he presence of obscure philosophical topics on a web site about plants and sustainabilty needs some introductory explanation.
We live in an age of specialization. The proliferation of scientific subjects that occurred in the 19th and 20th centuries accelerated the accumulation of factual knowledge that was circumscribing the world to finer and finer degrees of analytic resolution.
We pay a price for this specialization. There was a time, not too long ago, when it was possible to have some command of the full range of human knowledge. Students quickly settle into the narrow focus of their chosen discipline and academics themselves struggle to keep abreast of their own fields.
In the 18th century Linnaeus, the great classifier, recognised three broad categories of study in the natural world – animal, vegetable, and mineral – today there are over 50 academic disciplines concerned with the mind alone. There is little time for the history of ideas as problems of the day are taken up and scientific careers advanced. There is a tendency to bunker down in specialist academic silos, barking at intruders.
Today analysts vastly outnumber synthesizers while more than ever we need scientists with an informed socio-cultural vision who can convincingly communicate scientific ideas to a scientifically uneducated public. This web site attempts to counteract some of the attraction of minutiae.
The articles in this philosophical series flesh out the philosophical and historical context to science that so many active researchers have either skimmed over or missed out altogether . . . the framework of thought that has developed around science and the constant re-examination of its place in the history of ideas.
These Foundations articles discuss how philosophy, once the handmaid to theology, has increasingly become handmaid to the science that is now our most compelling account of the natural world. But it is also an account of the way that science is itself in transition, how an old paradigm of science is under challenge from a new metaphysic.
Socially responsible scientists of the future will have a broad view of science and its place in human affairs – a contextual vision, not just a narrowly focused agenda directed at the mastery of new technologies. This is the role of education, pure and applied . . . finding ways to produce the best explanations and greatest understanding while maximizing human flourishing by the protection of our planet and the community of life.
Brief overview of the Foundations series of essays
People of all races, religions, classes, and creeds have beliefs about the way the world is. The article on world views discusses how we approach differences in world view and changes in world view that have arisen under the influence of science and humanism, including ways in which the historical vision of ‘everything and its major components‘ has changed over time, and whether it is appropriate to refer to this change as progress. It is intellectually unfashionable to assume that humanity is currently making progress.
Justice cannot be done to this topic without a brief survey of metaphysics, the attempt to circumscribe reality. To do this the ideas of Immanuel Kant, considered by many as the greatest philosopher of the 18th century, are presented as an introduction to a discussion of reality and representation which examines the world as viewed through the lens of our everyday experience and as revealed to us by science.
Finally science itself is put under the microscope to see what it is about the discipline that has made it so effective in understanding and managing the physical world.
Globalization & Sustainability
The topics in Foundations do link to general concerns about globalization and future global sustainability.
Human globalization began with the first migrations out of Africa extending into the early world empires connecting in East and West and then with one-another along trade routes like the Silk Road, but gathering momentum in the early modern period as Europeans set out on long voyages of scientific discovery and exploration in a phase of colonial expansion that created major maritime trade routes linking into the local trade networks of both East and West.
Since the 1960s the world has undergone a quantum acceleration in global activity. While countries and cultures follow their own agendas, and in spite of local political instability and isolationism (Brexit, Trumpism), there is a growing sense of unification under a broad common language (English), economy (regulated capitalism), and mode of government (liberal democracy). We have, over the last 250 years, entered a new phase of history, one where countries are vastly more interconnected and interdependent. We are all, now, global citizens.
What does this mean?
Part of this new global identity and citizenship involves a recognition that we are all part of a global community of life with a shared future. As global citizens we can share this common responsibility by improving our awareness of global history and global issues. This is not something that replaces old aspects of our identity but is like another superimposed layer of of learning and enrichment.
