A Purpose For Everything by L. Charles Birch
Charles Birch is a biologist specializing in genetics, and resides in Australia. He is joint winner of the 1990 International Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion.. His teaching career includes Oxford, Columbia and the Universities of Chicago and Minnesota, as well as visiting professor of genetics at the University of California at Berkeley and professor of biology at the University of Sydney. Professor Birch has blazed new paths into the relationships between science and faith. Published by Twenty-third Publications, Mystic, Connecticut, 1990. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
Chapter 5: Purpose and Progress
Where there is no vision the people get out of hand.
Man cannot live without ideal aims which relate his endeavor and his suffering and his joy to something more lasting and more unitary than the sum of individual activities . . . Without such an aim he falls into cynicism or despair, by which the will to live is indefinitely nullified.
I set before you life or death, blessing or curse. Choose life, then, so that you and your descendants may live.
The Meaning of Progress in the Modern World
Despite differences in ideology and political system, every nation in the world wants one sort of progress. Every nation, rich or poor, is intent upon increasing its economic growth in material goods and services. A measure of progress in these terms is the size of the gross national product per person. This ranges from $160 in the poorest countries (Bangladesh and Ethiopia) to $18,000 in the U.S.A. and Switzerland, which are the richest countries in the world (1988 figures). The rich countries want to become richer and the poor want to become rich. The rich nations have become rich by their dedication to the use of science and technology to produce things. The poor want to do the same. The idea of progress in the modern world is closely tied up with a belief that science and technology will open up an infinite cornucopia of goods to replace the ones we use up. In the case of petroleum we shall have consumed in less than a century nature’s endowment for all time. Some forty years hence, eight or more billion human beings will have to co-exist on this small planet and will have to find energy, food and other resources to maintain their societies. There are signs that resources, one of which is the pollution absorption capacity of the planet, may not suffice for the five billion human beings already on the earth. Yet we are told to have faith in science and technology. They will deliver new goods as yet undreamed of. When fossil fuels run out we shall have invented ways of using the energy of the sun to drive our industries. And when all the iron ore is gone we shall invent plastics to take its place. The technological optimist tells us that a breakthrough a day keeps the crisis at bay. Science and technology are our cargo cult.
So there was a sense of outrage when the Club of Rome produced its report entitled Limits to Growth (Meadows et al. 1972), which gave reasons for supposing that the goal of economic growth in material goods had limits, despite the possibilities of progress of science and technology in the future. This marked the beginning of serious concern of nations about the ‘sustainability’ of the earth if current ideas of progress were persisted with indefinitely. New ecological movements called for a redirecting of attitudes and the discovery of new values for the future, if there was to be a future (Birch 1976).
By the eighties it became clear that the greatest threat to the sustainability of the earth for future generations was the application of science and technology for war. The ecological movements became peace movements as well. Peace and ecological sustainability became closely linked. This was not only because of the enormous amount of resources that the military in all countries were using up but also the ultimate threat of a nuclear war that might, in one stroke, destroy the life-support systems of the earth. These are the biological systems that ensure that we have food and water and breathable air. Estimates were made that the deployment of even one-tenth of the nuclear arsenals of the 1980s could lead to a ‘nuclear winter’ over most, if not all, of the planet. Nuclear war would not only kill us directly by blast and radioactive fallout. It would also destroy the life-support systems of the earth (Ehrlich & Sagan 1984). By the late 1980s it became clear that global atmospheric pollution causing both the greenhouse effect and the hole in the ozone layer had become critical threats to life on earth (Henderson-Sellers & Blong 1989). The year 1989 marks the year in which, throughout the world, environmental issues moved from being politically peripheral to being central.
Modernity and its conception of progress had dead-ended in world wars, the Holocaust, genocide, the exploitation of Third World countries, the increasing pollution of the earth, the disappearance of resources and the terrible specter of omnicide. Progress through technology began to sound like the empty clanging of a funeral bell.
It was clear to many of us that peace and ecological sustainability were to be forever closely related. Furthermore, both are tied to the issue of justice and injustice. In the 1970s there was much talk about a new international economic order that would redress the injustice of poverty-stricken nations alongside rich nations that were overdeveloped. In the 1980s this theme is sadly muted. There is no global consensus that the world is a community and should be made more tolerable for all its people. The rich are intent upon becoming richer because they see in wealth their source of power to maintain their prestige and position amongst nations.
So when the Club of Rome produced its second major report on the state of the world (Mesarovic & Pestel 1974) its central proposition went unheeded. Restated in 1984 it was as follows:
It is a well-established fact that in the world’s developed, industrialized regions material consumption has reached proportions of preposterous waste. In those regions there must now be a relative decline in the use of various materials. On the other hand in some less fully developed regions, there must be substantial growth in the use of some essential commodities either for food production or for industrial production. (p. 235)
The critical problem, as Mesarovic and Pestel (1984) and Pestel (1989) saw it, was how to make a global transition from undifferentiated growth all round to organic growth in which some nations ceased to grow in the use of material resources while others grew faster.
Not only do the powerful nations resist the concept of organic growth of nations involving a curbing of their own growth, but traditional economists refuse to take seriously the need for an economics of sustainability. Traditional economics in both capitalist and socialist countries is based on the notion that economic growth was a good that could be continued indefinitely. It gave little, if any, attention to the idea of an economics that took into account limits to material growth. A few economists -- they are outstanding exceptions -- have worked on an economics for a sustainable society. These include Boulding (1971), Daly and Cobb (1989), Daly (1977), and Leontief, Carter and Petri (1977).
What confronts the modern world is not a series of separate crises but a single basic defect, a fault that lies deep in the design of modern society. Too many people want too many things too quickly, with little concern for the sustainability of the earth on which all depend. Justice for all, peace and sustainability are interconnected. One cannot be achieved without the others. ‘Peace,’ said Allan Boesak, the human rights campaigner in South Africa, ‘is more than the absence of war, it is the pursuit of active justice.’ There can be no justice without sustainability and no sustainability without justice. Science and technology won’t save us. But together a new science and technology and a new economics and politics informed by an ideal other than unlimited growth and power might. The world of modernity, which Alvin Toffler dubs ‘the second wave’, has dominated Western consciousness since the Enlightenment. ‘That wave is receding now and leaving on the beach the debris of abstract thinking, compartmentalized knowledge, warring specialisms, fragmented facts, and a general sense of alienation between human consciousness and wider reality’ (Peters 1985 p. 193). A third wave about to break upon us is the wave of post-modernity.
