Science (and the eco-crisis)

See HERE for the provisional contents page of the study,

which gives you a proper chronology of sections.

Note: the content below is all in first draft format. It will change considerably during the time it takes for the study to be completed (especially by way of more academic support, generally). I post now ‘for interest’s sake’.

In The veil of Isis (2008), Hadot spends nearly the first quarter of the book exploring the different ways of understanding Heraclitus’ aphorism, ‘nature loves to hide’; the aphorism is shown by Hadot to have special relevance in the development of various cognitive approaches to the external world. From the detailed exploration of the complicated hermeneutical variations of the phrase, Hadot (2008: 92) makes a distinction that is crucial to consider for the present focus on science and indeed for the focus of this entire chapter:

Several models of investigation were available for the ancient [Greek] philosophers and scientists. The choice between these models was guided by the way the relations between men and nature were represented, that is, between nature and human activity; it was also oriented by the way the image of ‘the secrets of nature’ was perceived.

If man feels nature to be an enemy, hostile and jealous, which resists him by hiding its secrets, there will then be opposition between nature and art, based on human reason and will. Man will seek, through technology, to affirm his power, domination, and rights over nature.

Hadot (2008: 92-94) goes on to point out that if ‘man’ takes the view of nature as enemy, the approach will be “judicial” (as commented on above in the section on Christianity) in the sense that nature is put on trial by means of the ‘investigations’ (think ‘scientific experiments’) undertaken into it. Particularly compelling evidence for this claim is offered by Hadot in the form of various quotes, one of which is from Hippocrates in the fifth century BCE (2008: 93): “When Nature refuses to hand over the signs [i.e. clinical symptoms], art has found the constraining means by which Nature, violated without damage, can let go of them”. It is well known that the distinctions common ‘today’ between different disciplines such as art and science did not exist until relatively late in Western history, so when Hippocrates mentions “art”, a diverse array of theoretical and practical elements is denoted within which the precursors to a plethora of other familiar discourses can be glimpsed; very early cognitive precursors to ‘modern’ science can be seen in the quoted sentiments of Hippocrates in the sense that scientific experimentation is tantamount to ‘putting nature on trial’, to refer back to Hadot. Two millennia later, the then epitome of the ‘man of science’, Francis Bacon (also quoted by Hadot) stated that the “secrets of nature are better revealed under the torture of experiments than when they follow their natural course” (2008: 93), which definitively substantiates Hadot’s identification of science as having developed out of the hostile view (‘nature as enemy’), or better, the view that nature has a secret which ‘man’ takes it upon ‘himself’ to reveal (versus the view of being initiated into philosophically complex symbiotic processes, the unfolding of which is the secret of nature, and which is ‘irreducible’ in an epistemological sense but ‘to be lived’ in an ontological sense – more on this in chapter 5).

Hadot (2008: 95 – 98) calls the inherently hostile view “Promethean”, borrowing the name from the mythical Greek figure who stole the secret of fire from the Gods, a deed that in the context detailed by Hadot symbolises the ‘unveiling’ of nature in the sense of judiciously interrogating ‘it’; this is indeed one of the primary symbols of Hadot’s book: the unveiling of Isis, the pre-dynastic Egyptian figure that shares some contemporary similarities with ‘mother nature’. Hadot writes of Promethean ‘man’ that he “demands the right of dominion over nature” (2008: 95) and furthermore that the attitude “has engendered our modern civilization and the worldwide expansion of science and industry” (2008: 101). ‘Dominion’ was encountered in the context of Christianity, and from what was explored about it there, it follows that Christianity also has strong Promethean aspects; hence the identification here that the ecological crisis must be considered in light of Promethean discourse. Science plays a major part in empowering the industrial expansionary process – according to Hadot (2008: 101), science emerged at the end of the Middle ages in its experimental form (think ‘judicial’, interrogative; as above) that is so representative of the discourse, and its character was by that stage in history already heavily predisposed towards the Promethean due to the discursive reign of the Catholic Church (their message was partly that of human ‘dominion’ over nature, a view which enabled the Church literally to profit from its exploits) and the spread of the views associated with ‘mechanics’ (as per above section).

