Another new episode of the Waking Cosmos Podcast, produced by my friend Adrian Nelson.
A few excerpts from professor of human ecology Alf Hornborg‘s book The Power of the Machine: Global Inequalities of Economy, Technology, and Environment (2001).
“We seem to have difficulties understanding exactly in which sense human ideas and social relations intervene in the material realities of the biosphere. Rather than continuing to appraoch ‘knowledge’ from the Cartesian assumption of a separation of subject and object, we shall have to concede that our image-building actively participates in the constitution of the world. Our perception of our physical environment is inseparable from our involvement in it” (10).
“Calling world trade exploitative, I insist, is more than a value judgment. It is an inference based on the Second Law of Thermodynamics. If production is a dissipative process, and a prerequisite for industrial production is the exchange of finished products for raw materials and fuels, then it follows that industrialism implies a social transfer of entropy. The sum of industrial products represents greater entropy than the sum of fuels and raw materials for which they are exchanged. The net transfer of ‘negative entropy’ to industrial centers is the basis for techno-economic ‘growth’ or ‘development.’ In other words, we must begin to understand machines as thoroughly social phenomena. They are the result of asymmetric, global transfers of resources. The knowledge employed to keep them running would be infertile if the world market did not see to it that the industrial sectors of world society maintain a net gain in ‘negative entropy’ (or in exergy). Inversely, the non-industrial sectors experience a net increase in entropy as natural resources and traditional social structures are dismembered. The ecological and socioeconomic impoverishment of the periphery are two sides of the same coin, for both nature and human labor are underpaid resources of high-quality energy for the industrial ‘technomass.’ In not reckoning with the intimate connection between economics and technology–the social and the material aspects of industrialism–we tend to talk as if technology were primarily a matter of knowledge. We imagine that education and ‘technology transfer’ might solve problems of ‘underdevelopment,’ forgetting, as it were, that new centers of industrial growth require new peripheries to exploit…The science of technology is not simply a matter of applying rational thought to nature, for the ‘natural’ conditions for matter-energy conversions in privileged, so-called developed areas have been transformed by world trade…Conventional economics, in recognizing no other concept of value than exchange value, tends to conceal this inequality” (11).
“Money in itself is merely an idea about the interchangeability of things and about the mutability of the rates at which things are exchanged. In practical, social life, it is a regulation of people’s claims on one another” (14).
For a PDF of the entire essay, click The Re-Emergence of Schelling: Philosophy in a Time of Emergency.
Metaphysically (un)grounding the natural sciences
Schelling’s almost complete absence in Anglophone natural philosophy for more than 150 years (aside from his powerful effects on Coleridge,168 Peirce,169 and Emerson,170 and through the intermediary of Naturphilosoph Alexander von Humboldt, his influence on Darwin171) cannot be accounted for based solely on the popular reception of Hegel’s philosophical caricature of intellectual intuition as “the night in which all cows are black.” The more probable reason for his absence, as Bowie suggests, is that Schelling’s Naturphilosophie “was effectively killed off…as part of the overt praxis of the natural sciences” beginning in the 1840s as these sciences “[began] to fall under the spell of materialism and positivism.”172 Prior to the current resurgence in interest, historians of science tended to dismiss Naturphilosophie as a “strange and nearly impenetrable offshoot of the Romantic movement,” an offshoot that is “safely ignored.”173 So long as postkantian positivism (of the sort that refuses to make organism rather than mechanism constitutive of nature) holds sway over the scientific imagination, Schelling’s thought will continue to languish on the fringes of philosophical activity. Fortunately, “the dangers of a scientistic approach to nature” are becoming increasingly well recognized,174 and alternative histories are being told that challenge the standard Enlightenment account of the dominance of mechanistic physics and biology.175 The fundamental incoherence of the postkantian positivist approach is such that, despite itself resting upon an implicitly postulated speculative dualism between mind and matter, it at the same time denies that there can be any scientific validity to philosophical speculation. “It is only then,” says Arran Gare,
when the original practical engagement as an active force within the world is forgotten, that the illusions of dualism…appear.176
