“The safest general characterization of the European philosophical tradition is that it consists of a series of footnotes to Plato.”
–Alfred North Whitehead

Towards an Ecological Metaphysics

Leon Niemoczynski (here) and Adam Robbert (here) have been having a productive back and forth regarding the prospect of an ecological metaphysics. Speculative Realism is not far afield of their conversation, with subslogans like “dark vitalism,” “new materialism,” and “bleak theology,” and key influences like Plato, Schelling, Nietzsche, and Deleuze, all hovering in the background. They gave Whitehead’s scheme in particular the most attention as perhaps the best equipped to prepare philosophy for its ongoing ecologization. I’d agree, which is why I wrote Physics of the World-Soul about Whitehead’s relevance to contemporary cosmology. In that essay I try to replace the materialist ontology of modern science with the ecological ontology underlying Whitehead’s evolutionary panentheism. In other words, I attempt to show how Whitehead’s cosmological scheme allows for the replacement of physics with ecology as the most philosophically fundamental science, as the most ontologically basic reality. In an ecological rather than a materialist science, for example,

physics and chemistry are no longer considered to be descriptions of the meaningless motion of molecules to which biology is ultimately reducible, but rather themselves become studies of living organization at ecological scales other than the biological. (from p. 3)

As Leon put it, an ecological ontology suggests that what finally exists are creatures and their relationships. Nature is not a finished Whole, nor is it made up of finished parts. Nature is incomplete (as Terry Deacon would say), which is to say that it is not a static set of particles, not a law-abiding order/cosmos, but an open-ended and radically inter-related chaosmogenesis. Its wholeness is always yet to be achieved, an ideal and not a reality. A more metaphysically precise account of this incompleteness would suggest that there is more to the universe than what is already actualized: potentiality is also ingredient in the Real, playing a role in how each creature experientially realizes the present and in what each creature decides to do next.

Ancient and modern ontologies alike have sought unity, substantiality, and eternity. In contrast, an ecological ontology acknowledges the tendency of things to proliferate, to process, to evolve. Ecology is a pluralistic and historical science. There is nothing–no creature and no relationship–that did not come to be. Our seeming “universe” is really teeming with swarming masses of undomesticated teloi. It is a pluriverse full of erotically charged actors enmeshed in irreducibly complex networks of energetic transaction. These actors not only co-create one another, they co-create the various arenas of space and time “in” which their relations play out. The preposition “in” is employed here only in a grammatical and not in an ontological sense. Space-time is not a pre-existent, universally distributed container within which externally related creatures are simply located; rather, there are various more or less overlapping space-times brought forth by relations between a variety of internally related creatures. The interwoven relations of our pluriverse’s space-times do not precede their respective creaturely incarnations. Each specific form of relation between each species of creature constitutes a unique spatiotemporal context. Space-times are woven and rewoven out of the ongoing decisions of relationally enmeshed creatures.

Another way of getting at this gestalt shift concerning the emergent plurality of space-times (creatures are not “in” space-time, but enactively provide it) is to turn to Adam’s definition of an ecological ontology as implying a breakdown between structure and content, between the transcendental and the empirical, or again, between appearance and reality. If I understand him correctly, it is not that the distinction is canceled, but rather that it must be historicized. We might say, then, that the a priori conditions providing the possibility of human knowledge brought into focus by Kant, while they may seem universal and necessary for individuals, are in fact evolutionarily emergent at the species level and so remain contingent features of our consciousness open to cultural and/or biotechnological transformation. It is not just human forms of intuition of space-time that can alter over time, but also non-human forms of prehension, like that belonging to the members of the ecology of electromagnetic creatures which, according to Whitehead, provide the widest or most general context of systematic inter-relationship in our cosmgenetic epoch. “How do we know,” asks Whitehead, “that only one geometry is relevant to the complex happenings of nature?”

…this planet, or this nebula in which our sun is placed, may be gradually advancing towards a change in the general character of its spatial relations. Perhaps in the dim
future mankind, if it then exists, will look back to the queer, contracted three-dimensional universe from which the nobler, wider existence has emerged. (Modes of Thought, 57).

