By Madronna Holden
“Some people will be very disappointed if there is not an ultimate theory. I used to belong to that camp, but I have changed my mind. I’m now glad that our search for understanding will never come to an end, and that we will always have the challenge of new discovery.”
— Stephen Hawking (courtesy of M. Goldstein’s Physics Foibles)
James Watson, co-discoverer of the code of DNA famously declared,“If we (scientists) don’t play God, who will?”
It is comparable arrogance that has brought us so many environmental crises today. We have been going full steam ahead with the idea that whatever we can do we should do, evidenced by the 84,000 human-made chemicals released into the environment without testing. I would argue that nothing better supports our need for the precautionary principle.
Watson’s statement licensing scientists to play God indicates the disjunction between scientific achievement and self-knowledge—a hazardous disjunction indeed. When our power outdistances our knowledge, there is trouble ahead. This dangerous attitude is summed up by a Bulletin of Atomic Scientists Report assessing geo-engineering plans that include placing mirrors in space to deflect sunlight in order to compensate for global warming.
The report noted that such a plan assumes that though we are not smart enough to manage our own behavior, we are somehow smart enough to manage the behavior of the entire planet’s climate system.
Unforeseen consequences have already arisen with the idea of seeding oceans with nutrients to encourage the growth of tiny creatures to lock up carbon. Larger creatures ate the smaller ones before they had a chance to do their carbon-sequestering duties.
This reminds me of Chickasaw writer Linda Hogan’s essay (in her book, Dwellings) featuring a wizened grandmother’s tongue in cheek response to grandiose experiments to prove something that careful and respectful observation of the natural world would just as well tell us: “We knew that probably would be true”.
As to the mirrors in space proposition, there is already a drawback to this plan on grounds of justice—since it is predicted to change weather patterns for the worse in certain poorer countries. Seems like we have enough of that result already, as a film on the effects of climate change on indigenous peoples in Banglades documents.
Still, there is something in us that wants to believe that any unforeseen consequences to our actions can all be handled by some magic bullet. I don’t find this vein of thinking comforting. To the contrary, I find it troubling when anyone offhandedly asserts that science will one day know everything–as now and again one of my students asserts.
They might easily get this assumption from the “magic bullet” instant-fix attitude in our culture. But I will give them more credit than that and assume that science majors are getting this idea from the scientific search for a unified field theory: a “theory of everything” with which scientific laws might predict the consequences of all actions in the natural world. Currently, physics is grappling with the fact that the laws by which it describes the operations of large bodies do not match the laws that describe the operations of very small bodies– such as those on the quantum level. A “unified field theory” would purportedly solve this dilemma.
I second the attempt to discover the interconnections in our cosmos, but this is a far cry from knowing—or being able to predict– everything. Indeed, I would argue that our own connections with the living world must honor its ability to surprise us. If we think we are simply “managing” that world, we are obviously missing its own living essence.
At the very least a theory of everything should include a theory of ourselves that entails responsibility for our choices. Whereas I hold out hope for better ways of understanding ourselves, the most sophisticated scientific theory counters the idea that science might yield the knowledge to allow us to act as God of nature.
I am thinking of the work of mathematician Kurt Gödel and his “incompleteness theorem”. What he proved with this theorem for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize is that no conceptual system can prove more than it originally assumes. That is, the proofs that derive from within any conceptual endeavour are only elaborations of what we already know– or assume we know– to begin with.
Thus we will never have a “theory of everything” that applies to our universe unless we are standing outside of it. And even if there are multiple and parallel universes, one could only understand the “everything” they are part of by standing outside of them. I think even those engineers designing mirrors to deflect sunlight in outer space will find moving outside everything that exists a daunting task.
This perspective necessary for understanding our assumptions is why standing outside our own worldview gives us such important material for self-reflection.
As observers, we are intimately caught in the net of our observations, like the Hindu “net of jewels” that weaves the lives of the world together– an analogy that coincides with Nobel Prize winner Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. This principle states that on the quantum level, wave-particles can only be observed as waves or particles but not both.
And why should that be? Because, Heisenberg postulates, the dynamic relationship between observer and observed is such that the very way we observe a quantum particle changes its essential nature.
There is more: some modern physicists have documented how the very laws of physics may be changing over time.
This coincides nicely with the indigenous view that the world is alive- since change is a characteristic of life.
Two linguists, Benjamin Whorf and Edward Sapir, speculatethat modern science might have come to quantum theory more quickly had we been speaking Hopi rather than Indo-European languages.The latter’s dualistic subject-object configuration more nearly coincides with the Newtonian worldview than does the space-time quanta that characterize Hopi languages.
In the traditional vision quests of the Coast Salish people, finding your spirit-power was linked to humbling yourself before the spirits of the natural world—who might thus find favor with you and speak to you in a language a mere human could understand. The spirit power-knowledge found on such a quest was exercised throughout one’s lifetime as a joint affair, rather than as a manner of controlling the world. One should always “ask permission” to use it—as a Snoqualmie traditionalist once told me.
According to such belief systems, children become mature adults who understand how to act in the world by humbling themselves to the more than human world.
My own belief is that the universe will always be mysterious to us —for which I am grateful. I find considerable hope in our human limits—perhaps this will someday motivate us to partner with nature rather than attempting to rule it as a god.
Sophisticated scientific theory and indigenous views of the world both indicate we can only get perspective on our culture by seeing it through the eyes of an alternative–and perspective on our humanness though the more than human world.
This is humbling.
It replicates the insight of Paula Gunn Allen’s Laguna Pueblo people who asserted that we need our enemies to show us who we are . And thus if we outcast “others” from our world, we only diminish ourselves.
On the bridge between modern science and indigenous philosophy, there is this insight: knowing the world is a matter of relating to it–and such knowing is bound up in the self-reflection we can only gain by suspending our egoism.
The discussion of the scientific certainty continues. here.
This essay is copyright 2010 by Madronna Holden. However, feel free to link to it or reproduce it with attribution.
Filed under: Contrasting worldviews, Environmental ethics, environmental philosophy, Our Earth and Ourselves, Working for justice, worldviews | Tagged: environmental philosophy, geoengineering, philosophy of science, sapir-whorf hypothesis |