A World View for Wild Law

The following is based on a talk to the United Kingdom Environmental Law Association(UKELA) workshop in the Lee Valley on 24th – 26th September 2010. The attitude to life that it seeks to define seems highly appropriate to the concept of Enlightened Agriculture.

Laws concentrate the mind wonderfully but they don’t really work – and perhaps they’re not even good laws – unless they reflect the zeitgeist – the spirit of the age; what Thomas Kuhn called the prevailing “paradigm”. If we really want wild law to work we need to work on the underlying paradigm – on how we view our fellow creatures, and on whether we feel in our depths that the Earth as a whole must be treated with reverence, or is a bonanza, a “resource”, to be turned into commodities with all possible speed, for the exclusive comfort and enrichment of human beings. At the moment, the latter view prevails.

Those who most firmly espouse the current paradigm seem supremely self-confident because, they feel, they can’t possibly be wrong. The paradigm is ultimately rigorous, no-nonsense. It is rooted in fact of the most solid kind – observation, made repeatedly, in this way and that, with the most refined instruments. Ideas – hypotheses – are floated to explain those facts and then those hypotheses are tested to breaking point, and then tested again, with every step subject to “peer review”. The whole procedure is inexorably logical and the logic is that of mathematics – absolutely precise, absolutely explicit.

Thus the truth about the world is discovered by method, and the method is ultimately “robust”. The method is, in fact, that of science; and science is seen as the ultimate manifestation, the apotheosis, of rationality. The conclusions reached by this rational process must surely be true – for what else can truth possibly be? Indeed, some suggest, this inexorable process of discovery is leading us towards omniscience; and omniscience will, in effect, make us omnipotent. We human beings – known rhetorically as “Man” – are masters of all we survey, and of our own destiny.  The triumphs of modern science, manifest not least in the “high” technologies that have emerged from our new, scientific appreciation of natural forces, show us beyond all reasonable doubt that the theories of science must be right.

Contrariwise, every other way of looking at the world is flawed: woolly and arbitrary; reliant on intuition and on emotional response; making claims and assumptions that are not rooted unambiguously in observation, and cannot be subjected to the logic of maths – and indeed cannot be rigorously investigated at all. Since science is perceived as the ultimate exercize in investigative rigour, it follows that every idea that is not rooted in science must fall short, and should be thrown out. Such ideas and the attitudes they give rise to are seen to be anachronistic; a vestige of our primitive past; notions evolved within our hunting-gathering Pliocene-Pleistocene ancestors on the plains of Africa. Their function was not and is not to guide us toward deep truth, but simply to keep us alive from day to day. For day-to-day purposes, all kinds of woolly assumptions may serve us well enough. The point is to avoid hyaenas – not to get understand them in any depth, or the universe as a whole. But for present, modern purposes – seven billion people bent on intellectual and material “progress” – untested assumptions will not do. We need rigour.

Out of this no-nonsense, self-confident view of the world has emerged, as night follows day, a whole host of notions that bear directly on all aspects of our lives – and, through us, on the lives of all creatures and the fabric of the Earth itself. Thus the modern worldview is entirely materialistic and mechanistic. In the 14th century when clockwork itself was new the universe was said (by some) to work like clockwork. Seventeenth century natural philosophers including Isaac Newton suggested that “natural law” kept the universe on track. The 17th century greats were all devout, and took it to be self-evident there could be no laws without a law-maker, meaning God: but as the Enlightenment got underway in the 18th century, the law-maker began to seem superfluous, and atheism emerged as a respectable philosophy. Atheism is justified in large part by appealing to the principle of “Occam’s Razor”. This is the name given to the famous declaration from William of Occam (or Ockham) in the 14th century: “Non sunt multiplicanda entia praetor necessitatem” — “Entities are not to be multiplied beyond necessity”. In other words, our explanations of the universe and everything within it should be based on things we know (or think we know) – such as the known laws of physics. We shouldn’t drag in extraneous, hypothetical factors ad hoc to fill in the gaps. William was a Franciscan friar and took it to be self-evident that God Himself was a very necessary component of the universe. But modern atheists have recruited him to their cause and used his rule to boot out God as well.

