Tuesday, January 8, 2013

From the Empirical Archives: On the Importance of Being Radical by John Cobb

On the Importance of Being Radical
John Cobb

PHOTO: Museum Boerhaave, Leiden, Netherlands

Originally Published in the July 2012 issue of Empirical

Is it bad to be “radical?” Often one hears the statement that so-and-so is a “radical” as a reason not to pay attention to what he or she says. To label people as “radicals” may be a way of warning others that they are dangerous. It has much the same effect as calling them “communists” or “terrorists.” This fear of radicals is not without reason. They do propose new ideas that undercut some of those to which most people are attached. They question the need for institutions and practices that others consider essential and beneficial. From the point of view of those who are benefited by the status quo and those who think that things are going well, radicals are dangerous.

When the modern period began in Europe, Christian institutions and beliefs were very well established. A few brave modern people raised radical questions that undercut the authority of Christian institutions and the credibility of supernaturalist Christian teachings. Some of these radicals paid dearly for their efforts. Christian institutions and beliefs did not disappear, but they changed drastically. The change in their role in Western societies has been even greater. The work of radicals has led to the replacement of Christian societies by secular ones. Modern scientists were often in the lead in advancing radicalism of this sort.

What is less noticed is that radicals are just as threatening in other aspects of society. Political organizations, governments, professions, academic disciplines, and educational institutions resist and oppose their work just as religious communities often did. Sadly, this is true also of modern sciences that profess to be fully open to evidence. In all these contexts, radicals engage in just the questioning that is not wanted. While modern culture celebrates the work of the radicals of earlier times, it is no more hospitable to contemporary radicals than were the established leaders of those earlier periods.

Many of us, at one time or another, have been irritated by people raising questions of a theoretical nature in a group whose job it is to deal practically with a problem. The zeal of radicals to go deeper simply slows us down in getting our work done. Not all radicals have good judgment about when and where to raise their questions, and for many people the answer to the question of when and where radicals should seek attention is: never and nowhere. It is easy to understand and even sympathize with those who abhor radicals.

But modern society has needed radicals as much as earlier. A century ago a few voices were pointing out that American society was rooted in racism and sexism. The vast majority of Americans dismissed such talk as “radical” and therefore irrelevant. They were right that it was radical. But these radical voices finally forced themselves into the public consciousness. More and more people recognized that the call for radical change had truth and righteousness on its side. There is still a lot of racism and sexism in American society, but they are no longer supported by law and official thinking. The work of radicals has changed society radically. Even many who were once irritated and even angered by them are now grateful for their work. Today the most glaring problems in American society are economic. Accordingly, this is the area most in need of radical investigation.

We need radicals to go to the roots of these problems. This could lead us in a variety of directions. The financial sector now dominates the economy; so we could focus on how this has gained so much power. The increase in inequality in the distribution of income and wealth has grown very rapidly. Radicals ask for the deepest reasons for this development.

Einstein was a radical in science. He is standing in this photograph with Lorentz in 1921.
PHOTO: Museum Boerhaave, Leiden, Netherlands

Some of the reasons that radicals will find are grounded in political power and personal acquisitiveness. But there are strictly theoretical contributions to these evils. There is a good deal of synchronicity between economic teaching and governmental and global practice. Accordingly, one place to apply radical analysis is the dominant economic theory.

Let’s take a simple example. The discipline of economics is founded on the assumption that bigger is better. It is supposed that the more economic activity takes place, the better off people are. Economists take their role to be showing how to make the economy grow. From time to time radicals have asked whether growth is the right goal for the economy, but within the academic departments of philosophy, the question has not been seriously discussed. Those who have tried to do so have not been well treated.

Asking that question is threatening to the discipline of economics as it has long been constituted. On the other hand, failing to ask it out of respect for the current authorities has the same kind of effect as failing to ask about racism or sexism out of respect for the existing authorities of an earlier day. The global growth of economic activity on a finite planet is responsible for such serious problems as global warming. If the economics guild continues to silence those of its members who raise this question because it is “radical,” the danger to human life is increased.

