Environment as Data versus "Being": Is Goetheanism possible in the West?*

William Brinton

Woods End Research Laboratory, Mt. Vernon, MAINE, USA

*based on a presentation at the Conference: Goethean Science in Holistic Perspective,
Teachers College, Columbia University, New York, May 20-22, 1999


For many scientists who work in the environmental field, it is increasingly problematic to imagine a way of knowing nature that is different from modern science's mode of data capture and "factual" interpretation. Environmental engineers say that "... if you can't measure it, you can't manage it". Knowing nature's parts and successfully managing nature are seen as inseparable necessities of modern living.

Modern science grows out of the conceptual modus operandi to investigate each part of nature singly until we achieve a complete understanding of all the underlying mechanisms. In a sense, we have not changed the original formulation of Rene Descartes (1596-1650) who elaborated the view that the universe is a "gigantic clock-mechanism". This has led logically to the surprising conclusion by some thinkers that essentially we know the world and universe nearly completely, and any new additions to knowledge will be diminishingly small (Horgan, 1996).

This author's view is that a new orientation to nature, consisting of a comprehensively holistic in contrast to a reductionistic approach, may provide not only interesting, but also very necessary new dimensions in the modern understanding of the world. A holistic approach could become an important tool for seeing and acquiring a deeper grasp of natural processes where other approaches are showing signs of failure. Thus, a new approach may also be very useful. In a contextual sense, a holistic approach corresponds to new social trends making their appearance now and which reflect a desire for nurturing and healing the world, in contrast to the out-dated motifs of control and competition implicit in modern society's forms.

Post Western Science: A Crack in the Wall or a Flaw in the Crack?

Countless western ecologists and environmental scientists today are truly concerned about the role and influence of technology - and business - on their fields. A post-green-revolution view has emerged and holds that there are significant sociological dimensions to modern environmental problems that cannot be ignored (Brown, 1998; Lovins & Lovins, 2000). Many scientists place western "self-oriented" epistemology on a collision course with nature, and argue for a non- anthropocentric nature view - a transpersonal view - in order to achieve survivable harmony (Fox, 1995).

A dilemma arises when examining closely the precepts of any one of many alternative approaches to science and nature. Most do not appear to contain a view of nature that is essentially different from scientific reductionism. From this, it may be questioned whether these alternatives will be able to cause an appreciable shift in the current direction. Even more difficult, ecological perspectives within the sciences often only strengthen reductionistic directions, since they provide important details about relationships, which in turn help "fine tune" the existing mechanical models.

Sachs has provided an example of the dilemma by characterizing the mixing of alternative approaches with existing reductionistic modalities to form the abstract concept "environment". Arising out of this abstraction of nature is an emerging ecological bureaucracy, called by Sachs "eco-cracy", which is obviously needed in order to maintain the complex new view of the environment (Sachs, 1992). It is a question whether or not this form of intensification of our understanding of nature can be sustained. Goetheanistic science of nature if it does anything represents a path that is distinctly different than just taking details of the world and arranging them " holistically".

The crux of developing a Goetheanistic approach (and the author finds the expression "Goetheanistic" to be potentially misleading as well) lies in recognizing that a dimension of mind is involved in constructing any view of the universe. To a large extent, alternative movements from ecology to biological farming do not deal with the mind and cognitive component of their approach. Indeed, many do not know there is a choice at all. The focus of many modern western alternatives particularly within medicine and agriculture is on re-arranging the parts already explained reductionistically, and success is imminent (IFOAM, 1998). On a crude level, organic farming may be seen similar to reductionism in that it uses current scientific approaches to replace man-made chemicals with "natural" ones. This is not a fundamentally new direction and it permits alternatives to be launched from within the ranks of science that compete for "natural" technologies, such as genetic engineering.

There is no doubt that much good can be done simply by more scientific study of nature and re-examining the results of mechanical sciences. Models to reduce chemical loading of the environment or to enhance bio-degradation, are some examples. Errors and incorrect theories are constantly being revealed within science itself. In this sense, modern science does contain a partial self-corrective element within it. Thus, ecological farming has with ordinary science made huge advances in general understanding of soil and plant communities – contributions that have been widely accepted even within conventional farming. However, by overlooking the cognitive element implicit in how we know the world, we may essentially handicap ourselves to deal with the bigger problems we face. We become forced – by definition – to remain within the same reductionistic flow. In this way, many well conceived efforts to progress beyond conventional science may be fundamentally – and technically – flawed.