Consciousness, closely related to the concept of mind, is another victim of materialist-atheist rigour, hacked away by the Occamist razor. People tend to think of mind as a phenomenon in its own right – Descartes saw mind and matter as the twin components of the universe. But in the materialist world there is only matter, and consciousness (as the American philosopher Dan Dennet has explained at length) is just the noise that neurons make, neurons being the cells of which nerves and brains are made. In the materialist-mechanist view of things the brain is compared to a computer. Human minds are advanced computers, practicing massively parallel processing. Computers can’t yet replicate the human mind, but they soon will. Human emotions are a way of setting the computer into a new mode. The sensation of emotion – what we feel – is a kind of illusion; how the brain registers the change of mode. The minds of other animals are similar in principle but much cruder. Through much of the 20th century animal psychology, at least of the kind that was considered scientific, was dominated by “behaviourism”. Everything an animal did (and indeed what humans did) was explained by variations on a theme of reflex and response, with reflexes compared to electric circuitry.  The arch champion of behaviourism, B F Skinner, even invoked behaviourist mechanisms to explain the way that humans learn language – he suggested that children are rewarded for using the appropriate words. Then Noam Chomsky pointed out as any parent must surely have known that the behaviourist mechanisms he proposed had nothing to do with reality.

It follows too from all this that the materialist-atheist view is entirely anthropocentric. There is no God to judge us. We ourselves are our only judges. We indeed are the only thinking creatures, and even we are just computers on legs. Furthermore, the universe is just stuff so we may as well just treat it as stuff.

Crucial to the modern paradigm is Charles Darwin’s idea of evolution by means of natural selection, dating from the mid 19th century. My own education is in biology and Darwin has always been one of my heroes. He was, after all, a fine gentleman, a family man, and a humanitarian who in maturity looked after the local villagers and as a young man out-faced Brazilian slave-owners (and his ship’s captain) during his voyage on The Beagle. He is also recognized as one of the greatest field biologists of all time; and the book in which he formally laid out his ideas on evolution, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, belongs in a very short shortlist of books that have truly transformed human understanding, of just about everything. He is worthy to be anyone’s hero.

But Darwin was a human being as all scientists are although some try not to be, and like all human beings he was a child of his own time; and he grew up in turbulent and dangerous times that gave rise to enormous pessimism on all fronts. In particular, in the late 18th century, with repeats in the early 19th, the gloomy economist-cleric Thomas Robert Malthus (known cosily as Bob) predicted that the human species was bound to crash since rising numbers were bound to outstrip the food supply. The early years of the industrial revolution brought rising urban misery, and the harvest failure of 1815-16, hard on the heels of the Napoleonic wars, seemed to confirm his prognostications. Tennyson in the 1830s wrote of “Nature red in tooth and claw”. At the same time, even before Victoria, orthodox Christian theology, and the certainty that went with it, began to lose its hold. Later, Matthew Arnold compared the decline of religious orthodoxy with the sound of the retreating sea:  “… now I only hear Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar”.

Darwin grew up with all this. As a naturalist, he also perceived that Malthus’s misgivings about the human race must apply in principle to all living creatures: all tend to out-breed their resources. Therefore, he said, all creatures are obliged to compete for what there is – “the struggle for existence”. The ones that are best adapted to the prevailing conditions are most likely to win the competition and have offspring of their own. Hence “natural selection” – nature selects the ones that are best suited, best adapted, to their surroundings. As Herbert Spencer then put the matter, natural selection leads to “survival of the fittest” (where fittest has the Victorian meaning of “most apt”): an aphorism that Darwin later adopted.

Natural selection shapes lineages of creatures as the generations pass. This shaping, “descent with modification”, is evolution. It has made all creatures – including ourselves – what we are. Natural selection does not truly create but, by selecting from what is on offer, it acts creatively. Yet it is driven by competition. Life is perceived as one long punch-up from conception to the compost heap. Nature is indeed red in tooth and claw.

