On Human Self Worth
This is the book's print-optimised webpage. Just use your browser's native print function to get your physical copy. Keyboard shortcuts would be
ctrl+P for Linux and Windows,
cmd+P for Mac. To read the book online, it is recommended you visit the book's canonical web page and browse through each chapter.
- About this book
1. About this book
In terms of content, this is a work on philosophy that touches on some political themes.
As for its overall style, it marks a departure from the strict format I adopted for my previous books and publications.
This is an experimental project. One chapter employs irony from start to finish. Another follows from there to make a case against it. There are passages that try to be more humorous or “tongue in cheek”. Overall, this is a free form text that may or may not succeed in the task of addressing the overarching theme of human self worth.
This booklet is concerned with the set of narratives we formulate about ourselves. The idea we have about the world and our place in it. The values we adopt have implications on how we organise society and determine the way we conduct our politics.
The various items that contribute to the broader tradition underpinning human’s self evaluation may not be political in and of themselves. It is their cumulative effect that is felt in the domain of politics.
To this end, the reader is expected to connect the dots wherever necessary. My interest is to elaborate on the general features of the subject of inquiry, allowing space for a range of possible conclusions.
Overall, On Human Self Worth is an attempt at something new in my philosophical musings. I might build on top of it, if I feel satisfied with this direction, or learn from its shortcomings and adapt accordingly.
I have yet to see an animal other than human that can treat its immediate experience, its entire life, as inherently false, decadent, and only worthy of contempt. Perhaps that is why we think we are special. We can contemplate our role in the world. Who we are, what we do, why, how, and what should be changed, if anything. Human justifies this capacity as hinting at a higher end, or some greater scheme about us compared to the rest of the world. There is a role we have to fulfil, a destiny that is ultimately linked to our very being as humans. And so, one thinks that there is a sense of higher purpose to their presence which is not limited to their life. And somewhere along those lines, the theologian—or however we call people who talk about god[s] and neighbouring concepts without ever furnishing any kind of objectively verifiable proof—will insert their system of unfounded claims about what the intentions of god[s] are.
We are special. Such is the basis of our reasoning. Only humans can do philosophy, for instance. Only we possess the mental capacity to grasp the higher order realities that are not susceptible to the faculties of sense. We are unique among the animals, for we can escape the narrow confines imposed by biological necessity. Or so the thinking goes. We can fathom a state of affairs where we are detached from the world. Aloof from the fray of material needs and bodily experiences, we can tap into an ultimate reality. Strip away all the phenomenalities. We consider these deceitful, lies that beguile our senses. The true reality, or the ultimate destination we should strive for, has no place for them. That is the end goal: to connect to the essence of the world. The choice we believe we have is, therefore, quite simple in its basic formulation: live as a beast by succumbing to your natural inclinations, or actively suppress them in order to ascend to an intellectual being. The spiritual self is the true self, the immutable and eternal. Harness it to fulfil your role in this world.
Such is the value we can attach to ourselves. We say we are rational animals, conveniently downplaying the whole host of behaviours that do not conform with that rigid ideal. We think we are calculative and operate on the “margin of rationality”, as the economist would put it, always optimising our choices. There is imperfection and irrationality, biases, uncontrollable emotions, decisions that are adopted without complete knowledge of things—for is there a single domain where we claim complete knowledge of? These do not change the narrative of our exceptional status. We can overcome them, so long as we keep sight of this narrow subset of human experience that we consider so important.
But there is disagreement amount the proponents of human exceptionalism as to what the differentiating factor is. Those who do not place disproportionate value on human reason find something else to venerate. It goes by various names, such as the “soul”, the “spirit”. These can be cultivated in a variety of ways other than what we associate with rationality, in order to attain the same objective of ascendance.
That is a distinction between rationalists and spiritualists, whose midpoint is the thesis of human beings as the chosen ones. Human as an entity sui generis.
The first issue I see with such exceptionalism is ontological dualism. The mind, the soul, the spirit, or whatever it is that is responsible for reasonableness and/or spirituality is treated as a distinct entity from the rest of the body. The latter is the domain of the bestial. Our ephemeral self. The instincts, the emotions, the irrationality. Whereas our true self is detachable from the body. It can be freed from it.
The specifics of the narrative vary, depending on the tradition concerned. Is it not bizarre though, that whatever the details we have no indication whatsoever of some other ‘essence’ that is somehow intertwined with our base being? Our capacity to think clearly is a function of our body’s inner processes and of its health. If you do not nourish yourself properly over an extended period of time, you will not be able to think correctly. If you feel pain, that is all you care about. Are you delirious in fear? Forget about plotting the most precise course of action. If you get knocked on the head you might stop thinking the same way you could before. An injury is the definition of being affected by this world. You can claim that rocks are somehow fake and not worthy of ‘real’ experience. Fair enough, note though that a phenomenality that smacks you on the forehead can still send you to the hospital.
In the same vein, we have no indication of the soul as a distinct domain of agency, let alone a separate ‘essence’. Whatever the particularities of the narrative, it builds on the presumption of a transcendent soul, simply working backwards from a conclusion. Which is to say that it is dogmatic. So, you claim that the soul transcends the rules of this world and that it is eternal? And yet, here it is, ‘trapped’ as it were inside a human body, which is to say that it is, after all, bound by a subset of the rules of this world. For the body is a natural system, a subsystem within the broader ecosystem.
You want to emancipate your soul by performing all those rituals or live life in a certain way. There may be benefits to that mode of living, such as mental health. Do it! But the very claim that the transcendent is at once above this world and yet decisively confined to the secular or the cosmic is absurd. If it is transcendent, how do you measure it? How can you possibly claim it is ‘there’. For if it is somewhere, then by definition it occurs within space. If, on the other hand, it is just a thought of ours, then how can we even insist on the notion that it is bound to the body?
The more you delve into the inner contradictions the more likely it is to encounter mysticism.
As a first line of defence comes the tactic of belittling us compared to some exalted being, which itself is unverifiable. We are too foolish to understand the grand design. Throw in some allusion to our ape minds for good measure. It is hubris to use our logic and our faculties of sense as means of debunking those views of the world. Just believe and you will see the way. At which point you single out the double standard whereby their claims are not to be questioned but the sceptic’s argument must always be refuted by the very inability of human beings to grasp the ‘truth’. Then, when the mystics are pressed on their epistemological inconsistencies they resort to propositions of the sort “god works in mysterious ways”. Looks aporetic on the surface, but actually clings on to a well defined set of beliefs. Perhaps the very antithesis of inquisitiveness.
As a second issue with the schools of thought that propound notions of human exceptionalism, I would suggest that perhaps our claims about the soul, the true self, immortality, all trace their roots to biology. They are perhaps rendering lucid a base instinct. Now this is rampant speculation from my side and no more that a hypothesis that would need to be tested, but here it is: what if our survival instinct is in fact taking over our thinking processes, trying to make sure that we survive no matter what? And what if, by extension, the idea that we can live forever in some shape or form is but the impression of rationality/spirituality derived from instinct? Again, this is speculation that would need to be backed up or dismissed by a fully fledged research programme. So I continue: if we are hard wired to survive, and if this drive is perceived in a different form as pure reasonableness or spiritual enlightenment, then perhaps the very notion of rationality/spirituality and of the true self is but a heap of misunderstandings or illusions.