I want to hold out for the possibility of the ecologization of philosophy, rather than suggesting that the present crisis signals the death of philosophy, or its culmination in technoscientific materialism. Many pre-eminent thinkers have argued that philosophy has failed and needs to be replaced with something else (Nietzsche’s transvaluation of all values, the Heideggerian task of thinking Being’s openness, Deleuze’s plane of immanence, Laruelle’s non-philosophy, …). I’d argue otherwise, not so much against the clear genius of these conceptual personae, but against the idea that somehow what they accomplished wasn’t just a renewal of philosophy. Philosophy should be defined by its ability to live the question rather than to solve it, to participate in truth as a quest undertaken in love). Philosophy doesn’t need to be brought to an end by ecology. It can be saved by it, resuscitated, if only it is willing to swallow the speculative pill curing it of the correlationist anthropocentrisms weighing down ancient and modern philosophy alike. If there is to be a future ecozoic civilization, it will come with an ecological philosophy.

John Cobb, Jr. gives his own argument for Whitehead’s relevance last year in Claremont:






29 responses to “Towards an Ecological Metaphysics”

  1. dmf Avatar

    civilizations can’t/don’t live by a philosophy anymore than individuals do/can, how exactly would it work in your model, assuming everyone is on the same page (which of course they won’t/can’t be, how would they come to share such a thing?) how would one avoid something like an infinite-regress of rule-following?

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      There are certainly no a priori rules to follow. It would be an ethos, a mythos, a consciousness, a worldview. Not everyone needs to be able to articulate the metaphysical substructure, even if that substructure is providing the imaginative background for a society’s way of life. We seem to be in an especially chaotic transitional period nowadays with no widespread mythos to guide our collective dreaming other than that provided by default by capitalism. But something new can emerge. Certainly there have been plenty of past civilizations with more or less coherent forms of philosophical orientation toward reality. Why couldn’t that happen again in the aftermath of capitalism?

      1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

        I’m not saying it is likely that something like this will emerge. It may be more likely that no civilization at all remains in a century. But it is possible.

      2. dmf Avatar

        i’m afraid that there haven’t been “plenty of past civilizations with more or less coherent forms of philosophical orientation toward reality” they (to use a figure of speech) have always been as multiple, improvisational, and contested as they are now, they being no more or less what we do in the world and we being less than uniform in our idiosyncratic and kluged together embodied-being/doings.
        What does it literally mean to have say a world-view and how would/could it cohere and than be applied/acted-out by one person let alone be shared by others?

    2. Adam Robbert Avatar
      Adam Robbert

      I agree with dmf here that there is probably just as much chaotic crossing of knowledges as there ever has been, and the appeal to some sort of unitary past that’s only recently been fragmented seems to me implausible. What I find appealing about the ecological approach to knowledge, though, is that it allows us to say something positive about the multiple and distributed crossings of knowledges as practiced by an incommensurable diversity of human beings situated amidst different milieus without needing to identify some kind of unifying arché.

      1. Adam Robbert Avatar
        Adam Robbert

        Just consider, for example, the wide range of disputes we find amidst the pre-socratics, the greeks, and even just within Plato’s own writings. Within and across each of these contexts we already have disputes around materialism, atomism, relativism, determinism, monotheism, polytheism, empiricism, rationalism, free will, pluralism, causality, virtuosity, mathematics, dogmatism, skepticism, the good, spiritual practice, the human, etc., and that’s just one group of closely related texts, where each adherent of this or that approach can only ever apply his or her achieved understandings in inconsistent or partial ways, to say nothing about the diverse know-how of the non-elite and all the others arguing outside of but nearby this context.

      2. Matthew David Segall Avatar

        I was not referring to any unitary past or arche, but to a whole variety of compact societies (Sumer, Egypt, Israel, Greece, China, Aztec, Mayan, etc.) that I do believe had more or less coherent worldviews guiding their civilizations. A planetary mythos would be a far more difficult thing to constellate because of the sheer scale and diversity of the planet. But I think an ecological mythos, due to its emphasis on plurality, may have a better chance of catching on.

      3. Matthew David Segall Avatar

        “When you are criticizing the philosophy of an epoch, do not chiefly direct your attention to those intellectual positions which its exponents feel it necessary explicitly to defend. There will be some fundamental assumptions which adherents of all the variant systems within the epoch unconsciously presuppose. Such assumptions appear so obvious that people do not know what they are assuming because no other way of putting things has ever occurred to them. With these assumptions a certain limited number of types of philosophic systems are possible, and this group of systems constitutes the philosophy of the epoch.” -Whitehead, Science and the Modern World, Ch. 3 “The Century of Genius”

      4. Adam Robbert Avatar
        Adam Robbert

        Whitehead is not exactly the go-to for robust ethnographic analysis.

