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On the Pursuit of Scientific Truth: David Cayley in Conversation

October 2021

I feel to be in good company when the editor of this issue of the newsletter appends a quote from John Jay Chapman to the end of her emails.

“Retain the power of speech no matter what other power you may lose … Do what you will, but speak out always. Be shunned, be hated, be ridiculed, be scared, be in doubt, but don’t be gagged. The time of trial is always. Now is the appointed time.” –John Jay Chapman, 1900.

The power of speech has been with us for a long time. A great deal of wisdom is available to us both in present speech and past. The above quote from 1900 is a case in point. In these troubled and troubling times—speech in the time of Covid—it takes on a renewed poignancy, dare I say meaning. We see and feel a connection to this wisdom. Some of us, perhaps, for the first time.

What is it that draws our attention to wisdom? And what allows our present circumstances to invite integration of past circumstances to see the larger picture in both time and space?

More importantly, what is it that draws our attention away from wisdom? To reject it? To deny it? Or worse, to suppress our knowledge and our knowing both individually and collectively? Indeed, to manufacture ignorance or cooperate in its collective construction? The name for such is agnotology. For an introduction see Robert Proctor’s Agnotology: The Making and Unmaking of Ignorance (2008).

Academics are far from immune to this unknowing. Faculty associations “representing” their members without polling them push vaccines mandates, becoming arms of government. They collude with universities, enabling them to collude with governments to break carefully crafted protections to further an agenda that can no longer be supported on a rational basis. When Pascal spoke of the heart having reasons that reason itself could not fathom, he did not mean that reason was unimportant; only that it isn’t everything. And I agree that both are important to the point of using the term extrarational instead of irrational in order to show respect and value for reasons of the heart.

But whatever happened to critical thinking?

How many of us have considered, or dared to consider, that what is happening today in these pandemic times is the result of a lengthy history of corporate capture on a global scale? Corporate capture is how corporations undermine the realization of human rights by influencing both national and international decision-makers as well as public institutions. That such influence is inappropriate doesn’t need to be spelled out.

We are past the need for “maintaining freedom in teaching”. We need to start searching for viable ways of recovering freedoms lost over these past 18 months.

And research? Yes, research can be done. But can it be shared? And what good is our research if it cannot be shared? If research shapes our understanding, what self-corrective remains for scientific knowledge? Today we have a scientific underground and the persecutions that accompany underground movements.

Academic decisions about students and faculty are also past their maintenance stage and well into a similar need for recovery. The question now is, what needs to be done? And it surely is not maintaining status quo.

I had a sense in mid March 2020, that we were in trouble. I cannot put my finger on it other than to say that the phrase that entered my mind was “knee jerk reaction.” I recall writing to a friend jokingly (I thought then), sending her “Laurent’s Law,” a rough reformulation of Newton’s Law of Motion: “Every action involving humans has an unequal and opposite overreaction.”

But why now? Why so sudden? So persistent? So enduring? And there’s no letting up. Only a doubling down, a quadrupling down. The fourth wave. We need to wonder how we have been primed for this. And even how we, ourselves, have been participating in that priming, not intentionally, but participating none the less.

The clinical psychologist Mattias Desmet explains in a recent interview that when society is in a state of what he calls “mass formation,” 30% are in a hypnotic trance-like state, 40% are ambivalent, acting more or less like observers, and 30% are sceptical and try to make sense of the panic. I’ll let Desmet speak for himself.

What interested me most was that the distinction between the observing, head-scratching, fence sitters and the latter group of skeptics trying to speak out, was their respective prior worldview. In short, it was the difference between a narrow ideology defined as a mechanistic, biological reductionist view of humans in the world, versus a longer, wider, more holistic or integrative view of who we are in the larger scheme of things.

Desmet’s “mass formation” idea is new to me so I’ll leave it there for readers to think on. And Desmet does give a sense of his own experience of struggling with pandemic times.

