Philosophy and Nature

The New Founders of Modern Science

The new founders of modern science, Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes, had an entirely different agenda. They abandoned the initial theological quest to lay a foundation for the conquest of nature for the primary purpose of human utility and power. The scientific method, being analytical, experimental and reductionistic, allowed for the use of mathematics to measure what became defined as real knowledge and that which was not measurable was proclaimed unreal. Descartes reasoned that nature is governed by natural laws that can be measured. He also said that it was an entity that could not be accurately observed or accessed through our senses but only through rational thinking. Science was also thought to be progressive because it was constructed based on facts that led towards greater truth, was equated to be equivalent to human progress in value and was an instrument that could improve societies’ lifestyles by providing for material needs and services.

The idea of truth, something that is a verity for the duration of all time, was born during this period and this concept went hand in hand with the notion of an objective reality-based universe. Truth dis-enthroned subjective reality as unreliable, irrational, emotional, subjective and subordinate to objective reality and has remained the prominent construct in many modern cultures.

This new and radical train of thought reframed the natural world as a state of mathematical formulas and theories and reduced it to a resource to be utilized for the sole benefit of society.

While Bacon and Descartes are often defiled as having degraded the status of nature from a living organism to a mechanism, Bacon was actually aware of the problems and consequences that the conquest of the elements might bring to the developing world. He aired his misgivings in his publication, New Atlantis, in which he postulated that the new scientific transformations would have significant moral, political and societal implications that could produce new problems that might not result in positive outcomes.

Two Principle Evolving Worldviews: Subjective Reality Versus Objective Reality

I will give a simplified definition of subjective and objective reality to illuminate the fundamental differences.

Subjective Reality

Subjective reality is invented by human beings. This means that humans make perceptions, judgments and hypothesis about their world from their own subjective frame of reference. Their reference originates from their thinking which is derived from the ability to conceptualize the world in symbolism, namely language. Thus, there are no absolute truths in the world, as a human frame of reference is always at the source of the inventing process. Conceptions change with learning, knowledge and experience and are never static.

Objective Reality

Objective reality is discovered: this means absolute truths exist as separate entities and once uncovered and understood, will reveal the mysteries of the cosmos. The attainment of this understanding is through observation, measurement and experimentation or the scientific method. An objective reality suggests that nature and humanity are separate entities governed by the laws of physics.

The acceptance of truth as an absolute or objective reality and a mechanistic universe prevailed because of the assertion of this new treatise by the eminent philosophers of the day, namely Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, Bacon and Descartes. These philosophers presumed a subjective reality worldview would result in: inaccessibility to truth, an inability to understand the universe and humanity, chaos, immoral behavior and social disorder; thus, their intense battle to win the minds of humanity to their newborn philosophy was imperative.

Modern western thought predominantly supports the objective reality frame of reference whereas eastern thought is more oriented towards the subjective reality view. The two thought structures produce entirely different responses and interactions with the natural world and agreement on which construct is correct or more viable is still an issue of intense debate and philosophical discussion. 

Had the subjective reality view of the world prevailed instead of the objective one, humanity might not have advanced as much scientifically or technologically but our relationship with the Earth would likely have remained decidedly more in balance. This is so because science is dead set on using reductionism to verify its hypothesis and theories and subjective views are considered inconsequential to sound scientific practices.

Once we began to view the world as a separate entity due to the new paradigm of thinking just described, we accelerated a process of detachment and disassociation that has continued to intensify and is evident in our current ideologies and lifestyles. Its unfortunate consequences resulted in a primary focus on human needs and a lack of focus on the needs of our habitat. This philosophical agenda declaring objective truth as supreme was a drastic change in our perception of reality and our relationship with the Earth.

17th Century Philosophy

Clive Ponting, in “A Green History of the World”, sums up the prevailing European worldview with these observations. Europeans believed that humans were superior, given their unique possession of intelligence and conscience, to their environment and were thus entitled to exploit it with impunity. Their primary mode of relating to and understanding the environment was through science and reductionism. Advancement in the areas of materialism and intellectual wisdom beyond that of those who came before them was perceived as having gained a superior status and constituted progress. Increased consumption and manipulation of nature were regarded as significant milestones in human endeavors and something all cultures should strive for. Europe’s employment of colonialism was a blatant manifestation of their beliefs and sense of privilege.

Despite the initial exploitive thinking and behavior just mentioned, the destruction of the European landscape became so pervasive and visible that it eventually facilitated a change towards more responsible environmental practices.

The Age of Enlightenment

The age of enlightenment during the 18th century brought about a change and extension to the thinking of the previous era. The utility of science was expanded to address social and moral issues in the direction of the betterment of humanity as well as improving societies’ material circumstances. This period promoted optimism regarding the human relationship with nature but also recognized deficits in human behavior that called for significant social reform. Questioning of traditional institutions, customs and morals became more pressing and active.

19th Century Romanticism 

Romanticism was the prevailing demeanor of the 19th century. This translated into an affinity for the natural wonders of the world and all its nuances. Europeans spent more time traveling and enjoying nature as life had become safer and more civilized. Even the more violent aspects of nature (storms and other natural disasters) came to be regarded as part of the human-nature relationship and not equated as a force to be feared and reckoned with. Art, poetry and music took on themes of nature and portrayed its elegance and beauty. Even morality and religion found its way into nature metaphorically and was thought to enhance the quality of one’s life and society as a whole.

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