The period of history we are living in today has many similarities to a former period of history known as the Axial Age which lasted from about 800 to 200 BCE during which the development of ideas occurred on a scale that had never occurred before. People of widely different racial, religious and cultural backgrounds were mixing, trading, and exchanging ideas, trying to understand one-another’s outlooks and ways of living. The world’s major cultures were linked as never before – Persia, India, China, the Middle East, and Mediterranean. It was in this crucible of trade and ideas during the Axial Age that the intellectual structure of our modern world was established. Out of this period and its search for human meaning emerged a significant body of recorded knowledge that included not only fundamental thinking in economics, politics, the law, the arts, science, and mathematics but also a consolidation of the great systems of belief: Judaism, Christianity, the foundations of Islam (Middle East), Zoroastrianism (Persia), Indian philosophy, Jainism, Buddhism and Hinduism (India), Mohism, Confucianism, Taoism, and Legalism (China), and the ancient Greek philosophers (Mediterranean).
If the Axial Age was a period of introspection resulting from the world’s first major period of global interaction than today we may be witnessing a final phase in this unification of the world’s people as we continue to challenge old certainties, converging towards a common vision for the future while at the same time retaining our own individuality.
Now, over 2000 years after these great philosophical and religious movements began, many of the problems and issues that we face are still the same, they involve different outlooks, different perceptions and different understandings of the ‘reality’ in which we live. Were we bring back these great thinkers to our world there is little doubt that the single greatest difference they would notice would be the transformation of daily life resulting from science and its application in technology.
The world’s great philosophers have long recognised that the single most effective tool for bringing about change is reason. It is reason that distinguishes us from the rest of the animal kingdom and it has allowed us to dominate them and other living organisms. Using reason we have built an elaborate architecture of thought around all our major institutions of art, science, law, music, literature, logic, mathematics and more. We need to know as much as possible about this innate human capacity – how it works and how is related to other mental faculties. Although much has been learned both about reason and how it can be applied, like human nature we are only just beginning to learn from neuroscience about the physical operation of rational thought.
In different regions of the world we have used our rationality to construct different perceptions of the world and universe: how it originated, what there is in it, how everything is related, and where humans we fit into everything. Each cultural group has its own particular understanding of these matters and most have viewed the world through the lens of a spiritual or religious reality. We call these overall explanations of everything grand narratives and one of the challenges for the global citizen is to come to terms with their structure, function and variety. Closely related to grand narratives there is our sense of Meaning and Purpose. The article on purpose also discusses the way biology uses purpose-talk and how this relates to sutainability and its focus on well-being.
One particular grand narrative that has had an immense impact on all our lives is the scientific grand narrative and because of its impact on the material world I have included articles that tell us not only what science tells us about the world but also what makes science different from other grand narratives.
Grand narratives suggest ways to live and behave towards one-another, and our environment as a formal code of conduct. Differing codes of conduct can be the source of misunderstanding and conflict so we need to understand as much as possible about the way they arise, the assumptions they are based on, and ways that we may establish mutually acceptable modes of behaviour. I have included an article looking at the foundation of our ethical systems and outlined a way that human flourishing and sustainability can be combined – in an article called Morality & sustainability. In selecting a single ethical foundation for human behaviour it is Happiness (in many nuanced guises – as well-being, human flourishing, life satisfaction, quality of life, eudaimonia) that is most frequently mentioned andthis is discussed here in relation to the ‘well-being’ of sustainable development. We are becoming increasingly aware of enviromental problems, like climate change, that impact the global community as a whole. This calls into qustion our current beliefs and attitudes towards the naturla world and the community of life. This is discussed in the article on Environmental ethics.
Reality, reductionism, and causation
Until the last few decades many scientists held the view that science is based on a precise method that has elucidated relatively few universal laws of nature that provide us with an account of the behaviour of matter in motion. Matter, consisting ultimately of fundamental particles, may coalesce and interact in many ways. The methods used to establish this science are essentially those of physics and mathematics and the overall objective is to explain the entire universe at the largest and smallest scales, by means of a single unifying theory. With increasing complexity of the objects of study, like those of the special (soft or intentional) sciences, comes increasing imprecision and therefore decrease in scientific integrity and strength.
