On Being Human in the Age of Humanity

This is about an essay called “Agency in the Anthropocene: How much choice do you actually have?” (Daily Philosophy, August 4, 2021). I fall in the gap in age between the author and Jeff Bezos, who (the author says) is three years her senior.

I knew Lucy Weir first on Twitter, and then through her blog – also through emails, when comments on blog posts wouldn’t go through, and WordPress could not say why. Lucy sent me a draft of the essay that I am looking at here. The published version differs mainly by including photographs, pull quotes, more precise references, and headings for sections as follows:

  • Are you a natural-born killer?
  • “Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose”
  • Pivotal reorientation: looking East
  • Lucidity in action

“Freedom” is a key word. Weir makes a striking assertion:

we don’t have the kind of freedom we normally ascribe to ourselves.

“Speak for yourself!” I want to respond. I have responded, on this blog, to other naysayers, as for example in a 2018 post called “Antitheses,” where I took issue with two persons (and more):

  • a self-described “freewill skeptic,” Gregg Caruso, for thinking punishment was supposed to be something bad that a wrongdoer deserved (and therefore “retributive punishment is never justified”);
  • a physicist, Sabine Hossenfelder, for thinking there was no free will, since it was not among the four forces identified by physics as responsible for everything that happened in the universe. (I continued with Hossenfelder in the 2020 post “Mathematics and Logic.”)

In some parts of the world, politicians threaten the freedom of persons who oppose or question them. As one of these dissidents, you may respond stoically that there can be no threat to something that does not exist anyway. This is probably not something that others should say, as if they were the so-called Comforters of Job.

It should at least be useful to get clear on what Weir calls “the kind of freedom we normally ascribe to ourselves.” As far as I can tell, she takes this to be “freedom of choice.”

We are in what Weir calls “the ecological emergency.” Two questions arise:

  1. What can we do about it?
  2. What should we do about it?

Asking a question is itself a free act, though not really an act of choosing.

To the second question on my list, Weir quotes a sort of answer from a paper by Richard Watson:

Humans’ actions, regardless of their effect on other organisms, are natural and perfectly acceptable … we should be allowed to live out our evolutionary potential to [our own destruction] because this is ‘nature’s way’.

Weir’s response takes us back to the first question:

Yet this jars: our predominant understanding of human choice is that we have a large degree of freedom in how we choose to live. What job we choose, what friends we associate with, the kinds of [pastimes] we decide to pursue in our leisure time, whether or not we have children, whether or not, in a pandemic, we decide to accept lockdown requirements, whether or not we become fully aware of, and respond appropriately, to the ecological emergency. All these, we believe, are freedoms we can exercise. And yet the emergency deepens.

I don’t know much more about Richard Watson than can be inferred from the quotation above. He may have intended it as a reductio ad absurdum of somebody else’s opinion. The quotation does suggest an absurdly positive answer to the question that Weir actually opens her essay with. This is the question of

whether or not we are natural, in the same way that the rest of the biosphere is.

The answer may become negative when we clarify the question itself.

By a dictionary definition, the biosphere is “Regions of earth’s crust and atmosphere occupied by living matter” (The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English, 6th edition, 1976). One may ask then what “living matter” is. I propose that the biosphere comprises whatever is studied by the science of biology. We humans thus live in the biosphere, by virtue of being among those entities that biology studies. In this sense, we are natural.

Biology makes no judgments about what the objects of its study ought to be doing. The objects do whatever they do, and biology studies this. Therefore, quâ biological entities, which happen to make up the species called Homo sapiens, we have nothing that we ought to be doing. And yet, quâ biologists, we ought to do our science well.

The word quâ is a direct translation into Latin of the Greek word ᾗ, which is, in origin, the dative singular feminine form of the relative pronoun. As a glyph, ᾗ is the letter eta with an iota subscript, a rough breathing mark, and a circumflex. You can translate ᾗ or quâ as “insofar as being,” but not “inasmuch as being.”

Near the beginning of the Platonic dialogue called the Meno, after giving what Socrates calls a “swarm” of different answers to the question of what virtue is, the title character acknowledges that bees themselves do not differ from one another “insofar as they are bees” (ᾗ μέλιτται εἰσίν), even though, as Socrates has pointed out, they may differ “in their beauty or size or some other quality” (ἢ κάλλει ἢ μεγέθει ἢ ἄλλῳ τῳ τῶν τοιούτων).

We are biological entities. We also go further than that. We engage in the science of biology. You can call that being biological, but it is in a different sense.