The Meaning of Progress in the Postmodern World
The word progress derives from the Latin gressus, which means step. Progress means stepping from a less satisfactory state to a more satisfactory one. The Judaeo-Christian tradition is steeped in the idea of a movement from an unfulfilled state to a more fulfilled one. In classical theism, destiny is in the hands of God. Renaissance man and Enlightenment man refurbished this concept of progress, putting, man at the rudder to direct the course of the future. Out of this presupposition of the concept of progress arose the Renaissance utopian writings, the anticipation of outopos or no place in history, yet nevertheless expected. In utopias man creates the world anew and improves it through his own exertions. He begins as a tenant or lodger in the world and ends up as its landlord. And as his environment improves so, it alleges, will he. Men look forward, never backward and seldom upward.
Two world wars and the threat of nuclear war led to the demise of crusading utopias. Instead there appeared what Tillich (1966 p. 70) calls negative utopias such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984. Here the future is painted in terms not of fulfillment but of dehumanization.
Today we need a new assessment of the concept of progress in the light of the dashing of utopian hopes and liberal optimism. We see only through a glass darkly. No-one in our age was more perceptive about this than Reinhold Niebuhr. In Discerning the Signs of the Times he expounded on the passage from 2 Kings 19:3: ‘This is a day of trouble, and of rebuke, and blasphemy: for the children are come to the birth, and there is not strength to go forth’. Niebuhr (1946) wrote:
We are living in an age between the ages in which children are coming to birth, but there is not strength to bring forth. We can see clearly what ought to be done to bring order and peace into the lives of the nations; but we do not have the strength to do what we ought. A few hardy optimists imagine that the end of the Second World War represents the end of our troubles; and that the world is now firmly set upon a path of peace. Yet it does not require a very profound survey of the available historical resources to realize that our day of trouble is not over; in fact this generation of mankind is destined to live in a tragic era between two ages. It is an era when ‘one age is dead and the other is powerless to be born’. The age of absolute national sovereignty is over; but the age of international order under political instruments, powerful enough to regulate the relations of nations and to compose their competing desires, is not yet born. The age of ‘free enterprise’, when the new vitalities of a technical civilization were expected to regulate themselves, is also over. But the age in which justice is to be achieved, and yet freedom maintained, by wise regulation of the complex economic interdependence of modern man, is powerless to be born. (pp. 39-40)
Niebuhr went on to attribute modern man’s lack of strength to bring forth the historical new birth to lower and narrower loyalties which stand over against newer and wider ones. The powerful nations, for example, are not single-minded in their desire to maintain the peace of the world. They undoubtedly desire peace but each also desires to preserve or enhance its own power and influence. They speak glibly of their passion for peace and justice, yet so obviously betray interests which contradict peace and justice. They are as yet unprepared to create the kind of moral and political order which a technical civilization requires. The self-righteousness of the great powers will resist efforts at greater justice. This is the conflict between the urge to live and the urge to power (see pp. 13-15).
There are plenty of reasons for giving up hope in a better future. What then are the reasons for being hopeful at all? How can I hope when the cards seem stacked against the future? The initial reaction of some people to the world’s problems is refusal of serious belief. I can deny that the situation is really that bad. Surely the authorities with power and knowledge at their disposal will take care of the situation. For me it will be business as usual. The future I suppose will really be much like the past. So I try to put out of my mind the apocalyptic threats under which I live. For others the recognition of the awfulness of the situation breaks down their defenses. Their reaction is then one of despair. Isn’t history, they ask, just a succession of opening of doors in Bluebeard’s castle? What use is it for me to attempt the impossible task of altering the course of history, especially when my influence is so slight? It is important to recognize the similarity of these two responses -- complacency and despair. Their results are the same. They let me off the hook. I am left free to eat, drink and be merry. If I am booked to travel on the Titanic I may as well travel first-class!
Saint Paul declared ‘We are perplexed, but not unto despair’. One might divide the world, commented Niebuhr (1946 p. 169) into those who are not perplexed, those who are perplexed unto despair, and those who are perplexed but not unto despair. Those who are not perplexed have dissolved all the perplexities of life by some simple and cheap scheme of meaning. The scheme is always too simple to do justice to the depth of man’s problems. When life reveals itself in its full terror these little schemes of meaning break down. Optimism or complacency gives way to despair.
Against complacency and despair there is the attitude of perplexed but not unto despair. This is the attitude of realistic hope. There is a light that shines in the darkness. Reason does not light that light. Hope never did rest on proven facts and rational assessments. The facts may be on the side of the pessimists. What then gives hope its light to penetrate the darkness? It is the conviction that the future is not yet determined. It is open-ended. Why believe the future is open-ended? For me it is the conviction that there are values of existence that I but dimly see, that have not as yet visited this planet, yet they are waiting as it were to become concretely real. Human values waited for millennia after the origin of life before the fullness of time for their concrete expression on this earth. The concept of the fullness of time is a critical one in our reassessment of the meaning of progress. The fullness of time means that conditions are appropriate for something that was potentially possible to become concretely real. So far as human relations are concerned, that has to do with two sets of relations, those we have with our neighbors and those we have with the rest of the creation.
We live in two orders. One is the order of the world as it is now. The other is the possibilities of the future as it might be. Possibilities are creative influences in society. They are not made by us. They are appropriated by us. We have an eros toward them. They have a persuasive lure toward us. The point is that to have hope is to feel the call of the possibilities of the future pressing in upon us, blocked only by us. What gives hope its power is not demonstrated facts. It comes from something that empowers us.
Hope is the refusal of despair. Despite oppression, suffering, grief and death, hope need never die. The one who hopes seeks openings, endures failure, and still seeks new openings for fresh efforts. In the depths of the Depression, Franklin Delano Roosevelt said the only thing we had to fear was fear itself. Today, facing the many things that would hurl us into the abyss, we might say analogously, our only hope is hope itself. If we act with complacency and despair there is no hope. If instead we hope, the future lies before us full of uncertainties and risks, yet containing the creative power of hope. What holds men back is not the pressure of reality but the absence of hope. To hope is to stay open to possibilities.