A prerequisite to developing a holistic, Goetheanistic approach that alters the course and direction of science is to discretely address the cognitive aspect of seeing nature. This can be done at a number of levels. The challenge of the modern age at the start of the millennium is simply that in order to effect the needed change we must be far more comprehensive than we are initially prepared for or capable of being. The hermeneutic question is: how can we begin if we cannot clearly see the new, previously hidden start point?

Science and Society: The Industrial, Secular Era

Many if not most of the truly significant developments within the sciences have had a corresponding social component, which may in fact have preceeded the science itself. The recognition of this phenomena goes back to Thomas Kuhn's basic work (Kuhn, 1962). Yet, this fact is continually overlooked in examining modern scientific developments.

We can begin to grasp the root causes of the dilemma in how we know the world mechanistically by recognizing how closely science and modern industrial society have developed together. By appreciating more specifically the deep sociological dimensions of science we may begin to overcome our failure to grasp the cognitive dimension of seeing the world.

It must be said at the outset that scientists are mostly unprepared to see themselves as "socially embedded", still less cognitively constrained. It is a chicken and egg phenomena. Much worse, science has been presented to society as a form of absolute knowing. Thus, significant internal resistance may exist if we shift emphasis to a cognitive element, where we recognize a world of groundless being with no "outside" to turn to in order to derive "fundamental scientific findings".

It is instructive to look back 160 years to Victorian England, and view the emergence of modern, industrial society simultaneous with modern biological science. By the end of the 19th century, the captivating and important concern of western society as a whole was mechanisation and industrialisation, which in turn shaped the new sciences (Ada, 1989; Marx, 1964). It is forever problematic to state which condition came first. Clearly, the concept of western dominance arises in close concert with the paradigm of control and exploitation of nature, which arose out of sciences preoccupation with the details. With the steam engine and the train arriving in society, near complete human fascination was invested in building a manufacturing society. Whether you read the American pioneer Thomas Jefferson, or Scottish political economist Adam Smith or Charles Darwin, the direction is the same. The basic principles of the accumulation of capital, the division of labor and the improvement of mechanisation, were all being simultaneously enunciated.

Probably no shift in scientific innovation and social causes has been more significant than that produced by Darwin. It is evident from all that is known of his life that he drew significant elements of his theory of nature's division of labor from non-scientific sources, including the emerging economic theories, especially those of Thomas Malthus (Desmond & Moore, 1992). Malthus was an economist for the East India Tea Company – perhaps the largest corporation in the world at the time – and it was he, and not Darwin, who first clearly formulated the basic premise of survival of the fittest: "as population rises and the food supply diminishes, struggle and starvation are the result".

The need to secularize trade in order for the new manufacturers to grow in their own right concerned Darwin's peers every day. What is less well appreciated – due to its sensitive social nature – is Darwin's extreme interest with familial inbreeding and its apparent negative effects (Desmond & Moore, 1992). He developed these concerns concurrent to his investigation of evolution. Within his own family, marrying within the family – Darwin married his first cousin – was very common. Darwin seems to have been greatly preoccupied with his children's condition. The early death of his favorite daughter for inexplicable causes and the apparent slow learning abilities of several of his children caused him extraordinary grief. These apparent physical hereditary factors were powerful antecedents for Darwin's developing a new view of "natural selection". It was only Gregor Mendel who glimpsed the actual hereditary links. Not surprisingly, one of Darwin's sons chaired the first London Congress on eugenics sponsored by the Galton Society: its facile objective, among others, was to examine the brains of rich to determine if they were larger than those of the poor "less fit" classes. It is therefore surprising to recognize that this new evolutionary science also triggered the eugenics movement.

Darwin's extraordinary struggle with class and socials issues extended deep into his writings and extensive personal notes. We know from the record that Darwin deliberately withheld publishing his views regarding evolution by at least two decades. He felt that by prematurely publishing the struggle-for-existence, the lower working classes would seize upon it as a rationale for an uprising in the very turbulent and unstable 1840's and 50's (Desmond & Moore, 1992).

It is ironic that Darwin's views go very much to the upper, privileged class even while challenging religious authority. He held that by accumulating capital we "rise above lower races" (Adas, 1989). In notes Darwin made during his five years of ocean travel in the Beagle we find numerous references to European society as a "pinnacle" system compared to other societies which are described as "lesser" or "savage" in nature. Darwin described the South American natives he encountered as "barbarians haunted by the grossest superstitions..... their mouths frothed with excitement, their expression wild.... and mistrustful" (Darwin, 1871). He adds – and unmistakably he is talking of the European – "Man may be excused for feeling some pride at having risen... to the very summit of the organic scale". Today, such viewpoints could easily be characterized as distorted and racist, and certainly would be political suicide for a naturalist. At the time it was consistent with the emerging worldviews of dominant European society. Ironically, Karl Marx presented a shrewd commentary on Darwinism when he said "he [Darwin] recognizes in beasts and plants his English society" (Marx & Engels, 1863).

