Age Old Wrangling Over Natural World

This week’s Scientia Pro Publica blog Carnival has a host of very interesting blogposts. I invite you all to check them out; I did, and even commented on some of them.

One particular post, by Pamela Priscilla Stuckey, PhD, a theologist and professor of humanities, deals with an age old debate —who exerts control over the natural world— and she asserts that it is in the natural world that science and religion come to co-exist in harmony.

Stuckey’s post is in part wonderful to read as she takes the reader through her perspective of naturalism and spirituality, and in part, vapid and meaningless as she segues into what feels like unfamiliar territory, empiricism and scientific method. It moved me to write a response in a post of my own (which is in addition to the fact that her blogsite has comment moderation – which IMO is unsuitable for the Scientia Pro Publica approach. But I digress).

Without further ado, I launch into a critique of Stuckey’s post.

Stuckey’s enthusiasm for the immense beauty of the natural world is evident in her post, an enthusiasm that I heartily endorse and share. However, she and I appear to approach it from a very different perspective.

A bit of background first. Stuckey mentions in the post that she has a unique position in the science-religion debates, because she teaches one (religion), and studies and often writes about the other (science). Per her blog’s “About Me” page, she holds a PhD in religious studies and feminist theory from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, and teaches graduate-level humanities at Prescott College in Arizona. I have no problem with some theology graduate being interested in or studying science (although I shudder to contemplate the massive cognitive dissonance that must occur at some point), but… in her post, she appears to dismiss the scientific method in an off-hand manner. Perhaps her training may have something to do with that? Read her post and check for yourselves.

In Stuckey’s opinion,

both science and religion often skip too quickly over what ought to be the main attraction: the natural world. The world of fox kits and forests, eating and being eaten, thunder and sunsets. The world immediately available to our senses. This is the world often bypassed in the rush to explore some dimension regarded as more important, more true, or more “real.”

I don’t know if that is necessarily true for science. There are enough number of scientific disciplines, spanning both natural and social sciences, that are exploring the “real” world that Stuckey describes, and a lot of people are investing their time and efforts into those. Various flavors of anthropology, ethnobiology, geography, geology and so forth, readily come to mind. But I have a feeling that Stuckey either is stuck inside a box of her idealized “real” world, or has a very narrow definition of science.

Consider, for instance, the example she brings up to lament the lack of her “real world” in science education. According to her, kids are taught in the elementary school to observe through their own eyes, ears, nose, and fingers, and yet in high school they are made to sit them behind microscopes. From the microscopes, Stuckey contends,

… they imbibe the unconscious message that the real story is not how eagles lock talons in flight or how worms turn garbage into fertilizer, but rather how their lab equipment reveals a truer world than the one they can see with their unaided eyes.

In the same vein, Stuckey also finds fault with biology curricula, where —according to her— the students are taught to separate out and analyze the constituent parts, living and non-living, of the ecosphere, and not taught how to learn by being immersed in the living complexity of the whole ecosphere.

I hope, dear readers, you can readily see the false dichotomy Stuckey is creating here. By looking at the microscopic world (with one’s own eyes – using the microscope), the student is gathering knowledge about life-forms that are all around us, yet the naked eyes cannot see. Such an experience may capture the student’s imagination, and fire up new ideas and understanding. With proper guidance and instructions, the student would perhaps be encouraged to explore the wider world around also. This is by no means a one way traffic. The student may get acquainted with the natural world, and may well be enamored of the beauty and order in nature and the underlying interconnectedness of living beings – before the student feels motivated to investigate in greater detail the finer aspects. Both approaches are fine; enquiry and scientific method apply to both.