In place of utopianism which sees the new world just around the corner, and in place of progressivism which sees progress as inevitable, we can think of progress in terms of possibilities that are realistically appropriate for this present moment. We keep ourselves open to these possibilities. The Greek term kairos refers to the right time, the time in which something decisive happens, the fulfilled moment. There is a ‘power in history’, says Whitehead (1966), ‘. . . belonging to each historic epoch, the character of a drive toward some ideal, to be realized within that period. This ideal is never realized, it is beyond realization, and yet it moulds the form of what is realized’ (p. 120). Can we discern the signs of the times and let ourselves be instruments of new values that could transform just this small slice of history of which we are a part? Maybe the slice of history relevant for me is the present moment when I can react creatively instead of negatively to the tasks in hand.
We can’t short-circuit history with gigantic jumps from the present into a new future. One step at a time at the right time is what we are called to take. The step may seem small and our numbers few. But there is such a thing as the leaven in the loaf. This is the small component that makes the whole loaf rise. The great reforms of the past were minority movements that worked by degrees until some sort of critical threshold was passed and reform became inevitable. The Quakers organized the first anti-slavery society in Philadelphia in 1775. It was a citizens’ movement based on moral and ethical principles which eventually swept the world. Slavery was a long-accepted institution. It was abolished. Our hideous preoccupation with death in the form of war is an accepted institution at present. That calls for a similar effort of abolition. And so with all institutions of injustice in the world. The goal may seem unrealistic. But the abolition of slavery was also at one time regarded as impossible.
The vanguard of reformers for peace, justice and ecological sustainability are not the political leaders. They are the grassroots movements fighting poverty, political oppression and environmental destruction across the world. In the late 1980s there were, for example, in Bangladesh 1200 indigent grassroots movements, in Brazil 100,000 Christian communities with three million members committed to land reform and the elimination of poverty, and in Indonesia 600 independent groups working on environmental protection (Durning 1989).
Eight Fallacies of the Modern World
In this section we draw together fallacies inbuilt in the modern worldview, some of which have been alluded to in the previous chapters. And suggestions are made of some axioms for a postmodern worldview. The last two sections drew a contrast between the concept of progress in the modern worldview and progress in the postmodern worldview. The modern worldview has come to mean the view that has become increasingly dominant since the seventeenth century with the rise of science. It incorporates a strong legacy from the Enlightenment which shaped an understanding of science in conflict with dogma, superstition and an authoritarian church. It is a worldview based on a science that understands the world in terms of a mechanistic philosophy. Science has made the difference between a pre-scientific world of superstition and the modern world with all the products of its technology. The benefits of the scientific- technological world have been immense (Brown 1986). But it has had its costs. This is largely because it has been tied to a mechanistic philosophy with an ultimate faith in the capacity of science and technology to solve our problems. The world becomes a factory for churning out products. Secondly, it is deficient as a total worldview and has left us in a dilemma about ethics, values and purposes. We are seeing now the exhaustion of modernity.
In a postmodern worldview the world is not primarily seen as a factory existing for the purpose of making goods. Nor does it view the world in mechanistic or materialistic terms. It is not a ‘substance’ view of reality. It views progress as a step-by-step process in fulfillment of spiritual possibilities. What matters is not growth in power and possessions but in richness of experience of all that lives. In other words its objective is healthy people in a healthy environment with healthy relations between people and their environment. What then are some of the fallacies inbuilt in the modern worldview?
1. The Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness
This is a fallacy enunciated by Whitehead (1933 pp. 64, 72) of identifying an abstraction with the concrete or real. To say that the human has some machine-like properties is correct. To say the human is a machine is to commit the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. Besides having bones that operate like levers and a heart that has pump-like properties, a human being experiences and feels and wonders. The fallacy has terrible consequences when we proceed to treat human beings and animals as machines and manipulate them as such. They key word, says Habgood (1968), is respect. We respect the person who made the machine. The machine itself doesn’t warrant respect.
The fallacy of misplaced concreteness is sometimes called the fallacy of reification. To reify is to ‘thingify’. It is the idea that a particular sort of behavior (being aggressive) or an institution is subject to the laws of mechanics. It is the cardinal fallacy of some forms of sociobiology that would reduce all behavior to genes.
Another variant of the fallacy of misplaced concreteness is the so-called ‘naturalistic fallacy’. It is classically the fallacy of trying to derive human ‘ought’ from what ‘is’ in the non-human world. It is a fact that in nature there is a ‘struggle for existence’. As Darwin showed, of all the individual plants and animals that are born into the world, very few survive to maturity. Most die soon after they come into the world. Some argue that since the struggle for existence’ is a ‘law of the jungle’ it must be a law for humans too. This is ‘social Darwinism’. The argument was used by Mussolini to justify his invasion of Abyssinia. The mistake is to suppose that ideas of justice can be derived from the jungle. The history of humanity is, in part, a history of human victories over ‘nature’, of disease being eradicated and deserts made to bloom. Nature in some of its aspects may be ‘red in tooth and claw’, as Tennyson said, but that is no reason for humans to kill each other. To be civilized is the opposite. The ‘naturalistic’ fallacy consists in making false connections and in equating a mere aspect of nature with the whole of life.
The term naturalistic fallacy’ is unfortunate. It gives the impression of a division between the natural and the human. The emphasis of this book is that the nature of the universe, the nature of nature, the nature of the human and the nature of God are one. It is not a case of non-human nature being natural, of human nature being non-natural nor of God as super-natural.
2. The Genetic Fallacy
Much of the opposition to the idea of evolution in the nineteenth century derived from a revulsion against the idea that humans were descended from ape-like creatures long ago. The opponents of evolution said that humans were not apes, not even transformed apes. Humans can’t have such a lowly origin. I remember, as a school boy, hearing a sermon entitled ‘Man -- an ape or an angel?’ I was offered no other choice. The genetic (genesis meaning origin) fallacy is the supposition that the origin of something (or an idea) settles the question of its falsehood or its truth. Not even the highest religions had an immaculate conception. The Judaeo-Christian tradition as found in the Bible reveals an evolution of ethics and an evolution of the idea of God. The genetic fallacy is not so much a fallacy common within the scientific community as it is of the community at large as it seeks to interpret science.