Looked at another way, Darwin's theory was so important and influential because it re-focused virtually all the social issues of the time, particularly the turbulent forces democratising business and secularizing science, while at the same time protecting privilege, {delete hyphen} or in other words, "class struggle converted to natural science" (Marx and Engels, 1863). A similar modern critique of anthropomorphisms dominating E.O. Wilson's biology is seen in the work of Deborah Gordon (Gordon, 1999). At this early time of social upheaval in England, we find naturalists and worker class peoples struggling together to limit the enormously powerful Anglican, Christian church. Darwin was keenly aware of this social context, and he carefully picked his friends and collaborators. In 1838 he wrote: "I need only show that one species passes in to another, and the whole edifice [of society] totters and falls". This is no ordinary scientist who wishes to reveal new facts – he is keenly aware of his views triggering an entire social shift.

The powerful influence this new scientific "survivability" thinking exerted within the emerging competitive, industrial Euro-American-centered world must not be underestimated. Going further, there are very unsettling aspects to these new, popular 19th century views. It is not just that they present the "sociologically embedded scientist" (Gould, 1997). They also reveal typical racist elements of European white culture tied to the new popular view of dominating nature by industry. Closely linked to Darwin was Galton who established the London Galton Society, the first overtly eugenic society in the western world. This extension of Darwinistic natural science was taken up in America at the turn of the century, and by 1910 the first full government eugenics agency, the Eugenicist Records Office (ERO) had been established in New York with the goal of "... uplifting the country by improving the blood of the nation" (Davenport Papers, 1910; Perkins 1934). From prominent industrialists like Averill Harriman and banker T.H. Morgan and the Rockerfellers, to inventors like Alexander Graham Bell and natural scientist Luther Burbank, we see broad acceptance of the Darwinian notion that "the environment is the architect of heredity" (Burbank, 1907) whichin its most extreme form led to the eugenic holocaust of Europe.

This thought may be expressed differently by stating that the current era of science bears within it logically the legacy of a dehumanizing, industrializing world view. One cannot separate the two and say "here are the objective observations of nature " and "here are the developments of secular industry". They are linked together, each supporting the other. Darwin's singular act is that he secularized and industrialized human cognition of nature. It is not surprising that this new view had the power to break the Church domination. Today, we are challenged to ask if it is possible at all to develop a holistic ecology or a culturally supportive society from such a starting point or even perhaps by using any of its building blocks.

Science and Society: The Genetic Engineering Era

The huge sweeping reforms that grew out of Newtonian physics and Darwinian industrialisation altered the way we perceive nature and continue in their modern effects. It is easy today to grasp that we see the world in a manner similar to how we mechanize the world: virtually all the theories and models that we work from are now mechanical in nature. This reform of the human experience of the world that started nearly 400 years ago is being deepened by means of the emerging electronic-genetic era.

The frontier sciences in bio-tech and electronic biological interfaces may be the equivalent to the manufacturing obsession 150 years ago. Humans are "reinventing" nature as a bio-genetic network, a complex web of basic genetic building blocks that can be manipulated at will. At the same time we are building a web of computer units linked around the world. At every turn in modern business and science we see heightened fascination with natural phenomena as "networks" or "decentralized units" and we are witnessing unprecedented use of Darwinian metaphors. As one writer has spoken: "The 21st Century will be more like the 16th than like the 20th, with biology standing in for the discovery and exploration of the New World." (Gruber, 1998).

Here, unfortunately, is where the blurring of boundaries so common to modern times becomes problematic. It is difficult to distinguish a productive from a fallacious or dangerous direction. In a crude sense, Darwinian natural science prompted a world eugenics movement. While the darker aspects of this application of modern science have been stopped, bio-technology is raising again significant ethical questions that are similar. It is important to recognize that the same logical, positivistic and de-humanizing impulse implicit in modern western science is simply expressing itself in new territory. Without a holistic dimension to the understanding heredity as co-joining of the environment and the part, for example, these eugenic problems will continue to arise.

Thus, we have enhanced reductionism with its ever-present Darwinian eugenics foundation, balancing against a new emergent wholism, with a strong social ethical dimension. The "middle ground" is growing, and represents an amorphous mixing of all views, chiefly apparent in the internet, bio-tech communities. This in turn is influencing the views and practice of science itself.

