Ancient tradition says philosophy began when Thales of Miletus predicted an eclipse of the sun. Shielded by moonshade, Thales gazed upward to glimpse the truth about eternal reality. Then he fell into a well. Theaetetus 174a.
Tag Archives: philosophy
For the love of wisdom
“You didn’t build that!” President Obama once quipped about the nature of success. Many took the remark to belittle their bootstrapping. In fact, it was meant to remind us all that no one gets anywhere alone. If this dissertation is an accomplishment it is by no means mine. More than I, its authors are the wonderful human beings who have given me strength along the way. Without them I do not know where I would be today.
To my parents—Barbara Wells, Michael Kincaid, Ernest Wells, and Dean Luttrell—no words can fully capture what your unwavering faith over the years has meant. I owe you everything. Truly everything. To my brother, David Munson—it all comes back to the loop trail gallon jug. May we follow the drainage and live life underwater! To the humans of Hugh Manatee—Thomas Oder, Michael Curtis, Morgan Kusmer, Martin Fairlie, and John Ianni—our bond is indescribable and so instead we express it as music. Thank you for being the brilliant musical beings you are.
To my advisor, Benjamin Hale, and the rest of my committee—Steve Vanderheiden, Darrel Moellendorf, Dave Ciplet, and Phaedra Pezzullo—your guidance through the dissertation process has been invaluable. My sincerest gratitude to you all. My endless thanks as well to Penny Bates—the true champion of the department—for her inexhaustible patience and resourcefulness.
To the rest of my family—Baba, Lisa, Brandon, Brittany, Victoria, John and Betsy, Tim and Jim, and all the others whom are too many to name—my endless thank to you all for your constant support. You are the best tribe imaginable. Finally, to Kudonomos—my now six-year-old Husky—I promise, now that it’s done, we’ll go back to the wilderness.
The Path of Totality
On August 21st, 2017, I had the privilege of traveling with a band of cosmic pilgrims to the Path of Totality. What follows is my account of and reflections on the experience of the total solar eclipse.
As Totality neared, a pale grey-purple haze overtook the land and sky. Shadows became murky, yet emanated a deeper contrast, as if vibrating with detail. A cold wind blew, and then, in an instant, everything stopped; the air, the sounds of birds and bugs and rustling trees, the very pulse of the planet came to an eerie stillness. A dark wave crept over the ground from across the lake until it settled right above us; at the horizon it was like sunset, orange and red, with planets before unseen suddenly bright in the sky. And directly overhead a brilliant white ring with a center of the blackest black stared down at us, like a great empty eye, with its gaze reflecting both the infinite void of the endless universe and a radiant fullness of the unchangeable fact that all of existence is ultimately one inseparable being, timeless; beyond time itself. And as quickly as it came on, dawn broke for the second time in one day, as if to remind us that day and night are not truly two, but one, constantly flowing into one another; one becoming the other, over and over again, forever, in the eternal cosmic cycle of being and becoming—and that we, too, are one; that even when we are apart, we are a part of the same; that even when we are apart, we are always together.
Apollo. Ra. Amaterasu. Kinich. Utu. For millennia, human beings across civilizations have worshiped the Sun. The center of our solar system, the energetic source of life on Earth, bringer of day; every being on Earth, through all of history has had an existential relationship with the Sun. None would be if not for it. The Sun, unlike anything else, unifies the human experience; it shapes the very nature of our condition, embodies the passage of time, and moves the causality of life itself. The great cosmic dance of our planet, moon, and humble star radiates the magnificent contingency of our existence and inspires the most fundamental questions of consciousness: Why are we here? What reason explains our existence? What is our purpose?
Human beings are the only animals concerned with the notion of purpose. Its pursuit defines the nature of our consciousness. We do indeed seek explanation for our existence, on one hand, but even more so, we seek its justification. What is the point of our existence? What are we supposed to do? It is from this idea of purpose that we derive our senses of meaning in life – and perhaps, it is the most fundamental of truths that we all want to live meaningful lives.
