The truth of a matter

A natural organism can hardly afford to ignore its environment. To put that differently, its cognition and knowledge consist in those capabilities, responses and strategies that permit it to survive. We tend to think of knowledge as general, indiscriminate, abstract, free-floating, since this has been the modern ideal; for the organism, however, it is quite specific and tailored to survival. This is at least mildly paradoxical, since the human being too is an organism. Our idealized knowledge ought to facilitate, and must at least permit, survival of the human organism. Human knowledge may not be as general as suggested by the ideal. In particular, science may not be as objective and disinterested as presumed; its focus can even be myopic.

Science parallels ordinary cognition in many ways, serving to extend and also correct it. On the other hand, as a form of cognition, science is deliberately constrained in ways that ordinary cognition is not. It has a rigor that follows its own rules, not necessarily corresponding to those of ordinary cognition. The latter is allowed, even required, to jump to conclusions in situations demanding action. Science, in contrast, remains tentative and skeptical. It can speculate in earnest, creating elaborate mathematical constructs; but these are bracketed as “theoretical” until empirical data seem to confirm them. Even then, theory remains provisional: it can be accepted or be disqualified by countermanding evidence, but can never strictly be proven. In a sense, then, science maintains a stance of unknowing along with a goal of knowing.

Many questions facing organisms, about what to do and how to behave, hinge implicitly on what seems true or real from a human perspective. For us moderns, that often means from a scientific perspective, which may not correspond to the natural perspective of the organism. Yet, even for the human organism, behavior is not necessarily driven by objective reality and does not have to be justified by it. External reality is but one factor in the cognitive equation. It is a factor to which we habitually give great importance because, in so many words, we are conditioned to give credence to what appears to us real. Ultimately, this is because our survival and very existence indeed depend on what actually is real or true. To that extent, we are in the same boat as any other creature. The other factor, however, is internal: intention or will. We can, and often do, behave in ways that have little to do with apparent reality and which don’t refer to it for justification. (For example, doing something for the “hell” of it or because we enjoy it. Apart from their economic benefits, what do dancing, art, and sports have to do with survival?) Some things we do precisely because they have little to do with reality.

Of course, the question of what is real—or the truth of a matter—is hardly straightforward. It, too, depends on both internal and external factors, subject and object together. In any case, how we act does not depend exclusively on what we deem to be fact. In some cases, this dissonance is irrational and to our detriment—for instance, ignoring climate change or the health effects of smoking. In other cases, acting arbitrarily is the hallmark of our free will—the ability to thumb our noses at the dictates of reality and even to rebel against the constraints imposed by biology and nature. Often, both considerations apply. In a situation of overpopulation, for example, it may be as irrational—and as heroic—for humanity to value human life unconditionally as for the band to keep playing while the Titanic sinks.

At one time the natural world was considered more like an organism than a machine. Perhaps it should be viewed this way again. Should we treat nature as a sentient agent, of value comparable to the preciousness we accord to human life? Here is a topical question that seems to hinge on the truth of what nature “really” is. If it has agency in some sense like we do—whether sentient or not in the way that we are—perhaps it should have legal rights and be treated with the respect accorded persons. Native cultures are said to consider the natural world in terms of “all my relations.” Some people claim mystical experiences in which they commune and even communicate with the natural world, for example with plants. Yet, other people may doubt such claims, which seem counter to a scientific understanding that has long held nature to be no more than an it, certainly not a thou to talk to. For, from a scientific perspective, most matter is inanimate and insentient. Indeed, the mechanistic worldview of science has re-conceived the natural world as a mere resource for human disposal and use. Given such contradictory views, how to behave appropriately toward “the environment” seems to hinge on the truth of a matter. Is the natural world a co-agent? Can it objectively communicate with people, or do people subjectively make up such experiences for their own reasons?

But does the “truth” of that matter really matter? Apart from scientific protocol, as creatures we are ruled by the mandate of our natural cognition to support survival. That is the larger truth, which science ought to follow. Culturally, we have been engaged in a great modern experiment: considering the world inert, essentially dead, profane (or at least not sacred), something we are free to use for our own purposes. While that stance has supported the creation of a technological civilization, we cannot be sure it will sustain it—or life—in the long term. Scientific evidence itself suggests otherwise. It thus seems irrational to continue on such a path, no matter how “true” it may seem.

What have we to lose in sidestepping the supposed truth of the matter, in favour of an attitude that works toward our survival? Better still, how can such contradictory attitudes be made compatible? This involves reconciling subject with object as two complementary factors in our cognition. Science has deliberately bracketed the subject in order to better grasp the object. So be it. Yet, this situation itself is paradoxical, for someone (a subject) obviously is doing the grasping for some tacit reason. Nature is the object, the human scientist is the subject, and grasping is a motivated action that presumes a stance of possession and control—rather than, for example, belonging. We resist the idea that nature controls us (determinism)—but along with it the idea of being an integral part of the natural world. Can we have free will and still belong? Perhaps—if we are willing to concede free will to nature as well.

The irony is that, on a certain level, obsession with reality or truth serves the organism’s wellbeing, but denies it free will. Compulsive belief in the stimulus grants the object causal power over the subject’s response and experience. On the other hand, ignoring the stimulus perilously forfeits what power the subject has to respond appropriately. The classic subject-object relationship is implicitly adversarial. It maintains either the illusion of technological control over nature or of nature’s underlying control over us. The first implies irresponsible power; the second denies responsibility altogether.

Every subject, being embodied, is undoubtedly an object that is part of the natural world. To the extent we are conscious of this inclusion and of being agents, we are in a position to act consciously to maintain the system of which we are a part. In the name of the sort of knowledge achieved by denying this inclusion, however, we have created a masterful technological civilization that is on the brink of self-destruction, while hardly on the brink of conquering nature. Can we believe instead that we do not stand outside the natural world, as though on a foreign battlefield, but are one natural force in negotiation with other natural forces? Negotiation is a relationship among peers, agent to agent. Even when seemingly adversarial, the relationship is between worthy opponents. Let us therefore think of nature neither as master, slave, nor enemy, but as a peer with whom to collaborate toward a peace that insures a future for all life.