Many natural scientists unpracticed in the methods of philosophy are quick to dismiss Schelling’s speculative physics for what they perceive to be a lack of respect for the empirical facts. Several scholars, including Gare,177 Robert Richards,178 Joseph Esposito,179 Frederick Beiser,180 and Iain Hamilton Grant181 have convincingly argued that Schelling painstakingly studied and significantly contributed to the natural sciences of his day. Richards characterizes Schelling’s natural philosophical works not as the wild frenzy of mystical analogizing that its positivist critics saw, but as “[groaning] with the weight of citations of the most recent, up-to-date experimental work in the sciences.”182 Grant, while he acknowledges Schelling’s Naturphilosophie as a precursor of the new natural sciences of self-organization and complexity, warns us not to
positivistically reduce [Schelling’s] philosophical interventions into nature to a theoretical resource to be raided as and when the natural sciences deem it necessary.183
Keeping Grant’s desire to protect Naturphilosophie from such a positivistic reduction in mind, it is nonetheless interesting to note that Schelling shared the “aether hypothesis” with most of his scientific contemporaries.184 The aether remained the foundation of science’s understanding of electromagnetism until Einstein dismissed it as “an unnecessary burden on space” in 1905.185 The quantum revolution of the early 20th century, with its hypothesis of a non-local field or immaterial quantum vacuum underlying the extended universe, began to raise doubts about Einstein’s dismissal.186 After the recent tentative discovery of the related notion of a Higgs field, it would appear that “a new aether” is front and center again in physical science.187 Where this discovery will lead contemporary physicists remains to be seen, but for Schelling, the elastic properties of the aether were identified with the original duplicity of forces animating the common soul of nature, or World-Soul.188
The two conflicting forces conceived at the same time in conflict and unity, lead to the idea of an organizing principle, forming the world into a system. Perhaps the ancients wished to intimate this with the world-soul.189
In the context of the aether hypothesis, it is important to remember that the main intent of Schelling’s Naturphilosophie was not merely the “application of abstract principles to an already existing empirical science”:
My object, rather, is first to allow natural science itself to arise philosophically, and my philosophy is itself nothing else than natural science. It is true that chemistry teaches us to read the letters, physics the syllables, mathematics Nature; but it ought not to be forgotten that it remains for philosophy to interpret what is read.190
In other words, Schelling’s aim was never to produce hypothetical models of how the hidden mechanisms of phenomenal nature may or may not work. His philosophy of nature is an attempt to re-imagine the metaphysical foundations of natural science, such that the theorizing subject, as part of nature, is understood to be an active factor in the organic construction of the objective facts. For Schelling, the aether was less a scientific hypothesis than it was an organizational principle justifying scientific activity in the first place, since, following the ancient epistemic principle that “like is known by like” (Plato’s “syggeneity”), it granted the human soul participatory knowledge of the invisible substructure of the universe.191 Or, as Schelling put it, “What in us knows is the same as what is known.”192
When Schelling says that “to philosophize about nature means to create nature,”193 it should not be collapsed into the prima facie quite similar statement by Kant, that “He who would know the world must first manufacture it–in his own self, indeed.”194 Kant’s approach to the study of nature is grounded in subjective voluntarism, wherein the philosopher fabricates “nature” as his own object according to the transcendentally deduced categories delimiting his experience.195 Schelling’s Naturphilosophie, on the contrary, re-interprets the epistemic position of the natural scientist: where the postkantian scientist can only grasp himself as thinking about nature from beyond nature, Schelling’s scientific method involves awakening to oneself as “nature itself philosophizing (autophusis philosophia)”196 As Grant describes it, “What thinks in me is what is outside me.”197 If the Naturphilosoph is able to think as nature, she becomes “a new species equipped with new organs of thought.”198 Schelling’s Naturphilosophie is an attempt to know nature unconditionally, i.e., not as the sum total of its created products, but as the creative activity giving rise to them.199 The question is no longer, as it was for Kant, “how do I make finite nature appear?”, but “what is the essence of nature’s infinite activity?”
