Arguing for Our Lives: A User’s Guide to Constructive Dialog
The following is an adapted excerpt from the new book Arguing for Our Lives: A User’s Guide to Constructive Dialogue, published by City Lights Books.
"The universe is an undifferentiated whole. About that we can say nothing more."
This catchy aphorism from political philosopher Bruce Wright may seem nonsensical at first glance, but is worth exploring in the service of deepening our intellectual humility. Facing multiple, cascading ecological crises, we humans need science more than ever and more than ever we need to understand the limits of science.
Like many, Wright, a professor emeritus of political science from California State University, Fullerton, is concerned about the unintended consequences of science and technology. When we started burning fossil fuels, for example, no one could have predicted global warming. If we try to "solve" the problem of global warming only through faith in increasingly complex technology, we should be prepared for new problems that typically come with such solutions.
The lesson is pretty clear: The knowledge we humans can acquire, while impressive in what it allows us to build, is not adequate to manage the complexity of the world. No matter how smart we are, our ignorance will always outstrip our knowledge, and so we routinely fail to anticipate or control the consequences of our science and technology.
Wright’s aphorism reinforces that point and takes it a step further: It’s not just that scientific analysis can’t tell us everything, but that the analytical process destroys the unity of what we are trying to study. When we analyze, the subject becomes an object, as we break it apart to allow us to poke and probe in the pursuit of that analysis.
To "differentiate," in this context, means the act of perceiving and assigning distinctions within a system. Thinking of the universe as an undifferentiated whole recognizes its unity, providing a corrective to the method of modern science that breaks things down to manageable components that can be studied. That "reductionism" in science assumes that the behavior of a system can be understood most effectively by observing the behavior of its parts. At first glance that may seem not only obvious but unavoidable. How else would we ever know anything? We can’t look out at the universe and somehow magically understand how things work-we have to break it down into smaller parts.
Imagine a pond in the woods. That ecosystem includes the air, water, and land and the various inanimate objects such as rocks; the plants we see and their root structures underground; the animals and fish that are big enough for us to see and the many other micro-life forms we can’t observe with our eyes; and the weather. No one person could walk into the scene and offer a detailed account of all that is happening in that ecosystem, let alone explain how it operates. Even a cursory description of the ecosystem requires knowledge of meteorology, botany, zoology, geology, chemistry, physics. To make sense of the complex relationships and interactions among all the players in that one small ecosystem, experts in those disciplines would observe, experiment, and explain their part of it. Putting all that knowledge together, we can say some important things about the system, but we can’t claim to know how it really works. Not only is there is a unity to the ecosystem that we can’t understand, but our analytic approach destroys the unity we seek to understand.
Does that sound crazy? Consider two obvious limitations of our knowledge claims in science.
First, if we claim to understand the system through its component parts, we have to be able to identify all the relevant parts. How much do we know about the microscopic organisms and their role in that ecosystem? We know the things we have identified, using the tools we have at our disposal. But is that all there is to be identified, that which we can observe? For all that scientists and farmers know about soil, for example, most of what happens in the soil is at the microscopic level and unknown to us. Second, while that pond ecosystem can be broken down into its component parts and studied, that study cannot include the dynamic interactions between all the parts, which are too complex to track. It’s not a failure of the method, but simply an unavoidable limitation.
In short, the whole is more than the sum of its parts and considerably more than the sum of the parts we can observe. The process of scientific analysis, of studying the parts to try to understand the whole, is powerful but limited. When we take what we’ve learned about the parts and construct a picture of the whole, we will miss the complex interactions between all those parts, which are crucial in creating the whole.
There’s nothing wrong with using methods that are limited — any method we employ will be limited. Scientists struggling with these problems understand the vexing nature of "complex adaptive systems," a term that recognizes we are dealing not with static parts but with dynamic networks of interactions and that the behavior of the entities will change based on experience. But problems arise when people make claims to definitive knowledge and then intervene in the world based on those claims, often with unpleasant results. Unintended consequences do damage that often is beyond repair.
Wright’s aphorism suggests we should not only see a specific ecosystem as a whole, but regard the universe as a whole, as one big system of complex and dynamic interactions. While seemingly fanciful at that level, this idea has been widely discussed at the scale of the planet. To say that Earth is an undifferentiated whole is to suggest that everything in our world — organic and inorganic — can be understood to form a single self-regulating complex adaptive system. This is the Gaia hypothesis formulated by the environmentalist James Lovelock: The Earth itself is a living thing. Whether or not one goes that far, it focuses our attention on the dynamic, complex, adaptive nature of our world.
Wright’s provocative claim — "About this we can say nothing more" — doesn’t mean that we can say nothing at all about the component parts, only that we can’t pretend to say more than we can really know about the whole. To describe a system as an undifferentiated whole is to mark its integrity as a whole that must be understood on those terms. Once we see the world as a living system, our attempt to know it through analysis of the parts is, by definition, always an incomplete project. We can’t really know the whole world; it exceeds our capacity.
That’s not an argument against science, but an argument for humility.