Month: January 2013

Like walking along a crumbling cliff


The thing that I keep coming back to is that self-respect and respect are two sides of the same coin, but also that respect and self-respect are attitudes that have evolved as survival tools. The comparison with Zen is because in some very important ways, Dogen’s ideas and images perfectly describe the attitude that comes into awareness and is realised when the perceiver is in a state of respect. Respect is, in fact, enlightenment. It’s as simple as that. It’s respect, not love, that we need, to deal with the ecological emergency. Respect is more impartial, and it’s possible to respect indifferent entities, like the mountains, the sea (or the ocean) and the weather, without feeling any kind of affection towards them. However, out of respect, compassion can emerge. If you respect, in the simplest sense of reflectively observe, the ways in which your entire activity is enmeshed in a system of causes and effects, none of which you have actual control over, you can begin to feel compassion emerge. It’s like watching yourself as though you were observing someone caught in some mythical tragedy, unable to do anything except obey the universal laws. The very act of watching allows compassion to emerge. You can respect the intricacy of the system of interrelationships, and you can see that these are systems, and not mechanisms, so there’s a fluidity, an unpredictability, about them. Yet there is no point at which your own activity becomes any less enmeshed when it is observed, unless in this strange sense that your observation itself creates effects and these eddy back through the system, and new patterns emerge. Compassion as a response creates more and more space for this emergence.

Respecting everything, and complete self-respect: well, that is realisation, that is the emergence of a whole new layer of possiblities. This is why respect is so important. Respect is the emergent, extravagant, ‘what if’, consciousness that creates the conditions for positive regard.

I still can’t see how to present all this material in a coherent argument and I would love some advice but it might interest the people who bother to take a look at this to know that, just as every PhD is, in some sense, a process in self-development as well as in the development of knowledge, so, this PhD is a specific effort to deal with a lack of self-respect. I know intimately how damaging a lack of self-respect is. I believe that I can show that even those who consider themselves to have great self-respect will ring hollow if their attitude to others, or to the wider ecology, doesn’t demonstrate the same level of regard.

All PhDs probably have that cartoon sense of walking along the edge of a crumbling cliff. You are looking for something new to say. The body of existing knowledge lies behind you, the unknown is spread before you. You are shoving the cliffline outwards, claiming more ground for knowledge. But much of what you have to say is instantly dismissable, and much that is left begins to look shakey and unsound when you step back a bit. What to do? Retreat to safer ground? How? This is the edge, the place where interesting things are happening, and your a knowledge junkie, looking for the next hit. But full of self-doubt. I can’t imagine I’m the first to have experienced this much uncertainty (in fact, I read Alan Watts’ The Wisdom of Insecurity at 20 and was marked to wander the unsettled ways of questioning ever since. Ho Hum. Some of the ideas here came while I was out running. I might be able to grapple with some more after a yoga session. I’ll let you know.

Fourth three: the organisation of knowledge


How is knowledge organised in this topic?

 

In Dualism, knowledge is ordered chronologically in the literature on the development of attitudes, from the time of the Greeks, onwards. You can do a chronological search for knowledge on dualism and you’ll find that the literature traces attitudes developing in the global North through first the Greeks, then the Judeo-Christian tradition, then Descartes and, since we’re looking at this from the point of view of the ecological emergency, finally through the ecophilosophers who have worked on the subject.

 

In a parallel vein, we can trace the history and chronology of the development of ideas in Soto Zen, first from India and the development of Buddhism, then through Tibet, SouthEast Asia and China and finally to Japan. However, it’s also useful to take a perspective on this and look in particular at the development of thought as it relates to dualism, and in particular to the understanding of the self, and of nature, and finally to the development of various aspects of non-dualism since I want to point out that Soto Zen focuses on dissolving boundaries at all kinds of levels, including between theory and practice, and there’s no journey, no road, just practice, which is enlightenment. I think this traces back to the tradition of buddhism, which was radically revolutionary (in the most peaceful sense) and I think there are parallels with Yoga that I want to point out.

 

Within Zen too, the knowledge that I am particularly interested in looking at is that which describes and outlines the practices that relate to respecting the process that is unfolding around the perceiver. I want to show how this idea has a strong resonance with the scientifically-based theories that posit, first, that all activities, including all human activities, are patterned processes and systems that accord perfectly with natural laws. This naturalistic approach means that there is no room for thinking that we exercise agency in the traditional sense of exercising free choice. Instead, we have to think of ourselves as being utterly enmeshed in relationships and responses that we can bring into awareness but not direct, escape or avoid. We are purely conditional on the laws that govern everything. These universal laws are not God, of course: we cannot posit a God that is as indifferent as that. It would be absurd. Yet we can develop a strange relationship with this information that is key in Zen: the ability to reflect back upon this understanding of ourselves. It is this reflection that creates additional layers to the process. We have, within the informational exchange that is a core feature of being alive, the emergent quality of perception. This might feel like a solid point of view but it is, of course, shifting and unsteady.