Suddenly it is fashionable that so-called "natural laws" in nature are seen as "potentialities". Darwinian survival of-the-fittest and genetic determinism are slipping from their high status as iron laws. We are examining the notion that natural reproduction means organisms pass on genes as well as the environment in which the genes were imbedded (undoubtedly one of the most truly holistic notions that has come out of biology). Thus, as we continue to investigate nature, we find directional signs pointing everywhere. "Nature rejoices in illusion", said Goethe. Here, instead of finding the ultimate groundwork of nature, our modern reductionism is at best able to relativise everything and "network" is a good metaphor for it. "There is no understanding possible anymore", lament two writers, because now "everything stands between" (Taylor & Suarinen, 1994).

Closely tied to the current era's massive production of piecemeal data about Nature is the information technology age itself - computers being central to it. This information technology gives us the opportunity for the first time ever to truly gather all the data produced by an atomistic world view. Indeed, Descartes who expounded the entire world to be mechanical has been in a sense waiting all the while until such a moment would arise when we would be actually capable of physically storing the detail of the cosmic mechanism.

If one considers the historicity of science itself (Bortoft, 1995) one cannot overlook the problems encountered for early thinkers when introducing an atomistic world view in the absence of the requisite mechanisms to do something with it, since clearly the human mind unaided is not capable of it. From this point of view, genetic science thus becomes an invention of the computer era - we are mapping the human genome not because we understand the territory, but because we can finally comprehensively capture the billions of pieces of data produced. Genetic science today by definition is an extension of mechanical reductionism.

Descartes, Newton, Darwin - and for that matter all of them - certainly had no concept of data storage. At that time, the most advanced people had been reading from movable typed books for only about 150 years, and only in specific regions of Europe. Indeed, I imagine that Descartes postulation of the mechanical universe might not have been made or so fully acted upon prior Johann Gutenberg's press - which after all, began the process of atomization in so far as it reduced the word to units of inserted letters. Darwin expressed great frustration at the limits of humans cataloging all the details about nature. What these early revolutionists could not do, we can begin to do now: replace the experiential world around us with a computer retrievable, mechanical copy of that world in all its details. It is this copy from which successive generations are likely to draw much of their explanation if not experience of the world.

A careful assessment needs to be made of the new direction being taken. Preceding generations of industrial reductionists concerned themselves with implanting the machine in the garden, an expression coined by historian Leo Marx (Marx, 1964). It seems apparent that present and future generations will focus on "the garden in the machine", an expression from bio-tech spokesperson Claus Emmeche (Emmeche, 1994). Tired of anthropomorphizing the world we will alter the course and attempt to "naturalize" the machine newly created. This is somewhat similar to how Ludwig Bertallanffy characterized the trend in modern science "... human forms of cognition... are modified and eliminated and... replaced by constructs increasingly abstract, general and unvisualizable...". (Bertallanffy, 1967). Only it goes further than this, and becomes a very active type of involvement with intrinsic mechanical seeing, called by many a "virtualisation" of the world.

Is it possible that we may be glimpsing the beginning of the information-atomistic age? Everywhere we turn, modern persons are incorporating mechanical concepts into deeper layers of nature and human investigation. The essential thrust of advanced science and bio-technology is not to find alternatives but to accommodate the underlying and build upon the atomistic world view, allied with new nature metaphors. To complete this thought, and with apologies to Wes Jackson, it is apparent that the essential intent of our age is "becoming native to this machine" (see Jackson, 1994) – in other words, a complete uniting of human with machine forms of perception. To become wholists, to invest one iota of human purpose into Goetheanism, must we not become new pioneers, strangers to our country and to our age?

Observing Nature as the "Open Skeptic"

This paper critiques modern science as an enterprise that is fundamentally flawed if our concern is to develop a new, qualitative understanding of nature. Where that is not our concern, we need not question science. That so many good workers wish to develop alternatives but only by tinkering with the existing structures, is deeply problematic. Realistically, for most, there is no other way.

A good way to formulate a new beginning in any kind of enterprise is to become aware of the obstacles to it. One way to go about this is to notice that Goetheanism lights up as we become aware of what we do not see with traditional scientific approaches. Traditional science contains predictable blind spots. These invisible zones can become hindrances quickly- depending on the investigation. It may appear surprising if not incomprehensible to many that in this modern data- rich era we have extraordinary observational handicaps. Goetheanistic environmental working must attempt to bring awareness of this to the forefront.

To develop a new field means to establish a conceptual framework for it. Yet, this requires considerable "bootstraps", since by definition the concepts needed do not yet exist. A space needs to be opened up, and we need to become accustomed to that space. This requires patience and new skills not previously used. When new concepts come into play, we begin to discover slowly a world not previously seen. It is a comprehensive world overlying the detailed world science perceives.