3. The Prosaic Fallacy
This is refusal to attribute feeling to things that do in fact feel (Hartshorne 1977 p.95). The world is not as tame as our sluggish convention-ridden imaginations imply. The most important thing about us is that we have feelings. That is how I know that I am. What we feel is what gives value to our lives. To be alive is to feel. To be alive intensely is to feel intensely. The urge to live is fundamental to life. This we may accept about ourselves. But what of non-human nature? I have argued that experience or feeling in some sense, however attenuated, is characteristic of all individual entities, not simply people (see Chapters 2 and 3). The world is much more a feeling world than a superficial view tends to make of it. The postmodern ecological worldview does not propose that all things are or have minds, but that all concrete physical things are themselves feeling entities or are composed of feeling entities.
I once had a discussion with an astronomer who said there was only one obstacle to his becoming a panpsychist: he believed it would require him to suppose that the solar system was an organism (i.e., a feeling entity). The panpsychist or mentalist has the problem of explaining away the negative things -- lack of feelings in rocks and solar systems. The physicalist has the problem of explaining away the positive things -- our feelings.
There are at least four reasons for thinking that aggregates such as rocks, chairs, the solar system and computers are devoid of mind and feeling (Hartshorne 1977 p. 91):
First, their inertness. They don’t seem to do anything. (Computers obey orders given them in mathematical form but they hardly get about doing things.)
Second, their lack of freedom in the sense of initiative and creative departure from mere routine. The predictability of the movement of the planets in the solar system is an example.
Third, their lack of individuality in the sense of unity and uniqueness. If a chair has parts such as pieces of wood and screws, why assign feeling to the whole chair rather than to each piece of wood or screw? The whole chair and the screw are in the same category of being aggregates. The same holds for the transistors and circuits in a computer.
Fourth, their lack of apparent intrinsic purpose. A chair and a computer have an instrumental purpose imposed on them by humans. They have no intrinsic value or purpose in themselves. The case is quite different for individual entities, as we have argued in earlier chapters.
It follows that feeling entities are identified by their activity, their freedom or initiative, their individuality of action and by their having intrinsic purpose and intrinsic value.
The opposite of the prosaic fallacy is the pathetic fallacy. This is to attribute feelings to things that don’t feel, such as rocks and chairs (Hartshorne 1977 p. 95). By attributing feeling to natural entities we are not going back to a primitive animism that made no distinction between what feels and what does not feel, though some critics of panpsychism fail to appreciate the difference.
4. The Fallacy of a Posteriori Reasoning
A geographer might be struck by just how fit the Amazon River is for its valley. It flows exactly in the right direction, with exactly the needed contours and tributaries, to ensure the draining of waters from the Andes and Mato Grosso in Brazil. In doing so it passes conveniently by every wharf and town on its route and its tributaries pass conveniently under every bridge. The geographer might attempt to replace the Amazon River in his imagination by the Mississippi River. Superimposing the Mississippi River upon a map of Brazil he would notice that it flows from north to south. This would not work as it would flow into the interior of the country and over the mountains. Even when he turned it in the right direction he would notice many difficulties, the chief one being that it did not at all fit the drainage basin of Amazonia. He would conclude the Mississippi was unfit and the Amazon eminently fit for its purpose. This is a posteriori reasoning. It supposes that the Amazon River was designed especially to fit the Amazonian region. In fact the Amazonian topography is the cause of the particular course and shape of the river and its tributaries.
The so-called ‘strong anthropic principle’ (see p. 70) is another example of a posteriori reasoning. Physicists who invoke this principle tell us that the physical properties of matter and the universe at large are those that are conducive to life. Had they been just a tiny bit different, life as we know it would not have been possible. The strong anthropic principle asserts that the universe was made to fit life. The biological principle of evolution argues the opposite, that life evolved to fit the environment.
A posteriori reasoning leads to the notion of preordained design. This concept is strongly tied to the theistic version of the modern worldview. Classical theism is characterized by a mechanical universe with God outside it. The order of nature is more wonderful than that. The entities themselves are involved in their own design (see pp. 41-44) by virtue of their own degree of freedom to choose. They are not simply at the mercy of some external designer, not even their external environment. They too help to create their own environment. This is, of course, especially true of humans. The organism is not simply clay in the hands of a potter. It has itself its degree of self-determination in response to influences that impinge upon it. This is its freedom. There is no freedom in an a posteriori universe.
5. The Fallacy of Objectivity
The fallacy of objectivity is the notion that science is objective in the sense that subjectivity does not enter into the scientific analysis. Yet any issue in science that is at all complex can be interpreted in a number of ways. Which side of the explanation one comes down on is a matter of subjective judgment. When all the facts that can be garnered are in, subjective judgments have to be made because not all the facts are in or can ever be unearthed, and facts anyway have to be interpreted (Andrewartha & Birch 1984 pp. 190-1). A good scientist, as compared with the average (mediocre) one, is more often correct in his assessments of which facts are relevant. Secondly, a good scientist sees connections between facts others don’t see. A theory is valued primarily not for the extra facts it tells us but for the way it connects up the facts we already know. This connecting up is a way of seeing facts. It depends upon the observer. There are no mechanical rules for that.
What are facts? Often there is no agreement on what the facts are. This is irksome for politicians and for the public. They have difficulty in understanding why experts disagree, whether it be on the safety of particular procedures for disposing of radioactive wastes or on the chance of a herbicide producing deformities in new-born babies.
What we choose to call a fact is strongly conditioned by our interests and biases. Whoever said ‘You can’t argue with facts’ cannot have been reading scientific journals or for that matter the daily newspapers. Let us assume that we could, for any particular problem, amass all the pertinent facts and work through these difficulties. What then? No mere accumulation of facts can tell us how to decide on the definition of clinical death, whether a human fetus is a human being, whether aversion therapy for homosexuals is good, or whether the risks of nuclear power outweigh the benefits. All such decisions involve more than facts. They involve assessment of uncertainties and values.
Western man has had his excessively empirical moments when he thought the truth somehow sprang miraculously from heaps of data. He has also had his excessively authoritarian moments when he thought that ethical and social decisions could be made by consulting a list of norms or axioms. Both approaches are defective.