Ultimately, however, it is unclear that any absolute answer to the question of purpose exists—that there is any certain point to being alive, or that there is any supposed to at all. Grappling with this uncertainty is the very core of ethics: Some suppose that we’re supposed to do our duty (but what is duty?); or that we’re supposed to do what’s good (but what is the good? And for who?); that we should do what’s right or just (right in what sense? And what is justice?); or what’s virtuous (but what is the nature of virtue?); or that all we’re really supposed to do is keep the promises we make to each other (But what are contracts, and what contracts us to them, really?).
Ethics and the question of purpose are a great wheel that will turn forever, as long as human being are the kinds of agential creatures that act and seek to justify our actions to ourselves and to each other – and it seems a fantasy to suppose that we will ever discover or articulate any ultimate or universal answer. Perhaps if we were perfect beings we would be capable of knowing in certainty, but we are inevitably fallible, and in that fallibility we must accept and embrace a certain agnosticism about the purpose of consciousness and the purpose of living. All we can do is suppose and engage in the process of consideration: to suppose and to consider—to think and to judge, and then to act. Indeed, it is the process that makes us ethical beings and gives our lives meaning – not necessarily the answer. The question, in a sense, is the answer:
What are we supposed to do? Never stop wrestling with that very question! The question of purpose makes us what we are. When you strip it all away, all we can say is that we are just the kinds of beings that wonder what we’re supposed to do, and maybe that’s all we’re supposed to be. Maybe that question is, at its core, what makes reflective consciousness what it is.
But while the justificatory question of purpose may be unanswerable in finality, the question of explanation is tangible. We may never know for certain the purpose for why we are here, but we can indeed know the explanation—the reason—for our existence, and as human beings have intuited for tens of thousands of years, the Sun is just such an explanation; the Sun explains why we exist. Of course, even material explanation entails is own infinite regress. If the Sun explains why we exist, then it is natural to then ask why the Sun exists – and the material chain of causality can extend as far back as we are willing to ask. We can explain the creation of the solar system, the births and deaths of stars, the origins of galaxies, and, as distant as we have been able to discern, the birth of the universe at the Big Bang. But what explains the Big Bang? What sparked the great explosion of matter and energy from which all of the known universe was born? There are suppositions, of course—an eternal cycle of Big Bangs and “Big Crunches” wherein the universe is forever expanding and contracting on itself; the multi-verse or parallel realities; some see only God as the ultimate explanation of existence—the “Prime Mover” of all that exists and the great chain of causation – the Alpha and Omega.
I have even toyed with an ontological explanation for the existence of existence (though, admittedly, not to much satisfaction); something like: “Existence, by its very nature, must always and only exist because for existence to not exist would make existence non-existence, and for existence to be non-existence would be a fundamental contradiction. Therefore, what explains the existence of existence is the nature of existence itself.”
But none of these suppositions are immune to the prospective interrogation of infinite regress. No matter the origin, we can always proctor successive questions and inquire as to the origin of the origins. And at the end of the day, we may never know. Even in terms of the material explanation, we may have no choice but to accept and embrace, in our inherent fallibility, a fundamental agnosticism about the explanation of our existence. We may never know—and indeed may never be able to know—in any ultimate sense either the explanation or the purpose underlying our existence.
Nevertheless, we need not stare into the face of infinite regress as if it entails nihilistic futility. The privilege of being distinction-making beings is that we can choose the distinctions to which we ascribe meaning. We need not see meaninglessness in infinite regress; infinite regress is just infinite regress, and for no reason should we assume that infinite regress necessarily means meaninglessness about the distinctions we unveil along the way. We need not know in absolute certainty the explanation of the entire universe to understand the relationship between the Sun and Earth that explains the existence of life.
To be sure, life would not exist were it not for the harmonious relationship between the planet from which we sprang and star that emanates our essential energy. We owe our very lives to the alignment of the Sun and Earth; and in so knowing that celestial relationship we can derive the values of gratitude, appreciation, respect, awe, and love for the contingencies that explain life’s existence and ultimately unify us all.
