Friday, December 9, 2011


Most ethical theories stop at one or other of the restricted dimensions that make up the whole context of human life. They stop at the individual, as in egoism, or at the societal, as in Utilitarianism or they restrict themselves to the cosmic as in religious or divine command ethics. Why thinkers on matters ethical feel obliged to choose one of these or why all of them should not be taken into consideration at once is something of a conundrum. But then, perhaps it’s not as surprising as all that, since humans have consistently shown themselves prone to take a restricted view of themselves and of their world. But our imagination will not allow us to stop short and be satisfied with some restricted view. The basic issue is that of doing the best with the mind: this ultimately involves establishing a creative tension between the three principal dimensions of human consciousness, the individual, the societal and the cosmic. It is impossible to draw boundaries between these three, but increasingly one or other of them is neglected, as is the manner in which they interact. It is clear that the question ‘what is good for humans?’ can not be answered by any individual or societal recipe for happiness alone, though in contemporary society that is in effect what is happening. The cosmic dimension is more and more regarded as irrelevant. But we neglect it at our peril. We locate ourselves in the cosmos and our happiness is bound up with what we take to be its character. Locate us in a cosmos that intelligently brought us forth and that has a place for us and we are at ease. Locate us in a cosmos in which we are anomalous and alienated beings for whom there is no place apart from that which we carve out for ourselves and we become brutalised and brutal.

It is notoriously difficult to state what is the good for human beings. It is difficult to define this good. The problem here lies with our desire for definitions or rather with the kinds of ‘thing-like’ definitions we desire. This being the case, it is probably easier to say first what is bad for humans. We won’t bother with metaphysical notions such as ‘evil’, for there is little need for these outside of a religious context. It is much more convincing to point out in what way the thing-ideology imposes certain defective beliefs that are bad for us; for make no mistake about it: the thing ideology is bad for us. Once we have done that, we can show why we no longer need to put up with these defective beliefs. If what is bad for us is the consequence of a defective set of beliefs and a defective set of assumptions, then arguing or imagining ourselves out of those assumptions may well open the way for counteracting their effects upon our minds. Once we have outlined what is bad for us, logically the absence or maybe the opposite of these things could be good for us.
So what are the bad effects of the thing-dogma?

One of the chief sources of damaging disruption to natural systems is the injection into the system of defective, inappropriate or irrelevant information. For example, viruses constitute defective information as far as our bodies are concerned and their disruption of the body is obvious to all. Cancers arise from a kind of defective information. Similarly, many of the problems and discontents of western culture arise from defective information, defective beliefs. Richard Dawkins was right in this to the extent that his ‘memes’ can be extremely resilient and extremely deleterious. He was wrong in thinking that he could isolate a certain category of memes – the religious ones – and show that these are uniquely damaging. It is not the holding of this or that particular belief in human culture, that makes it damaging, it is the use made of it.   It is the case that the scientific dogma according to which Dawkins operates is a damaging meme precisely because of its monopolistic domination of areas of life over which it has no right to pronounce. Thus the bad effects of the dogma are those that suggest that human life is meaningless and worthless, that despite the deepest convictions of the human race, its most universal conceptions of the value and purpose of human life are utterly misguided and untrue.

Of course it is bad for humans to suffer poverty, disease, oppression and so on; and there are enough people around the world suffering from these. But to a great extent, these problems are exacerbated by the moral bankruptcy of the developed west. The concern here is with this latter and not necessarily with societies at other stages of development. A basic assumption is that getting the self right in the west will do much to produce improvements to the global situation. So the goal here is to address the spiritual and moral malaise of the west and not so much the consequences of this malaise in the rest of the world. It is to attempt to change the view that human beings have of themselves as things. To see a human being as a thing is to deprive him or her of all value and meaning; and it is precisely these two features of human life that we wish to bring back into the foreground of discourse. In the west a set of damaging assumptions concerning human life that grow directly out of the thing-ideology impacts directly on our psychological health. These assumptions and the beliefs constructed on them have inflicted on us the intellectual and moral malaise from which we suffer. This has in turn afflicted us with a whole range of disorders that are the direct result of what are not only defective and oppressive beliefs, but also now redundant beliefs.