 

Next we can look at how knowledge is organised in evolutionary biology and in a sense we are looking at the development of ideas again, since there was an attempt to fit the findings to the current ideology and Darwin didn’t want to create too much of a stir so he may have underplayed some of the interdependencies and failed to point out or even recognise how interlinked and even how symbiotic some of the evolutionary developments were. Knowledge of evolutiaonry biology is organised differently from pure chronology though because it’s a recent (relatively) field so it’s probably important to organise it into the different branches and fields, from microbiology to paleoentology, to geology and the study of fossils to medicine, to plant physionomy, to genetics. I could probably organise those more carefully. Let’s try a historical perspective first, both in terms of subject matter (fossils, geology, and so on) and in terms of the history of the ideas (I’m only going to be sketching these in because the reality is that I want to give a background and an overview and then direct my attention to the areas that are relevant). On the origin of species, The Descent of Man, work by Wallace, Huxley’s defence (what else was written?) 1859, organic evolution, that was ok as long as we don’t have to give up god entirely. Darwinian evolution was incomplete. Mendel’s genetics needed to be synthesised with evolution. Discovery of DNA in the 1950s meant there had to be a synthesis between molecular biology and evolutionary theory. At the other end of the scale, E. O. Wilson in the United States and Konrad Lorentz and Niko Tinbergen in Europe were both working on the implications of evolutionary theory on the understanding of the behaviour of animals (for Wilson, groups, for Lorenz and Tinbergen, individual-to-individual and group activity, in the field they formed: Ethology). Both Lorenz, in his book, On Aggression, and Wilson in Sociobiology, took the next logical step, which was to apply their research to the behaviour of humans. The idea that human behaviour might be understood in purely naturalistic terms was hugely controversial, and still is. Yet the resistance is as much about a sense of reductionism as it is about confronting the potential loss of human separability that this final step implies.

 

Is it reductionist to talk of human activity in terms that are basically naturalistic? This takes us back into the realms of philosophy and since the 1960s, has formed a huge proportion of the work of major philosophers and areas of philosophy, from studies on Consciousness, and Agency, in the work of such philosophers as Daniel Dennett and Susan Blackmore, to considerations of whether or not animals are themselves moral (Scott James, Frans de Waal, Richard Joyce), or whether our relationships with other animals depend upon the kinds of creatures we, ourselves, are (Mary Midgley). What matters, then, is that there has been an inherent conservatism in reaction to this idea that human activity is naturalistic. Some of the resistance has been well articulated but at heart, I want to suggest, this has as much to do with a very human, or even a very natural, inertia towards the introduction of change or novelty. Personally, I think a good argument can be made for emergentism, which is the position that describes the characteristics of being conscious as arising out of the conditions that evolutionary pressures have brought about, purely by chance. We are not souls and bodies. We are evolved creatures who happen to have a self-awareness (that is shared, to a lesser degree, by other creatures, although because our brains have evolved along one trajectory and theirs along another, we cannot know how much of our kind of awareness they share, and nor can we know how much of existence, let alone living existence, shares any kind of awareness at all.

 

So we have to take a stab at guessing. And, at a guess, since consciousness seems to be a somewhat accidental function of being able to mirror the world back to ourselves in various potential states, there is an argument to be made that some sort of awareness (nothing remotely like human awareness, but awareness nonetheless) could exist at any level, certainly of the stuff we call ‘living’. So we can move from the literature on evolutionary biology, and of the philosophical reaction to it, to the literature of physics.

 

The Schrodinger Paradox

 

There are a few people who have thought about the next potential step to this process, which is to think about the awareness as an informational exchange, in the same way that energy, at the physical level, is an informational exchange. I’ve written about this elsewhere and don’t want to repeat myself, but this is like weaving a pattern into a tapestry and I just want to show how the pattern echoes. Scott Sampson was the first writer I came across who had articulated this idea (in What is your dangerous idea? Edge.org 2006). He said that he had traced the idea as far back as the Nobel laureate Erwin Schrödinger, one of the first to articulate the hypothesis, as part of his famous “What is Life?” lectures in Dublin in 1943. More recently, Jeffrey Wicken, Harold Morowitz, Eric Schneider and others took the idea further, supported by results from a range of studies in both physics and biology. The most comprehensive description of the idea is laid out in Schneider and Dorian Sagan’s book, “Into the Cool”. John Tooby also talks about this idea in his 2012 answer to the question, what is your most beautiful/elegant explanation.

 

The basic answer to the paradox has to do with context and hierarchy. Material and energy are transferred from one hierarchical level to another. To understand the growth of natural complex systems such as life, we have to look at what they are part of—the energy and environment around them. In the case of ecosystems and the biosphere, increasing organization and evolution on Earth requires disorganization and degradation elsewhere. You don’t get something from nothing.