      5. Matthew David Segall Avatar

        There is no need to compare his philosophical analyses to an ethnographic study. I’m not suggesting the former is a replacement for the latter. But so long as we are discussing metaphysics and so dealing with an ecology of ideas rather than human populations, I think Whitehead’s point is quite relevant. Despite the surface appearance of radical diversity, the one thing the Greeks all shared was the search for a systematic “-ism” that might explain, through the medium of alphabetic script, the origin and order of the universe (or explain why such an explanation was not possible in the case of the skeptics).

      6. Adam Robbert Avatar
        Adam Robbert

        A few things here:

        1. The question of whether or not there was more unity / consensus in earlier civilizations than today is an empirical question and not a metaphysical one. The approach should be ethnographic, and I don’t think philosophers are much help in this regard. (And I say that *as* a philosopher.)

        2. But there is an ontological component here, but not in the direction you’re aiming. When you say, “we are discussing metaphysics and so dealing with an ecology of ideas rather than human populations” in my view, this is an instance of Whiteheadian misplaced concreteness. Ideas are ways in which humans and other critters grasp things and should not be mistaken as co-incident with those things or as things that exist out there on their own.

        3. Some quibbles with this statement: “Despite the surface appearance of radical diversity, the one thing the Greeks all shared was the search for a systematic “-ism” that might explain, through the medium of alphabetic script, the origin and order of the universe (or explain why such an explanation was not possible in the case of the skeptics).”

        First, this indicates, via the skeptics, that there was not consensus, even at the level of the “history of ideas” (and perhaps we should not try undermine “surfaces” by appeals to apparent subtler unities). Second, and more importantly, we’re not dealing, in my view, at the level of self-reported aims, we’re talking about the nature of day-to-practices, decisions, and behaviors as they relate to pretensions of philosophical consistency. As we know all too well from today’s politics, or even our own psychologies, the stated aims and the enacted practices don’t coincide—not on an individual level and certainly not on a civilizational level.

        I think the meta-point here, though, is that not only do I find your position light on empirical support, but I don’t think creating a unitary mythos is even a good idea to attempt in the context of a planetary diversity of cultures and hence my appeal to cosmopolitics instead of new onto-theologies.

      7. Matthew David Segall Avatar

        1. It would be more of an empirical question if the populations in question were still alive and could be studied. Unfortunately they are long gone. At this point, our understanding seems more a matter of speculative imagination informed by limited archaeological evidence. Philosophy seems highly relevant in this case.
        2. Agreed that idea ecologies should not be artificially abstracted from human ecologies. On the other hand, in the context of developing a metaphysical scheme for a future ecological civilization, we are dealing with ideas as potentials, not as actualized in human populations. How ideas end up being enacted is of course a wildcard.
        3. “the stated aims and the enacted practices don’t coincide” <–Isn't this precisely Whitehead's point?

        I don't think a unitary mythos is fruitful way forward, either. It has/they have to be pluralistic. There are plenty of paradoxes here that I acknowledge: Is there such a thing as a pluralist mythos, or should we conceive of this in terms of pluralist mythoi? Is it possible to imagine an ecological myth of myth-making, one that foregrounds participatory evolutionary symbiogenesis and celebrates ongoing diversification? A planetary myth of plurality? I don’t know. But let’s keep speculating!

      8. Adam Robbert Avatar
        Adam Robbert

        I was going to suggest time-traveling ethnographers!

      9. Matthew David Segall Avatar

        How about time-traveling philosophers searching for the future? Michel Serres quote from Ch. 12 of Harman’s Guerrilla Metaphysics: “Philosophy is an anticipation of future thoughts and practices…Not only must philosophy invent, but it also invents the common ground for future inventions. Its function is to invent the conditions of invention.”

    3. nicholastdahlheim Avatar

      My own personal reading list only grows, and I’m struggling myself to think up a more ecologically sound worldview that can be the basis for such an ecological philosophy. I think a real key is somehow coming up with a story or set of stories that can provide a mythos rather than a long ream of laws, rules, and regulations.

