A point of view
By Andy Cox
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Happiness is the vivid bloom
of lives lived in a rich loam.
Our humanity a humus for those to come,
but we too are the beneficiaries of
others amongst us or gone.
So, death is undone through life’s legacy,
ceaselessly so in our common soil,
our commonweal in which the passing of one
seemingly brings forth others.
- No reincarnation :
Only others informing us as we inform others -
from which we can pick precious purpose.
Dark weeds there may be amongst us
that would forswear our mutuality and leech,
as there are some who would set themselves apart
in manicured beds corrupted with sterile soil.
Neither acknowledges the give and take.
Yet it is our bonds that set us free -
knowing what binds us unbinds us.
And when one day, this becomes religion,
then may we find a capacity to rejoice
every time a bud opens
It’s like this: For a good many years, my head has been a pot for a sort of intellectual stew, the ingredients of which have managed to retain their separate identities, even if they’ve become a little soggy over time. A splash of good wine has surely enhanced the flavour: (In vino veritas, no doubt). And many a good argument has provided the spice, adding nuance to the creation. I say creation, but, in fact, none of these ingredients is novel: One or two of these old roots have been around since antiquity. What interests me, however, is their interrelationship, the alluring possibility that they may, so to speak, enhance each other. Their integration into something bigger, a worldview if you like, is the thesis of this polemical exercise. Five of the larger entities in this stew, which I intend to slice apart, are:
These, I would contend, contribute to a fifth ingredient, namely:
But before I begin to ladle this out, there is something I feel which needs to be said: Man, I believe, is doomed to be a philosopher. No one bar those devoid of abstract thought can escape this fate. Beneath all the internalised trivia, beneath the layers of received knowledge that crowds one‘s mind, there lies a philosophical construction addressing the very nub of one’s existence, whether this is acknowledged or not, whether this construction is fashioned on the anvil of critical thought or represents merely a concatenation of conventional responses to the big questions of life. In other words, everyone has a worldview. In presenting my own, I am merely laying bare a philosophical construction that seems to make sense to me. To be honest, I am not unquestionably certain about it: It tilts in places and contains many a threadbare rivet. But it coheres sufficiently to satisfy my own need to understand the world around me.
So here’s a taste of that intellectual stew: I have no idea at all why we are here on this earth, or, indeed why earth should be here in the first place. Any suggestion that our existence and that of the universe serve some purpose begs more than a few questions. What I think draws people into this sort of thinking is a deep-seated, almost reflexive, propensity for analogical thinking in which one phenomenon is explained by comparing it and drawing parallels with another. It seems to me that in our ordinary lives – when not engaged in philosophical discourse – we are sometimes implicitly informed by all manner of delusions, as well as truths, which we do not pause to consider, and which are extracted from the mud of our mundane existence, primarily, through the mechanism of analogy. Our ordinary world is the base from which we peregrinate on philosophical excursions. One might argue that this base itself occupies philosophical terrain. But the philosophical grounding of our everyday existence is necessarily implicit and ‘out of mind’: When we engage with the ordinary, we are rarely impelled towards philosophical reflection. Philosophy, in any case, competes with many other disciplines – psychology, biology, and economics, amongst others – in respect of our proclivity for abstraction. I am not suggesting that analogical thinking is without use: All I am suggesting is that if you scratch beneath many of the taken for granted notions that have taken up residence in our minds, you may well come across analogies that don’t stand up to scrutiny. Sometimes one is not even aware that an analogy is being drawn, let alone that an analogical fallacy is committed in assuming somehow that the comparison proves something to be the case rather than merely suggests - usually in a graphic or picturesque manner - how the phenomenon in question could be explained. Moreover, in some cases, the analogy is plainly flawed. Nothing exemplifies this better than certain arguments purporting to prove the existence of God. The Argument from Design, for example, has it that the order and beauty of the universe demonstrate that it must have been designed. Not only is the premise of this argument debatable - order and beauty are clearly not universally present and could be attributed rather to the eye of the beholder, but the conclusion is simply a non sequitur: It relies, of course, on an implicit analogy with, say, a craftsman creating a beautiful artefact - a microcosmic event which is thought somehow to serve as a parallel for a macrocosmic event, the creation of the universe. But,
(a) It simply does not follow that what holds good in the microcosmic situation - namely that the artefact has self-evidently been made by someone - holds good in the macrocosmic situation, where one is confronted with an infinite universe. At most, one might allow that an inference is being made. But this requires comparability between these situations, which is simply not the case: In the microcosmic situation, the craftsman is responsible for just a limited number of products in a world of innumerable objects, including other craftsmen. The putative God in the macroscopic situation is deemed to have created everything on his own.
(b) The analogy is thus flawed for that reason, but also because in the microcosmic situation, the craftsman produces the artefact from materials to hand, for example, wood. God, however, is believed by the religious apologist to create the universe ex nihilo, from nothing.
For these and other reasons - such as attributing certain manifestations of order instead to evolutionary forces - The Argument from Design is totally unconvincing. But it is important to observe that it is basically the unwarranted drawing of conclusions on the basis of an analogy, as well as the flawed nature of the analogy, which undermine this argument. Moreover, as is the case with all philosophical arguments, there is a meaning problem which needs to be addressed even before the logic is questioned: What exactly do we mean when we say that God created everything ex nihilo? I would venture to suggest that the whole idea is incomprehensible, and that any attempt to clarify what is meant by this is likely to rely on yet more unwarranted inferences drawn from yet more flawed analogies. Simply stringing together a number of words in a grammatically correct sentence, as in ‘God created everything’, may create the illusion of meaning, but grammatically-generated meaning is no substitute for conceptual clarity. Anyway, such is the nature of analogical thinking, which pervades our language and reasoning. Unsurprisingly, it characterizes much discussion on the dreaded subject of death.
Death is personal: To us in the West, it is something which can consume our inner lives as surely as it consumes the husks we call our bodies. It is the raison dêtre for so much in life, a rallying point, a border post of the everyday world. It is a concept shot through with powerful emotions: fear, anger, revulsion, sadness, love. And it too is something which is conceived in terms of analogies. Already I have unwittingly resorted to analogical thinking in my references to our inner lives and outer husks: I have evoked the ghost in the machine. I might also have suggested that death is like a sleep, adding the corollary that in the ’sleep of death, dreams may come’, that a life of sorts awaits us ’when we have shuffled off this mortal coil’. But on what basis would I have arrived at this conclusion? The rub of the matter is that this belief is founded primarily on analogy, and that below it may lie a deeply entrenched fear of losing one’s ego, a fear that is particularly conditioned by the individualistic ethos of so-called advanced societies. I would like to propose instead that we calmly consider the alternative; namely, that there is no afterlife. I would like to suggest that when we die no heaven or hell awaits us, because, to put it simply, we shall no longer be. This being the case, we can have no cause to fear death, because it carries no implications for us beyond our complete annihilation. I am aware, of course, that, to someone like me, the product of a Catholic upbringing, a faint angst haunts this construction on death. But this hardly detracts from the argument. It is surely preferable that the head and the heart should concur, but like an old married couple, these two faculties will not always see eye to eye.
Though profoundly personal, death is a social phenomenon as well: On a small scale, there are the bereaved, of course, who not only feel the loss, but whose lives are more or less, subtly or significantly, altered. These effects may cascade far and wide. For example, a death may loosen ties, or bring people together, and this may influence the pattern of affiliations and interactions of the generations that follow. Macrocosmically too, death is something with which society as a whole has to contend. I’m not referring here to, say, the preoccupation of various organs of the state with morbidity indices and the implications these may have on governmental spending. I am referring rather to a more profound way in which society is taken up with the phenomenon of death: to the fact that death is something which is ‘culturally mediated’. Without getting into a debate about the nature of culture – it has variously been construed as comprising the symbolic and acquired aspects of society, as something distinct from nature, as something distinct from the social structure, as something akin to ideology, or as a way of life – in the present context this phrase relates to a societal resource which is drawn upon to bestow meaning on what is in a certain sense a unintelligible event, and provide the rituals with which order and ordinariness are re-established. Death, particularly when it is unexpected and dramatic, is often extraordinary in various ways, and has the potential to thoroughly trivialize the construct we know as society. We see this manifested sometimes in a phase of withdrawal and detachment in someone who is actually dying. And death, of course, takes one beyond the reach of society. Thus, society needs to assert itself – via culture - by countering the bewildering sense of life being insignificant, goals and ambitions being pointless, and norms being irrelevant, which may potentially also accompany the experience of bereavement. This is something which is proactively addressed during the socialization process, when how one is to live in general, rather than how one should cope with death in particular, is the focus of attention. As far as society is concerned, what is not needed is that individuals grow up believing that, as there is no point to life, they may as well take whatever they want from life, and act however they please, regardless of the consequences. Society could just not operate as an aggregation of nihilistic egoists. In other words, society abhors anomie, much as nature abhors a vacuum. If one chose to talk of society in some reified sense as having a separate existence, one might say that, if its constituent members did not to some extent subscribe to a set of shared beliefs and values, then the fabric of society might itself unravel. Returning to the subject of bereavement, one could say that if, because of the death of someone close to them, individuals were left feeling that life was of no importance or that nothing was worth pursuing, then they might not be able to adequately fulfill their social roles, and this too could have all sorts of repercussions for others; not just emotionally unsettling the latter. When a death occurs, individuals need to feel that, in some sense, ‘life goes on’. The comfort and support provided by friends reinforces this message, and subliminally impresses on the bereaved that they continue to belong within a network of other social beings. The colloquial expression about someone’s world falling apart in the aftermath of a death often sums up the experience of bereavement. When culture is deployed to hold that world together, it is chiefly one particular component of culture that is tasked with this, and that component is known as religion
Now, I’m not suggesting that religion necessarily comes into play when someone dies. But this certainly seems to happen most of the time and in nearly all societies. Religion is, of course, the principal (though by no means exclusive) sponsor of the notion that we somehow survive death. Moreover, religion generally-speaking also declares that what happens to us after death is determined by the manner in which we conduct ourselves in life. There can be little doubt that in promoting such ideas, religion serves society well by immunising individuals against anomic tendencies in the face of death. Its priests and preachers, mullahs and rabbis have for centuries officiated over the rituals of death, and comforted the bereaved with promises of paradise. However, there is much more to the relationship between religion and society than that: For one thing, in most cases, the former generally serves to facilitate mass conformity to most societal norms through pushing an ethical agenda, the bottom line of which – at least in the Abrahamaic religions - is that if you are good you go to heaven and if you are bad you go to hell. Moreover, religion and the state are institutionally enmeshed in various ways in most countries: In theocracies, they are practically indistinguishable. In the West, religion may have retired to the back benches, yet it still manages to insinuate itself to various degrees in the political life of countries, sometimes in a moderating way. Even in avowedly atheistic states, a sort of quasi-religion fills the breach with absurdities like Kim Jong-il of
However, religion and its relationship with society are changing all the time: In some parts of the world, religion is in retreat; in other parts, it is resurgent. What is more, its consoling function is sometimes belied by a proclivity for politicisation, as is evidenced by liberation theology in