Some of the assumptions and beliefs that are bad for us are listed here. The list is not exhaustive.
It is bad for humans:

- to be told that whatever they may think they are merely things;
- to be told that however they may feel they have no freedom;
- to be bossed around by dogmatists or subjected to this sort of totalitarianism;
- to be made to believe that they are machines and as such, robotically determined;
- to be told that their mind is an illusion or a delusion;
- to believe that any notion of a soul or spirit is even more of an illusion;
- to believe that only external relations are possible with others or with the world;
- to believe that they have only physical, external ‘material’ relations with any reality;
- to be told that as isolated objects they are fundamentally alone and cut-off;
- to be made to believe that their lives have no intrinsic structure or value;
- to be told that only things have value for them;
- to be made to believe that their lives have no purpose;
- to believe that the universe around them is a senseless machine;
- to believe that the universe is an uncoordinated jumble of things;
- to believe that nature is governed only by chance or necessity;
- to believe that human intelligence is a freak of nature and without context;
- to believe that they have no stake in the order of nature;
- to be hectored into believing that their intelligence excludes them from nature;
- to be alienated and terrorised by any or all of the above.

It requires no great insight or subtlety to see that morality in modern western societies is deeply problematic. Philosophy, particularly of the Anglo-Saxon variety has pronounced ethics impossible because values are not things and moral ‘oughts’ cannot be found in nature as one finds rocks, trees, clouds, turtles, galaxies, viruses and other things. Since in our culture the only authoritative sorts of sentences are those that describe things and since in the examination of things, nothing like a value can be detected, sentences that describe the way things ‘should’ be are pronounced to be meaningless expressions of knee-jerk likes or dislikes, mere noises like ‘yuk’ or ‘yum yum’. It has never occurred to the luminaries who thought up this piece of philosophical nonsense that the problem lies with matters of methodology, with midworld, that is to say with a particular use of language and not with the absence of value from the world as such. The empiricist dogma pontificates grandly that only sentences describing things are meaningful and therefore talk of values is gibberish. But value is intrinsic to the world and to all its systems. It’s just that the concepts that designate such value have to be holistic concepts and not reductive ones. Language is particularly well adapted to talking about objects; but this is the weakness of language and it should not blind us to the primacy of values.

Pronouncing ethical statements to be meaningless because they are not reducible to properties of things is about as intelligent as someone’s pronouncing a move in chess illegitimate because, firstly he doesn’t admit to the existence of chess, but only to that of tiddly-winks, and, secondly because the move does not conform to the rules of tiddly-winks. There is a gaping hole in the intellectual fabric of the west and that is its inability to talk the language of wholes. The question, ‘what is the good for humans?’ is therefore a very western question, because it implies some identifiable thing called ‘good’ that can be isolated, as an electric charge or a pungent odour can be isolated along with all other partial things and defined. Thus the good for humans has variously been called ‘happiness’, ‘pleasure’, ‘power’, ‘wealth’ or some such ultimate irreducible thing that can be obtained, like any other commodity, by some mechanical procedure or other. According then to the logic of the thing-ideology, this ‘good’ is deemed to be obtainable for all humans by the application of a set of rules, just as a chair can be obtained from a tree by following a distinct procedure or set of prescriptions.

True to the reductionist methods that dominate intellectual life in the west, we can conceive of the good only in terms of identifiable goods, even to the point of taking that word quite literally: the good is goods. We should have the courage to turn this cast of mind around and invert the reductive spirit in ethics. We only pursue our manic focus on parts because of our prior understanding of wholes. Indeed, the concentration on parts is actually in the service of the understanding of wholes, though we tend to forget this. We understand instinctively that health and happiness are good for man, but we mislead ourselves in identifying those states altogether with what we imagine are particular attainable examples of them. Just as health is not the optimum condition of any one organ, but the complete and harmonious functioning of the entire body and mind, so happiness is not the acquisition of any one aspect of the whole range of potentially agreeable things. We want to know when we ask what is good for man, not what might give him pleasure or satisfaction, what might gratify or entertain him, what might enhance his self-love or increase his feelings of self-worth. We want to know what happiness as a whole, on the analogy with physical health, may entail for the human being as such. We shall therefore ignore the individual goods and try to understand the holistic conception in virtue of which every individual good, from the acquisition of an object to the experience of oceanic ecstasy is understood to be of value.