Gradually a new vision of science is emerging, one in which there is no unique scientific method but a family of intergrading principles and procedures. The objects studied by the special sciences are frequently not amenable to the analytic methodology of reduction but exist independently in their own right – such that reducing them to their parts becomes uninformative. Since we see ‘reality’ through various lenses (roughly equivalent to the various scientific disciplines) there can be no unity of science since there is no ‘reality’ independent of interpretation. This does not mean that the physical world is purely subjective experience.
These ideas are explored in the articles that examine the current status of science, its methods, and foundations: in Reality, Reductionism, and Causation. The desire for absolutely certain knowledge (a concept conveyed through the word ‘reality’) has been a human obsession. It has been manifest through the creation of many different world views all claiming to be ‘true’. The vexed question of what is ‘real’ and ‘true’, and ways in which we might be deceived, has been explored by the world’s brilliant philosophical minds considering ‘appearance and reality’, one of the most influential of these within the Western tradition of philosophy being Immanuel Kant.
As the world unites to create a sustainable future by we must build on those features that we all have in common.
In the course of history our physical, emotional and moral ties have become progressively more inclusive. As hunter-gatherers the family and tribe were the social points of reference with ‘outside’ peoples being distinctly ‘other’. Perhaps from this period we have developed traits of honour and loyaly that predispose us to adopt an ‘us’ and ‘them’ outlook on human societies. Be that as it may, later social structures and beliefs cemented people into settled groups of thousands until today many people live more or less amicably in cities having populations of over 1 million. The cosmopolitanism of cities invites tolerance as people with different faiths and cultures learn to go about their daily lives and business without conflict. We each probably retain our own identity as a sympathy and loyalty to family and friends, work colleagues, perhaps our school and neighbourhood, and to some extent our place of birth and country. These are the kinds of things that we identifiy with, that make us who we are. Today our connections are global. Though few of us are widely travelled, the goods we use and the news we hear is global in scope.
First and foremost we all share a common biological heritage, a basic human nature, the universal biological traits of our species. Great thinkers of the past have speculated about what our ‘true’ human nature is like but only in the last 50 years or so has this become the subject of serious scientific scrutiny. This is one of the most exciting fields of scientific research today as we learn more about our bodies, brains, and behaviour through neuroscience, computational neuroscience, cognitive science, evolutionary psychology, moral psychology, and many other new disciplines that have arisen in the last few decades. Clearly, finding out more about human nature will not necessarily solve problems but it might allow us to develop more effective strategies for dealing with those aspects of our nature that, historically, have proved difficult to manage.
Related to questions of human nature are the difficult questions about the relative roles of Nature and nurture in biology in general and how these ideas can cloud our thinking – together with the many controversial issues that still surround the world-changing theory of evolution (Issues of evolution).
Just as human nature and reason are the subject of intensive research so too has been the study of the universal roots of our moral decisions. Where do our moral intuitions come from? Since this will undoubtedly play a major role in the future of humanity I have included discussion of the thinking in the new field of cognitive and neuroscience, especially the latest findings in the new disciplines of moral psychology and evolutionary psychology, practical ethics, and other burgeoning studies relating to behaviour and the structure and functioning of the brain.
Science has demonstrated its power and practical value through the reliability of its explanations, predictions, and the application of its by-product, technology. But it cannot assist us in a direct way in making judgements about our behaviour – most notably in making decisions about our future.
In seeking a global sustainable future all nations will work together, part of which is finding ways to get along smoothly by understanding ourselves and one-another as a step towards a common vision. What values do we all have in common?
These I have taken as my starting point what a hope is common ground for all of us – the wish that humanity should flourish and that a practical approach to this goal will entail a world-wide program integrating environmental, social and economic concerns. This program began in the 1980s through the United Nations program of sustainable development, and the 193 countries who were signatories to the Millennium Development Goals of the year 2000.
The practical process needed for sustainable development – greater social inclusion, equity, environmental sustainabilty, addressing poverty and other factors – is discussed elsewhere on this web site. Here I want to look at more basic foundational issues.