Tuesday, April 21, 2009

The Value of Value and the Climate Change Debate

After marveling at the wonderful back and forth over the last post I am going to change subjects here to climate change, politics, values and the way forward.

Last Friday Gavin Schmidt visited the UR to give a talk on the current state of climate models. Schmidt is a researcher at the Goddard Institute of Space Studies (GISS). GISS has a long and influential history in the climate debate as its director James Hansen has been at forefront of the efforts to warn the public of the dangers of greenhouse emissions (some would say too much at that forefront). My first science Job out of undergrad land was at GISS in 1985 so I have fond memories of the place - and it was better my previous job as a bouncer (!) at the Rocky Horror Picture Show (oy).

Schmidt is quite influential in his own right as one of the contributors to Real Climate which many consider to be the best blog for explaining the science of climate change to rest of us and taking on the day to day issues in the field.

In my book I spent a whole chapter reviewing climate science and trying to show how it unintentionally recovers the traditional and quite ubiquitous myth of the flood. One of my themes in the book was that science serves a similar function in modern culture that the great myth systems served in earlier cultures. In most of the great narratives of science (the origin of the Universe, the origin of Life, etc) you can see mythological themes poking their heads up. Its inevitable because we must always parse the data we gather into stories. At the highest levels we pull our explanatory stories from this great storehouse of narratives that is human mythology.

Flood myths are so common in comparative mythology you can even find them in cultures that did not live close to water. The myths almost always involve humans suffering some kind of retribution for sins against whatever animate powers are in control. This story of careless greed and retribution now appears in the way narratives of modern climate science gets told. It too is a story of technological humanity ignoring, in its greed, the limits the Earth imposes on all species.

I don't think we can help but tell the story this way because, in a real sense, it is a story we have been telling for a long time. But there will be value in this narrative too as we come to understand that what we value, what we hold sacred, is what motivates broad changes in cultural behavior.

Culture's evolve because of some deep underlying change in their values. The change is never solely in response to some technical argument. And it is exactly at this point the technical specifics of scientific research get braided into the deeper mythological, spiritual and moral context in which that science exists.

When we talked I asked Schmidt about the way climate science fits into these mythologies of meaning. He raised a very important point which must be considered. The problem with linking science with any value system is that it can make the evaluation of that science suspect. The more climate science is seen as part of a narrative of humanity embracing its rightful place in a deep ecological view of planetary evolution, the more difficult it becomes to evaluate what is correct and what is false in that science on its own merits. The science has to be allowed to speak for itself and the methods and modes of inquiry which, at it best, science embodies must be allowed to move in whatever direction they will follow.

As a researcher I am really sympathetic to what Schmidt was saying. At the same time meaning will be drawn from the science. Meaning is always drawn from our largest scientific narratives. That is where the link with mythologies occurs even if we don't intent it to. I am sure that we can not manifest the will to act collectively without understanding that link and fostering it in the service of new mythologies that speak directly to our moment in evolution.

The question then is how to keep the "ethic of inquiry" I have written about before while still acting in the service of those new mythologies.


  1. I think that the 'ethic of inquiry' can and should be involved on the myth side as well. I'll use evolutionary theory as an example.

    I've been wondering through the course of this dialogue, why Darwin has such a draw in our culture and how did he and his theory receive a mythological standing; after all, husbandry is an age old science. And then a couple of weeks ago, I watched the movie, "Brave Heart". One of the themes was a contrast and comparison between Wallace the "commoner" and what-ever-his name is, the "noble" who ruled Scotland. Each of their designations were derived from a belief about status and how status transpired through hereditary lines. This theory of reality that closely resembles Darwin's and existed a few centuries prior, held a mythological status that was substantiated by god through the Christian church.

    Moving ahead to Darwin's time, those in power who still sought to justify their entitlement over "commoners" as something that exists in the "natural" order of things, shifted the "natural" from god which was losing status to Nature which was gaining in status. Darwin's theory made this justifying logic credible: And faith always requires credibility in order to be exercised.

    So this brings us back a bit to revelation. Maybe instead of seeing it as something magically beamed to some special person, we could see it as a constant and timeless stream always ready to be seen by anyone with the "eyes" to see. In other words, instead of asking if revelation exists, maybe we should be asking our selves if we're seeing reality rightly. If this is the case, then I think we desperately need an 'ethic of inquiry' along with an ethic of dialogue.

    Whether we see in evolutionary myth, a special case for human being to transcend animal logic or a justification to live by animal logic depends on how we want to see ourselves, and whether we're out to take something from life or give ourselves into life and one another; I'm tired of takers holding control over our myths.

  2. Another element in this Adam, is the myth of scientist; this invisible power that shapes a way of being in the world that scientists hold each other to. Eliazer the A.I. scientist looked entirely steeped in it.

    I watched David Chalmers asked by an interviewer whether or not he considered consciousness more fundamental than energy or matter. He tip-toed through the scientist myth as he answered that after a few drinks he could see consciousness as more fun-damental. I appreciate your deftness as you walk between two of our largest myths of science and religion.

