Nature, Science and World

The great shift from ancient to modern science is the shift from observation to experiment.  Aristotle, in the 4th Century BC, was an amazingly insightful observer of the natural world, and his work is exemplary of the science that cultivates a knowledge of the forms in which the world naturally presents itself.  The great scientists of the Early Modern period, however, weren’t interested in learning about the given forms in which nature occurs; on the contrary, their goal was to learn how to harness the power behind those forms in order to bring about results of their own devising.  In order to determine these driving forces, they developed the experimental method.

Experimental method is not primarily a matter of going out and looking at what is there.  On the contrary, experimental method, as the philosopher René Descartes explained in the 17th Century, is primarily done “in here,” planning something in the mind.  The work of experiment is to design a precise procedure to isolate an exact result that will answer a question that is precisely defined in advance.  The experimental scientist has something she wants to find out, and her task is first to work out a bit of reasoning and then to set up an apparatus that reflects that reasoning so that she can perform a procedure on a specified bit of nature and get an answer—at what temperature does it boil? how much does the precipitate weigh? how many millilitres of acid are needed to make the liquid change colour?  The experimental scientist still observes, but the relevant observation is the simple and final result of the process—and the observation is not seen for its own sake, but to see what it has to say about the question that the scientist initially brought to bear on the situation: “since it’s green, it must be sodium.”

There are no doubt many good reasons to be critical of adopting modern science as our norm for knowledge.  Most obviously, this “science”—the Latin word that simply means “knowledge”—is not concerned with apprehending what is there, which is our typical sense of what “knowledge” is, but with figuring out what are the routes of access into things for the sake of taking advantage of them.  The goal of modern “science” is not truth, but, as Francis Bacon, the British spy, expressed it clearly in the 16th Century, power.  Generally, we don’t think of “knowing how to take advantage of something” as proper knowledge of the thing—generally, on the contrary, we think of proper knowledge of the thing as a sympathetic appreciation of its inherent nature.  The destructive impact of relying on this “inquisitorial” model of modern science is evident in many areas of life, but most obviously in the progressive destroying of our natural habitat that is the result of approaching nature as something to be exploited rather than as something to be understood.

What is nonetheless exciting about this modern method is its recognition that what shows itself in the apparently simple observation that, for example, a liquid is yellow, is something powerfully communicative of deeper matters of great concern to us.  Through the simplest immediacy, great complexity is transmitted.

As the simple fact that a liquid is yellow can, in the appropriate circumstances, reveal that an important chemical transformation has in fact happened, allowing the scientist to conclude, therefore, that a particular chemical is present in the rock, which in turn indicates that there was organic matter at that level of drilling, which means, finally, that there will be oil found if one drills there, so can the fact that you rolled your eyes that way indicate that you really were not sincere in your expression of interest in my view, revealing yet more deeply that your level of respect for me is significantly lower than you claim it to be.

This is not just a matter of what we reveal about ourselves though seemingly trivial bits of behaviour, (though that is a very important matter).  This revelation of deep complexity through sensory simplicity is the core structure of our meaningful inhabitation of the world.

Though it might seem that I am simply here, now, my presence is really an elaborate carrying on of a vast history of developed significance.  When I sit in the coffee shop, I feel at home.  This “homey” feeling of belonging is what draws me here, but this sense of belonging is not part of the simple sensory immediacy of the material setting but is the way I have established a history of relating to this place and its denizens.  Now, while I sit, I work on a writing project, itself meaningful because it is something I have been engaged in for weeks, and that engagement is itself meaningful in turn because of the network of personal, interpersonal and professional threads that are woven together in it.  The simple immediacy of “here” and “now” are always inherently mediated by the complex past that we retain through them and the rich future they allow us to anticipate.

And this, perhaps, allows us to reflect again on modern scientific method.  What we should remember about modern science is that it, too, is not just a simple and innocent “immediacy,” but is itself the vehicle through which a particular project of relating to the world is carried on.  What we need to ask is whether the attitude toward the world implicit in this “science” is adequately respectful of the human world from which it originates.

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  1. Whitney
    Posted April 23, 2012 at 11:22 am | Permalink

    This is a very interesting post. I especially like that you discuss how the method of experimental science is expressive of our “meaningful inhabitation of the world,” as you put it. What came to mind as I was reading this is that modern science’s preference for power and manipulation over truth introduces the further issues of possession and authority as modes of “meaningful inhabitation.” If I look at something to determine what it can do for me, rather than allowing it to reveal itself, I make a claim on it, and in doing so I also implicitly assert my authority to make this claim. This is a common and destructive attitude towards natural resources, in part because it demands another claim to authority to counter it, as opposed to actually engaging with the truth (hence the frustratingly hopeless political debates surrounding environmental crises).