Everything in this world is subject to probabilistic cause and effect. Our bodies—mind included—are dynamically influenced and determined by their internal processes as well as stimuli external to them. This complex interplay produces thoughts and triggers for action, which among others lead to new learned experiences and patterns of adaptation, and so on. Maybe—just maybe—we are led by our instincts to think of ourselves as operating free from biological impulses, in the same way the dog impulsively gives chase to the ball thinking it is desirable to run after the ‘prey’ even after it knows that the ball is, in fact, a toy. Perhaps then, the notion of finding our true self is an exercise in futility.
We can only be our nature—there is no choice involved. Choice concerns what we could consider as second order items. The ‘essence’, what we are made of, remains outside our reach. We cannot choose to be non-human or to pick and choose the part of humanity we want, such as beings humans but forgoing the need to eat and sleep.
My point is that we need to gather findings, results that are reproducible in a manner that is objective. Else we add to the echo chamber, perpetuate a tradition just because we find solace in its teachings.
Speaking of solace, is not fear a byproduct, or somehow linked to the survival instinct? Why are we afraid of things, if not because they might threaten our existence either fatally or partially by exposing us to a potential injury? Fear is a manifestation of the struggle for survival. Again, this should be put to the test, such as to see if plants feel fear and adapt their behaviour accordingly.
If all my speculation would translate into a fully fledged research project, I would suggest that we delve into this notion of consoling our soul, of ataraxia, or whatnot. Is it emancipation from whatever temptation or power holds us hostage to our base instincts? Or are we just desperately seeking answers as a means of alleviating our existential fear? Anything will do, regardless of its correspondence to the actuality of things. Just give a plausible answer, which all too often delivers us the nostrums of mysticism.
The third issue with human exceptionalism is its propensity for nihilism. Everything in this world is framed as an illusion of sorts. And people are, by default, mere animals that have yet to ascend. They might have the potential to see the light, though they are nowhere near it in their natural state. It follows that all that happens in this world, our politics, the economy, culture and sport, are lesser activities. They do not, in and of themselves, take us to this supposed next level. They are distractions or, at best, activities with secondary values. No wonder many of those harbouring contempt for the world argue for withdrawing from society in pursuit of enlightenment.
Nihilism is the dark side, if you will, of idealism. Or rather of the conflation between the ideal and the actual. Idealists of this sort have a very stylised view of how the world ought to be. It is not corresponding to things as they are. It is a product of their prior exceptionalism. The domain of the god[s], the eternal soul, human’s capacity to ascend, the falsehoods of phenomenality. If you only want ideal beauty, then everyone out there is ugly. The ideal is an abstraction, derived by tracing the common in the multitude of phenomena. Abstractions are products of thought. And products of thought can be shared between humans because we have the same biology. Just as the design of our hearts, or lungs, or limbs is the same, so are the basic functions of the mind. There are differences. Differences of degree, not category.
The misguided idealist of the sort here considered will insist on attaining the abstract. They believe their obstinacy will reify their imaginary state of affairs. Eventually, a tension arises between expectation and results. Rather than recognising the original confusion between the ideal and the real as the source of the problem, it is the world that has to bear the brunt of the blame. This world which is fake, hypocritical, decadent… This world that only keeps the soul/spirit/mind/whatever chained to an inferior reality. Thus comes nihilism. There is nothing real or worthy in anything human does: pleasures of the body are bad, because the body is the soul’s prison, the source of base instincts, etc. Interest in politics is inherently misguided because “all politicians are the same” and the world is corrupt and evil. Besides, why bother changing your immediate life when it is a “false life” after all? And so the nihilist will expound on their ideals and insist that what they care about is a true reality. In the meantime, they become the most reflexive type of ultra-conservative, reverse apologists of the established order and of anti-research. “Reverse apologists” in the sense that their intention is not that of justifying the status quo, but that their behaviour contributes to that end regardless.
If life in this world is a lie, why bother with a fairer distribution of resources, peace within the family, mutual understanding between cultures, or whatnot. Why care about the ecosystem if, ultimately, it too is an idol; at best a fake representation of reality? There can be no qualitative difference between annihilating all the species and fighting to preserve the ecosystem’s balance if there is nothing worthy in this world. And the same can be said about all normative issues that humans have to deal with in their collective life. In politics, that is.
The nihilists commit the error of using the ideal as the enemy, rather than the guide, of the good, of the realisable. Maybe they are not as crude. They might become selective nihilists, misanthropes for instance where they blame humanity for everything that is bad while exalting “mother nature” for all that is good. And where does humanity come from, if not nature? The answer to this is predictably theological. In the Western tradition evil is attributed to “free will”, which is another one of those baseless assertions like dualism and the transcendent soul, afterlife, etc.
Free will, in its purest form, is the claim that there is at least a kernel of human self—this notorious “true self”—that is not bound by anything and only operates in accordance with its own devices. What we do is out our own volition. There are no biological underpinnings, no environmental stimuli, no social, cultural, historical artefacts that inform our judgement. This is the myth of the decontextualised human, a being in itself, self contained, detached from the world, yet somehow strictly confined to it. Again, one can trace hints of dualism.
I am very much sceptical of this mumbo jumbo. No doubt, it is a powerful belief. See, here I type this. I just did it because I decided to. My will, my rules. Ha! But what if what we conceive as freedom is but the expression—and inward impression—of a dynamic probabilistic function of the interplay between internal processes and external stimuli? What if typing this is something that the complex underlying processes of my being seeks and gets feedback from to reinvigorate the cycle? That would not be the kind of transcendent free will of Western mythos, but another common phenomenon—or concatenation thereof—of this world.
Probabilistic cause and effect. There is nothing transcendental, truer, or special about it.
I am an agnostic. But let us start from another point.
In my everyday life I am atheistic. I practice no rituals; do not attach special, ‘mystical’ value to items; never think that certain moves, words, thoughts, circumstances, signs, and the like, have any connection to some ostensible “higher being”. My quotidian experience is not influenced or governed by beliefs of something ‘other’.
And I am similarly ‘atheistic’—if I may broaden the term—towards all the expected formalities of our time. I do not keep track of birthdays, anniversaries, the “International Day of [insert theme]”, and whatnot. Today is another day. The Earth is still orbiting the Sun. Sure, that does not give me any social points, but who cares anyway?
I live like an animal, say, a dog. Canines react to stimuli. They are hungry, happy, excited, scared, in relation to some phenomenon that may be internal, external, or [most likely] a feedback loop between the two. I just do what is within my power, what my nature renders possible. Those who talk about spirits, ethereal beings and the like, those who when pressed to prove their points inevitably muse about the ineffable and neighbouring concepts, will accuse me of ‘materialism’; maybe even of disrespect for my audacity to think that I, a mere human, can defy the divine.
