WHEN IS A FACT A FACT?
One way of viewing the old problem of continual development is expressed in Norwegian Prime Minister Brundtland’s report for the World Commission on Environment and Development. It calls for “sustainable development,” which juxtaposes two concepts that human endeavors have made all but mutually exclusive—that of “sustainability” and that of “development.”1 “Sustainability” is the language of balance and limits over time, whereas “development” is the language of expansion, of ever-expecting more in some limitless fashion.
If this is the way we are going to view the world, says philosopher Ivan Illich, then some of the pressing questions of today are: “After development, What? What concepts? What symbols? What images?” To find an alternative language, to find something that works for today in terms of the future, Illich suggests that we return to the past to discover the history around which were invented the mythological “certitudes” that undergirds our current thinking. These certitudes encompass “need,” “growth,” “development,” and the like, and together form the organizational core of our modern experience.2
However, the answer to a problem is only as good as the question put forth and the means used to derive an answer. Scientific questions are not always good, due in part to the money chase, which is deadly to that most important ingredient in science: the ability to ask an unrestrained question. The overall goal of scientific endeavor must be the unencumbered pursuit of knowledge, with the understanding that knowledge is forever open-ended because it is not THE TRUTH, but rather some version of the truth.
To keep the search for truth on its own credible track, we must first recognize that we tend not only to form a single hypothesis but also to become so attached to it that any criticism of or challenge to our methods raises all our ego defenses. This means that the moment a person has derived what seems to be an original and satisfactory explanation for a phenomenon; at that instant the attachment to his or her intellectual child springs into existence. And the more the explanation grows into a definite theory, the more near and dear it becomes. Then comes the massaging (as I’ve often heard it called in government agencies) of the theory to fit the data and of the data to fit the theory.
In addition, we tend to become “method-oriented” rather than “problem-oriented” in our thinking and therefore in many of the questions we ask. It’s important to recognize that we become method-oriented in our questions, because we tend to think that through our experiments—our methods—we are learning THE TRUTH about Nature when in fact we are learning only about our experimental designs—again, our methods—and our assumptions and expectations.
It’s impossible to accurately “represent” Nature through science, because scientific knowledge is not only a socially negotiated, rigid construct but also a product of the personal lens through which a scientist peers. Scientists may attempt to detach themselves from Nature and be “objective,” but they are never successful. They are part of Nature and must participate with Nature in order to study Nature.
As well, every scientist sees through his or her lens but dimly, first because we cannot detach ourselves from Nature and second because all we can judge as fact are our own perceptions—interpretations, which are always colored by our personal lens. As such, appearance—not reality—is all we can ever hope to see, and so it is appearance to which we often unknowingly direct our questions.
The truth about scientific research is that nothing can be proven—only disproved; nothing can be known—only unknown. The only irrefutable facts are based on direct, measurable observations, such as the worldwide melting of glaciers and sea ice and the ever-expanding, of the material world by humans. Why the climate is warming and why humans insist on continual development are different matters—matters of conjecture based, as always, on the interpretation of incomplete data.
Thus, we can never “know” anything in terms of knowledge. We can “know” it only in terms of intuition, which is the knowing beyond knowledge and which is inadmissible as evidence in modern science. Whatever the truth of knowledge is, it can only be intuited and approached, never caught and pinned down.
The irony is that knowledge, which is external to a person, is not “knowable,” and intuition, which is internal to a person, is not knowledge and therefore is not subject to disproof. Intuition is individualized, inner knowing for which proof is unnecessary and explanation impossible. Knowledge, on the other hand, is a collective outer experience of humanity’s subjective judgments about things, the truth of which cannot be known and therefore is explainable only in the illusions of its appearance.
Thus the actual objects of our inquiries, the formulations of our questions and definitions, and the mythic structures of our scientific theories and facts are social constructs. Every aspect of our scientific theories, facts, and practices—including “scientific method” itself—are but expressions of contemporary socio/political/economic interests; cultural themes and metaphors, personal biases, and personal/professional negotiations for the power to control, albeit minutely, contemporary scientific knowledge.
Over the more than a quarter of century that I worked in scientific research, I learned that TRUTH is an inner phenomenon of personal perception based on an individual’s life experiences, which is absolute to the person but unprovable. Illusion, on the other hand, is an outer phenomenon of knowledge, which is shareable but only relative and disprovable—the social construct of science.
The facts scientists construe to be statistically true statements about Nature are really concrete, deified, magic outcomes of the social process of fabricating statements about the world in an attempt to distinguish order from perceived chaos.3 Thus, instead of scientific consensus being achieved when the observable “facts” reach the state of “speaking for themselves,” scientists come to a consensus when the political, professional, and economic costs of refuting them make further negotiation untenable.
