Monday, September 16, 2013

Georg Picht on the history of the concept of Nature (1 of 2)

German philosopher Georg Picht (1913-1982) in his book, Der Begriff der Natur und seine Geschichte (1989) based on lectures he gave in the early 1970s deals with the development of the concept of nature in Western philosophy in the modern era, especially since the second half of the 18th century. It includes an introduction by his friend Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker (1912-2007). (The Weizsäckers are a prominent German family. His younger brother Richard served as President [head of state] of Germany 1984-94 and earned widespread respect as a real statesman during the process of German unification.)

Georg Picht (1913-1982)
Picht's book addresses the scientific concept of Nature and the role of humanity in relation to it. René Descartes' famous cogito ergo sum (I think, therefore I am) established a radical dichotomy between the thinking and perceiving human Subject and the Objects outside itself that shaped future philosophical and scientific understandings of human cognition, the methodology of science and the role of humanity in relation to the rest of natural reality.

Picht uses a theme throughout his book that sounds very sympathetic from an environmentalist point of view, "Die Naturwissenschaft zerstört die Natur": "Natural science is destroying nature." (All translations here are mine.) He expands it later to saying that such a natural science cannot be true. His formulation suggests he will lead us toward a more true and less destructive view of natural science.

Imagine my surprise when he later explains that, of course, natural science is destroying nature. Destruction is part of nature! And his solution to the problem he has posed that "natural science is destroying nature" turns out to be to reframe the question as humanity destroying the natural environment it requires to survive and thrive.

He essentially sets up the provocative suggestion that "natural science is destroying nature" as a straw-man that he shoots down with what amounts to a rhetorical trick. Because of course, preserving the life of humanity in the natural environment is how most environmental activists and scientists would define the ecological problems to begin with. As Picht puts it in a good observation and humanity and destruction of their own sustaining environment, "But precisely thereby humanity destroys itself, and this conduct is counter to nature, if we can assume that the drives to self-preservation and to the preservation of the species is constitutive for life in nature." (p. 257)

But despite that disappointing rhetorical trick, his account has helpful discussions of the concept of nature among the ancient Greeks and in Kant, in particular, who Picht argues established the basic methodological approach that still dominates present-day science. Unfortunately, he tries to tie it all together with some unconvincing Heideggerian existential woo-woo.

Tom Hayden, who is better known as an antiwar activist, gives the following formulation of the problem in The Lost Gospel of the Earth: A Call for Renewing Nature, Spirit and Politics (1996; quote is from the revised 2007 edition):

But we divide grace from nature and spirit from matter at our peril. When we worship God above, the earth withers from neglect below. We develop a society where everything from human habits to politics and economics exploits the environment with callous indifference. Unless the nature of the State is harmonized with the state of Nature, our greed and ignorance will eventually take us beyond the capacity of the very ecosystems that support human existence.

This book is an effort to heal the divide between the human spirit and the natural world. It attempts to retrieve and apply an older vision in which the earth is alive, and the sacred is present there too. But in what sense is the earth alive? Some will object to the notion that the earth is a living organism - a super-organism - a host to myriad interconnected life forms. I do not claim that the earth is conscious of itself; it does not think and scheme, envy and lust, love and hate as we do. But the earth as a whole is the birthplace, the subject and object, and burial ground for the elements of consciousness.

I cannot share the reductionist view that it is merely dead physical matter or a lifeless chemical ball. I believe that since the earth contains the elements of life, the earth is a living interconnected form as well. Ironically, this view is considered sentimental and subjective, yet science itself cannot agree on a definition of "life." (pp. 2-3; emphasis in original)
Hayden defines the problem there is a kind of New Agey/spiritual way that has similarities to the Gaia Hypothesis articulate by the somewhat erratic James Lovelock in Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (1979). The notion is that the Earth itself is a living organism, an idea that has won some popularity even among some positivist-minded scientists in the form of a metaphor that emphasizes the interconnectedness of environmental phenomena. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used a similar idea in his Professor Challenger short story "When the World Screamed" (1929); also available at Wikipedia.

Hayden's view of the problem as a triad of spiritual, human and non-human natural issues actually has a kinship to the approach Picht takes. Picht was a professor of the philosophy of religion at the University of Heidelberg. In his large segment of this book devoted to Kant, he touches on elements of Kant's approach that affect both theological and scientific understandings.

Picht writes, "The concept of science that today determines the entire methodology of the natural sciences, was strictly depicted and founded for the first time in Kant's Critique of Pure Reason." (p. 256) He calls Kant as "the founder of natural scientific perception," at least in the view of the neo-Kantians (p. 212) Picht argues that the experimental method at the core of present-day science that stems from Kant, the method of establishing an hypothesis and testing it by empirical trials, is a method of eliminating what is not true rather than affirmatively establishing what is true.