In the mid 20th century a small group of biologists in Britain and the US suggested that natural selection does not work primarily on individual creatures, as Darwin himself envisaged, but on individual genes. Each gene is engaged in perpetual struggle, both with other genes in the same genome, and with other genes in other individuals. By the mid 20th century it was known that genes are made of DNA. They are chemistry, in short; refined chemistry, but chemistry nonetheless. Their special property is that they can replicate. Lebensraum and resources are limited for genes just as they are for whole creatures, so there is competition between them. The genes that replicate most efficiently, survive. But individual genes, mere bits of DNA, are of course mindless, and have no sense of purpose. They just replicate – or not, depending on how things turn out. They are blind, dumb, and deaf, oblivious of all around them; or as Richard Dawkins memorably if deceptively put the matter, they are simply “selfish”. The Selfish Gene, published in 1976, has been one of the biggest best-sellers. Whole creatures, said Dawkins, including us, are mere “vehicles” for our selfish DNA.

Since the 1970s the notion has been further elaborated. Evolutionary psychologists have sought to explain all animal including human behaviour in genetic terms; some genes promote the kind of behaviour that enables their possessor to compete and to survive, and some do not. The reason why some genes are more likely to survive than others is analyzed in terms of game theory. Richard Dawkins has called this mode of analysis “ultradarwinian”. Here, surely, is ultimate understanding: human behaviour explained by chemistry and maths. Tony Blair tells us in his memoirs that he likes to “drill down” to the truth. Well, you can’t drill much deeper than this.

So we have the prevailing worldview: materialistic; mechanistic; ultimately “rationalist”; and atheistic. It is inspired by the general notion of natural law and by Darwin’s particular notion of natural selection – which is rooted in the concept of struggle and of competition; and all is now explained by the chemistry of DNA and by game theory. Overall, as Richard Dawkins has expressly informed us, the universe is bleak and indifferent, not to say pitiless, and we are just chemistry, like everything else.

This worldview in turn, inevitably, has spilled over into everyday life: our attitude to morality; to the economy; to each other and to the world as a whole. Our overall position is of course to be anthropocentric because human beings are part of the great competitive process and there is no reason in Heaven or Earth why human beings should acknowledge the rights or even the presence of anything else except insofar as it contributes to our own survival. If we behave morally, which implies unselfishly and indeed altruistically, helping others even at cost to ourselves (as opposed merely through enlightened self-interest), then this can be only because we choose, as thinking beings, to override the clamourings of our own genes: or, as earlier generations might have put the matter, to “rise above nature”.

Morality becomes an exercize in utilitarianism; and since everything nowadays is quantified, utilitarianism becomes an exercize in cost effectiveness.

The economy that emerges from all this is rooted, naturally, entirely in personal advantage where personal advantage is measured in material gain. Economists conventionally take it as their premise that human beings benefit and are made happy by acquisition; and this is taken in a simplistic way to be a truth rooted in biology. More specifically, the ultimately competitive neoliberal market is seen to be essentially Darwinian – or indeed ultradarwinian. Philosophers and sages have been warning us at least since St Paul that behaviour that is natural isn’t necessarily right, morally – a sentiment most famously summarized by David Hume in the 18th century who pointed out (although this is a paraphrase) that we cannot derive an “ought” from an “is”. G E Moore at the turn of the 20th century spoke of “the naturalistic fallacy”. In practice, though, we do tend to judge good behaviour in part by how natural we perceive it to be – certainly we condemn what we perceive to be “unnatural” behaviour. (Cardinal Newman pointed out in the mid 19th century that although Hume was right in principle – there is no logical connection between what is and what ought to be — in practice many different lines of thought lead us from one to the other).

