Sunday, June 10, 2018

Plato's dream and our modern nightmare

In a recent conversation a friend of mine described our modern understanding of the world around us as a conspiracy theory of the grandest proportions.

We posit theories which tell us that the phenomena we witness are merely ephemera resulting from an underlying structure of whirring particles—not even atoms anymore, but subatomic particles in such categories as bosons, leptons and quarks. This conspiracy gives us the theater that is our everyday experience, experience that cannot be explained in its own terms, but must be understood to be the result of forces hidden from our eyes and ultimately from all our other senses. The surface of things cannot be trusted.

The ancient Greek philosopher Plato gave us the first version of such a world in his theory of forms. Everything in our everyday existence is a pale imitation of ideal forms in the real world, he said. The perfect tiger exists in a different dreamlike realm where it offers a template for an actual tiger. The perfect chair in this other realm acts in a similar way. Our world is not the real one, but a mere ghost orchestrated by the real world which we can never know directly.

German philosopher Immanuel Kant appeared to update Plato with his categories of understanding. We humans understand the world using a sort of pre-programmed set of categories. Because of this we can never know a thing-in-itself. We are forever separated from the world we live in, doomed to perceive mere shadows as in Plato's metaphorical cave.

Today, having arrived at the subatomic level, we build huge particle colliders to break matter into ever smaller bits, trying to get to the nub of existence, but never imagining that the world just might be "turtles all the way down." Instead of arriving at the ultimate reductionist explanation for how everything in the universe works, we find that the universe just keeps throwing particles at us as if to mock our efforts.

The universe may not be what we want it to be, bound by a few reductionist principles that govern everything. Instead, we are faced with what American philosopher William James calls the pluriverse.

The possibility that there is just one world—and not two, that is, the one we see and the one that is real based on a set of abstractions we call scientific laws—this is unthinkable in the age of science. The phenomenal world, the world projected by what science calls nature, must be a swindle.

But as French thinker Bruno Latour explains:

Nature is not a thing, a domain, a realm, an ontological territory. It is (or rather, it was during the short modern parenthesis) a way of organizing the division (what Alfred North Whitehead has called the Bifurcation) between appearances and reality, subjectivity and objectivity, history and immutability. A fully transcendent, yet a fully historical construct, a deeply religious way (but not in the truly religious sense of the word) of creating the difference of potential between what human souls were attached to and what was really out there.

Knowing this does not invalidate the usefulness of the idea of nature; it merely limits nature's scope. And, the science of ecology "seals the end of nature" as an object rather than a construct by showing us that there are no distinct objects as we imagined, but only networks.

The modernist nightmare I speak of in the title comes from imaging the world as a set of objects which are discrete and which can be controlled individually and precisely for human purposes. The notion of networks in place of objects ends that conceit. And, with it ends the notion that we "know" how "the world" works and therefore can "manage it," even if we haven't quite figured out how to do this yet.

The separation of phenomena from their underlying structural causes, of appearances from reality, was a move of genius. It has allowed us literally to move mountains—far too many of them, it now appears. As long as we humans were a minuscule presence in the biosphere, we could pretend that the world was merely a set of objects meant for our exclusive use, if only we could figure out how.

Now that we live in what Herman Daly, the dean of the steady-state economists, calls a "full world,"—that is, full of humans—we must recognize our place in a set of networks. Our every move is felt throughout the biosphere, altering the trajectory of its natural systems including its climate. We cannot stand apart and imagine our actions as inconsequential, but must now accept ourselves as at best participant/observers.

Plato's dreamlike realm of the real is no longer just a useful metaphor. It has turned into a full-fledged nightmare from which we must awaken so that we can see that the world cannot be reduced to a set of concepts that give us the levers of control. The strange thing about this unified view of appearance and reality, of foreground and background, is that it comes to us as plural—with all its richness and individuality, challenging us to rethink our environment almost continuously. The world is irreducible. Our attempts to reduce it come with hazards.

We humans will always seek reductive explanations for "why" things happen in the world around us and try to use those explanations to gain advantage for ourselves and our fellow humans in the fight for survival within our biosphere. But if we see the limits of such explanations and therefore their dangers, we might move more humbly among the vast array of creatures and Earth systems with whom we live and upon whom we depend for our very survival.