What Stuckey fails to appreciate is that in no way does studying the parts, trying to understand an entire process by breaking it down to the components, or envisioning the individual players in a larger drama hamper one’s intellectual curiosity or hinder one from attempting to understand the whole picture. In fact, it is an essential part of the scientific training; the ability to see the bigger picture is encouraged and much appreciated within the scientific community. However, Stuckey chooses to take a rather restrictive view of science, what she terms as “Western Science” (invoking another false dichotomy, “Western” and “Eastern” Science) and derides as a system that focuses on the parts and not on the whole. She believes that one’s unaided senses are the most trusted means of exploring the natural world, never mind category errors, observational errors, or statistical errors. Any system that quantifies its observations and translates them to numbers that can be compared and analyzed automatically earns her scorn.

Which is rather strange, considering Stuckey’s delightful example of a naturalist’s work (which was a pleasure to read BTW). She advises:

Squat beside a creek. Dig one finger into the rough silt along its edge. Pick up a glob of sand and sift it through your fingers. At your feet you may notice pebbles, your eyes moving now to larger stones, and then to the flicker of a trout tail next to that large boulder. The trout, you notice, likes to live in the shadows, which may lead you to realize that the willows hanging over the creekbed must be important to the fish, and so are the deep bends in the stream, and even if you haven’t yet heard a naturalist say that fish need shade and meanders in order to spawn, you’ve already absorbed several lessons in natural history just by squatting here.

What she describes here is very illuminating. She has taken the time to observe, record and catalog (in her mind) the information stemming from not just a single datum, but multiple. And then she has applied analysis to the data, trying to figure out the “whys” of what she observed, to reach a conclusion. Not content to stop at that, she has generated a further hypothesis, and/or segued into related work in other disciplines, when she muses:

As your eyes wander up the flow of the stream, you might notice your mind begin to flow as well toward questions such as how the rocks came to be here, and how long it takes brush or ferns to grow across the currents.

This is the realm of science – the empiricism, the careful observation, the stringent analysis, the meaningful conclusion, the probing hypotheses. This is the spirit of science – the endless wonderment at natural processes, the limitless questioning that allows a naturalist/scientist to be immersed into those processes.

What Stuckey, however, omitted to mention is a vital point about a naturalist/scientist’s work, the strength in quantitation. I don’t know if it was deliberate, because —it seemed to me— the overall tone of her post is rather dismissive of numbers and quantitative models, which she seems to think are needed only “in a time of ecological crisis” and that too, just in order to “convince those who hold the purse strings”. That is, to her, numbers are simply tools to be used in a specific purpose. Not true. Unh-unh. A naturalist needs numbers as much as scientists in any other discipline to reach a valid conclusion. Observing a trout living under shadows of the willows may lead to the “Hmmm…” moment, the first requirement of course, but it is not evidence of a particular propensity of the trout colony. In order to reach that conclusion, the naturalist needs to observe multiple creeks and trout colonies, perhaps at different times.

But, of course, this is where Stuckey steps into dubious realm.

Much like Francis Collins’ experience with the frozen waterfall, Stuckey’s proposed naturalist’s experience turns her towards questions —with religious overtones— about meaning of life and harmony with nature. To be frank, she does appear to castigate organized religion for its inability to assimilate elements of the living, natural world, and its incessant focusing on “a world after death or a world inside the mind or a social world to be created in the future”. In addition, she even appears to understand the necessity of science, when she indicates,

For indeed, the natural world is a world of relationships—between whales and climate change, between cows and humans, between pasqueflowers and snow, between mycelial mat and soil, between jet exhausts and jet streams, and of course between humans and one another. A world that functions through webs of interconnected relationships, if we hope to understand even one corner of it, demands the sharp, clear-eyed vision and an intellectual acuity that we normally associate with science.

And that is the most frustrating aspect of her post, because next, in the same breath, she conflates science and religion, stating that neither “takes people out directly into nature to explore, through their own senses, the relationships right under their noses”. That is just plain wrong. While purporting to make a plea for the field of natural history, Stuckey laments that it has “suffered a decline of respect in recent decades, perhaps because it involves observing more than experimenting”. This merely reveals Stuckey’s poor understanding of both observation and experimentation.