  2. rsbakker Avatar

    Here’s the kinds of problems you’re looking at:

    The ‘toothbrush problem’ (to use Nick Humphrey’s phrase). No one wants to use anyone else’s theoretical toothbrush, which pretty much means that any ontology-first view anyone offers on ecology (or anything else) is doomed to be idiosyncratic, and ultimately irrelevant. So why bother in the first place?

    The ecology-ecology problem. This is basically the problem I keep plaguing Adam with. Despite all the references to ecology you guys make, you seem reluctant to actually ask some hard ecological questions of your own view. The cognitive significance of ecology lies in the way it foregrounds the heuristic and fractionate nature of cognition. You can’t have one without the other! And the more you start looking into the heuristic nature of human cognition, the more obvious the threat becomes that ontology is the product of heuristic misapplication.

    The problem of meaning. I’ve plagued you enough on this issue I’m sure, Matthew!

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      I’m not all that worried about idiosyncrasies at this point. I take that more as a sign that an ecological metaphysics is truly as novel and against the (post)modern grain as those of us trying to articulate it claim.

      As for the heuristic nature of cognition, there are a few points I think you’re missing: one is that my approach has always been enactive and so nonrepresentational with regard to cognitive processes. Which is to say that yes, I agree, human cognition is not capable of providing a mirror of nature or granting us access to some mind-independent material reality. But the fact that cognition is enactive and not representational need not be interpreted negatively as an epistemic failure on our part. Rather, we can interpret it positively as an ontological hint about the nature of reality. The categories like “mind” and “matter” that make sense in a representational paradigm are totally irrelevant (or at least in need of radical revisioning) in an enactive paradigm. They are both high abstractions that cloud the heuristic or sensorimotor basis of cognition. But if organisms evolve capacities (cognitive and otherwise) based on what has survival value (natural selection) and what feels good or has “thrive value” (sexual selection), the whole question of “truth” must, again, be reimagined. We’re not in representational Kansas anymore, we’re verging on a Nietzschean ontology of will or a Whiteheadian ontology of Eros, both of which relativize the dichotomy between appearance and reality. In an evolutionary-ecological metaphysics, what begins as desirable appearance becomes physiological reality. Ontology is no longer a matter of describing reality independently of the experience of organisms. This can’t be if the ecological reality we see and feel around us has been constructed over evolutionary time to be the way it is as a result of countless organismic decisions.

      Also, part of shifting the ground toward s Whiteheadian ontology means no longer privileging clear and distinct cognition in ontology. Affect and aesthetics, instead, become fundamental. Reality is not finally something to be known, is not an object out there awaiting our piercing theoretical gaze.This traditional representational sense of knowledge is a fairy story. Instead, reality is something to be felt, loved, feared, etc. We cannot pry ourselves away from involvement in it in order to grasp it from the outside. We are it.

      1. rsbakker Avatar

        Representationalism is not just any fairy story: fairy tales are easily dismissed, and yet representationalism persists as the dominant paradigm after decades of not being able to define cognition. Representationalism is very sticky, discursively speaking, primarily because a) it makes intuitive sense, and b) admits productive scientific operationalization. Nevertheless, it is not capable of telling us what cognition (let alone consciousness!) is.

        The reason for this, on BBT at least, is that representational problem-solving is heuristic problem-solving, a way to tackle certain problems absent information pertaining to what is actually going on. As such, it makes no sense to assume it capable of telling us what is going on! Asking it to do so amounts to applying it outside of its adaptive problem ecology.

        On this interpretation the perennial problems attending representational thinking suddenly make a lot of sense as *symptoms.* Analytic opacity and chronic theoretical underdetermination are precisely what we might expect, given the heuristic (ecological) nature of representational thinking.

        Is it simply a coincidence then that analytic opacity and chronic theoretical underdetermination also characterize ontological thinking? Perhaps. But then, given ecology (heuristics), we should expect ontological thinking itself possesses an ecology, and that it too can be misapplied.

        Given this, shouldn’t we eschew questions where ‘ecological overshoot’ is a live possibility, restricting ourselves to entities/claims that can be scientifically arbitrated, particularly when they promise to explicate the structure and dynamics of ontological thinking?

        Why not just be agnostic?