I am not actually a biologist myself, but I think I can say that the theory of evolution is founded on three principles:

  1. Parents tend to pass along their features to their offspring, if they are able to have offspring at all.
  2. Those very features, or at least some of them, may encourage or inhibit the production of offspring.
  3. Sometimes, by chance, offspring have new features not found in their parents.

A professional biologist may criticize or refine such an account. This is possible, because a science can be done more or less well, in the judgment of the science itself.

The objects of biology may do more or less well, according to the standards of the biologist, who may speak of the success of an organism in attracting a mate, or of a species in colonizing a new habitat. Carrion crows and yellow-legged gulls have been successful in occupying rooftops in Istanbul; however, this is my assessment, arrived at by looking out my window, not by actually consulting the birds themselves. I think Weir alludes to the kind of distinction that I am making here:

In Zen and Daoist literature, the difference between human and other systems does not lie in their capacity to exercise this potential [for compassion], but in their capacity to realise that they are exercising it.

To birds, I can ascribe human qualities such as belligerence, tranquillity, playfulness, or devotion, but I don’t think I do this or could do this quâ biologist. Or perhaps I could, but still not thinking the animals can do anything about their qualities. People may disagree who live intimately with animals, whether as pets or chattel or game; but Yuval Noah Harari seems right to say, in a passage from Sapiens that I quoted more of in a post called “Law and History” (December 2020),

Female common chimpanzees cannot take lessons from their bonobo relatives and stage a feminist revolution. Male chimps cannot gather in a constitutional assembly to abolish the office of alpha male and declare that from here on out all chimps are to be treated as equals.

If such things did happen, they would be studied by the historian, not the biologist.

The historian could be the same person as the biologist, now wearing a different hat. When a university announces,

In a new scientific paper, the scholars introduce a new concept called “dignity neuroscience” — the idea that universal rights are rooted in human brain science

– when a university says this, I understand being dismissive, as was the historian from whose tweet I learned about the paper. You are not going to learn about human rights by studying the brain as a biological organ. And yet none of us is simply a biologist or an historian. Any one of us might in principle answer the questions of another.

Neither perhaps is a scientific theory ever simply what we have decided it to be at the moment. It goes on developing. I think Lucy Weir shows this for evolution. That which allows a feature to be passed from parent to child is called a gene. One may see evolution as a struggle among genes for survival. “Our understanding of the world has changed, however,” says Weir:

We now recognise that evolution is not as simple as Richard Dawkins’ proposal of ‘the selfish gene’ suggests, and in fact is likely to take place in a cooperative, rather than competitive way … We do not evolve alone, or selfishly.

The boundary between living and non-living is also much more permeable than it seems …

… But countless species of microorganisms remain unidentified by us because we are only beginning to understand that our classification systems break down at the microscopic: single celled organisms, or microbes, do not behave as individual organisms, whether in their entwined relationship with multicellular organisms, or while acting in apparent independence in the soil.

Do we indeed evolve cooperatively, rather than competitively? I’m not even sure how to distinguish the possibilities, since for example a competition in the Olympic games is also a cooperative effort to play by the rules, in order to achieve a kind of excellence that is recognized and applauded by all who take an interest in the games.

We may emphasize the competitive or the cooperative side of a game, according to what Mary Midgley calls, in Evolution as a Religion (2002/1985), our “world-picture”:

It seems often to be assumed … that Science itself is something so pure and impersonal that it ought to be thought of in complete abstraction from all the motives that might lead people to practise it. This, unfortunately, cannot work because of the importance of world-pictures. Facts are not gathered in a vacuum, but to fill gaps in a world-picture which already exists. And the shape of this world-picture – determining the matters allowed for it, the principles of selection, the possible range of emphases – depends deeply on the motives for forming it in the first place.

Some world-pictures may be better than others. Midgley questions the one of Jacques Monod, whom she quotes as saying,

If he accepts this message [of science] in its full significance, man must at last wake out of his millenary dream and discover his total solitude, his fundamental isolation. He must realize that, like a gypsy, he lives on the boundary of an alien world; a world that is deaf to his music, and as indifferent to his hopes as it is to his sufferings or his crimes.

Midgley responds immediately,

But ‘discovering his total solitude’ is just adopting one imaginative stance among many possible ones. Other good scientists, very differently, have used the continuity of our species with the rest of the physical world to reprove human arrogance and to call for practical recognition of kinship with other creatures.

