A Holistic View of Nature… and Science

As a high school student, I was interested in science and history, but struggled with math past arithmetic.  Fortunately, my high school math teacher, “Mr. Webb”; incorporated science and history into his mathematics classes.  He was also the scholastic-bowl coach, and I was in scholastic bowl since 7th grade.  If it had not been for him, I probably would not have taken physics or trigonometry and may not have even been on a college-bound trajectory.

Mr. Webb introduced math concepts through stories of their original conception by the ancient Greeks, who did not make a distinction between science and philosophy.  His stories drew me in, as they touched on the purposes for the math discoveries; fighting wars and the inventions such as the screw, wedge and other early devices.  Also, political struggles, the topic of “the gods”, and early advances in democracy were backdrops for formulas.  Socrates, who paid for his open-minded education of the youth, with his life, was the hero of the class and Mr. Webb had a bust of him on his desk.

So, I made good grades in physics and trigonometry…A’s, even!  I also developed an appreciation for how the Greeks made no distinction between philosophy and science.  Great thinkers of those times might be experts in many fields; yet “fields” were not even really defined…knowledge was knowledge…and great thinkers might be accomplished artists, astronomers, playwrights, mathematicians and inventors all at the same time.

While Mr. Webb made me a fan of Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Euclid and other ancient Greeks, my grandpa made me a fan of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe.  He could not believe, when I returned from College with a degree in Forestry, that none of my classes covered Goethe…or, for that matter, anything equivalent.   “How can you be a forester without a proper philosophy?” he asked.  Goethe was a famous German artist, statesman, scientist, inventory and poet who wrote the tragic play “Faust”.

I explained that we did read about Adlo Leopold and his “land ethic” and discussed John Muir and his influence and efforts to preserve forests.  “But, what was the result?” he asked.  “So, they taught how to manage forests, but not why? How idiotic! One must first have a philosophy as to why to do something before deciding how to do it.” After more questioning, he decided the only purpose was to produce foresters who could grow trees faster to make money for someone, somewhere, faster.

Having went back to college to obtain my master’s degree in forestry over 20 years later, I see that the disconnect between what could be called the “art” or philosophy of why we do something versus the science of how to do it, has become even more exacerbated. The field of forestry, usually presented as “an art and a science”, has pretty much disposed of the “art” part of its identity.  And, as technology is increasingly adopted “across the board”, science has largely moved out of nature entirely and into the laboratory…and onto our computer screens.

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