      2. Matthew David Segall Avatar

        Representationalism is a fairy story, but that doesn’t mean it is easy to dismiss. The persistence of this paradigm is evidence of how deeply ingrained Cartesian modes of being in the world are for we alienated Westerners. Even eliminativists like Dennett who claim to be dethroning Descartes’ dualism nonetheless persist in employing the computer metaphor for mind, which only reinstates exactly the same dualistic structure between form and matter. When we approach experience discursively, it is very easy to fall into representationalism. The space of linguistic discursivity is precisely where representation makes some sense. Unfortunately, most of our thinking and feeling does not take place at the level of language, and as (the later) Wittgenstein taught us, even in the linguistic domain, much of what we say has no representational content but rather functions pragmatically or, yes, heuristically, in the context of shared forms of life.

        I am beginning to wonder if our problem here is not similar to that uncovered by Kant with regard to the noumenal realm of things in themselves. You are insisting on a dualism between “what is actually going on” and what our blind brains *somehow* fool us into believing is going on. As Whitehead frames it in terms of the bifurcation of nature, it is a dualism between nature as the cause of perception (which can only ever be a conjecture) vs. nature as it appears to us (which scientific materialism forces us to assume is but a dream).

        To my mind, speculative philosophy is not an optional thing. We either do our speculating explicitly and more or less consciously, or we delude ourselves by claiming we can avoid speculation by just sticking to the “empirical facts.” This is just unconscious ontologizing. There is no unproblematic or self-evident way of explaining exactly what “empirical” means outside the context of an ontology. There is no speculation-free mode of discourse to fall back on here. We must speculate.

        So then, why do we have to insist on some hidden realm of things in themselves out there? Why can’t we aestheticize ontology such that the red glow of the sunset is as much a part of nature as the photons radiating from the sun? This would certainly be more coherent. But alas, we tend to prefer to endeavor upon “brilliant feats of explaining away.”

      3. rsbakker Avatar

        You’re actually misreading the critique – almost entirely, if you think BBT involves essentializing traditional dichotomies! ‘Bifurcation,’ as you call it, is itself a perfect example of what I’m talking about, viz., that solving problems ecologically amounts to solving problems heuristically, which is to say, via neglecting information, foisting artificial clarities that allow ‘fast and frugal’ solution of specific kinds of problems. Fact is, I could just as easily accuse you of bifurcation (these heuristics are pretty deeply embedded in language)! So let’s set this aside as a canard.

        Misinterpretation aside, my question still stands. You say, “We cannot pry ourselves away from involvement in it in order to grasp it from the outside. We are it.” I’m saying exactly! *This is precisely why your position is implausible.* You’re embroiling/involving yourself in a way that likely renders any kind of productive solution impossible. Your ontological orientation embroils you in a particular problem ecology, one requiring (qua ecology) certain kinds of tools to solve. I’m simply pointing out that the dismal history of human attempts to solve in this problem ecology via armchair reflection fairly shouts the fact that we lack the tools required. Moreover, even if you did possess the tools (and I would like to see the model of metacognition that would make this feasible!), the metaphysical nature of your claims means you have no way of knowing whether you did or not (a version of Adam’s worry). If science can’t arbitrate your claims, if they’re doomed for the scholastic heap, then why bother?

  3. Chen Avatar

    Great discussion. I suppose I’ll trow Barfield out there in response to the unitary/fragmentary debate going. How much of this is us fragmented moderns projecting a chaos of ideas onto an age where there was not ( at least in the same sense)? This almost reflexive rejection of “Unity” strikes me as problematic. It has bothered me ever since I read a review of one of Ernst Cassirer’s books – the review was about 20 pages of perplexity and intemperate argument against the notion of a ‘mind’ of the Enlightenment. The author actually seemed rather confused by what it could mean and this was rather baffling to me – seeing only disunity everywhere is certainly as much of a problem imposing unity where none exists. Seems like a problem of Dualism – of thinking that by mind one has to reference a sort of detached, container of thoughts hovering ‘above’ and imposed on people. But if ‘mind’ is related to action, to “enacting” to use a current term this strikes me as un-problematic and even necessary in understanding groups.

    I think there is a sort of superficial level of noting that prior people were just as fragmented ( look at all these different debates, all there practices!) and I think constant deference and reference to the “empirical” is misguided. Why not simply have biologists and the burgeoning field of Neuroscience tell us all what to think? If Bakker is right, the latter is will soon show all these varying fields all as houses built on stilts, our cognitive architecture, a caricature of what is really going on and everything else is built on this caricature. Except, of course, Neuroscience or the discovery itself -and even if it did – it wouldn’t matter. “Empirically” we know that Science eviscerates all fields so whether it itself is built on stilts is immaterial. I don’t buy it but I think Bakker is right to push the consequences, especially when a term like “empirical” is used to dissuade philosophers entry into a debate.