But, of course, there is a major philosophical flaw with religion which affects its credibility, and that is – as has already been suggested – that it is premised on spurious analogies. One might wonder whether religion can nevertheless survive a convincing refutation of this analogical reasoning. I do not believe it can. To me, these analogies are central to any religious apology. That such reasoning should be deployed at all demonstrates the poverty of this apology. You don’t deploy analogical thinking to prove the existence of tables and chairs (I fear for the physical safety of philosophers who doubt such things); you do when seeking to prove the existence of a putative entity that cannot otherwise convincingly be shown to exist. Furthermore, what is unseen can only be apprehended through, or with reference to, what is seen. Of course, there are other categories of proof advanced by those wanting to show that God exists. But I think that the analogical argument is crucial because, in the absence of direct empirical evidence of his existence, analogy ‘informs’ the substantive picture we have of God. Whether viewed as an ancient with a beard and flowing robes, a powerful uber-warrior wielding an axe, a gigantic bird, or some nebulous power, God has been described by likening him to observable phenomena. In short, by deploying analogy. And since the analogy fails as proof, the entire deck of cards that is religion comes crashing down, along with the card setting out the religious premise of an afterlife. When this begins to dawn on people, then, of course, the contribution of religion to social order will begin to decline. There are other problems with religion too; many of them are psychological as opposed to philosophical in nature. Take, for example, the peculiar and somewhat hypocritical attitude religions exhibit towards the ‘sins of the flesh’: Although they may object that they are concerned rather with less sense-bound feelings, such as joy and despair, ultimately religions implicitly acknowledge the hedonistic principle that human beings are driven by the need to seek out pleasure and avoid pain. (This I would regard as ancillary to the most profound need driving us: the desire for happiness). The extremes of such experiences, after all, are supposedly afforded by heaven and hell respectively. Even if it is argued that these are states of mind or ‘planes of existence’ rather than physical locations, heaven and hell are seen as conditions that happen to and are imposed upon people, to which people react in ways which bear comparison with reactions to pleasurable and painful stimuli. Yet this all sits rather uncomfortably with the puritanical disapproval evinced by most religions – particularly those in the Abrahamaic tradition – of any display of a life-affirming sexuality outside strict social boundaries. Thus we find certain Muslim fundamentalists self-righteously demanding the lash, or even the bullet, for women transgressing the rigid mores of their societies. In the same breath, they will wax rhapsodic at the prospect of eternal orgiastic rutting in paradise in the company of seventy two virgins should they lose their lives whilst attempting to butcher innocents in some squalid Middle Eastern marketplace or in the anonymous streets of some Western city. (More recently, there have been unconfirmed reports from
I have argued that in claiming we somehow survive death and that how we live our lives determines what this ‘afterlife’ is to be, religion does society a service insofar as it provides ready-made answers in regard to the meaning of life and reinforces socially acceptable behaviour. However, this contribution cannot be a necessary condition for ensuring that people do not adopt deviant or anti-social lifestyles. For, in truth, many people who reject the notion of an afterlife still manage to stay on the right side of the law. Many people are also atheists, and although the two notions are not conceptually equivalent, non-survivalism and atheism would seem to go hand in hand (Interestingly, both stand opposed to positions that are profoundly informed by analogical thinking. Moreover, the respective notions against which they are opposed; namely, belief in an afterlife and in God; are likewise linked: What’s the point in believing in a God if there is no afterlife? I should add, by the way, that although religion and atheism stand opposed to one another, there is one thing that they do agree upon, which is that man is a merest speck set against an inconceivably powerful force. For atheists, this force is the cosmos, and most atheists have a capacity for profound awe when contemplating the fact that mankind could disappear in an instant were some cosmic catastrophe to befall us, such as that which hypothetically occurred billions of years ago when Earth and the planet Theia collided – thereby creating the moon and hence the conditions propitiously conducive to life. Religionists are unable to countenance the nihilistic import of such a possibility, preferring instead to place their hopes in a benevolent God and a blissful afterlife, projecting an anthropomorphic fantasy - ‘God created everything in seven days’ – onto the vast indifferent canvass of the universe). So something else must account for the fact that this sizeable constituency of non-survivalists and atheists by and large lead ordinary unremarkable lives within the law. The unremarkable truth, of course, is that like everyone, those holding these positions undergo a socialization process as they grow up, resulting in them internalizing the norms and values of the society in which they live. Any religious rationale for these norms and values is either never ‘taken on board’, or is discarded later in life – though it must be said that some ostensible non-survivalists and atheists may subconsciously entertain some notion of an afterlife, as this is so deeply embedded in popular culture and may through a process of cultural osmosis come to find a niche within the most rational of minds. Some, of course, may retain religious baggage from childhood. Notwithstanding that, one is still tempted to argue that – because their adherence to societal norms and values is not underpinned by a powerful irrationality - those who eschew the essentially religious notion of an afterlife have a subtly different relationship to society. Consider, for example, the probability that, because society has no sacred character for them, atheists and their ilk are unlikely to regard themselves as a chosen people and may be more disposed to humanistic and inclusive attitudes vis-à-vis other social groups. It may also be no accident that, since the dawn of capitalism, many of the more radical figures have been atheists or agnostics. It certainly surprised me to learn from Richard Dawkins excellent book, ‘The god delusion’, that many, if not most, of the founding fathers of the
This, of course, begs a question: Given that society has evolved and consequently its complex relationship with religion has evolved too, is it not possible to have a society which did not depend on religion to shore up its ideological architecture, which could sit easily with both atheistic and non-survivalist views simply because it did not rely on the wrath of god or the prospect of eternal damnation insofar as the conflicts and tensions inherent in present day society no longer existed. I believe that it is, and this brings me to the third of the ingredients found in my intellectual stew.
The idea, often facetiously dismissed as utopian, of a society founded on the principle of common ownership has an ancient pedigree: Sir Thomas More coined the word, Utopia, in his book published in 1516, tendentiously depicting (as he meant thereby to draw attention to some of the evils of his own society) life on a mythical island south of the equator where private property did not exist. But elements of utopian thought can be traced back far earlier to Plato and others, and the notion of an ideal commonwealth has found fictional expression in the work of many writers, from Bacon, Campanella, and Harrington, to Morris, Hertzka, and Wells. The idea and ideal of common ownership specifically has also informed actual events in history – witness the Diggers in 17c
My concern, however, is with advanced communism. If ever an idea had ‘arrived’ and merited serious attention it is this, particularly now that humanity stands on the brink of an ecological abyss of unfathomable depths for which global capitalism, through acts of omission or commission, can justifiably be blamed. So, how to begin laying out this notion? Perhaps one needs to initially look at what is being proposed: In a nutshell, advanced communist society would operate on a world-wide basis in accordance with that old Marxist dictum, ‘from each according to his abilities, to each according to his needs’. As such, it would bear no resemblance to extant and extinct ‘state capitalist’ states, ludicrously and cynically claiming to be ‘communist’ or ‘socialist’. It would be a democracy in the truest sense of the word, and would be established on the basis of a majority choosing to have it - most certainly not imposed by revolutionary vanguards. States and the geographical limits of their administrative operations – national borders - would no longer exist. Freedom of expression would be completely unfettered, and the only socially sanctioned limitations on behaviour being those intended to deter actions demonstrably causing harm to others. No longer straitjacketed by the need to make a profit, production would be undertaken on the basis of need and in a wholly rational manner: Manufacturing processes that might have deleterious environmental effects or pose unacceptable risks, for example, would not be considered, and every effort would be made to ensure that safe alternatives were used instead. People would contribute to the production of goods and services as and how they wished. That is to say, work would be both voluntary and co-operative - there would no longer exist competition between workers, companies and countries. And people would have free access to the fruits of human labour. In other words, neither money nor barter would play a role: If people needed something, they would simply go along to their local distribution facility and take it without having to hand over something in exchange. Sophisticated stock control measures would ensure that needs were anticipated as far as possible by flagging up potential shortfalls. The production of the items in question would then be undertaken in a wholly rational and planned way. Where an actual shortfall did exist then rational strategies such as considering alternatives, rationing, reserving, utilizing different manufacturing processes, importing from further afield, or simply making do without would be deployed. There is no need to suppose that people would in some way abuse the system: Why should they when goods and services were freely available? In any case, it is reasonable to suppose that a wholly different mindset would prevail in this new society; one that would be altogether more socially responsive, humane, tolerant and far less sullied by egotism and greed. Property being held in common, there would no longer exist the immense armies of personnel and the bloated resource-depleting structures dedicated to upholding property rights or access to resources inside and outside each state as obtains at present: I am talking here of the police and the military, the entire justice system, the prisons, the arms industry, the myriad agencies involved in administering property rights and claims, etcetera. Correspondingly, untold millions around the world would no longer be drawn to a life of crime or end up incarcerated because of this career move. The raison d’être for crime, war, terrorism, industrial strife, and internecine conflict, amongst other hideous stressors characteristic of the modern world would simply not exist. People would be able to travel and settle where they wished, but, as the current economic and political conditions driving people to uproot and seek refuge in other parts of the world would no longer obtain, mass migration (Not to mention the attendant angst and resentment in host populations) is unlikely to occur – except in the event of some catastrophic natural disaster. Education would be radically different from what it is today: Being both free and non-compulsory, it is to be expected that those seeking to further their education would do so joyously. The grim discipline-orientated schools of today, which seek to mould kids into industry and business fodder, would become a thing of the past. For once, art would genuinely be for art’s sake, not cynically foisted on a passive populace as a means of turning a quick buck. Quality, in other words, would be the watchword in all creative activity, from architecture and landscaping to music, theatre, film, and writing. Technological innovation, no longer fettered by patents or invested interests, would accelerate, albeit in a controlled, socially responsible way, and many of the more onerous tasks that need undertaking could be systematically automated. Medical research in particular (especially in areas that are currently under-researched – for example, tropical medicine – because there is less of a financial incentive to do so) would be prioritized in order to rid humanity of the misery of disease and illness as far as possible. Moreover, it would be conducted in an open, coordinated manner, not in the fragmented fashion that it is today, with numerous research groups jealously guarding their discoveries for ‘commercial reasons’. In this respect, and so many others, the establishment of world communism – or socialism – would utterly transform the way we live. Life would simply be incomparably more relaxed, enjoyable, fulfilling, and happy. Practically all of the so-called today’s ‘evils’ – if one might revert to pulpit language for an instance – would just disappear: war, ethnic cleansing, vandalism, robbery, prostitution, pornography, drug pushing, protection rackets, nepotism, corruption, repression, the cynical manipulation of minds for financial gain, people trafficking, slavery, mass hunger, poverty, unemployment, environmental destruction, the wastage of resources, the deliberate creation of soulless and ugly human environments, to name just some. And the reason for this is simply that each and every one of these phenomena has it’s origin in or is sustained by the current social dispensation, by the manner in which society is organized today. Money, in other words, is what these evils are all about. When humanity eventually chooses to embrace communism, then truly it shall have crossed a threshold between barbarism and civilisation.