Facts and values cannot be so neatly separated. It is rare to have a discussion on ethical issues in science without someone asking ‘Is that a fact or a value judgment?’, as though it cannot be a fact that Hitler was a bad man. Value-laden facts enter the domain of science as well as of ethics. This becomes patently clear when consultations are called to bring together scientists and ethicists on such issues as nuclear power or genetic engineering. It is never a matter of scientists putting their facts on the table and having them shuffled around by ethicists according to the rules of the game. Good decision making requires access to pertinent information, recognition that in practice facts are not value-free, a human sensitivity to values, uncommon sensibilities and common-sense. And all this needs to be done in the context of private evaluation and public discussion (Shinn 1982 Chapter 12).
The modern worldview, as we have defined it, depends largely upon a mechanistic and materialistic image of the world derived from a particular interpretation of science. Because of this, science fails to bestow values on the facts with which it deals. An increasing number of commentators say that the main problems we face in a world molded by the modern worldview result from a scientific technology divorced from religious inspiration. Both the objectives of science and the spirit of investigation are very different when this divorce is not made and science is not simply investigation for the sake of investigation or for satisfying one’s curiosity. But that would be a different science from the one we know today.
The failure of science and technology to bestow values on the facts with which they deal contributes to a world-wide malaise or sense of meaninglessness. Our technological rationality is letting us down. The loudest advocates for creationism as opposed to evolution in the U.S.A. are not from uneducated backgrounds. They are middle-class citizens who are technically trained. Fundamentalist religious beliefs tend to flourish in those parts of the U.S.A. that have recently become centers of high-tech industries such as southern California and Texas (Nelkin 1977). The people who work in these industries feel let down by the image of the world their technology gives them. And so they are.
Science and technology as such will not save the world. The problems of world hunger, poverty and war will not be overcome by the application of more of the same sort of science and technology. ‘Science will solve it’ is the cry of the technological optimist. It is pretty plain to see that this approach has failed to solve our problems. And the reason again is that our most difficult problems involve values and purposes. Different people have different values and purposes. We need to be more than experts. The ultimate issue in education is not the multiplication of more and more specialized skills, important though they be. It is how all the interests and vitality of life can be integrated into some sort of meaningful purpose and effort. The ‘is’ of life and the ‘ought’ of life are bound together. Indeed one wonders how much longer scientific investigation and technology can survive without a more fully developed conscience on the part of scientists. We need as well a fundamental change in the mind set of teachers of science at all levels (Gosling & Musschenga 1985). That subject is explored further in Chapter 6.
6. The Dogmatic Fallacy
To think is to tie one’s thoughts together in some implicit system, however vague or simple that might be. Those who think profoundly may be more explicit about the system that holds their thoughts together. Progress in thinking is very largely a result of the discordance of competing systems of thought. Certainly in science a clash of ideas is not a disaster. It is an opportunity for further exploration. Whitehead (1942 p. 171) points out that the history of European thought to modern times has been tainted by a fatal misunderstanding. He calls this the dogmatic fallacy. The error consists in supposing that we can produce notions about complex issues that are adequately defined. Karl Popper (1971) would seem to agree. ‘I have proclaimed the emptiness of definitions for thirty years,’ he said, ‘and I have refuted the superstition that if we want to be precise we have to define our terms’ (p. 11). An exaggerated interest in words and definitions leads to empty verbalism.
During the medieval epoch in Europe theologians were the chief offenders in respect of the dogmatic fallacy. The Enlightenment was a reaction against theological dogmatism. During the last three centuries the bad pre-eminence in this habit of theologians has passed to scientists. This is surprising in view of the history of science which sees the successive collapse of dogmas. Newtonian science has given way in part to Einstein and relativity. Modern quantum theory challenges both. It is surprising for a second reason. The hallmark that differentiates a real scientist from a fraud is the moral quality of daring to be shown to be wrong. To insist that the universe is a machine or that the human being is a machine is dogmatism. Dogmas are dogmas whether they have to do with science or theology. Dogmas we don’t need. Convictions we do need. The difference is that dogmatists are not willing to be challenged. Those who hold convictions without being dogmatic about them are willing to be challenged. Aristotle said his own philosophy was an attitude in the face of ignorance. ‘There is,’ said Whitehead (1933), ‘a Nemesis which waits upon those who deliberately avoid avenues of knowledge. Oliver Cromwell’s cry echoes down the ages, "My brethren, by the bowels of Christ I beseech you, bethink you that you may be mistaken"’ (p. 20). The apathy of many people is a sort of dogmatic slumber from which they need to be awakened into an intellectual rebirth. In the words of William Blake, ‘May God us keep from single vision and Newton’s sleep’.
7. The Fallacy of the Perfect Dictionary
‘Seek simplicity but distrust it,’ said Whitehead. The fallacy of the perfect dictionary holds that language in single words or phrases expresses accurately the fundamental ideas of science, philosophy, faith or politics (Whitehead 1966 p.173). There are fuzzy edges to an understanding of any complex issue. Sometimes our reach exceeds our grasp and words cannot yet express what we know.
There are two aspects to an understanding, and especially a scientific understanding, of the world. One is imagination. Without that there is no science. Imaginative ideas tie together what would otherwise be isolated facts. A theory is no more a heap of facts than a house is a pile of bricks. The second is criticism. Not all ideas are equally worthy of attention. The scholar is able to bring observation, imagination and criticism together in ideas that are expressed accurately, yet not too neatly tied up into final bundles. Catch-phrases have their role in catching the attention of people. But they are not enough without the next step, which is to pursue the deeper meaning (when there is one) behind the words. Catchwords and phrases are not short cuts to proper understanding. There is more in the universe than meets the eye. In scientific circles one often hears reference to the principle of Ockham’s razor. The Australian Broadcasting Corporation has a popular radio program in science called ‘Ockham’s razor’. William of Ockham (1270- 1349) was a famous Franciscan opponent of the papacy. He was probably influenced by his Franciscan forbears, Grosseteste and Roger Bacon, sharing their strong interest in the way knowledge is gained by measurements and experiments. His famous ‘razor’ -- ‘entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity’ (Raven 1953a p. 74) -- is a principle of parsimony fundamental to logic. Unfortunately it is often misinterpreted to imply that the simple explanation is more likely to be true than the complex one. That, of course, is nonsense. The simple explanation may have a greater appeal than the complex, but there is no reason why it should be truer.