Atheists are certain that there is no higher being whatsoever. Which is unacceptable, as they put forward a positive proposition that is not objectively verifiable. In that sense, they are epistemologically equivalent to the theists. They too have no proof, other than tradition, widespread superstitions, and stories that blend a kernel of truth, say a meteorological event, with sheer fantasy.
Agnosticism is the view that we remain aporetic towards theological propositions. We can neither approve nor disprove them. We do not know. However, agnosticism is not to be conflated with the superficially compromising attitude of many eminent scientists: “science does its job, while religion has a moral role to play”.
No, I am sorry! We are not friends any more. That is just a shrewd way of not turning fanatics against you. Tactically sound, but a spurious statement nonetheless. For if we can neither prove nor disprove the claims of theology, then it follows that religions and quasi-religious groups are overreaching. They are abusing their power. They do make positive statements. They do, indeed, claim to have answers and be certain of things—usually of all things that trouble us.
If agnosticism is to be upheld, then religions cannot possibly be anything other than cultural-historical constructs with a decisively political function. Let us discuss them in the same vein as all social structures and institutions. If they are deemed useful or surplus to requirements is a matter of value judgements within the domain of interpersonal experience. In terms of their content, however, they speak nonsense. No religion has ever objectively substantiated its claims. None of the world’s major religions has furnished proof covering the totality of their propositions.
Which is also why agnosticism should not be misunderstood as passive indifference, as “everything goes”.
I will return to the point of the “moral role”, after elaborating on positive statements in general. You see, agnosticism does not really claim anything new. It simply observes the fact that there are many religions and conflicting accounts of theology, while there is no mechanism of ever resolving the disputes (fire and steel notwithstanding). Some say there is one god, even though they are not united on what that really means. Others suggest that there is a plurality of gods. Then there is a whole host of spirits that rank below god[s] but still partake of divinity. Some are good, others are evil, or whatever the binary/spectrum is. They have passions and feelings, mood swings even, and they draw up plans for various courses of action in pursuit of their ends. Furthermore, there are all sorts of views on the origins of the world, the role of humanity in it, the life of human beings now and in eternity. And so on.
Agnostics take account of this corpus of work to state the obvious: controversy implies unresolved tensions about the thing being studied. It is not clear what the object is. There is fundamental disagreement about what should be discussed and the method to be used. Agnostics do what every sceptic does: they conclude that we need more work before we can arrive at a satisfactory starting point, let alone a comprehensive framework. In this case, we would need to reach a broad consensus on the thing being studied, as well as agree on a method that would lead us to objective ways of approaching it. Until then, the agnostic can only state the readily apparent fact that when theology is taken as a whole, it shows that we do not know anything about it.
Thus, unlike the atheist, the agnostic remains open to the possibility that we might come to the point where we can acquire knowledge in this domain. It cannot be evaluated in prior, without clear reasons as to why. Atheism is a dogma similar to the Academic Sceptics of yore: they were certain that they did not know, knowledge being an unreachable Ideal and all that. Yet, certainty of not knowing is knowledge in itself, which would disprove the very notion of knowledge being unattainable. But I digress.
To me, atheism only makes sense as a term that describes certain types of lifestyle, such as my own: the life of a dog. It is not philosophy: just a set of modes of living that do not rely on any kind of mysticism. Live like an animal, for that is what humans are. Our intelligence is a difference of degree, not category when compared to the rest of the species.
Whereas agnosticism is a philosophical statement. And philosophical statements are essentially analytical propositions, i.e. do not really tell us anything new, other than dissecting the stock of knowledge—or “justified true beliefs”, if you will—we have already accumulated to discern its abstract structure and any possible constants therein. Whatever findings the philosopher may come up with are already intrinsic to the items of inquiry.
Think of it like observing a painting at a museum. Your first impression gives you a general idea. Upon second look you start seeing some finer points, the direction of the strokes, the thickness of the brush, the hues, the texture. And the more you study, the more you discover, to the point where your final view of the painting has little in common with your original impression. All while the work of art remains constant. That is analysis.
Philosophy is an analytical venture. Here is a four-fold rule of thumb for identifying charlatans:
- They claim something about the world that cannot be tested or studied in an objective way. “This is how things stand and I know because reasons“. To support their claims, they may even synthesise between vastly different traditions or fields of endeavour, often picking and choosing the parts of science that superficially support their case.
- They allude to philosophy, as a proxy for authoritative wisdom, either claiming they are philosophers themselves, or selectively interpreting the words of some well-known thinker who may remotely give credence to their views.
- They change the criteria when pressed on a core tenet of theirs. Such as that their truth being ineffable, the absolute ‘other’, or just the oft-cited “god acts in mysterious ways”. Otherwise they attack your person: who are you to question the divine? “Our feeble mind cannot comprehend the workings of god[s]”, and similarly convenient tricks of anti-science or anti-dialectic.
- They treat subjective experiences as equivalent to universal truths and take offence at any hint that subjectivity is neither sufficient nor reliable. The usual defence is that “well, I am not crazy!” or “how can you prove that I did not have these experiences?”. Which either attempt to end the discussion or force you to disprove them.
Making positive statements means bearing the burden of proof. You talk about the will of the divine? How god[s] bestowed upon you the power you wield, which further justifies your special status in the social order. And so on. How about you prove all this? Oh, blasphemy! I know, I know…
Though this is exactly what we do with everything in life. We ask for evidence. Your partner in life demands confirmation of your love on what seems like an hourly basis. You can’t just get away with empty statements.
Here is more: a traveller went to the village on the other side of the mountain. They stayed there for a while, presumably because they had a good time. Upon returning, they raved about the otherworldly crops and animals those people have. Bananas that can be pealed off and on. Donkeys that take flight and recite poetry. Mice that turn down invitations to infest your household. Tomatoes that are all kids find tasty. Sugar that is good for your health, especially when consumed in great doses. In short, the traveller regaled us with all those wondrous stories. And we threw a party to indulge in the amusement. Then at the height of it all, this one person who apparently detests fun addresses the traveller: why didn’t you bring any specimen? How about we go fetch some for ourselves? Money is not an issue. Did you at least capture any video footage so that we can see for ourselves in the meantime? You know what kind of person asks these questions: a nag! For it is annoying to have to prove such nice stories.
Same with all positive propositions: they are nonsensical for as long as it is impossible to test and/or examine them objectively.
With that noted, let me return to the scientist qua infamous apologist of the status quo. This cliché that religion has to stay in place in order to provide moral guidance to the masses. Such a blatant double standard by people who make a living off of the scientific method! Think, if you will, what would happen if courts of justice would no longer care about facts. What kind of justice would they deliver? The judge ought to be a sceptic, only arriving at a judgement after examining the available evidence. Without facts there is no adjudication of the case.
And the same is true for everything. We trust engineers to build boats that do not sink, or airplanes that stay aloft. And we expect consistency of results that approaches near perfection. Performance, which is to say, a verifiable state of affairs, is the measure by which we decide whether to trust their work or not. Even in politics, the domain where countless opportunists have made a successful career, people ultimately care about the truth. Over the long term lies are exposed by reality—and societies suffer the consequences.