If, then, the world itself is naturally unsympathetic, competitive to the death, it seems perfectly reasonable to suggest that our present, neoliberal economy — based on uncompromising competition — is also perfectly natural, and so is perfectly acceptable, and indeed is right. Thus I remember an Enron director who ran off to Ohio or some such state with a billion dollars or so of the investors’ loot claiming that this was fine because he had just read Selfish Gene and learned that human beings are, like everything else, naturally selfish and so it was OK. This is feeble logic and not at all what Dawkins intended but we can see nonetheless how this idea arose. Indeed I know an Oxford zoology DPhil who earns his living, or much of it, telling big business that the neoliberal way is the Darwinian way and therefore is nature’s way and therefore is OK.

Since this whole paradigm is rooted in undeniable observation, elaborated by thinking that is unimpeachably logical and indeed mathematical, it cannot possibly be wrong, or so its protagonists suppose. The universe is indifferent. We are machines, like everything else, driven by our innate impulsion to out-compete our fellows and to maximize our share of the resources, and the resources are the world at large and our fellow creatures. This may not be a cheering worldview, but we just to get used to it. Truth in the end is best, no matter how unpalatable. Everything else is wishful thinking.

There are, however, good reasons for doubting whether the oh-so confident worldview of the hard-liners is really as solid as it may seem.  Here are few of those reasons.

How much can science really tell us?

At first glance, the 20th century seemed to vindicate the hopes of the 18th century Enlightenment: that rationality in general and science in particular can and in time will tell us all that there is to know. The matter was sewn up – or so it seemed – at the start of the century by the logical positivists. In essence (though this of course is a fairly vicious paraphrase) they said that statements that cannot be proved quite simply have no meaning. The only statements that can be proved, they suggested, were those that have to do with the material universe – theories that relate to things we can see and stub our toes on. This, they took to be obvious, is the stuff of science. Ergo, the statements of science have meaning, and all the rest is idle wool-gathering. This means in effect that science is the only road to truth, and is the sole arbiter of truth. Clearly the philosophy of logical positivism rested heavily on science; and many scientists in turn became logical positivists. Logical positivism formally died a death by about the 1970s but those who espouse the modern, prevailing way of looking at the world are logical positivists, although they tend not to use the term. Instead they equate science with rationalism, and simply think of themselves as rationalists.

Various lines of thought knocked logical positivism off its perch. In particular, Karl Popper in the 1930s pointed out that no empirical statement about the universe can be proven beyond all possible doubt, or even beyond all reasonable doubt. All the theories of science are provisional statements, waiting to be knocked off their perch – either refuted, or else subsumed within some larger idea. The classic example is that of Newton’s mechanics, which cannot possibly be wrong – and indeed is surely not wrong. Yet, following Einstein, we can now see that Newton’s laws apply only to middle-sized objects moving at middling speeds. In particular, as we approach the speed of light, the rules change. More broadly, as J S Mill pointed out in the 19th century, no matter how much we know, there could always be things we simply haven’t thought of: what Donald Rumsfeld famously called “unknown unknowns”. Science, in short, does not and cannot provide the royal road to truth, and certainly not to the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

Popper’s reservations were reinforced by Kurt Goedel (although Goedel historically preceded Popper). For the theories of science are rooted in the end in maths, which ever since Pythagoras has been seen to be unimpeachable. But Goedel showed that maths itself isn’t quite so robust as it seems. He proved (for the abstractions of maths can be proved) that every mathematical statement that is not simply a matter of definition (as in 2 + 2 = 4) must contain elements that are themselves unproveable.

The limitation of science was finally summarized by one of the mid-20th century’s great scientists, the zoologist Sir Peter Medawar. He simply borrowed a phrase from Bismarck and pointed out that “Science is the art of the soluble”. In other words, scientists are careful to address only those questions they think they have a reasonable chance of answering (to their peers’ satisfactions) in the time and with the tools and concepts available. They provide certainty, or the semblance of it, only by carefully tailoring the questions. In short, the whole of science emerges as a giant tautology.

Finally, late 20th century philosophers began to point out that all human understanding is narrative: a story that we tell ourselves. What we take to be true is a story that we happen to find convincing at any one time. Science is a narrative too. It is not the inexorable edifice of incontrovertible truth, as it is commonly presented. It is more like a landscape painting, painted by a thousand hands, and never finished.

