Struggling for ecological humanism: An interview with Fred Dallmayr

15-11-2009 18:38
Every civilization needs to rely on some system of beliefs and to have its own characteristic framework of references that people’ minds can rely on. For some civilizations it will be a religion, for others philosophical systems.

What is this framework when it comes to the Western world?

"For the Western world, since Rene Descartes, it has become science", explains Professor Fred Dallmayr.

‘What a relief!’ one might think. ‘Science makes for reliable bases to build the society on. Neither religion, based on faith, nor the philosophical system that can always be questioned is subjective. Not so science. Science is objective!’ This is what we have been taught at Western schools for many years.

However, when we glance outside the school window for a second, science does not look so certain any more. Take the example of „time”. One of the greatest scientists - Issaac Newton - discovered that time is constant and passes regardless of anything else. That was a clear objective truth! We could all rely on it; there was no doubt about it any more.

But then, Einstein’s theory of relativity came along and made the previous theory less objective. Time was no longer constant, it became relative. The same thing happened with many other discoveries, which were objective until the next theory undermined them.

"This ideal of objectivity, that we just look at the world and try to get it right, that is just an illusion, mainly because it does not involve us. What we have to bear in mind is that we are a part of the world that we are trying to be objective about, therefore we cannot totally objectify it," says Professor Dallmayr.

Relying on science as the foundation for the whole civilization has yet another drawback - it leads society to a peculiar arrogance, especially when it comes to relationship with nature.

"Since Rene Descartes’ philosophy, we developed this new model for the relationship between nature and humanity that places humans as masters of nature," stresses Professor Dallmayr.

The same argument was presented by Henryk Skolymowski in 1974 during his presentation at the School of Architecture in London. He argued that knowledge does not give us power to conquer nature to whatever extent we wish. This short speech laid the foundation for ECOPHILOSOPHY. One of the leading ecophilosophers was Thomas Berry, whose thoughts were the main topic of Professor Dallmayr’s lecture „Ecological Crisis and Human Renewal: A tribute to Thomas Berry” during the „Responsibility Across Borders?” conference.

Why was Berry’s theory especially relevant for this conference?

"Both Skolymowski and Berry seek to develop the philosophical understanding of our ecological situation, so both employ resources of philosophical reflection to better understanding our place in tne ecosystem," explains Professor Dallmayr.

"I thought that Berry was particularly relevant to a conference like this, because this conference deals with global dialogue or cross-cultural dialogue. Thomas Berry, throughout all his life, was deeply involved in global dialogue. He travelled a lot; it influenced his philosophy giving it a interreligious and intercultural character. While previous ecophilosophers were Western scholars, trying to apply Western points of view, Berry is using his experience from Asia and applying it in his philosophy. It’s his cross-cultural background that makes his philosophy so relevant to this conference."

- What is this most important influence that comes form outside Western society?

Western philosophy is insistent on the human-nature gulf. It started with Descartes philosophy that made the division between the human mind and everything that is outside it. You do not find this split between humans and the divine or humans and nature in Eastern philosophy. Hinduism for example, is basically a philosophy of non-division, what they call non dualism, which means that you try to bring the human and the divine, or human and nature close together."

"What has to change is the glorification of science in Western culture. That is why I wrote the book „In Search of the Good Life”. The good life does not mean a scientific life; it means a morally responsible life, a faithful life, a life of devotion."

If the good life is not one based on science, what should Western society be based on then?

"We can not just abolish science or technology. We have to rethink the role of science and technology and find new ways which are more responsible. The title of this conference is „Responsibility across borders”. We have to think how to have more responsible science. We need an „eco-friendly” science.
Yes, some people might argue that with technology you only get more technology, with science only more science. But we have to start treating science as an instrument for human comfort, we have to put science into its proper, limited place. We have to surround it again with humanities, art, aesthetics, faith. Therefore we should subordinate science and technology to the higher goals of humanity which are that goals of goodness, beauty and truth."

How can we do that?

"There are many different ways to change this situation. For me it’s a main goal of education. But we all can do it in different ways. Thomas Berry was trying to do it for almost a hundred years. Education is one of the good ways to overcome the problem. What we also could change is our economy and politics. Today’s economy is totally focused on profit, it doesn’t matter what it does to the nature. We have to change our thinking about the market. We can not let it work itself anymore; states should control the markets so that they work for society and not make societies work for them."

"And also politics needs a lot of reform. It has been almost entirely indentified with the struggle for power. If you have power you can do whatever you want. If you have power, you can destroy rainforests, indigenous people, natural resources- nobody can stop you. This conception of politics is very destructive.
The fight for ecology is a struggle. It will not happen over night. That is why we need something like the "World Social Forum" to bring about those changes," Dallmayr concludes.

By Ula Papajak

About Fred Dallmayr:
Packey J. Dee Professor in the departments of philosophy and political science at the University of Notre Dame. He holds a Doctor of Law degree from the University of Munich (1955) and a Ph.D. in political science from Duke University (1960).
He has been a visiting professor at Hamburg University in Germany and at the New School for Social Research in New York, and a Fellow at Nuffield College in Oxford. He has been teaching at Notre Dame University since 1978. During 1991-92 he was in India on a Fulbright research grant.

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