|Although it has recently disgraced itself by promoting hate propaganda, CBC radio’s Ideas series still occasionally comes up with some thought-provoking programs. One of these is the series How to Think About Science, which has been running Wednesday nights since last November, and whose first 20 programs are now up on podcast. Tonight’s episode #24 featured a number of scientists and philosophers talking about how science is sometimes guilty of being unconsciously ideological, and how it uses myths and analogies (like Dawkins’ ‘selfish gene’) to advance an ideological position that (because of the power of myth and analogy) can interfere with our ability to appreciate other, competing theories of how the world works. And science is, after all, just theories, models, approximations and representations of reality, that are interesting and, sometimes, useful.
One of the philosophers criticizing this unconscious ideology, interviewed in the program, was Mary Midgley who, after reiterating her now-famous criticism of Dawkins, said something so remarkable (perhaps because it was so obvious but I’d never realized it) that I had to pull my car off the road to stop and digest it. She said:
Before human beings can change their behaviour, they have to change their way of thinking.
When humans (including scientists) believed that other animals were unthinking, unfeeling robots, for example, we had no qualms about subjecting them to unimaginable torture and suffering. Even today, in many cultures and religions, ‘nature’ is viewed as a savage, hostile force to be subdued by humans (exemplified by shows on the wingnut networks like Fox — Survivor, When Animals Attack etc.)
I was listening today to a speech by our ghastly prime minister Harper, who is misrepresenting what his government is doing to protect biodiversity at an international meeting somewhere (he’s actually doing less than nothing, with policies whose effect is to accelerate loss of biodiversity). What struck me was his comment that much of the alleged work protecting Canada’s biodiversity was being done by — get this — “environmental philanthropists”.
A philanthropist is someone who donates to charity. So Harper was admitting that he views “the environment” as a charity case.
This is, of course, completely consistent with the conservative worldview. Nature is put here by God to be conquered, bent to man’s will, and used as he sees fit. Defeating nature is God’s test of our strength and valour. Once it’s beaten, it’s really of no use. Harper buys this myth completely; it is beyond his comprehension to see humans as just another, not especially extraordinary, creature that evolved as an inseparable part of the environment, dependent on that environment. The only way in this ideological worldview he can ‘make sense’ of spending money on environmental protection is by viewing it as an act of charity.
My point in writing about this is two-fold. First, we should not presume that the environmentalists’ worldview is devoid of mythology and ideology either. I think that Gaia theory (and the ever-evolving theory of evolution) is a brilliant scientific theory, one that intuitively resonates with me as having great explanatory power and predictive value. It’s very useful. It’s fascinating, even exciting. But it is only a theory, a model, a representation of reality. Like reality, it continues to evolve; it evolves as we learn more about how the world appears to work. It is not “the truth”.
This is not a defence of creation theory, which is an utterly indefensible misrepresentation of reality, and hence completely useless (except perhaps as a tool for propaganda and subjugation of the ignorant and fearful). But as useful and consistent with observation as Gaia and evolution theories are, they are only ways of thinking. They are not The Truth. In fact, as another interviewee on the program commented, the more we learn through science, the more likely it seems that The Truth is unknowable. Learning is a journey without end, and we will always find new models, new ways of thinking that make ‘more sense’ than what we thought before, and cause us to change our way of thinking and discard that old thinking.
Secondly, that italicized sentence above gave me a huge rush of appreciation for the value of writing, blogging, and being a generalist. I’ve been enormously restless and self-critical because I keep thinking out loud and writing about what I think needs to be done, what I think perhaps my Purpose is, but somehow never really get started doing anything about it. But maybe I’m not meant to be an activist, founding communities and enterprises and creating models of a better way to liveand make a living. Maybe instead my Purpose is to change people’s way of thinking. And for those of you who write as obsessively as I do, maybe that’s your Purpose too.
What do you think?
May 28, 2008
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