This is where the ‘atomistic hypothesis’ Hadot refers to in the above section on technology must again come into view for the purposes of the present focus on science. When it was previously encountered in this chapter, it was shown to be emerging around two or three centuries BCE in the context of what was then called ‘mechanics’. Mechanics has been shown to have aspects that align somewhat with the anthropocentric aspects of Christianity (also already discussed) – aspects such as dominion over nature and the mandate on the ‘secrets’ of knowledge and being. This resonance justifies the claim that Christianity and technology have strong discursively Promethean aspects (in that technology ‘borrowed’ from mechanistic thought); and indeed, this means that science, Christianity and technology all share certain common Promethean characteristics that discursively justify domination of nature. The ‘atomistic hypothesis’ is a case in point – keep in mind Hadot’s commentary on its re-emergence at the dawn of the Modern conception of science: “The Renaissance and Modern times, taking up [the] atomistic hypothesis…, were to place it in the service of the other tradition, that of the mechanical techniques of the engineers of antiquity”. It is well known that the atomistic view sees nature as constituted by small parts – atoms, of course, but atoms are symbolic of any view that reduces or compartmentalises epistemologically or ontologically. In the spirit of the Promethean approach to nature (which is not confined to any one historical epoch, but rather appears at various times during the past 2500 years, as explored by Hadot), this atomised view of nature makes it possible to conceptualise nature as a machine. Hadot (2008: 122) quotes Robert Lenoble, who in 1644 wrote a letter in which he foresees a discursive consequence of the mechanistic ideas that were gaining popularity at the time: “The time is coming when, in a few years, Nature will fall from her rank of universal goddess to become – a disgrace that has never before been known – a machine”. Later in the extract of Lenoble’s letter, he identifies a “precise date” for the event: 1632. This is when Galileo published the Dialogues on the Two principal Systems of the World; Lenoble comments that the mechanical line of thinking then arising

implies a new definition of knowledge, which is no longer contemplation but utilization, and a new attitude of man in the face of Nature: he ceases to look at her as a child looks at his mother, taking her as a model; he wants to conquer her, and become her master and possessor.

Five years later in 1637, in the Discourse on Method, Descartes (1972: 119) also uses these words, saying that he looks forward to the time when the new science will render humans “masters and possessors of nature”. The ‘new attitude’, quintessentially Promethean, is clearly relevant in light of the direction that science took after the era in which Lenoble and Descartes were writing. Hadot (2008: 123) acknowledges that “we must be very prudent when we wish to define the mentality of an entire period”, but he cannot help but point out the following undeniable and crucially relevant Promethean aspect of the line of inquiry taken by pioneers of what is generally known as the scientific enterprise:

What we must say, I think, is that with Francis Bacon, Descartes, Galileo, and Newton, a definitive break… may have taken place, and these scholars discovered the means of progressing in a decisive and definitive way in this project of dominating nature, limiting themselves to the rigorous analysis of what is measurable and quantifiable in sensible phenomena”.1

Things “measurable and quantifiable” – this is a fitting description of the focus of ‘reductionist’ science, as well as the main focus of technological inquiry in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries (the epoch when the human onslaught against nature was to reach ecologically disastrous heights). One needs merely to think of the endless data- and measurement-collection that defines so much of what is called science contemporaneously, and the fact that such activities are dominantly utilised (a word deliberately used to remind one of Lenoble’s remarks above) to achieve one of the Promethean goals encountered in above sections: the goal of ‘enhancing’ humankind above all else, albeit in a reductionist sense of ‘enhancement’2. This is why, referring to the sentiments of Carolyn Marchant, Hadot (2008: 121 – 122) says the following: “As Merchant rightly emphasizes, Francis Bacon’s program is a program for the manipulation of the environment and of nature itself, precisely the one that our current period is trying to realise, in a way that risks bringing about the disastrous consequences not just for nature but for mankind”.

