Human consciousness: The normative question and the creation of value

When consciousness flickers into being, into self-awareness, it faces some basic philosophical questions. The existential question: What am I? The topographical question: Where am I? And the normative question: What should I do?—which essentially amounts to asking: What is worth doing?

And thus is born the idea of value: Asking the normative question presupposes the possibility of value because it assumes some answer, some purposive skill, is more or less worthwhile than another, or (in relativistic pluralist egalitarian fashion) that all answers are of equal worth.

Among all possible purposes, we then either choose to cultivate non-arbitrary purposive skills (biologically necessary functions), or, if we encounter an ease in fulfilling the biologically necessary, we conceive of arbitrary purposes with which to occupy our time. Whatever one’s choice in a given moment, we ascribe to that purposive skill its value through our behavior: our prioritization of its cultivation. We choose what purposes are worth the dedication of our finite existence, and in doing so, denote their value. Admittedly, this presumes that value is somewhat a function of mortality–that without finiteness, without a sense of urgency, the creation of value to make life feel meaningful is less of a pressing concern.

The value of non-arbitrary purposive skills are seated in nature—in the natural evolutionary process by which we and all life are subsumed—but we alone are the inventors of arbitrary purpose and arbitrary value. Beyond what is necessary for survival, it is left to us to determine which skills are worth cultivating. Neither God nor intrinsicity gives us this purpose—it is a matter of our creation, of our dedication.

For a purposive skill and its value to be “arbitrary” is not an evaluative claim, however, but observational. Arbitrariness is not good or bad, it simply is or is not. The cultivation of arbitrarily purposive skill is no less worthwhile or valuable than that of non-arbitrarily purposive skill. Indeed, we derive much of our sense of meaning in life from arbitrary purpose. But we must recognize ourselves as the creators of arbitrary purpose—of arbitrary value. We cannot forget that we are the arbiters; we are the source. Nor can we forget that we must fulfill non-arbitrary biological necessities (nutrition, rest, shelter…) before we can even begin to focus on arbitrary ones—a privilege not shared by all. The former comes prior to the latter as a matter of necessity—something of a biological order of operations: only once our bellies are full and our minds safely rested do we concern ourselves with the arbitrary.

In this sense, having the time and energy to focus on the arbitrary is an exquisite privilege: a joy of being human, of being conscious. It is through creating value that life feels meaningful—or at least that we overcome the sense of futility about living. Human beings are ultimately animals, but the cultivation of arbitrary skill is one of our distinguishing characteristics. It makes being human feel special—even if we are insignificant by any cosmic scheme.

The cultivation of arbitrary skill is a celebration of life! Arbitrariness is cause for ebullience. The arbitrary purposes we create make life exciting—they give people an interesting uniqueness amongst one another. Dance, art, sport, scholarly intrigues, cultural exploration—the arbitrary richness of human existence: these make living human life feel over and above the predominately non-arbitrary cycles we observe in other animals.

But the non-arbitrary is worth celebrating as well. Food, water, shelter from the frequent harshness of nature—these are fundamental to comfortable living, and thus (perhaps even more so than the arbitrary) worthy of our deep, humble appreciation. To be reminded of this is especially important in places where such amenities have become taken for granted.

The existence of consciousness is itself a sort of contingently orchestrated celebration of and by the universe. That matter-energy has slowly and stochastically evolved toward subjective self-awareness is the universe’s manner of perceiving itself, of celebrating its own existence—for despite our temporary sense of individuality, we are no more or less part of the universe as a single whole. Conscious creatures constitute the universe capacity to recognize itself. To perpetuate this awareness, we fulfill our non-arbitrary purposes—we survive as long as we can. To enrich this awareness, we indulge the arbitrary: we cultivate artistic, athletic, scholarly, specialist, and cosmopolitan skills.

This is not a hierarchy of values—the arbitrary and the non-arbitrary—but my observation of how human beings tend to answer the normative question: how we make life feel meaningful; how we make life seem worth living. Thus we give thanks. Thus we celebrate. To the sun god!

Wilson’s time machine

Re-reading Biophilia, one of E. O. Wilson’s many seminal eco-philosophical works, I was pleasantly reminded of an important quadripartite distinction laid out in chapter three, “The Time Machine.”

The time machine, Wilson tells us, is biological spatio-temporal thought experiment. Imagine we have the ability to accelerate and decelerate the passage of time without restriction, as well as to magnify and minimize the Earth from a bird’s eye view to any extreme. We could observe every detail of biological phenomena ranging from nearly instantaneous microscopic biochemical reactions to the vast evolutionary manifolds of deep time. Along the spatio-temporal continuum, Wilson makes an ascending, yet non-hierarchical, four-way distinction: biochemical time, organismic time, ecological time, and evolutionary time—each referring to different perspectives about life on Earth.

