Following the fifteenth century Renaissance centred in Italy, the “age of enlightenment” in Europe moved moral authority and philosophy beyond the church into the secular realm as well, and raised many challenges to traditional feudal and kingly authority. This, along with technological advances such as the printing press, led to rapid advances in science in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The clash between traditional authority and the new ideas is beautifully illustrated by the Catholic Church’s persecution of Galileo. The Ptolemaic model of the solar system (with the Earth at the centre) was slowly being superseded by the Copernican model. Galileo made many observations of the planets which supported the Copernican model, but was forced to deny his heliocentric view as “contrary to scripture”, and even then spent the last nine years of his life under house arrest, having been found guilty of heresy.
Strangely enough, as you will see, we are currently going through a similar period, where those in power cling to simple linear views of our world, and do not grasp, or prefer to ignore, that it operates as a dynamic and complex set of systems. The gospel of this group is neoclassical economics, a “flat-earth” view of the world which we will return to later in this Part.
However, while the Earth was being relegated to just “third rock from the sun”, humanity (well, European humanity at least) was being placed firmly at the centre of the universe, by an alliance of religious and scientific beliefs.
The rapid advances in science of that period have led to many subsequent benefits, particularly in public health. They have also led to an explosion in material wealth which, up to a certain point, has also been a great benefit to many.
But they also fostered a cult of “reductionism” – the idea that all facets of the universe could be analysed and understood by being reduced to their components (“we can work out anything by looking at the sum of its parts”). This was often accompanied by absolutism and arrogance (“we can know all there is to know about the facts of the universe”). This naturally fitted with a belief in mastery and control (“because we can understand it, we can also dominate and use Nature at will”).
And Christianity (the dominant religion in Europe) supported this view of humans as god-like, and masters of nature – “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth[i].”
This was not a radical departure from previous human beliefs and behaviours, just an intensification. Humanity had a long previous history of overuse of its environment, up to and including making regions basically uninhabitable, such as happened in Sumer and Easter Island[ii]. But these beliefs were now codified and given greater credence.
Not all ascribed to these view, of course. Many populations, particularly in less populated continents and areas, had learned to live without thought of dominance, more or less in harmony with their environments. And in Europe humility still existed – Sir Isaac Newton wrote, “I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”
But, in the halls of wealth and power, the view of European humanity as masters of the universe led to what Naomi Klein calls “extractivism” – and it is worth quoting her entire definition:
“Extractivism is a non-reciprocal, dominance based relationship with the earth, one purely of taking. It is the opposite of stewardship, which involves taking but also taking care that regeneration and future life continue. Extractivism is the mentality of the mountaintop remover and the old-growth clear-cutter. It is the reduction of life into objects for the use of others, giving them no integrity or value of their own – turning living complex ecosystems into “natural resources”, mountains into “overburden” (as the mining industry terms the forests, rocks and streams that get in the way of its bulldozers). It is also the reduction of human beings either into labor to be brutally extracted, pushed beyond limits, or, alternatively, into social burden, problems to be locked out at borders and locked away in prisons and reservations.”[iii]
Phew. This looks like a pretty accurate description of modern capitalism. But of course this fully fledged extractivism did not come solely from the scientific and religious beliefs in reduction and mastery. The following chapters summarise the role the rise in mercantilism, the rise of the United States, and the “flat earth” beliefs of neoclassical economists, have played in reaching our current state.
Before then, I must note that most science, and Christianity (well Catholicism at least), have subsequently moved on from these reductionist and arrogant views. But their more expansive modern thinking has not been either understood or accepted in the corridors of wealth and power.
In the late 19th century, mathematician Henri Poincare laid the foundations of modern chaos theory, which is a special case of the complexity theory and complex systems thinking which has developed since then. Soon after, Einstein began dismantling Newtonian physics with his special and general theories of relativity.
Both these developments showed that the universe was a much more complicated place than previously thought, and not necessarily understandable in intuitive ways. And there was more uncertainty to come.
In 1931, Kurt Godel published his incompleteness theorems. While they were confined to very specific types of mathematical systems, they appear to have much more general application, at least in an analogical or metaphorical sense. The theorems demonstrated that such systems could not prove all the true statements that were possible in them, nor demonstrate their own consistency. A more powerful system was needed to prove the truths, or demonstrate consistency – but this itself, of course, would have the same problems, and this would lead to an infinite regress.
In other words, any system is incomplete. My own observations have led me to the strong view that this applies in a wide variety of situations, not just non-trivial arithmetic systems. I have certainly not come across anything that disproves my hypothesis. This means that we can never be certain of “completeness”, of having covered all our bases.
And, in the fields of psychology and perception theory, the human requirement to filter and frame things so as to be able to cope with the vastness and complexity of reality leads us down a path of even more uncertainty. How we describe things is limited by our own finite nature. And they are only descriptions, not the reality.
For example, a debate raged for many years over whether light was a wave or a particle. Light is light – it has characteristics similar to a wave or a particle, depending on how you view it, but neither of those descriptions is sufficient – for a time, a new description, “wavicle” was used by some.
Another and more telling example is, what are the fundamental building blocks of matter? The atom was long considered to be the fundamental particle. Then the atom turned out to be made up of neutrons, protons, and electrons. Then these were further subdivided – depending on how you count, we’re at about twenty-five to thirty “elementary particles” now. And “matter” turns out to be not as simple as we might have thought – anti-matter also exists, matter and energy appear to need to co-exist, and some of our elementary particles are more theoretical than real.
These are not steps towards the “absolute truth”. They are just our current way of describing (and also, in this case, theorising about) things. They may well be replaced by a completely different way of describing in the future (just as the current description has displaced previous models). They’re only models, they’re not reality.
“There is no truth, there are only better descriptions”[iv].
If we turn to a different world, religion, the Pope’s recent encyclical on climate change has also made a stand against reductionism and extractivism, based on the complexity (and, of course, the sacredness) of life[v]. He points out that, for the last 50 years, his predecessors have challenged the ecological degradation brought about by our industrial civilisation. And, to quote just one of many important statements he makes, he himself says:
“The basic problem goes even deeper: it is the way humanity has taken up technology and its development according to an undifferentiated and one-dimensional paradigm (his italics). This paradigm exalts the concept of a subject who, using logical and rational procedures, progressively approaches and gains control over an external object….Human beings and material objects no longer extend a friendly hand to one another; the relationship has become confrontational. This has made it easy to accept the idea of infinite or unlimited growth, which proves so attractive to economists, financiers, and experts in technology. It is based on the lie that there is an infinite supply of the earth’s goods, and this leads to the planet being squeezed dry beyond every limit.”
It has taken climate scientists quite a while to get over reductionism, but even they eventually listened to visionaries like James Lovelock, and realised that we were dealing with a fundamentally interconnected system or set of systems, which are both uncertain and unpredictable in behaviour.
And many economists, politicians, and others are still locked in a “pure” world of simple and linear rules which have little use in trying to deal with our complex and dynamic world.
No-one is immune to reductionism – it is essential as a way of coping with the world. It is useful, as long as its use is limited. But when it forms a basis for all actions, it becomes very dangerous. And when it is based on clearly wrong ways of viewing the world, it is doubly dangerous.
Reductionism and its companion extractivism have a lot to answer for.
But so does the pursuit of profit.
[i] See The Bible, Genesis 1:26
[ii] See “A Short History of Progress”, Ronald Wright
[iii] “This Changes Everything”, page 169, location 3057
[iv] Ian Anderson, explaining the movie he had made, “Unreal Realities”, circa 2000
[v] “Laudato Si’, On Care of Our Common Home”, para 106