Solar eclipses, unlike much else, are significant because they illustrate for us so explicitly, so obviously, the cosmic alignment at the heart of our existence. In the great dance of our solar system, every so often the Moon crosses directly between the Earth and Sun, and in those few, rare moments we feel, more powerfully than is usual, our oneness with the cosmos of which we are a part. We are never not one with the universe, but in the bustle and distractions of modern life, it can be easy to forget the bigger picture of our existence. Sometimes we need reminding of our unwavering universal unity.
The world often seems so estranged from itself and we from each other, so carved up by nations, interests, or politics, so wrapped in discord—and we, in turn, can lose ourselves to a sense of division and alienation. But the unchangeable truth is that, for all our dissensions, we are all here, together, and indivisible in the fact of our existence. And solar eclipses, in all their majesty, evoke in all who experience the Path of Totality a blissful comfort about our fundamental oneness and shared place in the universe.
Nothing can ultimately separate us, for even when we are apart, we are a part of the same, and thus, we are always together. And where we are together forever, we can be together, in love, for all eternity.
So honors the Sun Sage: To the Sun god, the Earth, and Moon—and the cosmic ecology to which we owe our existence.
Two Problems of Climate Ethics: Can we Lose the Planet but Save Ourselves?
New publication by Alex Lee and myself in Ethics, Policy & Environment, titled above. Access the PDF online here.
Here’s the abstract for a preview:
Climate change presents unprecedented challenges for the ethical community and society at large. The harms of climate change—real and projected—are well documented (Pachauri et. al, 2015). Rising sea levels, increased drought, warming temperatures and other impacts of climate change will devastate vulnerable communities, the global economy, and the natural world unless difficult choices, behavioral changes, and major policy shifts are made. But the problem we must address is not just the amalgam of climate harms. Climate change also presents a multifaceted problem of moral wrongdoing consisting of the actions that caused or coalesced to cause climate change. The ‘problem’ of climate change is both an issue of harmful impacts and a question of wrongdoing. While certain deleterious effects of climate change are unavoidable, philosophy offers solutions to moral problems that are not contingent on successful mitigation or adaptation. In light of this distinction, Thom Brooks’ criticism that philosophers have ‘misunderstood’ the climate change problem as a problem that is solvable (Brooks, 2016) arises from a conflation of the two climate change problems and not from a shortcoming of philosophy in the climate conversation. Climate harms may not be easily addressed, but righting wrongs is a separate matter.
Let’s get it together humans
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.
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.
The roots of oppression
Oppression, so we agree, is a social injustice, which, by nature of its being unjust (whatever “unjust” means in today’s cultural, philosophical, and historical sociopolitical context) is something we ought strive to eliminate. At the very least, the elimination of oppression as a manifestation of injustice gives us an ever-evolving project with which to occupy ourselves. From Plato to Rawls, I think we’re well due to admit that defining injustice, much less eliminating it, is a delightfully Sisyphean task. Yet we must imagine Sisyphus happy, remember, and be content in engaging the problem of injustice, despite its likely intractability, because pondering the philosophical dimensions of our existence is simply something that we human animals cannot help but do. Philosophy is, or is part of, our nature. To affirm or deny the truth of this is itself a philosophical endeavor, and so quite literally, paradoxically, we cannot help ourselves from being philosophical. Moreover, any prolonged attempt to deny or step out of the cycle verges on infinite regress, insanity, and the despair of futility. So, preferring affirmation to denial, I choose to roll the boulder up the mountain rather than lose my mind to it.
With that preface, I’ll briefly engage the problem of oppression as a form of injustice. First, then, I must explain what exactly I mean when I say “oppression.” More accurately, because oppression inherently involves an oppressor and an oppressed, what I mean when I say “I must explain exactly what I mean when I say ‘oppression'” is that I must explain what fundamentally drives the oppressor to oppress. That is, the paradigmatic origins of oppression as it stems from the oppressor.
In the oppressor I see (among other less seemingly pertinent qualities) intolerance, closed mindedness, judgment, and arrogance. Intolerance of diversity and difference. Closed minded to alternative ways of living and thinking. Judgment about value, purpose, meaning, importance, the good and the bad, wrongness and rightness, propriety, hierarchy, and intrinsicity. Arrogance about the ultimate significance and objectivity of his or her own judgments. Therefore, one might take it upon his or her self to expose and vanquish intolerance, closed mindedness, judgment, and arrogance.
