Tag: ecophilosophy

This is a place for my thesis


I began research at NUI, Galway, in April 2010, under the supervision of Dr Thomas Duddy. After writing three initial draft chapters, presenting work on three different occasions, producing a chapter for a book on a related subject (‘Collapse or no collapse: why we need respect to survive’ in FEASTA’s Fleeing Vesuvius), in November 2011, Dr Duddy received medical information which made it impossible for him to continue in a supervisory role. From that point on, I began to consider alternative ways of proceeding and it was on that basis that, at the beginning of February 2012, I approached Professor Parkes with a request that he consider becoming my supervisor on an amended version of the project. After extensive discussion and email correspondence, Professor Parkes agreed to do so.

Given what had been undertaken to date, it made sense to consider keeping roughly to the original estimate for completion by July 2014 (extended from April 2014). Very briefly, the trajectory looks something like this:

  1. My initial outline proposed to consider how the ‘old questions’ (about how to live) might be assessed in the light of evolutionary theory. I had intended to focus on evolutionary morality and the problems posed by the ecological crisis.
  2. Dr Duddy had me read Paul Taylor’s book, Respect for Nature, and encouraged me to work on complicating a position based on his biocentric perspective. Taylor acknowledged the biological basis of human interests and agency, a commonality that led him to propose a shift in perspective from an anthropocentric to a biocentric view. I worked on this from December 2010 to December 2011.
  3. From January 2012 to June 2012, I continued to examine non-anthropocentric perspectives from which an environmental ethic might be defended, but I had, by April, also started reading Warwick Fox and other non-dualists and some short papers by Professor Parkes and other scholars. I obtained a copy of the Shōbōgenzō by Master Eihei Dōgen. Professor Parkes suggested I turn my project into a comparative study of Taylor (as a non-anthropocentrist concerned with how to live with respect for Nature) and Dōgen. In May I gave a paper in London.
  4. From June 2012 to the present, I worked to show how a non-dualistic approach is a more fruitful line of comparison, and how the development of an understanding of organisms as systems or relationships, rather than individual entities, yields a better understanding of the kinds of obligations and responses available to humans within the wider eco-system.

I envisage a thesis of seven chapters. The first two chapters are largely amended versions of previous work; I will draft fuller versions of these, and the third and fourth chapters, before January 2013. I will also work on drafting a fuller outline of the project by December 2012. This leaves me 18 months to write up the project, along with undertaking any further reading, presentation, and shorter publication requirements. If people, academics or others, have questions they want to ask me about the project, I’ll be more than happy to discuss it. That’s the idea of this blog: to put the whole thing in the public forum. Glasnost. Although, of course, this work remains both a work in progress and original thought (in as much as anything is) and I will expect my copywright to be honoured. 

Moving beyond the cultures of the global North: Zen


To understand ourselves and our potential to respond sufficiently intelligently so that the conscious decisions we make about how to live reflect our current understanding, we have to move beyond a dualistic account of ourselves as pitted against nature, at least in terms of our biology. Dealing with the interstice between our understanding of human agency and natural biodiversity requires that we focus instead on how we understand the relationship in cultural terms if we are to see whether alternatives are available. To do this, I will have to move beyond the cultures of the global North, and beyond dualism.

So far, then, I’ve attempted to describe how human agency both emerges from, and yet is firmly located within, nature, or, more accurately, natural biodiversity. I have attempted, too, to show that since decisions on how to live, while only gradually differentiating ourselves from the rest of natural biodiversity, nevertheless provide, through the medium of culture, a means of evaluating our decisions and responses. 

We can only decide what makes sense for humans, since humans are the kinds of things we are. Nevertheless, our (cultural) ability to reflect on our intricately interwoven Naturalness de-centralises the notion that only humans deserve consideration. It is precisely because we are human artifices that we have developed the ability to displace ourselves and see that we are part of a larger unit of interest – non-human Nature – that we can also respond to when considering what kind of life to lead.

In a sense, Taylor was subject to the limitations of his own time: more recent work on the interactions between organisms (Foulkes’ recent paper is a case in point) suggest that the DNA-identified boundaries of living entities are somewhat porous. Indeed, on close examination, it’s clear that “individuals” within the environment, while they have the status of entities in Taylor’s sense of having “good”s of their own, nevertheless also have deeply intricate and intimate relationships between them which require acknowledgment. Thus each living cell is itself consistent of not only one, but, as Grahame Parkes points out, several sub-parts, including mitochondria, whose evolutionary ancestry can be traced back to their independent existence as proto-bacteria. Part of the problem with individualist biocentrism is that it relies on a “human-sized” conception of what matters.