The spectacular rise of one side of Schrödinger’s program—the genetic and informational—has been made at the expense of the other—the energetic and thermodynamic. So, if we look at the dual information and energetic capacities of living clusters and ecosystems, we find that they maintain organisation as a result of the complexities that they offer for dissipating energy in increasingly complex patterns. More energy is used in the complex unfolding of life than is used in systems that do not have the replicative processes that they offer in place.

This applies beyond life too. Life processes information, in the form of DNA and RNA protein building and replication, but it functions, too, as a transformer of energy. It is an open, recycling system of energy transfer and dissipation, organised by the laws of thermodynamics, even though it came about purely by chance.

http://www.intothecool.com/energetic.php

 

What are the implications of this idea for the current study? Firstly, I want to be clear that I’m not appealing to the authority of the people who have talked about this idea as proof of its veracity. There are good reasons why appeals to authority need to be rejected on principle since they prove nothing but that authorities have spoken. Nor can I defend the idea on the grounds that I have sufficient understanding of the scientific findings that have made connections between energy and biological complexity. Instead, from a philosophical point of view, I want to look at the idea and see what it involves and how falsifiable it is at each stage. Then, in terms of more elementary understanding of science, I want to lay out how at each stage the rationality of the argument, and its servicability as an explanation, works, given the best explanation we have of how we came about, which is evolution.

 

(I don’t know if this is the right place for this explanation but very briefly, it will have to proceed with an elementary explanation of the second law of thermodynamics, and proceed with an explanation of energy in terms of information exchange. There is another theory that I wrote about in my Oct 2012 presentation that I want to bring in at this stage, since it talks about the relativity of relationships. Then I will bring in an explanation of how we might understand the evolution of life in the context of the exchange of information, the flow of energy and the cycling of matter. In order to explain why the evolution of complex organisation and replication does not violate the second law, I will show that Schneider and Sagan’s explanation neatly fits what we know so far, that is, that it shows how life obeys the laws of physics itself. Then I want to add that the implications of this explanation include an acknowledgment that more complex relationship, informational exchanges, energy flows and matter cycles, all increase the dissipation of energy and therefore accord with these findings. In other words, biodiversity, and complex, naturally evolved clusters of organisms and ecosystems, generate more dissipation than less complex, less diverse systems. Therefore more complex systems create more stability, more flexibility, and are anti-fragile (can tolerate more extremes, since there is more recourse to alternatives). Simpler, less diverse systems are less tolerant of alterations in conditional changes, like temperature increases or decreases, acidification, and so on.

 

Eggs in Baskets

 

Does this give us an obligation to respond? No. An is cannot imply an ought. Yet if we acknowledge that this is how information is conducted through systems, then we can see that there are reasons why living in a more complex system, particularly given our own complexity (and therefore our vulnerability to the breakdown of complex systems) is to our benefit, if by benefit we mean, survival.

 

 

Definition of emergent: to be emergent, a thing must have a characteristic or a feature that did not exist and could not have been predicted, given its constituent parts. For the purposes of this paper, agency is emergent but agency in a special sense, in the sense of being able to create conditions (a meditative, background awareness) that allow one to bring into play a biofeedback mechanism that in turn influences the neural activity and allows psychological and physiological room to develop so that the neural pathways can explore alternative potential patterns. In other words, we can chose how to react to our entrapment within cause-and-effect chains. Secondly, consciousness is emergent: large numbers of neurons, evolved as responsive systems, combine to produce mind. Someone could argue that the initial impetus to create a space is a part of a causal chain and I would agree. This is the impetus to practice enlightenment and provoke curiosity in others, to write books, to take part in discussions, so that, without force, the response elicited will be to seek out more information, and that may lead to creating conditions, making room, as it were, for meditation.

 

Finally, in describing how knowledge is organised in the field of environmental ethics, we can take the view that it is organised around the principle of the centre of value, that there is a chronology to the development of the field, and that there is the organising principle of relativism versus monism.

 

The main questions in the four fields are as follows: firstly, in dualism, the main question has been, how many kinds of entities are there? Do we all belong to the same ontology? The second field, that of Zen, asks questions around how to live and how to relate to the world primarily from a sacred point of view. The third field, that of evolutionary biology, asks what life is, whether or not we can madke sense of it in scientific terms, and the questions I allso want to ask here are how can life be related to other levels of scientific understanding, like energy, matter, the distribution of heat, and the flow of information. The final field asks what we need to do to deal with the problems that have arisen as a result of negative human impacts on local environmentals and global environemntal systems.

 

The key players in the field of dualism are Descartes and crossing the boundary between environmental ethics and dualism, warwick fox and lynn white jr. Then crossing the boundary between dualism and Zen is Roger T Ames and Graham Parkes and J Baird Callicott. The key players in Zen are the Buddha and his sutras, and then Francis Cook, and Dogen with the Shobogenzo. The key players and texts in evolutionary biology are richard joyce on evolutionary morality, Darwin, Lynn Margulis, and then all the writers on energy, including Scott Sampson and so on. The key players in the field of environmental ethics – the list is huge. Holmes Rolston, Keller, Scott James (that might be ev mor) Sterba, and many, many otehrs, Rachel Carson, etc. Wendell Berry.