Montessori education and training in the history of philosophy, are, I believe, at least partial remedies for intolerance and closed mindedness. Montessori schooling encourages the flourishing of diversity in talents, interests, and values in children. It creates an environment that enables young minds to take on the world as Socrates without the threat of hemlock (suppression being one sort of oppression with which I am concerned). Montessori education, contrasted to dogmatic, standardizing, and normalizing pedagogy, allows children to naturally arrive at and explore the salient questions of life as unique individuals, encouraging and appreciative of diversity. Tolerance is implicit in Montessori education, making permanent, instead of stifling, the natural open mindedness of children so that it extends into adulthood.
Training in the history of philosophy is important to cultivating tolerance and open mindedness in people for a similar yet distinct reason. If undertaken transparently, the history of philosophy exposes the philosopher to ideas, values, and worldviews different from, and perhaps inconsistent with, his or her own. In exploring the history, complexity, and evolution of human thought, one becomes witness to the paradigmatic diversity and multiplicity that being human naturally involves. So much so that one must inevitably admit that intolerance of and closed mindedness about diversity are fundamentally in conflict with the possibility of amiable participation in human social life, and indeed, ecologically speaking, incompatible with the preconditions for natural selection and evolution.
In confronting judgment about value, purpose, meaning, the good, and the rest, I’ve found the distinction between arbitrariness and non-arbitrariness to be helpful. Non-arbitrary judgments are those that pertain to the objective biological conditions of being human, namely, involving the fulfillment of our non-arbitrary needs. Exhaustively, our non-arbitrary needs include foraging for food and drink, seeking out mates, searching for shelter, and sleeping. Thus, judgments about anything beyond this short list, which certainly means the myriad of normative, existential, and teleological judgments for which one might be oppressed, are arbitrary. That is, made on the basis of one’s own personal inclination, however capricious it may be.
The line of argument is then that the normative, existential, and teleological judgment that an oppressor believes justify his or her oppression are entirely arbitrary. The arbitrariness of oppressive judgment undermines the self-proclaimed legitimacy of the oppressor, for such a proclamation reveals his or her motive for oppressing to be a function primarily of an unwarranted arrogance about the importance, significance, or objectivity of his or her judgment. Arrogance, then, must be overcome.
Arrogance about the importance, significance, and objectivity of one’s own judgment reflects one’s more fundamental conviction about his or her place in nature and the universe. This includes notions of hierarchy, dualism, centricism, propriety, cosmic significance and importance, purpose, divinity, intrinsicity, and progress. For undermining such arrogance, deconstructive postmodernism is quite apt. Yet deconstruction comes up short when faced with concrete political questions, for in deconstructing the metaphysical ground works of all universalistic judgments and distinctions, deconstruction renders itself unable to put forth any positivistic claims of its own. In effect, deconstruction can reveal the contingent cultural and historical contexts upon which the oppressor derives his sense of objective legitimacy in oppressing, but deconstruction, by nature of its being a negativistic methodology, cannot suggest an alternative, inherently value-latent interpretation of justice or injustice of its own to fill the void it leaves behind without contradicting its philosophical presuppositions. Deconstruction can show why arrogance about one’s judgment is ultimately unfounded, revealing the cultural and historical contingency of such judgment’s origin, but in doing so prevents itself from recommending a virtue of its own. This is the challenge of overcoming arrogance on any scale, individual, national, or international, in a sociopolitical environment that so often demands strict relativistic pluralism and pluralistic relativism. How might we defeat “arrogance” without ourselves becoming arrogant about our own worldview about overcoming arrogance?
