C Robb W. 429°

I've been thinking recently about hubris. I don't mean the the petty everyday hubris we experience in our relationships and human contacts. I'm thinking about the hubris we have developed along with our big brains through the millenia of evolution. As we have refined our ability to change our environment, through fire, then agriculture and latterly industry, we seem to have become convinced that whatever we can imagine we have the right to do. So convinced are we that our ostensibly massive human intellect will solve all problems, even the ones we ourselves create, that we have completely lost touch with the intelligence that precedes and informs our own. We have forgotten the innate intelligence of nature.

This form of hubris is particularly dangerous in it's manifestation in reductionist western culture and value systems. It has led to what university of Texas professor Robert Jensen has called "the Delusion Revolution".

"It takes the hubris of folks such as biologist Richard Dawkins, who once wrote that “our brains … are big enough to see into the future and plot long-term consequences.” Such a statement is a reminder that human egos are typically larger than brains, which emphasizes the dramatic need for a drastic humility. I read that essay by Dawkins after hearing the sentence quoted by Wes Jackson, an important contemporary scientist and philosopher working at The Land Institute. Jackson’s work has most helped me recognize an obvious and important truth that is too often ignored: For all our cleverness, we human beings are far more ignorant than knowledgeable. Human accomplishments -- skyscrapers, the internet, the mapping of the human genome -- seduce us into believing the illusion that we can control a world that is complex beyond our ability to understand. Jackson suggests that we would be wise to recognize this and commit to “an ignorance-based worldview” that would anchor us in the intellectual humility we will need if we are to survive the often toxic effects of our own cleverness."

I'm not quite as hard on professor Dawkins as Jensen who believes Dawkins should be denounced for such views. I do however agree completely with Wes Jackson's assertion that we are tinkering with the systems of life we do not have the capacity to understand. Dawkins writes and speaks eloquently of the ability of evolution to bring into being the unimaginable complexities of this world while at the same time denouncing creator myths that deny evolution as scientific fact. I believe in the fact of evolution but am not willing to deny people faith in a creator, I don't see them as mutually exclusive. Indeed, the hubris I decry is even worse when compared to the hand of god. How can someone who believes in god the creator believes that it is OK to trash his/her creation.

The complexities of the natural world are the brain of the planet. As we seem intent on doing to our own brains, with toxic chemicals in our food, alcohol, drugs, pharmaceuticals, and polluted water and air, so we are doing to the planetary brain.

Rather than trust to the intelligence of evolution, or god, in our hubris we are killing it.

3 replies

Charles M. 110°

Too true. We are just part of the ecosystem. We might be a very powerful part, but we're still only part of it. But we're still a pretty insignificant part. If the world was an onion then the "biosphere" (the part that we live in) is only just the onion skin. Worms are responsible for more biological activity than we are.

Much of the Delusion Revolution is caused by disconnection with the systems that people are actually part of. Our observations of the world are increasingly through a sanitised TV/Internet/what ever and decreasingly through actual contact and first hand experience. Reductionism is also part of this because it takes things out of context.

Religions and sciences are all models that try to explain the way the world is. In all models there are assumptions and axioms (ie. the "facts" you must accept as correct for that system to work). All models have limitations and questions that they cannot answer. For example, in mathematics you need to accept that 1+1=2. In the Big Bang theory you are not allowed to ask "What was there before the Big Bang?" and likewise you are not allowed to ask "God created everything, but who created God?"

I don't really see that the world has a "brain". I do however think that it has a very complex system of cause and effect where all things are linked in some way. We are incapable of understanding this complexity so we try reduce it to simpler models that we can measure and understand. However in doing so we destroy the context and thus what the models tell us will often be very different to what happens in the real world.

Sciences are the collection of those models. Not all sciences are very robust. Mathematics is very robust (simplest systems, few assumptions and a very demanding requirement for proof), theoretical physics a bit less so, chemistry even less so, then biological sciences, climatology etc which are far less robust (complex systems, many assumptions, no proofs).

These models are incomplete and sometimes don't fit together well. That's still OK so long as we use them appropriately. Unfortunately much of "science" has been dumbed down and popularized to the extent that it has become ineffective for anything apart from a tool to sway people.

Written in September 2008

C Robb W. 429°

Well put though I think a difference must be drawn between "popular science" and the science of academia and research.

Written in September 2008

I like EF Schumacher's line that we need to live 'actual size'. And, he adds, 'man is small.'

Written in October 2008

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