Which is why her invoking the name of Darwin as a naturalist and a foil for aficionados of quantitative analysis makes no sense. Charles Darwin, a naturalist par excellence, recognized the importance and power of science, and was meticulous in applying the scientific method. His observations and profound insights about the geological and zoological diversity of the places he visited during his five years aboard the HMS Beagle helped formulate his theory of evolution by natural selection —the lynchpin of modern biology— a beautiful, majestic proposition, awe-inspiring in its simplicity, the forebear of much of the current scientific understanding of the diversity of life on earth and the process its adaptation and changes over time.

It is, therefore, unfortunate that Stuckey can find neither science nor the beauty of empiricism and the scientific method in Darwin’s work, but it is understandable coming from her. Stuckey takes science to task for “overtly try(ing) to predict nature’s pattern or control its process”, reflecting a particular school of thought – espoused by Fritjof Capra, Carolyn Merchant and EF Schumacher, all scholars of ecological/environmental philosophy (in addition to their respective disciplines) – that excoriates science for apparently shifting its focus from understanding, to manipulating, nature.

I agree with her wholeheartedly when Stuckey says, “The world is here for us to wonder at, to learn from, and to love.” Science is just the way to do that. Analysis doesn’t necessarily hinder wonderment and appreciation. It teaches us how to find the beauty inherent in nature, from the microscopic to the macroscopic; it stimulates curiosity, and provides a way to understand in a rational, evidence-based manner our surroundings and our place in nature. Unfortunately —and that’s the major problem in Stuckey’s theology/philosophy-steeped perception of science— by her own words, Stuckey expects science and religion to meet in the field of naturalistic studies. Although “religion” for Stuckey appears to be a mixture of animism, metaphysical naturalism, and some vague references to spirituality and the living earth (gaia) concept, to make statements like Nature discriminates not at all between science and religion —à la Stuckey— is to engage in intellectually lazy anthropomorphization in absence of evidence. Besides, there is nothing to discriminate between; the two are not at par.

But that’s a discussion for another day. Meanwhile, I cheer on for science as methodological naturalism, a means to understanding and interacting with the natural world around us.

UPDATE: User SimonG has some very similar comments and interesting suggestions in that blogpost.

3 Comments

  1. Priscilla Stuckey

    May 16, 2010 at 4:15 pm

    Kausik, thank you for your thoughtful debate on the issues I raised in my post. (And please note that my name is Priscilla.)

    You raise some question about theology students studying science. Is it possible you also hold to a false dichotomy? The dialogue between science and theology is decades old and well developed, with a now-huge bibliography, which I can point you to if you’d like.

    However, my interest is not theology but religious studies and especially, as you accurately point out, earth religions or earth spirituality—now the fastest-growing forms of religion in the world, according to professor of religion and environmental studies Bron Taylor. (See his new book, Dark Green Religion, for the research.)

    My interest is also philosophy of science, which I have engaged in, as you might suspect, a great deal more than I have engaged in the laboratory practice of science research. Why? Because I was one of those students alienated by the teaching of science. Biology classes in both high school and college were taught as rote memorization and looking through microscopes. They bore no connection to what I experienced when I walked under trees (or climbed them) or when my toes found soft green grass or my eyes followed the flights of birds. The Krebs cycle is marvelous and beautiful; however, awe and wonder were never mentioned, let alone engaged in, during the classes I attended.

    Some say this is only a problem of teaching. I think it goes much deeper—to the foundations of the scientific method itself. Western science is founded on the subject-object dualism of Descartes, of which one corollary is the fact-value split. (BTW, I’m not opposing Western to Eastern here but thinking rather of the difference between a Western worldview with its Cartesian dualism and other worldviews, such as many indigenous ones, that do not begin with this split.) When knowledge (fact) is defined as that which excludes subjective perception (value), then it becomes possible, even mandatory, to teach the facts as if they bear no relation to awe, wonder, or other kinds of feelings. The parts of a flower may be wondrous, including at the microscopic level, but wonder is not an integral part of knowing, according to a Western worldview. And therefore science classes can and often do proceed as if it is irrelevant.

