Monday, March 2, 2015

Culture Clash part 5: Who is the scientist, and who the humanist?

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

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

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 exhibit on sustainability as an imaginary problem, and I responded with concerns that science was not parallel to religion. In parts two, three, and four, we debated the extent to which science is religious, ideological, or morally prescriptive, and whether people adopt a 'science' or 'religion' worldview whole-hog. At this point, I was beginning to wonder why I felt obliged to defend science so fiercely from a man named 2012 Canadian environmental scientist of the year....

From: <Robinson>, John
Date: Monday, January 12, 2015 at 9:18 AM
To: Kai Chan
Cc: "RobinsonJohn"
Subject: RE: papers; and sustainability, science, and the imaginary


I had two thoughts on reading your email, which I hope will narrow the differences between us.

I hope that the first point may in fact give you some comfort about what we are trying to do in SIW [Sustainability in an Imaginary World]. The three perspectives (what we call “axiom sets” in the project) are intended to represent ideal types. As I said rather clumsily in a past email, we do not claim that they represent the actual views of any set of people, or any particular individuals. But I do think they represent perspectives that are more or less internally consistent, and which have had major historical significance. Our email discussion has made me think that we need to re-think our naming of them. With regard to the “scientific” axiom set, for example, it may be more useful to label it “materialist metaphysics”, as Rorty does. This would make it clear that it is an identifiable position/perspective, but not the perspective necessarily held by all scientists. For similar reasons, we may want to re-label the “religious” axiom set. (I think there is less worry about the “literary” one since this is not a label used by a particular group of people.)

So our claim is not about what “science” is or represents (in my own view, science is just what scientists do), but what this axiom set implies about the world, and its implications for our approach to sustainability. Similarly for the other two axiom sets.

At the individual level, of course there can be great diversity of views. I believe the axiom sets represent internally coherent views about the way the world is, but no one is required to subscribe to them holus bolus. I suspect most of us hold mixtures of these positions, without too much concern for internal logical consistency. This is the point I was trying to convey  with my earlier comments about cognitive dissonance. I think if you pushed this mixture of views in any specific case, you would find some significant inconsistencies, and even contradictions. But we are not required to be logically consistent in our deepest beliefs. Indeed, some would argue against that as a goal.

My second point has to do with your own position in our discussions. If you do not subscribe to the premises I outlined in my last email and instead agree “almost completely” with what I wrote in the email before that, then welcome to the literary perspective!

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
Phone 604 822 9188 | Fax:  1.604.822.9250                           – UBC Sustainability Initiative (USI) – Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability (IRES) – Centre for Interactive research on Sustainability (CIRS)

<Chan>, Kai Chan <>
Date: Monday, January 12, 2015 at 9:57 AM
To: "RobinsonJohn" <>
Subject: Re: papers; and sustainability, science, and the imaginary

Hi John, thanks for this. Yes, the differences have narrowed greatly.

I now understand much better what you’re trying to do in SIW, and my concerns are significantly mitigated by using ‘materialist metaphysics’ in place of ‘science’. And I agree completely that many of us have multiple internal inconsistencies. My main question remains, though: if many people naturally adopt multiple of the three perspectives simultaneously, is it sufficiently relevant and needed to force a false choice between them?

And, yes, it seems that I am dwelling in the literary! I’m not surprised: I was a writer (by identity, not profession; of fiction, fantasy, and science fiction) long before I was a scientist.


KC: At this point, I figured that we had come to a happy resolution. Little did I realize, the moment of greatest tension lay just ahead....

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