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Edward Cell 's Liberal Studies Discussion Paper

6. Nature: Ecology of the Planet

Of all the ambiguities of being human, none has proved more difficult for us than that of being part of nature and yet transcending it. As Boyer and our ecologists are reminding us, "All forms of life on planet earth are interlocked" and we need the study of science to bring home to us the full measure of this truth. We ignore this at our peril, especially in view both of the strain that burgeoning populations place on nature's resources and also the enormous power to bend nature to our desires that science and technology have joined to give us. We do indeed need to recognize our great dependence on the viability of the ecological system. We are at once, then, dependent and transcendent, and therein lies our opportunity and our peril. Questions of basic importance to liberal studies, then, will concern both our place in nature and our attitudes toward it.

6.1 Our Ambivalence About Nature

Being interlocked with nature poses yet another sort of problem, one that concerns our identity and our courage. It is our bodies that anchor us in nature and, for all of the delights they make possible, they leave unanswered the needs of the human spirit and they subject us to physical pain, debilitation and death. We are tempted, then, to distance ourselves from the indignities and death that come with nature.

One way of denying our vulnerability as creatures of nature is to identify ourselves solely with spirit. This finds expression in a long history of dualistic thought, such as that of Descartes, the seventeenth century originator of modern western philosophy, who conceived of mind as essentially separable from the body. In the twentieth century, however, dualistic thinking has come under intensive criticism and rejection by main-stream scholars, including those taking the quintessentially American perspective of pragmatism--a way of seeing that is found, for example, in the psychology of William James, the sociology of George Herbert Meade, and the educational theory of John Dewey.

Another way of gaining a sense of distance from the vulnerabilities of life is by focusing on experiences of power, not only our own but, especially, the power of something greater than ourselves that we feel part of. Unfortunately, denial of the ultimate precariousness of life appears to require a degree of power that is inordinate in going beyond healthy self-assertiveness to dominance over others. This may take the form of power over individual persons or, even better for a sense of over-riding superiority, of a subjugation of whole groups. Commonly these groups are identified racially, ethnically, religiously, morally, nationally, or in terms of gender. Consider how often demagogic leaders prey on human fears and promise some form of supremacy over an alleged enemy. A desire for inordinate power may also take the form of seeking to dominate nature. Think of how commonly we speak of "conquering" some aspect of the natural world, as, for example, conquering space. If dominance provides a means to transcend, or at least to cloud, our sense of finitude, then we readily can see why the power to impose our will has proved so seductive.

Concerning our stance toward nature, our European heritage seems not to have served us well. Native Americans, for example, have expressed a profound kinship with nature as have many in the East and in Africa. But our most influential Western attitudes have been those of distance and dominance, as we find these expressed, for instance, in the biblical view that God has given humans "dominion" over the earth. It may even be that the vehemence of the ages-old Western repression of goddess and pagan religions has been fed, in part, by their close ties to nature.

There are, of course, other strains of Western heritage to draw on in dealing with our vulnerabilities and our place in nature. Concerning nature, the romantics and New England transcendentalists, for example, saw us as family members rather than rulers and demonstrated that there is a good bit of courage and largeness of heart to be derived from a sense of belonging and nurturance. Concerning power--our ability to carry out our intentions--the humanistic tradition has emphasized its creative forms as providing not an experience of distance from our vulnerabilities but the courage to cope with them. Courage, they have maintained, comes from the development and use of our distinctively human powers to love, create, take a hand in our own growth, and achieve insight concerning our human nature and how we may live in accord with it.

Perhaps the deepest question concerning our relationship with the rest of nature is a moral one. What moral claim do we feel the other animals, and perhaps even the ecosystem, to have on us? Our sense of the moral, if it is humanistic rather than authoritarian, is an expression of our convictions about what it finally means to be human. As Peter Wenz argues so persuasively, part of this is our belief about the significance of life per se and not just about life in the form in which we partake of it. What does it do to our feelings about human life if we care little for life in its other expressions? We might compare this question with that about the effect on our feelings about being human if we care little for humans other than those of our own ethnic, racial, religious, gender or other group.

These are controversial themes, but the basic point for our educational choices is that there are two sources for our understanding of nature and our place in it, one scientific and the other personal. Science has much to say about the inter-connectedness of all forms of life and about the dependence of life on the inanimate side of nature. But recognizing our dependencies still leaves open the question of our feelings for nature--our sense of its place in our lives. Our bodies are the gateway to understanding nature not from the distance of external observation but from the immediacy of inner experience. Sam Keen maintains that as we are in our bodies so we are in the world. Perhaps both our well-being and our survival depend equally on our knowledge of and our attitude toward the realm of growth and decay, vitality and enervation we call nature.

Summary: In what ways are we dependent on a viable ecology, what moral obligations do we have toward other members of the natural order, and what does all this mean for how we choose to live and for the technologies we develop? How should we think of ourselves in relation to our bodies and thus to the world of nature? Why have some peoples adopted an attitude of dominance toward nature and others a feeling of kinship with it? What does this say about our sense of the moral and the meaning that power has for us?


