The Anthropocene Bookshelf: Participating Consciousness

Anchorage 7/5/16 – I have added a 1981 book to my Anthropocene Bookshelf. Morris Berman’s “The Reenchantment of the World” is an epistemology argument that points to a basic flaw in scientific thinking – the notion that it is possible to deal with the universe scientists study as if it were entirely separate from its observer. It’s not possible, he says. With this book, Berman dared to place himself on a familiar postmodern slippery slope that can so easily drop off into the delusion of solipsism (the idea that reality originates in your head.) Solipsistic thinking emerges all too easily from revelations of quantum theory such as Schrodinger’s famed dead-and-alive cat and Heisenberg’s position-and-velocity uncertainty principle.

Berman’s book belongs on the Anthropocene shelf because he’s reaching for a new epistemology for science in which such things would not be paradoxes and the conceptual world would be more open to possibilities where we don’t keep unleashing forces that destroy our own habitat, as we did with mechanized agriculture and over-use of antibiotics, for instance.

Berman’s review of the history of Western science leads him to assert that something was lost when Descartes, Bacon and Newton replaced alchemy and occult studies with the “scientific method.” Berman calls that “a political process; participating consciousness was rejected, not refuted. As a result, we are forced to consider the possibility that modern science may not be epistemologically superior to the occult world view, and that a metaphysics of participation may actually be more accurate than the metaphysics of Cartesianism.” This point remains difficult for me to grasp. It’s never easy to see something that is beyond the boundaries of your own culture, and science is, he makes clear, a culture. Or cultures.

Berman’s thinking connects with some of the ideas in Soule and Lease’s “Reinventing Nature,” written 14 years later when deconstruction, at its most solipsistic, was arguing that science is all in your head and reflects no reality at all. Here’s my post on that book:

Both books reach for a way to bring science around to knowing what it doesn’t know. I sense that there are scientists, particularly younger ones, are also trying to do this and the transformation of scientific thinking may actually already be underway.

Much as many scientists may disagree, I have come to see that at least in shorter time scales, science is not really the universal language it pretends to be, but a stew of differing ones. I first noticed this when I began reporting on Russian science as glasnost and perestroika made them available. In physical sciences it has taken decades to mesh their work with what is done at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. In biological science it’s taking even longer. Attending two different international scientific gatherings this year – the Arctic Science Summit and the International Association for Bear Research and Management – has underscored this for me. And even when the scientists themselves often can find common ground internationally, the policy apparatus tends to lag significantly, and I’m convinced a lot of that is rooted in fundamental cultural differences between nations and disciplines.

Perhaps a less brittle epistemological foundation for science could make it more able to accommodate these differences. I don’t think we’re there yet, but we may already be closer than what Berman was feeling for 35 years ago.



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