De gustibus EST disputandum!

An important, perhaps the most important, task of a good teacher is to dissuade students from making hasty judgments, for it is with this craving that we come into the world, while on the contrary reason only develops very slowly. Infants immediately start crying when they feel unwell and they smile when being treated kindly. But the vocabulary of pubescent young people still contains mainly expressions like super, cool, great or negative ones like poo, disgusting, evil etc. The aversion to independent thinking and the tendency to replace arguments with hasty values and judgments remains in later life – for many people throughout their lives.

As we know, demagogues and populists know how to make virtuoso use of this innate inclination when they seduce their clientele with emotionally charged promises or vice versa with slogans of hate. Stirring up emotions for some tempting cause is in line with the human herd instinct – but to be outraged against some real or imaginary evil welds people even closer together. Only slowly and often very laboriously is man brought to maturity and reason when asking for relevant facts before pronouncing his judgment.

So far, we should applaud teachers when they try to impart this very important lesson to their students: “First acquire thorough knowledge before you presume to pass your own judgement.”

On the other hand, we should be allowed to ask,

what a person will look like if taking this seemingly golden rule literally in that he contents himself with mere factual knowledge? The answer is obvious, though quite sobering. We would be dealing with a walking encyclopedia. As is well known, these works of collected facts are neither able to arouse enthusiasm, nor are they capable of outrage. They are emotionally aseptic containers of pure knowledge. But does this freedom from emotion make them carriers of reason? I doubt that anybody will answer this question in the affirmative. Pure facts about the world and human beings say nothing at all about how we should relate to them. Let us hope that teachers know this quite well and therefore do not try to transform their students into walking encyclopedias!

But are there not also flesh and blood human beings,

who come closest to the ideal so dear to the heart of teachers? People, who completely abstain or at least want to abstain from judging and evaluating because they are only interested in facts? Indeed – this kind of person has been around since the 17th century at the latest, and it has spread exponentially across the globe, so that one day it could even become the dominant type. Everyone knows, of course, who I am talking about here, namely scientists – especially those who deal with the facts of nature.

In the textbooks of physics, chemistry, engineering, etc., there is no mention of good and evil, beautiful or ugly. The real breakthrough of the sciences consisted precisely in this turnaround: man asked exclusively about the objective laws governing nature, without bringing his subjective hopes and desires into play.

This was the great achievement that first succeeded in 17th century Europe, for until then man had done exactly the opposite. He had projected his own will, desire, hate and hope into nature by imagining it in his own image, as if controlled by the same forces of will and hope, that governed himself. But science has pushed human values, such as good and evil, beautiful and ugly, completely out of nature, which it conceived as a kind of machine. It was only after this revolutionary step that man became nature’s master.

The theoretical foundation for this revolution

was laid by Galileo Galilei at the end of the 16th century, when he postulated a fundamental difference between “primary” and “secondary” properties of things. Shape, size, number as well as rest or movement belong, according to Galileo, to the inherent or primary properties, whereas taste, smell or sound are secondary sensations that arise in ourselves through our dealings with the external world.*1*

This division of knowledge into objective – lying in objects themselves – and subjective – lying in man – was further deepened after Galileo, because it seemed obvious that aesthetic and ethical standards too (beautiful and ugly, good and evil) must have their origin in man but not in things. For this very reason it would not occur to a scientist to qualify a uranium atom as morally bad or the quantum leap as esthetically ugly. As a matter of fact and of principle, science has banned all subjective judgments and values from its own sphere. It has extended the Latin motto “de gustibus non disputandum” far beyond its rather harmless everyday use. The Romans were critical of arguing about questions of taste, because each of us likes to defend our own preferences. Since Galileo, science has taken a decisive step beyond this harmless admonition by rejecting all human values and judgements as subjective and thus relegating them to a status of arbitrariness.*2*

If science were right in upholding this conviction,

man would have to regard himself as a mistake of evolution, because what use is the subjective tendency to relate his own value judgements to people and things around him? Shouldn’t he rather have been shaped into a walking encyclopedia? Why is he so enthusiastic about beauty and keeps away from what he rejects as ugly? Why does he ask for justice and condemn deceit and selfishness, when these are merely subjective and arbitrary values that he draws from himself? Shouldn’t man be guided exclusively by facts and probabilities?