Our entire collective experience rests on verifiability. And yet, those who are supposed to be champions of a method that yields verifiable results mindlessly repeat this much-touted platitude that organised religion—a social class whose power rests on unverifiable claims and baseless assumptions—has a tutelary role in our society. It is better they remain silent if they have not thought things through. Because we live in an era where science is exalted as a new god of sorts. The nuance is lost, the methodological caveats are dismissed as pedantic details. “Scientists prove that [insert supposed certain truth]” is the kind of news item you get in every media outlet.
The scientist must assume the responsibility their role entails. They need to be extra careful, else the pervasive scientism of our times will twist their words in support of profoundly anti-scientific ends. If, however, the scientist wishes to speak their mind, they can do so provided they make it explicit they do not opine in their capacity as a scientist, nor do they represent science as a whole. It just their opinion and should be taken as such, however whimsical it may be.
Some never learn though and will go to great lengths to defend their frivolous attitude. It is common to hear eminent scientists dismiss philosophy altogether, while simultaneously holding some ridiculous view about an item outside their narrow field of expertise. The scientist who shows unshakeable conviction about unverifiable theories is lauded as a genius, the philosopher who recommends a rethink and to exercise caution is publicly ridiculed as absent-minded and an armchair commentator, deprived of funding, forced out of universities because of their uselessness, put in the same league as astrologists and theologians, etc.
The very fact that the scientist thinks they have all the answers is a clear sign why they still need a philosopher by their side. Make their research interdisciplinary. Inject some self criticism and restraint. For those scientists are like balloons filled with helium. If you let them loose, there is no telling where they will go.
I guess, sometimes, when all is said and done, the best kind of philosophy is this: oh, $#@% off!
Just to err on the side of caution, let me preface this with a “Not Safe For Work” notice. Do not start reading out loud. Doubly so if your colleagues are people of esteem, with high moral values.
You were hesitant at first, thinking about the longer term implications. But now that you had sex are expecting a wedding ring. Okay, it may be a bit too early for marriage, but you are already looking for some definitive proof of commitment to the relationship. You muse about true love, “now and ever after”, summer wine, the aroma of roses, the sunset’s reflections in the water, and all the other tropes of tradition and romantic poetry.
I have some bad news for you. Love is not transcendent. It lasts for as long as it does. It might be for a night, a month, a few years, or a lifetime. That is dependent on circumstances, ultimately tracing their cause to biology. You see, physical attraction is the epiphenomenon. What is actually set in motion is a series of events that change the degrees of certain substances in the body in relation to learned patterns of social interaction. I defer to chemists and psychologists for the details. What basically appears to be the case is that we experience a change in our body’s equilibrium, which throws us off balance, as it were, and we start perceiving things in a distorted way; seeing the other with rose-tainted glasses.
You know that feeling when you first think of someone as beautiful, kind-hearted, sweet, and the like. There are no flaws. Love at first sight is the equivalent of poor eyesight. It is akin to feeling angry: you do not think clearly, your perception is twisted. The beautified view changes after a while, once the inner equilibrium is restored. Prima facie you were attractive. Now that normality has returned other fields of endeavour demand attention.
Love is typically thought of as a permanent feeling. Whereas love at first sight is considered a passion. To its credit, this distinction recognises the physical impulse that is a passion. Perhaps, then, permanent love is a learned passion. An adaptation to what once was the abnormal and has now become the new normal.
At any rate, these things happen outside our control. Do not fool yourself. Your mood is contingent on your chemistry. You cannot just fall in love if there is no underlying reaction that triggers the concatenation of events we understand as, or associate with, affection.
It is pointless to speak of the natural condition in terms of good or bad. It is. The normative value we attach to it does not affect it. A society may unanimously decide to banish breathing, out of concern for the carbon it emits or the oxygen it consumes. Good for them to care about such things. The only problem is that nature is mind-independent. We can only influence those items that are contingent on human thought and action; on human institution. The rest is outside the reach of our conventions.
Back to love and its meta-narratives. We have forced ourselves into this social mould where we pretend to love once. Similar to the futile task of prohibiting the respiratory system, our pretenses about love’s pureness will eventually be confronted with reality. At which point we call the lawyer to prepare the paperwork for the divorce.
If a great number of marriages break up, and if those who remain in tact are for reasons other than pure love, then we might as well not exert this immense pressure on ourselves. Yes, I am talking about taking love at face value. Living the moment.
Of course, there are good reasons not to be frivolous and to have checks in place; reasons that relate to social organisation, public health and welfare, or else politics. For instance, it would be irresponsible to impregnate women and let them face motherhood on their own. They would suffer. The children would have a hard time. Society would struggle to cope with the likely surplus of orphans, and so on.
But that is not the point here. I am referring to the pretenses we maintain about an element of human relationships that is presumed as eternal. If it really is, then it does not need to be instituted as such. So it is not. And we tacitly acknowledge that. For while we preach the ostensible transcendence of true love we also meticulously take all necessary measures to treat it just like any other possession: subject to constraints that create scarcity, or else exclusivity.
Striped of its theological underpinnings, marriage is an institution that entails rights and obligations. It is a cultural-legal instrument that works just like property rights. At best, a mutual claim of ownership. At worst, guarantees for sex on demand by the dominant party to the relationship.
Then there is the dishonesty towards ourselves, which we consider part of our moral code. When you are not in a relationship it is permissible to follow your biology. You feel attraction and act accordingly, perhaps within the confines of what is socially permissible, though such constraints can be defied with ease. But here is the catch: nature does not care about social norms. You will continue to feel attraction even after you engage in a relationship. Maybe to a lesser degree because you feel more attracted to your original/current love. Yet the point stands. Your body did not change all of a sudden, just because you adopted this misbegotten notion that love falls within the domain of private property.
You know what else is outside our control, just because nature does not care about our vanity? Findings ways to satisfy the instincts, such as by conforming to the role of the romantic lover until you get laid. For that is what happens all the time. Do you really believe that you dinned together out of a common gastronomical interest that is an end in itself? Or that you spent half an hour looking at the swans in the pond due to an inclination for ornithology or something? How about those sudden shifts in music preferences and the newfound interests in literature and cinematography? Yes, you guessed it.
Now let me generalise a bit, as this article is actually not about your sexual adventures. I do not care about you, nor will I come to your party. Where I am going with this is at the tendency human has to consistently entertain false beliefs, despite piles of evidence to the contrary. Furthermore, it is baffling how we find it desirable to maintain moral rules that directly contradict our nature.
Love is not the only area where we prefer to remain delusional. Think about the “true patriot” who dies on the battlefield to protect the establishment, expecting the afterlife as a reward as well as post-death recognition of their heroism. How convenient it must be for the extractive classes to perpetuate this idea that it is desirable to disregard present injustices for a vastly superior life after life—and heroes reserve a special spot there. What? You say it is an unverifiable promise? An expedient lie just to get things done and move on? Of course it is. Like claiming that you will 100% love someone for eternity and you will have eyes for no other. Which is true until the day it is not.
