Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Nature in Asian Traditions of Thought - J. Baird Callicott and Roger T. Ames (eds.)

As environmental destruction grows apace the world's Western turn, many cannot help but wonder at a different way forward. Perhaps the very ideological underpinnings of Western thought are fraught from the outset with problems surrounding conceptions of objectivity, rationality, and an unbridgeable gap separating people from the world (whether contingent or essential). Could a subsequent departure from western thought be in order? The East, ostensibly so different in its conceptions of man and the universe, has much to say that Western thought marginalizes, or outright ignores. Is it possible that our world could be healed with a dose of Eastern thought?

Spanning traditional Chinese environmental conceptions of the Lao-Tzu (TaoTe Ching) and insights from Buddhist teaching and mythology, many of the chapters give the western mind much to ponder over. Does our insistence upon the Cartesian separation of man and the world ensure an inability to live an interconnected existence with our surroundings? Are there alternate ways of seeing ourselves in the world, and vice-versa? While the questions raised may strike the Western mind as unanswerable and circular, the reader is left with the impression that the Eastern thinker would respond to such a quandary with a simple, "yes."

Agreed upon across the work, largely the result of Asianists from the United States, is the belief that in no manner can traditional Eastern thought be simply imported to our present predicament. While varying philosophies and ways-of-being can potentially expand our horizons of possible futures, modes of thought arise within, and in response to, certain social and cultural contexts. Once again, a simple answer for our environmental predicament is left disappointed.

This edited volume seeks to answer the question, what does the East have to teach the West about a possible environmental philosophy? Various contributors respond ranging from much and some, to none and the question itself is fraught. Such variety is hardly surprising. As can similarly be expected, the strength of argument, insight and scholarship varies. There is much to inform the beginner here and much for the initiated to ponder over. After more than twenty years much of the work maintains its insight, clarity and necessity.

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Song of the Dodo - David Quammen

"The case of the Dodo was only one of hundreds."

Truly, David Quammen's book is not really that much about the dodo. Nor is it strictly a lament for our now muted world of absent bird-song. Quammen has achieved much more than a simple elegy for extinct species; his is not just mournfully warning us about the hazardous world we have created for our disappearing neighbors. Rather, Quammen has endeavored to explore a host of complex scientific theory, make his understandings communicable to the reader, and interrogate the extent to which our best scientific efforts mesh with the world around us. Weaving his travels and own scientific explorations together, Quammen brings the full-force of a scientific argument to the world, while simultaneously giving concrete example to the sometimes erudite work of the research community. As the work develops and deepens in nuance and explanatory power we better realize why Quammen's is so dedicated to his pursuit. This is a tale that grows in the telling.

The Song of the Dodo takes the transformation of our world and concomitant effects on biodiversity as an alarming, and complex problem desperately in need of explanation. To better illuminate the disappearance of (mostly island) species the world over, David Quammen travels the extent of the globe to speak with researchers and locals. Throughout, his motivating question examines why certain species become extinct. While it would be a noteworthy addition to the scientific literature if he could simply provide a lucid answer to such a difficult question, Quammen has achieved something much more profound: along the way we also learn why we ought to care about such disappearances. Part natural history, part travelogue, part historical scientific review, The Song of the Dodo is a triumph for taking the question of extinction and ponderously allowing a plethora of perspectives to interweave. The result is an emergent understanding, transcendent of aggregate evidence. It is as though Quammen has concretized his subject into a physical entity that we can circle and investigate from a host of angles and insights. What appears to begin as another lament for the destruction of the world, a two-dimensional abstraction of a global problem, gains force and momentum throughout the study. There is much to mull and ponder in the work, not least of all the transformation of Quammen's, and our own, thinking about how our own place in the world, more and more, comes at the exclusion of other species. It is not simply that the song of the dodo has been forever cast beyond the ken of human knowledge; rather, it is the silent cacophony of voices that have already joined it, and the untold numbers that will be added to the chorus in years to come.

Friday, May 3, 2013

The Structure of Scientific Revolutions - Thomas Kuhn

Vast amounts of critique, plaudits, queries and aspersions have been leveled at Thomas Kuhn's Structure of Scientific Revolutions in the 51 years since it was first published. While I am sure there is little novel (or, frankly, of interest) that I could add to the discussion, I wanted to highlight one aspect of the work which seems generally overlooked. Though SSR is the intricately tied together and carefully written this aspect is surely addressed in reference to many of its other salient points, what struck me was the notion of incommensurability and perception.

When Kuhn writes (paraphrasing) that each scientific revolution transformed the scientific imagination in ways ultimately resembling a transformation of the world, he is speaking volumes indeed. Seeing something new, for the first time, is, for Kuhn, a discovery not only of what something is, but, moreover, that something is. Our conception of science and the universe will always impinge upon our sense of what is possible. Thus, it is not to say that Aristotle was a primitive Newtonian, or that Einstein could have imagined quantum theory - each time period is dealing with a context so distinct, that they can be meaningfully said to inhabit different realities. The implications of this, and the role that perception and theory play upon both our science and our place in reality, are far-reaching.

As such, science can be said to evolve, just like nature. Issues of emergence, fitness, and phase change are just as real in science-as-subject, as they are in science-as-method. What this evolution says about the substance of science - about the phenomena that science can possibly know - is surely a pressing concept for  the field of science studies. All around us science (and scientific endeavor) expands, seemingly without limit. Yet, any case must choose what to prize and what to marginalize; all manner of looking must be exclusionary. The development of our scientific understanding has yielded so much; we must remember to not lose sight of that which it would deem insignificant, or, worse, non-existent.