The renowned German sociologist Max Horkheimer succinctly expressed the problem in the following words: “According to the philosophy of the average modern intellectual there is only one authority, namely science, understood as the classification of facts and the calculation of probabilities. The statement that justice and freedom are in themselves better than injustice and oppression is scientifically unverifiable and useless. It sounds just as meaningless as the statement that ‘red is more beautiful than blue or an egg is better than milk’ ” (1967, 33).

The statement is remarkable, because it shows that something in our world view has gone awry or maybe even be totally wrong.

If teachers were serious about the intention

to wean students from values in order to stuff them exclusively with facts, they would have turned our schools into training grounds for future scientists. However, they would be somewhat careless in doing so, as they overlook the fact that scientists always remain human beings. As such, no matter how much they seem to abstain from value judgments, they never can do without them.

No, I don’t refer to the fashionable objection, which might immediately come to the mind of some readers. We are used to hearing again and again, even from clever contemporaries, that we should not talk about objectivity, because it is no more than a pipe dream. Even supposedly “objective” science offers only subjective views of reality.*3*

I am sorry to say that this is logical nonsense. The number of solar planets does not depend on our subjective will and desires any more than the relative weight of iron and copper. True, the laws of nature are necessarily described in conventional concepts of human language, which in their turn may rely on different units of measurement and we may, of course, choose to illuminate quite different dimensions of reality, but the latter itself is not subject to change because of our descriptions (quantum physics only being partly a different matter). Our descriptions remain “objectively correct” if predictions based on them are correct and they are “objectively wrong” if they are not. The fact that we invented so many machines that perform exactly the tasks they are made to fulfill constitutes an obvious proof that we have correctly understood the laws of nature. Contrary to the view of German idealist Gottlieb Fichte, persistent regularities of nature exist outside of the ideas we may conceive about the latter – that is precisely what objectivity means.

Until the 17th century, the objective autonomy of nature

did not come into view. Until then, nature was conceived as the playground of gods and spirits, who ruled it by means of will and desire. Man had projected his own self and essence into nature.*4* As he himself was guided by his own will, nature was guided by the will of spiritual powers. If he wanted to find his way through nature and influence events, he had to recognize what gods and spirits consider good or bad, beautiful or ugly – in other words, he had to study their will and intentions.

Therein lay the aspiration of most people before the onset of the scientific revolution. “Get to know and to propitiate the world’s hidden spiritual agents (gods and ghosts) and you will easily come to terms with nature and man.”

For in this prescientific view, the regularities of nature, its so-called laws, were not independent of will and desire: the gods could override or change them at any time by way of alternative laws or miracles – and man could do so by propitiating the gods through prayer and sacrifice or even by trying to compel them by magical means.

Scientists have put an end to this view

by insisting on the objective autonomy, in short the “objectivity” of nature. Gods, myths, fairy tales and art – all these projections of human values and desires – they have banished completely from extra-human reality.

And yet this is not the whole story. In the process of demystifying the world, scientists had definitely to stop at one point – namely at their own persons.  For it is precisely here that will and desire inevitably play a decisive role. The scientist must be subjectively convinced that it is as important for himself as it is for humanity to unravel nature’s objective rules. Only after having settled this question for himself will he be ready to undergo the enormous efforts of scientific research. After all, many scientists submit to a way of life that bears the greatest similarity to the asceticism of medieval monks.

At this point, personal subjectivity comes into full play

But individual intentions are by no means sufficient to make science possible. Intentions and inclinations use to be as diverse as individuals. No matter how passionately someone may be interested in the family tree of the man in the moon, his passion is of no use to him if he is unable to convince the general public of the relevance of the subject. Since the 18th century more and more people were willing to support research because its results started to make their lives so much easier. Without this positive attitude towards science, i.e. without the collective evaluation of the new way of dealing with nature as right and good, the rise of science would never have taken place.