I would speculate that the fundamental reason for maintaining this stance is our commitment to a rather strong version of free will. You act out of your own volition and must assume responsibility for the consequences of your actions. The stronger the type of free will a society believes in, the greater the responsibility each choice carries. Absolute freedom entails absolute responsibility; the reverse of which is absolute punishment. The reason I make this connection is because we insist on preserving the perverse elements of our moral code. The belief is that we can defy nature exactly because of our free will and, therefore, there can be no constraints on what our morality may demand.
Free will is perceived as this bastion of true self that kind of toils against the forces of the natural order, the temptations, the instincts, to maintain its truthfulness. Which is to say that free will is considered transcendent and that you are your true self regardless of the world around you. Variants of this worldview are the theories about the body-soul divide, the eternity of the soul, reincarnation, the afterlife, and so on.
Yet there is no indication whatsoever that there is a kernel of true self that is immune to the forces of probabilistic cause and effect. This is just whimsy perpetuated through the centuries.
Let’s get naive determinism out of the way: the inattentive observer thinks that lighting a match and throwing it in a hay stack is the cause of the resulting fire. In fact, there is a whole host of factors at play, such as the level of humidity in the local atmosphere, the speed of the wind, the condition of the hay and of the match so that both are good fire conductors (e.g. they are not wet), and so on.
Complex systems cannot be understood in simplistic linear terms of A causes B. Same with humans. We are a function of internal processes and external stimuli. The internal/external divide is conceptual, for the system of interlinked factors we conceive as human organism is but a set of emergent subsystems within the broader ecosystem, and so on. We may not be able to draw a straight line from the original cause to the epiphenomenon, say, the feeling of love. But we can study these interconnected variables to discern patterns and draw further conclusions. They are there, not in some spurious ‘domain’ of the transcendent.
What we perceive as free will, the ability to choose and plan ahead, might just as well be a dynamic function of feedback loops with possible outcomes traced to said subsystems, which is not unique to humans as it is found in animals and even plants. At any rate, that is a matter of objective research, not mystical mumbo jumbo.
I call this bundle of beliefs on the ostensible transcendence of self, the “decontextualised human”. Conceived as a being as such, perhaps trapped within an ephemeral vessel, but an absolute self nonetheless that is not decisively influenced, indeed moulded and determined, by their environment. In this case, the environment also includes human relations, for they too present external stimuli. The decontextualised human is one of our society’s most deep seated convictions, underpinning everything from social policy, to the content of laws, the way courts deliver justice, and prisons are organised.
Reconsidering our values would do us good. Reduce the disconnect between who we are and who we think we are. No more stressing about our inability to control forces that exist outside the purview of our “free will” or social order in general. No need to maintain this facade of righteousness, the underlying hypocrisy of much of our moral code and values.
Oh, you think you committed the same sin again. You must be admonished for your immorality! But what if the very notion of considering a natural condition sinful is the problem in the first place?
Nature is. There is no good-bad divide therein. A realignment of priorities and beliefs is in order.
I am elated to be part of this society. I feel honoured to be one of them. People here are righteous and honest. Their actions are perfectly aligned with their exhortations about the propriety of certain kinds of behaviour. They are fully devoted to this belief of theirs that material things are ephemeral and that only the spirit matters. Sometimes they call it “mind” or “soul”. We understand it through this inner agency of willfulness. Basically, it amounts to this true self we all have. This transcendent presence that sets us apart from beasts, plants, and the rest of the true self’s prison cell—what we call “nature”. They are refined people. As their teachings go, they do not attach value to their possessions, nor do they compete for scarce resources. These are pointless activities of lesser cultures. My people are different. They truly have ascended, as their tradition demands. Now they just wait to move on the next domain of existence.
There are many personas in this social milieu that I venerate. One that stood out recently is the PhD holder. That translates into Philosophy Doctor in case you thought something funny. They stand up to this title. Their ability is peerless. Their knowledge vast. All of their statements are precise, insightful, and unambiguous. Their intentions pure. I find it remarkable how higher education, with the seemingly disproportionate value it attaches to administrivia, can turn an ordinary bloke into such a fantastic specimen of higher intellect. It truly is a wonder, akin to training a monkey into becoming a master dialectician in the mould of Socrates.
As an aside, one should not use the term “administrivia”. It might carry negative connotations. We do not want to imply that formal education has a misplaced sense of pride and duty in its cumbersome bureaucracy. A more appropriate description is “criteria of excellence”. They ensure that fraudsters are kept away from universities.
Take, for example, the case of this random fellow who submitted their website as proof of their language skills. Years of writing on different topics. As if that even comes close to having a language certificate! Thankfully, the people in charge outright reject the uncertified. They even have programs in place where it is impossible to even submit something that would be subject to qualitative assessment. Brilliant! Fraudsters have all sorts of tricks up their sleeve. They might cheat their way into a Doctorate. That would be the equivalent of poisoning the well.
So no more “administrivia”. My mistake.
Education of that highest order deserves all the accolades it can get. For it delivers splendidly on its sole objective of emancipating people from ignorance and prejudice. Riches and reputation are petty concerns among ignoramuses.
I would argue that we are in the PhD holder’s debt for their service to society. They instruct the rest of us. Their mere presence inspires us to the point where we need not act for ourselves.
Here is a case in point: a hotly contested topic is discussed on TV. By the by, “TV” in this society signifies “True Vision”, enlightenment. It has nothing in common with the junk food of information diet other peoples get from their television. Again, this society is different. Back to the story then. Politics is inherently controversial. We all have our views and predispositions. Thankfully, there is the Philosophy Doctor to resolve the tensions; tensions caused by ignorance. Their input in the discussion is catalytic. They tell us their opinion and, bam, as if by magic, we all assume this to be the default view.
And I note this phenomenon because there can be no other explanation as to why years of study equip one to state the conventional wisdom in slightly different terms. It must be that we retroactively change our view to match that of the Philosophy Doctor. It cannot possibly be that they are just acting as the intellectual vanguard of the establishment. No, that does not befit an exalted intellectual agent such as the PhD holder you see on TrueVision.
And this why I truly love this society and would do everything within my power to be of service to it. Here social status is not about pretences and titles. It is about merit. We respect the Philosophy Doctor. Period. It is not because of their awe-inspiring CV, remarkable though it may be. It also has nothing to do with their esoteric terminology and tangle of conflicting meanings that can only hint at profoundness. Don’t be silly. We only value their wisdom, the very essence of their Doctorate. For that is what education endowed them with: not status, just the prowess, nimbleness, and clarity of mind.
Now, to be perfectly honest, there are some naysayers, a fringe group, who are suspicious of such personas. They claim that a PhD is only tangentially about science. Most of it has to do with conditions outside the realm of philosophy and research. Such as competition within the academic world. Funding and their economic starting point. Their conformity with the rules, norms and expectations of the powers that be. Their cultural background and how that influences people who vouch for them. And so on. Those despicable nihilists even have the temerity to suggest that they respect Philosophy Doctors—Philosophy Doctors—only after they have proven their intellectual worth, never in advance. In other words, they do not care about the title; the title that the highest and most noblest of educations has bestowed upon them!!!