It occurred to me that such shared stories may well serve as a necessary crutch to free us from this quagmire. Desmet’s personal story reaffirms me in sharing mine.

The first sign of hope, for me, was reading “The Prognosis” by David Cayley. At first I hadn’t even realized that this was the David Cayley that I knew from the CBC Ideas program who had, unbeknownst to him, shaped my academic career as a ‘born again student’ and which led me to study the history and philosophy of science.

I thought an open letter might do the trick, taking a cue from Cayley to start a conversation. Keep in mind that Cayley has written other articles and I direct you to his website.

Plus an interview here.

Much of what I say in the letter outlines an intellectual journey that started with the felt need for a cosmological story that was science based, and which could serve as a contemporary meaning maker. As Canadian philosopher/theologian Bernard Lonergan reminded his students and readers again and again, we live in a world both mediated by, and constituted by, meaning.

Here’s my response to his dedicated efforts at shining a much-needed light on the pandemic.

Dear David Cayley.

I’m a member of a group of academics that has written a number of hard-hitting open letters to the unvaccinated, the vaccinated and most recently to all public health officials across Ontario, including media. The group is Canadian Academics for Covid Ethics.

This is a different sort of letter and comes from me personally and represents my views, opinions and, indeed, my journey. It’s a letter of thanks.

I thank you for two reasons. The first reason is that you have been a great influencer in my life starting more than a third of a century ago, since 1986 to be exact.

That September, I started a doctoral program at Toronto School of Theology (TST) and my first course was based on your transcripts of a CBC Ideas series where you interviewed a number of scientists and gave them an opportunity to share their own questions and excitement of their wondering about the world and beyond, and the further questions their wondering evoked. You let them speak in their own voice.

The second reason for my thanks is that in the past year I’ve noticed more and more that the ideas I’m bringing to the table in our group are long-held notions sparked by the course based on your transcripts.

And to top it all off, one of our group members sent me your first Covid-related article in Literary Review of Canada. Since then I came across several more of your articles. Names like Ivan Illich and Northrop Frye are distant memories at best for most academics. There is so much new research on such a wide range of topics that there is barely time to take a breath. Anything older than the current decade seems irrelevant; two decades is practically deemed useless. And to see anything from even the 20th century is so rare it’s frightening. The history of ideas is neglected or, at best, given short shrift. Much needed perspective is lost.

The thinkers and writers you introduced me to have shaped my journey to the extent that their thoughts and ideas are in my bones. So with nonchalant ease, in the middle of a videoconference, I can toss out a “conviviality” or a “faith is imagination!” And if you want to move a mountain, it doesn’t just happen all by itself: you need a whole lot of shovels! Plus the blood, sweat and tears that go along with shovelling. (But I’m not much in favour of moving a mountain. My preference and push is more in the line of thinking like one.)

Let me be more specific. You introduced me to Ilya Prigogine who came up with the notion of “dissipating structures,” which presented a conundrum because “structure” was one of those plastic words identified by Illich along with Uwe Poerksen with the latter writing Plastic Words (1995); words that prime us into thinking that there is something but turns out to be some vague mush that means everything and therefore nothing. Words that open us to manipulation. Words that we encounter today to justify irrational mandates.

Prigogine’s La Nouvelle Alliance was coauthored with philosopher Isabelle Stengers. It’s an important book translated into English as Order Out of Chaos: Man’s New Dialogue with Nature. Prigogine died in 2003 and their collaborative insights continue with Stengers, who has also written about Covid.

I encourage you to draw out these extensions of Prigogine’s thought through Stengers’ contemporary work.

David Bohm was also on your list of conversation partners featuring his Wholeness and the Implicate Order (1980).

Later I discovered that Bohm had also written On Dialogue where he detailed how to have conversations, conversations where you hang up your assumptions like laundry blowing in the breeze. I even recall an amazing insight from that book. He talked about the importance of misunderstanding. To me this was mind boggling. I had to read it over and over again. That idea was most difficult to grasp in a presentation I gave that evening. Suffice it to say it was not successful. My audience simply wasn’t prepared to accept that misunderstanding could have any value whatsoever.