Western ethics, apart from suffering from the handicap of having been pronounced ‘nonsensical’ by western philosophy, suffers also from the Greek and Judaeo-Christian input that the Middle Ages bequeathed to us. In Ancient Greece, the fundamental ethical question was thought to be ‘what is the best kind of life for a human?’ or ‘how does the individual human flourish?’ The answer to this question was thought to be found in the acquisition of a particular kind of technical know-how; for Plato it was knowledge of the Forms, for Aristotle it was the development of adaptive patterns of behaviour called ‘virtues’ or ‘excellences’. For the Jew and the Christian, however, the fundamental ethical question was rather ‘what does God command me to do?’ And these ‘commands’ were understood to be codifiable rules laying down the best kind of life. These two conceptions of the good life are vastly different, but they had one thing in common: both the Greeks and the Judeao-Christians busily went about trying to establish a method for obtaining the right kind of knowledge in question. As always when humans apply their reason to such matters, however, this led to reductive definitions and punitive prescriptions.

So while the Greeks taught that a certain kind of learning resulted necessarily in the individuals' becoming ‘good’ in the sense of ‘successful’, or ‘well turned-out’, and in their ‘living and faring well’, the Jews and then the Christians, following the monotheistic notion of a divine set of rules for everything in the universe, set themselves the task of clarifying these rules, imposing them on everyone and enforcing them. (And Islam, as a latecomer, is still trying to do this.) Now while the Christians retained the Greek conception of the good life for human beings, considering it simply as complete conformity to the will of God as interpreted by the authority of the Church, in post-Enlightenment Europe God dropped out of the picture and the ego took his place. The good life for a human being became a life of desire-satisfaction and the rules turned into a procedure for ensuring that the desire-satisfaction of every individual member of a given group did not damage the mode of desire-satisfaction of the majority.

This grotesquely impoverished notion of ethics combined the worst of both the Greek and the Christian views on matters ethical. It designated the individual as a unit of pleasure-seeking and announced that, since no one unit has a greater right to pleasure than any other unit, the pleasure-seeking of each unit had to be controlled in such a fashion as to ensure that the greatest amount of pleasure was obtainable by the greatest number. There was of course no compellingly authoritative reason for this at all. It was simply a hang-over from the old Greek and Christian ideas that the good was to be obtained by some sort of procedure and constituted some sort of knowledge; and this knowledge was assumed, particularly by Bentham and his Utilitarians, to be available by scientific means. It was to be acquired by means of the so-called ‘felicific calculus’. Since the search for factual knowledge was deemed to be the amassing of the finest-grain unit facts and combining these facts according to some rules, the same was thought to go for ethics. The ‘facts’ were those that the ego deemed to be the facts of human nature, namely that each human being, as a kind of atomic unit of humanity, was motivated by an entirely selfish desires for kinds of pleasure. Bentham believed that all the individual satisfactions could each be given a score and that on the basis of some ill-defined arithmetic these scores could reveal some optimum state of society, just as the properties of atoms combined them together to form a world. This caricatural conception of human life remains the dominant ethical theory in the west today – albeit without the wacky mathematics – and is an indication of the extent to which, in desperation, westerners are liable to believe the veriest nonsense merely because they have no other means of intellectual control of reality than the thing-ideology.