 

What links all the ideas that I’ve talked about, the intersection, is respect/self-respect, two sides of the same coin.

 

 

 

 

Disclaimer


I notice that the ads, like some kind of aggressive invading force, have found my websites. I wonder, idly, whether or not there might be any point in moving the whole shebang since other than paying for the privilege of ad-freedom, I can only imagine the situation is going to get worse. Make no mistake: I do not judge Russian Girls for attempting to find Dates, or Mates, even, particuarly if their lives hold little hope for them as things stand. I’m also guilty of having clicked on a potential Amazon Affiliates programme. I’m a pragmatist when it comes to Amazon: I don’t like the model in principle, because it carries all the hallmarks of any organisation that swallows all its smaller potential rivals and closes down interesting little bookshops. Then it fronts the popular, the cheerful, the bright and the branded and allows the niche market, the poets and philosophers (yes, Hello), to wither. Or perhaps it was ever thus. Anyhow, I will not be signing as an affiliate yet. It is part of the condition of being overly thoughtful (a characteristic that combines ill with my other vulnerability – a lack of self-respect) that potential opportunities are prodded and poked and scoured for association with greed, pollution, slavery, explicit cruelty to animals, destruction of fragile habitats , and the like. Unfortunately, that doesn’t leave much for my ilk to be going along with. Luck has kept me afloat so far but I’m reasonably atraid. After all, even Peter Singer, a huge influence on my undergraduate thinking, has admitted that he does not live as frugally as his philosophy advises. I’m no ideologue, but walking the tightrope between despair and destitution is challenging, particularly when you have involuntary accomplices, dependents who did not have a say in living like this and don’t have any qualms about eating a Big Mac or subscribing to X-Box live. Ah, well. Sun’s out. Must run.

Second three. Covering ground: literature review and methodology (part of a narrative outline)


The history of the topic depends upon the history of four (in fact five) fields: dualism, Zen, evolutionary science and environmental ethics. The fifth area, the study of self respect, permeates each of these fields.

 

There are many contested definitions within this thesis that will need to be looked at and discussed, from basic ideas like environment, ecology, human and nature, to more novel ideas like naturally biodiverse clusters. Respect as opposed to reverence or even self realisation, and the idea of realisation as enlightenment, what it means to talk of the practice of philosophy, and the particular meaning of Zen (as well as things like memes) all need to be discussed as ideas. But meaning depends on context so much of the way that I use the different words will emerge as a result of describing how I see the context.

 

There have been lots of major debates in the different fields that I will have to touch on. Dualism is an entire debate in itself, from Plato’s forms and ideals versus impermanent matter, through the soul/body of JudeoChristianity to Descartes’ ghostly consciousness/mechanical flesh. Then there are the debates in Zen: instant realisation in Dogen contrasts with the idea of incremental stages of enlightenment in other traditions, whether Zen requires the complete dedication of monastic life or can be incorporated into lay existence, whether rituals and chanting bring one closer to enlightenment or whether pure realisation is possible through simply sitting, and finally, whether or not a guru is a necessary part of the process. Within evolutionary science there are debates around how species and individuals evolve, particularly characterised by Dawkins versus EO Wilson and the schools that have developed. Also between those who believe that evolution develops as a competitive or a cooperative process (my own view is that some mixture of the two drives the process, and I think the phrase used in the title of Frank Ryan’s book, Aggressive Symbiosis, sums this up. Environmental ethics has included debates about centres of value that are important to describe (anthropocentrism/zoocentrism(sentientism)/biocentrism/ecocentrism/allocentrism) but that lose their significance in this thesis because I want to focus on the non-moral approach. However, that in itself is a debate: can you have a theory of how to live based on pragmatism not morality? I’m going to argue yes and this brings in literature from evolutionary ethics and the work of Hans-Georg Moeller. The other debate between monism/pluralism in environmental ethics needs to be mentioned.

 

Self respect and respect and how they are understood have their own literature and I’ll mention this in more detail later.

 

The key theories, ideas and concepts are:

Within Dualism: non-dualism as an emergent state of consciousness

respect and self-respect as self-identical, given the collapse of the idea of the self (this is like the dropping away of mind and body that is central to Soto Zen)

the paradoxical requirement, nevertheless, that some sense of self-other boundary is maintained (this is also the recognition of the core element of survival as the individual’s DNA structure, even if this is cooperatively coevolved through the realisation attributable to RNA, etc) and therefore a key element of the thesis will be an attempt to find some approach that honours both this core division and at the same time acknowledges the non-dualism. Zen is the key to this: respect but not without losing self-respect. Pragmatism at the core. You do what you can. As long as a compassionate non attachment is developed, the potential conflict of interests can be avoided. There is no ideal. Only an opening of possibilities according to an assessment of current conditions.