Schelling’s philosophy of unthinged (Unbedingten) nature is the necessary counter postulate to Fichte’s absolutely free ego, the next logical turn on the dialectical wheel that makes known the presence of an unthought background, a dark abyss (Ungrund) before which the conscious ego can at first only mumble as it meets its long forgotten maker. Schelling’s discovery is that absolute spirit and absolute nature dependently co-arise as the polarized personalities of a natural divinity. The finite human ego is not a priori; rather Absolute nature is prioritized,200 since
Everything that surrounds us refers back to an incredibly deep past. The Earth itself and its mass of images must be ascribed an indeterminably greater age than the species of plants and animals, and these in turn greater than the race of men.201
“Philosophy,” according to Schelling, “is nothing other than a natural history of our mind.”202 The philosopher of nature “treats nature as the transcendental philosopher treats the self”203 by coming to see how
the activity whereby the objective world is produced is originally identical with that which is expressed in volition.204
Schelling’s is akin to an enactive, rather than representational account of scientific cognition. According to Evan Thompson, from an enactive perspective,
a natural cognitive agent–an organism, animal, or person–does not…operate on the basis of internal representations in the subjectivist/objectivist sense. Instead of internally representing an external world in some Cartesian sense, [it] enact[s] an environment inseparable from [its] own structure and actions.205
Schelling’s enactive account of natural science thereby recursively grounds the production of scientific knowledge in the living bodies, funded laboratories, invented technologies, and specialized communities through which it emerges. What science knows is not a passively reflected copy of objective nature as it appears before an aloof subject; rather, the scientist’s experiential facts co-emerge with his experimental acts:
Every experiment is a question put to Nature, to which it is compelled to give a reply. But every question contains an implicit a priori judgment; every experiment that is an experiment is a prophecy.206
That every experimental design contains implicit a priori synthetic judgments (e.g., “every event has a cause,” “nature is an organized system”) is not to say that Schelling believed the natural scientist should try to deduce the structure of nature from a priori principles alone. He maintained that we know nothing except through and by means of experience,207 and therefore that synthetic a priori knowledge, though dialectically constructed, is subject to experimental falsification, theoretical revision, and replacement.208 Whereas for Kant, there exists an unreconcilable opposition between a priori and a posteriori knowledge, for Schelling, acts of cognition and facts of experience recursively condition one another in the endlessly spiraling pursuit of the unconditioned.209
Schelling’s Naturphilosophie is more relevant to contemporary natural science’s vision of a creative cosmos than ever before. The classical mechanistic, entropic paradigm is being replaced by the new sciences of self-organization, which depict the universe as a progressive unfolding of kaleidoscopic activity; given this new context, Schelling’s dynamic evolutionary philosophy of nature can go a long way toward philosophically generating the underlying organizing principles “needed to supplement the laws of physics.”210 Contemporary natural science demands a firmer foundation for its theoretical and empirical discoveries than that given it by 17th century Cartesian metaphysics. Paradoxically, Schelling’s contribution to a more adequate metaphysical foundation for science involves destroying the long held belief that reality has any necessary foundation at all. Schelling’s is a process metaphysics that grounds the visible universe in infinite freedom and creativity.211
Unlike the mechanistic paradigm, which assumes the necessary existence of inert corporeal matter and so cannot explain how creative activity and the emergence of organized form are possible,212 for Schelling, such creative organization is the driving force of nature, inert matter being one of its later products. The source and common medium of nature’s creative activity according to Schelling is universal “sensibility,” making his Naturphilosophie a variety of panexperientialism.213 The ability to feel is what makes all apparently mechanical motion possible, since without such a universal experiential aether, no force could be felt and so exchanged between or across material bodies.214
By making sensibility the ultimate condition of nature’s dynamic organization, Schelling reverses the Kantian and Newtonian prioritization of external relations (i.e., linear mechanism, where causes are always external to effects) and instead understands nature as a holistic system of internal relations (i.e., reciprocal organism, where cause and effect are circular).215 The former externalist approach is unable to account for the origin of motion and activity in nature, since it deals only with secondary mechanical effects.216 Schelling’s dynamical approach does not assume the existence of corporeal bodies that exchange mechanical forces, but describes the construction of these bodies as a side-effect the originally infinite activity of nature’s fundamental forces of organization.217 Viewed from the height of nature’s fundamental organization, according to Schelling,
the particular successions of causes and effects (that delude us with the appearance of mechanism) disappear as infinitely small straight lines in the universal curvature of the organism in which the world itself persists.218