I am by no means claiming that all will be perfect under communism: It is reasonable to suppose that after resolving to embrace communism, humanity will have to live with an assortment of ‘transitional problems’ for several decades before things begin to run smoothly. And, of course, the vexed question of the relationship between the individual and society will continue to demand attention. When discussing this relationship, political theorists sometimes refer to the notion of a ‘Social Contract’. To be literal-minded about it, this is, of course, a fiction, another instance of mistaken analogical thinking in which the individual and society are deemed to have a quasi-legal relationship with each party having obligations to the other, or in which society is formed after individuals enter into contracts with each other concerning the nature of the society. Strictly-speaking, as an analogy, this depiction fails: there is no analogical court or presiding judge (unless God in heaven fits this description – but then would he sanction some of the heinous societies in existence today, one has to ask – rhetorically?) to rule on supposed breaches of this contract, and it is nonsensical to construe such a contract as having been negotiated at a given point in time, following which the individual was obliged to behave within the constraints laid down. Of course, what the notion of a Social Contract is actually trying to convey is that individuals derive all sorts of benefits from belonging to a society, but to do so requires them to act within certain constraints, and contribute towards society as well. However, what society affords the individual and the extent to which the latter may comply with social norms are variable. In other words, we have to consider the nature of the society in question when looking at this relationship. Tensions at the interface between the individual and society are perhaps inevitable: One or other may be compromised in all sorts of social arrangements. At one extreme, we may find ourselves living in a laissez-faire jungle where little or no social restraint is placed on individuals in their pursuit of wealth or hedonistic lifestyles, where law and order is minimally or corruptly applied, where a ‘dog-eat-dog’ ethos presides, and where little heed is paid to the social ramifications – be they the ruthless sequestration of what had been commonly held resources, the oppression of the poor, the weak, and the vulnerable, pollution and environmental depredation, the creation of antipathetic, violent, and often politically illiterate subcultures, or garish and architecturally discordant urban environments. Such a society lacks any sense of communality. Yet much the same can be said for the dystopian extreme where society lords it over the individual, crushing any flowering of individualism, demanding conformity and total allegiance. This nightmarishly fascistic model of society rests upon an all-powerful state. Interestingly, and somewhat ironically, disparate elements of both models seem to co-exist in many contemporary societies;
People who have never entertained the idea of communism before commonly respond with incredulity as soon as they become acquainted with it. Perhaps this is understandable: It is a profoundly revolutionary idea that calls into question many deeply embedded assumptions about man and society. However, the reader may care to consider the following list of points, which, though far from being exhaustive, ought to demonstrate that communism is indeed a feasible proposition, and that the arguments in its favour are actually highly complex. When doing so, it should be borne in mind that what I mean by capitalism is the currently universal economic system in which goods and services are produced primarily in order to be sold for a profit (what is known as commodity production), whether by the state or by private companies, and in which money, wages, and property, amongst other features, are to be found. Capitalism can either assume the form of state capitalism or private/laissez faire capitalism – or, indeed, anything in between. There is no such thing as state socialism or communism.
*With rising temperatures, methane will, of course, continue to be released from melting permafrost peat bogs (perhaps as much as 70,000 million tons of the stuff). But it is also known that there are vastly greater amounts of methane trapped as methane clathrate deposits beneath sediments on the ocean floors. Since methane clathrate actually occurs in the form of ice, a rise in sea temperatures could trigger a sudden release of marine methane. But the scale of this would be immense and almost apocalyptic in outcome, resulting in a 5ºC rise in temperatures globally. It has been hypothesized that it was just such a scenario which led to the mass extinction event that occurred during the Permian-Triassic age.
*Talking of the oceans, something else that is likely to occur with global warming is a diminution in the capacity of this vast sink for carbon dioxide to actually absorb this greenhouse gas, resulting in increased levels of carbon dioxide, and therefore in higher temperatures. Raised CO2 levels are also likely to cause acidification of the oceans, which will in turn detrimentally impact on corals and other marine organisms.
*It is also the case that water vapour, which is by far the most potent greenhouse gas, accounting for something like 36% to 66% of the greenhouse effect, will become more concentrated as temperatures rise; something which is likely to result in turn in to a further raising of temperatures, and consequently to a further increase in water vapour concentrations.
*We know that ice, being white, reflects heat, and that the sea absorbs heat. With global warming, of course, there will be a reduction in the area of the earth’s surface covered by ice (resulting in a reduced albedo) and an increase in the area covered by sea, leading to a further rise in global temperatures, which, in turn will exacerbate this situation.
*Finally, it has been noted that, amongst the many and varied effects of global warming, in many mid-latitudinal areas, such as Mediterranean
Europe or Australia, there will be a greater frequency of droughts. With these droughts will come an increased incidence of forest fires, and when the latter occur, huge amounts of carbon dioxide will be released into the atmosphere, thereby compounding the problem of global warming.
What we can see from this small selection of factors is that they will feed off one another as the rise in global temperature is both cause and effect in each case. It’s a frightening situation: We are only now beginning to get a glimpse of the hellish future that awaits us if we fail to properly address this issue. But, what has this to do with capitalism, you may ask? Well, in a word, everything: Scientific opinion across the world is now practically unanimous in concluding that the relentless course of global warming is mainly attributable to one factor: man. More specifically, to his barely restrained burning of fossil fuels, his slashing down of vast tracts of rainforest, and his disembowelment of the earth in pursuit of minerals and metals. And what drives these destructive activities? In a word: money (or the lack of it). Now, it may seem unfair to bracket desperate Brazilian peasant farmers compelled to clear a patch of virgin forest in order to grow cash crops with avaricious executives of a car manufacturing company. But for both of them, their situations offer little option other than to do what they have to do: Not to take the environmentally damaging option may well have an adverse effect on their personal fortunes, perhaps even disastrously so. What’s more, there will always be less scrupulous competitors willing to step into the breach and carry out these destructive activities. Moreover, because of capitalism’s short term outlook, where planning looks no further than the next shareholder’s meeting, and it’s blinkered approach which disregards all but the need to make a profit, the longer term consequences and ramifications of economic decisions are rarely accorded the consideration they deserve. This is inherent in the system: No matter what vaunted declarations emanate from the IPCC, beneath the mantle of high-mindedness and reasonableness affected by statesmen, the economic id of capitalism will bubble away, seeking out the smallest chink through which to pour out its poisonous energy. That it might thereby threaten our lives and the lives of our children seemingly counts for nothing.
The foregoing points constitute both a formidable critique of capitalism and a vindication of the case for communism – genuine communism – I would contend. Defenders of capitalism will sometimes acknowledge that this may to some extent be true. However, they almost invariably then sagely shake their heads, and proclaim that the notion of a society built on the principles of common ownership, democratic control, free access and liberty does not square with ‘human nature’. What is it, one wonders, that makes them so certain about this? Dogmatism, a failure of imagination, misanthropy, a touch of schadenfreude, or plain old cynicism? Perhaps it is a bit of each. These same apologists will say that they are being ‘realistic’. But what they singularly fail to take into account is that it is fundamentally the very ‘dog-eat-dog’ nature of capitalism moulds some people into selfish, aggressive specimens, and consigns most of us to lives of ‘quiet desperation’, as Thoreau put it. Small wonder then that the prevailing take on human nature is anything but flattering. So what I intend doing now is to have a closer look at the whole question of ‘human nature’, and then show that an altruistic approach to life – specifically, an ethic that enjoins one to leave this world a better place – sits very comfortably with our ‘human nature’. What I would like to propose is a somewhat slippery notion, one that pulls together many strands of my discussion heretofore: Let me call it (somewhat unimaginatively) the ‘Organic Model of Human Advancement’. (As will become evident, the term, ‘organic’, is appropriate for a number of reasons; not least because the component propositions sit well with one another, because it highlights the physicality of human beings, and because the term resonates with the espousal of mutuality). What the model amounts to is this:
1. We human beings are a highly complex arrangement of atoms, and our capacity to think and feel is somehow contingent upon certain key features of this arrangement. When this arrangement breaks down – when we die – no vestige of us remains. We do not have an afterlife. Ultimately, this is not something that can be verified for the obvious reason that verification would entail ‘crossing that bourn from which no man returns’. What we have here is a situation analogous to imagining nothingness: This is impossible for the reason that the observer cannot be excluded. Likewise, non-survivalism could not be verified without excluding the verifier whose very testimony would bear witness against non-survivalism. That said, there are a number of very strong arguments against the proposition that we are somehow able to survive, to maintain an identity, to remain sentient conscious beings, after we die:
In the first place, no one has ever returned from the dead to tell the tale. Certainly, all manner of phenomena have been cited as evidence for some sort of connection or contact between the living and the dead: Ghosts, poltergeists, séances, regression hypnosis, near death experiences, and so on. But in not a single instance has there been any verifiable proof of a connection or contact with dead people being established, nor grounds for excluding any other explanations, known or unknown, for the phenomenon in question. Far from being a dour materialist who scoffs at the notion of mystery, I am more than happy to admit that ‘there are more things in heaven and earth than is known in my philosophy’. It is the proponents of survivalism and all manner of other non-empirical notions, such as God and destiny, which have the world cut and dried. Even on the question of an afterlife, I am prepared to admit a degree of agnosticism, albeit one heavily skewed towards the non-survivalist position for the reasons I am providing. Furthermore, I am persuaded in this by the fact that over the centuries, under the hot glare of scientific scrutiny, non-empirical explanations of an ever-increasing number of phenomena, from the motion of the planets to the aetiology of diseases, have simply evaporated. Those phenomena still currently saturated with ethereal, untestable explanations are now few in number, and there is no reason to think they cannot in principle succumb to empirical elucidation. Science is not above criticism, but those who take a virulently anti-science stance often tend to confuse poor science or the application of science with the scientific method per se. The latter being an elaboration of ‘common sense’ and logic, the common sense and logic exercised by detractors of the scientific method could be called into question.