 

Within Zen:

zazen (sitting meditation)

practice is enlightenment

respect as practice

buddha nature as emptiness

compassionate non-attachment

the motivation to act based on the self-reflective awareness of the conditional response

 

Within Evolutionary biology: interdependency and co-evolution

aggressive symbiosis

symbiogenisis (lynn margulis)

systems theory

evolutionary morality

energetic flows and matter cycles

self-reflective awareness creating a biofeedback system that allows an openness in the response to the current moment

Environmental Ethics: that we need to respond to the ecological crisis (but that the response needs to be an ethical one: this is not the case).

Within environmental ethics: the idea that there has to be either a stewardship approach or an allocentric approach. This idea can be shown to depend upon a dualistic perspective and therefore a different perspective, a non-dualistic one, will create the possibility of encompassing individual and human interests and personal interests of being of parallel consideration (does this work? This is a kind of win win idea, the idea that there don’t need to be losers, only participants)

The idea that there has to be either a monistic approach or a pluralistic approach. There doesn’t. There has to be an approach that works on a case by case basis. This is central to Zen and its central to the idea of the Tao. It’s also central to the idea of this approach.

The idea that there has to be an ethical approach. This is not the case. From evolutionary morality and the ideas that have been discussed there we get the idea that ethics is idiosyncratic and it’s better to understand things simply as responses to conditions and circumstances. That also involves the idea of looking at how patterns get stuck, or held, and the energy flow/matter cycle part of the approach shows that releasing these patterns allow a more fluid response. This is the work: it brings together Zen (how to live), environmental ethics (responding to the crisis), dualism (the point from which we’re perceiving what is going on, the paradigm), and evolutionary theory (scientific findings that support the possibility that we can shift our understanding of ourselves and of how we interrelate both as living creatures but also all the way down to the energy level).

Defining terms will take place during the description of the background. Some definitions will emerge from the context but I’ll make it clear what I mean by dualism, the particular aspect of Zen that I’m interested in, what I mean by evolutionary biology and what by environmental ethics. But I’ll have to go a bit further than that because all these definitions depend on others, and there are other terms that I need to define to draw lines, as it were, around what I’m talking about. Some of the main ones, again, chronologically, are respect and self-respect (I’ll probably have to have a subsection under dualism to show how these definitions have come about). For Zen, too, dualism is important and means something slightly different so I’ll have to compare the two meanings, and the meaning of respect in Zen with what we usually mean by respect, and self-respect, in the global North: I’ll have to show how these compare. There’s a huge mountain of literature on the nature/culture or human/nature divide. I’ll have to be careful (partly because I’ve read and written a lot about this already) to select what’s relevant. The same thing with agency.  Actually, that brings us quite neatly on to evolutionary biology and agency, and I’ll show how definitions of agency change in a scientific context compared, for instance, with the idea in Zen, or even in Descartes (again, I have to be careful to be selective with this).

This brings us to words like environment, and ecology, and I dealt with that a bit in an earlier post, and they’re subsections of thinking about nature so maybe I need to put them in under that section, only because I’m dealing with things chronologically, and Environmental Ethics is the last section, I want to look at what the problem is with an environmental ethics approach. So I want to define both environment and ecology, on the one hand, and ethics and morality, on the other, and I want to show why what I’m doing is ecological pragmatism, not environmental ethics.

I don’t want to list the major debates and conflicts in each area, but I do want to show how the four areas intersect. From dualism we get the debate between Parmenides and other monists or relativists and Platonic Ideals or Forms contrasted with impermanent, imperfect matter. Then we can jump forward to the Judeo-Christian division, again hierarchical, between (pure) soul and (impure) matter, and also, of course, between humanity, that group that God is interested in, and everything else, that group that is there to serve humanity, or is not worth considering. This then gives us a background for Descartes’ ghostly consciousness/ mechanical flesh division, and we can pause there and begin to review Zen.

Zen debates have involved whether or not instant realisation or slow practice led to enlightenment, and since I’m focussing on Dogen, I’ll be putting in a plug for the practice-is-enlightenment end of the debate. Next, I’ll outline the debate between whether or not Zen had to be practiced by monks and others who made that their whole purpose, or whether or not it was possible to attain enlightenment as a layperson. I will put in a bit about Dogen’s view which does seem to highlight the benefits of a pure monastic existence over a lay existence but Dogen’s was also called Farmer Zen, so in a sense, he popularised the practice and made it available to everyone. Then there’s the debate about how to achieve enlightenment and the different practices and rituals from chanting and reading sutras to understand them, reading koans, meditating on koans, ascetic practices, and finally there’s zazen, sitting Zen, or sitting meditation, which is Dogen’s method but which I want to critique a bit since I think that we can adapt the practice so we’re not sitting all day long, and so it becomes part of a wider practice of self awareness. I don’t know whether to put the critique in here. I also think that I can link this with the last bit on dualism by pointing out that these debates showed that there was dualism in some of the practices. And another thing I want to point out, for both Zen and dualism, is the idea that we can’t help and indeed we need to be dualists in a sense, so it’s not that we are demanding of ourselves that we become entirely without identity (and I’ll have to see if I can explain this carefully because in a sense that’s exactly what’s happening), nor can we get out of the skinbag. And we don’t have to. We just have to see the skin bag as an illusion. I think that’s what Dogen’s saying so I think this might be the right place to put this.

