Ecosystem: definitions and problems

The “ecosystem” denotes a worldview of universal interconnectedness. All that is, is in relation to something else. Each factor contributes to the presence of all others. The degree varies, as do the specifics of the link between them. To speak of the ecosystem is to refer to all as one, of manifest plurality as actual totality.

If all is connected, and if the connection is ontological—if, in other words, things necessarily exist as connected—then it must follow that all that is, is of the same substance. Differences are of presence, of phenomenality, of the mode of being. But not of substance, of being as such. Hence the common bond.

The substantivist problem

Does it have to be that way, though? Is it necessary for all presences to be consubstantive?

First, what is “substance” exactly? Can we speak of the relationship between, say, sunlight and the plant’s photosynthesis, in the same terms as that between a guitarist and their musical instrument? Can these two be reduced to a common denominator, which can then be applied to all possible states of affairs?

It could be argued that there is a single subatomic level, as well as the laws of physics, chemistry, and the like. In some fundamental way, all that is happening is a basic set of relations between particles, governed by universal rules. These contribute to emergent phenomena which eventually appear as the differences we may discern. And so, the argument would go, the guitarist is attracted to music as a means of contributing to the sustenance of their being. Their body needs it. It stimulates the brain, which releases various chemicals, which then produce chains of effects that sustain the presence of the guitarist. Then the likeness between playing the guitar and photosynthesis seems plausible.

So what is a particle then? Is it an inanimate object, like a stone at a much smaller level? Or can it be likened to a tiny animal, again at that scale? It probably is the former, unless there are clear signs of agency. And then the relations between the particles, be it because of their own volition or not, engender emergent phenomena, say the diffusion of energy that produces chain reactions, which at scale create higher forms of being that range from the atomic to the molecular level, then the parts of a body, such as human organs, then the body as a whole—human as such—and so on.

But this does not answer the question. Is substance a thing or things in their relationship? And if the latter, then can we speak of a substance that unites them? Remember, we think of the ecosystem as universal interconnectedness.

Second, and related to the problem of defining “substance”, we conceive of a system as factors in their interplay rather than a mere set of factors. A system is a set. Yet this obscures the greater truth of what makes a system, which is the interplay between the factors, the operation of laws with a local or a global effect insofar as the system is concerned, and the creation of emergent phenomena.

Couched in those terms, a system is also a set of systems, not merely of factors. Even when a singular item is present, it must be in relation to its environment, so that it is somehow framed, influenced, determined by it. As such, the single item is not tantamount to a single factor, for its environment must also be taken into account; the environment becoming a factor to a certain phenomenon.

Interconnectedness seems to be always there. It is constant.

So do things exist in themselves? Is “substance” a thing? Or is it things in their interplay? And what does that mean about those “things” if they must exist in relation to the others to qualify as the irreducible quality of all that is?

Subsystems and discreetness of beings

If indeed the constant is interconnectedness, then we must think of another way of making sense of the world. For we do conceive of differences between the multitude of presences. Indeed, our immediate experience is of the plurality of phenomenal impressions, not the unity of substance, assuming we agree on what that is.

Here is my dog sitting next to me. He is my canine friend and there is no way I will conflate him with some other dog, let alone some other animal or thing. My dog is discreet, as are all animals and all things. Even if, for the sake of dialectic, we accept interconnectedness as a given, we must equate discreetness to the existence of subsystems within the ecosystem. The notion of an underlying unity must thus not preclude the plurality of presence.

The dog is a subsystem, which itself consists of subsystems, from the atomic level, to the bodily organs, etc. so that discreetness is not ontological. They can be conceived as distinct, but in their actuality they may only be together. The atomic level cannot be separated from the organs, the organs from each other, and still maintain the presence of the dog. It is all or nothing for the dog to exist.

Discreetness is two-fold:

  • order of emergence,
  • minimum necessary completeness of a pattern.

The former pertains to the level at which a phenomenon unfolds. We know that the organs come from the atoms and that without the latter there would be no organs. But we also know that atoms are not organs. They create them under a specific set of conditions, so that the organs embody the interplay between the atoms within those given circumstances or constraints. And there we can draw a line between the orders of emergence. The organs are an emergent reality, derived from the atomic level, as is the dog which comes into being from the joint operation of its organs in light of specific favourable conditions that enable its presence.

As for the latter aspect of discreetness, we must be mindful of the noetic quality of discreetness.1 It is we who discern it. The distinction between the atoms and the organs and the entity of the dog as a whole does not happen on the spot. It is thought of as such. There is a process of pattern matching going on. We trace the commonalities among the multitude of sense impressions to arrive at definitions of the various orders of emergence, indeed of the very notion of “orders of emergence”. And we reduce them to their essentials so that the distinction may be as clear as our knowledge renders possible.

Universal interconnectedness and scope of application

Now think of this in practical terms. Does it really matter if everything is connected? Here is a case in point. Have a look at my little program.

#!/bin/bash

if [ -f $HOME/Documents/my-article.txt ]; then
    echo "YOUR ARTICLE EXISTS AT THE DESIGNATED LOCATION"
fi

This little script will just print the message in the quotation marks if that file exists at the desired place. This program is distinct from all others. Yet it is very much dependent on the presence of the Operating System, the set of utilities that make the computer work and run applications such as mine. The OS itself depends on software that enables the operation of the hardware, while the hardware depends on power and the like, and to produce power we need X, Y, Z, and to get those…

Even for this little script of mine, there is a seemingly indeterminate chain of dependencies which point at interconnectedness. Yet all I need to know when testing my program to see if it can perform the task I want it for is a very narrow set of variables. Those that directly relate to it, such as whether the Operating System can execute a BASH script or if the script’s syntax is correct (BASH is the scripting language being used). There is no point in knowing all inputs throughout the chain of dependencies.

