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A New Science Of Qualities
A Talk With Brian Goodwin

JB: What have you been up to?

GOODWIN: Let me preface it by saying that I've just left the Open University, and I've taken a new job down in Devon, at a place called Schumacher College. E.F. Schumacher is the guy who wrote Small is Beautiful, and this college is dedicated to education for the 21st century. It's developing concepts and methods appropriate to the issues of sustainability, ecological sensitivity, and the participatory world view. Instead of the traditional science of control we are involved in the science of participation, which is where complexity leads us, involving sensitive participation with nature. This requires cultivation of intuitive ways of knowing about wholes as well as analytical ways of knowing about parts, which takes into what mat be called a science of qualities.

For me, a lot of the ferment that's going on in science is around this problem of how we deal with the subjective and the intuitive. Everybody knows that the subject is primary. 'Objectivity' is something that comes out of consensus between subjects who have agreed methods of practicing science. Scientific objectivity is a democratic consensus between practitioners of science that such and such is the case, based upon experimental method and modeling. If there's no consensus in science, there is no agreement about facts and hence no 'truth'.

There's another important component of science, and that is what's philosophers refer to as realism. Scientists virtually all agree that there's a real world that's being investigated by science. Science itself, and the tools of science, are social constructs. But the methods of science address something that is real and independent of human beings. I believe in such a world. The knowledge you get from science is real knowledge about the real world. It's not absolute truth, which is never attainable; it's an approximation to it. So there's this strong element of social construction in science, but I'm not a relativist.

JB: So define yourself.

GOODWIN: I'm a pluralist. I believe that there are different ways of getting reliable knowledge about the world. But because they refer to the same world we can compare them and decide which is more appropriate for particular forms of action. This implies that knowledge and (ethical ) action are connected, unlike the usual assumption in current science that facts and values are quite separate.

JB: But it sounds like you may fit in with the debunkers.

GOODWIN: I am certainly critical of many aspects of science, but I remain a believer in our ability to gain reliable knowledge about a real world. Consider the difference between this and the position presented by John Horgan in his book The End of Science, for example. In this he describes a crisis he had when he was an English major and suffered an overdose of literary criticism. He suddenly realized that everything was relative, every viewpoint valid in its own terms, so that there was no firm foundation of understanding. He decided to concentrate on science, to find out the truth, something solid about reality. Then, in his middle age, he had a second crisis, which is that science doesn't deliver this truth that he was looking for. He decided that much of contemporary science is just untestable story-telling with the same characteristics as literature. He seems to feel that he's been betrayed by science, which has become nothing but literature again for him.

That's his own psychological journey, and he's quite frank about that in his book. But nobody seems to have made much of it. He describes these experiences at the beginning and at the end of the book, and that for me brackets the whole thing. That's his own testament of two crises in his life, which seem to have given rise to his book. I don't for a moment buy his notion that string theory and modern astrophysics won't tell us anything about reality because we can't do experiments on them.

I remember going to the Scientific American offices in New York to meet John when I was promoting my book (How The Leopard Changed Its Spots) and we had a great talk. He's a very interesting guy. I really enjoyed our conversation it seemed to me he was onto something important, but I don't think he got there in his book.

John is caught by an incredibly effective journalistic style. He knows what sells well, and he's got this wonderful way of capturing vignettes of scientists, characterizing them, but I feel the book is ultimately superficial. There's a deeper problem about science which is the involvement of the subject in the acquisition of knowledge. As described above, 'objective' knowledge comes from consensus between subjects who agree on particular methods of getting knowledge, as scientists do in acquiring quantitative knowledge about parts of the world by measurement procedures. This gives us a science of quantities, a Galilean science. But we experience more than quantities; we also experience qualities such as color, texture, pain, joy, health, beauty, coherence, and a host of other properties. Science tends to dismiss these as 'subjective', outside the realm of scientific investigation. But people are hankering after a better quality of life not just the quality of air and water and food, but quality of experience, relationships with people, community values. Subjectivity is getting squeezed out by science, and everything's being turned into this counter-intuitive objective way of looking at the world.


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