Confidence and humility are compatible in my opinion, but any judgment, construction, or distinction I could offer would be, to a significant degree, a product of my own cultural and historical environment, which therefore axiomatically precludes me from developing any universalist or absolute moralism without contradicting myself. Indeed, the modern progressive liberal paradigm that determines oppression to be a categorical, absolute injustice is historically and culturally situated — a position with which I most certainly agree. But oppression was considered both just and necessary in ancient Spartan society, and up until the 1960s in the United States, de jure discrimination and other vestiges of slavery were understood as the natural order of things. These social conditions are easily detestable from where we sit today, but in their own times such inequities were seen as normal, not objectionable. So where does one begin, left flailing in utter contingency, to find solid, non-arbitrary ground from which to contest oppressive arrogance? When does insisting on the virtue of diversity and demanding universal toleration itself become oppressive and dogmatic?
 For more on the arbitrary v. non-arbitrary distinction, see The problems of society – Part one: The normative question.
The toil of our Sisyphean condition, the endless struggle to understand our meaning in life and place in the universe, is made tolerable only by the fact that we have each other. It is in being together that I find my sense of meaning, and so it is for companionship, interaction, community, and perhaps most importantly, love, that I create my purpose in living; love for the utter connectivity of the universe, for the Earth, for other animals, for humanity, and for particular special people. This pervasive love abounds with the epiphany of our ultimate oneness with existence. The point of my philosophy is to forget distinction, for upon creating distinction one separates the ideal of self from the flow of things, and in this separation we are vulnerable to losing our sense of natural meaning in life that comes from being but one aspect of a single greater whole. In being together, in loving, we are more able to appreciate the process of rolling Sisyphus’ boulder up the mountain. Together, in companionship, life is worth living. Of course there are other purposes that make life worth living, but love is a good place to start.
The ecological absurd
When Albert Camus faces one of the most pressing and controversial questions of philosophy, the point of living, his aversion to contradiction drives him from being indifferent to suicide. He juxtaposes human beings and the world in an effort to explain the pursuit of the meaning of life. For Camus, we confront existence and demand of it our meaning, our significance in living. But this, he says, is absurd, for despite our repeated questioning, the world answers only with indifference to our existential struggle. Endlessly we pursue an understanding of the meaning of life, yet find no ultimate answer. And upon seeing the absurdity of our condition, the Sisyphean nature of human existence, Camus concedes that some people might resign themselves to suicide. And so he creates an argument to assuage those distraught with nihilism.
The absurd condition is within the human, not out in the world, he says. And so to commit suicide (or to kill someone else) in reaction to the absurdity is to remove the absurd condition in a simultaneous affirmation and denial of its existence. With the exception of the Rebel, the simultaneous affirmation and denial of our condition is a contradiction, and avoiding contradiction is reason enough to perpetuate the absurd condition, rather than eliminate it. Further, we can find joy in being like Sisyphus through the ethic of quantity, Don Juanism, where we find happiness in life by choosing to eternally roll the boulder up the mountain. We can learn to enjoy the process of experiencing the absurdity over and over again.
In judging human beings to be something fundamentally distinct from the natural world, we create a juxtaposition similar to the one Camus uses to begin his explanation of the absurd condition. Since the European Enlightenment, the Industrial Revolution, and the rise of modern science, we tend to be especially confident in our sense of superiority over nature. We feel that humans are over and above the rest of the ecosphere. And so we go about our business, consuming the natural world to an unprecedented extent to serve the purpose of progress.
In doing this, we deny our connection to the ecosphere by acting in such a way that undermines the life-enabling conditions of the planet. Yet we simultaneously affirm our ultimate unity with nature by demonstrating our dependence on its resources – an ecologically absurd condition. Thus we arrive at a contradiction similar to Camus’; our current behavior is a simultaneous affirmation and denial of our utter connectivity to the Earth, and we should strive to avoid contradiction. We should be sure that our pursuit of progress, of meaning, does not undermine the very environmental premises of our existence. Should progress be seen as Sisyphus’ boulder, the pursuit cannot be undertaken at the expense of the mountain. Our pursuit, by the ultimate oneness of human beings and nature, is inevitably bound up in the fate of the ecosphere. So too should be our sense of meaning in life. Is this not just cause for a revision of the classical idea of progress?