Weir is one person who encourages this recognition of kinship, as by saying,

understanding the nature of interdependent co-arising elicits a deeper, more fundamental attitude than respect, and one that is referred to often in East Asian traditions: compassion. When we understand that not only humans but all existence experiences suffering as it co-arises, the rational attitude this elicits is compassion.

We do, therefore, have a kind of agency, a kind of freedom. We have the freedom to pay attention to what is going on …

I shall come back this freedom. Meanwhile I want to note Midgley’s remarkable further comments on Monod, a hundred pages later, under the sectional heading, “Living With a Crippled Intellect”:

In its lively, existentially coloured package, [Monod’s story] offers a way of combining the general scepticism and acceptance of confusion about moral questions which is widely professed today with a firm, saving exception for confidence in the value of science. This fits the world-picture acquired by very many people in the course of a scientific education, an education which trains them in scientific thinking, and greatly exaggerates the precision possible to it, while doing very little to teach them the ways of thinking which they will need for other purposes – personal, political, psychological, historical, metaphysical and all the rest.

There are other ways to have a similarly inadequate education. Richard Beard shows this in a book excerpt in The Observer (August 8, 2021) whose thesis is in its title: “Why public schoolboys like me and Boris Johnson aren’t fit to run our country.” Such boys

spent the formative years of their childhood in boarding schools being looked after by adults who didn’t love them … later in life, when we saw other people cry, we felt no great need to go to their aid … we developed a gangster loyalty to self-contained cliques, scared to death of being cast out as we had been from home … From the teachers we learned about mockery and sarcasm as techniques for social control … once we found out what another boy took most seriously we were ready to strike, when necessary, at its core. Our most effective defence was therefore to act as if we took nothing very seriously at all.

I did not go to boarding school, but I did spend nine years at St. Albans School for Boys, an Anglophile institution in Washington DC. I have occasionally mentioned it on this blog, perhaps usually in appreciation for what I was able to learn there. Any school may produce, even among girls, something of the horrors that Beard describes. Apparently Richard Dawkins thought being felt up by one of his own teachers at school was less bad than being indoctrinated at home about hell would have been; in a 2014 post, I defended his right to be taken seriously. In any case, Midgley’s point stands, that science in the narrow sense does not teach us everything worth knowing.

Returning to the concept of freedom, I propose, not world-pictures perhaps, but two metaphors, based on the game of chess, for what some people may take our freedom to be.

  1. The world is a chess board, where we move pieces around, under certain constraints, but otherwise acccording to our choice.
  2. Each of us is a self-moving piece, moving as we choose, though again subject to the constraints just mentioned.

Weir identifies a difficulty, which is that the world does not comprise such discrete beings as the metaphors would seem to require:

If we are enmeshed in systems, and inseparable from them, then our ability to locate an “I” who chooses what to do becomes dizzyingly tricky. If we are inseparable from our gut flora, from the bacterially derived mitochondria in our cells, from the virally derived portion of our DNA, then who is driving the show? … This all leaves us with little to grasp when it comes to considering how we can claim freedom of choice for ourselves.

In the place of the ellipsis is a curious remark:

Sam Harris in Free Will brings this up to the scale of every day consideration: we did not choose to be born, or where, or when, or to whom, or even how …

From what I understand of Tibetan Buddhism (mainly from The Tibetan Book of the Dead, third edition, 1957, by W. Y. Evans-Wentz, read by me decades ago), we choose at least to whom to be born. More precisely, we can choose, if we get ready for our next rebirth by practicing dying now.

Freedom of choice may sound like something that can be given to us like a menu in a restaurant. It’s not that simple though. If you do not know what the dishes are, you cannot choose among them.

I think Weir touches on a more basic problem. Even if you can distinguish the other pieces on the chessboard, they don’t stand still, waiting for you to make your move. This is how Collingwood puts it in “The Principles of History,” using a chemical metaphor:

A healthy man knows that the empty space in front of him, which he proposes to fill up with activities for which he accordingly now begins making plans, will be very far from empty by the time he steps into it. It will be crowded with other people all pursuing activities of their own. Even now it is not as empty as it looks. It is filled with a saturate solution of activity, on the point of beginning to crystallize out. There will be no room left for his own activity, unless he can so design this that it will fit into the interstices of the rest.