What, then could the alternative be? What alternative view could we develop of the good for human beings if we ditch the thing-ideology and learn to speak the language of wholes?  The reductive language of fragments that is imposed upon human beings by the thing-ideology suggests to each individual that he or she is completely cut-off and alone as an object among objects and has only external relations with other individuals or atomic units and all the other ‘ills’ resulting from the thing-ideology listed above. The result of belief in this fragmentary view of life is that each individual feels obliged to exploit every situation as an opportunity for personal gratification, since there is no other value. This personal gratification has no other substance than the obtaining of certain types of commodities. The ethical ideal of the average western individual is thus officially viewed as the acquisition and consumption of a certain sum of these commodities. Of course, an extra ethical dimension is bolted on to this in a completely irrational manner, which states quite flatly that one person’s acquisition and consumption of commodities must not damage another person’s chances of obtaining and consuming commodities. There is no particularly moral justification for this from the basic ideology, which is purely egoistic, but it is bolted on nevertheless, because even the thing-ideology has to recognise that ethics has a group dimension that it would be absurdly inefficient to ignore.

One other reason for the utilitarian inhibition of egoism is also, of course, the mechanistic need for predictable organisations: society in utilitarian ethics is viewed as a well-oiled machine – since everything else in nature is an efficient machine – and it would seem that pure egoism as a social principle could not work very well. It becomes evident from an understanding of this fragmentary approach to reality, that not only can it not really deal intelligently with the dynamics involved in the relation of individual to group, it cannot understand human life in any way at all, because human life is only comprehensible as a series of integrated systems that go from particles to cells, from cells to organs, from organs to the body, from the body to social groups, from social groups to cultural groups, from social and cultural groups to the world, from the world to the totality of nature and the cosmos; and without some way of integrating all of these systems, it is impossible to grasp what is good for the individual human being and for the human group. It is as arbitrary to cut off the ethical questioning at the societal or cultural level of systems as it is to declare that it belongs to the individual alone. Every human being is aware that questions concerning the good for humans go from the individual through the societal to the cosmic without any obvious boundaries and they do so because it is in the nature of human self-consciousness to situate itself in these contexts and to understand them holistically.

Some sort of realisation is dawning that a holistic language and a conception of complex feedback loops is needed with respect to recommendations concerning human behaviour, for example in the ecological movement, but it needs to be much more consciously and much more systematically developed in conscious opposition to the fragmenting effects of the thing-ideology. The ethical phenomenology of the human race has to be considered as an emergent property of the most complex thing in the whole known universe, namely the human being, not just singly, but as a whole species. And let us remember here that these properties are called ‘emergent’ by us only because our habit of looking at every whole in terms of what we identify as its simplest parts makes wholes challengingly mysterious. Each sub whole of relevance to the human being, from sub-atomic particle to planet, has to be regarded as essentially and fundamentally connected both to the immediate subordinate whole and to the immediate superordinate whole and, thereby, to the totality both at the micro and at the macro scale. There is a flow of information from all levels of the system to all other levels. The flow of information is from what we call ‘the simple’ to what we call ‘the complex’ and from the complex to the simple. In reality, there is no such thing as the clear distinction between ‘the simple’ and ‘the complex’, for the simple can behave in complex ways and the complex in simple ways. There are no ‘fundamental building blocks’ to nature, no ultimately ‘simple’ bits, the properties of which, along with the rules of their combination, govern all phenomena. Wholes at all levels have irreducible emergent properties that cannot be understood reductively. Parts are only apparently parts; they are in fact either sub-wholes or superordinate wholes depending  on the point from which one views them; and this relation of parts to whole is an essential property of the entirety of the biosphere, and, we must assume, of the universe as a whole.