6.2 Science and Our Knowledge of Persons

We have been emphasizing our attitude toward nature because that greatly determines the use to which we put our knowledge and the place we give to our bodies in our sense of ourselves. But notice that we have spoken of two sources of understanding and this means two forms of knowledge, one rational and one non-rational. "Non-rational" does not mean irrational but rather refers to a practical, or feeling, or existential way of being rational. We shall examine this in the section on "Art: the Esthetic Dimension." For now we reflect on rational or theoretical knowledge.

Basically, rational knowledge provides an understanding of how things function and so enables us to anticipate the future with some reliability and to carry out our intentions with some effectiveness. We depend on it especially to substitute for the instinctual guidance that is so much more effective for the other animals than for us. We gain much of this sort of knowledge in everyday life as we observe regularities in how people think, behave and develop, in how groups function, in the way gravity affects us, and so on. We form these observations into beliefs which we test against our on-going experience. Science provides us with knowledge of the broad, abstract patterns that underlay these common sense observations by utilizing more rigorous and reliable forms of testing. This greater reliability depends especially on spelling out more precisely just what we anticipate than we are in our everyday beliefs. We speak here of more than one form of testing, because scientific methods must be modified as our subject matter changes from the physical to the biological and then to the social and psychological.

The social sciences confront us with the deeply puzzling question of the place of scientific knowledge in our knowledge of ourselves--and here we are back to the ambiguities that stem from being aware of ourselves and, so, of being able to reflect on what we are about, determine our attitude toward nature, decide on our actions, and so on. Social sciences are possible because there are regularities in how our thinking, feeling, perceiving, and acting are affected by various conditions--the social and natural sources of those regularities. What, then, do we make of surprises, of being creative, of departing from the expected? Do these experiences point to deeper regularities we have yet to discover? Is an expertise possible that will over-ride any beliefs that are based on our private experience? Or, is the scientific way of studying ourselves inherently limited, so that it is incapable of dealing with some of that which self-awareness brings into the picture? Does, in fact, our need to anticipate how others will be in our transactions with them require a non-rational as well as a rational form of knowing?

To put this in more detail, if we think of ourselves, in principle, as predictable in everything we do, then what happens to our ideas of freedom, responsibility, meaning, purpose, and being a person who is more than an object of experience and prediction--someone who also does the experiencing and predicting? These concepts are part of the everyday language in terms of which we become persons and become aware of being persons. Are they indispensable to being a person and, if so, what does this mean for the place of scientific ideas and findings in our self-knowledge--our sense of what it means to be human? Do these findings, and the language on which they depend, lead to a correction and enrichment of our everyday ways of thinking or somehow supercede them?

The implications of these questions are far reaching. They concern, for example, the role of scientific expertise in such matters as collective governance and individual therapy. Can we best improve life, or even save ourselves from catastrophe, by a program of social engineering based on scientific expertise such as that portrayed in B.F. Skinner's Walden Two? Is the promise of democracy ultimately vitiated because it places too much reliance on our everyday way of understanding and judging? Or, in the case of personal healing, what is the appropriate relation between the therapist's expertise and patient's self-understanding? Consider, for example, Carl Rogers' analysis of the famous case of Ellen West that ended in therapeutic failure:

The greatest weakness in her treatment was that no one involved seems to have related to her as a person--a person worthy of respect, a person capable of autonomous choice, a person whose inner experiencing is a precious resource to be drawn upon and trusted.

Rather, she seems to have been dealt with as an object. Her first analyst helps her to see her feelings but not to experience them. This only makes her more of an object to herself and still further estranges her from living in and drawing upon her experience. Wisely, she says that the "analyst can give me discernment but not healing." The analyst points out to her that she is an individual with such and such dynamics. She agrees with him, though surely not on the basis of experiencing these dynamic feelings. She is simply following the pattern which has already isolated her--distrusting her own experiencing and trying to believe and feel what she should feel, what the expert tells he she feels.

This passage is cited to illustrate the problem of how we can best relate the scientific and personal perspectives and not to discount the importance of the scientific side. Rogers himself studied with the greatest possible rigor the conditions that are necessary for personal growth and healing and was never able to reconcile in his own mind his sense of conditions that determine our growth with his belief in personal autonomy.

Underlying any assessment of rational knowledge is that part of our heritage that we have received from the Enlightenment, a way of thinking that has deeply shaped us and yet one we are increasingly uncertain about. The heart of this way of seeing is a faith that reason will give us a basic mastery of our human problems. Part of our sense of crisis today appears to be a wide-spread loss of this faith. So much seems to be spinning out of our control. Some conclude that reason is far more limited than we had thought, especially when it comes to understanding ourselves. To others, the defect seems to lie not in the power of reason but in our general lack of courage to open up to the truths with which social scientists confront us. Ernest Becker, for instance, has concluded that, although "Evil itself is now amenable to critical analysis and, conceivably, to the sway of reason", the large majority of us appear to find life bearable only by shielding ourselves from the full truth about this dark side of human life.

Summary: To what extent is the obstacle to greater human well-being one of ignorance and to what extent is it one of ego-centricity and/or failure of courage? What do you see to be the effect of our social sciences on our everyday sense of what it means to be a person, including our everyday ideas of purpose, meaning, freedom, and responsibility? Should we continue to take our everyday sense of being a person seriously and use scientific findings to modify and enrich it, or should we regard our sense of self and the ideas on which this rests as a kind of illusion, although one we cannot do without? Is human life ultimately a game of pretence that is best played--and perhaps most compassionately played--by not taking it very seriously?