Such blasphemy. Fortunately, I am not part of that lot. I try to emulate the good people in my society. The honourable folks. Learn from them all the secrets of proper living. Currently, I am working on this unique skill where you mean something completely different than what you state. Usually the exact opposite. That way you can preach humbleness, humility, simple life, and the like, while ignoring the minutiae, such as the fact that you have the most expensive car possible—and not just one—, or that you accrue material possessions with unparalleled obsession, or even that you boast about your achievements in the workplace, by words and/or actions, and insist that your wealth is proof of your merit.
This is the best aspect of this society. It knows where its values are: in what you say about yourself, not who you are. Hence my infatuation with its Philosophy Doctors on TV. All of them! This society has decided to attach a special value to their very status as PhD holders. That is what matters. Ignore the naysayers. Everything they do is in vein, like having a healthy meal at a fast food restaurant.
The Philosophy Doctor speaks the truth. We retrofit our conventional wisdom to it. And then the naysayers interpret this in reverse, i.e. that, by and large, the PhDs are just parrots of their paymasters or slightly less crude ignoramuses who repeat in chorus the absurdities of some greater, more respectful, ignoramus. Ha! How foolish can you be to not see the obvious. The title is no coincidence. They truly are Philosophy Doctors and they guide us on the path to intellectual ascendance.
To this end, I fully endorse this society’s binary thinking about intellectual achievements. You do not have a PhD? Then you obviously are an idiot, an oaf, a charlatan, a dishonourable opportunist, and must also be a malevolent person and an eccentric, who defies the zeitgeist and who openly questions the criteria of excellence this society has put in place. You do not hold a PhD, ergo you are no Philosophy Doctor. You are a misguided moron for thinking that your opinion matters without the rubber stamp of authority. You are pathetic, as you have chosen to speak your mind despite the fact that you are not a Philosophy Doctor and cannot possibly have anything meaningful to add to society’s stock of knowledge. Shut up and accept what your ability—your merit—renders possible. Toil at the sweatshop for hours on end. No, no talk. No thinking. You cannot be ruminative. Get up and do something. One, two, one, two, one, two. Up, down, sit, stay, heel. Good.
I am the greatest proponent of this society and will answer the call to defend it with alacrity. Being a hero for this lot is a great achievement. It perpetuates it. And I would do that. For I truly believe that the establishment’s power is derived solely from their inner superiority. Such meritocracy has to be upheld at all costs. Less worthy beings, such as myself, who cannot fully grasp the workings of this society can at least perform the honourable task of sacrificing themselves for the rest to be allowed the freedom to advance the most enlightened of civilisations.
Oh, but I cannot help but be reminded of those naysayers, insignificant though they may be. Their call is like a siren’s song. Alluring, yet deceitful. They put up those posts: “heavy burdens on broader shoulders”, “break the symbiosis between the state and the oligopolies”, “bring back the real bread”, “homeland presupposes justice”, “patents engender trolling, not innovation”, and similar fancies.
But I know better because I heard on TrueVision a Philosophy Doctor who elaborated at length about the virtues of this society. No, their pontifications were not unfamiliar. They were reformulating that which the naysayers call “conventional wisdom”, embellishing it with their oracular wisdom. Only fools pay attention to the naysayers. There is no conventional wisdom. We are buffoons by default. The Philosophy Doctor is performing an act of genuine altruism: that of moulding the public opinion in the interests of enlightenment, of Philosophy, of goodness for its own sake. There are no ulterior motives whatsoever.
Here is why I am writing this: today I saw the light like never before. But unlike the other people, it left me blind to pretenses. Now I can no longer believe in appearances. They are meaningless. I must touch things to assess their verity. Or at least have some objective means of confirming their presence and of understanding their features. This has made me pedantic, some may say annoying and acerbic. Impossible to work with. I feel no excitement about things as they are presented. Fortunately I had the luck to have had prior experience of this society. I already attained knowledge of the true value it attached to social status, before this nagging tendency to ask for evidence and to question conventions. Today, it would be impossible to provide credence to the advances of the Philosophy Doctor. Imagine my predicament, my misery! I was lucky to be indoctrinated. Just as I have always been blessed to be immersed in this milieu.
Make no mistake! This society is different. I can only pity the naysayers who do not cherish was is given to them.
Now that you read the previous chapter, Status, let us switch gears. Time to abandon the ironic tone and the hyperboles. On with some analysis. While Status raises valid points, it obscures them in nihilism. The reader is not drawn to the arguments but to the overall negativity.
Nihilism can be understood as a way of interpreting phenomena that is characterised by the following connatural tropes:
- Binary thinking. Everything is parsed through a rigid duality with no space for permeations or permutations in between the extremes.
- Forced homogenisation. To fit into the mould of perfectly symmetrical extremes, all things must be brought under a common denominator. Conceptual uniformity makes blanket statements possible.
- Juxtaposition between the actual and the ideal. Actuality is compared to some ideal, only to be found wanting. The ideal is, by definition, perfect. Reality is not. Which results in a cycle of self fulfilling negativity.
The approach in Status conforms with these. There is no nuance. The possibility of there being combinations of positive and negative elements—with “positive” and “negative” being relative to the benchmark used—is dismissed at the outset. The topic under discussion is presented in overly broad terms, so as to treat it as monolithic. That makes it possible to pass general judgements about it. And, true to nihilism, the overarching pessimism is the end product of deep seated, yet misplaced idealism. Things are not perfect, therefore, the rationale is, they are absolutely terrible.
For instance, consider Status’ statements against society’s hypocrisy. Do they concern the entirety of society, some average, a select few? Are they about everything society does, some aspects of collective experience, or certain special cases? And then, is this supposed hypocrisy contingent on circumstances that condition the behaviour of situational agents and patients? Can there be instances where it is not present? Furthermore, is it true hypocrisy or a form of social convention which remains consistent throughout and is not misunderstood by the members of the social whole as something entirely different than what it is supposed to be?
Nihilism adopts a scorched earth approach. All or nothing, which all too often means just the latter. As such, the nihilist may be starting from a sound or seemingly innocuous principle, say a lofty ideal, only to ultimately work against it.
The nihilist inevitably becomes dogmatic. For that is what the defence of an absolute system of normative claims on reality entails. They work backwards from a conclusion. This is to be contrasted with ideals that derive from inquiry into the commonalities among the multitude of phenomena. The patterns, the abstract structure. The nihilist’s ideals are preconceived notions that are forced upon reality. And the nihilistic outburst is the expression of the inner realisation of the conflict between one’s view of the world as it ought to be and the world as it actually is and can be.
From a political perspective, the nihilist has no direct contribution to make. Extreme idealism can, at best, only keep a fringe group focused on a narrowly defined task or utopia as an opposition force that will never be in a position to implement its view. Ideals are not implementable as such. Nihilism is the opposite of the capacity to govern, as that presupposes the kind of practicality that recognises the complexity of things, their heterogeneity, and the possibility of incremental reforms that add up to a bigger change. As such, the nihilist is actually struggling between all that is ideal and nothing that is real. Which leaves them with the latter.