  3. This idea of the ethic of investigation in the context of the larger narrative is so interesting. What role might each of us play in this particular story, with the possibility of our demise as a species hanging in the balance? It can be easy for some people to fall into despair at the state of the planet – and maybe too easy for others to place false hope in the laps of scientists, waiting for them to save us from ourselves (it really is downright biblical in its proportions isn’t it?!).

    When I imagine what this must be like for scientists, I draw from my own familiar territory in the counselling/therapy field, where ‘objectivity’ in the face of powerful trauma seems so impossible sometimes, and hope can only be offered through joint effort, and a whole lot of honesty.

    As a therapist I can (must) be informed by the narrative – even sympathetic to it. But I cannot become ‘lost’ in the story – or in my own biases – or I am not able to do my job with integrity. However, none of us is ever completely ‘removed’ from the story itself are we? Once we begin interacting with any particular person or circumstance, we become part of that very narrative.

    When life’s narrative becomes too overwhelming, I always encourage clients (and myself!) to come back to this present moment (ah, sounds so simple… until you really begin working with it : )) – this is where our choices within the context of the larger narrative become more manageable, and sharper in focus. This is the only ‘place’ where we have a chance to proceed in ways that are not simply reactive, but truly insightful – and this is where our response to the world intersects with the narrative in ways that might actually alter the story itself.

    The scientific method of inquiry is beautifully conducive to this idea of living in the present moment and not getting lost in the narrative (no matter how compelling it might be). But it is not, as many believe, about ‘cold objectivity’ so much as it is about an open acceptance of ‘what is’. Just as we’ve been discussing the concept of experiential awe in all of its glory, it is important to take into account that lived experience (and scientific inquiry) encompasses much more than awe. It often requires facing some very uncomfortable realities on the other side of the coin.

  4. Perhaps one of our more distorting mythologies occurs when we raise the human quality of reason to mythic proportions. John Ralston Saul, a humanist thinker from Canada, in his book, 'On Equilibrium', makes a case that reason is only one of our qualities from which we live into our world; he lists and describes five others: imagination, memory, intuition, ethic, and common sense. The theory is that all six qualities (not definitive) need to exist within us in a fluid and dynamic tension as they are each their own kind of power. By sublimating the five to the dictatorship of reason, we end up with a life that looks good on graphed paper but in reality fails to fulfill a technocrat's theoretic ideology.

    Why is it, that science typically gets translated through technology and not Being? (Unless you consider adhering to a methodology an essence of being.) Why? Because Being entails more than utility, and reason is the muscle for utility. And as long as science adheres itself to the mythology of reason- or rationality- in a manner that keeps it out of dynamic balance with our other powerful and needed qualities, this age of reason will most likely reach a tipping point of collapse: in engineering terms, this age will reach its moment.

    Don't get me wrong; we desperately need reason, we just need to take it off its dictatorial throne and put it in dynamic balance with our other qualities: At the time of the airplane's invention, there was no reason to fly- that took imagination, maybe even intuition to consider such an outlandish idea. However, if there was going to be successful and dependable flight, then we needed the power that only reason has: to think and argue, and to calculate.

    Reason's next step is always a logical progression from its previous. Powers contained in ethic and imagination and intuition, can provide us with the impetus to leap with faith from plotted schematics into the unknown; and here, we can draw on the powers of memory, common sense and reason to shape something new.

    As a spiritual thinker, I want to guard against arbitrary powers as much as any scientific thinker. But our power of reason can't do it on its own: we live in that proof. If we have any hope of moving forward into a sustainable world, we'll have to remove reason from its mythic throne, and let it exist as a quality in dynamic balance with our other powerful qualities.

  5. Much to comment on here but for now I wanted to add my agreement to the mix about how the over emphasis of Reason has led to a distortion of the value of different human capacities. In my understanding this is really what failed to be realized in the Enlightenment's broad program of human progress. We are simply put more than our reason. What is required now is some Age of Balance rather than a new Age of Reason.

    Also jaynes lovely account of the role and limits of narrative in the individual life and how it might speak to ethic of investigation in science got me thinking. I had not considered that return to the present is just like the scientists acceptance of what is being shown. That is cool.

  6. A little more on the mythologizing of Darwin.

    On a daily basis, we intimately encounter thermodynamics and rarely encounter evolution except through some nature show. I can mention natural selection and every one basically recognizes it. When I mention entropy though, I usually get an aimless look.

    Instead of being a structure of disorder, I see entropy as fundamental to self organized ordering as it describes how aspects like time and heat move in one direction, like hot towards cold. But never, the other way around, or both directions at the same time. So without the dynamic of entropy, evolution would be impossible: for with entropy, there can exist, random order; without entropy there to provide this one way directional structure, I don't know that there could be anything more than random chaos.

    So even though thermodynamics is paramount to evolution and though each emerge relatively close together in western history, it's evolution that gets mythic status; entropy pretty much gets relegated to the dark and dank labs of physics and chemistry. :(

    Am I weird for considering thermodynamics so utterly sexy?