Start the thought experiment by almost freezing time at the microscopic level: biochemical time allows us to imagine and comprehend biochemical reactions occurring inside living cells that no naked eye could ever see—e.g., an electrical impulse travelling along a neuron or an enzyme catalyzing protein division. These reactions, even if somehow made visible to a normal human perspective, would be utterly indiscernible, for they begin and end in the span of a thousandth of a second. In biochemical time, we organisms appear completely motionless—so next we speed the passage of time slightly and zoom out.

Organismic time is the time and space that we and other macroscopic bio-phenomena experience. The crucial activities of organismic time take place in seconds and minutes—sentences are spoken and comprehended, gestures and decisions are made, breaths are taken, and paths are walked. Obviously, organismic time is the perspective with which people are most familiar, so without a second thought it becomes the default spatio-temporal point of view from which we assess the relative importance of biological phenomena. But it’s not so clear that organismic time, in any normative sense, is the best or only perspective worth taking on the natural world. Our species is, after all, just one of innumerable ecological constituents.

So fast-forward the passage of time and zoom-out from the spacio-temporal scale of organisms to that of the ecosystem. Days pass as quickly as seconds did from the organismic perspective and become indistinguishable from night, their respective brightness blending to yield a dim, constant glow. The seasonal cycles of ecosystem growth and retreat now take on the speed previously reserved in organismic time for daily animal cycles of sleep and activity as regulated by the Sun. We time travelers now stand witnesses to ecological time. Spanning years and centuries, we experience the rise and proliferation of rich forests from barren sandy environs—the transformation of shallow creeks into wide rivers teeming with fish and other life—the maturation of simplistic ponds into thriving communities of birds, water dwellers, and lush vegetation. Thus we behold the profound interconnectivity of ecosystems by which biochemical and organismic space and time are subsumed.

Accelerate time’s passage again and zoom-out once more: years pass by the thousands as we look down from high above the continents—the apropos thresholds for distinguishing evolutionary time. Organisms dissolve into populations and communities, and, as the millennia proceed, the concept of “individuals” holds little meaning beyond that of their momentary roles as progenitors. Families and races blur as adaptation, mutation, and natural selection generate altogether new phylogenetic lines. From the perspective of evolutionary time, the Earth resembles Lovelock’s grand homeostatic organism with ecosystems as its internal organs, individual creatures as its cellular matrix, and biochemical reactions as equivalent to how we view particles of quantum physics from the organismic vantage.

The thought experiment is supposed to remind us that there are biological spatio-temporal perspectives other than our own organismic one worth considering—even worth keeping permanently in mind when assessing multi-generational ethics that correspond to ecological time more so than to organismic time, for example. What’s important in a normative sense from the ecological or evolutionary perspective may not be so obvious from that of organismic time: depending on the problem (e.g., climate change, biodiversity loss, ocean acidification, etc.) organismic time may be insufficient and inappropriate for its redress.

Depending on the spatio-temporal viewpoint one takes, moral priorities change. And this works in both directions. Ecological time and evolutionary time leave little room for anthropocentricism: not only are human beings situated in contexts too large for dogmatic humanism to make much sense, the importance of individuals (and therefore individualism—a corollary of neoliberal economics) is curtailed such that any subsequent ethic would entail ecosystems or the Earth itself as the appropriate unit of moral consideration

On the other hand, biochemical time re-substantiates humanism by stationing the organism as a unit of utmost importance—each organism acting as an ecosystem of biochemical reactions all its own, in a way. While ecological and evolutionary time are inconsistent with overly individualistic anthropocentricism, the perspective of biochemical time guards against eco-authoritarian anti-humanism.

Simultaneously, Wilson’s time machine reassures us of our humanitarian identities—the overwhelming sense of pride and privilege inspired simply by being human—while we are also humbly reminded that human beings are not the grand culmination—the glorious ultimate purpose—of all the cosmos.

And I didn’t even know it

Get it together people.

It’s not so hard to not be so evil,

or selfish,

or to make others feel helpless.

We’ve got to love each other,

all parts equal,

cause in this life there is no sequel.

I look down on dogmatism,

and politicians,

making bad decisions.

I will not forget the lives we’ve lost,

to idealism and malnutrition.

So many dead,

and fatally hurt,

but that’s okay cause we shoot ’em with a good bullet from a good gun and use a good shovel to bury ’em in the good dirt.

Life’s too short to live superficially.

Love isn’t made artificially,

or with a battery,

or on the TV.

It’s a face-to-face endeavor,

that means both pain and pleasure.

So we take the good with the bad,

the happy with the sad,

we break bread and break necks,

and then it’s right back to sex.

The focus is fading and the message evading,

but the world keeps moving,

faster than I can run,

and so I reflect, quietly, with my face to the sun.

Solar panels for all, precautionary or proactionary?

I think Crane and Kennedy have a point here — relying on solar energy, specifically putting solar paneling on residential roofs, are a good way to reduce the risk of relying on an antiquated electrical grid system that’s highly vulnerable to storms and natural disasters (like Sandy). The traditional grid, knitted together by a bucolic web of wooden poles and copper wires, leaves society exposed should part of its fragile infrastructure fail.