What needs explaining from the perspective of Schelling’s self-organizing aether is not creative activity, but the appearance of inhibition, habit, and permanence.219 Schelling accounts for inhibitions in the cosmic flow by positing an “original duplicity in nature” as two infinitely active forces striving in opposition to one another.220 Nature is, in itself, infinite, and so only it can inhibit itself. Were there no such polarized self-inhibition in nature, space would have immediately expanded into emptiness and all time would have passed in the flash of an instantaneous point.221 The natural products of gradual cosmic evolution–whether atoms, molecules, stars, galaxies, cells, animals, or humans–are the visible expressions of a determinate proportion of these polarized forces, each one a temporary configuration of nature’s infinite process of formation.222 That is, each product is really a recapitulation of one and the same archetypal organism, only inhibited at a different stage of development and made to appear as a finite approximation of the infinite original.223 Nature’s rich variety of organic products only appear to be finite entities, when in reality, they contain within themselves, as though in a mirror image, the infinite whole of living nature’s creative activity:
…a stream flows in a straight line forward as long as it encounters no resistance. Where there is resistance–a whirlpool forms. Every original product of nature is such a whirlpool, every organism. The whirlpool is not something immobilized, it is rather something constantly transforming–but reproduced anew at each moment. Thus no product in nature is fixed, but it is reproduced at each instant through the force of nature entire.224
Schelling’s attempt to ground the emergence of the physical universe in an unstable abyss (Abgrund) of dynamic forces and to re-conceive nature in terms of becoming rather than being makes it a philosophical precursor to Ilya Prigogine’s work on the physics of non-equilibrium processes.225 Prigogine’s Nobel Prize winning discoveries lead him to announce the birth of a new science,
a science that views us and our creativity as part of a fundamental trend present at all levels of nature.226
Like Prigogine, who called for “the end of certainty” and of the Cartesian/Newtonian mechanistic paradigm, Schelling sought to give an account of the physical universe that does not irrevocably separate the human observer from the nature observed. Scientific objectivity, as a merely reflective method, can prove useful; but there is no coherent metaphysical justification for treating the subject-object split as a reality. “I absolutely do not acknowledge two different worlds,” says Schelling,
but rather insist on only one and the same, in which everything, even what common consciousness opposes as nature and mind, is comprehended.227
The natural scientific consequence of insisting on a polar unity between subject and object is that nature can no longer be conceived of as a heap of objects or a giant machine, but becomes rather a universal organism in whose life all finite creatures participate.228 Cartesian science, which searched for objective matters of fact independent of the values of life and society, comes to be replaced by cosmopolitical science, which foregrounds what the Whiteheadian philosopher Bruno Latour has called “matters of concern.”229 Such a replacement re-knits the frayed edges of cosmos and anthropos back together, allowing for the composition of a new planetary constitution more inclusive of the diverse community of species that call earth home. In the next section, the anthropological and political consequences of re-situating the human being within such a universe are unpacked.
168 According to Owen Barfield, “…as the law now stands, Schelling could have sued Coleridge in respect of one or two pages in the Biographia Literaria.” Barfield, What Coleridge Thought, 6.
169 When asked about his influences by William James, Peirce pointed to “all stages of Schelling, but especially his Naturphilosophie.” See 2n2 above.
170 Emerson referred to Schelling as a “hero.” See 14n58 above.
171 Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life, 134, 514.
172 Bowie, Schelling and Modern European Philosophy, 4.
173 Timothy Lenoir, “Generational Factors in the Origin of Romantische Naturphilosophie,” Journal of the History of Biology, 57; Barry Gower, “Speculation in Physics: The History and Practice of Naturphilosophie,” Studies in the History and Philosophy of Science, 320; Snow, Schelling and the End of Idealism, 67.
174 Bowie, Schelling and Modern European Philosophy, 30.
175 See especially Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life.
176 Gare, “From Kant to Schelling to Process Metaphysics,” 58.
177 Gare, “From Kant to Schelling to Process Metaphysics.”
178 Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life.
179 Esposito, Schelling’s Idealism and Philosophy of Nature.
180 Beiser, German Idealism.
181 Grant, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling.
182 Richards, The Romantic Conception of Life, 128.
183 Grant, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling, 11.
184 Grant, “Introduction to Schelling’s On the World Soul,” Collapse: Philosophical Research and Development, VI, 65.
185 Leon Lederman, The God Particle, 101, 375.
186 Paul Davies, The Cosmic Blueprint, 176.
187 Lederman, The God Particle, 375.
188 Miklós Vassányi, Anima Mundi: The Rise of the World Soul Theory in Modern German Philosophy, 143, 384.
189 Schelling, On the World Soul, trans. Grant, Collapse: Philosophical Research and Development VI, 74.
190 Schelling, Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature, trans. Errol E. Harris and Peter Heath, 5.
191 Grant, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling, 126-127, 169.
192 Schelling, On the History of Modern Philosophy, trans. Bowie, 130.
193 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Keith Peterson, 14.
194 Immanuel Kant, Opus Postumum, trans. Eckhart Förster, 240.
195 Grant, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling, 2.
196 Schelling, Schellings sämtliche Werke, trans. Grant, 11:258.
197 Grant, Philosophies of Nature After Schelling, 158.
198 Schelling, Einleitung in die Philosophie (1830), trans. Grant, 57.
199 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 14.
