This week’s Scientia Pro Publica blog Carnival has a host of very interesting blogposts. I invite you all to check them out; I did, and even commented on some of them.
One particular post, by
Pamela Priscilla Stuckey, PhD, a theologist and professor of humanities, deals with an age old debate —who exerts control over the natural world— and she asserts that it is in the natural world that science and religion come to co-exist in harmony.
Stuckey’s post is in part wonderful to read as she takes the reader through her perspective of naturalism and spirituality, and in part, vapid and meaningless as she segues into what feels like unfamiliar territory, empiricism and scientific method. It moved me to write a response in a post of my own (which is in addition to the fact that her blogsite has comment moderation – which IMO is unsuitable for the Scientia Pro Publica approach. But I digress).
Without further ado, I launch into a critique of Stuckey’s post.
Stuckey’s enthusiasm for the immense beauty of the natural world is evident in her post, an enthusiasm that I heartily endorse and share. However, she and I appear to approach it from a very different perspective.
A bit of background first. Stuckey mentions in the post that she has a unique position in the science-religion debates, because she teaches one (religion), and studies and often writes about the other (science). Per her blog’s “About Me” page, she holds a PhD in religious studies and feminist theory from the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, and teaches graduate-level humanities at Prescott College in Arizona. I have no problem with some theology graduate being interested in or studying science (although I shudder to contemplate the massive cognitive dissonance that must occur at some point), but… in her post, she appears to dismiss the scientific method in an off-hand manner. Perhaps her training may have something to do with that? Read her post and check for yourselves.
In Stuckey’s opinion,
both science and religion often skip too quickly over what ought to be the main attraction: the natural world. The world of fox kits and forests, eating and being eaten, thunder and sunsets. The world immediately available to our senses. This is the world often bypassed in the rush to explore some dimension regarded as more important, more true, or more “real.”
I don’t know if that is necessarily true for science. There are enough number of scientific disciplines, spanning both natural and social sciences, that are exploring the “real” world that Stuckey describes, and a lot of people are investing their time and efforts into those. Various flavors of anthropology, ethnobiology, geography, geology and so forth, readily come to mind. But I have a feeling that Stuckey either is stuck inside a box of her idealized “real” world, or has a very narrow definition of science.
Consider, for instance, the example she brings up to lament the lack of her “real world” in science education. According to her, kids are taught in the elementary school to observe through their own eyes, ears, nose, and fingers, and yet in high school they are made to sit them behind microscopes. From the microscopes, Stuckey contends,
… they imbibe the unconscious message that the real story is not how eagles lock talons in flight or how worms turn garbage into fertilizer, but rather how their lab equipment reveals a truer world than the one they can see with their unaided eyes.
In the same vein, Stuckey also finds fault with biology curricula, where —according to her— the students are taught to separate out and analyze the constituent parts, living and non-living, of the ecosphere, and not taught how to learn by being immersed in the living complexity of the whole ecosphere.
I hope, dear readers, you can readily see the false dichotomy Stuckey is creating here. By looking at the microscopic world (with one’s own eyes – using the microscope), the student is gathering knowledge about life-forms that are all around us, yet the naked eyes cannot see. Such an experience may capture the student’s imagination, and fire up new ideas and understanding. With proper guidance and instructions, the student would perhaps be encouraged to explore the wider world around also. This is by no means a one way traffic. The student may get acquainted with the natural world, and may well be enamored of the beauty and order in nature and the underlying interconnectedness of living beings – before the student feels motivated to investigate in greater detail the finer aspects. Both approaches are fine; enquiry and scientific method apply to both.
What Stuckey fails to appreciate is that in no way does studying the parts, trying to understand an entire process by breaking it down to the components, or envisioning the individual players in a larger drama hamper one’s intellectual curiosity or hinder one from attempting to understand the whole picture. In fact, it is an essential part of the scientific training; the ability to see the bigger picture is encouraged and much appreciated within the scientific community. However, Stuckey chooses to take a rather restrictive view of science, what she terms as “Western Science” (invoking another false dichotomy, “Western” and “Eastern” Science) and derides as a system that focuses on the parts and not on the whole. She believes that one’s unaided senses are the most trusted means of exploring the natural world, never mind category errors, observational errors, or statistical errors. Any system that quantifies its observations and translates them to numbers that can be compared and analyzed automatically earns her scorn.
Which is rather strange, considering Stuckey’s delightful example of a naturalist’s work (which was a pleasure to read BTW). She advises:
Squat beside a creek. Dig one finger into the rough silt along its edge. Pick up a glob of sand and sift it through your fingers. At your feet you may notice pebbles, your eyes moving now to larger stones, and then to the flicker of a trout tail next to that large boulder. The trout, you notice, likes to live in the shadows, which may lead you to realize that the willows hanging over the creekbed must be important to the fish, and so are the deep bends in the stream, and even if you haven’t yet heard a naturalist say that fish need shade and meanders in order to spawn, you’ve already absorbed several lessons in natural history just by squatting here.