A second argument against survivalism (and, by default, in favour of non-survivalism) is that it trips up on its dualistic premises, on the notion that we are essentially composed of two sorts of substances: body and mind. I am not inclined to wade into this particular metaphysical swamp, but it suffices to point out that dualism – or, more particularly, that species of dualism known as ‘substance dualism’ – is beset with a number of problems, such as where and how causal interaction between body and mind could occur, and the fact that phylogenetically and ontogenetically human beings start out as purely physical entities.
A third reason for rejecting the notion that we somehow survive death is one that impresses me personally. Having worked for many years with patients suffering from various forms of dementia, I am very aware of how these tragic conditions can effect a diminution of what – for want of a better word – one might term ‘the mind’. Crucially, such patients begin to lose their memories; initially and most noticeably their short term memories. And memories, of course, are the threads from which personal identity is woven. They also begin to lose awareness; in particular, self awareness. All of the orientating information pertaining to time and space which ordinarily hums along in the background simply fades away: They may not know where they are or what day it is. Nor might it occur to them that they should look both ways before crossing the road, for example. It may sometimes seem that their behaviour is analogous to acting on the basis of the conclusion of an argument without being apprised of its premises. Unforgivingly and tragically, their mental wattage drops lower and lower. What we know, of course, is that this deterioration proceeds pari passu with changes in the brain: the greater the destruction in the brain, the greater the destruction in the ‘mind’. Now, what I would like to argue is that, extrapolating from this, it is reasonable to suppose that when the former is total, as happens in death, then the latter is total as well. Those who argue for our survival after death have also – I would contend – to address this brain damage issue. Even if they could theoretically show that we do somehow survive death, it would be incumbent on them to also show how the mind could recover its former functionality if in life its ‘owner’ had been subjected to a dementing illness.
A fourth argument is that, notwithstanding the very similar genetic make-up of man and his closest cousins, the other primates (It has been shown that even the fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster) shares nearly 60% of its genes with us) or the impressive similarities between us and other animals in respect of physiology, anatomy, and even embryonic development, we have no difficulty in comprehending the fact once an animal dies, it does not then pass over to some idyllic Valhalla. Heaven is not swarming with butterflies and bees, nor filled with the yapping of euphoric poodles. The fact that all life originated from unicellular cyanobacteria that carpeted the sea floor billions of years ago, should in itself disabuse us of this notion of an afterlife. From an evolutionary perspective, possessing an afterlife would have to be considered an ‘emergent property’, if hypothesised, and that would raise a host of how, why, and when questions.
There are doubtlessly many other arguments against the proposition that when we die, we somehow live on in some de-materialised state. But the foregoing are sufficiently powerful in themselves to put paid to this delusion. Incidentally, in pooh-poohing this idea, it is not my intention to thereby cast gloom all about me (Who would not wish to go to heaven if such a place, state, or condition existed. It even sounds a bit like communism, if you ask me!) Rather, I would argue that this idea stands in the way of attaining happiness in the only place that really matters: The world we can see and touch.
2. For us what really matters in life is happiness. That said, happiness is far from being a simple notion. There are different sorts of ‘happinesses’. The most profound sort is intrinsically bound up with what we are, with our personality, and this amounts to what some might care to characterise as a sort of spiritual bliss. However, it is not really what is in ‘inside’ us that accounts for our experience of happiness. The ultimate sources of all forms of happiness must surely be located outside of ourselves, or derive from our interaction with things outside of us; not least significant others. Even our innermost thoughts, from which we may derive a measure of consolation or elation, are profoundly informed by the world around us. The quality of this external world determines our experience of happiness, albeit through a variety of modalities:
Those with a background in psychology will have recognised that what I have proposed bears more than a passing resemblance to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. It will be recalled that Maslow suggested that needs at the bottom of the hierarchy take precedence over those higher up: Faced with a famine, an individual will be driven to rummage for food, rather than seek to realize his or her destiny to become a concert pianist. In a way, this is an acknowledgement of our ‘epiphenomenal’ nature: we are physical beings first and foremost and our ‘psychological’ needs are, in a sense, secondary. This dovetails with the point that when our bodies no longer operate then we are no more.
3. As subjective entities capable and desirous of experiencing happiness, it is in our best interests to ensure that the external world, the source of our happiness, is optimally developed to deliver happiness. This is what the establishment of communism is all about at a macrosociological level: Not only would communism ensure that everyone’s basic needs (like having enough to eat and a roof over your head) were met, and eliminate nearly all of the large-scale causes of stress and insecurity (such as war, crime, and poverty), it would also create a psychological climate far more conducive to the development of happiness than today’s angst-ridden, fractured, cynical, greed-driven zeitgeist. Self-actualisation, the Holy Grail of the ‘me’ generation today, would become a commonplace because obstacles, such as inimical conditions or not having the wherewithal to achieve this, would have been largely eliminated.
4. Now here’s the really slippery bit: If it is accepted that once I am dead I am no more, then it behooves me to contribute in whatever way I can to the happiness of the countless generations either surviving or following me for the simple reason that at the point of death the distinction between myself and others suddenly disappears (as does any rationale premised on this distinction for remaining aloof from the suffering of others). And if anything matters subsequently it can only matter to other conscious subjective entities; extant or as yet unborn; each of whom will ultimately be directed – as I am in life – by a resolute longing for happiness. It is their subjectivity that will persevere – at least for a little while – and the world, being in some sense a subjective ‘construction’, their existence could be said to ‘make the world go around’, to give it relevance and meaning. What I would like to draw from this is some basis for behaving altruistically towards others. Although not easy to do so, I should like to demonstrate how my very non-survival as a conscious, subjective entity after death constitutes grounds for me taking an altruistic stance in respect of those surviving or following me. Furthermore, I would contend that the most significant act of altruism which humanity collectively might undertake would be to establish communism as this would more radically impact upon the welfare and happiness of succeeding generations than any other collective act of will (Individually, we are powerless to alter the modus operandus of our world, and our individual acts of altruism – although they might advance the happiness of specific others – could ironically perpetuate this modus operandus; firstly, by making it more bearable, and secondly, because focusing exclusively on the symptoms of the many problems afflicting present day society channels people’s energies into fixing these at the expense of addressing the underlying causes)
Let’s look at it this way: ‘I’ cannot be equated with the memories others have of me, nor with my life’s works or my physical remains; all of which may persist for some time after I have gone. (Interestingly, those who argue for an afterlife are often transfixed by the spectacle of physical remains, as though these served – as a kind of comparator – to suggest that one might leave somewhat more enduring ‘psychical remains’. One has only to look upon the ‘cadaver tombs’ such as can be found in Wells Cathedral to see that this could be a subtextual meaning in these emblematic works of arts. Who knows, were we simply to vapourise at the point of death, the notion of an afterlife may have had less of a hold on people). Whilst alive, what I am, an individual with an identity – rests upon my being a conscious, subjective entity capable of thinking, feeling and willing, and aware of myself as such; however we construe this. In my workaday life, when not engaged in rarefied discussions about metaphysics, I assume that much the same can be said about others as well. That is to say, I ordinarily take it for granted that the faculty for being aware of oneself as a conscious subjective entity is universal, albeit one that individuals exercise in different ways; with more or less frequency or intensity, for example. What will obviously be unique to each individual is, as it were, the content of this awareness: Apart from the unique unfolding of experiences every second of the day, this content includes the myriad facts that feed into one’s overall identity, what has been designated the ‘me’ component of a conscious subjective entity (as opposed to the ‘I’ component – the subject in this act of ‘internal perception’. This might be termed the ‘subject/faculty’ meaning of ‘I’, which differs from the ‘identity’ meaning of ‘I’ deployed when one says, for example, ‘I am an accountant’. In the latter usage, the fact stated is incorporated into the ‘me’). Now the reader may protest that I have surreptitiously introduced analogy into this account in the form of a homonunculus that sits inside one’s head, observing what goes on. Amongst other things, there is the problem of infinite regress here – does the homonunculus itself not possess a homonunculus, and so on? But the homonunculus account is not something I would wish to defend. The only, dare I say, non-philosophical and perhaps trite point I would wish to make in this regard is that, as I have said, when not engaged in philosophical discourse, we are all aware of ourselves and others as being conscious subjective entities. This pedestrian perception – even if metaphysically suspect – is a working hypothesis in our everyday lives. It is also, in fact, embedded in many of the humanities and social sciences, from history to psychology. How one might justify it philosophically is another matter, and the reason I do not wish to pursue it is that I am more concerned with ethics right now, rather than metaphysics. And ethics have to do with ‘ought’ questions, rather than ‘is’ questions. All manner of unverifiable notions about what is the case may implicitly underlie ethical deliberations. A convincing rebuttal of the former does not disprove any particular ethical position; it merely deprives it of certain justifications (In fact, ethical positions are not something one ‘proves’ or ‘disproves’). In this respect, ethical positions stand apart from scientific hypotheses. That we should see the world as peopled with others like us – which nearly all of us do on an everyday basis – simply squares with adopting an altruistic stance, as altruism is intrinsically all about others. In other words, if you don’t see yourself and others as as conscious subjective entities, then I’m afraid what follows may not convince you.