Scientists need to be on their guard in this respect as much as anyone. A great student of the nervous system was Ramon y Cajal, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1906 for his work. In his autobiography he reflected on an error made early in his career when he was seduced by a very simple concept about nerves:
I wish to warn young men against the invincible attraction of theories which simplify and unify seductively. We fall into the trap all the more readily when the simple schemes stimulate and appeal to tendencies deeply rooted in our minds, the congenital inclination to economy of mental effort and the almost irresistible propensity to regard as true what satisfies our aesthetic sensibility. (quoted by Witkowski 1986 p.52)
Today countless sects and movements compete for our attention with their simplistic phrases purporting to provide a recipe to cure all our ills. This applies also to the mainline religions when contestants wage battles with competing biblical texts instead of engaging in any real thought. It is well to remember the statement of the American essayist H. L. Mencken: ‘To every human problem there is a solution that is simple, neat and wrong!’
8. The ‘Bricks To Babel’ Fallacy of Knowledge
Arthur Koestler called his last collection of essays Bricks to Babel (1982). The reference, of course, is to the biblical tower of Babel in which brick was to be piled upon brick for the tower to reach the heavens. ‘We seem to be compelled,’ wrote Koestler, ‘to shape facts and data, as we know them, into hard bricks, and stick them together with the slime of our theories and beliefs. And thus we continue to carry bricks to Babel’ (p. 685). This is the view that knowledge grows by accumulation. There is another view: that knowledge grows by reorganization. You don’t add bricks to an old building. You tear down much of its structure and rebuild from the foundations, even to the extent of laying new foundations.
The modern worldview has put its faith in experts, each producing bricks of knowledge they hope will stick together with bricks from other disciplines. The general idea has been that if society has well-trained experts in all the disciplines the experts would guide us into truth and right action. It has not worked out that way. Instead we have a sea of information in which we are drowning. Since this fallacy goes deep into the educational systems of the modern world we pursue it further in Chapter 6.
In summary: fallacies of the modern worldview have to do with the conception of the world as substance or machinery, mistaking abstractions for reality, confusing origins and truth, failing to attribute feeling to things that feel, recognizing ethics as exclusively anthropocentric, thinking backwards, objectifying facts as separated from values, reducing the complex to the simple and dividing knowledge into distinct disciplines that produce experts who are often wrong. In short, the errors of the modern worldview are that it is mechanistic, dualistic, substantialist, anthropocentric, simplistic and disciplinary. Quite a list of errors!
Five Axioms for a Postmodern Worldview
The priorities of the modern worldview are reversed in the postmodern worldview. In The Death of Nature Carolyn Merchant (1980) calls for a saving of the best that the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment have bestowed upon the world and a rejection of much of the mechanistic philosophy which came with them. ‘The world,’ she urges, ‘must once again be turned upside down’ (p. 295).
In turning the world upside down we call for a philosophy and a religion that make room for purpose as an effective causal agent in the universe. It is now appropriate to bring together in the form of axioms some of the new emphases discussed in previous chapters.
The First Axiom. Nature is Organic and Ecological
This axiom is postmechanistic. Instead of mechanism and substance being viewed as fundamental, the ecological or organic view of nature becomes fundamental. We think less of stuff and more of relations. The most fundamental units of nature are not substances but events. Modern physics knows this in so far as it recognizes that the basic units of the world take time to be what they are. In so far as a hydrogen atom can be represented at all by a model it consists of a central proton with an orbiting electron. If one could imagine the electron to cease orbiting then the hydrogen atom ceases to exist. At the heart of the atom event is ceaseless. At the other end of a scale of complexity is the human being. Since the time of Descartes it has been popular to think of the human being as a complex machine. But this is a gross abstraction. A complex machine such as a computer is an aggregate of individual entitles, namely atoms and molecules. A human being is a composite of individual entities that have a central government located in the brain. The parts are not simply added one piece to another. They are integrated into a centrally coordinated system or organism.
The critical difference between the idea of a substance (or machine) and an organism is that the organism is constituted by its internal relations to its environment. It is not just pushed and pulled by external physical forces. We know this is true of ourselves, so why are we so reluctant to apply this understanding to other entities as well? Partly because we are conditioned by our upbringing in the West to make false distinctions between ourselves and the rest of nature. We disenchant the world.
The postmodern worldview takes seriously the proposition that we live in a universe and not a multiverse. It is ecological through and through. The key words in postmechanistic thinking are event (as contrasted with substance), organism (as contrasted with machine), responsiveness (as opposed to inertness), freedom (as distinct from determinism), internal relations (as well as external relations) and purpose as a causal influence for all individual entities in the universe from protons to people.
The Second Axiom. to Interpret the Lower in Terms of the Higher
A postmodern worldview espouses the principle of interpreting the lower levels of organization in terms of the higher, as well as vice versa. It is therefore postreductionist. In reductionism the complex is interpreted in terms of its most elementary constituents. In biology that means interpreting development, physiology and behavior, for example, in terms of the behavior of molecules and eventually of the components of molecules and when that is done claiming a final explanation. So the biological terms to do with growth and differentiation, for example, would eventually be replaced by terms from classical physics.
For some sixty years biochemists hunted for a single molecule or groups of molecules that might be responsible for ‘organizing’ the development of the parts of the embryo such as legs and eyes. They hunted for what they called organizers. They found none. This seems to be because development cannot be reduced to the action of single chemicals. It involves much more complex interactions (Ho & Saunders 1984 p. 10, pp. 267-90, Witkowski 1985). Ultimately the reductionist would like to reduce these problems to what the atoms are doing. This is fine in itself except that the concept of atoms envisaged is that of classical physics. It is a gross assumption to suppose that atoms in my brain have the same properties they have in rocks and mud.
Some philosophers who apply reductionism to philosophy call themselves physicalists, because they regard physics as dealing with things at their most reduced level and they wish to follow suit. The physics they tend to espouse is classical physics. So it is inevitable that they find a world made of machinery. Their analysis is rejected by the new physics.
