Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Pandisciplinarity and Convergence of Civilisations

Pandisciplinarity and Convergence of Civilisations

Elsmie has left a new comment on your post "pandisciplinarity and christianity":

Perhaps you miss my point which was simply that the criteria you gave for establishing a discourse as scientific (“rational, global and evolutionary”) seemed insufficient. Your response adds a bit more flesh, rejecting arguments dependent upon supernatural categories as non-scientific as well as seeing science as a never-ending quest or as you put it a “process of relentless questioning”. Without wishing to defend Christianity or any other religion I would say here that perhaps the history of Christian apologetics does show relentless questioning which in the case of the Reformation involved quite radical reformulations of ideas of duty and selfhood. This would not establish Christianity as a science, or scientific, but it might question the notion that only science and scientific history are capable of deep questioning of beliefs and evidence.

For at least one point in Butterfield’s career he was aware that scientific history was “not like natural science”; the former having a tendency to be “stubbornly local” which in the 1940s, as you point to in Minutes to Midnight, for Butterfield became a paean to the great strengths of the English tradition wherein “conservative Christianity” and “liberal thought” came together to produce a moderate and tolerant nation. As you say he was a man of his time and place and in his defence of liberal England he used his Christian beliefs and concepts to explain why his nation’s history was superior to the “secular” traditions associated with continental Europe. Hence when Europeans lost the “safeguard”, the “ballast” of the idea of original sin they were doomed to fall towards tyranny and “pagan forms of the state”. One can see that in the midst of war strong arguments (founded on Christian-liberal categories) were a way of serving the war-effort. This, if I understand you correctly, you applaud insofar as the historian was willing to harness the discipline of history, to “use” it against the fascist enemy.

Following from this you want to harness history and historians for the larger task of saving the planet. An admirable goal but I find myself uncertain as to what this means for you. What is it that historians should do that they are not doing now? In following and extending the “scientific” approaches of the Enlightenment what will be specific to your scientific history which is not present at the moment? And it occurs to me if the saving of the planet is the primary “use” to which history should be put why not allow any historical approach which accepts the reality of impending ecological disaster, puts humanity at the core and articulates this, as it seems did Butterfield, with religious underpinnings? Or can only scientific history have good uses and consequences?

Here is a response to Elsmie’s welcome comment, for which many thanks. Christianity’s ‘relentless questioning’ cannot include rejection of the divinity of Jesus Christ, whereas natural scientists reject significant bases for their enquiry when they are shown to be false, for example alchemy. I hesitate to enter discussion of biblical dogma, but to go no further than Genesis, ‘Be fruitful, and multiply’ could be dangerous advice in present circumstances, with the world’s population rising so steeply. Like his predecessors in the English Reformation, but with the same basic beliefs, Herbert Butterfield was a relentless questioner, changing his answer from The Whig Interpretation of History in 1931 to The Englishman and His History in 1944. The argument in Minutes to Midnight is that , if Butterfield could alter his views radically  under the pressures exerted by the Second World War, historians today should seriously consider how they should react to a palpably more dangerous threat, the extinction of humankind. More of that below.

For the moment, let us consider Christianity as a cultural phenomenon rather than as a faith.
In The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of World Order, New York: Simon  & Schuster, 1996, 321, Samuel P. Huntington concluded that:
In the... global “real clash,” between Civilization and barbarism, the world’s great civilizations, with their rich accomplishments in religion, art, literature, philosophy, science, technology, morality, and compassion, will also hang together or hang separately. In the emerging era, clashes of civilizations are the greatest threat to world peace, and an international order based on civilizations is the surest safeguard against world war.
Indeed. But Huntington devotes more space to the clash than to the convergence, and in the fifteen years since he published his book, the threat of ecological disaster, which he barely mentions , has caught up with the threat of world war.

The discussion is developed by Nayed R.F. Al-Rodhan in Sustainable History and the Dignity of Man: A Philosophy of History and Civilisational Triumph, Zürich and Berlin: LIT, 2009, 438, emphasising that ‘The development of human civilisation is built on foundations to which everyone has contributed. This is the sense in which human civilisation is like an ocean into which rivers representing geo-cultural domains run.’  Al-Rodhan looks in particular at the example of the Arab-Islamic world to demonstrate ‘the way in which golden ages of individual geo-cultural domains are the culmination of collective contributions to human civilisation....’  Christianity is among other major faiths playing a distinctive role in the composition of sustainable history.  Apart from them, the contribution of more ‘primitive’ beliefs should not be neglected. (See, for example, Kate Prendergast, ‘Responding to Climate Change: Lessons from our Prehistoric Ancestors’, in Mark Levene, Rob Johnson and Penny Roberts, eds, History at the End of the World? History, Climate Change and the Possibility of Closure, Penrith: Humanities –Ebooks, LLP, 2010, 34-45.)

To return to the questions in Elsmie’s third paragraph, an answer is given in John McNeill, Something New under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth Century, London: Penguin, 2000, 362: ‘Modern History written as is if the life-support systems of the planet were stable, present only in the background of human affairs, is not only incomplete but is misleading.’ No doubt, this assertion should be applied to ancient and medieval history, too. There are some further pertinent observations in Mark Levene and others, History at the End of the World? and on the website  Moreover, traditional scholarship retains significance for scientific history : as E. V. Tarle emphasised in 1922: ‘the more powerful, the more authentic the generalising thought, the more it needs the erudite and erudition.’      
Pandisciplinarity and Stories

An exhibition at the London Science Museum in 2011 entitled ‘Psychology: Mind Your Head’ and celebrating the centenary of the British Psychological Society included the following observation:
Once upon a time, it was believed that stories merely recorded what happened in the world. But some modern psychologists have come to regard stories as having an almost supernatural power. What we call ‘human nature’ is now thought by some to be created by language: by conversations, narratives, folk tales, songs and poetry. We literally talk ourselves into existence.
We can also talk ourselves out of existence if we do not become alert to the possibility of no more ‘once upon a time’. Stories need all the power they can command, whether ‘almost supernatural’ or far from it, if they are to help humankind to survive. Let us briefly consider three aspects of this desideratum: Imagination, Inspiration, Explanation.