The third set of debates is that of evolutionary biology. Since Darwin, the question of how natural selection takes place has had a number of responses. The most recent is the DNA idea that gives Dawkins his raging individualism with the selfish gene argument. This is in contrast with the ideas put forward by Hamilton and EO Wilson, for instance, about the possibility that we evolve both as individuals and as groups. This has been a huge debate recently about this: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2012/jun/24/battle-of-the-professors

The selfish gene view is the view that if you lose in the Darwinian race, it doesn’t matter, because the traits that made you altruistic will survive in the closely genetic connected lines of your close kin who you’ve acted altruistic towards. The other theory is that kin selection isn’t overarchingly important since the competition among groups of individuals combined with classical Darwinian selection gives a much better picture. All the members of the group help one another succeed. Within groups, selfish individuals beat altruists. But within groups, groups of altruists beat selfish groups. That means you have a conflicted individual. Individual welfare or selfishness cannot be expunged neither can altruism be expunged without the breakdown of the group and the breakdown of the individual.

(this is transcribed or paraphrased from E O Wilson himself in an interview at: http://www.npr.org/player/v2/mediaPlayer.html?action=1&t=1&islist=false&id=150575003&m=150574996)

The kin theorists reacted with extreme antagonism to this proposition and appealed, for instance, to polls, or to authority, or to other arguments that might show that the idea was untenable. Nevertheless, there are good reasons to believe that EO Wilson’s theory does provide a profound challenge to the individual genes thesis. Apart from anything else, if a theory fits the facts, then it is doing its job. And Wilson’s theory fits the facts. Humanity, like any species, has a long and solid history of contravention, of one form of pressure pushing in one direction while another pushes in another. Altruistic group selection is not some panacaea that will create a utopia of human society if properly understood because it embodies the human characteristic of pitting group against group, one of the most dangerous and destructive forms of transaction and interaction that exists within any species. another. (One aspect of this is the Attitude Polarisation effect that we’ve become familiar with recently, when views of groups gel towards the more extreme end of the spectrum as part of the process of identifying with as far distant a set of values from the counter-group as possible). However, as Wilson points out, the best solution to finding answers to our problems lies in educating ourselves, and that means obtaining as much objectively (scientifically) falsifiable data on a situation as possible, and understanding more clearly what we are, again, through a method that allows disproof as well as proof, and that is, science.

Is it possible to know who we are? EO Wilson says yes. Where we come from and what are we are the two central questions of religion and philosophy. Different myths and different struggles have given us lots of possible answers but science has really pushed our understanding into a much more verifiable (or, as I said above, falsifiable) realm. We became the kinds of creatures we are precisely because of the sorts of pressures that played a dominant role during our evolution. What we know about evolution is that individualist selection took place first: we are individualists before we are cooperators. But one final step was taken by the groups that evolved as social species (for instance, humans and ants). That step involved group selection as a kind of meme overtaking or at least compromising individual selection. Human nature is described precisely by this mix of genes: the individualistic urge compromised by the urge to be a part of the group. And it is this latter urge that has turned us into altruists.

There is always pressure not to be an altruist. This is something that we must learn to live with. We cope with this by telling stories, dwelling on our group history, and learning to live with the often uncomfortable picture this gives us. A part of the evolution of our genes is towards altruism. Every decision therefore entails a competition between reflecting individual and group interests. The two forces play out agains one another. In the midst of this conflict, we have to find a decision that reflects some interaction of both. This, again, is an image at the heart of our dualistic understanding.

As globalisation becomes more important to our understanding of the world and ourselves (and the paradigms of the global North, including historical scientific understandings), it might be envisaged that the group would naturally expand to include the species. This does not happen without considerable reflection, however. It is not the biological imperative. If we want to succeed as a species, and success, in species terms, is survival, then we have to act altruistically, even if this requires a recognition that altruism is aggressive symbiosis, meeting other ideas about how to live head on and challenging them on this, the most global North of paradigms: scientific method. But one element of the global South has to meet and influence the blind neutrality of science, and that is an acknowledgment that, for humans as a species, survival is necessarily a good and important thing: from molecular genetics to the social sciences, we have to bring in wisdom, that most qualitative of elements. We have to decide not just to live, but how to live.