Analysis of things into their components is a valid approach. A postmodern worldview accepts this, but not as the exclusive approach to understanding. There is a second principle. The traditional mechanistic notion of the constitution of the world out of separately existing parts is turned upside down. The whole organizes and even creates the parts. The lower levels of organization are to be interpreted in terms of the higher. This principle is recognized in recent developments in quantum physics (Bohm 1985b). It has validity over the whole spectrum of individuals from protons to people. The basic principle is this: we understand what is not ourselves by analogy with what we know ourselves to be. We do not really know what atoms are until we know what happens when atoms are organized into brains. No analysis of atoms in mud, let us say, will lead us to suppose that in brains they result in thought and consciousness. The fact that atoms in brains result in thought tells us something about atoms we can find from no other source. Hence the postmodern principle that an atom or electron in a brain is different from an atom or electron not in a brain. We know what a thing is by what it becomes in all its manifestations, not simply those at elemental levels of organization.
It is manifestly absurd to suppose that the human can be understood solely in terms of what atoms and molecules do in test tubes. Reductionist science breaks down entirely when attempts are made to apply it exclusively to the human being. Science becomes a tyranny, as in much behavioristic psychology and sociology. It is significant that in these analyses both the guilty self and the responsible self vanish under the scrutiny of reductionism.
The Third Axiom. To Interpret The World In Terms Of Monism As Against Dualism
A postmodern worldview is postdualistic. The world is not made of two sorts of things, stuff and minds. When mind and matter are separated, as they are in dualism, they can never be put together again at any level. Mind and matter are, rather, two aspects of the one thing. All individuals are seen to be sentient. What are they sentient toward? The answer is what they feel. Or, to put it another way, feeling is a feeling of a feeling. In this view the ultimate processes of the universe are feelings. When we say matter and mind are two aspects of the one thing we are proposing that they cannot be separated. They are like the two poles of a magnet. So it is appropriate for a monistic view such as this to call itself dipolar. But that is very different from dualism. (For further discussion see Birch & Cobb 1981 pp. 98-109.)
The Fourth Axiom. an Ethic for a Postmodern Worldview is Biocentric as Opposed to Anthropocentric
Ethics is concerned with values. Western ethics has traditionally been almost exclusively concerned with human values. Indeed it could be seen as incurably anthropocentric. A central question is posed to traditional Western ethics. What values should we seek to maximize? ‘Our task,’ says Cobb (1973), ‘is to decide which general statement, from among several alternatives is correct’ (p. 312). He proposes the following possibilities: (i) So act as to maximize value for yourself in the present; (ii) So act as to maximize value for yourself for the rest of your life; (iii) So act as to maximize value for all people for the indefinite future; or (iv) So act as to maximize value in general.
The first is hardly to be viewed as an ethical principle at all. It says eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die. The second principle is a maxim of selfish prudence. The third is the utilitarian principle of the greatest good for the greatest number of people. But why limit action to human value? This could be a valid ethical principle only if sub-human entities had no intrinsic value. A central argument of this book is that intrinsic value is not limited to human beings. People are not the only pebbles on the cosmic beach. Therefore only the fourth principle is sufficiently encompassing to be acceptable in the postmodern worldview of ethics.
The recognition that every animal is an end in itself and not merely a means to human ends explodes the assumptions of our traditional ethics. What is needed is a new ethics which recognizes in every animal, including humans, both ends and means.
The conservation movement of recent years has put great emphasis on the value of non-humans as means, that is their instrumental value to humanity. It has emphasized not only that we are dependent for our food upon non-human life. But, as well, living organisms play a vital part in maintaining the life-support systems of the earth. These are the cycles of nature which result in degradation of wastes and the maintenance of the atmosphere, the water and the soils of the earth. The message of the conservation movement has largely been to look after nature because nature looks after us. This emphasis on the instrumental value of nature has four main arguments. There is the silo argument, for maintaining the existence of all those organisms useful to us; the laboratory argument for maintaining those organisms needed for experimental studies; the gymnasium argument of nature for leisure; and the cathedral argument of nature for aesthetic pleasure.
These are arguments of instrumental ethics. They are rightly used to support conservation programs. But they are not enough. They ignore the intrinsic value of living organisms. As soon as an animal becomes of no more use to humans, as for example when the products now used from whales are superseded by synthetics, then there are no arguments left for the preservation of whales except that we like looking at them. Conservation rests on insecure foundations as long as it does not go beyond an instrumental ethic for its justification. When conservationists try to oppose polluters and developers solely with pragmatic arguments about the value of species and the gene pools of rainforests to human welfare, they have been maneuvered into fighting on the same ground as their opponents. Their pragmatic arguments for the long-term value of species will be weighed against pragmatic arguments for the immediate needs of human beings. If a judge rules that the arguments of the developers are more compelling and that a flood control dam will provide more tangible benefits to humanity than will an endangered species, to whom will the conservationists appeal?
The fourth principle listed above is that we maximize value in general. The ethical principle that follows is that we should respect every individual for its intrinsic value as well as its instrumental value to others, including ourselves. Its intrinsic value is the richness of its experience (in the case of animals) or its parts (in the case of plants). ‘Behold the lilies of the field’ is precisely not saying ‘Look at those lilies’. The word behold implies a respect, a kind of tenderness which suggests that living things have a livingness akin to ours and an intrinsic value to themselves and to God. Behold means to stand amongst things with a kind of reverence for life which does not walk through the world of non-self with arrogance and unconcern. Behold implies a relationship of the creature to others and to God. It is to respect that relationship. When we break that relationship of integrity we do evil.
The appropriate word for restoration of a broken relationship is salvation. Salvation is an ecological word because it is about restoring a right relationship which has been corrupted. After I had addressed an Assembly of the World Council of Churches on environmental ethics the conference newspaper had as its headline the next day ‘Salvation for elephants!’ That was appropriate. In an address on this subject Joseph Sittler quoted Saint Thomas: ‘Grace does not destroy nature but perfects it’. The ‘deep ecology’ movement is a modern attempt to seek to enlarge one’s sphere of identification with nature to care as deeply and compassionately as possible about the fate [of the earth] not because it affects us but because it is us’ (Fox 1984 p. 200).
