Philosophy & Conservation Biology

Guy McPherson

“It is small wonder humanity will not be saved. Evolution drives us to breed, drives us to procreate, and drives us to accumulate material possessions. Evolution always pushes us toward the brink, and culture piles on, hurling us into the abyss. Nietzsche was correct about our lack of free will—as Gray points out in Straw Dogs—free will is an illusion. It is not merely the foam on the beer: it is the last bubble of foam, the one that just popped. It’s no surprise, then, that we are sleepwalking into the future, or that the future is a lethal cliff.”—Guy McPherson

Going Dark

By Dr. Guy McPherson

Philosopher John Gray.

Philosopher John Gray.

“The destruction of the natural world is not the result of global capitalism, industrialisation, ‘Western civilisation’ or any flaw in human institutions. It is a consequence of the evolutionary success of an exceptionally rapacious primate. Throughout all of history and prehistory, human advance has coincided with ecological devastation.”—John Gray, in Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals

Guy McPherson

MAITLAND Florida—(Weekly Hubris)—December 2019—Asking a contemporary scientist with a PhD (i.e., a Doctor of Philosophy) about philosophy typically draws a blank stare or, occasionally, an inquisitive gaze. Philosophy rarely is taught in science classes at any level of education, including the PhD. Across campus, a dose of science is taught in the philosophy department, but practicing scientists rarely are involved in the conversation.

The identical twins Science and Philosophy were born in ancient Athens. Most contemporary philosophers claim the twins’ father was Thales of Miletus (a city in Asia Minor, now Turkey), largely based on two events: Thales was the first to calculate the height of Egypt’s pyramids (which he did before traveling to Greece by measuring the length of the pyramids’ shadows) and, even more notably, the first to predict a solar eclipse (in 585 BC). Inseparable and indistinguishable for nearly two millennia, Science and Philosophy were viewed as one and the same child. Little evidence remains of Thales, and the majority of his ideas ultimately were buried beneath the landslide of Greek reason capped by Socrates and Plato. Philosophical advances continued to pile up, but Alfred North Whitehead famously described two millennia of these advances as mere footnotes to Plato.

Despite minor quibbles, Science and Philosophy remained close for several centuries before they were irrevocably forced apart during, ironically, the Enlightenment. Although most educated people could distinguish the twins by the mid-1600s, when intellectual and political battles produced notable differences in the twin icons of reason, they remained friends for another three centuries, until the biblical root of all evil came between them.

By 1945, Bertrand Russell introduced his comprehensive History of Western Philosophy by dividing knowledge into three categories: science, representing the known universe; theology, representing dogma (which I would not call “knowledge”); and philosophy, representing the “No Man’s Land” between the two. Russell concluded that philosophy, like science, relies on reason and that, like theology, it consists of speculations beyond definitive knowledge. Scientific advances resulting from the Enlightenment reduced philosophy to such a narrow domain that it “suffered more from modernity than any other field of human endeavor,” according to Hannah Arendt’s 1958 book, The Human Condition (p. 294). The post-Aristotle shift from deduction to induction contributed to, or perhaps merely was symptomatic of, philosophy’s demise and the coincident rise of science. 

In the wake of World War Two and five years after Russell’s capacious historical account acknowledged and contributed to the chasm between science and philosophy, Franklin D. Roosevelt worked with Vannevar Bush to create the National Science Foundation. President Harry Truman signed the legislation that created the National Science Foundation of the United States (NSF). This new and influential organization swung the final ax that doomed Science and Philosophy to separate existences. The NSF was created in 1950 and, by 1955, became a dominant influence—perhaps the dominant influence—on the nature and conduct of science. Confined to separate quarters, Science and Philosophy barely speak to each other in the 21st century. Casual observers would never know they once looked alike, as evidenced by treatment of the two entities on university campuses: compartmentalization is the order of the day.

The marginalization of philosophy has coincided with the rise of “big science.” British philosopher John Gray goes so far as to write (in his short book published in 2002, Straw Dogs: Thoughts on Humans and Other Animals), “philosophy is a subject without a subject matter” (p. 82).

Well, perhaps. I tend to think of philosophy in much the same way I think about science and art: it’s personal. Science adheres to a set of rules. But science as a way of understanding the universe—in sharp contrast to the societal expectation of science as a never-ending font of technology—is a personal journey of curiosity to be addressed with unbridled creativity. So, too, are art and philosophy. Although science often produces knowledge that is more repeatable and reliable than the other two endeavors, it is not at all clear that either outcome is used by, or useful for, the typical person. On the other hand, many people use technology—the perceived point of science—as a tool to assault the natural world while temporarily satisfying our insatiable urge to divorce ourselves from physical reality.