There is, however, no single reality, but rather a multiplicity of realities, the representation of which depends on one’s position in the process of negotiating an acceptable social view of reality. Thus, regardless of the question, the reproducibility of the experimental design and methods does not mean that the results represent anything about Nature. The reproducibility of the experimental design shows merely that a particular negotiation of reality is reproducible under a certain set of conditions. Moreover, the results of every experiment may be valid, if unprovable, only because the experimental design tells us nothing about the results. It tells us only that the reproducibility of the experimental design is socially acceptable—or not—according to a consensus of scientific opinions.
If, therefore, we are going to ask intelligent questions about the future of the Earth and our place in the scheme of things, we must be free of scientific opinions based on “acceptable” interpretations of scientific knowledge. In addition, we would be wise to consider the gift of Zen and approach life with a beginner’s mind—a mind simply open to the wonders and mysteries of the Universe.
A beginner sees only what the answers might be and knows not what they should be. If, on the other hand, I become an expert, I think I know what the answers should be and can no longer see what they might be. The beginner is free to explore and to discover a multiplicity of realities, while the expert grows rigid in a self-created prison of a single pet reality, which often turns into an obsession to be protected at any cost. Thus the beginner may well understand the question better than does the expert.
We must, if we are going to ask intelligent questions, be open to multiple hypotheses and explanations, and we must be willing to accept a challenge to our ideas in the spirit of learning, rather than as an invitation to combat. One of the most important scientific questions we can ask is: “How small and elegant an experiment can I perform?”4 The greatest triumphs in science are not, after all, triumphs of perceived facts but rather triumphs of new ways of seeing, thinking, perceiving, and asking questions.
Such triumphs of vision and thought come not only through knowing which questions to ask but also through a willingness to risk what most people think of as failure. The avoidance of risk, says University President Harold Shapiro, is, in the end, “an acceptance of mediocrity and an abdication of leadership.” We must beware of giving in and of “raising the flag of failure” too soon, despite society’s penchant to judge a delayed outcome as an automatic failure.5 But true success or failure is a personal view and lies not in an event itself but rather in the of the event. When, for example, Thomas Edison’s ten thousand experiments with a storage battery failed to produce results—which society would surely have deemed that a failure—he said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” This same line of reasoning is implicit in Winston Churchill’s famous commencement speech: “Never, never give up! Never, never give up!”
Before we can get fundamentally new answers we must be willing to risk asking fundamentally new questions. This means that we must look long and hard at where we’re headed with respect to the quality of our environment and to the legacy we are leaving the children of all generations. Remember, the old questions and old answers that have gotten us to where we are today are simultaneously guiding us to where we will be tomorrow.
Heretofore, we have been more concerned with getting politically correct answers than we have been with asking morally right questions. Politically correct answers validate our preconceived economic/political desires. Morally right questions would lead us toward a future in which environmental options are left open so that generations to come may define their own ideas of a “quality environment” from an array of possibilities.
A good question, one that may be valid for a century or more, is a bridge of continuity among generations. We may develop a different answer every decade, but the answer does the only thing an answer can do: it redefines and so brings greater understanding of the question. An answer cannot exist without a question, so the answer depends not on the information we derive from the illusion of having answered the question but on the question itself as we asked it.
In the final analysis, the questions we ask guide the evolution of human society, and it’s the questions we ask, not the answers we derive, that determine the options we bequeath the future. Answers are fleeting, here today and gone tomorrow, but questions may be valid for centuries. Questions are flexible and open-ended, whereas answers are rigid, illusionary cul-de-sacs. The future, therefore, is a question to be defined, experienced, and redefined by questions based on observed, measurable facts, such as the quantifiable melting of the sea ice and terrestrial glaciers.
With the foregoing in mind, consider the three questions I’m now posing:
• What is necessary environmentally, spiritually, and materially for all generations to have a viable, good quality of life?
• What do we mean when we speak of sustainability?
• What, in reality, are the irrefutable, biophysical limitations to human behavior that must be accepted and honored if global sustainability is to be more than the pipe dream of an opiate smoker?
1. World Commission on Environment and Development, Our common future (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1987).
2. Ivan Illich, “The shadow our future throws,” Earth Ethics 1(1990): 3-5.
3. Elizabeth Ann R. Bird, “The social construction of nature: Theoretical approaches to the history of environmental problems,” Environmental Review 11 (1987): 255-264.
4. John R. Platt, “Strong inference,” Science 146 (1964): 347-353.
5. Harold T. Shapiro, “The willingness to risk failure,” Science 250 (1990): 609.
Text © by Chris Maser, 2011. All rights reserved.