Humans and organisms at human scale are, to human eyes at least, quite evidently individual. No such inevitability exists at the microscopic or microbial level. If a non-anthropocentric approach is to be viable, it must be flexible enough to take into account the very small. It must also take into account the characteristic transience of our experience.

 Human agency requires an extravagant investment in imagination so that we can hold the dual conceptions both of human agency as a self-reflective awareness creating biofeedback systems, and the potential that this feedback offers in its empathetic application beyond the human. Individual living organisms don’t make good loci for conscious consideration. They are too transient, on the whole, and most are microscopic. If we are to include Nature within our sphere of consideration, then we can look for both a more contemporary understanding of non-human living entities that includes their relational character, and a more ancient one to compare it with, like the one painted in the metaphors and images of a particular view of Zen.

 

The problems with taking an ethical approach to the ecological crisis


The field of environmental ethics is focused at the moment on an attempt to decipher whether or not pragmatic or conceptual approaches can most usefully develop, engage with or explore the issues surrounding environmental issues. Thus it is concerned both with practical and metaethical frameworks. For instance, de Groot et al in a recent paper in the journal, Environmental Ethics, concerned themselves with the pragmatic issue of actual attitudes to the environment, discoverable through empirical research. These findings, they argued, demonstrated that ‘partnership’ was a common self perception amongst the individuals they interviewed. The traditional anthropocentric (Hegelian) “slave-master” arguments that are put forward by environmental ethicists are straw men, they claim, and don’t represent real positions taken by real people on the ground. So there’s a move in the field towards a more empirically-based approach to finding out about actual attitudes, in order to better come to an understanding of the normative concerns and values behind such descriptions. The arguments suggest that theoretical practice has lost sight of actual attitudinal change, which, in turn, comes about because of current environmental concerns. This itself, in turn, influences which metaethical questions are most relevant. Since the field of environmental ethics is so influenced by contemporaneous events, this three way interchange between description of attitudes, analysis of normative values, and engagement with metaethical concerns is fluid, to say the least.

The second major current concern for environmental ethics is the metaethical reassessment of non-anthropocentric theories. While these theories flourished for a while, up until as recently as two or three years ago, more recent work suggests that there is a return, certainly amongst some of the more established environmental ethicists of the age, to a reinvestigation of the prospects for anthropocentrism. In a sense, this is no more than a reflection of the findings of the likes of de Groot: that a guardianship approach to the environment includes and involves a perception of the combination of human and non-human interests into a common cause. Thus the work of Gary Varner appears to be returning to anthropocentrism. In fact, it has been hard for anyone working in the field to ignore the persuasive arguments for anthropocentrism put forward above all by Stephen J. Gould. And those philosophers whose ethical approaches are coloured by their own belief systems – Robin Attfield and Holmes Rolston III, for instance (both Christians, although Attfield, in a personal communication, claimed, interestingly, that his philosophical stance is not influenced by his Christian beliefs) – are more inclined to see the relationship between the human and the non-human in guardianship terms. Only James Sterba and, to a degree, J. Baird Callicott, amongst the ‘heavies’, remain committed to a form of non-anthropocentrism which opens itself up the the possibility of egalitarian valuing of all life.

Thirdly, the field of environmental ethics has become far more multidisciplinary in recent times. While, in a sense, this has always been true of environmental ethics, and in a sense the field only began to be ploughed, if you’ll excuse the pun, by philosophers, long after there was an established interest amongst biologists and geographers, political scientists and psychologists, more recently there has been a particular focus on the cultural ramifications and indices which give an idea of how the nature/culture boundary is seen, and which is included in which. This focus is evident, to a degree, in the work of Slavoj Žižek (although when he says things like, ‘All my socks are from business-class flights. Here I totally neglect myself,’ – what? You neglect yourself by flying business class? Then it becomes difficult to take him seriously). More obviously, the nature-culture boundary is explored in the work of Timothy Morton, who edits the site, Thinking Nature. In that publication Ross Wolfe wrote a seminal paper on the interplay between nature and culture which I think demonstrates the massive disconnect that exists between those who relate to the non-human world with respect or compassion and those who see it as ‘monstrous’ or ‘alien’ (both of which are also true, but this is a topic I will return to, in particular, when talking of Zen).