If reason arose in Athens, passion for the natural world was born in Asia. Specifically, Lao Tzu’s masterful book of poetry Tao Te Ching was written approximately coincident with the development of pre-Socratic philosophy in Greece (the birth year of Lao Tzu, who perhaps represented a single person, traditionally is accepted as 570 BC, 15 years after Thales predicted a solar eclipse). Whereas Platonists often are blamed for divorcing humanity from the natural world, Eastern thought has maintained a tight connection between humans and their environment, and has exalted Nature in the process. (China’s recent embrace of free-market capitalism has produced the expected deterioration of that country’s environment). Tao Te Ching is the most famous example in the Western world, but Lao Tzu merely was reflecting his culture. Further, cursory inspection of virtually any of the major Eastern religions reveals strong links between Nature and humanity.

Reason arose in Greece about 25 centuries ago and is perhaps best known from Plato’s Socratic Dialogues. Plato (ca. 428-348 BC) uses the conversations of Socrates to pose and explore questions in considerable detail. Although many of the issues and associated conversations seem unsophisticated to contemporary readers, these initial attempts to employ logic to study the natural world and the role of humans in the world are remarkable precisely because they were unprecedented. The contributions of ancient Greece to the material worldview that characterizes modernity cannot be overstated; that so many of the contributions came from Athens, a city that never exceeded 250,000 residents during ancient times, is simply astonishing.

Although the ancient Greeks laid the foundation for modernity, few bricks were added to the structure for nearly two millennia. During the early 17th century, the empiricist Francis Bacon (1561-1626) and the deconstructionist René Descartes (1596-1650) ushered in the Enlightenment, thereby triggering a flurry of construction to the edifice of knowledge. Almost overnight it became clear that the world was a material one that could be observed and quantified by all who dared think and observe. Nature obeyed rules and humans were big-brained animals capable of discovering and describing those rules.

Thus, the Enlightenment eroded the role of authority as a source of knowledge. In the wake of Giordano Bruno’s heinous execution by the Catholic Church, Bacon recanted earlier statements in which he denied the Ptolemaic view that Earth was the center of the universe. But the erosion of authority that began as a trickle quickly became a flood, and the Church was increasingly marginalized as a source of knowledge.

David Hume (1711-1776), in his initial written piece of philosophy, presented a compelling case against miracles, hence against religion: “Of Miracles” was published in 1748 as an essay in An Enquiry Concerning Human Understandings. (Hume became particularly well known for the idea that what “is” does not indicate what “ought” to be.) Shortly before Charles Darwin formalized the theory of evolution by natural selection in his Origin of Species (1859), Schopenhauer (1788-1860) used Plato-like dialogue to question the basis of religion (“Religion: A Dialogue”) and Max Stirner declared the death of God in his 1845 book, The Ego and Its Own.

Notably influenced by Schopenhauer and writing shortly after publication of Darwin’s dangerous idea, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) vociferously spread the word about God’s death (probably without awareness of Stirner’s work) while predicting that Reason would overwhelm worldviews based on mysticism (while proclaiming science to be a lie; like all other humans, Hume and Nietzsche contained many contradictions). Nietzsche expressed his views on Christianity early and often in his writings, most popularly with Thus Spoke Zarathustra. I prefer The Antichrist because it represents Nietzsche’s views on God particularly clearly and vehemently. This work was intended to be shockingly blasphemous.

With respect to the rise of Reason, Nietzsche was an optimist. As S. Jonathan Singer concludes in his 2001 book, The Splendid Feast of Reason, it appears unlikely that more than ten percent of people are capable of employing reason as a basis for how they live. Singer likely did not know he was echoing Schopenhauer, although Schopenhauer’s use of dialogue in his essay clearly indicates he knew he was echoing Plato in reaching the same conclusion. 

Collectively, these authors from the Enlightenment illustrate the capacity for, and importance of, Reason. Reason is the basis for understanding the material world. As such, it serves as the foundation upon which conservation biology may be understood and practiced. We can willingly conserve nature and its parts only through description and understanding rooted in reality. Mysticism has proven an insufficient foundation for conserving Nature. Ultimately, it doubtless will prove inadequate for saving humanity as well.

It is small wonder humanity will not be saved. Evolution drives us to breed, drives us to procreate, and drives us to accumulate material possessions. Evolution always pushes us toward the brink, and culture piles on, hurling us into the abyss. Nietzsche was correct about our lack of free will—as Gray points out in Straw Dogs—free will is an illusion. It is not merely the foam on the beer: it is the last bubble of foam, the one that just popped. It’s no surprise, then, that we are sleepwalking into the future, or that the future is a lethal cliff.

