“Trajectories of the Earth System in the Anthropocene,” Will Steffen, et al. PNAS, Aug 2018, 115 (33) 8252-8259

“For questions about moral value — how we ought to decide and act — science can inform our deliberations, but it cannot provide the answer…. We may need to reconcile ourselves to the fact that we are facing not simply a passing crisis, but a new normal. For that and similar challenges, we need moral insight.”

Fr. John Jenkins, in the New York Times

Scientists, Scholars, and Artists Thinking Together 

Rigorous science deals not with questions of value but with questions of fact: what do we know about the physical world and how do we know it? But while empirical science has much to say about quantifiable processes, its capacity for predicting outcomes in complex situations is limited, especially when it comes to authentic human community. There are simply too many variables for science to offer definitive conclusions about what total effects any particular course of action might bring about. 

Thus even in the best cases, mere evidence is an insufficient basis for action, since what evidence means can only be determined by human values. Thus in addition to evidence, we need reasoned judgment. Further, such judgment must also include a disciplined sensibility to the poverty, injustice, and oppression that burden the lives of so many, as well as a sense of human solidarity and concern for the common good. Cultivating such judgment — through developing the disciplined habits of mind, body, and spirit that characterize educated, skilled, and free human beings — is the traditional provenance of the humanities. 

Yet sometimes even reasoned judgement is inadequate when it comes to coping with unprecedented situations that present novel challenges and unrecognizable signals. Navigating such cognitive and existential complexities requires creative innovation. As numerous world-class scientists have themselves attested, recognizing emergent patterns in complex phenomena often relies more on intuition than it does on rational thought, and the challenge of making such patterns legible is as often aesthetic as it is empirical or rhetorical. In addition to the humanities and the sciences, then, we also need art.

We see three primary ways that scientists, social scientists, scholars, and artists can think rigorously together on the topic of environmental change, which coalesce around three questions: “What is happening?”, “How did we get here?”, and “What is to be done?” 

Addressing the first question, “What is happening?”, means asking how physical processes being described by scientists are impacting and might impact human society, not merely in terms of predicted economic loss or even loss of life, but in terms of social organization, political affect, cultural change, moral value, metaphysics, and meaning. Addressing this question demands responsible ongoing attention from scholars and artists to scientific research. It also demands recognition of the epistemological limits of science, the social grounding of scientific practice, and the value of inductive reasoning from historical knowledge and personal experience.

Addressing the question of “What is happening?” also raises a host of secondary questions about norms and practices of interdisciplinary research, institutional frameworks for producing knowledge, governance, discursive conditions prevailing on public communication, the role of narrative, and the relationship between knowledge production and public policy, among other issues. 

The second question, “How did we get here?”, engages many of the same issues as the first, but within a specifically historical context, which presents its own problems. It might even seem, at first, that the question of “what is happening” cannot be separated from the history of “what happened,” since the foundation for empirical claims is by necessity evidence of past events. Yet as soon as we begin to organize information about the past into meaningful sequence — to turn data into narrative — we encounter questions of meaning, language, identity, and orientation that turn the already complex challenge of describing reality into the inescapably value-laden activity of defining the limits of a human social collective in time: saying who “we” are. This problematic, which includes related issues of justice, teleology, and the meaning of the “good,” cannot be adequately addressed by scientific methods, while humanistic and artistic attempts to engage the problematic cannot hope to succeed without due attention to the knowledge and insights offered by scientific research

Finally, we must take up the question of “What is to be done?” This question cannot be left to debates between economists and scientists, nor to the whims and promises of politicians, but must be grappled with in the deepest possible philosophical sense. Climate change poses an existential threat to civilization as we know it, if not to the human species. Coping with climate change and adapting to the new planetary environment currently emerging demands the urgent revaluation of inherited cultural frameworks, vigorous debate on meaning and value, and visionary forethought. To feel our way into an unknowable future, our reach must exceed our grasp, and we must be willing to step beyond the enlightenment of evidence into the penumbral shadow of decision. Only through a commitment to rigorously exploring humanistic questions of value, ethics, aesthetics, form, identity, and narrative can we hope to cultivate the judgment required for right action.