Tag: How to live

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.

Decentring the Human View

Rather than extending from human centred preferences on outward, what would happen if we decentred human interests and made them exactly equivalent and on the same level as all other interests, living and non-living?

In practice, we are at the centre of our own individual experiences, just as our DNA is at the centre of our evolutionary potential.

Yet, as I have shown, there are serious problems with considering ourselves as boundaried entities when a consideration of how we relate to, and even co-evolve with, other species shows that those boundaries are, at the very least, perceptual tricks of the light, edges against which we can pit our survival skills – but only if we also recognise that the boundaries themselves are somewhat illusory. This reminds me of the status of colour – an impossible phenomenon, in terms of physics, but as real and fundamental to our experience, and as essential to our own survival, as any other sensory feedback.

It’s unsettling to consider our interests as having no more inherent imporance than those of a virus, particularly when, emotionally, virii, cockroaches and other species we consider as competitors engender negative emotional reactions. Can we really achieve such a level of impartiality? Isn’t it counter to our very natures? Our very survival depends, surely, on outcompeting such monsters? How can we possibly consider them to have concerns which have the same status value as our own?

The paradox is that when we cultivate a more objective, less emotional response to microbes and other organisms around which we have, let’s face it, an evolved disgust, we can begin to observe and study without the accompanying horror, and that creates the space to understand them. With understanding comes the ability to consider their interests purely as systematically relational, and this, in turn, gives us the possibility to consider ways in which both interests may be served. This is not always going to be possible, of course. Yet the rapidly evolving HIV virus is, in a sense, an aggressive symbiote. Do I dare suggest that we might be able to see such a traditional enemy as such? Rather, for instance, than attempting to wipe out the ‘parasite’ that generates Malaria with increasingly aggressive and expensive drugs (to which the microbe, evolving faster than we can react, will always develop eventual resistance) we an think of the ecology of that lifeform, the pools that are required by mosquitos to breed: we can ensure that there are none near human settlements, we can ensure that nets to protect humans while they are sleeping are widely distributed, and most fundamentally, we can look into biological relationships between the microbe and other elements of the ecology.

Not so radical, after all, is it? Just basic common sense, instead of all out war.

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.