Summer Conference 1999: Science, Ethics & Human Destiny

Ethics and a Sense of Meaning: What is it that we must do?

BERNARD MURCHLAND, Trumball Duval Professor of Philosophy, Ohio Wesleyan University

To be last on the program, is not necessarily to be least. But it does have its disadvantages. One disadvantage is that most everything has already been said. Or, at least, the audience may think everything has been said, which may be another way of saying that the audience is beginning to tune out.

Another disadvantage of being last on the program is that one has to rewrite one’s speech several times. I was impressed with the number of people that were stealing my ideas during this conference.

I’m in a position of the clean up batter and I think what I might do is summarize a bit.

Before that, I might work the theme of meaning a little bit more. That’s a corner that we haven’t spent much time on.

We’ve heard a lot these past few days about how science and technology have made us wealthier, healthier, wiser, but not much talk about how meaningful the whole scientific, technological enterprise is.

I think the jury is still out on that.

It is not surprising that we have not heard much talk about meaning, because modern scientists have tended to see the world without purpose and our quest for meaning more or less futile.

Talk about values have pretty much been outlawed by the scientific establishment, which is one of the meanings of value neutrality.

Nobel physicist Steven Weinberg, for example, has called life a more or less farcical outcome of chain accidents, "the more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it seems pointless."

Oxford zoologist Richard Dawkins said: "the universe has no design, no purpose, no evil and no good; nothing but pointless indifference."

We have been blitzed with that idea for generations. So, given the idea that the universe is accidental and life is meaningless is so central to modern thought, it is important that we confront – at least sometimes, on an occasion such as this – the question of meaning.

What I want to do first is to make a somewhat abstract statement about how meaning is created, about how it is sustained.

Then, secondly I’d like to illustrate that idea more concretely.

When we think about meanings, we think about them as functions of our symbolic universes. And symbolic universes are created by the interaction of human subjectivity, with its various environments, with nature above all.

When we think back to our mythological beginnings, it is quite remarkable to note that philosophy, religion and science were all born of the intense desire to understand and adapt to nature.

And it is important to remember, as Hannah Arendt has reminded us, that culture originally meant to cultivate, to dwell in, to take care of, to tend and preserve, and was related primarily to the interaction of human subjectivity with nature. It meant to cultivate and tend nature until it became fit for human habitation and yielded human meanings.

By metaphorical extension, culture came to designate the symbolic universes of mind and spirit. The cult of the Gods carried this meaning. So did a cultured mind.

The important point is there’s always the connection of culture with nature. Culture originally meant agriculture. And all of our symbolic expressions spring from that original root. They arise naturally, to quote Arendt again, as poetry springs, "from the song which the leaves sing to themselves in the green solitude of the woods."

But at some point, let’s say with Plato, human culture took a transcendental turn. Our symbolic universes became more abstract, out of body, impersonal.

Plato sought ultimate meaning in those changeless, eternal and non-material ideas of which the natural objects – amid which we have our abode – are only pale copies.

Since Plato’s time, we have lived with two contrasting visions of our defining reality, what we might call visio-dei and visio-naturae, God images and nature images.

And we can trace a direct line from Plato through medieval Christianity, the rise of modern science, the Enlightenment project, to our present preoccupations with virtual reality.

Today we seek our meanings in a sea of symbols and signs of simulacra and semiotics, in global economics, information systems and technological wizardry, the antics of post-modernism and the pyrotechnics of cyberspace.

Technology wears the garments of progress. But it is, at at least in one important respect, culturally retrogressive. That is to say we seek our meanings as Plato did in the transcendental, out-of-body, decontextualized experiences of abstract reason.

And it is a wearying business.

We are sometimes, all of us I think, inclined to think that we are on the wrong track. It is sometimes said that we live in a materialistic age. But I don’t think that’s true at all.

If people truly valued material things, they would take care of them in a more responsible way. But we moderns are quite savagely destructive of the material world.

I’m inclined to say that we live, rather, in an age of perverse idealism. Our culture is strewn with the butt ends of bad ideas.

What we have lost is true materialism, the rich tradition of what was once called cosmic humanism. That tradition has not been altogether silenced. It was powerfully confirmed in stoicism, which I take to be the strongest school of ethics in the post-Greek period.

So, I recommend to all of those of you feel lost in the cosmos – Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations; Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, Epiiclelus’ Enchridion – powerful antidotes to the steady diet of technological abstractions that is our fare today.

The Stoics turn to nature, rather than traditional religions or society, for stable, moral meanings. Live according to nature was their rallying cry.

Always think of nature, wrote Marcus Aurelius, "as one living organism with a single substance and a single soul."

We are all part of the teeming energy that constitutes the divinity of the universe. A sudden harmony of rationality, law, eros and soul stuff.

Now I face a practical problem, a pedagogical problem. How do I communicate something of that rich tradition to my students.

And I’ve worked out a way of doing that, more or less successfully.

I often turn to Henry David Thoreau to help my students recover some sense of cosmic humanism.