  2. Anton
    Posted April 23, 2012 at 2:39 pm | Permalink

    There is a distinction, though, to be made between the pure and applied sciences.

    Applied sciences, yes, are often the hijacking of pure scientific method by self-serving concerns for material or political gain. Something similar might be said of philosophy. Nietzsche’s work, for example, was hijacked and manipulated by the Nazis to rationalize the questionable ethics of their sociopolitical agenda. Where the pursuit of knowledge is changing, is largely in the advancement of our capacity to apply it and with that advancement, comes the danger of that application becoming increasingly misguided.

    Science will help to produce a fantastic military aircraft. Pay no mind, though, to the man behind the curtain, the questionable ethics of its intended application. Focus instead on what a terrific machine your tax dollars can produce.

    The answers to this would seem to be mindfulness and vigilance. This is where the apparent decline in proportional support of study in humanities becomes dangerously unfortunate.

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The Toronto Seminar

I am deeply committed to the idea that philosophy is a cooperative activity and an inherently fulfilling one. For this reason, I encourage activities of philosophical study in which, through conversation, a community develops in which each participant experiences her or his thinking to be elevated beyond the level she or he could achieve alone, and in which study and social life are closely interwoven.

Since 2003, I have run an annual summer seminar in philosophy. Each year, roughly 25 invited participants-primarily faculty members and Ph.D. students from universities across North America-gather for roughly one week of intense, group study of a major text from the history of philosophy. Participants meet twice daily for sessions of highly focused discussion of the text and the issues it raises. When not studying in preparation for the meetings, seminar participants also socialize together, generally taking advantage of Toronto's outstanding, multicultural dining opportunities, and taking part in Toronto's vibrant and varied live music scene. Participants in these seminars consistently have the experience of growth in their conversation and conceptual abilities, and typically leave with a transformed sense of the nature and possibilities of philosophy.

Throughout the year, I also often lead smaller private seminars, specially oriented to graduate students, on various texts and topics in the history of philosophy.

Music, along with the other creative arts, is one of the most profound ways in which people express and define the distinctive character of human life. Composing, performing, and listening to music are some of the most fulfilling of our experiences. Listening offers us the opportunity for the sensuous pleasure of listening and moving (in dance), for emotional self-expression, and for bonding with others in shared enthusiasm. Performing brings with it the demands and rewards of communication and cooperation-with band-members and with audience-and supports the development and deployment of highly-refined bodily and expressive skills. Composing can be a powerful intellectual and cultural practice, offering one a route into participating in the rich historical and multicultural traditions of musical expression. Engaging with music, like engaging with philosophy, touches us in every dimension-bodily, emotional, intellectual, interpersonal, cultural, spiritual-of our experience.

My own personal path into music has involved me in the study of jazz music in particular, and since 2005 I have performed regularly in Toronto as a guitarist with my own band, the John Russon Quartet. The band (with the outstanding musicians Nick Fraser, Mike Milligan, and Chris Gale on drums, bass, and saxophone respectively, and, on special occasions, with Tom Richards joining us on trombone) performs my original compositions, as well as interpreting the standard tunes of the jazz repertoire and experimenting with free improvisation. We have just (August 2011) gone into the studio to record our first CD, and it should be available in a few months. It has also been, and continues to be, a major project of mine to develop a community of jazz enthusiasts who will carry on the tradition of appreciating live musical performance in general and jazz music in particular in this age in which recording, downloading, and dj-ing have come to define "music" for most people.

I think of both philosophy and music as communal practices first and foremost, and I regularly try to design community activities involving either or both. Currently, I am organizing one series in downtown Toronto.

"Story and Song Night" is a once-a-month event in which a speaker narrates one of the great stories from the world's religious traditions. Stories are among the oldest and most basic of our ways of telling ourselves and each other who we are as people, and the ancient stories that have been handed down for generations remain powerful and provocative resources for thinking about ourselves and our lives. On the fourth Tuesday of each month, a speaker narrates a story she or he has found personally meaningful, and this is followed first by group discussion and then by a set of live music performed by some of the best of Toronto's musicians. The event is hosted by Naco Gallery Cafe (1665 Dundas St. W.).