200 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 198.
201 Schelling, Die Weltalter: Fragmente, in den Urfassungen von 1811 und 1813, ed. Manfred Schröter, trans. Iain Hamilton Grant, 11-12.
202 Schelling, Ideas for a Philosophy of Nature, trans. Harris and Heath, 30.
203 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 14.
204 Schelling, System of Transcendental Idealism, trans. Peter Heath, 11-12.
205 Evan Thompson, Mind in Life: Biology, Phenomenology, and the Sciences of Mind, 59.
206 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 197.
207 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 198.
208 Gare, “From Kant to Schelling to Process Metaphysics,” 45.
209 Matthews, “Introduction,” The Grounding of Positive Philosophy, 20-21.
210 Davies, The Cosmic Blueprint, 2-5, 203.
211 Gare, “From Kant to Schelling to Process Metaphysics,” 28.
212 Usually, the emergence of life and consciousness are explained by mechanists as random chance occurrences–the opposite of a theoretical explanation, since they are said to emerge for no reason.
213 “Panexperientialism” is a term coined by Whiteheadian philosopher David Ray Griffin to refer to any philosophy of nature that affirms that every actual occasion in the universe enjoys some level of experience; see Griffin, Parapsychology, Philosophy, and Spirituality: A Postmodern Exploration, 99.
214 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 137.
215 Gare, “From Kant to Schelling to Process Metaphysics,” 52.
216 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 195-196.
217 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 196.
218 Schelling, On the World Soul, trans. Iain Hamilton Grant, Collapse: Philosophical Research and Development VI, 70.
219 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 17.
220 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 11.
221 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 17, 187.
222 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 35, 159.
223 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 48-50.
224 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 18.
225 See Davies, The Cosmic Blueprint, 175; Late in his life, Prigogine collaborated with the Whiteheadian philosopher Isabel Stengers regarding the philosophical implications of his work.
226 Prigogine, The End of Certainty: Time, Chaos, and the New Laws of Nature, 7.
227 Schelling, Schellings Sämtliche Werke, trans. Grant, 4/102.
228 Schelling, First Outline of a System of the Philosophy of Nature, trans. Peterson, 138.
229 Adrian Wilding, “Naturphilosophie Redivivus: on Bruno Latour’s ‘Political Ecology,’” Cosmos and History: The Journal of Natural and Social Philosophy, Vol. 6: 2010, 19.; http://cosmosandhistory.org/index.php/journal/article/view/148/278 (retrieved 8/7/2012). Wilding argues that many of Latour’s contributions were prefigured in Schelling’s Naturphilosophie.
Entropy is the measure of order in any system. In this regard, to take a rough and ready criterion, the more probable it is that a particular element is located anywhere in a system the more entropy that system embodies. By contrast, the more improbable the location of an element in a system, theless entropic that system is. Thus, systems characterized by high entropy are highlychaotic or disordered, while systems characterized by low entropy are highly ordered. Finally, those systems that maintain the improbability of the location of their elements over time are referred to as “negentropic”. “Negentropy” is a sort of portmanteau word combining “negation” and “entropy”, signifying “the negation of entropy”. In other words, negentropic systems like my body or a corporation are systems that maintain their order.
I posted a comment which read:
I’ve always been somewhat confused by definitions of entropy in terms of probability. It makes perfect sense if I think about molecules of gas in a closed chamber; but on the scale of the universe as a whole in space and time, why is it that entropy is assumed to be more probable than “negentropy”? In the universe we observe (which includes ourselves as observers), there seems to be no reason to assume that disorderliness is anymore probable than orderliness. I see more reason to assume the opposite. Clearly, objects tend to age; but in the case of organisms, the process of aging is also (for the first half of life at least) a process of development and complexification. Phylogenically, organic life has moved from the very simple (prokaryotes) through various stages to the very complex (social mammals). I’ve read complexity theorists who account for this negentropic movement in terms of the tendency of matter to seek equilibrium of energy gradients. But what produces these gradients in the first place? Doesn’t matter also have a tendency to congeal, to fold in upon itself, to complexify? If so, why do we refer to this tendency in the negative, as if it were incidental to the dominant entropic tendency of nature? What about the more neutral term “centropy”?