    Consider the Edge question earlier this year “What Scientific idea is ready for retirement?” where several scientists ( some bitterly) complained about the notion of “Culture”, one going as far as saying its a “seven letter word for God.” And the sense I got from reading these articles was that, soon enough Biology ( i.e purely evolutionary explanations) will takeover and we can be done with this ill-defined and meaningless term. In other words, and in spite of fragmentation, the “empirical” take will simply explain it all universally with a few stock biological concepts.

    Basically, I’m not sure what “empirical” methods an ethographer, for example, could use that a philosopher is unable to understand ( and thus incorporate or consider) or do themselves to determine or argue for consensus.

    As to the onto-theology/cosmo-politics issue, I’m not sure these can be as easily separated as we might like and, ironically, for the reasons brought up concerning diversity. In either case, I’m simply comment on these things and admire you all working diligently at developing ( and sharing) your varying ideas.

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Thanks for your helpful comment, Chen. And for the encouragement to keep going!

      I was not aware of Edge’s 2014 question. I’m reading some of the answers now…

      1. Chen Avatar

        You’re welcome, Matt. Let me know what you think about that article if you have time. I spent a good day reading all of the responses. Quite a bit. Rather depressing to be honest – a few folks along the lines you’re pursuing but mostly not.

  4. Seraphim Avatar

    If you allow me a naive and general query with regards to your ecological views Matthew; I didn’t know where else to post this.

    In actionable and political terms, would a prioritization of internal ecology allow for uninterrupted self-regulating ecological niches amongst global human techno-civilization where ‘other’ forms of sentience (i.e. animals) can realize their states of being and recycle themselves ad infinitum? Whereas this is probably how most environmental preservationists would have it, this would be a fundamentally unacceptable state of affairs for the sentience-pessimist. With some justification, for them it would be like condemning them to a hell for eternity, or at least until the planet goes kaput.

    This pessimism naturally comes with the realization that non-human ecological niches are not the pure and harmonious environments romantics make them out to be; they’re in fact haphazard death traps where pain, hunger, and death are ever-present and ever-recycled, together with varying forms of creativity. A bird’s chirping though seemingly audially pleasant to us, may be, or most likely is, in fact a cry from deprivation.

    Granted this however, even if the earth/universe were ‘conscious’ in some Whiteheadian sense, wouldn’t this entail said earth/universe’s fundamental inhumanity (disregard for the element of conscious compassion)/harshness/monstrousness, since it allows for, and in many ways seemingly ‘promotes’, such aimless recycled suffering? Isn’t morality ultimately an attempt to put breaks upon nature’s indifference to sentient Being?

    Given this, any form of environmental atavism seems like a cop-out and, ultimately, cruel. Should we instead opt for David Pearce’s Negative Utilitarian, Techno-Utopian ‘Hedonistic Imperative’, just to be able to retain a shred of hopefulness for the future? Or should we simply give it all up for a potentially more sincere pessimism and anti-natalism for all pain-experiencing sentience, where the only morally consistent approach would be Palliative care for every species, reducing suffering as much as possible through regulating sentient reproduction?

    I share your aesthetic inspiration Matthew, believe me; I’ve been an active ecologist and preservationist for a good few years now because of my aesthetic fascination with the non-human. Yet I’ve been experiencing problems with the above. How can ‘Nature’s Beauty’ be appreciated despite it’s seeming overabundant cruelty? How can we make a moral case for ecological preservationism given our sensitivity to suffering?

    I’m not a philosopher mind you, so please excuse the sentimental tone and generalizations. If you’ve addressed these issues elsewhere, I would appreciate being re-directed.