The crucial question is simple, but radical. Is growth a final good in itself ? Or is it good only insofar as it improves the human condition? If the latter, should we not investigate how the increase of economic activity, guided by the principles of standard economics, is actually affecting the human condition? That is a “radical” thing to do. It is also empirical.

To be empirical is to pay close attention to the facts. That is, itself, a “radical” thing to do. In some cases, the facts will not support the patterns of thought of many people, perhaps not those of any of us. Science at its best calls on us to accept the facts even when we wish they were otherwise. For example, many people prefer to think we are fundamentally disconnected from all other living things and, for a long time, science supported that idea. But the evidence for evolution became overwhelming. However unsettling the truth may be, it remains the truth, and many of us hold to the radical idea that we should affirm the truth and adjust our way of thinking to it.

I have spoken of “science at its best.” Sadly, science is not always at its best. Modern scientists like to point to one particularly dramatic example of failure at this point: the case of Galileo. It is often presented as an instance of science vs. religion, but it was in fact a matter of a new development in science that opposed the scientific consensus of its day. The church supported this consensus.

The best science of the medieval period was based on Aristotle. The church shared the scientists’ respect for Aristotle. Aristotle thought that heavenly bodies were fundamentally different from the Earth. The scientists who followed him were persuaded by his arguments. Galileo used a new technology to introduce evidence that did not fit into this understanding of the universe. The scientists who represented the scientific consensus of that day refused even to look through the telescope. They wanted to silence Galileo’s radical challenge to established science. Modern scientists have liked to condemn the resistance of late medieval Aristotelian scientists to the evidence provided by Galileo. They often imply that this was a failing of medieval scientists that modern science overcame. Sad to say, modern scientists engage in the same kind of practice even today. They strongly resist attending to evidence that does not fit into their worldview. To point this out is to be a “radical.”

Charles Darwin
PHOTO: Ed Uthman
ART: Joseph Boehm (1885)
For example, most modern scientists are committed to a worldview in which events in the physical world can be affected only by other events in the physical world. There is an enormous amount of evidence that physical events are in fact affected by what happens in human subjective experience. That my hands type one set of words rather than another certainly seems to be affected by my thinking. That mental activity plays a role in bodily behavior is not only common sense but also has an immense amount of evidence in its favor. But the metaphysics with which modern science is closely associated says that it is impossible. Accordingly, such affirmations are rejected by most scientific guilds as impossible. Most scientists refuse to look at the evidence. This exclusion of a great amount of evidence is not science at its best.

Asking science to open itself to evidence that does not fit into its worldview is a radical act. It is as difficult for modern scientists to do this as for Aristotelian scientists to accept the evidence provided by Galileo. One reason for this difficulty is the commitment of scientists to what they call “empiricism.” This empiricism was shaped by philosophers and scientists in the early modern period. It affirmed the view that the only access to the world external to the individual thinker is through the sense organs. For practical purposes, scientists and philosophers limited themselves to what could be seen or touched. We can call the resulting idea about how we know anything about the world “sensory empiricism.” Scientists found that it was possible to agree on a great many things when they limited themselves in this way. They celebrated the “objectivity” of science. They often identify “science” as such with the body of theory that developed out of sensory empiricism.

This magazine is certainly committed to “empiricism,” in the broad meaning of this term. We must begin all our reflections in experience. In order to explain our experience, we may have to posit some things we do not experience. Indeed science does this in spades. These days scientists tell us that most matter and most energy can never be experienced at all. They call them “dark.” But these theories, and all our theories, should be tested again and again in experience.

There is no question of the crucial importance of experience. However, we need to ask more radically about it. When we do so, we find that it includes much more than the deliverances of the sense organs. In fact scientists have to assume a great deal that they cannot derive from sense experience.

I limit myself to one example. Much of science is engaged in explaining how things come to be through time. Causality is usually understood as the impact of the past upon the present. But vision and touch give us only the present. Of course, we assume that we see things following one upon another. But that assumption requires something other than the immediate delivery of visual or tactile experience. We have to remember the previous visual experience in order to see that there is a change or motion.