As a conscious, subjective, and indeed self-aware, entity, my own happiness is of fundamental importance to me, and I am the ultimate arbiter of whether or not something has made me happy, though not necessarily the best judge of whether something has the potential to make me happy. So I will spend my days attempting to pursue goals conducive to my own happiness. The drive to attain or retain a sense of well-being – what one might loosely term ‘happiness’ – surely underlies most, if not all, human volition. There may be something circular in this: Happiness in one of its multifarious guises is often the affective reaction of the individual managing to successfully exercise his or her will, and yet it is also the object of the exercise. Moreover, in one way or another, much of my volition will concern other people. That is to say, my happiness is bound up with other people, either in a purely instrumental way – where I regard others simply as a means to augment my own happiness, or humanistically/altruistically – where my happiness is conditional upon theirs, upon the recognition that they too are conscious, subjective entities. That, of course, cuts both ways: Others may view me in the same light.
But with my death, all of this simply ceases: With the blink of an eye, the slideshow that is the human condition moves on, and the very next slide no longer features me. Existentially-speaking, others are now no longer ‘others’ because, in this context, the very term implies a distinction between myself and comparable entities. From my standpoint, which itself instantly collapses when I die, that dichotomy expires with me, notwithstanding the fact that in ordinary parlance I may still be referred to as if I retained an identity, an ‘other’ to others. Perhaps it is appropriate, therefore to differentiate between a ‘public identity’ and a ‘substantive (or self) identity’ (cf. with the different meanings attached to ‘I’ referred to earlier) – one that necessarily entails being aware that one is alive. The latter necessarily ceases when I die. Not only am I then absent: Any concern or indifference I may have entertained in my lifetime regarding the happiness of others abruptly ceases as well. Such feelings or attitudes I can only entertain during my lifetime as an outsider, never able to directly access the minds of others. This ‘outsidership’ is ultimately what allows me to distinguish between my interests and yours: I can never directly experience your pain and distress, so the drive to eliminate these will for me lack the immediacy and force that it has for you and derive from a wholly different source, call it empathy, sympathy, or perhaps just guilt or a sense of propriety. But, of course, being outside your pain also allows me to say that, in the final analysis, I can walk away from it, I can chose not to be burdened by it. When I die, however, I can no longer be outside anything. Assuming there is no afterlife, this capacity for ‘outsidership’ ceases with my death: I cannot then view my death from some external vantage point (if we put aside more literal reports from people who claim to have had ‘out-of-body’ experiences, and seen their bodies on operating tables, etc); I don’t find myself in some spectral cocoon looking down upon the world. I surrender my ‘I-ness’, or subjectivity, and all that that entails. ‘I-ness’ now only resides in those surviving me.
It is not my intention in utilizing this neologism, ‘I-ness’, to suggest that I have a vested in the happiness of others because, after my death, I can somehow recover my own ‘I-ness’ through paradoxically becoming someone else – becoming reincarnated. Such a view is not one I would go along with. It is to fall for the illusion that death is like switching a light off and then finding oneself in a different body and a different room when the light is switched back on. To succumb to this illusion is to succumb to spurious analogical reasoning; the analogy being based on that old Cartesian chestnut – the ghost in the machine, where the ghost has abandoned one machine in favour of another. The key to understanding the non-survivalist point of view is to accept that, really, there is no existential continuity between me at the point of death and others after my death. There is simply nothing. Such an understanding is far from easy. In fact, paradoxically, it is almost impossible because nothingness cannot be perceived or imagined without throwing a spotlight on the observer or thinker – as a solipsistic something in a sea of nothingness – thus invalidating the exercise. At best, nothingness can only be understood abstractly (or perhaps even mathematically?) as a negation of everything. If one concurs with the non-survivalist view, then there is no ‘me’ when I am dead, and the very statement, ‘I am dead’, is metaphysically (though obviously not metaphorically) impossible to assert – or at least could never be literally true were I, the person writing these words, to utter this sentence. Contrast that with the statement, ’He is dead’, as uttered or written by another in reference to me: This is one that is both meaningful and empirically verifiable (albeit thankfully incorrect at the time of writing), and it is also one that I could use in relation to another, whether I was a non-survivalist or not. After my death, if anything in the world is observed and understood, then it has to be the case that there is at least someone relating to the world – engaging in observation and understanding – as it were, from the inside, as a conscious, subjective entity, as an ‘I’, just as I am relating to the world at this very moment of putting pen to paper. Let us call this standpoint an ‘I-standpoint’. Basically, an ‘I-standpoint’ involves looking out on the world from an inside perspective, and contrasts with what might be termed an ‘other-standpoint’ – any standpoint presented by someone other than oneself; the status or content of which can only ever be apprised or indirectly inferred by drawing upon shared symbolic resources (language in particular), cultural intelligence, and knowledge of the supposed mental correlates thought to accompany particular sorts of observed behaviour, amongst other things. An ‘other-standpoint’ presupposes an ‘I-standpoint’ engaged in processing manifestations of the former. That the world will continue to be observed and understood after my death, and moreover, observed and understood from a myriad ‘I-standpoints’, may be inferred from the fact that the world will continue to be acted upon in ways indicative of the exercise of human volition, as opposed to simple physical causation: the sowing of a crop is the outcome of human volition, but the passage of the seasons depends purely upon physical events. Moreover, you, the reader, could hardly fail to bear witness to there being other ‘I-standpoints’ other than the one in which I, the writer, am ensconced. An ‘I-standpoint’ of necessity does not incorporate direct observation and understanding of the actual ‘possessor’ of this standpoint from any other standpoint – I literally do not see myself through other’s eyes or automatically entertain the notions they have of me: I can only imaginatively reconstruct, more or less successfully, how others see me and what others think of me; the reconstruction being essentially my own. Because it is a reconstruction, my knowing how another sees me or what another person thinks of me cannot literally be construed as or equated with the ‘I-standpoint’ observations or understandings of this other person. To me, from my ‘I-standpoint’, this other person’s views can only ever spring from an ‘other-standpoint’ – of necessity. But at the same time, external observation and understanding of a possessor of an ‘I-standpoint’ indicates that the person doing the observing and understanding likewise possesses his or her private ‘I-standpoint’, to which the former presents as one possessing an ‘other-standpoint.’ If the latter is similarly scrutinized, that too would betoken the existence of yet another. The potential regress involved in this interpersonal scrutiny mirrors the regress entailed in that putative homonunculus referred to earlier which is supposedly located in one’s head, intrapersonally eyeing one’s own inner world – as well as looking out upon the world. Except that the regress in the former case is not potentially infinite, but is limited to the number of conscious subjective entities in existence at any one time (and ’homonunuculi’ are merely abstractions, not actual entities). The picture that emerges therefore, is of a world peopled with ‘Is’, each of whose standpoint is totally their own. Another way of putting this is to say that the world out there can only be known through the prism of a person’s consciousness, through an ‘I’. That is to say, that the world is rendered subjectively real (although, intending not to confuse epistemological claims with ontological claims, I would not wish to say that the world is merely a ‘subjective reality’ as such). This means that there are as many ‘worlds’, or rather, ‘takes’ on the world, as there are conscious, subjective entities. After my death, the world will still be known through ‘Is’ – but not through me as my own ‘I-standpoint’ will have, as it were, been switched off. Any observing and understanding that goes on, including that entailed in scrutinizing others, will be undertaken by living beings, each of whom will be aware of him or herself. This is not something I shall ever be able to prove because my demise will preclude me from doing so. However, it is reasonable to assume just this because right now we all continue to observe and understand things going on around us, notwithstanding the fact that other people die in droves every second of the day. Now here’s the thing: If it’s the case that – abstractly-speaking – there will be ‘I-standpoints’ after my death (this conception must be abstract in the sense that I cannot ‘own’ it as to do so would render these ‘I-standpoints’ ‘other-standpoints’. ), and I myself will not survive this event as a conscious subjective entity capable of entertaining an ‘I-standpoint’ myself, then a rather startling proposition suggests itself; namely, that when those surviving me (what applies to one applies to all) experience consciousness, it would be ‘as if’ I myself was experiencing consciousness, because to experience consciousness is to have an ‘I-standpoint’, and yet what being me is all about is precisely this: Seeing the world exclusively through my own eyes, and having direct and first hand access to my own thoughts, feelings and volitions – as well as memories and perceptions. In short, having an ‘I-standpoint’. Remember, I am not arguing for substantive re-incarnation. All I am saying is that the experience of anyone (and therefore everyone) of those surviving me cannot be objectified by me after my death (that is to say, presented as an ‘other-standpoint’ to me). Hence, that ‘anyone’ would be positioned on the subject side of the subject/object divide. What would change this would be to have this ‘anyone’ objectified, or - to put it more plainly – scrutinized by a contemporary; in which case, what has been said of that ‘anyone’ will apply to the contemporary, and so on. Since I myself cannot know the world other than as a subject (even viewing video footage of myself does not amount to presenting myself with an ‘other-standpoint’ as the video footage is a series of images, not a person), my ‘I-standpoint’ must serve as a model for comprehending how it must be for either of the foregoing qua subjects. What is paradoxical in this, of course, is that I am unable to describe this situation without objectifying the subjectivity of those I am currently entitled to designate as ‘others’. The difficulty here is akin to the difficulty with trying to imagine nothingness. This is an extremely elusive idea, and really needs to be ‘unpacked’ for it to be understood. To this end, I should like to present a ‘thought experiment’ and develop the argument via a series of propositions.
(a) Let me begin by asserting that I, the person writing these words (I shall call myself A) can only ever experience the world from an inside perspective – via an ‘I-standpoint’. But like a dog failing to catch its tail, my ‘subject/faculty I’ will always elude my attempts to objectify it.
