In a recent conversation a friend of mine described our modern understanding of the world around us as a conspiracy theory of the grandest proportions.

We posit theories which tell us that the phenomena we witness are merely ephemera resulting from an underlying structure of whirring particles—not even atoms anymore, but subatomic particles in such categories as bosons, leptons and quarks. This conspiracy gives us the theater that is our everyday experience, experience that cannot be explained in its own terms, but must be understood to be the result of forces hidden from our eyes and ultimately from all our other senses. The surface of things cannot be trusted.

The ancient Greek philosopher Plato gave us the first version of such a world in his theory of forms. Everything in our everyday existence is a pale imitation of ideal forms in the real world, he said. The perfect tiger exists in a different dreamlike realm where it offers a template for an actual tiger. The perfect chair in this other realm acts in a similar way. Our world is not the real one, but a mere ghost orchestrated by the real world which we can never know directly.

German philosopher Immanuel Kant appeared to update Plato with his categories of understanding. We humans understand the world using a sort of pre-programmed set of categories. Because of this we can never know a thing-in-itself. We are forever separated from the world we live in, doomed to perceive mere shadows as in Plato’s metaphorical cave.

Today, having arrived at the subatomic level, we build huge particle colliders to break matter into ever smaller bits, trying to get to the nub of existence, but never imagining that the world just might be “turtles all the way down.” Instead of arriving at the ultimate reductionist explanation for how everything in the universe works, we find that the universe just keeps throwing particles at us as if to mock our efforts.

The universe may not be what we want it to be, bound by a few reductionist principles that govern everything. Instead, we are faced with what American philosopher William James calls the pluriverse.

The possibility that there is just one world—and not two, that is, the one we see and the one that is real based on a set of abstractions we call scientific laws—this is unthinkable in the age of science. The phenomenal world, the world projected by what science calls nature, must be a swindle.

But as French thinker Bruno Latour explains:

Nature is not a thing, a domain, a realm, an ontological territory. It is (or rather, it was during the short modern parenthesis) a way of organizing the division (what Alfred North Whitehead has called the Bifurcation) between appearances and reality, subjectivity and objectivity, history and immutability. A fully transcendent, yet a fully historical construct, a deeply religious way (but not in the truly religious sense of the word) of creating the difference of potential between what human souls were attached to and what was really out there.

Knowing this does not invalidate the usefulness of the idea of nature; it merely limits nature’s scope. And, the science of ecology “seals the end of nature” as an object rather than a construct by showing us that there are no distinct objects as we imagined, but only networks.

The modernist nightmare I speak of in the title comes from imaging the world as a set of objects which are discrete and which can be controlled individually and precisely for human purposes. The notion of networks in place of objects ends that conceit. And, with it ends the notion that we “know” how “the world” works and therefore can “manage it,” even if we haven’t quite figured out how to do this yet.

The separation of phenomena from their underlying structural causes, of appearances from reality, was a move of genius. It has allowed us literally to move mountains—far too many of them, it now appears. As long as we humans were a minuscule presence in the biosphere, we could pretend that the world was merely a set of objects meant for our exclusive use, if only we could figure out how.

Now that we live in what Herman Daly, the dean of the steady-state economists, calls a “full world,”—that is, full of humans—we must recognize our place in a set of networks. Our every move is felt throughout the biosphere, altering the trajectory of its natural systems including its climate. We cannot stand apart and imagine our actions as inconsequential, but must now accept ourselves as at best participant/observers.

Plato’s dreamlike realm of the real is no longer just a useful metaphor. It has turned into a full-fledged nightmare from which we must awaken so that we can see that the world cannot be reduced to a set of concepts that give us the levers of control. The strange thing about this unified view of appearance and reality, of foreground and background, is that it comes to us as plural—with all its richness and individuality, challenging us to rethink our environment almost continuously. The world is irreducible. Our attempts to reduce it come with hazards.

We humans will always seek reductive explanations for “why” things happen in the world around us and try to use those explanations to gain advantage for ourselves and our fellow humans in the fight for survival within our biosphere. But if we see the limits of such explanations and therefore their dangers, we might move more humbly among the vast array of creatures and Earth systems with whom we live and upon whom we depend for our very survival.

Photo: A view of one of the first full-energy collisions between gold ions at Brookhaven National Laboratory’s Relativistic Heavy Ion Collider, as captured by the Solenoidal Tracker At RHIC (STAR) detector. The tracks indicate the paths taken by thousands of subatomic particles produced in the collisions as they pass through the STAR Time Projection Chamber, a large, 3-D digital camera. Credit: Image courtesy of Brookhaven National Laboratory. Via Wikimedia Commons