    You may be right that I take too jaundiced a view of focusing on the constituent parts. Yes, studying the parts does not preclude relating them to the whole. Yet when the mental habit is to focus only on the parts, as it is in our scientific heritage, we can too easily slip into believing that we understand the system when we have studied its parts. The climate crisis shows just how far from understanding the whole we really are.

    I am implying that there is a connection, a structural link, between the unhappy experience of many science students and the huge environmental crises we human beings face—and have caused. I suspect that we can address the latter only by changing the former—by moving our scientific method beyond Cartesian dualism and by training ourselves to focus on the whole not merely the parts. Natural history is one branch of science that integrates fact and value (or at least encourages awe and wonder as part of knowing) and that teaches people to focus on the connections not merely the parts. To address our huge current crises, I believe we will need to move in both of these directions.

  2. please note that my name is Priscilla

    A thousand and one apologies, Dr. Stuckey. I have corrected it in the text, and left the incorrect name with a strikethrough to remind me of my stupidity.

    You raise some question about theology students studying science.

    Umm… No. Not directly. I believe I said, “…I have no problem with some theology graduate being interested in or studying science.” (Emphasis added) Theology students are most welcome to study and understand science and the scientific method. However, too many of them tend to be satisfied with a faulty understanding of science resulting from a perfunctory glance at some science text-book; they pick up some science-y buzzwords here and there, and use those with great deliberation to promote their absurd theological arguments. That’s what I have a problem with.

    Is it possible you also hold to a false dichotomy? The dialogue between science and theology is decades old and well developed, with a now-huge bibliography, which I can point you to if you’d like.

    I guess it is possible, yes, but in my case, not quite likely. A dialog between science and theology, however old and however bolstered by tomes, is meaningless – since (a) volume is never a substitute for quality, and (b) science and theology work in two non-intersecting planes. I can deliberate more on this if you are interested.

    I was one of those students alienated by the teaching of science. Biology classes in both high school and college were taught as rote memorization and looking through microscopes. They bore no connection to what I experienced when I walked under trees (or climbed them) or when my toes found soft green grass or my eyes followed the flights of birds. The Krebs cycle is marvelous and beautiful; however, awe and wonder were never mentioned, let alone engaged in, during the classes I attended.

    I am indeed sorry that you had a teacher or teachers with poor imagination and understanding of the magnificence and interconnectedness of nature with all its components, microscopic AND microscopic. Since we are engaging in personal anecdotes, let me recount mine. I had a biology teacher in the sixth grade, who opened my eyes to the world of living organisms, the incredible beauty of that natural world, and the inexorably ongoing process of diversification and generation of complexities – from single-celled organisms to multicellularity. My biology classes enhanced, rather than abated, my wonderment about the natural world, and eventually led me to my current profession.

    Western science is founded on the subject-object dualism of Descartes, of which one corollary is the fact-value split… When knowledge (fact) is defined as that which excludes subjective perception (value), then it becomes possible, even mandatory, to teach the facts as if they bear no relation to awe, wonder, or other kinds of feelings. The parts of a flower may be wondrous, including at the microscopic level, but wonder is not an integral part of knowing, according to a Western worldview. And therefore science classes can and often do proceed as if it is irrelevant.

    Philosophy is your forte, not mine, and I am not qualified to pass judgements on philosophical tenets. However, from a common sense (or perhaps, ‘philosophically lay’) perspective, this dualism (fact-value) that you define makes no sense to me. A fact is a fact, a set of observations empirically arrived at, and reproducible ad infinitum subject to the presence of same set of variables. A value, on the other hand, is an emotional response to a set of observations. If you tie the values (say, altruism) to a fact (say, empathy, fairness, and altruistic behavior observed in insects, and higher vertebrates including non-human primates and human infants, make it likely that such behaviors may stem from a broad genetic predisposition to be ‘nice’ to congeneric or conspecific entities, which in turn could lead to being favored by natural selection and successful in propagation), the value would stand the test of time and be perpetuated. If, however, you base a value on myth and superstition (say, religious texts that are subject to diverse interpretations), the outcomes will often go awry.