(b) A contemporary (Let us call this person C1), like A, will have thoughts, feelings, and volitions, but A can never access these directly: What he perceives is an ‘other-standpoint’ – observable manifestations from which he infers that C1, like him, possesses an ‘I-standpoint’. Just as he can never pin down his own ‘subject/faculty I’, he can never directly access C1’s ‘subject/faculty I’, nor C1’s thoughts, feelings and volitions. To experience another’s ‘I-ness’ from the inside necessarily involves being that person, which is something one is a priori incapable of doing. Imagining how another may experience ‘self-awareness’ is an altogether different kettle of fish.
(c) When A dies, he is no longer able to experience anything; his standpoint simply no longer obtains.
(d) Now imagine, after A’s death, a person B being born, and in the fullness of time acquiring an ‘I-standpoint’.
(e) What B then experiences can only either be directly accessed by him via an ‘I-standpoint’, or inferred by a contemporary of B’s (Let us call this person C2) via an ‘other-standpoint’: External signs suggestive of the thoughts, feelings, and volitions operating inside B.
(f) Let us suppose now that some cataclysmic event befalls the world, and only two people are left alive: B and C2. In this situation, only two ‘I-standpoints’ could exist. Additionally, were B and C2 to communicate with one another, our world would admit of two ‘other-standpoints’. (However, if B became extremely paranoid as a result of this disaster, and chose not to reveal himself to C2, whilst nevertheless keeping C2 under close scrutiny, then one would have to say that only one ‘other-standpoint’ existed. And no ‘other-standpoints’ could exist if B and C2 were unaware of each other’s existence). What is important in considering this hypothetical scenario is that doing so from a God-like perspective with both protagonists in our purview runs counter to the aims, conditions, and assumptions of our thought experiment. No third perspective is permissible. We are compelled to see things, as it were, through the eyes of B or C2 – ‘as if’ we were B or C2. And if undertaken seriously, this would entail taking heed of the dire needs likely to be felt by our two unfortunate souls.
(g) Now let us suppose C2 dies, leaving B entirely on his own; the only sentient being in the world. The only legitimate way in which to take stock of this situation is to imagine ourselves being B because no ‘other-standpoint’ of any description is possible, or indeed, any other ‘I-standpoint, including ours qua sentient beings imagining this scenario.
(h) However, there is a problem with this: In the final analysis, when imagining the scenarios outlined in (f) and (g), and imagining how we ourselves might feel and respond if placed in the hypothetical shoes of B or C2, we unavoidably override the identities of B or C2 and introject our own identities into these scenarios. Whilst this might help to convey the notion of a future being viewed from an ‘I-standpoint’, it also unfortunately simulates what substantive re-incarnation might be like, and this is not what I am seeking to demonstrate. Thus we need to find a way of minimizing, or even eliminating our empathic, or imaginative, involvement in this exercise. One way in which this might be done is to make the following bald, predictive statement (Its being predictive creates a barrier between us in the present and B in the future. More specifically, it separates A from B, whose lives, in any case, by definition cannot overlap ):
‘At some point in the future, only one person, B, will be left alive –‘B’ being the name/label attached to that person’
This proposition is not wanting in feasibility – after all, there must have been a brief point in time when only a single dodo existed. Mental activity would consist entirely of B viewing a rather bleak, silent world from his own ‘I-standpoint’, and experiencing thoughts, feelings, and volitions fundamentally informed by the world around him. But should I attempt to describe how this might be for B, I realise that once again I risk being drawn into imagining how I might feel and think in B’s situation. So I need to confine myself to merely recognizing that B will have thoughts, feelings, and volitions, and deign to describe what these thoughts, feelings, and volitions might be. However, it may be deduced from the proposition too that no ‘other-standpoint’ could possibly obtain. This being the case, there could be no question of any mental activity being inferred from external signs. It would be directly experienced, as it were, from the inside, just as happens with me (A), in regard to my own mental activity. Because a ‘subject/faculty I’ will be present in this situation, because a sense of ‘I-ness’ will pervade this situation, and because B’s ‘I-standpoint’ will be the only mental standpoint obtaining in this situation, one might say that it would be ‘as if’ I(A) was reincarnated insofar as the ‘I’ in this context amounts to a ‘subject/faculty I’ (The content or substance presented to A and B’s ‘subject/faculty Is’ – including the myriad ‘facts’ collectively and accumulatively contributing towards the sense of identity felt by A and B – would necessarily differ vastly between A and B. Hence my rejection of any substantive reincarnation occurring. I have used the term, ‘quasi-reincarnation’ in relation to the idea I have set out to contrast it with ‘substantive reincarnation’). Were C2 to have survived, rather than B in the scenario described in (g), then intrinsically, all that has been said of B may be said of C, mutatis mutandis. The only problem that crops up here is one that is ‘extrinsic’ in character: C being the name/label I have applied to a conscious, subjective being who is not B, but a contemporary of B for an unspecified period. With B’s demise, this name/label is, strictly-speaking, non-applicable. But as we are concerned with a putative individual, rather than the name/label applied to that individual, this point is of little consequence.
(i) To ratchet up the realism of my argument, I should like now to discard the idea of a world bereft of all but one or two individuals. Let is return to the pre-apocalyptic situation in which B and C2 live along billions of other contemporaries (Cx) in the hurly burly of the near future. The specifics of how this world is ordered at this point in time, and the specific identities of B and C2 (who are merely defined as existing after A’s demise and co-existing with B for an unspecified period respectively) are irrelevant to what can be drawn from this. And the conclusions to be drawn are those arrived at in (h). Since C2 could be anyone, what applies to C2 applies to Cx, all of B’s contemporaries.
(j) When I began setting out this ’quasi-reincarnation’ notion, I had in mind those surviving me. However, the implications surely extend to my contemporaries as well; an increasingly greater percentage of whom will in any case survive me the older I get. For in both cases, I am referring to people who are ‘not me’; notwithstanding the fact that in the case of those who remain after I am dead the designation, ‘other’, can no longer apply in the sense that they cannot be other to something non-existent (albeit they can be ‘others’ to themselves). And what are these implications? They are simply that an adequate view of the world should acknowledge the plurality of subjectivities around us, and that, in a broader sense, there is a sort of equivalence between subjectivities, even if I am intrinsically biased against this perception by virtue of being grounded in my own subjectivity.
In a nutshell, ‘quasi-reincarnation’ amounts to this: Before and after my brief life – the quality of which is largely dependent on the circumstances I find myself in – I am not floating around in the ether taking a detached view of events occurring below, as I do not exist, and am therefore oblivious to the quality of other people’s lives. The living on either side of my brief life span will be or would have been more or less cognizant of the quality of life of their contemporaries, and rather more directly of their own lives. A conscious, subjective entity, characterized in part by not being me (and since this applies to any, it applies to all of this person’s contemporaries), will or would have been a subject vis-à-vis all others; an ‘I’ looking out upon the world, and within upon his/her own thoughts, feelings and volitions; someone immersed in an ‘I-standpoint’ and regarding others as possessors of ‘other-standpoints’. Such a person (once again, meaning anyone existing on either side of my life span) will feel or would have felt an imperative to attain or retain happiness – a goal largely realized by optimizing the circumstances of his or her life. Perhaps my own life could have been more agreeable given more conducive circumstances; the latter being to some extent (though certainly not altogether) forged by those preceding me. In a reciprocal fashion – albeit the case that I can only receive from the past and give to the future – I could strive to improve the lot of those who come after me. Since my death will herald circumstances in which any ‘I-standpoint’ will ipso facto not be mine, it would be ‘as if’ I had been reincarnated. The ‘I’ component of consciousness – the very facility for being conscious, and specifically, self conscious – would now reside elsewhere and the ‘me’ component would correspondingly differ. One might characterise this as a ‘quasi-reincarnation’. Thus it would be as if ‘I’, the ‘I’ bit in ‘I-standpoints’ of individuals not being me continued to experience the need to attain or retain happiness, and alter circumstances in order to achieve this goal. I, the person here in the present, would not be around to objectify the former, to render that ‘I-standpoint’ an ‘other-standpoint’. In fact, no assertion which presented me then as a subject would make metaphysical sense (aside from those alluding to my ‘public identity’).
In point (f) of the thought experiment, I made mention of the need to take heed of the dire needs felt by B and C2. Here we can see how altruism might link up with the notion of ‘quasi-reincarnation’. Suppose any of us were B or C2 in the situation outlined in (f). We’d be assailed by all manner of needs demanding our attention, would we not? Our own lives are beset with numerous needs too, many of which are shaped by, or relate to, other people and society in general, as I explained earlier. What the thought experiment hopefully demonstrated was how another’s subjectivity might acquire ‘primacy’ in the peculiar circumstances of a ‘uni-subjective world’, where crucially, I (A) did not exist, and was therefore unable to objectify the experience of this solitary soul. Thus, whatever needs there might be in this situation would be directly ‘felt’, rather than inferred, and being felt would need to be addressed with some degree of urgency, depending upon the particular need.
The point I guess I’ve implicitly been approaching is that because I (A) would not exist at this point in time, it would be prudent for me to consider in my own lifetime how B’s life (or simply the life of anyone coming after me- since we cannot know how things will pan out in the future) might be improved or enhanced, because when B is left entirely on his own, the only consciousness or subjectivity around is his, and I (the conscious, subjective entity designated A in the thought experiment) could not then experience his predicament from the outside. B’s experiences would constitute the totality of experiences, and there would be nothing beyond his ‘circle of consciousnesses’, if one might construe this situation in topographical terms. At the centre of this circle would be his ‘subject/faculty I’ (an appropriate metaphorical description if ever there was one as a centre, being a point in space, cannot literally be perceived, no matter what microscopic resolution we deploy to this end), which means that the sense of looking out on the world from the inside would characterise the situation, exactly as occurs in my own life. Hence the observation that it would be ‘as if’ I were reincarnated as B. The ‘subject/faculty I’ when B alone exists would no doubt register the fear, loneliness, desperation, and the basic needs impinging upon the situation.
