ERC Seminar: 'Cartesian Science & Uncertainty' with Dr Yvette Abrahams
Cartesian Science & Uncertainty
An exceptional feminist academic, economic historian and organic farmer, Dr Yvette Abrahams’ work has in recent years explored the ways in which our theories of knowledge must change in the light of the spectacular failures of the positivist approach, not least its’ very well-documented role in legitimizing colonialism and slavery.
To indigenous knowledge systems, dealing with uncertainty is nothing new, but a long-standing way of life. While the variations on a theme are many, four things unite Cartesian science:
The notion that everything within the universe is knowable by human beings.
The idea that it is possible to know it through objective methodologies’
The process of separating the part from the whole, abstracting its being to a form that can be studied in a laboratory.
The use of inductive logic, namely the concept that an increase in the number of samples from a statistical universe would improve the level of knowledge about the whole.
The second notion of objective science has been debunked thoroughly (particularly in the last forty years) by many feminist theorists, historians of science and philosophers. The third notion has been subjected to decades of spirited critique from organic farming since the end of World War II, not least by analysts who have used quantum physics to define the interconnectedness of things and processes. The fourth notion was mathematically indefensible from the start; a fact that was only partly obscured by the use of probability theory. But what of the first notion? Do we still believe that the universe is ultimately knowable by man?
Environmentalists have noted environmental catastrophes, from DDT to chloroflourocarbons to persistent organic pollutants as examples that, while the universe may be fully knowable in an abstract sense, man is certainly not the species who can claim such knowledge. Analysts such as Wendell Berry and Masanobu Fukuoka (both highly educated organic farmers who forsook academia for more activist forms of research) have considered the Cartesian approach to be as superstitious in its way as medieval religion ever was. They have long recommended more humility in the face of the unknowable and less arrogance on the part of scientists as going a long way towards safeguarding the ecosystem on which we all depend. Climate change, of course, is a form of ultimate answer to Cartesian science and has laid many debates to rest, even while raising new questions.
How will we function as knowledge producers in a world marked by uncertainty? The only knowledge which we can hold for sure is that we cannot know it all. Come and join this first of a two (or three) part exploration into a facet of uncertainty, climate mitigation, and development.