While we’re waiting for Dr. Pinkah to produce his next book on how science can enrich the humanities, the enemies of reason and the touters of faith continue hawking their numinous wares in the intellectual market. So when you see an essay with this title, “The limits of intellectual reason in our understanding of the natural world,” you’re going to be wary. After all, how else can we understand the natural world except by reason and observation—what I call “science broadly construed”?
It gets worse when you realize that this piece, which does indeed denigrate reason at the expense of faith, not only appears at a reputable website, The Conversation, but was written by a reputable professor at a reputable university: Andrew J. Hoffman, the Holcim (US) Professor of Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan (he also has joint appointments at the School of Natural Resources & Environment and the Ross School of Business). The essay is apparently a precis of Hoffman’s recent book, Finding Purpose – Environmental Stewardship as a Personal Calling.
What is his thesis? That the world is in ecological trouble, and we can’t fix it with science alone. Science is too blunt an instrument to help cure Earth’s ills, and scientists have to be humble—always a red-flag word, urged on scientists by non-humble theologians. We must recognize that we must be sensitive to, and incorporate, people’s faith into our policies. We also need to deal with things that (according to Hoffman) are beyond science’s ambit, like our love of beauty. But Hoffman fails miserably in the end, for he doesn’t show any way that this kind of “faith” should substantially affect our policies.
The good professor gets off to a very bad start:
For example, scientific reason relies on data and analysis, and yet there is much in this world that cannot be measured; one cannot provide data that proves that love for another human being, a spiritual connection with the natural world, a sense of calling of vocation or the presence of God all exist. And yet, a great many people believe – or even know – that these exist.
Scientific reason also seeks to understand the natural world by breaking it down into individual parts. But it is the integrity of the whole that matters, what Rachel Carson called the “web of life.”
Finally, scientific reason seeks to explain all phenomena through words and numbers. And yet there are many experiences that defy articulation; classical pianists or professional athletes often have great difficulty verbalizing the essence of their experience when they are perfecting their craft.
So, while science can continue to advance in exploring the rational in nature, by analyzing natural systems through “big data” models using feedback loops, time delays, accumulations and nonlinearities that operate within them, it must also leave room for the mysterious and unexplainable, exercising a humility that it does not and may never know its full complexities.
In fact, all the phenomena that Hoffman claims cannot be measured, such as love, are emotions, and emotions represent brain states. While we’re not yet at the stage where we can measure the underlying neural basis of emotions, we can generate some of them, by injecting oxytocin, testosterone, or other chemicals. Some day we will be able to scientifically understand love, although we’re getting there.
As for stuff like “the presence of God”, yes, some people believe that the numinous exists. But they don’t “know” that—not using any reasonable definition of the word “know.” Likewise with pianists and athletes: we don’t understand why some composers or performers have a natural talent or keen musical acumen, but that doesn’t mean that this stuff, like athletic ability, is beyond the ken of science. Hoffman is simply placing outside the limits of science things that science doesn’t yet understand—and thereby makes the implicit claim that these things are forever beyond understanding.
As for “the integrity of the whole that matters,” that’s not always the case, of course, for in some cases it’s individual parts (like rising levels of greenhouse gas) that can ruin a whole, and if we reduce those, the whole will survive. To imply that the whole somehow transcends its parts, or is more than the joint effect of its parts, is simply to blather nonsense. In science wholes are always consistent with their parts, even when they show emergent properties that cannot (yet) be predicted from their parts.
Here’s where Hoffman really exposes his ignorance of science:
Just as we cannot state with certainty that cigarettes will cause any one individual to get cancer given the complexities of the human body, so too are we limited in our ability to predict the impact of our actions on the natural environment. The 1964 surgeon general’s report actually states that “statistical methods cannot establish proof of a causal relationship in an association [between cigarette smoking and lung cancer]. The causal significance of an association is a matter of judgment which goes beyond any statement of statistical probability.“ The protection of the natural world must also be a matter of judgment, based on both faith and reason.
Predictability is not the same as physical indeterminacy, as all readers should know by now. But to claim that we don’t know for sure that cigarettes don’t cause cancer (based on a correlation), neglects the ways in which this can be tested: eliminating other putative variables, looking at the effect of smoke inhalation on laboratory animals, and so on. It is established beyond reasonable doubt that smoking cigarettes does cause cancer in some individuals who would not be afflicted were they not to smoke. This meets the vernacular definition of “proof”: evidence so strong you’d bet your house on it.
I’m not sure what Hoffman means by saying “the protection of the natural world must also be a matter of judgment, based on both faith and reason.” Where’s the “faith” in there? Yes, we have to make subjective judgments about what we want to save (for global warming, humanity is one thing we want to preserve!), but that is not really about “faith.” And once we decide what we want to accomplish, the rest is science—as well as will and politics. “Faith” is not the same thing as saying, “I prefer that we save pandas over jaguars”, for faith is belief in a fact that is largely unsupported by evidence, while subjective preference is just that: a preference and not assertion of a fact.
Hoffman then goes on to claim that science is not adequate to understand the natural world:
. . . we need to recognize that the scientific method that was essential to the Enlightenment is no longer fully adequate to understand the natural world and our impact upon it.
More specifically, we need to recognize that a scientifically derived understanding as our only understanding of the environment leads to a utilitarian and mechanistic awareness of the natural world. That framing leads to many of the pathologies we now face: behaviors that lead to climate change, water scarcity and species extinction on a massive scale – and hampers our ability to appreciate – and therefore protect – nature for reasons that go beyond the limits of our understanding.