    I wonder if there's something about feedback loops in this story: as people in power usurp Darwin's theory for their own gain, they issue positive signals, which received by researchers, fuels more exuberant interest and so on. Maybe if the people of Darwin's time weren't so easily captivated by the star power of Darwin, perhaps Fau-ar-en-aday- well what ever his name is would be leaping off everyone's tongue.

  7. gottschalk,

    You write very well...very articulate.

  8. Adam Frank from above: "It's inevitable because we must always parse the data we gather into stories.

    Varela from an introduction: ...embodied intelligence... seeks viability in a situated orientation.

    John Ralston Saul on memory as a quality: Memory is more than a repository of historical facts: it's the water we swim through.

    I see these three thinkers here circling and writing of the same phenomenon. That is, a characteristic shared by all self organizing living systems, from the cell all the way up to human being, is an underlying process, which cognitive in nature, seeks viability in its situationed orientation- the environment it finds itself in.

    Human being is unique though. While we share with any living thing in our world, mechanisms that orient our bodies in regard to horizon lines and physical needs, we alone occupy another world that is without the fixed points that horizons and drives provide. We human beings are each like a ship in space where up and down disappear.

    And yet our embodied intelligence seeks its viability, cognitively without our thinking about it ... only, the mechanisms of the inner ear that serve so well in the presence of gravity are rendered useless without it.

    If we use gyroscopes to orient a ship in space, then what will we use to orient ourselves when our inner worlds share in so many properties of our infinite universe? What will act as our gyroscope?

    There's so much in our day to day which only require basic ideas and theories from which to orient ourselves. But we feel ourselves to be more than menial: So when it comes to actually originating ourselves, we need to elevate those ideas to the status of myth. This is where I think Adam is being insightful as he raises the the dilemma above. We have to ask ourselves, what gravity will our inner ear attune itself to.

  9. Thanks Connie, I think this could be said for everyone who's been involved in this dialogue; the thinking presented by you and every one else has been a joy to interact with.

  10. Adam, if I parse out your post I read it as follows:
    1) we face catastrophic collapse, al la Jared Diamond, if we fail to marshal social resources to mitigate the damage we have caused by unwise resource consumption.
    2) for this to happen we need science to feed back into society's value/belief systems not merely informing them but modifying them, giving them direction and motivation.
    3) and reading between the lines it would seem that you say a powerful motivating force behind this is the reverential awe we ought to feel for science/environment/universe/creation and therefore it is almost a 'sacred' duty to preserve it.
    In other words we will be driven by the twin forces of the profance (desire for self preservation) and the sacred (reverential awe for creation). to avoid collapse.
    And furthermore it would seem you are saying the radical changes in behaviour requires much more than being informed by science, it needs a powerfully motivating mythology, rooted in science.

    Please correct me if I have misunderstood you.

    Now all the talk of mythology just confuses me, probably because the word carries so much baggage. Nevertheless if I look past the terminology it seems there is an underlying assumption that lies at the root of our problems, encapsulated in the word 'dominion'. For example we see this in the Bible where it states 'and the Lord gave man dominion over all creatures'. Our behaviour is rooted in two deeply held, implicit beliefs (and not just greed)

    1) we have been given dominion over nature, giving us freedom to use or exploit as we wish (rooted in our mythologies)
    2) nature is limitless in its robustness, variety, abundance, fecundity and availability. (rooted in our experiences)

    We(a small minority) now know that neither assumption is true. Our job is to reveal the assumptions, challenge them, change them and replace the concept of 'dominion' with 'stewardship'.
    Science is revealing that we live in a vast, dark, cold universe where life is exceedingly rare, fragile and short lived. This knowledge must become commonplace. If we can replace the assumption of nature being limitless with the knowledge that we live in a tiny, miraculous bubble of life that is very fragile and limited then we can start moving from the concept of dominion to the concept of stewardship.

    Changing the assumption of dominion to one of stewardship of a fragile and limited resource is the tool which will save ourselves from ourselves. And the mythology we need to motivate this is a reverence for life, not just our own but all life, bordering on the sacred.

    And by the way a necessary consequence of all this is the need to adopt frugal lifestyles so that we can use resources without depleting them. Somehow, our mythologies must make frugality desirable.

    And now as to your final question "...how to keep the 'ethic of inquiry' ... while still acting in the service of those new mythologies?". That seems to me to be a non issue. The ethic of inquiry is deeply imbedded in our western culture. Science feeds naturally into our culture. The problem lies rather in other cultures. I, at least, believe that as science investigates the phenomenom of life there will be a growing reverence for life and this will contribute to the new (or old) mythology of deep reverence for life. There are many signs that this is already beginning to happen.

    To close off I am reminded of the scene in 'Seven Years in Tibet' where, Heinrich Harrer was supervising construction of a building, all work was stopped on the foundations so that the monks could remove the earthworms from the soil. Admittedly this is extreme but it helps to make the point that life deserves reverence, requiring us to conserve and protect it.

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