Science is wonderful and has become essential. Everyone should know science. But its insights, like all human insights, are strictly limited – partly by the limits of human understanding but partly, too, as a matter of strategy: science does not venture into areas that will not yield to its methods. Some seem content with the limited worldview that science can provide. Above all, they cling to the illusion of certainty. But most people are not content with a worldview that is so deliberately truncated. So where else can we look for insight?

The absolute importance of intuition

Broadly speaking, I reckon we can identify two routes to what we think of as truth. One indeed is rationality, as taken to an extreme by science. The other is intuition – things that we feel in our bones to be true. Hard-line materialist scientists reject intuition as a source of insight – but they are surely wrong to do so. In reality, scientists themselves rely very heavily (in the end absolutely) upon their intuition. Paul Dirac used to judge the truth or otherwise of his equations by their beauty; and in the end all scientists do something like this. Their rationalizing tells them which of the various hypotheses is statistically most likely to true but in the end their prehension of truth is an emotional response: what they take to be true is what they feel to be true. I feel that intuition is the sum total of our evolved responses to the problems posed by the universe – evolved that is in our human and pre-human ancestors, over many millions of years. Our intuitions may sometimes lead us astray to be sure but overall, there is no obvious reason to mistrust it. Yet intuition can be refined – and this, as many a theologian has pointed out, is the role of religion. Both among Christian and Islamic teachers we find a constant dialogue between intuition on the one hand and reason on the other. Wisdom requires both.

Conscious animals

One line of late 20th century thinking that is directly pertinent is that of animal consciousness. In the 17th century Rene Descartes peremptorily declared that animals cannot think because thought depends on words and animals don’t use words. Since they don’t think they cannot be conscious, and therefore they don’t really have feelings – for what are feelings if we are not conscious of them? Animals may yelp with pain but only in the way that a machine may protest if you push it beyond its limits. Logical positivism is in line with Descartes’ way of thinking – for it is essentially a minimalist view of reality: take seriously only what can be measured (with Occam’s metaphorical razor wielded like a machete). All these lines of thinking fed into the behaviourist agenda: animal psychology analysed entirely in terms of reflex; stimulus-response (a mechanical concept), modified – “conditioned” – by reward and punishment. As we have seen, the doyen of behaviourism, B F Skinner, even tried to explain the acquisition of human language in terms of conditioned reflex – children rewarded for using the right words.

Some, however, always doubted whether behaviourism really could explain animal behaviour satisfactorily – not the least being Konrad Lorenz, who spoke of the need to empathize with animals in order to understand them; and you can’t empathize with a machine. Noam Chomsky pointed out that humans certainly do not acquire language by learning new reflexes. Jane Goodall showed that the behaviour of wild chimps (as opposed to those who were merely required to solve puzzles set by scientists) cannot be explained except by supposing that they possess the kind of attributes that we think are peculiar to ourselves – including a broad palette of emotions and the ability to reason. As the Cambridge psychologist Pat Bateson commented in the 1980s – “Anthropomorphism can be heuristic”, meaning that we cannot properly understand animals unless we begin by ascribing human characteristics to them. New York psychologist Herb Terrace said that the task, now, is to understand how animals think even though they don’t have verbal language.

Since the 1980s scientists have begun to appreciate the subtleties of animals more and more. The Dutch biologist Frans de Waal in particular has written of the politics of chimpanzees. The Anglo-American primatologist Jennifer Scott has described “Machiavellian” behaviour in gorillas. Empathy between animals, and between animals and people is now a respectable line of research, not least among biologists interested in animal welfare, such as Francoise Welmsfelder of Edinburgh University. Empathy is an essential prerequisite of compassion.