The thing is, being an ‘I’ involves more than just observing and understanding: Most crucially, it means wanting to be happy. Why should this be so? This isn’t something that is altogether clear. Perhaps the desire for happiness may have arisen phylogenetically as hominids began to develop ‘consciousness’ (along with constituent thoughts, feelings, and volitions). Feelings being motivators (the relationship between feeling and volition being rather incestuous), it may be that the desire for happiness served an evolutionary function. Whatever the case may be, as ‘Is’, everyone’s inner life is consumed with the desire to attain or retain happiness of one sort or another. This will be the case too when I ‘pop my clogs’, and when this happens it will be the happiness of all erstwhile others – and their thoughts, feelings, and volitions in general – that will constitute the entirety of ‘mental acts’ at any given time, if I may tendentiously put it this way in order to make the point. I will have become no more than a memory in the minds of my ‘significant others’ and a wider circle of acquaintances – a memory spluttering flame-like for a generation or two in the minds of others, until fading into obscurity. Some, by dint of exceptional works rather than memory as such, will figure in the minds of their successors for unforeseeable generations – from Socrates and Shakespeare to Genghis Khan and Jack the Ripper. My reference to significant others does, however, raise the notion of a sort of altruism rather different from the universalistic species I have had in mind up till now. I am thinking here of the preoccupation people have with their own blood-line; their own children, grand-children, and so on. Whereas a universalistic altruism is premised on the destruction of one’s own identity and capacity to experience anything, this other – let’s call it ‘hereditary altruism’ – stems from rather different motives and assumptions. Whilst hereditary altruism can involve genuine concern for one’s progeny, I think it often has to do with ‘egotistic’ impulses, such as obtaining vicarious satisfaction from the achievements of one’s children, trying to ensure the stamp of one’s existence is felt by one’s own descendents over time, or wanting to establish some sort of dynasty. In other words, universalistic altruism acknowledges, even embraces, the destruction of one’s ego, whereas hereditary altruism attempts often ineffectually or vaingloriously to preserve or salvage something of oneself. I would not wish to be too judgmental about the latter: Most of us are inclined towards some form of hereditary altruism, and the two species of altruism are not necessarily incompatible. It may be that concern for one’s own offspring extends to worrying about the same broad issues that would preoccupy the altruist of a more universalistic persuasion. Because, ultimately everything is connected, and the wider context within which we live has a bearing upon our individual lives. It’s rather like the recent Bush Administration grudgingly and belatedly coming to acknowledge that climate change – which affects everyone on the planet – merits attention because of its impact upon Americans.
At this point I should like to advance two further arguments in favour of altruism. First of all, let us consider the concept of ‘interest’; of how altruism might benefit people, me included. Once again, I need to stress that I shall do so on the basis that there is no afterlife. Let us return to the ‘dramatis personae’ of our thought experiment: Let us imagine that an entity (A), calling himself ‘I’, dies, and subsequently someone else (B) is born who likewise, and naturally enough, grows up to call himself ‘I’. (A) cannot argue prospectively that after his death he will have no interest in (B)’s welfare on the grounds that (B)’s welfare is irrelevant to him because he is able to differentiate between his directly experiencing his own happiness and his observing signs of happiness in a contemporary (we shall call the latter (C1)). Because it is only while he is alive that he is capable of saying that he has no interest in someone else’s welfare – be that person (C1) or (B). Once dead, (A) is simply non-existent. ‘Having no interest’ qua a subjective entity necessarily entails making the aforementioned distinction. A stone may be said to ‘have no interest’ in someone’s welfare, but on grounds altogether different, namely that the predicate of the proposition, ‘A stone has no interest in someone’s welfare’ is devoid of any meaning other than that a stone is inanimate. It does not mean that this person serves some end for the stone. Because a stone cannot have an end, other than ‘end ‘ proposed for it by some conscious, subjective entity, or agent possessed of a ‘will’, who might decide to pocket it, skim it across a an expanse of water, or push it into a bed of mortar. Post-mortem and having ‘returned to dust’ as the ‘Good Book' so trenchantly puts it, our existential status is no different from a stone. What survives us – the memories others have of us (our ‘public identity’), our life’s works, and even our physical remains (or perhaps I should say our various organs) – may serve as ends for others. In other words, the proposition, ‘I have no interest in others because their happiness is inaccessible to me’ can only ever be true during the course of the subject’s lifetime. To redraft in the future tense as ‘I will have no interest in the welfare of others when I am dead’ is essentially unintelligible (except in the sense of not possessing an ability to have an interest in anything) – assuming there is no such thing as an afterlife – as the subject of the sentence will no longer qualify as a subject after his or her death. Secondly, standpoints being the mental take on something or other, it follows that those who have a standpoint are conscious subjective beings. As the only standpoints to endure after my death will be those of others, it is as surely fitting for me to pay heed to these, as it is to give consideration to the standpoint I am likely to entertain in regard to my own welfare in my twilight years, for example. Why should I dismiss the latter because right now I am not drawn to a quiet life, riddled with arthritis, nor preoccupied with my pension or heating allowance? Yet, what my own future standpoint and the standpoint of others have in common is their literal inaccessibility to me now; the personal identity issue doesn’t really alter this fact. Being concerned for my future welfare entails a similar sort of empathic understanding as that which is marshalled when I feel concern for the welfare of others. In both instances, there is an element of objectification: I look upon my future self as someone other than me, as, of course, I do with others in the present, and then attempt to mentally colonise this construct – ‘me in the future’ – situating my consciousness within it, and testing how this plays upon my thoughts, feelings, and volitions. Consciousness, being ‘of the moment’, can never truly encompass the future in that direct, instantaneous way it does the present. The corollary to this is that we can never truly objectify the ‘now’; that elusive, interstitial zone between the past and the future. But that, as they say, is another matter.
I have to acknowledge that notwithstanding my intentions, it is quite possible that the altruistic ethic argument flounders here and there on account of that bete-noire of mine: analogical mis-reasoning. In my defence, however, I would say that what I had intended was to present a picture of how things seem (hence my reference to ‘quasi-reincarnation’), rather than uncover some ontological bedrock. Because, ultimately, I have been trying to argue the case for an altruistic approach to life, rather than involve myself in ontology; interesting though it may be. What I’ve attempted to do is present a picture of reality with which nearly all of us could concur when not in ‘philosophical mode’, and then argue that we could alter things to more fully realize the most fundamental goal of our existence: the attainment of happiness. Whilst it doesn’t follow that we therefore should do this – there may some oddballs around who would argue that we should not strive for happiness – I would suggest that if one agreed with the foregoing, then it would be reasonable to adopt an altruistic approach in furtherance of this goal. Whether altruism therefore merits being called an ‘ethic’ or simply a strategy - the proof of which lies in the pudding, as they say – is a moot point. Insofar as I might have a stake in the endeavours of others on account of what I have termed ‘quasi-reincarnation – one might question whether my own motivation to beneficially affect the lives of others merited the epithet ‘ethical’. Because it could be argued that there is a selfish element in all this: Apart from gaining some sort of satisfaction from actually helping others, the notion of having a stake in the quality of succeeding lives by virtue of quasi-reincarnation paradoxically suggests that it is ultimately all about looking after oneself. Life being a lottery, in that we may be born into all manner of circumstances, from the utterly disadvantageous to the blissfully fortunate, one could also argue from a selfish perspective that it would make sense to improve the circumstances of all in case one drew the short straw, as it were. On the other hand, insofar as the injunction to behave altruistically is extended to be universally applicable, as something we should all be doing, perhaps it does deserve this epithet. Essentially, I am proposing an agenda for us as individuals that entails improving the lot of others, and this, it seems to me, entitles it to be called an ethic.
So this then is my ‘Organic Model of Human Development’: It proposes that our humanity is contingent upon our physical make-up and that we have no afterlife; that we are fundamentally driven to seek happiness; that the sources of happiness, by and large, are located outside of us, not least in the manner in which we organize society; that a communist society will afford us optimal happiness on this earth because it won’t be fractured by the contradictions that run through present day society and will be directly involved in meeting people’s needs rather than facilitating profiteering, and that an altruistic approach towards others makes sense insofar as the notion of a sort of quasi-reincarnation makes sense; this being the idea that, with my death, the world will be viewed from an ‘I-standpoint’, from an inside perspective by someone (in fact, anyone, and therefore, everyone) other than me, and that the sense of self awareness, of ‘I-ness’, informing this perspective means that it would be ‘as if’ I myself was looking out upon the world at this point in time and space.
What the model declares is that we, the living, become a sort of compost enriching the lives of those who follow us. Once we die, all that truly remains of us are memories, memorabilia, and the achievements we have racked up in our lifetimes. It is really only the latter that have any dynamic continuity. The buildings we built, the fields we tilled, the inventions we brought into fruition, the books we wrote, the social institutions promoted: these are the things that will be incorporated into the lives of those that follow us. Whether slight or momentous, it is our achievements, our contributions to the welfare of others, to human progress, that ultimately matter. Because it is our achievements that lay the foundation for the happiness of others. Crucially too, nearly all of us have the capacity at some time in our lives to reproduce, and in bringing fine young sons and daughters into this world with the potential to contribute positively to this foundation as well, we contribute by proxy. But, as ever, there is a catch in all this: Our contribution may not in the end firm up this foundation, but, on the contrary serve to undermine it, whatever our intentions might have been. Sometimes we are barely cognizant of this because it is society itself that subverts our achievements: Just as one may spend a lifetime adorning the palace of a tyrant with sumptuous works of art only to shore up the institution of tyranny, so may our endeavours in life effect - even if intended in good faith to ameliorate the harshness of other’s lives - a prolonging of a system such as capitalism which lacks any semblance of moral purpose, and increasingly leads to the misfortune of millions. And, of course, some people weaned on the cynical amorality of capitalism will simply not give a damn about future generations, excepting perhaps their descendents whom they might be more inclined to view in dynastic terms. The altruistic ethic enjoining us to contribute to the happiness of these future generations (albeit predicated upon the somewhat paradoxical notion of a ‘quasi-reincarnation’ – which unintentionally hints at benefits to ourselves) therefore really only becomes meaningful in a society no longer at odds with itself, and no longer disposed to exploiting the generosity, compassion, and helpfulness which most of us have in is (Anyone doubting this might wish to reflect upon the millions of hours of unpaid overtime people work in this country – now more than ever – and not usually for ulterior motives. Moreover, it’s worth noting that millions too also get involved in some form of voluntary work from time to time). Such a society would facilitate the expression of such altruistic behaviour, and reconcile the individual with the collective. But that is in the future. For now, one could argue that simply striving to realise this future in itself constitutes an act of altruism. Because the scale of the transformation effected by humanity collectively opting to embrace a communistic form of society would be something without compare in human history, it is reasonable to describe this decision as the most significant act of altruism there could ever be.