The problems of society – Part two: The paradox of progress
The problem cluster of interest to me is environmental degradation. The problematic behavior causing environmental degradation is the repeated prioritization of progress and material improvement over environmental prudence. This behavior is prevalent in the West (Europe, Russia, the United States and Canada) much of Asia (China, Japan, India, and South Korea), Central America, and the global South. The arbitrary value judgment underlying this environmentally destructive behavior is that “progress” is good; particularly, progress defined as advances in science, technology, and social organization intended toward overcoming the limits of the human condition and improving material luxury. The pervasiveness of this paradigm is made most obvious by our dichotomizing the world in terms of developed and developing nations. The global norm seems to be to believe that the purpose of human life is to rapaciously improve our material luxury, even well beyond our biological necessities. With a continually increasing population and an unparalleled prioritization of progress and industrialization, it’s easy to see why this value judgment has yielded a litany of environmental problems. But progress, generally speaking, is not a new value. So to understand it contextually, we must trace the idea through the history of philosophy.
The modern idea of progress goes back to European Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke, Adam Smith, Francis Bacon, Immanuel Kant, Karl Marx, and so on. The influences of these philosophers’ ideas are seen in the foundations of many modern societies and institutions: Locke and Smith in the US, Kant in Germany and the UN, Marx in Russia and China, etc.
But from where did these Enlightenment thinkers inherit their value judgment? For they were not philosophizing in the state of nature. The utopian character of many Enlightenment political philosophies is a secularization of Christian millenarianism. The Enlightenment project was one aimed at creating heaven on Earth through progressive improvements in science, technology, and social organization.
Yet again, Christian millenarian philosophers were not original in their thinking either. Indeed, Albert Camus, with his 1936 thesis Neo-platonism and Christian Thought, illustrates the common thread that runs from ancient Greek philosophy to medieval and early modern Christianity. The Enlightenment, consistent largely of philosophers educated in dogmatically Christian states, inherited their style of reasoning from Aquinas, Augustine, Plotinus and other Neo-Platonists, who, as Camus shows us and the name implies, were inspired by Plato. Particularly, Plato’s distinctions between the world, the realm of the forms, and the form of the Good. The value of life, the truth of it all, for Plato, is not here in the world, but in the heavenly forms and the form of the Good.
So now it is important to contextualize Plato’s thinking. Plato lived in Homeric Greece where, traditionally, human life was seen to be governed by chance, luck and fate, personified by the many gods. The journey of living was, like other animals, just to make the best of one’s circumstances until death. But Plato rejected this as the human condition. He thrashed against the idea of our cosmic insignificance, pining for humans to be special. So he came up with an idea that elevated our status from that of other animals: Rationality connects human consciousness to the transcendental realm of the forms and the form of the Good. By knowing the form of the Good we can take command of and improve our condition to escape the struggles of Homeric fatalism. Thus the foundation of the modern faith in progress was laid.
Plato’s famous tripartite distinction between the empirical world, the realm of the forms, and the form of the Good was easily adapted to Christian thinking. Augustine, in particular, saw Plato as describing the Earthly realm, Heaven and God, further even unto the Holy Trinity. Then, through the utopian rationalism of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment these philosophical constructions were secularized by new thinkers, whose ideas were then looked to for the political foundations of much of the modern world.
Since Plato, the idea that there is some ultimate good has been steadfast. What form in particular the form of the Good takes, however, has changed. It has been reinterpreted and recast by countless scholars and social leaders. In any case, the particular form of the form of the Good is an arbitrary value judgment. It is the seed of society. Today, we judge scientific, technological, and governmental progress to be good. We believe that the resulting materially luxurious lifestyle is synonymous with human well-being. It is from this root valuation that our behavior and thus our problems emerge.
Therefore we must question the goodness of progress. Given the extent of environmental damage the world over and the fact that other problems like social equity, economic disproportionalities, and political stagnation and insolvency are so grave, it should be clear that progress as our root value is problematic. In many cases, our progress has actually exacerbated the problems it aimed to solve. As if in a disturbing screenplay, we see that consequences are looming. Yet we value progress so much that we are unable to deprioritize it. Even at the risk of rendering the Earth uninhabitable.
