Critique of the “Rationalist Delusion” – or – We’ll Need the Scientific Method to Navigate the Collapse

“The rationalist delusion has a strong grip on our culture,and that grip has been getting stronger during my lifetime,” explains Paul Kingsnorth in his most recent writing in Orion magazine (“In the Black Chamber: on seeing the sacred in nature”), adding: “Every year, it seems, the areas of life that remain uncolonized by scientific or economic language or assumptions grow fewer. The success that science has had in explaining what can be explained seems to have convinced many people that it can explain everything, or will one day be able to do so. The success that commerce has had in monetizing the things that science can explain has convinced many that everything of significance can be monetized.”

Okay let’s just stop right there. I see what Kingsnorth is getting at—that making living beings numbers on a computer screen is the first step towards turning living beings into things, i.e. into dead things, which is at heart what capitalism does—but why the automatic conflation of science and commerce, vis–à–vis this “economic language”? Why is rational thought, i.e. weighing evidence and discarding theories that don’t pass the test, seen as categorically capitalist?

Kingsnorth is undoubtedly making this association because he realizes that time is running out and all “scientific” arguments he’s heard or read aren’t moving the needle. In his article, he cites groups that are trying to resurrect extinct species, and explains his horror at the notion that science has ultimately become focused on control (something that Derrick Jensen writes about extensively), rather than on elucidation, let alone communion with or empathy towards fellow beings. He continues:

Environmentalists and conservationists are as vulnerable to these literalist trends as anyone else, and many of them have persuaded themselves that, in order to be taken seriously by those with the power to save or destroy, they must speak this language too. But it has been a Faustian bargain. Argue that a forest should be protected because of its economic value as a “carbon sink,” and you have nothing to say when gold or oil of much greater value are discovered beneath it.

As someone who has good-heartedly debated with friends for a quite a while now on this very subject, I can definitely understand Kingsnorth’s point of view. It’s the same view I defend in said debates, with more business-minded friends (some of my best friends are capitalists) arguing that if corporations speak the language of money, then the best way to convince them of the need to preserve wild spaces is to convince them of these places’ economic value (or, conversely, to put prices on activities that harm natural places—cf. carbon tax). And, if you’re thinking that putting a price on trees—not to sell them, but to cut them down—sounds bright-eyed (or insidious), then what would you call asking corporations to stop bulldozing trees of their own volition and goodwill?

And yet, I still don’t see why science is the enemy of thinking that trees have value for their own sake, simply because they’re alive. Perhaps “science” as a term has come to engulf many other facets of our world that many people see as its direct descendants: machinery, industrialism, technology—indeed, modernity itself.

“Rational” too has taken on another persona, thanks to the widespread but completely unfounded assertion that horrors of the 20th Century were due to the fact that the Nazis were rational (let alone that they were logical conclusion of the introduction of the theory of evolution by natural selection). The Nazis were many things, but perhaps the thing they were least was rational. And regardless of their thoughts on eugenics (which is artificial, not natural, selection), there is no connection whatsoever between understanding that beings adapt through heredity, or between testing assertions by weighing evidence in the first place, and taking on any of the traits lumped on to the term “rationalist”: cold, unthoughtful, ego-maniacal, amoral, selfish, ruthless, etc.

Well, I proudly count myself as a rationalist, and proponent of teaching/learning science. That’s what I do for a living: teaching kids environmental/earth science. I think we need to define “science” as the use of the scientific method, full stop. As a pro-science rationalist, I am an anti-technology, anti-capitalist, anti-economic-growth Luddite doomer. I, like Kingsnorth, think trees are sacred, but my path to this understanding comes from the scientific evidence that other beings think, share, grow, travel, connect, communicate, etc. Besides, scientific evidence confirms that I am in the final analysis related to trees (pretty closely, actually), and so that fact alone should be enough to give a shit about them. Oh, they also produce the oxygen we need to survive, and that’s relatively important I’ve been told.

I’m not sure where I would fit in Kingsnorth’s dichotomy. He thinks that rationalism has ruined our humility in relation to the natural world (a view that Bob Jensen shares, explaining: “At least you can say that religious belief puts (or should put) people in their place when it comes to what we don’t understand about ecosystems; whatever god you believe in, you’re not it”), and that what we need is less rational thought (or to “stop worshiping reason,” as he puts it) in favor of more spiritualism, or respect for the divine as manifested in nature.

I don’t entirely disagree with his assessment that we might be better off if people took themselves down a peg, and saw our ecological homes as temples. The problem with discarding rational thought, however, is that without the weighing of evidence that is transmittable, i.e. that everyone can understand and that can be repeated in experiment, anything is permissible. This is precisely the reason that Republicans want science to be a bad word. Since the scientific method is, at heart, a doubt—a questioning—we can see why political elites would be against its popular embrace. I, for one, think this questioning is a major tool in our arsenal, and in fact is a necessity of any resistance that has a chance of success, however defined.

So keep your animism, you seers of tree spirits. If you want to stop the corporate machine from bulldozing/raking/poisoning/exploding/eroding/toxifying/radiating the very living Earth, then we’re on the same team. But when the revolution comes, I just hope enough people are down with using evidence and consensus as methods for making decisions, and not each individual’s dream-induced moon-beam whispers. That could get kind of dangerous, don’t you think?

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7 thoughts on “Critique of the “Rationalist Delusion” – or – We’ll Need the Scientific Method to Navigate the Collapse

    • Isn’t it hypocritical to use the resources of a system you oppose?

      Ran Prieur: No. Hypocrisy is when you say something is wrong for others to do, but you do it yourself. I’ve never said that it’s morally wrong to participate in the present system. My position is that it’s a tragic collective mistake that we need to work our way out of. I do think it’s tactically wrong to participate in it more than you have to, but different people have different tactical opportunities. I understand that many people are more stuck in it than I am, and I’m using my relative freedom to try to help them.

      Anyway, what’s wrong with using the resources of something you oppose? If you were in a prison camp, wouldn’t you look for ways to avoid forced labor but still eat? As I said in the essay: it’s not about being pure or avoiding guilt — it’s about adapting and becoming more free.

      • I don’t think you’re really “anti-technology.” That’s a ridiculously broad statement. I think you are pro *appropriate technology* a la Jerry Mander, a la Luddites, etc.

  1. Well the Archdruid, John Michael Greer, is of the conviction that we should strive to keep the basic scientific method through the collapse and the dark ages beyond. But if we have an environmental collapse, too, then it’s all moot, isn’t it?

    That being said, I really don’t like what Stella said. She seems to be yet another cornucopian, shilling for those who would deny that anything’s wrong with the climate, with the biosphere, with natural resource availability and cost, the ability of Western (i e, American) culture to adapt or even cope, etc. That, or she’s deluded like most people.

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