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About Guy McPherson

Guy McPherson is an internationally recognized speaker, award-winning scientist, and one of the world’s leading authorities on abrupt climate change leading to near-term human extinction. He is professor emeritus at the University of Arizona, where he taught and conducted research for 20 years. His published works include 14 books and hundreds of scholarly articles. Dr. McPherson has been featured on television and radio and in several documentary films. He is a blogger and social critic who co-host his own radio show, “Nature Bats Last.” Dr. McPherson speaks to general audiences across the globe, and to scientists, students, educators, and not-for-profit and business leaders who seek their best available options when confronting Earth’s cataclysmic changes.
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12 Responses to Philosophy & Conservation Biology

  1. Avatar Robin Datta says:

    “In the wake of World War Two and five years after Russell’s capacious historical account acknowledged and contributed to the chasm between science and philosophy, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the legislation that created the National Science Foundation of the United States (NSF).”

    AFAIK in the wake of World War Two FDR was dead.

    https://www.onelook.com/?w=wake&ls=a

  2. Avatar tom says:

    When in college as a math major, i took every philosophy course they offered and graduated one course shy of being a philosophy major. i was the only non-philosophy major to be invited to the senior seminar in philosophy (where we discussed language for the semester). Though i delved into and enjoyed everything from ethics to logic to the philosophy of religion and of science, my practical dad convinced me to study something that could be used to make a living and dissuaded me from becoming a philosopher. i don’t regret any of it and look back on my experience as fulfilling – making me the thinker i’ve been.

    Thanks for another example of your clear thinking and enjoyable writing. Please keep it up as long as you can, though i don’t think we have many more years (now that climate-changed crop failure is happening around the planet, as i foresaw way back in the NBL early days). You’ve been the only source of TRUTH on this subject (our extinction) in my life-time, for which i’m grateful for having discovered you early on. i commend your bravery, honesty and integrity, Guy.
    All the people now coming to realize that you’ve been correct all along, including climate scientists, are playing catch-up and are only rehashing many of the topics we explored on your blog in the early days. You’ve been and remain at the forefront of everyone commenting on the climate.

    Best of luck in your “last” move!

  3. Avatar Guy McPherson says:

    Thank you for your personal, complimentary comment, tom. You are lucky to have a formal education in philosophy, and also lucky to have a supportive father.

  4. Avatar john turcot says:

    Hi Guy,

    I too concur with Tom’s analysis. You have gone out on many dry limbs and fallen to the ground on many occasions. But then you got to know how hard the ground can be, and not suffered the illusions of many that we would prevail, o matter what.

    As a teenager, and now as a senior way past my due date, the shadow of nuclear weapons has never ceased to amaze me that humans could actually threaten each other o such an extent. Yet, the last time I heard anyone talk about nuclear weapons was when Brontosaurus swam across the Pacific.

    If nuclear weapons couldn’t be eliminated, in spite of Hiroshima’s images, the idea that climate changes would have any bearings on human behavior was dead-on-arrival. Like all animals, the number one reason why humans act as we do is to survive. Survival, as it happens, is a question of whether or not one follows the rules, and as you well know, having abandoned your post in Arizona way before your imprisonment was due to terminate is a no-no from those who own the Earth, and from which more years were expected from you.

    A the end however, specially for those who live in ‘democracy’, the bottom line is that who enforced the rules with abandonment were always near the economic bottom of the ladder. It was never THEM, but US. The town councilors who vote to cut off water utilities for unpaid bills, in the middle of a large city, are not likely to be the owners of the planet, but their servants, and they do it with pleasure, as in: ‘I pay me bills, you should too’.

    You were the first to open my eyes to the reality that climate changes was a reality for the future, and hopefully since then I have made a few comments and added some fodder that supported the narrative as much as it could.

    Thanks for your input.. and for the integrity and candid demeanor by which you have delivered the climate change probable scenarios which most have rejected, as they did when Helen Caldicott warned them that nuclear warheads should go the way of dinosaurs, and we all know how that message went..

  5. Avatar Guy McPherson says:

    You’re absolutely correct, Robin Datta. Thank you for correcting my error. The essay has been revised accordingly.

    Thank you, john turcot. I appreciate your regular comments in this space, filled as they are with thoughtfulness and candor.

  6. Avatar OzMan says:

    Nice to see the comments section open, again.
    There wouldn’t be much left anymore for the trolls to suppress now would there? Streaming services take up the downtime for most 1st and 2nd worlders who need relief from the real world crashing in.
    So what research papers can we provide this time around…lol?