Kurt Cobb is a freelance writer and communications consultant who writes frequently about energy and environment. His work has appeared in The Christian Science Monitor, Resilience, Common Dreams, Le Monde Diplomatique,, OilVoice, TalkMarkets,, Business Insider and many other places. He is the author of an oil-themed novel entitled Prelude and has a widely followed blog called Resource Insights. He is currently a fellow of the Arthur Morgan Institute for Community Solutions. He can be contacted at


Joe said...

If the world's network is too complicated for us to understand and manipulate properly, then the only answer is for the 'full world' to become a mostly empty world again, so that no matter what we do, we cannot destroy the network in its entirety. Despite the obviousness of this solution, it is one that we have always rejected.

The good news is that the world will empty itself of the far-too-many-of-us through network failure, even if we do not voluntarily do it ourselves. Evolution, through speciation, can then create a whole new network with with humans either gone completely or so reduced in numbers that we do little damage as we go about our business.

LloydM said...

Does how we categorise the world make a fundamental difference to how we act in it? While the reductive approach we've used recently gave us a certain power, the tendency of any creature, including humans, to maximise reproduction would surely have lead to a similar situation to the one we now find ourselves in even if we'd worshiped at the altar of the Sacred Networks.

The bottom line is that humans have an ability to amplify their power in virtually any circumstances and with virtually any culture, and it is this amplification of power and the growth in numbers which follow which is the problem.

Robin Datta said...

Also let's not forget the triad of knower, knowing and knowledge. In Eastern traditions, the infinitude of things "out there" is referred to as the ten thousand things. They're all part of tte known. Neglecting the knower is incomplete knowledge by half. Investigating a conceptualised knower is the investigation of a concept - yet another of the ten thousand things - by the knower which continues as the knower of every conceptualisation.

Robert Brown said...

This article concerns me a little, since I feel it conflates science and technology, or engineering. Many consider them to be the same, but they are radically different.

Science takes observations, or experiments, and makes general statements about them. These statements have varying levels of confidence as we collect more information, as as various methods of observing or experimenting are proposed, tried repeatedly, and reported on. These statements continue to be subject to further refinement and proof over time;there is broader acceptance of results because things are independently understood, tested, and agreed upon, sometimes only until some idea comes along that is more general and explains any loose ends left over by the conventional knowledge. The process then repeats on this, perhaps more refined level. The ability to forecast specific future events based on this understand is valued highly as an indication that the ideas are correct.

Technology, or Engineering, is the practice of using certain behaviors or properties revealed by scientific analysis and use them to accomplish stated goals.

I think many people mix the two; most advanced science uses engineering to gain insight or access to phenomena that we cannot experience in our unaided state. Does this make what we observe any less real as a result? No, but any good scientist understands and acts on the possibility that the means by which an observation is made can alter what we observe. This is why it is important to have really different kinds of observing tools, and to be able to reproduce an experiment or observation. We also place high value in being able to predict phenomena. This thinking is not limited to esoteric branches of physics; it's the case for many experiments and observations.

I think we have problems on the Engineering side of things that we don't manage nearly as well.
For example, when some goal is set, how do we evaluate it's merits? Too often, we do not include all the effects of reaching a desired goal. In fact, until rather recently, undesirable effects were glossed over as part of the effort of "selling" the effort as the best way to meet the goal. Regressing still further, there is often a very superficial examination of the broader merits of the goal itself. It may be too expensive, not only in money, but in other ways as well (pollution, loss of habitat, other public health problems, etc.); perhaps there is no good solution and the effort ought to be abandoned. Too often, I suspect some projects develop a kind of momentum, and stopping the becomes very hard after a certain point. Unfortunately, complex projects may be past that point before enough is known about the total impact of the project. To me, this is another way of saying that the decision process itself has flaws, which need to be addressed, and maybe the flaws are in the values we bring to such efforts.

My point is that none of this is science. It's engineering, or management, or our values. If we want to clearly identify the problem, lumping science and technology together does not serve that goal. Perhaps we need more scientific input for complex projects, so the risks can be assessed more clearly, and transparent assessments are available sooner regarding them. It's quite probable that at least some scientists are just wrong about some things, including our view of the world. It might be just smaller and different turtles all the way down.

We recently saw new evidence backing that Einstein's ideas about gravity, a century after he wrote them down. Next week, someone might overturn that, and if it survives very broad review and observation, it might revolutionize the world view we have. I think we are talking about something else here, very much more about things like building dams on a river, and then to spending billions trying to fix the environmental and political problems those dams caused. Science has nothing to say about that, the way we organize these things now. We mix them at our peril.