Trying to explain

The above is the title of a book by Donald Davie. I’m using it here because I’ve been asked a few times recently to a) describe what it is I’m trying to do and b) describe how philosophy as a practice can offer something in our current predicament. With a bow to Collingwood, the key question that has informed my research is how philosophical practice, that is, acting with an awareness, and on the basis of, a conscious reflection on one’s worldview, might offer an effective response to the ecological emergency. By ecological emergency I mean all the impacts of the anthropocene (biodiversity loss, pollution, deforestation and climate change) and also the human attempts to engage with the impacts, including attitude polarisation, technological innovation, social fragmentation, despair and denial.

Bear in mind that what I’m laying out here is a fairly comprehensive worldview, and I don’t necessarily expect you to agree with it. However, what I would like you to do is to take it on its internal consistency. So, for instance, if you believe in God, you might have a difficulty with my atheism. See if you can put that aside, temporarily, at least to see if the theory makes sense, and then see if we can perhaps discuss how the theory might work if God was at the heart of it. Likewise, if you’re a climate change sceptic. I shouldn’t imagine there will be many of those reading this, but if you are able to do so, put to one side your objections to climate change as an orthodoxy, and, if you like, leave that aside, working instead with the rest of the theory. If you’re a creationist, you’re going to struggle with my theory but I still think we have something to say to one another, and I’d encourage you to read on. If you’re right about everything, you have nothing to learn here. Pass by.

There are really three strands to the approach I advocate. Understanding ourselves in context is the first: we’re not apart from the systems, time and place we’re in. That’s obvious for some, but it’s not necessarily intuitive, and nor are the implications. We can feel as though we’re unique beings that could have landed anywhere in space and time and would have been the same. However, a brief reflection on who and what you are reveals that you and I exist precisely because of the genetic, environmental, ecological, climate, cultural and other conditions that brought us to this point. This is true not just of us, of course, and it is not only true of all humans. This is the nature of existence. It is interdependent, and co-arising, and not only did we not choose where and when and how to be, neither did anything or anyone else. This may sound like determinism. It is not. It is a recognition of the arbitrary nature of existence, and of the probabilistic and yet unpredictable laws that, as far as we know, govern this uni (or perhaps multi)verse. I do believe that despite this, we have the capacity for a particular kind of agency, but it’s very different from the kind of agency we’ve traditionally learned we have, and that’s important.

The idea that we’re enmeshed to the point of being interdependent and co-arising, to use the Buddhist terms, is not a difficult idea, but it subtly shifts our understanding of our relationship to self, other and the more-than-human world. We do not own our victories or our defeats and failures in the ways that we have traditionally understood. We do not have free will either, in the traditional sense. How could we, if we come about in context, entirely enmeshed, in Tim Morton’s phrase? There have been some controversial, but increasingly accepted, experiments to show that our brains make decisions before the prefrontal cortex area where conscious ‘choice’ takes place begins to fire. We are born, grow up in a context unique to ourselves, experience particular and subtly different care and education, go on to make choices based on the characteristics that develop out of that combination of genetic and environmental heritage which in turn, puts us into different contexts from someone who may in many or even almost all respects have had an identical experience. Successes tend to build a worldview of success, and failures a worldview of failure. Committing a crime that involves a demonstrable lack of empathy can sometimes be traced back to early emotional disconnection. Causes and effects are complicated, however, because they are complex. All kinds of chance happenings can shift the balance. This happens not just to individuals, of course, but to societies and cultures and ultimately, in a global context, to predominant understandings of the world, which become the worldview most of whose adherents unreflectively accept without question.

Questioning, and raising awareness of what we tend to take for granted, is the job of philosophers. But being aware of what we are, and revisiting the question when new information comes to light, is something we all do all the time. Awareness is one aspect of consciousness – if you like, you could characterise it as consciousness that is conscious of itself. That we humans have evolved with the capacity for this kind of consciousness is fairly incontrovertible. It’s probably an evolutionary advantage. It’s our ability to know that we are here, now. It may have come about as a result of the chance happenings of evolution that meant our survival became increasingly dependent on our capacity for problem solving. And problem solving was helped by knowing more about the world and our relationship to it. If so, it is a kind of accident of evolution, since evolution itself has no direction. It is a blind process of experimentation at the physical level, of a systematic patterning of matter to distribute energy.

The second is that there are things which are good for the systems, big and small, of which we make up our infinitesimal, but to each of us, entirely relevant and important, part. My metaphor of a galaxy comes from Scott Sampson’s work on explaining how things maintain their existence in spite of an overarching move, obeying the second law of thermodynamics, towards entropy. His essay here describes how the ‘purpose’ of life is to distribute energy, which is a neat explanation, when you think about it. He describes universal energy as analogous to a river in which there are whirlpools which both take in and release energy and yet maintain the pattern of their existence. I took this idea, along with the ideas from Paul Taylor who developed a theory of respect for nature, which he based on Kant’s idea that we treat persons as ends in themselves, and moved the context to a systems-based understanding of what we are. This led me to conclude that we are systems (albeit we have boundaries at our skins, and in our self conception, nevertheless these are porous and shift through time) and thus interdependent. And that systems have conditions that maintain them, and those that cause them to either dissipate energy too quickly, like a Catherine wheel, and burn out, or develop obstructions within the system that interfere with the dissipation of energy, and cause the system to fragment and collapse. If we can say that some things are ‘good’ for systems, including ecosystems, and including us, then we can say that some things are harmful, or ‘bad’ for systems (including us).