This leads to an important conclusion. Man is inevitably prompted by subjective desires even when completely eliminating his own values of good and evil while exploring the objective structure of nature – he wouldn’t do so unless driven by the urge of improving or enriching his life. If it had turned out that science only worsens people’s lives, it certainly would never have gained any influence in the first place.*5* In the past, different world views were regularly abandoned for this very reason – they did not keep the promises they had made. To name just one among many examples. In the infamous massacre of Wounded Knee in 1890, the ghost shirts of the Indians proved to be completely ineffective against white man’s bullets. But they had been praised by local seers as an absolute weapon guaranteed by the gods.

Because man cannot help but evaluate

his own actions and thoughts according to moral or aesthetic criteria, it is very well conceivable that one day society may considerably reduce its support for science. German sociologist Ulrich Beck stated that modern mankind has created what he called Risk Society. That was forty years ago. In the meantime, risks have long since turned into dire reality. Science and technology are increasingly concerned with getting to grips with the largely unforeseen, partly catastrophic consequences of their own making, that is, of science and technology. At the latest since the climate crisis, we are living in what we now should call Repair Society. What progress has spoiled, progress is now supposed to repair.

On the one hand, the world created by science

corresponds to the deepest hopes and wishes of mankind. Famines have been largely eliminated, most diseases successfully overcome, life has been prolonged and made much easier by lots of amazing inventions. It is precisely this undoub­ted progress that led to the resounding success of the new world view. But since the second half of the twentieth century, the dark sides of this development have become increasingly visible too. More than 4000 nuclear explosives, dozens of lethal nerve poisons, hundreds of biological and chemical weapons are ready to exterminate humanity several times over. But even if their use may seem unlikely to optimists, it cannot be ignored that the residues and toxins of industrial production are globally contaminating air, soil and oceans – the air being already irreversibly polluted with carbon dioxide. In other words: the industrial Anthropocene, while turning out to be a fountainhead of unbelievable material progress, has at the same time created conditions that may transform progress into mankind’s greatest step backwards – a potential catastrophe which threatens not only the environment but also the very survival of our species.

In such a completely new and unique situation

we will again have to recognize that what ultimately counts are human values, wishes and hopes. De gustibus est disputandum! Humanity will have to ask itself what kind of life it wants for the future, because its future depends on such valuations. In doing so, it cannot avoid critically examining its previous dealing with reality. Science and technology are not areas detached from life, but must serve the well-being of mankind. If they do not or no longer do so, their use will have to be reconsidered in the same way as all other phenomena when they threaten to harm society.

But here too, humanity,

– shaken by the devastation caused by the “materialistic world view” – runs the risk of throwing the baby out with the bathwater and falling back into superstition, esotericism and the denial of truth. The conscientious look at facts, which for three centuries science has made the basis of its approach, is an essential achievement, behind which there can be no going back. For it is this understanding of truth that enlightens us about the possibilities open to human will and where it encounters insurmountable limits. Ghost shirts do not protect against bullets, the exploitation of resources cannot go on indefinitely in a finite world. The poisoning of the environment with the residues of industrial production is another limit. It must be radically reduced if we are to survive in this world. The number of people or their consumption of resources must be commensurate with the carrying capacity of the planet.

It is the spirit of science, the spirit of reason, that asks such questions, but that reason is always based on human will and desire. Reason can never be value-free, because a value-free robot does neither care about life nor the fate of human beings. Nature itself is indifferent to whether humans exist or not.

These considerations owe their origin

to a rather trivial circumstance. A good acquaintance, a teacher, criticized the author of a historical work, whom I hold in high esteem, saying that he always tends to make value-judgments.*6* She was so thoroughly imbued with the resolve of weaning her students from evaluations that she could not tolerate these even in a work of history where they constitute the only means of bringing dead facts to life. I would, of course, be very skeptical if a chemist were to differentiate between beautiful and ugly hydrocarbons. As a rule, reality appears to him only in the form of symbols and formulas that are and should be free of all emotional connotations. This is generally true even for the language of the natural sciences, which is radically different from the emotionally colored idioms of everyday life.*7*