As for the theme of this book, human’s self worth, the nihilist unwittingly becomes the agent of the most extreme form of human exceptionalism. This is typical among those who harbour nothing but contempt for the world, as discussed in the first chapter of this book. Now consider a less obvious example to reinforce the point: the misguided Malthusian ecologist who truly believes that the planet’s only hope is for humanity to go extinct. They are assuming that they are the most enlightened of the species, both because they are not preoccupied with their own survival, as all living things, and due to humanity’s ostensibly unique inability to adapt to evolving circumstances. Furthermore, they commit the error of every other theory that subscribes to the concept of the decontextualised human. Humanity can be removed from the ecosystem and everything else will remain in tact. That is the claim that humans are not inextricably bound up together with the rest of the ecosystem. Which is a weird view, to say the least, when it is well known that removing any one of the species from its ecosystem will disturb the local equilibrium, often with far-reaching ramifications. This is where the dogmatic part of nihilism is fully fleshed out. They just know.
Nihilism is expressed as the posterior rationalisation of a deeply rooted conviction that is unrealisable. The real does not match the ideal. The ideal cannot be realised. Crisis ensues and is then justified as certainty of nothingness, either in a holistic sense, or for the subject of inquiry.
Here are some common examples, with the proviso that they could be classified as over-reactions that tend to normalise over time:
- The “helpless romantic” who hates every one and every thing because they are not worthy enough and cannot deliver true love.
- The armchair revolutionary who ultimately functions as an anti-revolutionary by dismissing in advance every attempt at changing things as either futile or as yet another concealed effort to preserve the status quo.
- The naive Platonist who does not care about their hygiene or what happens in the world in general, since everything is supposed to be a fake representation of an unapproachable domain of absolute Forms.
The key element of nihilism is not the view that nothing exists or that nothing is real, etc. But rather that they are certain of such a state of affairs. Unlike variants of scepticism, the nihilist can only posit nothingness in the most dogmatic of ways as certainty of nothingness, which itself would be a clear sign of somethingness.
The sceptic can speak about the lack of meaning or of the nonexistence of various forms and categories of being, by following the analytical method alluded to in the chapter about Godlessness. The sceptic can examine all available knowledge/literature over a given subject to arrive at the conclusion that fundamental issues remain unresolved and that none of the presences that precondition the field of research concerned are, in fact, verifiable. This would be an analytical statement, not a conviction per se, but a reformulation of the stock of available knowledge or a general characterisation derived therefrom.
An analytical proposition can provide insight into hitherto unseen items, which would colloquially mean that we learn something new. And while that is a fair impression, analytics remain essentially tautological. We learn to represent—to reason, to talk about—the same things in new ways, and may have a clearer understanding of their abstract structure as a result.
The sceptic arrives at their position by studying what is “out there” while inquiring into the meaning or the interplay between the subject and the object. The nihilist formulates their view of what should be “out there” while claiming to know what is “in here”.
Perhaps it would be fecund to posit nihilism as a type of epistemological character; a defined way of dealing with episteme. That would make the comparison to scepticism more direct. A nihilist tends to express nihilistic views about every area or topic they are concerned with. They tend to be consistently nihilistic. Much like a sceptic tends to remain inquisitive and dubitative in every field of study.
Nihilism “puts the cart before the horse”, as the old adage goes. They get things in reverse, where reality must conform to the ideal and not vice versa. They misunderstand the role of ideals as (i) products of thought derived by discerning the common in the multitude, and (ii) as guides to human thought and action. The ideal is treated as the enemy of the good, rather than its general target. Hence, the rejection of every minute improvement or indication of positiveness, as decisively inadequate or altogether a distraction that obscures the underlying vanity of the whole venture, its worthlessness.
As for products of thought, it is worth addressing the Platonic notion of Ideals in themselves. The inescapable constraint imposed upon Platonic Idealism, or on other theories that presume a decontextualised “mind” or purely intellectual being, is that humans necessarily are part of the world, experiencing it through the faculties their natural condition has endowed them with. There is no human qua purely intellectual self, just as there can be no absolute “I think” without connection to the underlying natural condition.
It may then be the case that pattern is immanent. It is intrinsic to things. The fact that humans (and not only) can discern constants among the variables that constitute the totality of input to the faculties of sense and the intellect may just as well be because of a shared, built-in capacity to identify commonalities in all that is, to eventually abstract them and think of them as such. That means to be in a position to identify the “abstract structure”. As such, universals are not potentially recognisable by everyone because they must be objectively present, but rather due to a common way of arriving at them through the particulars. A shared process of parsing information, if you will.
This is where the nihilist errs lamentably. The ideals they hold are posited as objective categories that the world fails to comply with. There is no means of easing this tension other than examining its basic hypotheses. And, if that proves inconclusive, then the only honest conclusion is to recognise uncertainty for what it is and to remain open to the possibility that it might cease to be upon further, more comprehensive research.
Pedantic and inconsequential details for the dogmatists who have no time for leaving things unanswered…
In politics we often see the terms “environment” and “ecosystem” used interchangeably. Same with “environmentalism” and “ecology”, and their derivatives. While the political process does not always require precision of statement, it must be noted that the underlying values of these terms differ profoundly.
Environmentalism is, in essence, a variant of anthropocentrism (human-centrism). Everything environs us. Human is at the epicentre, conceived as something different or somehow special compared to the rest of nature. This is an age-old tradition that has been reformulated and embellished with new ideas throughout history from ancient mythology to Humanism.
Even if only indirectly and despite whatever positives, anthropocentrism has driven humanity’s incessant drive to exploit nature without restraint. Animals are raised in the equivalent of death camps, to be slaughtered en masse, because they are “just animals”. Plants are being over-engineered to yield ever greater quantities of crops, with numerous downsides to their own well-being and the sustainability of the other species (economic oligopolies and the feudalism of the patent holders notwithstanding), the health of the soil, as well as that of consumers.
In terms of first principles, the environmentalist does not want to change the dynamic between humanity and the rest of nature. Rather, the focus is on some narrowly defined targets, secondary issues, such as carbon emissions and the accompanying financial markets (carbon emission trading). In the same spirit, there is growing emphasis on economic incentives to adapt to new methods of doing business, such as relying on renewable energy, without changing the underlying assumptions and aspirations of industrial production at large. The entire system covering everything from production-consumption-ownership is not considered at fault, nor is it seen with suspicion. Just keep track of the carbon dioxide and similarly marketable snippets of ‘green thinking’.
In contradistinction, the ecosystem includes humanity as yet another factor of a broader whole. Humans are no more special than grass, rats, bees… The uniqueness we want to attach to ourselves, such as our relative intellectual superiority is, in truth, a difference of degree, not category.
I guess a good analogy for understanding variations of this sort is to think of life as akin to the output of the sound mixing console. All those sliders and rotary controls have to be fine tuned to produce a specific sound. A minor change modifies the output. The more one tinkers with the controls, the greater the degree of the change. In the same spirit, every instance of life can be conceived as the end product of a specific set of combinations between an array of interrelated factors. Hence the differences in degree.
