Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Culture Clash, concluding thoughts: Can Science Save Us? Can We Save Science?

Conclusion of conversation between Dr. John Robinson and Dr. Kai Chan, who both weigh in with their final reflections below. 

This is the final part of the series.  If you missed it: part 1part 2part 3part 4, part 5.

KC: How did two amicable colleagues resort to raised voices 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 research project/exhibit on sustainability as an imaginary problem, and I responded with concerns that science was not parallel to religion. In parts twothreefour, and five we debated the extent to which science is religious, ideological, or morally prescriptive, and decided finally that what John was calling 'science' was actually better termed 'materialist metaphysics'. At that point, I think we both felt a happy near-complete resolution. Little did we realize what tension lay ahead....

KC: Walking briskly out of a faculty meeting where we met with President Arvind Gupta as a department, John and I commented on the weekend's extended email exchange. Just like what students seem to imagine of university professors, John joked, spending weekends writing long philosophical emails to one another. I laughed and noted just how rare it is for me to email about work at all on the weekend.

As we reached the base of the stairs in the beautiful new Earth Sciences Building, in the heart of the wide-open lobby (five floors of open space above), we stumbled upon one remaining point of difference. If I remember correctly, John noted that he was glad that the substitution of 'materialist metaphysics' for 'science' allowed me to see that this philosophical perspective on which science is founded is indeed prescriptive.

Taken aback, I blurted out, surely too adamantly, "Well, I don't agree with that."

"What do you mean?? Of course it's prescriptive!!" John exclaimed, surely exhausted by the five rounds of emails and the notion that they did not--after all--come to resolution.

And that was the beginning of a tense few minutes. While we reconciled what we meant by 'prescriptive', I also weighed in on my concerns about how the planned Sustainability in an Imaginary World exhibit might send dangerous signals about the nature of science--even if the choice presented to participants was between 'Religion', 'Literature', and 'Materialist Metaphysics' (but noted as the foundation for science). (Note: partly as a result of our exchange, the names of two of the three perspectives have been changed, as discussed in John’s concluding remarks below). After agreeing that by one interpretation, the latter is certainly prescriptive (more on this below), I expressed my worry that other folks would interpret the choice as I did (clearly making logical leaps based on my sample size of one), and John pointed out appropriately that I'm not the first person they had explained the planned exhibit to, but the only one to have such a reaction (I interpreted John's body language as seeing my reaction to be clearly mistaken). At that point, it seemed clear that John no longer believed me that I was not deeply immersed in the materialist metaphysics perspective; I was just trying to play devil's advocate.

And that's when steam rose from my collar, and our voices escalated as we gesticulated, to the point that I glanced up and wondered whether President Gupta and Dean of Science Simon Peacock were watching this animated display of academic zeal. A friend on sabbatical, David Earn, punctured the tension. With hugely self-conscious awkwardness, I said hi and apologized that I really could not leave this conversation at that juncture.

Looking back on this moment, it's all so laughable. And fortunately, John and I both realized that and reflected on which implicit assumptions brought us to that bizarrely escalated moment. 

As a practicing scientist, I certainly see the great value in the scientific perspective, which I see as accepting the materialist metaphysics position temporarily for the sake of applying the scientific method to better understand cause and effect. I agree that we cannot know 'truth', but that doesn't trouble me much. Science helps us get closer to making sense of how much of the world appears to operate, and that's good enough for me 99.9% of the time.

As someone who studied and publishes in philosophy, I was shocked to find myself so strongly at odds on these issues with a humanities scholar. But my primary philosophy education was logic and ethics, much more than epistemology and metaphysics. So for me, 'prescriptive' meant a complete and logical moral argument about what one should do.

John's training is obviously much broader across the humanities, and from his perspective, worldviews are prescriptive in the sense that they colour what we view as right. Of course they do! I argued that the scientific method (including peer review) is an imperfect but intentional and somewhat effective tool for critiquing such implicit assumptions, and for rebuking inappropriately value-laden conclusions. John held the position that the scientific community openly embraced deeply consequential value-laden assumptions.

Thinking then about John's own background, I realized that since we were using 'science' inclusively (both natural and social), when John said 'science' he also imagined economics. (I remembered that John has often critiqued the implicit assumptions in economics, and John was Tom Green's supervisor for an excellent PhD dissertation on the limitations of undergraduate teaching in economics.) Much more than chemistry, physics, and biology, I certainly agree that economics makes broad and substantial assumptions about value, which are clearly prescriptive in the sense John intends. Think of the distorting power of GDP measures and economic growth in discussions about the health of a nation. Everyone can agree to beat up on economics, can't we? ;)

Twice (with 'prescriptive' and 'science'), we used the same words in substantially different ways without knowing it. Ah, the challenges of interdisciplinarity!

