Friday, April 24, 2009

The Expressible and Inexpressible and the Boundries Between

What do we expect from Science? What do we expect from the other ways we seek to understand our individual and collective experience: art, poetry and the domains of endeavor people think of as "spiritual"?

Once in a commentary on the poet Mary Oliver I found the following definition

"Poetry is what takes us to the boundaries between the expressible and the inexpressible"

Its been years since I read that but it has always stayed with me. It articulates a sense that there are aspects of human being, aspects of our experience, that can be deeply felt but not codified into a statement whose truth-value can be parsed and then evaluated discursively. This can seem like a weird thing for someone who has spent a life-time in science to say. As I kid I was attracted to science specifically because it promised an absolute knowledge of an absolute (I was a platonist early on it seems). But as got older this seemed more like an idealism (no pun indented) that a true description of the situation.

I am, of course, still in love with science and but now I think it offers us a more local kind of certainty embedded in a global question that it beautifully exposes. The world is out there and it pushes back. Of that there is no doubt. But in the totality of human experience how many ways are there to know to its shape and form?

How do we embrace the irreducibility of of our own experience conditioned by our personal narratives, with the sense that there are constants guiding that experience. Science reveals a world of exquisite order and subtle patterns that can be articulated with precision. How we respond to that order is about reason and our other myriad faculties.

I would argue that in our response such "revelation" we are taken to the boundaries of what can be expressed in language (mathematics included) and what eludes expression. The question is this: how to acknowledge such a boundary while staying close to world which shows itself to us. In the comments to the last post the metaphore of a gyroscope was offered. That can be quite useful. There is a great quote from the Buddhist tradition which could also be said of science: "The purpose of any practice is to not fool yourself".

That is the work.

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.