Imagination.  In an essay entitled ‘How Novels Can Contribute to our Understanding of Climate Change’, in Mark Levene, Rob Johnson and Penny Roberts, eds, History at the End of the World? History, Climate Change and the Possibility of Closure, Penrith: Humanities-Ebooks, LLP, 2010, 218-33, Peter Middleton writes:
Significant novels are not just composed of ideas. The novel is an art form that induces a controlled daydream through textual strategies that have been developed over the past three hundred years to make the best of our capacity to understand time, causality, and changing ideas, through storytelling or what literary critics usually prefer to call narrative. (222-3)
Indeed, throughout the whole of the Anthropocene epoch from the eighteenth century onwards the novel has provided ‘a controlled daydream’ illuminating many of the epoch’s aspects. In his essay, Middleton focuses on novels reflecting climate change, in particular by Kim Stanley Robinson and Doris Lessing. He argues that: ‘The very best fictions of crisis do more than shine a light down into the murky affairs of the social unconscious, or give us a thrilling flight in the total reality simulator; they employ the special resources of the novel to raise issues of conceptual deficit, ethical ambiguity and failures of representations.’ (232)
In particular, these works are essential for those who cannot imagine the potential of climate change to wreck our ‘safe’ world.
Inspiration.  For some authorities, the story of the Anthropocene begins in 1945, the year of the first detonations of the atomic bomb. Several of the scientists who were closely associated with the bomb’s development made special mention of the inspirational role played in their careers by other stories. Niels Bohr recommended an unfinished novel (1824-) entitled The Adventures of a Danish Student by Poul Martin Møller, quoting the ‘philosophical meditations’ of one of the main characters on the multiplicity of identity: ‘I do not know at which “I” to stop as the actual, and in the moment I stop at one, there is indeed again an “I” which stops at it. I become confused and feel a dizziness as if I were looking down into a bottomless abyss.’ Bohr related how he sought escape from the abyss of infinite introspection in his work, helped by a friend of his father’s Harald Høffding.

Leo Szilard asserted that his ‘addiction to the truth’ and his predilection for ‘Saving the World’ came from stories his mother told him and from a Hungarian classic, The Tragedy of Man, written after the failure of the 1848 revolution by a world-weary nobleman, Imre Imlach. A long poem recounts the progress through history of Adam with Lucifer as his guide, concluding with the sun setting as only a few Eskimos survive. For Szilard, at the end of the narrative, ‘there remains a rather narrow margin of hope.’ Later, his imagination, and perhaps his hope, were stimulated by his reading of H.G. Wells, in particular by two works: The Open Conspiracy (1928) which describes the establishment of a world republic by enlightened industrialists and financiers; and The World Set Free (1914) which includes the description of a war breaking out in 1956 that destroys the major cities through the use of atomic bombs but is followed by the development of atomic energy that allows human beings to escape the solar system.

More simply, following the death of a beloved brother, Enrico Fermi recalled how, following the death of a beloved brother, he did not look back after buying at a bookstall a two-volume work, Elementorum physicae mathematicae, published by a Jesuit physicist in 1840. In a more complex fashion, Robert Oppenheimer related how he wrote short stories and poems while an undergraduate at Harvard, reading widely through T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) to Hindu philosophy as well as Principia Mathematica (1910-13) by Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead. He listed a considerable range of works as his studies of metaphysics: ‘the bhagavad gita, Ecclesiastes, the Stoa, the beginning of the Laws [by Plato], Hugo of St. Victor, St. Thomas, John of the Cross, Spinoza’. He went through Marx, Engels and Feuerbach, but commented: ‘I never accepted Communist dogma or theory; in fact, it never made sense to me.’ Oppenheimer’s choice of the term ‘Trinity’ for the first test site of the atomic bomb was influenced by the sonnet of John Donne beginning ‘Batter my heart, three person’d God....’ At the time of the actual test, he resorted to the declaration of the Hindu god Vishnu in the Bhagavad-Gita: ‘Now I become Death, the destroyer of worlds.’ (Richard Rhodes, The Making of the Atomic Bomb, London: Penguin, 1986, 58-61, 107-8, 123, 150, 205, 446, 572, 676.)    

Explanation.  Climate change is a story going back many centuries but reaching a denouement in our own. The literature on the subject is voluminous, and there are many explanatory websites. However, our perceptions are limited by our personal stories: that is to say, we find it easy enough to appreciate the past (it is worth recalling that, in many languages, ‘story’ and ‘history’ are synonymous) but difficult to imagine a future stretching forward beyond our own life span.

Certainly, the arrival at our present predicament is the culmination of a longer narrative, more helpful for our understanding than a-historical systems analysis when it points towards the evolution of human disaster rather than the continuance of progress. Moreover, arguably, all academic subjects have their own narratives, a fusion of which should allow more certain prognosis of what is to come if we do not adopt an alternative to growth.