Friday, November 19, 2010

Empty Cups

Very occasionally, I will brave North American culture and go see a movie on a ridiculously big screen with a ridiculously big bag of popcorn. Last December, a friend convinced me to not only go see Avatar on the big screen, but to watch it in 3-D with her. I was blown away. Though I find the current 3-D craze to be, well, crazy, I have to admit that it brought a certain enchantment to the fantasy planet Pandora. The Pandoran world teems with all the weird and wonderful biota that make for an ecologist's paradise: giant plants that spiral and luminesce, majestic birds soaring and battling in the sky, delicate spores pulsing through the air like tiny jellyfish.

But special effects aside, the movie is first and foremost an insightful commentary on the danger and devastation of human arrogance. Writer and director James Cameron tells the classic and still-very-relevant tale of white man exploiting Native land for gold. A love story is central (of course), and it is the budding romance between American Jake Sully and Pandoran Neytiri that sparks complication and hope.

I won't spoil the movie, but what I want to focus on here is one of Jake's first encounters with the Native Pandoran people. (He was assigned to befriend them and learn their ways with the ultimate goal of pushing them off a desired tract of land.) Jake acquires the attention of Mo'at, the clan's matriarch. She is initially angry, demanding that he go away, expressing her frustration at how his people just don't understand. But Jake persists, imploring that she teach him and that maybe she can make him understand. I found the next bit of dialogue extremely telling:

Mo'at: It is hard to fill a cup that is already full.

Jake: My cup is empty. Trust me. Just ask Dr. Augustine. I'm no scientist.

Two points of interest emerge for me. The first is that scientists know. Jake makes it clear that scientists' cups may be full, but he doesn't fall under that camp (he is actually an ex-Marine). To be fair, a good scientist knows that they actually know very little. A good scientist knows that what they know today can be disproved tomorrow, and that uncertainty underlies the entire discipline. So I think there is a noteworthy disconnect between the public perception and the actual practice of science. But, that said, I think there is some truth to the stereotype, too. There is no denying that science is strictly rooted in the rational acquirement of knowledge. Scientists know what they are looking for (objective knowledge), and they know how to find it (through hypothetico-deductive reasoning). Their cups are definitely full in this sense.

This leads to the second point of interest: knowing can exclude possibilities. When one enters the world knowing what they are looking for and how to find it, they will not find anything else. When a scientist approaches the world as a scientist only, they will see scientific possibilities only. When "white man" enters Native land knowing what he wants--its riches, he will miss much of what's there--its richness.

To take another spin on this theme, we can turn to an environmental ethics paper by environmental philosophers Jim Cheney and Anthony Weston. They explore the relationship between what we know (epistemology) and how we act (ethics). They propose an "ethics-based epistemology" as an alternative to our traditional "epistemology-based ethics". This is a mouthful, but as my classmate Andy put it so succinctly, it boils down to the chicken-or-egg riddle about what comes first:

In the traditional view, epistemology comes first: what we know about something determines how we act towards it. For example, we know that some animals can feel pain, so we decide upon this fact that we should treat them ethically.

In the alternative view, ethics come first: how we act towards something determines what we find out about it. In other words, we first act ethically, extending moral consideration and courtesy to even those that we know little about, and it is through this unconditional acceptance that we are allowed to really know the subject. So even if we cannot prove that snails feel pain, or that ecosystems exhibit stability, integrity, and beauty, or that wilderness matters intrinsically, we can show care and compassion for them anyway. We do not necessarily need to know all the facts before we can act in a caring manner. And, perhaps it is by caring first that knowledge and truth are revealed. By simply spending time and sharing space with other subjects, exercising mindfulness but resting our full minds, we invite unbridled discovery.

Essentially, the alternative view calls us to enter with empty cups. It calls us to let go of our need to know, to free ourselves of agendas, to quiet our preconceptions and open ourselves to surprise. Like the character Mo'at, Jim Cheney and Anthony Weston question our fixation with evidence, fact, and objectivity. They suggest emptying our cups so that other possibilities are free to flow in.

The alternative view has some implications for science and ecology. My thinking on this is still in-progress (and probably will continue to be for a long time), and I pose the following questions in the spirit of re-imagining ecology through open dialogue:

- When an ecologist conducts their research with a set agenda--to acquire objective, scientific knowledge--what possibilities are being excluded?

- Like the "white man" who enters wanting riches, is the ecologist, wanting objective knowledge, overlooking richness? (And by richness I of course mean something very different from "species richness".) Even if the scientist has the best of intentions in seeking objective knowledge, might he or she be (unknowingly) fueling arrogance and ignorance by fixating on one way of knowing?

- Of course, it is the ecologist's job to provide impartial knowledge. But this does not necessarily have to exclude other kinds of understandings that he or she may bear witness to. What if these other ways of knowing were embraced by the academic community, and offered a more central place in ecology than their current peripheral status?

- What if ecologists were encouraged to tell about scientific findings as well as other, more personal findings, whatever that may be? What if we openly raise the status of personal findings, embracing all the contradictions and mystery that may tag along? Might that contribute more truthfully and fruitfully (albeit more messily) to our on-going vital task of deciding how to value the environment?

- What if we, as an academic discipline, validated field work not just as a place to collect samples (i.e. the field is an object--"our study site"), but also as a place that you can form a relationship with (i.e. the field is a subject)? Like a relationship with any other subject, it takes time and a certain leap of faith before one can truly appreciate the other's depth, complexities, and value. Like any other loving relationship, sometimes the lover knows things that others do not. What if we took seriously the things that an ecologist knows about nature through love?

- It seems that many ecologists do feel an emotional connection with nature and value their time in the field for non-scientific reasons. But it is always the science that gets the professional stamp of approval, never the love or joy. Does it have to be this way? Might we be losing richness by always shelving love and joy in order to display objectivity?

- Ecologists and conservation biologists are valued in society for the impartial knowledge that they can contribute. They take part in environmental decision-making processes by providing the objective results of their research. However, it is often the case that the scientist cannot produce certain pieces of information, for a variety of reasons (lack of time, logistical problems, unforeseen circumstances, etc.). What if we implemented the alternative "ethics first" view, and chose the more caring and compassionate option despite not having all the facts?

- Ecologists are scientists, but are we just scientists? Might we benefit from trying to understand the world through other lenses besides the scientific one?

- If ecologists (and academics in general) more frequently approached the world with empty (or at least emptier) cups, I wonder what possibilities might flow in.

1 comment:

  1. I must have to start reading your blog... I like this piece!