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!

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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?

JM Kincaid