What she describes here is very illuminating. She has taken the time to observe, record and catalog (in her mind) the information stemming from not just a single datum, but multiple. And then she has applied analysis to the data, trying to figure out the “whys” of what she observed, to reach a conclusion. Not content to stop at that, she has generated a further hypothesis, and/or segued into related work in other disciplines, when she muses:
As your eyes wander up the flow of the stream, you might notice your mind begin to flow as well toward questions such as how the rocks came to be here, and how long it takes brush or ferns to grow across the currents.
This is the realm of science – the empiricism, the careful observation, the stringent analysis, the meaningful conclusion, the probing hypotheses. This is the spirit of science – the endless wonderment at natural processes, the limitless questioning that allows a naturalist/scientist to be immersed into those processes.
What Stuckey, however, omitted to mention is a vital point about a naturalist/scientist’s work, the strength in quantitation. I don’t know if it was deliberate, because —it seemed to me— the overall tone of her post is rather dismissive of numbers and quantitative models, which she seems to think are needed only “in a time of ecological crisis” and that too, just in order to “convince those who hold the purse strings”. That is, to her, numbers are simply tools to be used in a specific purpose. Not true. Unh-unh. A naturalist needs numbers as much as scientists in any other discipline to reach a valid conclusion. Observing a trout living under shadows of the willows may lead to the “Hmmm…” moment, the first requirement of course, but it is not evidence of a particular propensity of the trout colony. In order to reach that conclusion, the naturalist needs to observe multiple creeks and trout colonies, perhaps at different times.
But, of course, this is where Stuckey steps into dubious realm.
Much like Francis Collins’ experience with the frozen waterfall, Stuckey’s proposed naturalist’s experience turns her towards questions —with religious overtones— about meaning of life and harmony with nature. To be frank, she does appear to castigate organized religion for its inability to assimilate elements of the living, natural world, and its incessant focusing on “a world after death or a world inside the mind or a social world to be created in the future”. In addition, she even appears to understand the necessity of science, when she indicates,
For indeed, the natural world is a world of relationships—between whales and climate change, between cows and humans, between pasqueflowers and snow, between mycelial mat and soil, between jet exhausts and jet streams, and of course between humans and one another. A world that functions through webs of interconnected relationships, if we hope to understand even one corner of it, demands the sharp, clear-eyed vision and an intellectual acuity that we normally associate with science.
And that is the most frustrating aspect of her post, because next, in the same breath, she conflates science and religion, stating that neither “takes people out directly into nature to explore, through their own senses, the relationships right under their noses”. That is just plain wrong. While purporting to make a plea for the field of natural history, Stuckey laments that it has “suffered a decline of respect in recent decades, perhaps because it involves observing more than experimenting”. This merely reveals Stuckey’s poor understanding of both observation and experimentation.
Which is why her invoking the name of Darwin as a naturalist and a foil for aficionados of quantitative analysis makes no sense. Charles Darwin, a naturalist par excellence, recognized the importance and power of science, and was meticulous in applying the scientific method. His observations and profound insights about the geological and zoological diversity of the places he visited during his five years aboard the HMS Beagle helped formulate his theory of evolution by natural selection —the lynchpin of modern biology— a beautiful, majestic proposition, awe-inspiring in its simplicity, the forebear of much of the current scientific understanding of the diversity of life on earth and the process its adaptation and changes over time.
It is, therefore, unfortunate that Stuckey can find neither science nor the beauty of empiricism and the scientific method in Darwin’s work, but it is understandable coming from her. Stuckey takes science to task for “overtly try(ing) to predict nature’s pattern or control its process”, reflecting a particular school of thought – espoused by Fritjof Capra, Carolyn Merchant and EF Schumacher, all scholars of ecological/environmental philosophy (in addition to their respective disciplines) – that excoriates science for apparently shifting its focus from understanding, to manipulating, nature.
I agree with her wholeheartedly when Stuckey says, “The world is here for us to wonder at, to learn from, and to love.” Science is just the way to do that. Analysis doesn’t necessarily hinder wonderment and appreciation. It teaches us how to find the beauty inherent in nature, from the microscopic to the macroscopic; it stimulates curiosity, and provides a way to understand in a rational, evidence-based manner our surroundings and our place in nature. Unfortunately —and that’s the major problem in Stuckey’s theology/philosophy-steeped perception of science— by her own words, Stuckey expects science and religion to meet in the field of naturalistic studies. Although “religion” for Stuckey appears to be a mixture of animism, metaphysical naturalism, and some vague references to spirituality and the living earth (gaia) concept, to make statements like Nature discriminates not at all between science and religion —à la Stuckey— is to engage in intellectually lazy anthropomorphization in absence of evidence. Besides, there is nothing to discriminate between; the two are not at par.
But that’s a discussion for another day. Meanwhile, I cheer on for science as methodological naturalism, a means to understanding and interacting with the natural world around us.
UPDATE: User SimonG has some very similar comments and interesting suggestions in that blogpost.