The humanities, however,

do not examine human beings in the manner of doctors, physiologists or geneticists as objects subject to the laws of chemistry, physics etc. just like the rest of nature; they want to understand them in a second and different way: as psychic entities (Wilhelm Dilthey). In so doing they want us to understand other people – regardless of time or origin – as we understand ourselves, namely as wanting and desiring beings. The mere enumeration of facts does not make history and certainly not explain it. We understand people only to the extent that we succeed in putting ourselves in their shoes by asking how we would behave under similar circumstances. Of course, we only succeed up to a certain degree – when not succeeding, their behavior becomes a mere fact remaining strange and incomprehensible. This is frequently the case when we deal with people whose culture we only superficially know. When dealing with other species, it becomes the rule. In a very imperfect way, we understand what happens in the minds of dogs and cats, no matter how many facts we gather about their behavior. And how a Corona virus experiences the world, we do not understand at all. The virus exists for us only as a value-free fact, like a hedge trimmer or a washing machine.

Brilliant historians are masters of understanding

They transform facts into events that concern us because they provide us with mirrors of ourselves serving as examples or warnings. When history becomes a mere value-free fact, it is as foreign to us as a virus or a lunar eclipse. It then lacks any human interest, unlike the facts of natural science, it does not even offer the instrumental use of controlling nature. Teachers should take this to heart when they inoculate their students with the hunt for facts. Certainly, without knowledge of facts we would be blind to reality, but without judging the facts according to whether or not they serve man’s will and desires, they are a dead weight.*8*

1 Philosophy is written in the great book that has always been before our eyes: I mean the universe. But we cannot understand its meaning until we have learned the language and grasped the symbols in which it is written. This book is written in the language of mathematics and its symbols are triangles, circles and other geometric figures. Without their help, it is impossible to understand a single word; without them, we wander through a dark labyrinth without success. (Galileo, 1842; Vol.IV, p.171)

So I do not believe that external things, in order to evoke in us sensations of taste, smell or sound, require anything other than size, shape, number and slow or fast movement. If we had removed ears, tongues and noses, I believe that the shape, number and movement would remain, but not the smells, tastes or sounds. Because outside the living being, in my opinion, these are nothing but names… (Galileo, 1936; II, p.801)

2 This denigration of the cultural, including the religious sphere, as ultimately arbitrary or even accidental was the result of the scientific revolution, which only allowed the laws of nature to be regarded as “iron”, “eternal” and “unbreakable”. This amounted to a devaluation of human creations – it is no wonder that for three centuries mankind has been occupied only with the exploration of non-human nature and its laws, while the sciences related to man and history, the humanities, have been removed from the curricula of schools and universities.

3 I can still remember a discussion with the Goliath among Austrian philosophers, namely Paul-Konrad Liessmann, who (at a meeting on the Kulm, Styria) held exactly this position. He probably never forgave me, who at that time took on the role of David, for daring to contradict him.

4 The thesis of projection, as already advocated by Xenophanes in antiquity and in more recent times by Ludwig Feuerbach, seems evident on the one hand, on the other hand it suffers from superficiality. It seems evident, because even a cursory look into the history of religions shows that people have attributed their own all-too-human qualities to gods and spirits. Even Prof. Hans Küng would hardly claim that the process has been the other way round, namely that people have copied and appropriated the all-too-human qualities of real gods. On the other hand, will (and the freedom it implies) proves to be as necessary a principle for explaining the complexity of this world as its counterpart: the principle of causality; both are complementary (see Jenner: Creative Reason – A Philosophy of Freedom (dedicated to William James).

5 That it was the success of the new scientific interpretation of the world which earned it the reputation of being logically “right” is also the view of Ludwig Boltzmann. “It is not logic, not philosophy, not metaphysics that decides in the last instance whether something is true or false, but the deed. That is why I do not consider the achievements of technology to be incidental byproducts of natural science, I consider them to be logical proofs. If we had not achieved these practical achievements, we would not know how to conclude. Only such conclusions which have practical success are correct” (1990).

6 Egon Friedell. I appreciate this ingenious historical dilettante (as whom he describes himself) precisely because of his evaluations, for as far as the quantity and, sometimes, even the reliability of facts are concerned, academic modern historians are, of course, in a much better position, especially since the “Cultural History of the modern Age” was written during the twenties of the last century. But Friedell’s artistic empathy and style are unsurpassed – if we accept the American Will Durant.