Fourthly, recent work by Dale Jamieson indicates the politicisation of the issues with which environmental ethics concerns itself, most prominently in the work he has undertaken to understand climate change, and attitudes and resistance found there. Although Jamieson himself is seen very much as a philosopher, many of those working in association with him on these issues are political thinkers, or specialists from other areas and the findings take as an underlying assumption the selfishness of both states and individuals, a finding that is itself open to question in the field of philosophy, and even more so if this is explored from a non-dualistic perspective.

And finally, Paul Taylor, who is the author of the book, Respect for Nature, which led to my own research into shifting perspectives, has opened the way for the development of an intersecting of biological research with philosophical implications. So many of the papers to do with the ethical implications of an increasing understanding of the microbial world, combined with a re-analysis of the work of Lynn Margulis, working in the 1970s and 1980s on symbiogenesis and microbial contributions to evolution, have opened up the possibility of a closer reinvestigation into how we perceive entities and systems, and so to the kind and extent (if any) of human responsibility. This means including a consideration of the meaning of evolutionary theory and the debates around cooperation and competition, evolution through DNA mutations or evolution through multi-level selection, and other complications that have come about as a result of ongoing research into the process of evolution.

The work I rely on to develop my own ideas comes from a number of sources. I’m interested in pragmatism as an alternative to ethics, for the simple reason that ethics relies on ideologies and ideologies create dualism between ‘there’ and ‘here’. Pragmatism, on the other hand, merely reflects on what is at hand. In this respect, amongst many others, Ernest Partridge’s http://gadfly.igc.org/ work stands out. As far as the Nature/Culture interstice is concerned, I’ve been informed by Morton’s notion of matrices, and by Wolfe’s notion of the acculturation of nature. In terms of multidisciplinarianism, I’ve been informed by recent findings in microbiology and in the recent work taking place on evolutionary theory, particularly as this pertains to relationships between organisms. The notion that issues in environmental ethics have a pragmatic focus which links with political theory has led me to a reexamination of John Rawls, and to looking into the work of Robin Dillon and many others on respect as a concept. Finally, on Paul Taylor’s own recommendation, I’ve been drawn to the literature which relates concepts of respect for nature with an increasing understanding of microbial/ macrobial interrelations. It is this, then, that is the particular area I’ve chosen to use as the prism through which to investigate the prospects of a viable ‘respect for nature’ that correlates with respect for the self and respect for the human other. 

Amongst much other work, incidental but connected to the above, which also informs mine, is the work of Wendell Berry, Ronnie Hawkins and Graham Parkes (who also generously agreed to supervise my work after the untimely death of Dr Thomas Duddy, my previous supervisor). Each of these thinkers has published profound insights into an imaginative or transcendent understanding of the relationship of the (human) individual to the (natural, but also often enculturated) environment. This has led me to a deeper investigation of the varying cultural responses to this problem of ‘seeing’ nature, first through Callicott and Ames’ work, Nature in Asian Traditions of Thought, and finally, most significantly, to the work of Master Dōgen Zenji’s Shōbōgenzō. This is where I am at the moment, then: attempting to compare in ways that have been unexplored so far, the potential for Zen, and in particular, the practice-enlightenment that Dōgen talks about, to inform how we understand our place and relationship to self, other and the non-human, in the light of more recent evolutionary research into our origins and the systematic processes of which we are a part. The aim of this research is, therefore, a reiteration of the idea that we have an ability to respond to the ecological crisis that we find ourselves in, and that spelling this out is urgent and important. I hope that what I add to the existing calls for action will be wide-ranging, pragmatic and achievable. None of the ideas are, in themselves, new. I am simply combining ideas in a way that has not yet, I think, been envisaged. This parallels the process of evolution itself, which is simply recombination, but out of recombination emerges new forms, and so what arises from my own research is a new perspective on both a very ancient problem – how to live – in the current context – an ecological crisis.

 

Introduction to Chapter Two


”Humans’ actions, regardless of their effect on other organisms, are natural and perfectly acceptable … we should be allowed to live out our ‘evolutionary potential to [our own destruction] because this is ‘nature’s way”

 

Watson, R.,quoted in Keller, D. (Ed.): 15

 

Introduction

 

In discussing the background to environmental ethics, the last chapter sought to give an account of Paul Taylor’s biocentric outlook. The first chapter, then, was a clarifying, informative, over-viewing, scene-setting chapter. This chapter is focussed on how to address some of the problems that discussion brought up.

