Saturday, May 25, 2013

Questioning rational modernity part 1: Microbial prologue

I recently read two articles about the complex ecosystem of microbes that live on andinside the human body, one by Michael Pollan and the other from National Geographic.  Both articles containedamazing factoids, such as that only some ten percent of the cells in your bodyare your own, with the rest comprised by the bacteria, fungi, and other lifeforms that exist in this so-called microbiome.  The main message of these two surveys of current knowledge about the human microbiome is that the functioning of our bodies is much more nuanced and complex than we have thought in the past.  In addition, both articles point out that we remain very ignorant about these internal ecosystems of ours, and that this ignorance has driven us to endanger or eliminate certain valuable components of our internal environment.

For me the new discoveries about the human microbiome parallel findings in soil science and agriculture, which for me show that the biological sciences are drawing nearer to Socrates’s old adage that true wisdom is merely consciousness of one’s own ignorance.  That is to say that as we learn more about how the world works, we increasingly realize how ignorant we were and continue to be of the universe’s complexities.  This should be no surprise to experimental scientists; at least in my experience, for every one question you answer through study and trial, one hundred new questions and hypotheses spring up, each more nuanced than the last (this conundrum is also explored tangentially in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, as I recall).  What’s new now is perhaps that, at least in biology and ecology as manifested in the examples above, I feel that science is finally starting to touch some of the great mysteries of our world, questions we hadn’t even thought to ask before, about how organisms and ecosystems are interlinked by complex networks of symbiosis, not to mention ambiguous shadings between symbiosis, indifferent coexistence, and pathology.  In some ways we are finally beginning to see the inner, invisible workings of Nature, and we are thus realizing just how indecipherable some of these things are.  At the same time, the hubris of certain people in acting as if our limited, simplified understanding of the world is indeed final and complete tends to destroy the complexity in such natural systems, which in turn leaves the world in fact as the simplified, limited place such people thought it was in the first place (which is also in most cases a more unstable, unhealthy place). 

At any rate, the reflections these articles inspired in me are a good excuse to enter into a larger series of questions and thoughts I’ve been grappling with over the past few years.  I might summarize these collected thoughts as a “questioning of rational modernity”, which is to say a doubting of some of the tenets that underlie rational thought, the establishment of scientific fact, and the modern functioning of the world as founded on this scientific rationality.  I hope in the examples I give in the forthcoming essays I will clearly convey what I mean by all this.

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