Shifting the Locus of Freedom

The third imaginary that requires re-examination if we are to make the shift from illusory control to effective response is to revisit in what sense we might claim to be free to choose. This means reviewing our sense of “moral agency”. Paul Taylor, following Kant, suggested that our agency is the sense in which we are free to choose what to do. Our moral agency is therefore the sense in which we are free to choose to do good, or evil (that is, to benefit, or to inflict harm).  This gives a person, and indeed a moral agent, a considerable amount of liberty: she can choose to act or not to act, and she can do so based on choosing what to value or not to value. 

Yet none of those acts are freely chosen if, as described above, we are entirely enmeshed in circumstances over which we have had no control, from what bugs bit us to who tucked us up in bed, and how. In practice, if these influences are the precursors for subsequent decisions made by brain states always reliant on memory for what they pay attention to, then our liberty is, in practice, considerably constrained. Sam Harris would say that it is constrained to the point of being almost entirely illusory, and I am inclined, given our enmeshment, to agree. 

The ‘moral’ element of our actions cannot survive this shift any better than the agent can. If we came to be where we are as a result of circumstances over which we have or had no control, we cannot be said to have moral responsibility for our subsequent reactions. Shifting the narrative on moral agency, and on free will, is radical and controversial to say the least. 

Yet we still have an ability to respond, a responsibility, if we recognise the role of awareness, of the “self knowing itself”. Our agency comes into being when we practice paying attention to this awareness. We realise, and thus release ourselves from the bonds of the action, reaction, cause, effect, that have brought us to this precise moment. We are looking out at, but also from within, the issues to be considered, but it is precisely this capacity we have to understand, or realise this explicit implicitness that allows us to develop a clearer idea of our role in the ecological emergency.

Taylor advocated a process that considered what (human) moral agents owe everything else. Since I have suggested that the locus of action lies in practicing realisation, it is to a reflection on perspective that I will move next. Thomas Nagle famously and correctly noted that it is impossible to adopt the perspective of another organism. We do not know what it is like to be a bat because we could only ever have a human view, and more, an individual, enmeshed self-continuum view, thrown into the ring of bathood. 

Yet we are part of, and inherently enmeshed in, the same systems, if from a different angle, as bats and their co-evolutes. On top of which, as Mary Midgley has pointed out, we don’t need to be grass to know when grass needs water: we just need to take a look at the state it is in. 

If humans have one clear evolutionary advantage that is equivalent to bat’s echolocation, (and it may well not be unique to humans), it is the complexity of our communication which includes stories, and the key to stories is that they ask, “what if?”. Instead of focusing on our free will, and positing that we of all species alone decide how to live, we could shift narratives and say that self-reflection is itself the key factor in locating where our agency, or freedom, lies. Much of the common sense notion of free will, or agency, in this sense, relies on the old dualistic myth of a homunculus in the ethereal world of consciousness directing the gears of the bones and sinews to elicit action. This myth prevails, damagingly, but we need to explore, to feel our way, so that we update it without leaving the culture reeling in shock or entrenched in rejection. For this, we can again look to the literature of East Asian thought but also to the embodiment of philosophical practices, like meditative awareness practices, and yoga.

Little is known about the culture within which Yoga actually started although it represents, in some senses, a highly systematised set of techniques and practices that have rudimentary or parallel equivalents in many other cultures around the world. In the Northern plains of the Indus Valley, between the rivers of the now extinct Saraswati and the Indus, there developed one of the most advanced ancient civilisations that lasted for at least two thousand years. This was the context, but the thread that runs through the almost unimaginably long and complex history of yoga is its concern with the internal world. The practices that yogis used to access their sense of a fundamental point from which to view existence were just that, practices. The philosophy that emerges as a result of later examinations of these practices is often contradictory (dualist vs non-dual, polytheistic, monotheistic and atheistic) which is why one is so often redirected to the practice in a kind of anti-intellectualism.

My interest is in how my own philosophical perspective can elicit a yoga practice that allows me to respond to what is going on right now, this ecological emergency in which I find myself, and which is also an emerging awareness of my own fragmentation, which I need to deal with by becoming more open to an awareness of how I change my own perception of the interactions that tend to make me want to blame and judge, but which can only be effectively dealt with as emerging from my own conditions. Through this journal, I’m encountering people who are interested in both the yoga and the philosophical practice (which are not separable, really) and this is a very interesting experience, to meet people virtually whose focus is sometimes almost parallel, and sometimes wildly different from mine. It’s a huge challenge to attempt to articulate this, and time keeps eating up my days with trivia and a gnawing doubt. But I’ll press on.

Leave a Reply