We deal with living organisms appropriately when we rightly balance their intrinsic and their instrumental worth. When the State of Rwanda decided that land on which elephants lived was too valuable for elephants and was needed for cultivation for human food they didn’t kill off elephants as pests. They airlifted them to a reserve in another state. Their action suggests that, despite their recognition of elephants as pests, they also recognized, or thought world opinion recognized, elephants to have an intrinsic value and therefore a right to live.
When we try to balance intrinsic value and instrumental value we need an ethic of intrinsic value that goes beyond Albert Schweitzer’s ‘reverence for life’ and other ‘egalitarian’ ethics which rate all life of equal value. But why rate all life of equal value? If intrinsic value is ‘measured’ by richness of experience, it follows that creatures such as primates and whales have more intrinsic value than worms and mosquitoes. There is a scale of intrinsic value which presumably bears some relation to the development of the nervous system of the organism. I have no difficulty in applauding the campaign of the World Wildlife Fund to save the chimpanzees of Africa. Nor have I difficulty in applauding the campaign of the World Health Organization to eradicate the smallpox virus and the malarial parasite.
In the Western world the Christian churches have not been in the forefront of movements to promote the rights of non-humans to life. There has, instead, been a tendency to see nature as none other than the stage on which the drama of human life is performed. The non-human creatures are merely the props, having no value other than their value to us, intrinsic value residing in humans alone. This view has often been taken to be biblical. It isn’t. In the Genesis account of nature, God finds goodness in things before, and quite apart from, the creation of Adam. Jesus stressed the divine concern for the sparrows and even the grasses of the field, If a man is worth many sparrows then a sparrow’s worth is not zero. Theologians in recent times have been slow to appreciate this. Notable exceptions have been process theologians such as Cobb, Hartshorne and Griffin. Sittler’s (1961) address to the Third Assembly of the World Council of Churches was notable for putting Christian unity in the larger setting of the value of nature. But it was largely ignored. Moltmann (1985 p. 31) promotes a similar view to that of process theology when he says: ‘if the Christian theology wants to find the wisdom in dealing with creation which accords with belief in creation, it must free that belief from the modern anthropocentric view of the world’ (p.31) and:
We do not wish to know so that we can dominate. We desire to know in order to participate. This kind of knowledge confers community, and can be termed communicative knowledge, as compared with dominating knowledge. It lets life be life and cherishes its livingness. Christian theology must remember this, its own wisdom, if it wants to make a contribution to the conquest of the ecological crisis of scientific and technological civilization. (p. 32)
Likewise Gustafson (1984) affirms that the universe does not exist for the sake of human beings and God does not order it solely for us. He, like Sittler, widens the ethical context from the human individual to human communities and then to all sentient life.
The Roman Catholic bishops of the U.S.A. produced in the early 1980s documents on economics and justice. The second one has been severely criticized by Rasmussen (1985) on its exclusively anthropocentric ethic. He argues that the bishops’ concept of justice is less comprehensive than that of the Bible: ‘In the economy of God, the whole created order is the object of redemption, and justice is rendering whatever is required for the fullest possible flourishing of all creation’ (p. 474). To the question -- who is my neighbor? -- the bishops reply that it is everyone in the world. It is that and more. Is not neighbor all that participates in life? If so the needs of neighbor stretch beyond human needs as does the reach of love. The key concept of life-centered ethics is intrinsic value of all natural entities with a hierarchy of value related to richness of experience.
The Fifth Axiom. Knowledge Cannot Be Divided into Disciplines Without Loss
The postmodern worldview is post-disciplinary. It seeks to overcome the tyranny of the expert. There will be disciplines but they will not be separate kingdoms of knowledge. Instead they will be related to some total vision of understanding. This is the subject of Chapter 6.
How does all this bear upon the questions we set out at the beginning of this chapter, namely how a postmodern worldview may illumine the momentous problems of our time: peace, justice and ecological sustainability? We belong to two orders, one which rules, the other is a new creation struggling to be born. One order has its faith in infinite progress through technology. Theirs are the false prophets of Jeremiah (23:17) who cry ‘Progress, infinite progress! Peace, universal peace! Happiness, happiness for everyone!’ But there is no peace, nor justice nor sustainability nor happiness for everyone.
There is more to enlightenment than the knowledge science, technology, economics and politics bring. This the Enlightenment failed to recognize. It had a faith in the possibility of achieving a simple harmony between self-interest and general welfare. The followers of the Enlightenment were not immune from invoking high ideals to justify selfish interests. Newbigin (1983) reminds us:
The human rights which the eighteenth century philosophers espoused were mainly rights of the rising bourgeoisie. Freedom meant primarily freedom to hold property, to trade and to travel. It was not freedom for workers to organize trade unions, for blacks to vote, for aboriginal peoples to retain their lands, or for women to have equal rights with men. Late in the twentieth century we are still struggling with this unfinished agenda (p. 16).
The heavenly city of the Enlightenment has not arrived. We have with us still ‘children of darkness’ who are evil because they know no law beyond self. Their wisdom is that they understand the power of self-interest. The ‘children of light’ are wise because they believe that self-interest should be brought under the discipline of a higher law. Their foolishness is that they underestimate the power of self-interest (Niebuhr 1972 p. 10). We see this foolishness in the fight of Catholics against Catholics, Protestants against Protestants, Muslim against Muslim, Marxist against Marxist, capitalist against capitalist and any one of these groups against any other -- all in the name of a lesser loyalty than a higher law that rules over self-interest
What is this higher law? It is not the authority of any individual, group or institution. It is not any created good at all. These all tend to become idols. It is the source of all good, the source of all creativity. The moral and spiritual resources for a just, peaceful and sustainable global society are pressing daily upon us, seeking entry into life and blocked only by self-interest. There is a way through. Repentance is still possible.
For decades yet there will be frustration and travail as we struggle for release from one order to enter the other. No one can say whether we shall have global holocaust or new creation. New creation, if it comes, will be from commitment to the source of new creation itself.
In 1986 the head of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, invited the world ‘to enter the third millennium without nuclear weapons’. His invitation is strangely reminiscent of the ‘Choose Life’ statement which the U.S. and Soviet church leaders framed in Geneva in 1979 when they anticipated ‘the bi-millenary anniversary of the coming to the world of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace’. And they asked: ‘How shall we meet that day? In what state shall we present our planet to the Creator? Shall it be a blooming garden or a lifeless, burnt out, devastated land? Therefore choose life.’