Stephen Toulmin welcomes you to the end of modernity

May 17, 2015

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

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Historian and philosopher of science Stephen Toulmin welcomes you to the end of modernity, at least modernity as we’ve imagined it. By modernity, he does not mean modern gadgets. By end he does not mean an end to progress in the natural sciences, nor in human affairs in general. Instead, he is talking about a way of thinking which has held us in thrall since the 17th century, for good and for ill, and is now giving way fitfully to a new (he would say "old"), more flexible worldview.

Toulmin’s book Cosmopolis: The Hidden Agenda of Modernity is not new. It was published in 1990. Its argument will be of interest to anyone concerned with issues of sustainability including climate change and resource depletion.

Toulmin offers an historical account of how this view we call modern arose, and he catalogues its tenets. The ones that are of particular interest to me are as follows:

  • Nature is governed by fixed laws set up at the Creation.
  • The material substance of physical nature is essentially inert.
  • Physical objects and processes cannot think.
  • At the Creation, God combined natural objects into stable systems.
  • The essence of humanity is rational thought and action.

Even casual readers will notice the theological content in these statements. But, we must remember that Sir Issac Newton and René Descartes–who are credited with creating most of the intellectual scaffolding of modern thought–were deeply religious men. The theological references may have been stripped away in our own age. But the tenets remain.

And yet, anyone reasonably current in the sciences will say that all of these tenets are either no longer recognized as correct or deserve substantial qualification. The important question here is, "Recognized by whom?" For so much of our thinking in public discourse, in government policy, and in daily practice still rests on these ideas.

In particular, it accounts for the substantial remaining resistance to the idea that humans have a major role in causing climate change. The notion that the Earth is a stable system pervades the denialist outlook. The implication is that while humans have a history, the Earth does not. History implies specific events with specific causes at specific times. History is history precisely because it is not a repeatable cycle.

But to the 17th century mind and to many minds today, the Earth is a stable system with repeated patterns that are the product of predictable natural sequences. There are no sui generis events in Earth’s past.

Earth’s actual natural history, of course, refutes such a notion. Changes in climate in the past have had various, specific causes that don’t necessarily repeat on any discernible schedule: volcanic activity, catastrophic meteor strikes, huge methane burbs from land or sea.

All sorts of other changes have profoundly altered the previous rhythms of the Earth. The Earth is anything but "fixed" in its functioning. The Great Oxygenation Event comes to mind. A leading theory concerning the cause of the Cretaceous–Paleogene extinction event–which wiped out 75 percent of all species–is that a giant meteor impacted near the coast of modern-day Yucatán in Mexico. A shroud of dust created by the impact reduced the sunlight making it to the Earth’s surface so much that most animals and plants on land and in the sea could not survive.

While there have been other extinctions, their causes have been various and not separated by repeating intervals, contravening the notion of an Earth stuck in endless, regular, indistinguishable, machine-like cycles.

If the Earth is NOT a stable system and HAS A HISTORY, then the claim that the current warming of the Earth is merely part of a natural cycle is a cop-out. Which specific mechanisms are causing this warming? Of the mechanisms we know about in the past, which ones are operating now? Is there any part of the warming that cannot be accounted for by these mechanisms? Climate science has an answer to these questions, one rooted in an Earth that is a dynamic system with a history of specific, not-particularly-cyclical events. The answer to the last question is yes, and the missing element is human activities which create climate-changing gases, increases in which are responsible for the bulk of the warming.

The climate change deniers are stuck in the theologically tinted presuppositions of the 17th century.

Now we come to the notions that "the material substance of physical nature is essentially inert" and that "physical objects and processes cannot think." We are becoming painfully aware that the substances of physical nature react to what we do in sometimes unexpected ways. In a world of many fewer humans–the world of the 17th century–it was unthinkable that humans could alter Earth processes. But in what former World Bank economist Herman Daly has dubbed the "full world" we live in today, it is becoming manifestly obvious that human actions can and do alter natural processes.

Evidence clearly shows that humans are interfering with the worldwide carbon cycle, the chief effects of which are climate change and the acidification of the oceans; with the nitrogen cycle primarily as a result of the extensive use of nitrogen fertilizers; and with the ozone layer by our careless release of chlorofluorocarbons into the atmosphere which, until they were banned, were eating a hole in that layer. That process, if allowed to progress, would have subjected every living thing on the planet to dangerous levels of UV radiation.

While we cannot say that such systems "think" in the way that we do. They do exhibit a kind of intelligence in that they adjust to insults from human activities. In the case of the carbon cycle, the ocean uptake of carbon dioxide has shielded us from even more extreme climate change (but not enough for us to ignore it).

I do not assign intention to such a result. I only note its intricacy and subtlety. Nature is an agent on the Earth and in the universe as much as we are. As Bruno Latour says, we would be better off thinking of nature as a tiger than as a docile and compliant automaton that can never threaten our survival.

And now, we come to the notion of humans as rational thinkers and actors. No one can doubt that humans are capable of rational thought. But equally, no one can believe that this is the exclusive mode of human thinking and action. By rational I do not mean reasonable. I mean thought which attempts to construct the world through abstract models that are believed to have universal and timeless application.

We have sought for 300 years to find knowledge that is absolute, immutable and universal, that could guide us in every age through every situation. But, we have failed. Our knowledge is of specific things and processes at particular times. We still need and use models. But they are adapted to specific rather than universal purposes.

Albert Einstein sought a theory of everything, something he called a unified field theory. But, no one has succeeded in explaining all known physical phenomena in one equation.

Geneticists sought the code of life in DNA in order to create and alter those forms to their liking–only to find out that we cannot do just one thing to the DNA of an organism. We are always acting on multiple areas at once, some hidden from us or at best, poorly understood. This doesn’t even consider the interactions of the modified organism with other species and with the broader physical environment.

We are once again aware of our immersion in a world of particulars. We cannot find certainty and so to demand it (say, with regard to climate change) is to demand the impossible. We forced to rely on prudence in the face of imperfect knowledge and understanding.

It is uncertainty which should be our guide. The vast uncertainties which confront us with climate change, genetic manipulation (see my piece "Ruin is forever"), nanotechnology and novel chemicals should evoke in our imaginations nature as a tiger rather than an obedient automaton.

This is a seemingly humble outlook, not as bold and self-assured as the modern project to control nature and perfect humanity. But it can be liberating, allowing us to see the world, both human and natural (as if there were actually a difference) in all its multiplicity and diversity–to confront the world as something which deserves our respect and even more, our utmost attention to the particular people, things and substances that are right in front of us.

P.S. Toulmin’s thesis has many other profound implications that I was unable to discuss here. I can enthusiastically recommend his book to those who want to understand the mindset that has brought us to our current predicament.

Image: Mouth of Fox River in Indiana (1837). Tableau 5 by Sigismond Himely (after Karl Bodmer). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Kurt Cobb

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique,, OilVoice, TalkMarkets,, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions.

Tags: nature, philosophical issues