This means that within the scope of my application, universal interconnectedness, its existence or not, becomes irrelevant. That which is a constant can be taken out of the consideration, else it is a variable, a contributing factor that must be accounted for in order to produce the desired results.

The scope of application is directly related to what I have wrote before about the modes of scepticism2 as well as scepticism as a type of certitude.3 We apply our thinking to a defined scope. Whatever methods we employ must be evaluated for their propriety in relation to the scope of the application. To judge the adequacy of my little script all I need is basic knowledge of BASH and a functioning computer system. All else that happens in the universe does not change this basic fact. It is a constant. It must thus be excluded from the inquiry into the specifics of the task. It is irrelevant.

Ecology and modus vivendi

There is an ethical aspect to the proposition of universal interconnectedness,4 of there being an ecosystem. It functions as a corrective to our various fancies about human self worth.5 If every presence is a function of the operations of the subsystems it encompasses and/or of the supersystems that include it, then decontextualisation as a means of making moral judgements is fundamentally misplaced.

Put concretely, human existence is contingent on life on this planet. Everything is necessary from the plants to the soil, the nutrients and organisms within it, the insects, the birds, the oceans, the mountains, the moon, the sun… Everything is necessary for there to be life on this planet and for humanity to subsist. The idea of a human as such, the rugged individual who can mould the world to their whim, who can fully control their experience just by “going for it” is a chimera with far-reaching implications about how human society is organised and how the binary of reward and punishment is conceived.

If the ecosystem is all there really is, there is no decontextualised human. All inferences derived therefrom are incorrect.

The reason we need to think of this as a corrective rather than a commandment is because of us doing the evaluation. Whatever judgement we make is within the confines of our ability and, by extent, our very nature. We can, for instance, conceive of ecological policies as altruism aiming at a higher good. But we can also see the exact same measures as serving our basic need for survival as a species in the long term.

The possibility of universal interconnectedness does not compel us into a certain mode of behaviour, for if it did, how could we ever deviate from it? Recall that it is universal, always “there”, permanently in effect. And if we make an argument along the lines of there being a free will, we are introducing exceptions to universality so that it no longer is universal. Keep the deus ex machina to products of art.

It follows that we need not subscribe to whatever claims on “overcoming the self” or “living as part of the whole”. These are judgements made by humans that do not necessarily follow from the possibility of an actual universal interconnectedness. If we must force ourselves into a certain lifestyle then it is us, upon agreement or brainwashing or whatnot, that are taking the initiative, always within the overarching constraints of our nature as human beings.

Consequently, the idealisation of “nature” as inherently good and us as the consistent wrongdoers is also misplaced. Just as much of a falsehood as the figment of the decontextualised human. If we have a capacity to do harm, and if all is interconnected so that our actions are also framed, influenced, determined by sub- and super- systems peculiar to our presence, then the ecosystem itself has the potential we falsely attribute only to ourselves. Same with the idea of becoming enlightened or higher beings or whatever. If we are this way, and if all is one, then the perceived vices cannot be attributed solely to us.

Practicality and heuristics

There is a point were thinking of absolutes can only lead to absurdities. We hit on a wall as it were. The terminus to our ability to reason our way through problems. Yet here we are examining those issues. Just because we cannot grasp the absolute of all absolutes does not mean that we must give up living within the confines of our nature.

Think again about the aforementioned example of the BASH script. What we need to account for when deciding about its adequacy and propriety to the task at hand is a relatively limited set of factors. Claims on universal interconnectedness become irrelevant. We do not care about speculations of that sort. In the same vein, we do not need to provide definitive answers to all possible subjects of inquiry before formulating a practical approach to a given problem.

The more minimalist we are in terms of our assumptions and speculations, the more practical we can be. Just identify the factors of the case that contribute to the necessary minimum of a phenomenon. Work with them and assume the rest as beyond the scope of your work.

Does it really matter whether ecological policy making is due to self interest or some enlightened moral worldview? I think not, for if all is one, then all binaries such as being a self-serving buffoon or an exalted activist who toils against “egoism”, collapse into themselves. They are meaningless. Illusory or of a lower order than the absolute truth of universal unity. Or, on the flip side, the value we attach to those binaries and the spectra within them is a function of our evaluation, not of there being a universal force/condition/state that necessarily forces us into submission, compelling us to behave that way. And if it were that way, why did not do so all along? And if it did not, it could never be truly universal.

  1. Just to be clear with concepts I use. “Noetic” is that which exists in our mind. Whereas “ontic” is that which subsists regardless of our thinking of it (though our noetic conception of an ontic presence may not necessarily be characterised by correspondence—but that is a problem of epistemology). [^]

  2. Notes on the modes of Scepticism. Published on 28 July 2017. [^]

  3. Scepticism as a type of certitude. Published on 28 September 2018. [^]

  4. Prolegomena to a study of Metaethics. Published on 11 August 2017. [^]

  5. On Human Self Worth. Published on 21 August 2018. [^]