The life of the individual human being is set in a nested series of systems, each of which has to be considered as a whole that is not reducible to its parts. Moreover, each whole has either to be viewed as a sub-whole within a superordinate whole, rather than merely as a part of that whole, or else as a superordinate whole the parts of which are its sub-wholes. As for the wholes relevant to ethics, there is the body, to begin with, then the family, then the various larger social groupings, after which comes the ecosystem of the planet and thereafter the universe as a totality. The idea that the individual human could somehow seek integration into the universe as a whole is not as barmy as it sounds when one realises that according to the de Broglie interpretation of the individual particle, each particle reflects the whole universe in the information encoded in the wave-potential that accompanies it. Imagine, in order to put a bit of reality on this abstract notion, what is indeed the case: the light from every visible source in the universe, the light that encodes the information concerning every object in the visible universe, is present at every point within the universe, for every part of the visible universe can be observed from every other part. Thus every ‘part’ of the universe that we experience is present in every other ‘part’. The information governing the entire universe is present everywhere in the universe, holographically present, if you like. A human being can not be fully human without feeling ‘at one’ with each of the systems of which it is a sub-whole. The good for a human being is therefore a living sense of belonging to each of the systems in turn in which its life is set, from body to universe. The link between each of these systems is information-processing or intelligence, the intelligence specific to the level in question. The old notion of man as the microcosm mirroring the macrocosm returns in new guise if one considers the notion of ‘self-similarity’ in chaos-theory. It is one of our deepest instinctive conceptions of ourselves that suggests to us that the relation between our creative minds and our earth-bound bodies might be a dim reflection of the relation between the physical cosmos and the universal intelligence that animates it.

The intelligence of the individual is not just brain-function, it is rather an aggregate function of the indeterminate information that accompanies every particle of the individual’s body, a function of the complex information-bearing field that fundamentally is each apparent part and that is connected to the indeterminate intelligence of each superordinate system above it. The information-bearing field that is each apparent part unfolds itself to us in ways that are peculiar to our particular ability to experience. We experience a world of separate things – that is our brain-imposed handicap. But our experience can be trained to broaden itself and become an experience that the self has of fields, of the universal field. We can experience the universe as universal light, universal energy, universal intelligence, and its various phenomena, ourselves included, as bound forms of these. This is a kind of myth, and will be rejected with cries of “juvenile idealism” or something similar. But the mechanistic dogma is a myth, too, and a destructive one. The holistic myth proposed here is the sort of myth that is needed to counteract the corrosive and fatal effects of the mechanistic-deterministic thing-ideology.

It is a consciousness of the integrated totality of the universe, in which the individual has a stake and a role, that has the potentiality to combine all the disparate elements in ethical theories as diverse as Utilitarianism, Natural Law ethics, Kantianism, Virtue-Ethics, Divine Command Ethics, Situation Ethics, Egoism, Prescriptivism, Anarchism and so on. It can combine deontological and consequentialist notions. It can combine prescriptive and descriptive ethics and abolish the spurious distinction between cognitivism and non-cognitivism. It can do these things by the simple expedient of not restricting knowledge to knowledge of parts. The forces that forge the many moral codes that exist and that have existed in human groups have the purpose not only of connecting the individual to a system, but also of revealing and imparting to individual life a structure, a purpose, a sense, a 'meaning' if you like, that is inherent to it and not simply imposed for the convenience of this or that power-hungry authority. Whatever the Existentialists may have said about the lack of a human essence, there has to be an essence of the human in order for life to function, though this essence clearly is not identifiable with any one aspect of human existence. It is precisely the doctrine of meaningless that has given rise to the existential notion of absurdity and to the view that fundamentally ‘anything goes’ except where the majority has decided – on the basis of its superior power – that in the interests of its comfort, certain things will be forbidden. The good for humans is therefore substantially the opposite of everything proposed by the thing-ideology and is found in a rediscovery of the ancient values of spiritual connection with universal meaning. That it is physics that can begin to make these things comprehensible demonstrates that we are not dealing here with mere mystification, but rather with intellectually serious matters of vital importance that we have no reason any more to obfuscate with any half-baked ‘scientific’ dogma.

When one has got rid of the pusillanimous notion that the only good for humans is vegetable health it is fairly easy to see that what is good for humans is the same as what makes their existence meaningful: it is being dynamically and permanently aware that the self-conscious mind is integrated into the cosmos and thus actively involved in its ceaseless creativity. There is no more consummately meaningful, no better life than to be in creative partnership with the creativity of the cosmos. To create, to be creative, for us humans is to be created, even if we know it or not. The cosmos is infinitely varied and infinitely complex because it is a process of constant creation. We have a stake in this perpetual creativity whether we understand this or not. Clearly, it is better to understand our status as created creators than not. 

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