It is also true that alertness is a key to participatory observation. This is a quality of openess. Ranged in front of it and all around, are the obstacles. As one step, we must learn to mistrust data — not all of it all at once, but some of it selectively, by practice. Spencer Brown points out, that modern science has produced its great advances by "selective blindness" (Brown, 1997). If this is true, then a new Goetheanistic science will achieve its goals by a different process of wide-eyed non-selective participation. Refraining from accepting carte blanche modern "scientific consensus" is a good starting point.

There is nothing more powerful and less liked in modern science than to presume your idea to be faulty from which you first launched an investigation. Yet, many scientists and educators are prepared to do just this. It is in fact a key to discovery. Overthrowing customary views helps open us to new concepts which themselves permit a new seeing. Thus, Goetheanisms embodies healthy skepticism.

Concepts lead to "Seeing New": The Case of the Riparian-Buffer

Goetheanism in a sense may be simpler than we are lead to believe: it is the art of being-in-what-is-seen. Said differently: the Goetheanist starts by recognizing that the investigator is a cognizing and seeing entity. Failure to grasp this at the outset lead Goethe to caution: "Nature surrounds us with her dance... we live in her midst and know it not". Becoming conscious of our participatory awareness we find "data" co-mingled with the end result (concept), but never alone initially, as naive empiricism would have it. This is no cause to become a reactionary scientist; rather, it emancipates the human to more fully realise his or her potentiality as an observer.

brinton1.jpg (278692 bytes)

Figure 1.
Riparian Buffer, healthy state of clean water with plant boundary zone. (Click on thumbnail to download full image, 273kb)

This awakening is most poignantly realized when we take scenes from a natural landscape, and ask: what do we observe? In the case of Figure 1, we see what most see: a quaint rural-agricultural scene. But the loss of what is now recognized to be a "riparian buffer phenomena" (Figure 2) has caused us to see the same scene, but more richly (Isaacson, 1999).

brinton2.jpg (294358 bytes)

Figure 2.
Riparian Bufffer, disorganised state, polluted water missing boundary zone. (Click on thumbnail to download full image, 288kb)

The riparian water-plant border phenomen is expressed in nature's unique activity at boundaries with yield special environmental functions, not "seen" by just looking at the separate parts, water and plant. In figure 1, there is an active presence—the harmony of clean water and exisiting plant borders— that we do not see until the loss of it is grasped in the second (Fig 2): the water becomes polluted because the riparian phenomena (bordering trees and shrubs) are no longer present in the same relationship. Instead of seeing "clean water" in the first picture we learn to see it more actively as "cleansed water". Then, the polluted water in the second scene we grasp now as "water which has lost context". A useful excercise that helps here is to attempt to imagine water without any boundary – does it even exist? A wholeness emerges in contrasting the scenes that teaches us to re-see water united with its boundary condition. Once seen in this light, we cannot "un-see" the new concept. The recognition of riparian phenomen is one way that we are led to grasp that water is clean actively as opposed to clean passively. We debunk the environmentalist's concept "clean water", a fact seen as existing by itself. Thus, in this exercise an entirely new thrust in given "to the concept "environmental contamination".

While studying riparian phenomena is instructive and interesting, we need to go beyond this. Within the new environmentalism that must arise, a fundamental lesson is to make the observer aware of the simultaneous conceptual activity that illuminates the nature scene. Deborah Gordon's work observing ant colonies illuminates this to a high degree (Gordon, 1999). On several levels, simple exercises can be developed to prompt the active participation in the student which yields deeper insights. These exercises use nature as a starting point, and examine how concepts illuminate or conceal the observed landscape.

This new approach is not data oriented, yet it does not reject data. Indeed, data may be indispensable to it. Thus, despite our critique of modern science, a holistic approach does not set itself up as opposition per se. Looked at more broadly in its social context, this new approach is harmonious with modern impulses seen in young people who are clearly trying to discover the whole as distinct from the parts, while society punishes them by providing more and more parts.

In this sense, it must be said that Goetheanism is most powerful when it is at work, and no better place than in nature herself. In the enriching relationship nature-to-human, the cognitive human world gains ground and substance acquires meaning, together. It is a shame that we accept so much less.


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William Brinton, Ph.D. is director of Woods End Research Laboratory in Maine USA. and co- director of Agar- und Umwelt-Consult, GmbH, Bonn Germany

Author's address:

Woods End Research Laboratory
PO Box 297 - Rome Road
Mt Vernon
MAINE 04352

Email: wbrinton@woodsend.org

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