    On the nuclear weapons issue, could there be a third use for the plutonium and heavier metals produced, other than bombs and boiling water to make electricity?
    I wonder if in some direct way they can be used to distort time?

    I didn’t know of the philosopher John Gray until reading above. I don’t think humans are flawed, or somehow lacking free will. We are the early humans, and should we be able to take cortical control of ourselves, our ‘drives’ as individuals, that’s all that is required to develop the greater capacities we are equipped for. Socially or collectively we are unable to do so yet. And as Guy has so thoroughly researched and proposed, unless the data is somehow false, we don’t get much habitat for much longer to experiment.
    Find some good company, share the essentials of being human and enjoy the remaining time if one can in the locality one’s in.
    Wishing Guy well with the “final” relocation.
    I’ll be looking out for others on the beach… see you there where the water be.

  7. Avatar Guy McPherson says:

    Thank you for your comment, OzMan. Our virtual absence of free will has been demonstrated repeatedly by neurobiologists. Still, it is difficult to wrap our minds around this well-documented fact. And no ethicist would recommend we act as if we have essentially no free will.

  8. Avatar Alex S. says:

    Interesting essay! As a ‘casual observer’ I had no idea the hard sciences and philosophy were once more closely linked. Or that the NSF played a role in the decoupling; thus nudging science primarily into the service of technology to more efficiently exploit the natural world. While I’m in general agreement with you that “[m]ysticism has proven an insufficient foundation for conserving Nature,” I do believe that the Jains are an exception to this. However, I see few ready to embrace the tenets and practices of Jainism. Moreover, at this point, it’s too late for anything to save us from NTHE. Speaking of which, Guy, are you familiar with the book The Selfish Ape: Human Nature and Our Path to Extinction by Nicholas Money?

  9. Avatar Guy McPherson says:

    Thanks for your comment, Alex S. I agree that Jainism is truly exceptional. Looks like I need to add The Selfish Ape to my long reading list.

  10. Avatar BDev says:

    “Whereas Platonists often are blamed for divorcing humanity from the natural world, Eastern thought has maintained a tight connection between humans and their environment, and has exalted Nature in the process.”

    I’ve often wondered… if a deliberate form of science had been developed by cultures in the East instead of the West (funny, I initially mistyped it as Werst), would that form of science have been able to maintain its reverence of Nature roots?
    The West had centuries of religious conformity to deal with, and fundamental to that religious belief was the idea that Man was God’s supreme creation on Earth, and Man should and shall rule over the Earth, subdue it and have dominion over it.
    Perhaps an Eastern view of reality and Nature would have resulted in a far more Nature-respecting and Nature-friendly method of scientific inquiry and material application? Might an approach such as Biomimicry (https://biomimicry.org/what-is-biomimicry/) have dominated Eastern Science? Would an Eastern-themed Precautionary Principle have carried much more weight and clout? Would Consciousness Is Fundamental To Reality have taken hold and informed all subsequent scientific inquiry?
    I hold no illusion that our species is hard-wired to overshoot and self-destruct… but who knows… might the Eastern Way have resulted in something very different and life-affirming?

  11. Avatar David H Bailey says:

    Hi Dr. McPherson. I had planned to offer my suggestion to you directly but after enjoying the above comments, my request will maybe add another theme. My request is simple. To date Peter Miller has been able to make, for himself, space in his inquiring mind for near-term extinction and has stuck with you for the continuing paradigm shifts occupying 11 sessions! That alone has my great respect for both of you. Attached to his growth with your assistance, last September he interviewed Phillese Todd with her PhD in quantum mechanics/engineering, and the opportunity seemed much favorable for both. It was, for me, a long-wished-for balance from another academic insight that added so well to your conservation biology. That interview was nearly 3 months ago when Phillise was contending with her own academic research into climate change and its impact in her life, on the life of her two children, and of the instructional content of her classes, plus her reticence to share with colleagues. So important was that interview to my knowledge-base, addressing abrupt climate change from two scholarly disciplines, that I ask if an update of her personal growth as she has faced that reality might make a highly enlightened 3-way discourse with you, Peter Miller, and Kevin Hester and others? It might also motivate her to bring her own data to a current status as could be added to
    Paul Beckwith who will shortly return from COP25. How could I be of assistance? David H.

  12. Avatar Guy McPherson says:

    BDev, I’ve often pondered the same thing. And I’ve wondered whether any number of other “turning points” would have mattered for humanity. Alas, water under the proverbial bridge.

    David H. Bailey, that’s a great idea. I would appreciate and welcome any effort at collaboration with Phillese Todd, Kevin Hester, and Peter Miller. Other scientists would be welcome by me (and please note I do not include Paul Beckwith as a scientist, for a variety of reasons).

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