7 But in the early days, there were quite a few natural scientists who knew how to describe the beauty of crystals or of vegetative forms so convincingly that they contributed significantly to the enthusiasm for their respective fields (think of Ernst Häckel, for example).

8 This essay leaves many problems open. Science does not consist of a mere collection of facts, but of theories that combine facts into consistent wholes that can explain as wide a range of reality as possible. Since confirmed theories are not based on subjective assessments, but describe objective structures, they too belong to the sphere of facts. But what about reason, which asks about the limits of causality and our “objective” knowledge? On this topic I have tried to work out some perhaps not entirely irrelevant reflections elsewhere (Jenner, op. cit.).

From William E. Rees I got the following feedback by email:

Dear Gero –

I was, as usual, intrigued by your latest essay on the proper role of human values, wishes and hopes (about which there will always be disputes). 

In fact, this essay touched a number of nerves. As a scientist (systems ecologist) teaching in a school of planning and public policy, my primary had always been the judicious application of “objective (ecological) knowledge” to questions of human socioeconomic development.  By this I meant reasoned or evidence-based analysis seasoned by consideration of people’s history, desires, beliefs and aspirations.  However, it also meant making the case that policies and plans designed to satisfy people’s hopes and aspirations should be seasoned with hard facts and analysis about the biophysical world. If taken seriously, these would often impose constraints on the hopes and aspirations of client communities – even my colleague economists and social planners would sometimes object.

One colleague was an avowed post-modernist of the type you would regard as tending to ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater.’  To her, scientific data had no special place in decision-making; there was no such thing as objective knowledge. She saw science as just another form of value-based ‘social construct’ that oppressed human ambition, apparently making no distinction between things which could actually be measured in time and space (e.g., water contamination, carbon emissions) and things that were entirely products of the human mind (e.g., democracy, civil rights).  Students who took courses from both of us were often torn between what they saw as conflicting interpretations of ‘what is real’. 

In working with students to resolve this problem, I often remembered something one of my undergraduate professors had emphasized—scientists were obliged to ferret out the objective truth but should stay away from policy and politics.  These were the domains of the value-based ‘humanities’ and social scientists.  In short, budding hard scientists were taught that the biophysical sciences could produce the numbers and discoveries, but it was up to political leaders — including policy wonks and planners — to decide whether and how the science should be applied (inadvertently providing an excuse for scientists working on the development of atomic weaponry). 

It seems that the separation of fact from values is endemic to western-style learning.  I remember being intrigued on discovery that modern neoliberal economic text-books pretend to eschew moral and ethical considerations.  In its efforts to appear ‘scientific’, formal economics (whose theoretical foundations and simplistic models owe a great deal to Newtonian analytic mechanics) ignores such soft considerations as attachment to place, compassion for others, the existence of family and friends, the idea of community, etc., etc.  Again, concern for these things is the domain of politics, not sound economics, and, as all students of economics learn, political intervention in the market introduces gross inefficiencies that undermine the elegant operation of short-term self-interest in market-based decision-making. In effect, values other than efficiency are disallowed.

I have never understood how mainstream economics can see people as ‘self-interested utility maximizers with fixed preferences and unlimited material demands’ as if this were a value-free description of H. sapiens, and markets as the most efficient allocators of essential resources as if privileging efficiency were not itself a value judgement with enormous moral implications.

There is one part of your essay that I might have structured differently.  You note that:

 “…the industrial Anthropocene, while turning out to be a fountainhead of unbelievable material progress, has at the same time created conditions that may transform progress into mankind’s greatest step backwards – a potential catastrophe which threatens not only the environment but also the very survival of our species.”

It seems to me that this phrasing confuses the fact of science-led material progress with the effects generated by shear economic scale and thus obscures the real cause.  The ecological crisis – potential catastrophe – is not the product of science and technology per se, but rather results from excessive population and average per capita resource consumption (i.e., economic growth beyond limits).  Humanity is in overshoot; we are consuming bioresources faster than ecosystems can regenerate and discharging wastes in excess of nature’s capacity to assimilate/neutralize. 

Most importantly, overshoot results from both nature and nurture: H. sapiens, like all other species has a genetically-determined predisposition to expand into accessible habitat and use all available resources (this is our ‘nature’) but  these tendencies are currently being reinforced  by the socially-constructed myth of perpetual economic growth driven by continuous technological progress (this is contemporary ‘nurture’).

