I was looking at a picture that I had taken a few years back, of Thumb Butte, just outside of Prescott, Arizona, when the phrase “natural order” popped into my mind. What made this stand out (because words, phrases, and images are popping into my mind all of the time – it is like Tourette’s of the imagination) was the fact that it came to me flagged as ironic. What struck me as ironic, gazing with affection at one of my favorite places in the world, was how seriously disorderly nature really is. That’s what is so lovely about it – it shatters our boundaries with promiscuous abandon. And the only way we prevent such shattering is by murdering nature outright – which, of course, we are also working on with rather more energy and enthusiasm than we ought.
The natural sciences look to distill, while the engineering and technical enterprises look to impose, order from and upon Nature. And there are certainly good and thoroughly ethical reasons for all of these valuable activities. We live longer, healthier lives (certainly on average) than we ever did in the past. Further, the quest for knowledge is, at least arguably, one of the most singularly noble pursuits available to our imaginations. But I’d like to say a little about the negatives, from my version of a Whiteheadian perspective. Now, I am not anti-science; when I’ve criticized contemporary disciplines (see below) it is for their abandonment of real science. Nor am I any manner of luddite; I am composing this missive on a computer, I intend to post it on the internet; I’ve a library that would be the envy of even the wealthiest individuals from a century ago on my Kindle; even as an introvert, I have connections to the outside world far beyond the imaginations of all but the luckiest persons from previous centuries. But there are costs, and we ought to acknowledge that there might be such a thing as “too much.” I began wondering, looking at that picture of Thumb Butte, if that too much might be related to our simplistic notions of “natural order.”
There’s a theme I discussed a while back, long enough that it bears repeating, about the nature of different forms of inquiry (worded somewhat differently from that earlier post):
- Science is the search for new facts.
- Engineering is the search for new applications of known facts.
- Technology is the maintenance of known applications of known facts.
Science goes wrong when it ceases to look for new facts, and instead digs trenches around what it views as its preferred facts. This is what I have addressed elsewhere as “model centrism,” and I’ll not say much more about it here. However, it does strike me now that much of the motivation for model centrism might very well stem (“STEM” – honestly, I didn’t see the pun until after I wrote that) from a desire to possess – to hold, absolutely and conclusively – an order that cannot be justified by the evidence in hand. Doing science – actually, doing inquiry of any sort – requires being patient of uncertainty, and being content with tiny advances, when such advances come at all. Model centrists abjure any pretense of doubt, and demand that the model in hand be given the status of absolute finality. In so doing, the reject any pretense of scientific legitimacy to their adored model.
Engineering can often appeal to persons who crave definite answers and a high degree of certainty about those answers. There is also some evidence that they tend to be a little more conservative than average. These kinds of trends are the sorts of things that might incline a person toward compartmentalized thinking, and away from messy or disorderly situations. Certainly in their professional activities, things have to work, and they cannot do so simply by accident: there has to be a reason why the thing works, and there has to be a reason why it fails (when it fails). (An interesting survey would be to see if, how, and to what extent, this professional requirement for reason and order translates into other aspects of their lives: how tidy is their desk at work? How orderly (or not) is their closet at home?) Engineering goes wrong when it tries to impose this mindset on all aspects of reality, and not merely the application currently being developed. Most problems in the world aren’t really engineering problems, and tackling them as if they were is almost certain to make matters worse. In one sense, at least, the problem with model-centrism in science is that it approaches problems in the same, procrustean way as a rigid, engineering-dominated attitude. In both cases, we see an attempt to impose order without concern for whether the world will accept such an imposition.
Technicians can cover a very wide gamut of attitudes and applications worked on. One might recall here that medical doctors are, in general, more akin to technicians than they are to scientists: the “application” they are working on is the human body, and the nature of their inquiries has little to do with the discovery of new facts than it has with maintenance of that “application.” Because of the extraordinary amount of education and training needed to become a medical practitioner, doctors are famous for taking on something of a “god complex,” although perhaps the awareness of this personal failing of some has made it less endemic to the discipline. As computer technicians, my fellow travelers seldom suffered from such over confidence. Indeed, at the level that I worked, one of the stand out facts was how little any of us ever really understood about the systems we worked on. As anyone knows who uses a computer, a problem that arises will often disappear the moment the machine is rebooted. I used to joke that much of what we did amounted to “witch-doctory,” and that half (or more) of what we did was little better than sacrificing a goat by the full moon and burning its entrails. So while many of us might have been frustrated by the lack of order, few us were under the illusion that we could impose that order. Insofar, technicians might be the group, within the Western knowledge based enterprises, best situated to appreciate nature.
Because nature is fabulously disorderly, and disciplines that put their highest priority on finding, making, or maintaining order, are not ideally suited to engaging that natural chaos on its own level. Science, engineering, and technology are all infused with aesthetic ideals, but the kind of aesthetic governing and informing them is not one that can easily embrace the uncanny floridity of nature’s exuberance. Even in its most harsh environments – The Chinie badlands of Utah, Death Valley in California, hell Antarctica, which makes the Upper Sonoran biome of Thumb Butte look like a veritable Garden of Eden – life (to quote from Jurassic Park) finds a way.
If one were to compare life and nature to music, to be honest the only choice would be the cacophonous disruptions of Bela Bartok. The fact that his music never makes it into a National Geographic special suggests something about the forced order and aesthetic of those otherwise wonderfully informative documentaries. Nature is not a carefully conducted symphony; it is a shrieking, howling, hard scrabble, head butting, thundering, erupting, imposing, mare’s nest of activity.
Above I used the word “uncanny,” a term that has sadly been denuded of its deeper connotations. We hear or read that word today, and we think its synonyms to be things like “odd,” or “surprising,” or “unexpected.” None of these are false, per se, but they radically fail to go far enough. “Uncanny” means more than just “strange,” it means completely unsettling: it is the vertigo you feel when you walk through a door and find yourself standing upon a measureless precipice. It is the unhinged and the unfathomable, brought up close and smothering you, even while you are still able to breath. It is the thing for which you have no unit, no metric – no order – with which to put it on a leash.
THAT is nature, the natural “order” that will never permit its uncanniness to be contained or brushed aside by “theory.” It takes a very special, very subtle, aesthetic sense to appreciate nature in its own. We do very little to cultivate this aesthetic sense any more, to allow ourselves to walk out even into our own backyards and be swarmed by The Wild.
Yet it is there.