We're All Scientific Naturalists Now: But Which Science? What Nature?

By: Anonymous

Perhaps the most pressing UR-questions at the bottom of environmental theory and practice in our age are those of nature and science.  The dominant understanding of nature in modernity is determined by the natural sciences, particularly mathematical physics.  But the status of science (and physics) itself became deeply problematized in the 20th century.  What then becomes of our understanding of nature?  Philosopher Charles Taylor has recently claimed that today we live in an "Immanent Frame," that a naturalistic worldview has become so entrenched that even those that oppose it are severely determined by it.  But how to break the spell of the Immanent Frame?  There is a general sense that doing so is an important part of engaging the ecological crises, and that this would involve elaborating an alternative vision of nature and somehow revising our understanding of the nature of science.  But doing so is easier said than done.  In this post, I want to briefly discuss my work in the philosophy of nature and how I incorporate Integral Ecology (IE).

My research concerns the intersection of Continental philosophy and environmental thought, and I eventually hope to link these fields to currents in Integral Theory.  I am convinced that Integral Theory in general and Integral Ecology in particular have crucial contributions to make in both academic philosophy and environmental theory and practice.  I am particularly interested in the conceptual link between nihilism and nature in modern philosophy.  My dissertation work centers on showing how Nietzsche and Heidegger's diagnoses of the nihilism of modernity--a crisis in values and confusion over the "why?" of human life--are bound up with the advent of the mechanistic, value-free view of nature set in place by Galileo, Descartes, Newton, and others.  While the environmental crisis is often regarded as a problem for nonhumans created by humans, or a technical problem for humans (e.g., climate change and resource depletion), my approach suggests that it is just as much an existential problem for humans--without a sense of place and purpose within the world as a cosmos, an intelligible order of harmoniously integrated parts, our emotional, intellectual, and moral capacities are a round square.  Nietzsche and Heidegger--and a number of thinkers throughout the 19th and 20th centuries--gesture toward a non-reductionist vision of nature; however, I find IE's approach to be much more well-developed, particularly in its qualified embrace of the natural sciences.  In the future I aim to trace the forerunners to IE, such as the philosopher of biology Hans Jonas, whose phenomenology of life one commentator describes as an integration of Aristotle, Hegel, and Darwin.  That is the kind of synthesizing power that is called for in today's environmental theory and practice. 

As Michael and Sean insist in their book, one of the most important contributions IE can make to environmental theory and practice is to provide a new platform for cosmology.  Much eco-philosophy is riven by what we might call "geo-centric" idioms, metaphors, and frameworks, by which I mean a focus on the earth as the biospheric whole of which humans are a part.  One of the things IE does is to differentiate between the "physiosphere," which subtends the biosphere, and the noosphere, which transcends (but is supported by) it.  This has two important consequences.  First, discussions about nature should be seen in a cosmic register, with terrestrial evolution being but a later stage in a broader process of astrophysical evolution.  Second, it is vital to distinguish between the noosphere and the biosphere, so as not to collapse the vertical dimension of evolution--that more complex life-forms have richer experience and hence more intrinsic value.  Often, eco-philosophers, intent on combating the perceived anthropocentrism of the Western tradition, are at pains to downplay the importance and value of human beings, theoretically, and reduce their ecological footprint, practically; but the danger in this move is to reduce humans to just another animal species that evolved by chance, a form of nihilism that, it seems to me, is implied if often overlooked by neo-Darwinian orthodoxy.  Similarly, post-modern thought is dominated by an anti-hierarchical sensibility averse to big-picture thinking, master narratives and, most basically, metaphysics.  Failing to differentiate between sick and healthy hierarchies, postmodernism put a pox on all hierarchies.  In the context of environmental theory, this leads us to suppose that there are no natural hierarchies, no order, no structure to the natural world--merely interpretations of the order of things, no actual order.  More importantly, this way of thinking blinds us to the phenomenon of development in the individual, cultural, and natural domains.  One of the great promises of IE, in my view, is to make metaphysics safe again by reconceiving it as cosmology.  By embracing something like what Schelling called "dynamic evolutionism," IE holds that while humans are indeed the product of terrestrial evolution, the latter cannot intelligibly be conceived as merely the product of random mutation of genes plus natural selection of the environment; there are interior dimensions to natural processes that factor into the overall phenomenon of the emergence and development of life, and an unmistakable tendency toward greater complexity of form and function and greater depth of consciousness and culture.  IE is analogous to Darwin's Origin of Species:  while Darwin did not so much PROVE that species transmutation happened via natural selection, the body of evidence he provided was so vast, so overwhelming, so compelling, that the burden of proof in the clash of worldviews was transferred from (what we today would call) creationism to evolution.  The general idea of evolution had been in the air for a long time, but the size and scope of Darwin's case was a tipping point.  In much the same way, philosophers have been struggling against a reductive view of nature for a long time, and while it is debatable whether IE "disproves" this view, what it does do is present the most comprehensive, evidence-based, scientifically informed case for a non-reductive view of nature that it arguably shifts the paradigm.  The discussion should no longer be about WHETHER we adopt a reductionist or non-reductionist view of nature, but of WHAT KIND of non-reductionist view.  Criticizing naturalism is sort of like criticizing those in power:  it is easier to show what is wrong with the current regime, and much harder to spell out  a viable alternative.  But that is the conversation we should be having, and it is one for which IE creates the context.

The main issue here is, I think, science.  Generally speaking, Continental thought has attempted to work out methodologies--phenomenology, hermeneutics, critical theory, structuralism, and post-structuralism--intended to check, ground, or supplant the natural sciences.  It has had great trouble, however, finding a way to honor the genuine advances of the latter while offering a compelling non-reductionist ontology or metaphysics.  Analytic philosophy has by and large taken the style and form of the natural sciences as normative, and is to this day dominated by an ontology variously described as physicalism or scientific naturalism.  If we do indeed live, as is often supposed, in the "Age of Ecology"--if the relationship between humans and the planet is to be the overriding issue in 21st century politics, economics, and culture--IE attempts to do for our age something like what the German Idealists were attempting in their own--to advance a comprehensive vision of the world that find a place for the myriad perspectives on and approaches to nature and synthesizes them into a coherent framework.  One of the most promising parts of the view is the proposal that biosemiotics, the discipline that studies the signaling and communication patterns of organisms, as it were, the "signs of life," may be a platform for an "integral science"--that is, a paradigm shift in our basic understanding of what can count as scientific knowledge, a science that can concede, not just grudgingly or smirkingly, that nature is indeed shot through with interiority, depth, meaning, something like consciousness; that there is a meaningful sense in which it can be said that an elephant has a mind and that a flock of birds constitute a community.  As Aristotle recognized, we should not demand of a discipline a level of precision it does not by definition admit; just so, we should not reduce the phenomena of nature to a one-size fits all quantitative model.  This is a grander vision of science as Wissenshaft--a broader view of knowledge than that suggested by naturalism. 

IE can help us escape the frame of "the Environment" (which is arguably an anthropocentric term that reinforces the dissociation of human and nonhuman) and throw off the geo- and bio-centric notion of "Nature" (which, often touted as a non-anthropocentric frame, reduces humans to mere parts in the biosphere, or Gaia), and recapture a sense of the world as a "Cosmos," a tiered, evolving totality with which humans are continuous. 

David Storey is a PhD student in Environmental Philosophy at Fordham University in New York.

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