Since a primary role of social learning (nurture) is to override natural behavioural predispositions that have become maladaptive in the context of ‘civilization’, the eco-crisis is arguably more a failure of human values, hopes and and aspirations than it is a product of science.  Far from tempering humanity’s primitive expansionist tendencies, the socially-constructed beliefs, values, assumptions of techno-industrial civilization amplify these now-destructive behaviours which are playing out on a finite planet.  

Worse, they combine with another highly-subjective social construct, human exceptionalism, which sees our species as somehow detached from nature and not subject natural laws.  This narrative virtually guarantees the continued dissipative destruction of the ecosphere and the collapse of life-support functions upon which we all depend.

Many thanks again for a thought-provoking essay and the chance to revisit some of my own life experience.

Best, 

Bill

My reply:

Dear Bill,

Thanks for your thoughtful and benevolent criticism, which points to a problem that I was well aware of even while writing the essay. Can the latter not be understood as a quasi-biblical objection to the presumption of knowledge, as if man had done better never to eat from the tree of knowledge? May it not even be read as an obscurantist criticism of modern science?

No, certainly not. You quote the passage where I decisevely reject such a misinterpretation. Science has provided a new foundation for truth: there is objective knowledge and it would be the worst regression if we were to fall back into superstition and esotericism, as often happens today. But – and this thesis pervades all my work – objective knowledge is not enough, it can only serve to define the limits and possibilities of human freedom (being, however, essential for that very purpose). Basically, I am only saying that scientists are not what some great philosophers of 18th century Enlightenment and their late descendants like Steven Pinker wanted to see in them, namely supermen. Man is more than what he represents as a scientist because apart from the laws of nature (which are the objects of his studies), there is also freedom, about which his theories either know nothing or which he reduces to mere chance.

This fundamental criticism seems important to me, but in your answer you discuss a point of greater practical relevance. Possibly you are quite right that my article may be understood as a warning as if science and technology themselves were responsible for many of present-day predicaments and not just the fact that their application by ten billion people inevitably produces quite different consequences than if they were applied by two billion only. Although I have sought the blame in the “Industrial Anthropocene” (not directly pointing to science and technology), the suspicion remains.

I admit that this is a difficult point, because science is based on an elementary urge, human curiosity, which is the breeding ground both for everything great and for everything terrible. I am afraid that this elementary urge gives us the same intellectual satisfaction when we apply it to the study of neutron bombs as to that of vaccines. That is why I believe that it is man’s ethical sense alone that can lead him to turn towards one and away from the other. Yes, in this sense – but in this sense only – do I believe that there may be a time that we must set limits to our thirst for knowledge, which means: limits even to science. After all the thirst for knowledge still operates in a boundless field even if only directed to things great.

Oh, I am concluding this letter with a rather trivial remark.

Best Gero

Mr. Rees’ answer:

Gero –

you are exceptionally fast off the mark–and your concluding paragraph is anything but trivial.  

You say: “…I believe that it is man’s ethical sense alone that can lead him to turn towards one and away from the other. Yes, in this sense – but in this sense only – do I believe that there may be a time that we must set limits to our thirst for knowledge, which means: limits even to science.”  

Seems to me that this is the distilled essence of the original essay and perhaps should be inserted/ amplified in such clear  words toward the end.  

Actually, this extract is really what I was trying to get at with my own more clumsy prose. 

I wrote: “Since a primary role of social learning (nurture) is to override natural behavioural predispositions that have become maladaptive in the context of ‘civilization’, the eco-crisis is arguably more a failure of human values, hopes and and aspirations than it is a product of science.”   

This is really an assertion that we have failed to use our ethical/moral sense (and associated values) to steer us toward accepting limits on the application of science (and techno-driven growth).  Hence, our failure to assert certain important human capacities is more to blame for the crisis than is science per se.  

And, again, the result is that the dominant “…beliefs, values, assumptions of techno-industrial civilization amplify [the natural but] now-destructive behaviours which are playing out on a finite planet.”    

With highest regards, 

Bill

From Prof. Steve Pinker I got the following feedback:

Please delete.