First three pages


This thesis defends the proposition that respect and self-respect are identical, necessary and sufficient for a response to the ecological emergency

To begin at the beginning: in the global North, respect and self-respect have been treated as two separate attitudes. Respect has traditionally been attributed to persons. Immanuel Kant argued that respect was the pivotal attitude around which our moral activities revolved1 and that persons, that is, autonomous, rational agents, themselves generated that attitude (one which acknowledged that persons were ends in themselves, and not only instruments serving the ends of someone or something else). Self-respect, on the other hand, is the reflexive idea that an individual acknowledges that they, themselves, would generate that attitude among others. In other words, it is simply the acknowledgment that they themselves have interests that are as worthy of consideration as the next person. John Rawls used this idea of self-respect in his A Theory of Justice to show that the process of political justice relies on the individuals involved acknowledging their own worth before their participation in the democratic process could be assured2. Without self-respect, society’s members would not be inclined to weigh their interests as sufficiently significant to warrant representation, and would become less represented, and this, in turn, would impinge on their views of themselves. Self-respect, then, was, to Rawls, central to the realisation of a fair and participatorily just democracy.

Just as Rawls had extended Kant’s idea of respect to self-respect – the idea that persons as ends in themselves being extended to include the attitude towards the individual themselves – so Paul Taylor saw the possibility of extending respect outwards to include not just autonomous human agents but also any living organism, given that all organisms pursue their own ‘good’3. Taylor’s idea in his book, Respect for Nature, was to defend a thesis that limiting inclusion in consideration of interests to humans alone was problematic, since it failed to acknowledge the developments in modern scientific understanding that the difference between human and other organisms’ motivations and teleological drives had a common source: all were evolutionarily driven. Given this common ground, it no longer made sense to treat humans as a separate category of being from all others, even if humans were the only ones who had self-reflective consciousness (and therefore the capacity for self-respect). Instead, respect needed to be extended, according to Taylor, to include each and every organism, and thus his proposal was that we respect Nature rather than just respecting humanity as the solution to the problems we face, as a species, in light of anthropogenic impact on the ecology.

Respect in the tradition of the global North was extended further during the field of philosophy’s attempts to tackle the implications of anthropogenic ecological or environmental impact. I will use the term ‘ecological’ because the ‘ecology’ or ‘ecological systems’ refer to both living and non-living aspects of systems. That is, they include both species, and they focus on the relationships between them as much as the individuals within them, and they also include the non-living hydrological, geological, climatic and other conditions within which those species are interacting. The ecology is a term to describe the fluid dynamics of a system of interactions. The environment, on the other hand, describes the neighbourhood, the surroundings, and in a sense it is a more static term that only incidentally implies that the relationships between the organisms and species create the dynamic within which the perceiver is situatied. The ecology necessarily includes the perceiver, because, etymologically at least, ‘eco’ means ‘home’ and this necessarily locates the perceiver within the action of the ecology. The environment is segregated from the perceiver by that same etymological method: a neighbour cannot be oneself.

Respect and self-respect in the tradition of the global North4 were segregated primarily as a result of the historical development of ideas. The cradle of ideas for the global North was Greece, and although there was some struggle for a dominant paradigm, the overwhelming success of Platonic philosophy, with its emphasis on a clear dualism between the world of Forms, or Ideals, and the (grossly inferior) messy, ever-changing world of matter, became the standard against which all subsequent attempts to understand the world were measured. As a result, the understanding of religion, a meme that had taken hold and developed into the Judeo-Christian tradition, echoing this earlier division, posited an ideal, pure and immortal soul within the gross and ever-decaying physical body. In addition, religion divided the human realm from that of the rest of existence, including the rest of living existence, a move it justified with myths that told how the beasts (particularly the serpent) had betrayed us, and how the rest of creation had been designed specifically for human use. Rene Descartes’ thought experiment with the deluding demon proved, he argued, that consciousness, like the immaterial soul, was insubstantial and yet inhabited the physical, human form. Animals did not have souls and therefore could not suffer (they had no idea of time: this argument is still used to justify animal experimentation and factory farming). There were two realms for human existence. The material world, including the living world, was insentiate, mechanistic. Consciousness was the realm of the will, the spirit, and the possibilities for human advancement.

Fitting the history of self-respect into this picture is delicate. The institutional shifts between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries meant that there was a shift in focus from an aristocratic defence of personal honour to more bourgeois one of personal dignity. The age of chivalry was overtaken by an age of rationality and the result was more reflection on the rights and dignities of individuals than on whether or not their honour had been upheld or defiled (although in southern Europe, as Peter Berger points out5, and in the gangs that accompany this culture elsewhere, the principles are still strongly held). As a result, the dualism of respect and self-respect developed around the rational humanism of a growing bourgeoisie and the appropriation of traditionally aristocratic virtues by the new industrial class. To respect was to hold up the worth of another individual on the basis that they were, literally in essence, worthy of equal consideration. While this was limited, in the nineteenth century, to white, male individuals, the core idea remained important even as the circle of considerability expanded. Alongside the development of the idea of respect grew the idea of self-respect, just as important a consideration since it encompassed, according to David Hume in his Inquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals (1751), a ‘habit of surveying ourselves, as it were, in reflection … and begets in noble natures a certain reverence for themselves as well as others, which is the surest guardian of every virtue.’ This idea that self-respect was both a reflection on our public selves, and a means by which we might revere ourselves enough to act worthily, shows how the dualistic divide struggled to make sense of an increasingly conflicted dichotomy. Was the ‘self’ being created by the ‘other’, or vice versa?