So progress as our root value has its issues. But we don’t want to cut down the whole tree because revolutions are messy. Besides, there’s nothing inherently wrong with people trying to improve the human condition. This pursuit is a natural human desire served historically by western monotheistic fundamentalism and currently by secular liberal humanism. The drive for progress is going nowhere. So it’s just what we think constitutes progress and the extent to which we prioritize that pursuit over other values that is problematic. It is paradoxical to prioritize progress so much so that it undermines the resources that enable our progress to begin with. Not to mention the inherent irrationality of the idea that we can achieve infinite improvements in material wealth from a finite set of resources.
So, what can be done? How can we fix the tree without completely uprooting it? My suggestion is by no means to do away with progress as a value altogether. That would be unrealistic and undesirable by any account. A return to primitive living would be incredibly difficult, if not impossible, to sell. And I am a beneficiary of the progress of the anteriority like any other and thus cannot wholeheartedly complain. But if the industrial pursuit of material luxury leads to extensive environmental degradation, and environmental degradation undermines progress’ enabling resources, then we must, if we want to keep progressing, either moderate our rapaciousness or make our consumption environmentally sustainable. Yet our relentless dedication to progress and industrialization, not to mention the heavy entrenchment of the fossil fuels industry in the American political system, prevents either from happening. Progress is so high a priority that it will eventually prevent us from progressing. Hence, the paradox of progress. But the effects of the paradox are not yet at their climax. There is still time to mitigate the damage that has been done and prevent further exacerbation. So, to enable our deprioritization of progress and material improvement when necessary, say, when its pursuit begins interfering with our biological, non-arbitrary needs, then our idea of what constitutes progress must be tweaked. This subtle change is as simple as remembering that human well-being is not necessarily synonymous with constant improvements in material luxury. We must learn to be content. If we cannot, then the paradox of progress will overwhelm our societies.
At its core, this redefinition of progress is a Taoist project. The virtue of contentment as acclaimed by Taoist philosophy, is antithetical to the insatiable pursuit of material improvement. Contentment cannot be attained through the pursuit and fulfillment of desire, but through relinquishing desire itself. For desire and discontent are a funny thing when they work together. They feed into one another. One desires because she or he is discontent, and is discontent because he or she so desires. But utter control of one’s circumstances cannot be seized. Discontentment cannot be quelled in this manner. It can only be overcome by tempering desire itself. Such was Plato’s struggle.
Through Socrates, Plato argues that the soul is just when desire is ruled by rationality. But if he had truly held himself to this standard, then his Republic would have considered the origin of a city, rather than the origin of a luxurious city. Plato’s rationality, and thus the justness of the Kallipolis, fundamentally gives way to the appetitive desire for material improvement when Socrates concedes to Glaucon that the city will not be the “true” and “healthy” city, as described from 372a – d, but one “with a fever.” This concession literally constitutes the historical textual embodiment of the philosophic foundation of the value judgment prioritizing progress over environmental prudence.
However, the Republic may be a sort of proof by contradiction – a sneaky critique of luxurious society. That the luxurious city becomes one of pragmatically impossible social organization may be Plato’s way of subtly suggesting that the true utopia is actually the healthy city. If this is not the case that the Republic is a proof by contradiction, then the contentment argument certainly applies. But if it is the case, then Plato’s true utopia, the healthy city, is consistent with the virtue of contentment. To diminish desire itself is the way to contentment. If one is content with existence, then the answer to the normative question, the appropriate action, is to not act. If we temper our desire for material luxury, we can reduce our environmentally degrading behavior at its source. This is my vision for applying the virtue of contentment to the modern conception of progress. Though this tweak to the idea of progress should not be taken to the Taoist extreme. To argue against action of any kind beyond the fulfillment of non-arbitrary purpose is just silly. A compromise – a middle way – between the two virtues is preferable.
Thus, the overarching question, to which the entirety of this thought process is ultimately devoted is, can the environmental effects of the paradox of progress be mitigated by reconciling the virtue of progress with the virtue of contentment?