Something else that might be said about this model is that its focus is very much on the world, on what we can see and touch. It eschews ‘pie in the sky’ fantasies about a paradisiacal life in the hereafter, not just on the grounds that that no evidence can be advanced for such a life, but also because an obsession with this detracts from efforts to make this world a better one. Moreover, the peddling of such fantasies often serves the interests of those who benefit most from the current dispensation, and can dissipate the urgency for radical social change. One might say that the model turns Pascal on his head, arguing that it is a far better bet to reject religion and concentrate the mind on bettering circumstances for all, so that no matter where or when we are born, these would be conducive to happiness. There is a sort of comfort to be had from such a belief. No fear need attach to dying. Such fear is something that religion infects us with from an early age with all its misanthropic, and frankly sadistic, talk of sinners being cast into eternal hellfire for failing to pay obeisance or display sufficient devotion towards God (though why a God should demand obeisance and devotion from his sentient ‘handiwork’ is beyond me. There is something almost perversely vain in God stipulating that he should be worshipped). And even if it turned out that there was such a thing as a God, surely those who live their lives in accordance with an altruistic ethic are more deserving of approbation than those who don’t, notwithstanding any disinclination to believe in God or an afterlife.
Having said that, the foregoing exposition of the model has not explicitly touched on atheism, although this is something which is probably implied in the first of the propositions I presented, concerning non-survivalism. However, although a number of illustrious atheists, such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, have argued the case for atheism forcefully and eloquently, I do feel that simply disbelieving in the existence of a God hardly constitutes an adequate world view (if we take a ‘world view’ to mean a conceptual framework in terms of which a person tries to interpret reality in toto and chart his or her way through life, which incorporates a key proposition or a set of key propositions, and which – ideally - is broad yet not overly complicated, internally consistent, intelligible, does not fly in the face of facts, and which addresses the nature of Man and the world). Per se, atheism does not set out a vision of how we should live, and it puzzles me when some atheists seem more concerned to emphasize their conventionality in order to prove that atheism does not exert a corrupting influence on morality when, really, atheism ought to go hand-in-hand with a fundamentally unconventional view of who we are, what we want from life, and what should be done to realize our dreams. To uncritically accept the mores and orthodoxies of contemporary societies - apart from their religious aspects - seems a rather odd thing for atheist to do, given that these mores and orthodoxies are often underpinned by religion (Refer to my earlier discussion of the role of religion in society). It’s not that I disagree with all of these mores and orthodoxies – who could fault the Christian injunction to ‘love thy neighbour as thyself’? But if we accept that there is no God or afterlife, why should we then acquiesce in orthodox worldviews that have not wholly disentangled themselves from their religious origins, and which lend support and give legitimacy to the status quo? Because it is the status quo that denies most of us the ‘Good Life’. If there is no God or afterlife, then clearly we should not feel bound by these orthodoxies, and promote instead a worldview view that accords with our longing to enjoy this ‘Good Life’. In other words, we (and that has to mean the majority of us – I cannot factor in the whims of every social misfit) need to say, ‘Right, we cannot look to a God to advise us and this is the only life we have, so lets find a way of ordering society so that we can makes for the greatest happiness for the greatest number (with as little distress to the demurring minority as possible)’ In my view, communism/socialism is the only way in which this could be achieved.
Apropos the model, I said at the outset that its components propositions (which more or less amount to what I jokingly called the roots in my intellectual stew at the beginning of this essay) cohere satisfactorily. However, I don’t think that the validity of each is in any way contingent upon the validity of any of the others. Going back to my stew metaphor, the ingredients of the stew do retain their identities: One might choose not to accept the atheist stance, or my critique of analogy, but still find substance in the idea of establishing a communist society. However, I do feel that the stew would be the poorer for that, and might amount to something less than a world view, as I’ve suggested in the preceding paragraph.
There is, of course, one thing that casts doubt on the usefulness of the model altogether: I remember once watching a programme on supervolcanoes; a rare but potentially cataclysmic natural phenomenon that supposedly nearly did for mankind once in our distant past. And this triggered the thought: How are we meant to reconcile ourselves to the very real possibility of our species being wiped out? Recent shifts in the earths crust beneath
In the preceding pages, I have suggested that individual lives draw on progeny, memory, words and deeds for meaning and purpose; we have no need for an afterlife. There is comfort or discomfort enough in the probability that other lives will flower (or wither) on our legacy. And I have tried to explain, having become nothing we could never experience this flowering or withering; such appreciation could only be exercised by the living. Thus a sort of quasi-reincarnation operates; ‘quasi’ because strands of personal identity are not flung out like fishing lines, with the possibility of landing another subjective reality.
Individual lives and the effects of those lives are two very different things; the latter being able to outlast the former by centuries and long after attribution had ceased to be possible. Indeed, it is conceivable that some effects may stretch to infinity, their influence being exerted over successive generations rather in the manner of a homeopathic dilution. Others might even have an accumulative effect, such as that exerted by the proverbial butterfly whose fluttering is felt as a hurricane thousands of miles away. Shakespeare was right to find consolation in the timelessness of his sonnets. But so much else endures of the effects of individual lives, from the banal to the abstruse. Moreover, it is those tangible carriers of our genes, our children, who in acting upon the world around them indirectly leave the imprint of our lives upon this world too by virtue of the influence we have had on them, particularly in their formative years. Hence the importance attached to parenting. But really, we need to look beyond our nuclear families, and see things in global terms: it is what one generation leaves to another that truly matters. As things are, we are bequeathing a world that is becoming increasingly impoverished and degraded because everything is contingent upon the need for a few to realize a profit. My belief is that in a society founded on common interest and common ownership, and informed by an altruistic ethic, the opposite will occur: The world we shall leave to our children will become increasingly conducive to happiness.
With mass extinction, however, any legacy is itself extinguished: the raison dêtre for everything is lost. So how might we come to terms with this very real possibility? This is something I’m afraid I cannot convincingly answer. It may be that one day our species will slip the knot that ties us to Mother Earth and embark on multi-directional migrations out of our solar system, thus hedging our chances of survival. Perhaps too all that has been said may apply mutatis mutandis to other sentient life forms in the cosmos, were they to exist. And who knows, fragments of this world view might still make sense to someone or something if in aeons to come, other universes were to bubble into existence. But that, of course, is arrant speculation: It could be that we lack the most elementary conceptual tools to comprehend how things will unfold in the far future. The very notion of life might then embrace meanings way beyond our current understanding, and even species as genetically linked groupings of individuals might no longer exist; having given way to prolix new forms of life.
However, with regard to the possibility of our own extinction as a species, I do not believe that we have it in us to fatalistically accept the sword of Damocles hanging overhead. We will always strive and contrive to find ways of bettering our lot or our chances in life. We are willful creatures and therefore always inclined to keep an eye on the main chance. Because in one way or another to will is to search for something perceived as better, ironically, even if that something is one’s own death.
There is something tautological in this: what is better is preferable, and what is preferred is willed. We cannot will away our will and willing implies wanting to change circumstances, or resisting that which would alter circumstances we do not wish to change. Will is an irreducible given of our existence. We cannot will what we do not will. Even our rashest actions - those that threaten the apocalypse – may be construed as extremely short-sighted, but nevertheless proactive or reactive attempts to further our own perceived interests; in other words, expressions of will. But now more than ever, it is time for humanity to step back and consider the consequences of its actions and decisions. Humanity has now to examine its very modus operandus, and the assumptions that sustain this.
So long as we continue to perceive ourselves as having to lead a gannet-like existence on a barren rock of a planet where we must elbow out our neighbours if we are to gain a relatively secure purchase on some narrow ledge, we will be missing the point. It is our neighbours that are the key to our salvation, as we are to theirs. In short, it is our social nature that provides the basis for our welfare, our advancement, and ultimately, for our happiness. This mutuality, however, will only ever find full expression in a harmonious society, and it is my belief that only a genuinely communistic society, where the fruits of all our labours are freely available to all, will enable us to live happily with each other. Present day society is more inclined to exploit and subvert our interdependence.
It has been pointed out that if earth’s timeline were a day, the existence of humanity would correspond to less than a minute. We could so easily be wiped out, and in a fraction of the time we ourselves have been around, all evidence of our existence would disappear too: From our sturdiest concrete and steel structures to our most hallowed and delicate documents, all would inevitably decay and crumble. Man’s hollow boasts of having dominion over nature seems so pathetic, so inconsequential against the vast canvass of the universe, one can but pity our small, furless bipedal species, possessed of a pedigree truly shamed by that of the ancient and venerable cockroach. However, it is not just nature that could wipe us out: The modern age has presented us with this terrible power as well. Whether by omission or commission, we could destroy ourselves in all sorts of ways, and may yet succeed in doing so. But the corollary to this is that now more than ever we have the ability to engineer an altogether different and happier outcome – if we so desired. Like the individual strands of a rope, our individual lives could impart strength, continuity, and indeed joy to those around us if society undertook to rid itself of the divisiveness and contradictions fraying its make-up. Such a rope would span aeons.
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Please feel free to refer this link to whomever you like. I'd like to encourage debate on the issues raised
For more on the subject of socialism/communism, why not go to http://www.worldsocialism.org/spgb/ You may also find the following site to be of great interest: http://resourcebasedliving.com/ This promotes the views of the Zeitgeist Movement, yet another organisation advocating a world without money. Finally, I should like to draw your attention to the excellent 'Socialist TV' site, and suggest that you through the archives. Go to: http://socialist-tv.blogspot.com/search?updated-min=2008-01-01T00%3A00%3A00Z&updated-max=2009-01-01T00%3A00%3A00Z&max-results=45