I puzzled over this for a long time. To me it was like replication in genetic coding. Every so often, oops, a mistake. And that mistake offers a change that fits just that much better into an environment that had changed, without being “noticed” by the changed organism. Thus, creativity.

The final person I’ll recall to you in this thank-you was the most significant in my academic work: James Lovelock. He came to University of Toronto to give a public lecture (as did Bohm), but with Lovelock’s visit, there was also an invitation to meet Lovelock face to face with a small group of graduate students. I was the only one from theology, the others from the Institute for Environmental Studies. Rodney White, the director, had arranged it.

Aside from his capacity as a storyteller, I was captivated by Lovelock’s humility and authenticity. He spoke a fair amount about being an independent scientist, saying that if he had worked for a university, he would never have had the opportunity to explore the concept of biogeochemistry through his imaginary telescope positioned on Mars and looking back at Earth with questions coming to mind that could not have been asked otherwise.

Gaia: A New Look at Life on Earth (1979) was the book and topic of your conversation with him. I had already read the book several years earlier and discovered the vast difference between reading a book and questioning its author, to say nothing of the responses. I became friends with Jim over the years, we wrote back and forth and he answered every letter I wrote. It took four days to get a letter to him and four days back with a space in between. (There were other things on his mind.)

He invited me to the Oxford Gaia conferences, both Gaia and Gaia II, held at St. Anne’s College and Green College. I had already been to a number of academic conferences but the Oxford conferences were an experience from a different planet. The excitement was palpable. And mine too.

To make a long story somewhat shorter I asked him to read and comment on my 1993 dissertation, Intellectual Conversion and the Gaia Hypothesis: A Paradigm for Science and Theology in Dialogue (1993).

I survived the defence but needed to add a prefatory note, namely, on how my position on judgement of fact in Bernard Lonergan’s cognitional process differed from Lonergan’s. The answer was already buried in the footnotes of the work but needed to be made explicit in my appended note. I relied on Vico, Heinz von Foerster, Jean Piaget, Ernst von Glasersfeld, Humberto Maturana, Francisco Varela, and associated researchers who were working in research called radical constructivism. This was essentially a deeper dig through social constructivism. And I use the term “dig” rather than the more contemporary “dive” because it involves that “leap of faith” noted by Frye and all those shovels.

Since completing my dissertation I have continued my exploration of our cognitional conundrum. While I could get technical here, I will studiously avoid it. It’s a huge shovelling operation.

Essentially and metaphorically, the traveller first needs to be coaxed gently and kindly from the land of naive realism into the halfway house of idealism, briefly shake hands with solipsism, and continue the journey to the land of critical realism. From there the traveller can reach the final destination where the truth—in accordance with Vico’s Verum esse ipsum factum—will set that traveller free.

Thus, in place of philosophical nitpicking, I’ll simply pose some suggestive questions:

  1. A cognitional theory needs to include a theory of perception. What is that theory of perception either selected or assumed by the researcher?

  2. If selected, from what range of theories is it selected? If assumed, how can the researcher recognize there is an assumption? And if recognized, what is the assumption? And if identified, how can it be tested?

  3. From where do we receive the notion that the universe is knowable? And if knowable, what might be a good reason for knowing it?

In short, don’t we already know enough? Or too much?

I end my letter by quoting Otto Rank, as quoted by Ernest Becker in his The Denial of Death.

“…For the time being, I gave up writing - there is already too much truth in the world - an overproduction that apparently cannot be consumed!”

I’ll leave these last words from Rank with you, David, to consider as you continue your dedication to making meaning of our sitz im leben during these troubled and troubling times.

And I invite you into continued conversations with wisdom literature, a method that has served you well in the past and hopefully, into the days to come.

I look forward to reading your coming thoughts and to further connections.

Laurent Leduc