You may remember than on July 4, 1845, Thoreau left his home in Concord, Mass. And retired to a nearby lake, called Walden Pond, to conduct a great experiment in self-discovery and local politics.

There be built a cabin in the woods and there he lived for a little over two years. And he wrote his experience in the book called, Walden.

"I went to the woods," Thoreau tells us, "because I wanted to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life and see if I could not learn what it had to teach and not, when I came to die, discovered I had not lived."

Thoreau is, perhaps, the most stoic of modern writers, whose voice grows louder by the minute and who is principally responsible for the fact that environmental studies is the preferred major of many university students.

[In] my opinion the two great social revolutions of our time are the environmental movement and the global economy.

At the moment they are at loggerheads. The next great social revolution will be when the two come together.

Thoreau’s message was that the natural world is our home, the place where we live and that we must tend to it with care. We must learn to know our fit in nature, to live at home in nature.

Thoreau created his world by closely observing nature, by participating in nature and, in the end, by appropriating nature in richly-textured and analogical language.

So, in Kierkegard’s words, he took authorship of his own life. And no modern writer has so eloquently described nature as a moral exemplar.

There are those who, to be sure, see Thoreau as a romantic visionary, indulging the pastoral fantasy, or even worse a kind of eccentric oddball, a kind of 19th century hippie, rejecting society.

But that I think is to get Thoreau all wrong. He was, in my opinion, a radical empiricist, before William James made that expression popular. A good materialist in the stoic vein who had, as a matter of fact, studied a lot of science as a student at Harvard College.

Thoreau wasn’t arguing that everyone should go to the woods, or escape society. He wasn’t trying to impose an artifical, pastoral ideal on an industrial society.

I read Thoreau to be making the same point that Hannah Arendt made, which is to say he understood nature as the ground of our deepest meanings. He was elaborating a philosophy of organic relationships about living in a caring and cultured way.

His experiment was a deliberate attempt to put his life together as a meaningful whole.

And I was wondering, as Margaret was making her presentation, what Thoreau would have thought of cloning.

I think I know the answer.

Thoreau foresaw and trembled at the prospect of the kind of society we have created, with all of its alienation, disconnectedness and anonymity.

Thoreau feared, as we should fear, the emergence of science wedded primarily to mathematical models. Thoreau feared, as we should fear, the development of a technology that would come to dominate our lives in so many unpleasant ways.

Thoreau feared, as we should fear, an unsustainable economy that divides society into rich and poor and, at the same, takes a terrible toll on the environment.

Thoreau feared, as we should fear, an ant-hill society in which large numbers of people make their living by depending on the choices of other people with whom they have no real social or moral ties.

And I think Thoreau was right.

I’m willing to bet we won’t get a handle on our multiple social problems until we buy back into some such vision as his.

And in that spirit I am advocating these days an ethics of biology.

Two basic features of an ethics of biology are a fundamental co-naturality between the human and the natural worlds and, secondly, an understanding of nature as a biotic community – a kind of democracy, really – that can teach us important lessons about unity in diversity, harmony out of conflict, and creativity.

Above all it teaches us about connectiveness. The biotic community has a metabolic mode of existence, engaging in continuous exchange with all of its parts.

As Aldo Leopold, one of Thoreau’s disciples put it, "all ethics rests on a single premise: that human beings are members of a larger natural community of interdependent parts. What preserves the beauty and integrity of the biotic community is ethical, what does not is not ethical."

The ethics of biology emphasizes life and living processes from which we derive our sense of selfhood. By attending to these living processes, we come to a rooted notion of what is implied in selfhood, freedom, purpose, otherness, feeling, intelligence.

Some philosophers, like Hans Jonas and Alfred North Whitehead, warn us that life is the missing category in modern thought; it’s the key to joining human experience with the energies of all living organisms.

I’ve been looking for the past four days at the theme of the conference: science, ethics and human destiny; I’m wondering how they might be convincingly linked.

At this point, I can make these connections.

If science is based on a conception of nature as a biotic community, and if ethics is based on the notion of life as purposeful – as appropriated experience – then we have at least a partial answer to the human destiny question.

It is our destiny to live according to nature in a meaningful way.

On his death bed Thoreau said, "I am ready." To live a meaningful life and be ready to die is human destiny.

Now, ladies and gentlemen I think it only approrpiate that I end this conference as John Percy began it, with a poem.

All the more appropriate that the poem contains an astronomical allusion.

The poem is entitled, The Peace of Wild Things.

It’s written by my friend, the Kentucky poet and farmer, Wendell Berry, who farms in the Amish way with horses. The last time I visited him he was down to one horse. But he has a very small farm.

This is the way it goes. And I think it sums up certainly what I have been saying and I think it sums up a good of deal of what has been said in this conference.

When despair for the world grows in me,
And I wake in the night at the least sound,
In fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake rests
In his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought of grief.
I come into the presence of still water
and I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light
For a time I rest in the grace of the world
And am free.

Couchiching Online History Table of Contents 1999 Summer Conference