On Saturday, I gave a talk at a Bangalore NGO, Environmental Support Group, at the invitation of my friends Leo and Bhargavi. The talk was about “concepts of nature”, which is to say, the implicit presuppositions that we carry in our heads when we try to understand nature. While I wanted to talk about various concepts of nature, and then conclude with my cognitive scientist take on these concepts as a whole, I ended up concentrating mostly on the post-enlightenment European concept of nature, which has deeply influenced both the natural and social sciences. I am not trying to make a carefully argued point here, but the main claim I am making is the following: modern science models nature as pure form superimposed on matter. What do I mean by that?

Suppose you are standing in front of the Taj Mahal. Of course, you cannot insert the Taj into your head, but the claim is that at least you can insert the shape of the Taj Mahal into your head. The shape of the Taj Mahal is its form. Similarly, the laws of quantum mechanics are the best understanding we have of the form of nature itself. In other words, the knower/perceiver knows and perceives by representing the form of the objects being studied.

Man, among all living beings, is the king of forms. Therefore, while science displaced us from the centre of the cosmos at the material level, it also reinserted us back with a vengeance by giving us (where us = men of European descent for the most part) the power to represent anything and everything. No wonder that the physicist is often seen looking for the one equation that underlies everything, i.e., the form of God. And the man who discerns that form to end all forms would be no less than God himself, right? I am using the term man consciously, since women have traditionally been excluded from the formal heaven, from Plato onwards.

You, careful reader, might be wondering why this guy is talking about Plato and the form of God at an environmental NGO. The reason is simple: the purely formal approach is not just a feature of the natural sciences, but also of the humanities and the social sciences and is enshrined in that most wonderful formal system, the law. The system of checks and balances that we call the law is the formal antidote to the rapaciousness enabled by technology, which, if you will can be called the formal poison. Technology and progress makes us pollute and the law makes us check pollution. The law is the formal representation of justice and morality.

Unfortunately, the other great formal system, the nation state, has never agreed to be bound by those checks and balances, certainly not in its international affairs and mostly not in its internal affairs either. My friend, Ashwin Mahesh, who co-runs India Together, thinks that morality is a rather dangerous concept to foist on the nation state. After all, doesn’t Bush justify his actions as being driven by his moral concern for the Iraqi people and the rest of the world? Whose morality should be imposed on the state? I agree that Ash has a point here, but I don’t think that morality is quite that loose a concept. In fact, I think that our moral intuitions are remarkably convergent, which is why Bush & Co had to lie through their teeth in order to justify their seemingly moral actions, which makes their acts utterly immoral. Furthermore, the outrage that many feel about this travesty is very much a case of moral outrage. I believe that bringing the nation state into the moral domain is not only wise, it is necessary.

Ash, Leo (and I, now that I have written this) are having a debate on this topic via email. I am gonna try cajoling them into continuing this discussion on my blog.

PS: The New York Times book review this week (November 12th) has a review of a book called Ethical Realism. As the title suggests, the book’s main tack is to use ethical arguments to bolster traditional realist theories of International Relations (Foreign Policy realists are traditionally known for advocating policies purely based on national self interest). Among many other things, the book advocates the US should support good governance over spreading democracy (i.e., putting bread on the table over doing good). Ethical principles can be useful even when the object of study is a seemingly technical matter such as good governance.