I have quoted and talked about passages near that one, first in the 2014 post “Freedom.” Meanwhile, Weir says, in a passage that I selected from in the beginning,

This implies, fellow humans, that we have a problem: we are on a path to self-destruction, and we don’t have the kind of freedom we normally ascribe to ourselves. Does this mean we are on the juggernaut heading for a cliff with no way to press the brakes or turn the wheel? I don’t think so … If we understand the nature of existence, then we manifest the Buddha’s fully aware compassionate understanding of the interdependence of our own awareness co-arising with all else. This state is also the acknowledgment that we can, in this state, release (or at least work to release) the bonds of suffering, which is also the bondage of attachment, or conditioning.

If to “understand the nature of existence” is to “face the facts,” then this is what we are free to do, by Collingwood’s account (still in “The Principles of Art History”):

The rational activity which historians have to study is never free from compulsion: the compulsion to face the facts of its own situation … The freedom that there is in history consists in the fact that this compulsion is imposed upon the activity of human reason not by anything else, but by itself.

One may say that freedom then is just part of the historian’s world-picture, or what Collingwood calls an “absolute presupposition” of history; that doesn’t mean that freedom is any more than an illusion. Still, historians actually exist. One may say that they need to learn to be “real” scientists. One may have learned such comments from school.

One may go on to learn more. In the Observer article already quoted, Richard Beard also says,

In earlier generations, Orwell and others like him were exposed by war and other calamities to a seriousness that grew their stunted selves and tempered the isolated and ironic cult of an English private education. They were goaded by events into compassion, so that sooner or later, Orwell believed, even in “a land of snobbery and privilege, ruled largely by the old and silly”, England would brush aside the obvious injustice of the public schools.

Beard continues, “The wait goes on.” We have to do more than wait. Can we be goaded into compassion by fires and floods? Weir herself concludes with a scientific metaphor, though I don’t know if she would call it that:

Human agency is, in a sense, a meta-system, driven by the same conditions that drive all systems – energy dissipation – yet able to reflect and so (to a degree) alter them. It is a system few of us engage with at the moment. It requires effort to practice realising it. Yet it is the potential we have to shift how we relate, and therefore respond, to the ecological emergency. So it is urgent and critical that we wake up to this capacity now.

Added August 10, 2021. Since I mentioned taking issue with Sabine Hossenfelder on the subject of free will, I note a new tweet of hers:

People who mistakenly believe they have free will tend to underestimate how much they are influenced by media they consume. Be careful what you let into your brain because it’s next to impossible to get it out again.

I don’t know the purpose or justification of the relative clause, “who mistakenly believe they have free will.” Why not just say that we (or people) tend to underestimate how much we (or they) are influenced by media they consume?

Hossenfelder is commenting on somebody else’s tweet, apparently about how people’s beliefs about vaccines have been influenced by a “2007 American post-apocalyptic action thriller film” called called I Am Legend. Perhaps such people believe that everybody has a right to an opinion, which is just as good as anybody else’s; or that are even free to create their own reality.

Some persons noted what would seem to be the obvious contradiction in Hossenfelder’s tweet:

People who mistakenly believe that there is no free will invite people to control their actions 😉

Perhaps Hossenfelder conceives of freedom as freedom from constraint, even self-constraint; or as an absence of external influence.

In any case, other persons seem to agree with Hossenfelder, as in this comment on her tweet:

People got really upset when I said something similar to this in a @cwarzel column. The exercise of will that has the most impact is in what you choose to give your attention to. Everything after that is mitigation at best.

This seems to presume what Lucy Weir says: “We have the freedom to pay attention to what is going on.”

One Comment

  1. Posted August 10, 2021 at 6:54 pm | Permalink | Reply

    Thanks for this extremely detailed response. It will take me a while to work through it, between the jigs and the reels of surviving and attempting to maintain relationships! I’ll see how things go and certainly get back to you on a few points for clarification, and further discussion, but I don’t want to short-change either of us by doing that without first paying careful attention to what you’ve said. Thanks again for your engagement – it’s teaching me a lot.

2 Trackbacks

  1. By On Plato’s Republic, 5 « Polytropy on September 26, 2021 at 9:35 am

    […] according to Richard Beard in “Why public schoolboys like me and Boris Johnson aren’t fit to run our country” (The Observer, August 8, 2021; I looked at this in “On Being Human in the Age of Humanity”). […]

  2. By Nature « Polytropy on October 8, 2021 at 10:29 am

    […] a vacuum, but to fill gaps in a world-picture which already exists.” I looked more at this in “On Being Human in the Age of Humanity,” a post mentioned in another context – the effects of education – in the post on Republic […]

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