So, switching to residential, distributive solar can be seen a precautionary move — it’s too risky to keep depending on a grid that falls apart if power lines go down with a tree limb. Independent, “off-grid” home power systems would strengthen each link of the social chain mail so that when nature throws us a curve ball we aren’t left in the dark for days or weeks on end. For the risk-averse, these are worthy concerns. Not to mention that solar energy doesn’t carry the bouquet of environmental and human health risks that accompany the extreme ways that we extract fossil fuels these days (horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing for natural gas, deep water drilling for oil, and mountaintop removal mining for coal).

Often we’ll hear opponents of renewables frame alternative energy as being too risky. The wind and sun are intermitted, the technology is inefficient, and the costs are uncompetitive — or so they say. But with better battery technology, dramatic improvements in solar cell efficiency, and expectations of lower home installation costs these arguments against renewables won’t hold water in public for much longer. Soon, in fact, this framing will probably reverse itself and renewables will be understood as safe, sensible, and reliable, while fossil fuels will be seen as dangerous, costly, and anachronistic.

But should we understand support for solar energy as precautionary or proactionary?

On one hand,  using residential and distributive solar power is a precautionary move away from the risks of depending on fossil fuels and the outmoded electrical grid. In this sense, the switch to solar is less about the goodness of solar energy in particular, but rather about the consequence of mitigating the risks of fossil fuel use. To put it another way, to precautionary supporters of solar, it’s likely that any alternative energy source would be satisfactory since the shift is more about getting away from the risks of fossil fuels than it is about shifting to a particular kind of renewable energy.

On the other hand, proactionary supporters of solar might emphasize the goodness of solar energy itself over and above its consequence of replacing fossil fuels alone. Solar energy is good not simply because we need to mitigate the risks of fossil fuel use, but because solar energy represents progress. Fossil fuels remind us of primitive industrialism, while solar power speaks to our progressive refinement toward symbiosis with each other and the environment. Indeed, for proactionaries to put such immense trust in new solar technology despite its relative nascence is somewhat risky, but switching to solar is a matter of moral obligation; it is our duty to ourselves, to future generations, and to the non-human to make the change.

So, should we be proactionary or precautionary about solar power? I’m not convinced we have to choose — I support solar technology for precautionary and proactionary purposes. I am deeply concerned with mitigating the risks of our continued reliance on fossil fuels because they are inherently finite, unsustainable, environmentally damaging to extract, and pose threats to human health during development and when burned. Simultaneously, I believe that our relationship with the Sun is a special one and that it makes sense on ethical, axiological, and existential levels that the source of life should also be the source of high quality living.

Today, our visions of the Good Life are intimately intertwined with energy. High quality living means energy intensive living (with the exception of a few rogue primitivists out there). So the progressive challenge is making such a lifestyle sustainable. Progress, in this sense, is sustainability. But solar energy is not all about progress in the long-term. It’s also about human and environmental safety in the short-term.

Usually we find ourselves in a conundrum when it comes to the precautionary v. proactionary distinction: either we accept some risk as the price of progress, or we sacrifice some progress in order to mitigate risk. The difficulty arises when people make divergent value judgments about the proper balance of risk and progress — and also when we assume that the two routes are mutually exclusive.

Solar energy technology, however, defeats the idea that we can only reduce risk at the cost of progress. Making the gradual switch to solar constitutes progress toward sustainability and reduces the risks of using fossil fuels. We can be proactionary and precautionary at the same timeNow that’s progress.



Science Progress publicizes study of beliefs about hydraulic fracturing for natural gas

As a follow up to the Science Progress article I co-authored with Dr. Adam Briggle earlier this July, we have written another short piece that again explains the subject of our study, Technology and Society: Fracking Ideology, and requests reader participation. You can find the article linked here and above.



To Frack or Not to Frack

The survey component of To Frack or Not to Frack is now closed–many thanks to all who participated. Results will be publicly available here and through Bard CEP. Stay tuned…

To Frack or Not to Frack

A survey of beliefs about hydraulic fracturing for natural gas

Dear energy consumers,

Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” for natural gas plays an important role in the debate about our energy future. As an energy consumer, you may have beliefs about, or beliefs that relate to, the use of hydraulic fracturing technology. Given the prominence of natural gas in today’s energy discourse, I am using my Master’s thesis at the Bard Center for Environmental Policy to study the political and ideological dimensions of hydraulic fracturing. My goal is to develop a more thorough understanding of the relationships between socioeconomics, political alignments, philosophical beliefs, and support or lack thereof for the use of hydraulic fracturing technology – but my research depends on your participation. Here and below you will find a link that directs you to a survey with questions related to the current debate about hydraulic fracturing and natural gas:

To Frack or Not to Frack

To help me with my research, I ask that you complete the survey and then share this message and link with your friends, family, colleagues, coworkers, and other contacts so that they might do the same. If you have any questions please email them to and I will answer you promptly. Thank you for your participation.


Jordan M. Kincaid