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Reason is universal because no attempted challenge
to its results can avoid appealing to reason in the end.
In the struggle to preserve the natural environment, are science and reason
the problem or the solution?
This is a strange question to be coming from a philosopher! As strange as a
preacher questioning the value of virtue, or a judge doubting the value of
justice. And while our convictions are foursquare on the side of science and
reason, we have devoted altogether too much time and energy during four years of
the past decade, attempting to defend science and reason from disparagement by a
strange crop of undergraduates, and more than a few faculty colleagues. (I say
"disparagement," since one can not present a "case against
reason" without, paradoxically, attempting to employ reason).
Colleagues from beyond the small "environmental / liberal-arts
college" that we recently served reported similar attacks, and one need
only read and listen to the popular media to encounter still more evidence of
the public's flight from "reality principles." In fact, radical
subjectivism and relativism have invaded "the house of intellect," and
even philosophical discourse, in the guise of "post-modernism" and
"Well, its about time!" -- a few of my recent students and
colleagues would retort: "just look at the mess that science has made of
our natural world!" (Thus failing to make the elementary distinction
between science and technology). Then they continue with echoes of the romantic
poets of the past century, reminding us that "reason can not speak to the
heart," that "inspiration is beyond the cold reach of analysis"
-- and that, quoting Wordsworth, "we murder to dissect.'" (All true --
and all irrelevant). Besides, they insist, science does not give us answers,
only endless disputes -- "for every PhD, there is an equal and opposite
PhD," and "yesterday's dogma is refuted by today's science, just as
today's dogma awaits a similar fate tomorrow." So eventually we come to
that mocking question that we all have heard: "who's to say?" There is
no question that I would rather hear in my Philosophy classes, if posed as an
opening to reasoned inquiry. It is the gateway to epistemology. But more and
more that question, "who's to say?" is tossed out as a
"thought-stopper" by students who, like Pontius Pilate, will not pause
for a reply.
Should environmentalists take comfort in this dismissal of science and this
resurgence of irrationalism? I think not. Science and reason are discomforting
precisely because they have been carefully devised to allow nature to speak to
us and to divulge its secrets, quite independently of what we would prefer to
hear. Once we realize this, and we thus become willing to accept unpleasant but
validated truths in place of comforting myths, we are far better prepared to
recognize, address, and perchance solve, the myriad of problems presented to us
by a complex civilization and a threatened natural estate. It is true that
technology, applied without reasonable foresight or moral constraint, has
brought us to our current environmental peril. But organized, cumulative and
institutional reason - which is to say, science - is our best way out.
Attuning ourselves to reality can be a tough assignment, but after all is said
and done, it is the only reality we have!
Those who insist that science is more the problem than the solution should be
reminded that the environmental movement of the past three decades had its
origin in the life sciences. It was science that sounded the warning of peril to
our planet. And the founding fathers and mothers of that movement were, for the
most part, scientists: Barry Commoner, Garrett Hardin, Paul Ehrlich, Aldo
Leopold, Rachel Carson.
Today environmental education and reform are under assault by the
valedictorian practitioners of the black arts of public relations, funded by the
inexhaustible resources of international commerce. All that the opposing
environmentalists have on their side is the sweet voice of reason, and the
compelling evidence of science. It just may be enough, but only if we utilize
these resources wisely. Accordingly, the despoilers of the Earth, whose lives
and fortunes are invested in ruinous "business as usual," must observe
with unconstrained delight the flight from reason, the disparagement of science,
and the embrace of new-age kookery that is at large among so many environmental
activists and even some educators.
This will be the essential message of The Online Gadfly. Some of our
accumulated thoughts on this issue may be found in the included papers, and even
more directly under the page
"No Mo Po
Three important books on the issue of the assault on science and reason have
recently appeared, and are highly recommended: Carl Sagan's The
Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (Random House, 1995),
and Paul and Anne Ehrlich's Betrayal of Science and Reason (Island
Press, 1996). Both are cited in this web-site under "Reflections on
Science..." The third book is Thomas Nagel's The Last Word (Oxford,
close with these words by this wise philosopher:
"Reason ... can serve as a court of appeal not only against the received
opinions and habits of our community but also against the peculiarities of our
personal perspective. It is something each individual can find within himself,
but at the same time it has universal authority. Reason provides,
mysteriously, a way of distancing oneself from common opinion and received
practices... Whoever appeals to reason purports to discover a source of
authority within himself that is not merely personal, or societal, but
universal - and that should also persuade others who are willing to listen to
it." (Thomas Nagel, The Last Word, pp 2-3).
Copyright, 1998, by Ernest Partridge
our "Is Science Just Another Dogma?"