forcing a false choice between the three, you may be sowing more confusion than enlightenment.

Re: the role of science in society, I agree with you almost completely on what you’ve written. I completely agree (and teach from the position) that science is not value neutral. But we differ on whether that means that science is prescriptive in the way that religion is. I argue strongly that it isn’t. I agree fully that there are no facts that come untinged with values through science, which is not and could not be a neutral process. But the values of ‘science’ are neither a complete nor a 'particular' homogenous set as needed for science to be prescriptive.

What I mean by complete is that the values that are included in scientific results (conflated within) are not sufficient such that, combined with the results of a study, they make a complete moral argument. When an individual argues that ‘science says we should …’ they are in fact including implicit moral premises that can be distinguished from the science itself, where different premises would result in different conclusions. So, while I agree that there is no clear distinction between facts and values, I disagree that science itself is prescriptive.

The second point is that the values in ‘science’ are not a ‘particular’ (homogenous) set. There are some broadly shared values, certainly, but there are also many values included by individual researchers into their own studies that are often not broadly shared. Another reason why ‘science' is not prescriptive.

I know that science has been used to further political ends, and it may well be the case that many people in North America currently believe that such uses of science are part of science. But in my mind, that is not science, but a use of science. Science, although not value-free, is indeed a process that limits the influence of values and the vast majority of scientists strive very hard to ensure this. Sure, we have persistent and prevalent blind spots, but to suggest that science is parallel to religion in terms of value, meaning (in a metaphysical or spiritual sense), and prescription, strikes me as misleading and very dangerous. 

I hope this clarifies my position! I wonder if there’s something worth writing for a broader audience here….


1 comment:

  1. I believe John Robinson´s proposition of an approach to sustainability that embraces different possibilities and opens up room for imagination and creativity is very interesting! Not only does it encourages people with more creative nature and a nonscientific worldview to engage in discussions on the subject, but also, they will have a different bias and thus contribute with new points of view.

    Another thing we must have in mind is that technology is expanding at an exponential rate. Today, things like intergalactic transponders and teleportation machines might seem pretty crazy, but a great part of the technology that we have today would have been seen as surreal 10, 20, 30 years ago. I do not think that Robinson´s proposal is to reject science and technology, but to open up the possibilities. Stimulating imagination may result in unusual ideas, but who said those can´t be adapted and become reality? Allowing freedom of imagination does not mean completely leaving the real world and denying science.

    Arthur C. Clarke once formulated the three “laws” of prediction:
    1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
    2. The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
    3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

    The advance science provides for sustainability is undeniable. However it becomes limited when we embrace political and sociocultural realms, because many other factors are in place, specially personal values, culture, religion, philosophy; i.e. intangibility to the max! Technology is fundamental for practical actions in sustainability, but when we are talking about the ecological crisis, the root of the problem is inside people´s heads, their values, lifestyles, and their fundamental relationship with nature. People are showing an anti-science feeling as a reflection of hundreds of years of a Cartesian worldview. It´s easy to change from one extreme to the other at the drop of a hat. This polarized vision – of sciences versus humanities – has to fall apart. It´s not one or the other, it´s both. In fact, I agree with the idea that making participants of the project choose between one of the three lenses might put in jeopardy the whole purpose of the project.

    I, myself, had to break down some barriers given that I was a Forestry student here in Brazil, but I also really liked psychology and wanted to do a research on the psychological benefits of interacting with nature. I have to say, I feared my work would be considered “inappropriate” for that area (interdisciplinary studies are not always welcome here). However, the results were very good and the work was very well received! I was always interested in nature conservation, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that we have to tackle the main issue: humanity. As Arne Naess says: “Our challenge is to manage ourselves as responsible members of an ecosphere that includes diverse species, communities, and unique individuals who deserve our respect”.

    Thanks for sharing your dialogue! I really enjoyed it.