The second general issue that arose is that attempts to describe the issues in moral or ethical terms have created further layers of difficulty for dealing with the issues. This, the problem with ethical approaches, is another problem we will tackle in this chapter.

As I detailed in Chapter One, Robin Attfield (2003), described and outlined the spectrum of responses to the ecological crisis as running from anthropocentric stewardship to ecocentrism. Each response depended on where it located value and this has become the core feature of debate and contention: does it lie only in the sphere of human existence and understanding? Is it a feature of individual sentience that can it therefore be extended to include other so-called ‘higher’ animals? Or is it an emergent characteristic of harmonious relationships?

Most controversially, Garett Hardin used this ethical characterisation of the response to defend his account of how we ought to react to the ecological crisis by limiting the sphere of moral duty to those within the “lifeboat” of the global North. This excludes the human majority upon whom the crisis is likely to have most impact and who have least control over material resources. Elinor Ostrom responded to Hardin with practical examples that undermined his image of the grasping desperation that dictates a tragedy for the commons but Hardin, like others before him, including Charles Darwin, depended on the Malthusian theory of population boom and bust to advocate a contracting field of moral responsibility.

If we can subvert the issue of what moral obligations we have to the non-human world, and even to one another, entirely, then these problems become illusory. Instead, we can consider other ways of deciding how to act that are independent of ethical judgments.

 

Getting Somewhere … Else


I’m going to attempt to move things around today so I have more of a sense of what belongs where. It’s beginning to feel as though I have the bones of a narrative outline, so I’ll put that in one page, and then I have much of the outline of a literature review, so I’ll put that in another. Then I have to think about how to order the arguments but I think a heirarchical approach is (ironically, given I’m talking about anti-hierarchies) probably the most sensible, so that even though I’ve talked about respect and self respect in the outline and review, I’m then going to go back to deal with the detail of the problems of dualism (and relate this to the problem of environmental ethics), the development of understanding in the context of Evolutionary theory, comparing this, scientific, approach, with that of Zen and in particular, with the writings of Dogen, and then putting all this into the context of respect and self-respect and the environment.

I may need some help!

I want to create pages for all the posts I’ve written on the outline and the review, and then begin to think about how to organise posts on dualism and environmental ethics, Evolutionary theory and the scientific approach, Dogen, Zen and the empirical approach, and self respect and the environment.

I’ll begin by just categorising and I’ll upload some of the other work I’ve been doing over the last short while… this might be very messy, so please bear with me as I attempt to let some patterns emerge!

Responding to Eckhart Tolle


There have been some good responses to Eckhart Tolle who, along with Deepak Chopra, has made a lot of money out of telling people to live in the now. These are some of my own responses.

Eckhart Tolle says that what we perceive as physical matter is energy vibrating at a particular range of frequencies. Thoughts consist of the same energy vibrating at a higher frequency than matter which is why they cannot be seen or touched. Thoughts have their own range of frequencies, with negative thoughts at the lower end of the scale and positive thoughts at the higher (pp146-7)

How do you know this isn’t true?

Because thoughts are not physical matter. They’re perceptions. And the relationship between perceptions and physical matter is complicated. You might be able to identify on an ECG graph whether or not a person is mostly relaxed or mostly excited, but it would be difficult to tell whether they were thinking about Mona Lisa or Quantum Theory. Difficult? I don’t know much about it. But I’d hazard a guess that it’s nearly impossible.

This isn’t my area of specialisation. But I’d hazard a guess it’s not Eckhart’s either.

I suspect Eckhart of some subtle conservatism, based on the fact (entirely subconscious) that he’s interested in conserving his new found wealth. None of this is intended as criticism. This is merely observation and an attempt to analyse and understand a system of thought of one person and how it fits into other systems of thought about which I’ve pondered, given that I’ve had a particular interest in how to live from a young age.

Eckhart says autonomous cars could never work. But there are autonomous cars in existence now.

Eckhart says that Einstein is almost completely free of ego. But there is not direct evidence of this and in fact his wife and his children might disagree. These are just two ideas that appear to come from nowhere.

Monism is the idea that there is only one kind of substance.

Whenever I hear of a position like this, I am reminded of Swift’s Liliputians, arguing and in the end, killing one another, over which end from which to eat an egg.