Don’t reduce me bro

It’s a refrain ad nauseam in interdisciplinary circles: “the humanities and the sciences don’t communicate”–“humanists and physical scientists don’t collaborate”–“they don’t understand each other.” It’s true, interdisciplinarity is rare and challenging. But the struggle is our own doing. Socially, intellectually–we’ve become methodological dogmatists. We’ve narrowed what we accept as legitimate, rigorous or trustworthy explanation so much so that anything deviant from material reductive methods is automatically dismissed by physical scientists as flimsy, subjective hand-waving. This attitude toward the humanities has proliferated as we as a society expect more and more that science will answer the values-based and ethical socioecological questions of the day. But descriptive knowledge doesn’t tell us what should be done. We cannot reduce our values to mere facts, try as we might.

Our reductive materialist view of the world has developed in a vacuum from humanity. “Complex systems are best understood when reduced to their moving parts and underlying physical laws,” goes the line. But we’ve spread reductive materialism too far. Now we try to explain even our humanity in reductive and materialist terms. We’ve reduced beauty to retinal photon refraction, consciousness to patterns of brain activity, morality to genetic coding, relationships to virtual profiling, our bodies to labor capital, ecosystems to instrumental services, human beings to Homo economicus, wellbeing and happiness to material resource consumption, and LIVING to life in the market. But what makes us human cannot be reduced. Our humanity cannot be separated from natural systems. And so our understanding and conduct of the relationship between human and nonhuman systems must change. We must take the best from and evolve beyond dogmatic reductive materialism. We must understand complexity and complex systems holistically as well and conduct ourselves as a society accordingly. Otherwise we miss the forest for the trees and lose ourselves. We end up in crisis.

The difficulty, it seems to me, is not that there is a problem in linking human and natural systems. The two have no problem linking. Human systems are natural systems; the former presupposes, or is-a-subset-of, the latter. They are fundamentally inseparable—-yet they are distinguishable. Humans are unique in many ways, so we’re right to distinguish “first” natural systems from “second” human systems. The problem arises when we value the distinct systems hierarchically, rather than in complementarity. The “main problem” isn’t that human and nonhuman systems have trouble linking, it’s that the link—-the relationship—-is assumed to be hierarchical.

There are lots of explanations for why we value the two systems hierarchically. One of those explanations is no doubt related to religion, spirituality, and ideology—-“worldview” in the broadest sense. But ecological degradation has always accompanied human civilization—-even when we were all animists and goddess worshipping polytheists. The Judeo-Christian worldview is generally anthropocentric, but there are stewardship responsibilities that come with the idea of Nature as Creation, so perhaps the transition from immanent to transcendental divinity in the West doesn’t fully explain the modern division. Nor do I think that reverting basic social mythology to some sort of Eco-la-la about mystical oneness and Earth goddesses would resolve the tension of the duality.

In other words, spiritual transition from immanent to transcendental divinity is perhaps correlative, but not the cause of the division between human and nonhuman systems. Ecological decline perennially associated with human habitation didn’t dramatically intensify until the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions. Granted, the move from a cyclical worldview of history to the linear progressive reading of history that accompanies Abrahamic spirituality paved the way for modern liberalism, but the “divide” between human and nonhuman systems seems primarily an epistemic one. And while the epistemic division may reflect deeper metaphysical beliefs about the nature of human v. nonhuman systems, one could argue that metaphysical beliefs are fundamentally derivative of epistemology insofar as our understanding of what existence is is a function of what we can know about itBut which is more fundamental is perhaps a trivial point.

My position is this: the division between human and nonhuman systems is an epistemic one, best contextualized as originating with the Scientific Revolution. After Descartes’ reductionist project in the Meditations, intellectual Europe ubiquitously adopted reductionism as the primary explanatory method. Everything from the soul to the nature of matter can be explained in reductionist terms (thinking and extension, respectively, according to Rene), or so the story goes. Eventually Cartesian reductionism merged with Hobbesian materialism and thus was born the modern scientific worldview–that natural phenomena is best explained as a great machine reduced to its moving material parts, governed by universal physical laws; the epistemic abandonment of formal and final causation for sole focus on material and efficient causation in natural science.

This is fantastic for explaining nonhuman systems. But human systems have both material and nonmaterial features, and nonmaterial features are harder to reduce and so harder to explain—-even irreducible and unexplainable. Nevertheless the reductive materialism of the Scientific Revolution has pressed forward, collapsing the nonhuman world into esoteric quantum physical mumbo-jumbo. We’ve reduced the universe to theoretical and probabilistic subatomic particles, but we’re no closer to explaining the nature of consciousness, intentionality, beauty, values, ethics, etc. (despite the laudable efforts of neuroscience). Reductive materialism is insufficient to fully explain nonmaterial human aspects of reality, and so the former has developed separately from the other. Material sciences and nonmaterial humanities rarely communicate, if ever, the gap widening now for three centuries.

The divide between human and nonhuman systems is an epistemic one, now codified and institutionalized as contemporary academic “disciplines.” But disciplinarity is central to the neoliberal university model of knowledge production, and so for the sake of efficiency in commoditizing knowledge, human and nonhuman systems seem inevitably bound to remain at explanatory odds. Or at least so as long as reductive materialism is presumed to be the only legitimate method of explaining the world.

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