    And this confusion further assumes Stygian proportions, when you start defining science in terms of a ‘world view’. Science is not a ‘world view’ of any sort. Science is a process, a methodology that simply leads to the description of how things are, not how you might like them to be. Science does not opine, nor does it express viewpoints – it only deals with demonstrable and predictable outcomes, arrived at using empirical methods that test the hypotheses. When a scientific hypothesis fails, it is cast aside, and new theories explored – with the same discernment and scepticism as was the original one. By this method, science (as well as knowledge) advances. And nothing in science precludes one from feeling a sense of wonder and awe about one’s surroundings while trying to understand it.

    You may be right that I take too jaundiced a view of focusing on the constituent parts. Yes, studying the parts does not preclude relating them to the whole. Yet when the mental habit is to focus only on the parts, as it is in our scientific heritage, we can too easily slip into believing that we understand the system when we have studied its parts. The climate crisis shows just how far from understanding the whole we really are. I am implying that there is a connection, a structural link, between the unhappy experience of many science students and the huge environmental crises we human beings face—and have caused.

    With the advocacy of the connection, I suspect you are sliding into the realm of philosophy here, because I don’t know if anyone ever chose to test it empirically. However, I don’t (and didn’t, in my post) deny that what you described sometimes happens – an inordinate focus on the specifics of the parts, leading to the loss of the grand picture of the whole. But to say that science encourages this is incorrect and tantamount to taking a very restrictive, boxed-in approach to science, which you did in your post, and which – I suspect – has to do with your unfortunate experience with basic science education. I can assure you that this is not the norm. When we are taught the scientific method, and when we engage in scientific research, the ability to keep the bigger picture in mind is encouraged and highly thought of.

    Natural history is one branch of science that integrates fact and value (or at least encourages awe and wonder as part of knowing) and that teaches people to focus on the connections not merely the parts.

    You shall find no argument from me about that assertion, even if I may not over-philosophize it. IMO, the approach to the study of Natural History can only be bolstered – not hindered – by proper application of the scientific method and rigor to it.

  3. Priscilla Stuckey

    May 29, 2010 at 4:30 pm

    “Science is not a worldview of any sort.” I believe Thomas Kuhn, who is esteemed by scientists in all fields, would have disagreed with you. In his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, he argued that everyday science is built on an agreed-on paradigm, but anomalies always exist that don’t fit the paradigm. The paradigm shifts when enough of those anomalies finally tip the scale toward a new paradigm.

    It can be argued that any endeavor that requires training implies acculturation to some degree, and all cultures imply worldviews. Knowledge is always situated, in the words of philosopher of science Donna Haraway, and so to one degree or another it is perspectival. In other words, humans aren’t all-seeing; our knowing arises from particular, finite locations and so is shaped by that cultural location.

    Your description of the commonsense fact-value split is spot-on. It is also culture-specific; it belongs to some cultural locations more than others. It is foreign, for instance, to all the American Indian traditions I have read. What you just outlined as common sense to someone brought up on the traditions of Western science would be unintelligible to someone brought up in traditional values of their tribe. Or take another facet of the Western scientific paradigm, its urge to explain where the world comes from. This is foreign to, for instance, a Chinese Confucian knowledge system, where the point is not to explain the world but to figure out how to live in it.

    So I would argue that worldviews structure all our thinking, even our scientific thinking. The very questions we ask are influenced by our cultures, as are the ways we go about investigating the world.

    For both you and me, though, the investigative journey begins in wonder. I like that.

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