Having just referred to Francis Bacon as representative of Promethean mechanistic scientific views that went on to ‘define’ so much of the scientific programme, it is important to remember the theme of ‘divine mandate’ that has already been encountered in previous sections to this chapter. Hadot (2008: 93) quotes Bacon’s imperative, “Let the human race recover its rights over nature, rights granted to it by divine munificence”, sentiments which show that the scientific endeavour in its mechanistic, reductionist sense is an extension of discursive aspects of Christianity; ‘technology’ as it is contemporaneously known, with discursive roots both in ‘mechanics’ (and hence science, seeing as aspects of ancient Greek mechanics was borrowed from by pioneers of Modern science) and the dominion-focused views of Christianity, is also implicated. All three areas of focus – Christianity, science and technology – therefore have Promethean conceptual overlaps that position them as primary ideological players in the ecological crisis. The ‘early’ mechanistic aspects of seventeenth and eighteenth centuries’ scientific inquiry were indeed powerful reinforcers of Christian concepts in the sense that God’s ‘programme’ of creating the world was compatibilised with humankind’s nascent mechanistic scientific enterprise:

Henceforth [i.e. after the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries] the machine, rather than the living organism, is the model that serves to conceive and explain nature, and from this perspective God appears as the builder of the world’s machine, who is external to it: the great engineer, architect, or watchmaker. (Hadot 2008: 127)

It follows that if God is external to nature and only created it, as one would create a machine, then humankind need not be concerned with whether or not their exploits of nature are ethically reprehensible – there is nothing in Christian mythology about the ethical implications of exploiting a machine. The Promethean scientific attitude developing in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were therefore very similar to the Promethean attitude of dominion that heavily characterises Christianity; this is why Hadot (2008: 130) writes, “Francis Bacon considered that the mission of science consisted in giving man the rights over nature that God had conceded to him”. It is easy to see that as time passed and the world became increasingly secularised (a topic beyond the scope of this study), the reign of religion diminished (though it certainly did not disappear) while mechanistic science grew and influenced the ‘progression’ of human knowledge into its various scientific categories, the vast majority of which continue to focus on the ‘measurable and quantifiable’ while the deteriorating ecological situation continues on its precipitous path. Continuing to speak generally, those areas of science not focused exclusively on mapping the ‘measurable and quantifiable’ are instead categorised as applied science, i.e. areas where technology is ‘developed’ based on the calculations made available by reductionist science; this kind of technology pervades industry, which has been shown to be central in the ecological crisis.

Considering what has been said about science and technology above, there will no doubt be exceptions to the reductionist rule: permaculture, for example, is heavily ‘scientific’, but is not reductionist or Promethean; it is discussed in chapter seven, so it serves only as an example in this brief acknowledgement that a certain type of science has been in the spotlight. Looking at the world as it was in the twentieth century and how it is in the early twenty-first century, however, the evidence for the domination of the Promethean character of science is everywhere: the industries that pollute the world (chapter two) are applied sciences, or better, technologies birthed by applying the sciences, stewed out of the Promethean theoretical foundations and justifications discussed in this chapter; and the (natural) sciences that dominate in universities, for example, continue to focus exclusively on that which is ‘measurable and quantifiable’. Keeping the character of these dominant Promethean discourses in mind, it is worth re-quoting White’s remark (1971: 11) from the beginning of this chapter: “What people do about their ecology depends on what they think about themselves in relation to the things around them”. It has been shown so far that Christianity, technology and science discursively predispose people to act in ecologically problematic ways; the next section shows globalised capitalism to systematically and systemically entrench such problematic actions as ideological ‘norms’ in society.

1 Several academics were already referred to in the previous section (about technology) for their comments on the quantitative, reductionist flavour of Western technology. Heidegger was one of these academics; another one of his essays can be referred to in this connection, The Age of the Worldview, where he traces the links between the representational aspect of philosophy, the calculative, quantifying aspect of science and the controlling aspect of technology.

2 This resonates with Heidegger’s claim that technology reduces nature and humans to mere ‘resources for use’, as discussed in the previous section on technology.