People who work with animals, or have pets, or indeed just watch them in the fields, know in their bones that they reason and have feelings. It is the intuitive response to them. We have allowed ourselves to be talked out of this bone feeling by a trail of reasoning that seemed eminently rational – and allowed ourselves therefore to be talked out of the compassion towards animals that ought to come naturally. To be sure, the new insights into the psychology of animals come from science, just as behaviourism did. But they show us that our intuitions were right all along; and how dangerous it is to do as we have been bidden, and to override our intuitions with mere ratiocination.

The rise of virtue ethics

Morality, in the modern, mechanistic, ultradarwinian paradigm, has suffered horribly. Utilitarianism, alias consequentialism, has ruled; goodness and badness judged purely by outcome. Outcome in turn in this age of accountancy is quantified like everything else – so ethics has become an exercize in cost-effectiveness. Indeed, in the neoliberal economy that has sprung from the ultradarwinian, materialist worldview, morality is defined by the market itself. Whatever people are prepared to pay for, is deemed to be OK; and what they pay most for is deemed to be best. I have even heard human cloning justified on the grounds that there would be a “market” for it.

But alongside, in recent decades, we have also seen new interest in virtue ethics: morality judged according to attitude. Critics have often suggested that the great religions disagree on moral issues so they can’t all be right and they all deserve to be distrusted. But the differences between them are mostly those of manners and custom. At their core, as the 19th century Hindu mystic Ramakrishna pointed out, all the great religions agree on three fundamental ingredients of morality: personal humility; respect for fellow, sentient beings; and a sense of reverence for the universe as a whole. In one word, the Christians speak of love; and the Buddhists emphasize compassion. This, we intuitively feel, is indeed the core of morality; and reason tells us that it is very foolish indeed to override our intuition, especially when the intuition is so widely shared that it seems to be the human norm.

A truly modern paradigm and Wild Law

For a whole raft of reasons – reasons that are rooted very firmly in reason – we should mistrust what has become the prevailing paradigm: ultra-“rationalist”; scientistic; materialist; mechanist; atheist; the notion that human beings above all crave power and possessions, and are made happy by those things; a neoliberal economy based on personal acquisition and competitiveness – which is mistakenly taken to be “natural”; anthropocentrism; and a tendency to see the fabric of the Earth and our fellow creatures as resources, to be turned into commodities.

We need as a matter of urgency to embrace a more traditional worldview, rooted in intuition, though tempered by rationality; one that roots morality in virtue – and in particular in the virtues of humility, respect, and reverence; one in which we see other species truly in the way that St Francis saw them – as our fellow creatures; fellow, sentient beings with as much intrinsic right to be here as any of us.

If we had such an attitude we would not need Wild Law – or rather we would; but the point of that law (which in the end is the main point of laws in general) would simply be to make explicit what we all feel in our bones to be obvious.

In the meantime we need Wild Law as a heuristic device: as way of focusing the mind on what ought to be obvious but has somehow gone missing.

2 thoughts on “A World View for Wild Law

  1. These are really some of the most enlightened articles I have read on agriculture, you’re so right that a radical agrarian consciousness is absolutely necessary right now, one of the small accomplishments is the rise of urban farming of course, but that is infinitesimal to what has to be accomplished in the large scale of things, now, though this urban farming is a step, it is purely cosmetic and a “feel good” application to a greater, much more insidious and ominous threat of the corporate giants who are raiding the land and seed collections in addition to genetic co-opting of the seed banks world wide, thus further confusing the natural order of Mother nature, economics, natural law, sciences and of course politics, what is needed in my opinion is an Agrarian led Party, The New Agrarian party world wide, uniting farmers, scientist, environmentalist and thinkers across the board in ACTION, active politics with global organizations like the United Nations and others leading the way. Without this type of momentum applied in the next years to come, sadly our soils and hence foods will only become more tainted, genetically altered etc., deforestations for more corporate farming which is catastrophically diminishing the last rain forests etc.
    We are facing a monumental task ahead and if anything, the Occupy movements world wide need to coordinate their efforts in a strong political front, rather than a dispersed, fragmented protest and why not start with the most primary thing, food security… a thing that which cannot be denied or disregarded as it affects both the rich and the poor.

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