Meanwhile, at least one tradition of the global South offered an alternative perspective on respect. Instead of this tension between attempts to shore up an identity worth maintaining, and the rationalised justification of universal consideration of individual interests, Master Eihei Dogen’s Shobogenzo illustrates how the practice of self-reflection empties the self of any substance whatsoever. The response to the realisation of emptiness is one of compassionate non-attachment, a practice-enlightenment that makes respect the central attitude around which all activity revolves. Since the concept of the self as a separate entity is foreign to the Soto Zen tradition, the problem of self-respect does not arise. Without the dualism that evolved in the historical tradition of the global North, none of the difficulties associated with an inflated idealised transcendent ‘I’ emerged. Instead, the contemplation of the boundaries of all things enabled the practitioners, with great effort, but eventually also with compassion and even with joy, to bring the activity of respect into every aspect of living existence, and just as importantly, into the acknowledgment of the temporary nature of this existence, and therefore into the cultivation of non-attachment. Therefore what is cultivated in Zen is not love, but compassion, a more measured frame of reference in which experience is held as a sphere of activity within which one’s own activity is simply a relational perspective, shifting as dynamically as day and night.

1He was wrong: our activities do revolve around attitudes, but these are not moral. I will explain this below.

2I wholeheartedly agree with Rawls, which is ironic, given that I am going to defend the proposition that respect and self-respect are identical. However, a little thought shows that those who participate least in the political process are those that respect the process least. This does not mean that those who participate least in the political process because they are disenchanted or disillusioned by the political possibilities on offer exhibit a lack of self-respect. Far from it: critical thinking is itself a mark of self-respect, since it indicates a willingness to value, and therefore use, the intellectual problem-solving skills at one’s disposal. Those who are not keen to participate, but who can give no indication why, exhibit a lack of self-respect, however, because they are not even willing to critically question the political possibilities on offer, or consider potential alternatives.

3The use of the term ‘good’ here is problematic. ‘Conditions that support their continuing flourishing’ is better, but unweildy. We will return later to a consideration of the language of morals because it is a central part of the problem created by dualistic thinking.

4I use the terms ‘global North’ and ‘global South’ to indicate the cultural exploitation and dominance of the former over the latter: the ‘global North’, as a result of the idiosyncracies of history (see, for instance, Jared Diamond’s explanation in Guns, Germs and Steel), including its reliance on dualism as an explanation and justification for differential treatment of different groups, has had a far greater influence on the kind and level of impact of the species on the ecology, both through the development of the scientific method to ensure technological advances, and through the economic model of capitalism.

5Berger, Peter, The Obsolescence of Honour, in Michel Sandel (ed), Liberalism and its Critics, 1984, pp 149-58.

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Thesis outline: Reality tells us what we need to do: responding to the ecological emergency


There are a lot of us questioning current approaches to the ecological crisis. None, so far, have succeeded in altering the trajectory towards climate chaos, biodiversity destruction and mass extinction, pollution and other symptoms of the crisis.

My own view is that externalising the problem is the problem. This thesis is therefore an attempt to show how we might understand philosophy as a personal practice, what that practice might involve, and how we might combine Zen and the scientific method to understand what we realise through the activity of practice.

Practice in this context is the active process of self-reflection, along with an objective consideration of ourselves as natural, evolved beings. This process of observation creates a feedback loop that can involve compassionate non attachment emerging as a response to the realisation of respect, interdependently with self-respect.
There is no soul beyond activity, soul is animus, movement is all we are and the activity of observation is also movement, the movement into reflection.

Self respect is the activity of becoming compassionate for the state we are in. Self respect is all the agency we have. It is the capacity to realise interdependencies, to understand them, and for layers of feedback to emerge.

Emergent information flows shift the possibilities for responding. We can be motivated to act, without attachment to the outcome, in observing our interactions. This is all we can do: observe and see how observation changes things. Our activities, taking place with this awareness, incline us towards compassion: we are pitifully entangled. So is everything.

It is a huge effort to step back, observe and allow the cycles of matter and energy that make up the biodiverse ecology of which we are a part to flow freely. It will bring us no glory. We cannot control what it will change. Yet it is all we can do to reduce suffering. Reducing suffering is responding to the ecological emergency. It is also responding to ourselves.