While we have known about global environmental changes (climate change, loss of biodiversity, increase of zoonoses …) since decades, we still do not act on them. How come that there is such disconnection between knowing and effect since the 19th century, and we still do not act on it? How come that there is such disconnection between knowing and acting? It would be easy to think that the disconnection between our knowing and acting is due to the short-termed nature and little range of our spontaneous human concerns. This kind of explanation is insufficient because it puts the entire burden on us, human agents and producers of knowledge, without questioning the nature of this knowledge, and even less the relations between us and our knowledge.
So, what is our knowledge? Our present scientific knowledge was born from a project to subtracting ourselves, our feelings, our values, our judgments, our existential concerns from what is given to us by the senses. This process of self-subtraction was supposed to help us see the world as it is, independently of us, objectively. But the cost of this move—which was necessary to produce a science endowed with this unequalled amount of efficiency—has not yet been fully assessed. As Physicist Erwin Schrödinger pointed out: "The scientific picture of the real world around us is very deficient. It gives us a lot of factual information, puts all of our experience in a magnificently consistent order, but it is ghastly silent about all and sundry that is really near to our heart, that really matters to us." 1
Scientific knowledge provides us with means to our ends, but it says nothing about which ends would be really valuable and desirable. It gives us power, but it leaves the values that guide our actions lagging behind. It gives us tools to change the world, but it brackets the motivation, and even more the quality of the motivation, to act. We know, but are we motivated to act according to what knowledge reveals to us? We know and we can, but which direction our action should take? We know the causes and consequences of what is the case, but how should we define our purpose?
Another problem with this worldview is that while the scientific enterprise is accompanied by unparalleled precision and efficacy, somehow all that is left is an endless pursuit of efficiency and exploitation for immediate benefit—with its disastrous consequences for the world at large. How can we dramatically change the perception of our position in nature, thus accommodating interdependence as more than a word, as a way of being, without jettisoning the amazing amount of information made available from a science whose values are orthogonal to that new stance? Francisco Varela’s theory of enaction—a theory in which an organism doesn’t passively perceive the world but instead shapes it and is shaped by it through active interaction with it—is a possible guide. How can our rising awareness that we are interdependent with other human beings and the whole biosphere, become more than abstract knowledge?
Two tools that may be helpful in such a transition are embodiment and mythology. Embodiment because as argued by e.g., David Abram2, when we partake of nature by our lived body, we automatically become part of it, instead of remaining outside the interdependence. The second tool may be mythology—as Feyerabend3 suggested, mythology tells us what to do, how to locate ourselves by identifying with its characters, and how to make sense of our lives within nature by projecting ourselves into its story.
The purpose of ESRI 2021 will be to consider the question of how knowledge gets transformed into action in the world, and to apply these insights to the big issues of current time, such as the climate crisis but also pervasive feelings of disconnection faced by many.
Our special thanks to Michel Bitbol and Marieke van Vugt and the rest of the members of the ESRI Arc Committee for creating this theme summary.
Members of the ESRI Arc Committee
- Catherine Bastien-Ventura, France
- Amy Cohen Varela, France
- Prof Michel Bitbol, France
- Astrid Lunkes, Germany
- Prof Andreas Roepstorff, Denmark
- Dr Marieke van Vugt, the Netherlands
1 E. Schrödinger, Nature and the Greeks, Cambridge University Press, 1954, chapter 7
2 D. Abram, The Spell of the Sensuous, Vintage, 1997. “Caught up in a mass of abstractions, our attention hypnotized by a host of human-made technologies that only reflect us back to ourselves, it is all too easy for us to forget our carnal inherence in a more-than-human matrix of sensations and sensibilities. Our bodies have formed themselves in delicate reciprocity with the manifold textures, sounds, and shapes of an animate earth — our eyes have evolved in subtle interaction with other eyes, as our ears are attuned by their very structure to the howling of wolves and the honking of geese. To shut ourselves off from these other voices, to continue by our lifestyles to condemn these other sensibilities to the oblivion of extinction, is to rob our own senses of their integrity, and to rob our minds of their coherence. We are human only in contact, and conviviality, with what is not human."
3 P. Feyerabend, Philosophy of Nature, Polity Press, 2016. “In the past anthropology emphasized … myth functions as a social glue, but it has no cognitive content. In the course of my research I started suspecting that myths have cognitive content as well. Moreover, considering that the mythmakers created culture and advanced it to a surprising extent, that the rise of science led to some canvas-cleaning which more than once has thrown out the bad as well as the good I suspected that there might be cases where science and myth are in conflict, but the myth is right, and science is not.”