Consciousness and Ecology

A persistent set of themes in my research has been the concept of subject/object relations, relativism, and the impossibility of the absolute. These abstract themes are realised again and again in philosophy (cogito ergo sum – I think therefore I am – therefore, what are you?), politics (native vs foreigner), theology (God versus man), technology (nature versus human) and metaphysics (Deluze’s philosopher as ontologist). In dialectics, as recently discussed, enlightenment versus romanticism. In the first instance, if we take Descartes’ cogito, the impossible ‘I’ is the flaw in the argument. Who, or what, is I? It is me, surely, my consciousness, my context within which the thought is occurring. And yet the actual cogito, the thought, can only be realised in relation to the world. Therefore, the only possibility for consciousness is that it must be conscious of something other than itself. Setting aside whether there would be any point in a self-referential consciousness, one that is only conscious of itself, one has to question what the mode of consciousness would be? Descartes’ fundamental concept of consciousness is intended as a metaphor to that which you and I define as consciousness, invariably considered as a kind of awareness of itself, of its existence. When Descartes says ‘consciousness’, I immediately relate that to my consciousness. It is not consciousness of my self; the self is constructed by and beyond consciousness. It is consciousness in and of itself, the base fact of consciousness. Set aside too the mechanisms that allow us as human beings to conceive of the idea of consciousness, which in and of themselves compromise such a pure concept, like the observer effect in quantum mechanics.

Consciousness is one absolute that appears in some sense foundational, elementary for the purposes of philosophy, though its elusiveness causes real problems. The ideas of G/god and truth similarly attract absolutist polemics, various dogmata that must be true for some social or political order to be sustained. Only God (a specific God), the idea of God (or Gods, in general, as supernatural), can answer the otherwise unanswerable; the more secular the polemicist, perhaps they may concede that future discoveries may reveal god, though even then there remained mysteries that seemed to our feeble human minds impossible to conceive of, such as the idea of the infinite. Spinoza crafted god as everything there is, in a deeply ecological sense.

The ultimate dialectic is that of the absolute and the relative. You could argue that God is the absolute, while humanism is the relative, and the synthesis from those two is some form of theology. Spinoza’s concept of god however is far more compelling, ignoring the distinctions between humankind and nature, and the seeming finitude of nature. In a sense this foreshadows Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, where he seeks to deconstruct fundamental concepts and set them in their context (substantially blaming Socrates). In essence, we see Nietzsche glorifying ancient pre-Socratic Greece, in particular the age of Homer’s stories, distinguishing it from Socratic and subsequent Western Philosophy. This was before the great monotheisms, when the Gods (plural) were more like superhuman than supernatural; they were a part of what Spinoza would later call god (as were we, and all the rest of existence).

The impact of time is extremely important here, and the pre-Socratics (in particular Heraclitus, Zeno and Parmenides) developed this well. We are once again faced with the impossibility of the absolute, the present: the present is all that we know that exists; and yet it only exists as an infinitely small point where the past and the future meet. Where has god been in the past? Where will she be? If I only truly exist either in the past or in the future, how can I exist in a non-present?

All of these considerations lead me back to an ecological sensibility, a recognition that our current constitution can only properly be understood not so much as a relativist proposition, but as an ecological one. That has significant implications for how we consider contingency and attribution, and, ultimately, the problem of determinism. Even if we take the view that the world is not deterministic, in that the things we experience are not pre-determined (which in itself is a silly concept, unless we are willing to entertain the challenge – determined by whom?!) we have to concede that we have no control over what is happening in the world. Concurrently, we have to recognise that everything that is happening in the world – including big things like climate change, and sweeping political ideas that appear to have a life of their own, are happening in tandem with all sorts of other seemingly unrelated phenomena – like plants in Venezuela, dust formations on the moon, and supernovae light years away. A kind of temporal, existential mycelialism, like the network that connects trees across a continent, binds everything together across time and space. It means on the one hand that man is contributing in his actions to climate change; it also means that he can’t do anything about it. The ecological sensibility embraces Nietzsche’s disdain for the concepts of good and evil, but similarly chastises any glorification of alternate morality.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t try to be good, or to be kind to each other. Of course we should! But when we fail, we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves. Our experience in this world is pretty fun, it has to be said. It can be dramatic, occasionally profound, and lit up by sparks of revelation and discovery. When bad things happen, stoicism helps! Whether or not there is a life beyond death, in a sense it doesn’t matter. Memento mori, sure; but also – memini te vivere. Remember you are alive!

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