In the Anthropocene, we have become, in the words of Stephen Jay Gould, “the stewards of life’s continuity on Earth. We did not ask for this role, but we cannot abjure it. We may not be suited to it, but here we are.” To play this role properly requires a deeper reverence and respect for what we do not know or understand.
Again, Dr. Hoffman, what are we supposed to do? How will the reverence before our ignorance help us save the world? What else do we have beyond empirical evidence, and trial-and-error solutions—that is, science—to deal with climate change, extinction, and the scarcity of water? Again, we have to figure out what we want to save, and to justify that as best we can, but what kind of “reverence and respect” will guide us here? Can we let much of the rainforest vanish, along with its attendant species, to allow our species to expand? How much salt water do we want to tolerate in the Everglades? Those are subjective decisions, but rest on empirical knowledge of the consequences. There is no “faith” involved.
And look at Hoffman’s science-blaming: he says that science’s “utilitarian and mechanistic awareness of the natural world” has actually led to global warming and species extinction! What kind of nonsense is that? Dr. Hoffman, it seems, is one of those humanities people who holds science responsible for today’s ills. But his own discipline has no solution.
I can’t resist quoting a few more examples of inanity in this piece. Under the subheading “Honoring the mystical in nature,” Hoffman subsumes not the mystical, but curious findings of science, including the unexpected discovery that wolves introduced into Yellowstone National Park actually stabilized riverbanks by reducing the population of grazers who eroded the banks, and the recent suggestion that foxes may use the Earth’s magnetic field to home in on rodent prey beneath the snow. What is the lesson? Not that this stuff is mystical, but simply that we don’t know everything: “These examples, and many more, remind us that, for every advance in our understanding of nature, we can only marvel that there is ever more that we do not know.” No, it really doesn’t work that way. Every time we understand something like fox homing better, there is less stuff that we do not know. More questions may arise, but science only deepens and improves our understanding of nature. If you read Hoffman literally, you’d think that science not only impedes progress and ruins the environment, but actually makes us more ignorant!
In the end, Hoffman proffers two quotations that, he thinks, buttresses his thesis. The first is from Rachel Carson:
Rachel Carson eloquently captured this idea [“there is ever more that we do no know”]:
Contemplating the teeming life of the shore, we have an uneasy sense of the communication of some universal truth that lies just beyond our grasp. What is the message signaled by the hordes of diatoms, flashing their microscopic lights in the night sea? What truth is expressed by the legions of barnacles, whitening the rocks with their habitations, each small creature finding the necessities of its existence in the sweep of the surf? And what is the meaning of so tiny a being as the transparent wisp of protoplasm that is a sea lace, existing for some reason inscrutable to us — a reason that demands its presence by a trillion amid the rocks and weeds of the shore? The meaning haunts and ever eludes us, and in its very pursuit, we approach the ultimate mystery of Life itself.
With all due respect to Carson’s great writing and the environmental awareness she promoted, there is no message signaled by diatoms and barnacles, no reason beyond natural selection and evolution why animals exist. There is no “ultimate mystery of Life itself,” unless you’re talking about how it originated, and that’s a proximate rather than an ultimate mystery. Nor is that what Carson is talking about. The passage above is simply trying to infuse the numinous into nature, where, I’m afraid to say, there is nothing numinous. Looking for the Ultimate Mystery of Life Itself is a useless endeavor based on a meaningless supposition.
Finally, Hoffman gets in one last blow against scientists, whom he seems to regard as calculating automatons without emotion. Does the man know any scientists?
But scientific reason has limited capacity for considerations beyond the rational and utilitarian, and this diminishes science’s influence by distancing its conclusions from the general public. To many, scientists are seen as a class of people who “privilege the rational over the intuitive or spiritual, separate fact from values and emotions, and act contrary to religious beliefs about the ‘natural’ order of things,” as historian Richard Hofstadter wrote in his 1964 Pulitzer Prize-winning book.
Umm. . . first of all, American’s respect science and scientists, at least until we find out stuff (e.g., evolution, anthropogenic global warming) that conflicts with their religion or with their economic well being. Insofar as we act “contrary to religious beliefs about the ‘natural’ order of things,” what are we supposed to do about that? Should I stop studying evolution? Should I tell people that science really is consonant with everyone’s faith—a palpable lie? Do we really lack emotions and values? Should we start crying more often to show we’re human?
What we have in Hoffman’s essay is just a science-hater trying to argue that science isn’t the best way to approach solving environmental problems. Of course we need to take into account people’s emotions and subjective judgments, as well as subjective ethics (I believe all ethics is subjective, based on non-objective preferences); but what Hoffman offers is simply genuflecting toward religion and the Great Mysteries That We Can’t Fathom. Here’s his last paragraph:
To fully appreciate the complexities of nature and reach more people in explaining them, academics and scientists must approach study of the natural world with the strength of data and models, a humility of their limitations, an awareness of the unintended consequences they so often create and a recognition of the emotional, cultural, ethical and spiritual perspectives on the world. In short, it requires scientists to not only be smart, but also be wise.
Well, that sounds good, but aren’t we doing that already? Hoffman is simply a poor player who struts and frets his hour upon the page and then is heard no more. His essay is a tale told by a faith-coddler, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.