"Galapagos Islands"
PHOTO: Michael R. Perry
If this point is not immediately clear, take a little time to think about it. Focus on what you are seeing in a single moment. It will be a complex pattern of colors. Now you are very likely to think that you see changes taking place. But if you limit yourself entirely to what is given you through your eyes this is not quite true. In the new moment you are seeing a slightly different pattern of color, but you are no longer seeing the previous one. Without memory, you cannot compare them. You do not see the change. We do not see or touch memory.

Puzzles of this kind have long been formulated by philosophers but they have rarely been taken seriously by scientists. If one does take them seriously, one is pushed to a more “radical” empiricism, one that examines experience as a whole with greater care and sees the interrelationships of its ingredients. William James contributed this term: “radical empiricism.” Our actual experience is one of constant change. It is not wrong for science to talk about changes in the world based on experience. What is wrong is to claim to limit itself to the objective world as known only through sight and touch. Science does not do this. It cannot do this. Unfortunately, it does not attend to the contribution of other aspects of experience, and it gives support to a very truncated view of reality.

Those who build their understanding of reality on what contemporary science offers tend to devalue value. The reality of our experience is that it is profoundly value-laden. We have hope and fear, satisfaction and dissatisfaction, enjoyment and misery, and so much more. We are constantly involved in questions of better and worse. Scientists may acknowledge that such feelings occur, but modern scientific orthodoxy insists that they have no effect upon the world. The world is value free, and science is supposed to be value free. Now research universities are supposed to be value free as well – which means that their only value is money.

Radical empiricism is another matter. For it, feelings, beliefs, sensory experiences, memories, anticipations, bodily experience, and intellectual activity are all equally real and very much bound up together. We can, of course, abstract certain sensory experiences from this whole and concentrate upon them. Much can be learned in this way. But when this limited aspect of knowledge is given special privilege and all the rest is disparaged, we are in serious trouble.

The real world, the world of the radical empiricist, is much richer. It calls forth concern and commitment as the purely “objective” world does not. It opens us to fresh approaches in economics and in physics, and in everything else as well.

In 1955, it was "radical for Rosa Parks (1913-2005), because of her skin color, to insist on sitting in the front of a Montgomery, Alabama bus.
Earlier I mentioned the overwhelming evidence that evolution has taken place and that the human species emerged through evolutionary processes. But radical empiricism opens us to an understanding of evolution quite different from the one to which sensory empiricism, with its purely objective world, has led us. One example is the explanation of the emergence of new species. Standard academic teaching that fits the narrowly scientific worldview is that all the variations in plants and animals among which natural selection operates are caused by random mutation of genes. Lynn Margulis disagreed, saying that at least some of them occurred by symbiogenesis, that is, by diverse organisms combining. She gave as her most important example the emergence of the nucleated cell. She said this did not come about by random mutation of genes but by one bacterium swallowing another and not digesting it. Her idea was long rejected, even ridiculed, because it did not fit the standard model. But the evidence finally forced its acceptance. Sadly, despite this important realization, and even though Margulis provided evidence of the role of symbiogenesis elsewhere as well, the standard account of evolution has not been modified to make a place for it. Radical empiricists, in contrast, are completely open to the evidence.

More broadly there is a great deal of evidence that purposive actions on the part of animals, especially human beings, play a large role in evolution. But mainstream evolutionary theory ignores the effects of the action of animals on evolution because this would give an opening to acknowledging a role for some sort of purpose in evolution.

The exclusion of purpose from evolutionary theory is one of its sacred principles. We find evolutionary biologists vigorously denying that purpose plays any role in the world for the purpose of maintaining ideas that do not have empirical support. Radical empiricists do not see why we should ignore the evidence for the role of the purposes of the evolving animals, especially human beings.

PHOTO: Harley Pebley
Late Medieval science allied itself with Aristotelian philosophy and gave much too large a role to purpose. Modern philosophy allied itself with materialism and denied purpose altogether. Wouldn’t it be better for science to pay attention to the evidence, all the evidence, instead of being enthralled by its companion philosophy? Let’s join radical empiricists and this magazine in the truly open-ended quest for truth.

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