By Robert Jensen
“The universe is an undifferentiated whole. About that we can say nothing more.”
This catchy aphorism from political philosopher Bruce Wright may seem nonsensical at first glance, but is worth exploring in the service of deepening our intellectual humility. Facing multiple, cascading ecological crises, we humans need science more than ever—and more than ever we need to understand the limits of science.
Like many, Wright—a professor emeritus of political science from California State University, Fullerton —is concerned about the unintended consequences of science and technology. When we started burning fossil fuels, for example, no one could have predicted global warming. If we try to “solve” the problem of global warming only through faith in increasingly complex technology, we should be prepared for new problems that typically come with such solutions.
The lesson is pretty clear: The knowledge we humans can acquire—while impressive in what it allows us to build—is not adequate to manage the complexity of the world. No matter how smart we are, our ignorance will always outstrip our knowledge, and so we routinely fail to anticipate or control the consequences of our science and technology.
Wright’s aphorism reinforces that point and takes it a step further: It’s not just that scientific analysis can’t tell us everything, but that the analytical process destroys the unity of what we are trying to study. When we analyze, the subject becomes an object, as we break it apart to allow us to poke and probe in the pursuit of that analysis.
To “differentiate,” in this context, means the act of perceiving and assigning distinctions within a system. Thinking of the universe as an undifferentiated whole recognizes its unity, providing a corrective to the method of modern science that breaks things down to manageable components that can be studied. That “reductionism” in science assumes that the behavior of a system can be understood most effectively by observing the behavior of its parts. At first glance that may seem not only obvious but unavoidable. How else would we ever know anything? We can’t look out at the universe and somehow magically understand how things work—we have to break it down into smaller parts.
Imagine a pond in the woods. That ecosystem includes the air, water, and land—the various inanimate objects such as rocks; the plants we see and their root structures underground; the animals and fish that are big enough for us to see and the many other micro-life forms we can’t observe with our eyes; and the weather. No one person could walk into the scene and offer a detailed account of all that is happening in that ecosystem, let alone explain how it operates. Even a cursory description of the ecosystem requires knowledge of meteorology, botany, zoology, geology, chemistry, physics. To make sense of the complex relationships and interactions among all the players in that one small ecosystem, experts in those disciplines would observe, experiment, and explain their part of it. Putting all that knowledge together, we can say some important things about the system, but we can’t claim to know how it really works. Not only is there is a unity to the ecosystem that we can’t understand, but our analytic approach destroys the unity we seek to understand.
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