I’ve long wondered why the question that seized me as a young man didn’t register with the vast majority of philosophers. Given that nature unfolds in seamless wholeness, I asked, how did nature evolve a sentient creature that is fragmenting the Earth all to hell?
At one level, this question expresses what 19th century philosophers called “the riddle of man.” In the 21st century however, finding an adequate explanation for why man is such a destructive creature has become an existential imperative, not just a philosophical exercise.
The question was never merely a philosophical one for me. I had an insight into the observer at 18 that changed the course of my life, and carried with it an insight into the nature of thought.
What separates humans from nature, each other and the sacred is our ability to separate things from nature, without realizing that this is a functional capability, not the nature of things
In the last few decades, scientists and philosophers have tried, and utterly failed, to resolve the riddle of man and mitigate human ecological destructiveness by denying the dissimilarity, and blurring the difference between the human adaptive pattern and the way nature as a whole operates.
In a clear and concise letter, a philosopher with whom I’ve been corresponding inadvertently helped me understand the indifference I’ve long encountered with respect to the anomaly between man and nature.
“One thing on which we do not see things quite the same,” he understatedly began, “is when you state that a ‘sentient and potentially sapient’ organism could destroy its own habitat requires special explanation.”
“I don’t see this,” he stated. “It seems to me pretty much blind odds whether ecological understanding will develop concomitantly with technology, which can advance independently of understanding.”
That seems a good argument on the surface, though it’s full of holes just below the surface. For one thing it presumes that the evolution of symbolic thought, and the potential for self-understanding are equivalent, and entirely the result of random evolution.
Though there is no end, randomness is a means, not the sole factor in cosmic and terrestrial evolution.
I submit that we won’t find a different biology on other planets (or moons, such as Saturn’s methane cloaked and soaked Titan) anymore than we will find different physics in other solar systems.
I submit that the evolution of symbolic thought occurs wherever the conditions for life are stable enough to permit billions of years of evolution. That means that evolutionary processes are random, but the evolution of creatures like us, capable of
manipulating their environments rather than being bound to ecological niche, is inevitable.
Another flaw in the view that the human anomaly requires no special explanation, and that the insight to use thought wisely could have evolved along with symbolic thought, is that it removes human agency from the equation. “Ecological understanding” can only come with self-understanding, and that’s the responsibility of the creature in which conscious thought evolves.
Therefore insight and wisdom could not concomitantly occur with the evolution of ‘higher thought,’ since the strong tendency of thought is to mistake the reality it fabricates for the actuality of nature’s seamless wholeness. It’s then a question of when, and whether creatures possessing symbolic thought gain sufficient insight into to stop fragmenting their planets and themselves.
The correspondence with the philosopher ended when he assumed a decidedly nihilistic stance. “I’d say there is a fairly good chance that a creature which, due to creative adaptation, breaks out of ecological niche, will eventually destroy its planetary ecosystem. What is to constrain it? Throw in capitalism, and there’s your explanation.”
Without wading into the swamplands of critiquing capitalism, that’s a dead-ending conclusion. If man is doomed, it certainly isn’t because of capitalism, but the unrestrained selfishness and greed that underlie it.
We may not be able to change, and change course, but the fault will be not in our stars, but in ourselves. In any case, nihilism, the belief that humans are hopeless and life is meaningless, is antithetical to life.
The emergence of a brain such as ours, which at present is ravaging this beautiful planet, may be of complete indifference to the universe.
However since the human brain also gives us the capacity for direct experiencing of the numinous, faith in a higher intelligence, and in humanity, is clearly required.