To which Bryant responded with:
The thesis is not that entropy is more probable in the universe, but that the degree of entropy in a system is a measure of probability in that system. Your questions about gradients suffers from the same problem as intelligent design arguments in biology. You’re basically saying that if there’s order there must have been a designer or an author and are unable to conceive emergent order without authorship.
To which I responded with:
I certainly would not want to conjure up a transcendent designer. That is why I spoke of matter itself having the tendency to complexify. My comment was not an attempt to suggest we need a designer to account for cosmic order. My point was that order seems no less probable than disorder on the cosmological scale. This makes the term “negentropy” seem inappropriate, since it defines order as if it were the accident and entropy the necessity. If we assume something like the big bang model is correct, then leaning on entropy to explain away all the order in the universe as an accidental by-product requires positing that the universe began in a state of hyper-improbability/zero-entropy.
Instead of positing something so improbable because of what seems to me to be an extra-philosophical commitment to nihilism (where everything inevitably is blindly running down towards heat death), why not posit a tendency to life/organization right alongside the tendency to death/dispersal? More appropriate terms for the former tendency might be “centropy,” or “exergy,” which could be understood to operate alongside entropy as the two poles of some more basic, ineffable power/energy underlying the creation and destruction of everything.
Later in the same post, Bryant links his thoughts concerning entropy to Ray Brassier‘s ontology of extinction. I quote Bryant at length:
In many respects, the role that entropy plays in my thought places me close to the metaphysical, political, and ethical conclusions of Ray Brassier. In Nihil Unbound, Brassier argues that the ultimate truth of existence is extinction. In making this claim, he’s not simply pointing out that we all die, but is claiming that at some point the human species will become extinct and that the universe itself will undergo heat death…Brassier argues that the thought of radical extinction carries with it an enlightenment. What might this enlightenment be? Why might this horrific thought of erasure, extinction, be enlightening and ethically invigorating?…I must know the nature of physical reality to answer the question of how best to live, how best to organize society, what to aim for, what to hope for, etc. Lurking in the background of all materialist thought is the hunch that one of the central sources of human suffering is, on the one hand, the “two world hypothesis”, and, on the other hand, what might be called “messianism” and salvation…If we situate Brassier’s radical nihilism in this context, we can see why it is a sort of enlightenment. The truth of extinction is not the gloomy thought that all is pointless because everything is going to be destroyed anyway. Rather, the thought experiment of radical extinction hopefully accomplishes three aims. Insofar as the truth of every person’s life is death (i.e., there’s no afterlife), we should not direct ourselves to an afterlife, but rather should devote ourselves to this life. How can we live in relation to ourselves, to others, and to the earth in order to best live this brief spark that we possess? How should society be transformed and organized to maximize this existence? Second, the truth of extinction with respect to the existence of the human species has the effect of decentering us. We can imagine a world where we are absent. As a consequence, we are not at the center of existence. We are one being– certainly important to ourselves –among others, and we are a being like the others destined to pass away. This discovery encourages us to both respect other beings, but also to recognize the fragility of ourselves and the world we rely on and therefore attend to the preservation of that world. Finally, the extinction of the universe cures us of messianism. There is no apocalypse, no final revelation of the truth, no final salvation, just this world. As such, we should squarely direct ourselves at this world and the work required to maintain this world, not at a world to come or an afterlife.
It’s somewhat easy to tell “just so” stories about how one metaphysical position or another will effect the general public’s common sense ethical beliefs and practices. Bryant’s story is isn’t entirely improbable, but His Holiness the Dalai Lama, for example, would tell a story about reincarnation and karma that might be even more ethically compelling to those who experience it as true. Rather than the horrific thought of erasure, Tibetan Buddhist accounts of reincarnation suggest what may at first appear to be the even more horrific thought of endless suffering. Though the doctrine of non-self is difficult to square with that of reincarnation, I don’t believe it is entirely wrong from the perspective of this tradition to suggest that all “I” really am in this incarnation is a collection of dependently co-arising causes and conditions. In other words, I am karma. My suffering as as separate self is the result of accumulated karma; further, I should not hope for extinction, since this same karma, “my” suffering (which is also the suffering of every sentient being), will continue to reincarnate forever. Forever, that is, unless the inherent emptiness of all supposedly self-existent things is realized here and now. From this perspective, one is lead to compassion for all presently existing beings (human or non-) precisely because any of these beings could be the reincarnation of one’s own mother. Similarly, one is lead to compassion for all future beings because that in us which doesn’t die (i.e., karma) will be present in and as them.