    1. Matthew David Segall Avatar

      Agreed that ecosystems are not “pure and harmonious.” They are far from equilibrium dynamic systems full of creative chaos tempered by occasional periods of relative stability. A quick look at the history of life on earth reveals it to be one catastrophe after the next. And yet, life has not only recovered from each catastrophe, it has recovered with more diversity and intensity of consciousness! So I wouldn’t go so far as to call ecosystems “death traps,” etc. I believe your “sentience-pessimism” is just as much a projection as the Romantic’s view of Nature as a harmonious perfection. In the Whiteheadian context, even if Gaia is in some sense conscious, this doesn’t mean Gaia is in control of everything that happens on the planet. I am conscious, but that doesn’t mean I am in control of everything that happens in my body. Theologically speaking, even God is not all-powerful in Whitehead’s view. God is a creature of Creativity like the rest of us, just as subject to its never-ending torrent of novelty. Morality is a human contrivance, not a cosmic principle. Cosmologically, it is not morals, but aesthetics that seems to be guiding evolution. And lest you take a shallow view of aesthetics and beauty as mere pleasure, remember that tragedy has long been considered the highest form of art. Without pain, the drama would be boring as hell. Indeed, I’d argue that the deepest ring of hell is precisely pure boredom, not pain and suffering. Meaningful suffering–that is, suffering as part of a larger process of creation–is well worth it. And this isn’t just my personal opinion: why else would life still exist on this planet unless it enjoyed the process, despite the violence and loss intrinsic to evolution? Clearly life has found a reason to motivate itself to keep reproducing. It just as easily could have lost all such motivation and committed suicide billions of years ago. But life lives on… Nature has a kind of beauty that is perhaps closer to sublimity. As Kant defined the sublime, it is hardly a “pleasurable” form of beauty. It is utterly terrifying beauty, a beauty whose source is infinite and so carries the tendency to swallow us as we gaze into it. I think a deeper reading of Romantic thinkers like Schelling, Novalis, and even Shelley will reveal this darker side of natural beauty. It is not all fun and games. See for ex: http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/174397

      1. Seraphim Avatar

        Morality is obviously no cosmic principle but a quirky side-effect of our evolved consciousness. I don’t see how this means it must be disregarded in any sense.

        For the sentience-pessimist moral abhorrence due to individual suffering supersedes all talk of ‘evolution’ and ‘beauty’. To have needless pain in any sentient being perpetuated ad nauseaum means that ‘nature’, i.e. ‘natural selection,’ ‘natural instincts,’ etc. as such are deplorable and must be resisted. These people argue that since man is the only being that has come to appreciate this needless perpetuation and has grown a sensitivity to the suffering of others and himself it should be his/her duty to aim to reduce sentient existence as much as possible. The project is in essence a Negative Utilitarian one.

        Your talk of ‘life on earth’ doing this and that is intriguing but potentially misleading since it’s essentially a hyper-abstraction and objectification, like when people talk of ‘ecosystems’. You speak of ‘life’ as if it had a mind and could ‘choose’ this or the other course of events, and somehow ‘motivate itself’. But this seems like a mistaken anthropomorphism. For the rational moralist, after all, at least the one who considers the pain-pleasure scale as fundamental to existence, precedence should be given to individual sufferers over any abstraction of a system of interconnected life-forms. http://www.animal-ethics.org/why-we-should-consider-sentient-beings-rather-than-ecosystems/

        A way that you can argue against this pessimist enterprise is of course if you state that sentience is not limited to any being with a nervous systems but is pervasive throughout reality, i.e. that even rocks can, in some way, ‘suffer’. This would make sentience-centered anti-natalism into an absurd anti-cosmic scheme instead of one limited to a selective set of beings. Yet for the more empirically-minded among us, this would be a hard case to convince one over, no?

      2. Seraphim Avatar

        Relevant articles for an analytic approach to these issues: antibullshitman.blogspot.co.uk/2014/09/utilitarian-infighting-eight-levels_28.html



      3. Seraphim Avatar

        Also, what makes suffering ‘as part of a larger process of creation’ (isn’t this again too abstract a concept?) ‘worth it’ in your understanding?

      4. Seraphim Avatar

        The question I’m asking is, in essence:

        Can there be a foreseeable way that we can salvage environmental ethics, and therefore a future ecological civilization and Nature’s ‘Beauty’ (as can be appreciated in wilderness areas) contra moralizing anti-natalist utilitarian animal ethicists who never cease to point out that conserving wilderness areas is cruel and immoral? This debate is discussed succinctly here: http://hettingern.people.cofc.edu/Introduction_to_Philosophy_Fall_09/Sagoff_Animal_Liberation_&_Env_Ethics.pdf

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