Various branches of science today grapple with that issue in different ways. Chemistry can test hypotheses extensively with controlled experiments and double-blind trials. Sciences like paleology or psychology find it harder to test hypothesis in strictly controlled experiments. The same is true for social science. Paul Krugman has often commented recently on how the euro crisis has provided about the closest economics can come to a laboratory-type test of the effects of austerity policies in a depression with interest rates at the zero lower bound. They can compensate for that by using mathematics. And as Picht himself says, even more than Kant's philosophy it was "the immanent logic of a mathematical natural science" that made the developed understanding of today's natural sciences possible. But he credits Kant with establishing what is now considered a mundane assumption, "that general knowledge first becomes science through systematic unification." (p. 64)

Picht draws a connection between Kant's problem of how the Subject conceives itself as Subject and the difficulty humans have seeing ourselves as part of Nature. Kant recognized that his theory of cognition required the Subject to view itself as an Object in order to understand itself, while some aspects of the Subject's perception are limited by its own structure.

But in addition to the aspects of Kant's philosophy that Picht considers to have contributed to the problem on which he is focusing of humanity as part of Nature, Kant in the Third Critique sought to establish the unity of humanity and external nature on the basis of his aesthetic theory. This allows Picht to take Kant's transcendental Ideas as a basis to criticize the destructive wrong direction of present-day science. "The development that has run through the technical civilization of the previous century appears as something like a great cross-check of the truth of Kant's system design." (p. 219)

Picht describes Kant's argument for the unity of Nature including humanity as being based on a metaphysical concept including the three transcendental Ideas of God, the World and Humanity. The three Ideas together constitute the whole of Nature in Kant's system. The World represents non-human nature, the nature that the transcendental ego of Humanity (and individual humans) perceives.

Picht argues that without the God Idea, the Idea of the World, the horizons of our knowledge and ability to know, stands as a separate and non-unified one to that of Humanity. But the Idea of God is effectively excluded from the practical materialism on which modern science is based, thus making impossible the kind of unified concept of Nature that Kant articulated.

He also notes an important and, it seems to me unappreciated, aspect of Kant's philosophy. He argues, against neo-Kantians who hold Kant's theory of empirical experience to be the centerpiece of his philosophy, "The core of the philosophy of Kant is not his theory of objective experience but rather his philosophy of freedom." That aspect of Kant's philosophy is not fully compatible with a philosophical determinism that is generally implicitly assumed by present-day science.

Picht also includes some good discussions of the ideas of the pre-Socratic philosophers Talk about the Heraclitus Ephesus (c. 540 BCE-c. 480 BCE) and Parmenides of Elea (c. 515 BCE-c. 450 BCE) parts, as well as Plato and Aristotle. Unfortunately, here's where the Heideggerian woo-woo comes in.

Martin Heidegger defined his concept of truth with the Greek word ἀλήθεια (alatheia), or un-forgetting. He believed in early times, people had directly experienced das Sein (Being) which he and like-minded present-day thinkers were seeking to recover, or rediscover. He took pre-Socratic references to ἀλήθεια as meaning that those thinkers had directly experience the metaphysical reality of das Sein, or at least were aware that recent generations had experienced it. And that recovering that experience was a matter of remembering, of un-forgetting what had once been known.

Placing the authentic knowledge of truth and the experience of das Sein, central to Heidegger's philosophy, into a distant Golden Age gives one the opportunity to let the imagination soar off from quite a shaky foundation. The works of Heraclitus, for instance, are preserved only in fragmentary form. And there is considerable scholarly doubt about which fragments actually stem directly from Heraclitus himself. Parmenides' work survives in fragments of a long philosophical poem, On Nature. Knowing about the philosophical work of the ancient Greeks has value because they were a key source of the development of later Western and scientific thought. Picht refers to both Werner Heisenberg (1901-1976) and Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker as saying that Plato's Timaeus and Aristotle's Physics are "the best introduction to the problems of the basic crisis of the physics of the 20th century." (p. 414)

So its intriguing but not particularly conclusive when Picht argues that the notion of destruction of Nature is the projection onto the non-human world of the inner destruction of "the unity of time" after the work of Parmenides and Heraclitus. (p. 380) It's kind of nice to know that we can blame Plato and Aristotle for getting us all on the wrong track by not doing a better job of understanding and solving the differences between the approach to Nature of the two sixth and fifth century BCE thinkers Parmenides and Heraclitus. But it serves to trivialize the problem of the dangerous consequences of humanity's current understanding and practice of its own role in the nature of which we are very much a part. It's doubtful in the extreme that those two pre-Socratic philosophers were on the verge of finding the secret key to the problem we face today with humanity seriously encroaching on the ability of the Earth to support its human inhabitants.

I want to stress that Picht is not arguing an anti-science position. He is not defending some esoteric mind-over-matter theory or some fundamentalist religious attack on science, which is how much of the popular criticism of science is framed these days. Despite his bouts of Heideggerian speculation, Picht is not defending an anti-rationalist position on science. He is making a contribution to a critique of the historical development of science in terms of how humanity relates to our natural environment that comes from within the philosophy of science itself. His discussions are relevant to theology and the philosophy of religion - he was a professor of religious philosophy - but that is not the primary focus of this book.

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