Reflecting on the Sustainability in an Imaginary World Project, my concern lingers that it may inadvertently result in further confusion about the role and utility of science. In this time when science is so badly being distorted, maligned, and ignored in official circles in both Canada and the USA, I dread anything that lends credence to the arguments of those anti-science interests. Perhaps irrationally, I fear climate skeptics using this exhibit--which seeks to make sustainability more imaginary (with less emphasis on fact)--to justify ignoring climate science, choosing instead to 'imagine' what human actions will incur for our climate.

That said, the planned exhibit also makes superb points, so I'm looking forward to experiencing it!

And now, from Dr. Robinson

JR: I felt exactly the same as Kai: an apparent happy resolution to our disagreements in our email exchanges seemed to dissolve into thin air and here we were at loggerheads again. As he so well describes, we discovered, yet again, that different implicit assumptions each of us had about both our own position and that of each other, were in play. I think our experience in this exchange reinforces the argument that deep forms of interdisciplinarity require actual immersion in each other’s world: there is no substitute for lots of time spent together in discussion.

Directly as a result of our exchange, I have decided that we need to change the name of the three perspectives/worlds we are exploring in the Sustainability in an Imaginary World project. They are derived from Richard Rorty’s brilliant article “Philosophy as a Transitional Genre” (in Philosophy as Cultural Politics, Philosophical Papers, Vol 4, Cambridge University Press, 2007), where he says that “that the intellectuals of the West have, since the Renaissance, progressed through three stages: they have hoped for redemption first from God, then from philosophy, and now from literature.” He goes on to say that the last gasp of the philosophical stage is a belief in materialist metaphysics. Rorty describes it this way: “This was the attempt to put natural science in the place of both religion and Socratic reflection, to see empirical inquiry as providing exactly what Socrates thought it could never give us—redemptive truth.”

In my exchanges with Kai, I used the shorthand of “religious, scientific and literary perspectives/worlds” to describe the three positions. Based on our discussion, I think it would be better to say “spiritual, materialist, and literary perspectives/worlds”. That allows a separation in principle between science and materialism. Many scientists are of course deeply religious, though I would guess that materialist metaphysics is by far the most prevalent philosophical position of most practicing scientists. This change of language also allows us to include, in the spiritual category, those that see redemptive truth in the non-material realm, but perhaps don’t belong to any organized religion.

I think this issue underlies the question of the role and status of scientific understanding. Kai says “Science helps us get closer to making sense of how much of the world appears to operate”, and I agree with that. But, from a literary perspective point of view, much turns on what we mean when we use terms like “world” (not to mention “making sense” and “appears”). Does this world exist independent of our beliefs, values and understandings? Both the spiritual and materialist perspectives/world would say that it does. We may have only partial understanding of that world (we see through a glass darkly in one famous religious statement) but it exists independently of us. The literary perspective/world challenges this view. In Rorty’s language “we only have each other”. There is no external reality or divine plan that exists outside us.

I hope this helps to explain why I have used the awkward term “perceptive/world” in this brief comment. In both the spiritual and materialist worlds, these questions are matters of perspective or world-view: a view we have of the world, which exists independently of those views. But in the literary world, it is not a question of a perspective but of the nature of the world itself. Put in somewhat literary terms, the world is fictional all the way down.

The purpose of the Sustainability in an Imaginary World project is to explore the question of whether the difference among these three perspectives is important for addressing sustainability concerns. In particular, what would it mean for sustainability to adopt a literary view (the other two are much better understood, and practiced, I think). What worlds do these three approaches give rise to?

From this point of view, it is not just economics that is prescriptive (though I certainly agree with Kai that economics is prescriptive in particular ways that physical and natural science are not). But science itself, as a way of thinking, almost always posits the existence of an external world that exists, and operates, independently of human existence. (Indeed, explicitly championing that point is a central argument of much of environmental science. We have to escape from anthropocentrism, it is claimed, and recognize the existence, and value, of a world independent of us if we are to save or preserve nature.) It is in this ontological sense that the materialist perspective/world is prescriptive, and such ontological prescriptions have very large practical consequences. I think Kai and I agree on this. [KC: Indeed, we do!]

As Kai says, he comes at these questions from the point of view of logic and ethics, while I am more focussed on epistemological and metaphysical questions. As a result I have a lot of trouble with the fact-value distinction, and therefore with the view that prescription applies only to a moral realm.

As to Kai’s final point about the Sustainability in an Imaginary World project potentially undermining public perceptions of science, I prefer to think that it instead offers at least the possibility of suggesting a different kind of science than is usually provided. As Rorty is at pains to argue, the literary approach does not deny that science is the best social process we currently have for predicting phenomena (as opposed for example to saying objectively true things about some reality that exists external to us). But science is itself of course a human endeavor (as a century or so of science studies has exhaustively shown). The challenge here is to articulate what a literary approach to science would mean. My suspicion is that it would be both very different from, and perhaps more useful for sustainability, (and maybe even less “distorted, maligned, and ignored”, despite having “less emphasis on fact”) than the kind of science that is usually on offer. But even to raise this question means trying to articulate what this different approach might look like, and how it compares to more conventional approaches. That is a major purpose of the Sustainability in an Imaginary World project.

No comments:

Post a Comment