In the ecosystem everything is connected, for that is what “system” means: a set of interlinked variables whose joint operation produces local as well as emergent phenomena, which is governed by system-wide and topical rules, and which sustains its operations endogenously. Humanity cannot be without plants or other animals, or the kind of weather equilibrium it has survived in, the specific arrangements of the Earth’s and Moon’s orbits in relation to themselves and towards the Sun, and so on.
Note here that “ecosystem” should be qualified as a set of subsystems, each of which can be discernible in its own right. So that we can speak of the Earth’s ecosystem, or the ecosystem of a swamp, without having to talk about the universe. In the same way we can think of the human organism—a human being—as such, without having to explain each time that we are, in fact, referring to a set of subsystems all the way from the atomic and molecular levels to the organs and to their interlinked presence thereof. Perhaps then, it is appropriate we find the correct terms for each order of abstraction, though that might mean that we run out of words depending on the degree of precision. Or maybe we just use qualifiers, such as the “Earth’s ecosystem”, “Europe’s ecosystem”, etc. But I digress.
Humanity is nothing without the rest of the ecosystem. The dichotomy posited by environmentalists can only be entertained as one of perspective, not ontology. Which would, however, imply that the meta-narratives of anthropocentrism are altogether dismissed, or at least thoroughly reconsidered.
Let us entertain the latter possibility. What would a revised self image of humanity look like? I think it should start by explicitly making the environmentalist binary an arbitrary subject/object divide based on our vantage point. The ecosystem environs us in a literal sense, without implications of any [mystical] difference of category. Then, and even if we only care about ourselves, we must acknowledge the fact that our very existence is contingent on there being a robust ecosystem suitable to our presence and that of every life form that flourishes together with, or alongside, us. Which entails a whole host of action programmes and necessary adaptations.
This, by the by, is not the same as deifying “mother nature”, prohibiting any kind of interference out of some prejudice that me might be disturbing the balance, or even expecting the rest of the species to conform to human conventions (such as animal “rights”, which in truth are human “obligations”).
While seemingly secular, the vision of the ecosystem as a superior being, as the mother of all existence, rests on all sorts of baseless assumptions. As concerns the evident personification, we have no means of knowing whether the ecosystem is just an aggregation of sub-systems with emergent phenomena resulting from their interplay, or if it also is a greater conscience or being whose inner mechanics we only experience on the micro scale as seemingly inanimate systems (same with how atoms do not exhibit consciousness—as far as we know—but humans, who are made of atoms, do).
Such speculation does not really change the parameters of the debate on which anthropocentrism rests. It just shifts the focus, or reformulates the narrative. Instead of an extra-cosmic god qua grand architect, as in biblical tradition, we have an ever-present, yet still anthropomorphic or animal-like, ubiquitous source of life.
These theories are not mutually exclusive and do not prejudice the possibility that we develop an anthropocentric worldview that is consistent with them, such as humanity being the chosen child of mother nature, whereby the human soul has a transcendent presence that is not found in the rest of the species in order to fulfil some higher objective, etc.
The specifics will take us on a tangent. Our imagination is the only limit here and it can keep us writing for the rest of our life. The point is that anthropocentrism is, at its root, a theological account. Whether the theology is of one kind or another does not change this basic fact.
The problem with all theology is what I alluded to in the chapter about Godlessness, namely that its claims cannot be verified in an objective manner. Theology is like a game of luck where all numbers win. Everyone can have their own theory and they may all claim to be correct, as none can ever be proven right or wrong.
Overcoming anthropocentrism is about grounding human’s sense of self in a narrower set of principles. While the task may seem daunting, it is surprisingly simple and boils down to this: stick to the facts. The humanity/environment distinction is one of perspective. Human presence is contingent on there being an ecosystem. Beyond those, the problem with anthropocentrism is not about the way it is framed, but its political implications.
The human world is inherently complex. International economics, finance, and monetary affairs are too much for one person to grasp in the fullness of their scale. Let alone the interplay between the multitude of decentralised actors, the implications of diverging cultural-historical path dependencies of the various peoples, the unique features of each society, both in terms of social structures and political institutions, and so on.
Amid this bewildering complexity, one can be excused of forgetting that principles are always simple. It is their implementation or particularisation that introduces complexity.
For instance, the entire world could function within a single, overarching constraint, which we may call the principle of sustainability. Whether it is finance, or fiscal policy, or the conduct of war, everything has to be gauged in terms of its capacity to remain contained to its subject matter before it creates deleterious, spill-over effects that would prevent a return to the previous state of affairs. If any one of human’s fields of endeavour becomes unsustainable, it produces a cascade of catastrophic consequences which can, at the extreme, lead to our annihilation or, at the very least, to its discontinuation.
Think of sustainable warfare, as tasteless as that term may be. We cannot nuke each other into oblivion. That guarantees the destruction of the planet and our annihilation. In this sense, the end of war is only brought about by absolutely total war.
What about sustainable finance? The only reason the global economic system remains in place is because it has yet to reach peak saturation. It still finds outlets to release the pressure, as it were, and thus survives its cyclical shocks/crises. It survives by identifying new areas to exploit and to rollover the problem; a problem that is incrementally aggrandised, yet whose burden continues to be shifted around so that it remains less obvious. Whatever calamities, poverty, austerity, precarity, mass economic migration, are contained to various segments of human society or geographic locales that seem to change periodically. The system as such is yet to reach a terminus, at which point it will no longer be sustainable in the sense of merely being capable of continuing (so not “sustainable” in the normative sense of desirability for society—it is well beyond that, though that is an issue of extractive classes exploiting the masses of people the world over, which is a major political challenge, though not necessarily one that concerns ecology as such).
And so on for every other human activity.
To this end, the ‘green’ themes are in need of a rethink. For it is not the underlying theology that is at stake here. Nor is the problem about turning “black industry” (production powered by fossil fuel) into “green industry” (production powered by renewable energy), or conforming to a target for carbon emissions. While important in their own right, these are secondary issues in the grand scheme of things. This is about refactoring the entire framework of values pertaining to production-consumption-ownership. And that involves everything from the distribution of resources, the way costs and the externalities of waste are handled, the degree to which private property is considered untouchable, the narrowing of the scope of intellectual property and patents, the decentralisation of economic activity and the concomitant devolution of political authority to the local level.
As such, ecology is only tangentially about reformulating the narrative about human’s self worth. This is a matter of deciding between a political order that, by and large, satisfies the interests of the few more than those of the many, or a new order that does not produce winners and losers in accordance with the self perpetuating “winner takes it all” mentality.
What ‘green’ themes introduce is another aspect to this ever pertinent debate. That the power balance within human society also depends on actions or phenomena that seem to have no direct effect on humanity.
Couched in those terms, revaluing our self image, so that we are no longer some unique ‘essence’ that is distinct from the rest of the ecosystem, may just be the first step in the long road of reviewing our politics and the deep seated assumptions that fuel them.