Meaning Is a Many-Splendored Thing, Part 2

Roy Scranton’s “We’re Doomed. Now What?” begins with a different premise than Charlie Hueneman’s “Everything Is Meaningless – But That’s Okay” (which I went on about two weeks ago). Scranton thinks that global warming, escalating violence or a combination of the two will one day put our species out of its misery:

Today, as every hour brings new alarms of war and climate disaster, we might wish we could take Nietzsche’s place. He had to cope only with the death of God, after all, while we must come to terms with the death of our world….

We stand today on a precipice of annihilation that Nietzsche could not have even imagined. There is little reason to hope that we’ll be able to slow down global warming before we pass a tipping point….The West Antarctic ice sheet is collapsing, Greenland is melting, permafrost across the world is liquefying, and methane has been detected leaking from sea floors and Siberian craters: it’s probably already too late to stop these feedbacks, which means it’s probably already too late to stop apocalyptic planetary warming. Meanwhile the world slides into hate-filled, bloody havoc, like the last act of a particularly ugly Shakespearean tragedy.

It’s fair to say that without a major technological breakthrough on one hand or the collapse of the carbon-based global economy on the other, the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will continue to increase. That could have horrific consequences. A “runaway” greenhouse effect may have given Venus its thick atmosphere of carbon dioxide and average surface temperature of 842 degrees.

Scranton implies that we’re doomed because four common responses to the global warming crisis are seriously misguided. He says “denialists” deny the problem exists, “accelerationists” think more technology is the answer, “incrementalists” favor the kind of modest changes already being made, and “activists” argue that “we have to fight, even though we’re sure to lose”. He thinks “we respond according to our prejudices”.

He then calls attention to what could be thought of as a fifth type of response, except that it’s closer to no response at all. Scranton thinks nihilism “defines our current moment”. Too many of us believe that “if all is already lost, nothing matters anyway”. What he apparently has in mind is the point of view sometimes referred to as “existential nihilism”. That’s the idea that life, whether individual lives or human life as a whole, lacks meaning, purpose or value.

What evidence is there for this increasing nihilism? Scranton mentions four television programs (I’ve watched two of them – they’re very good). Maybe more convincingly, he says “you can see it in the rush to war, sectarianism and racial hatred”. There is also the advance of “scientific materialism”, which has been undermining religious beliefs since at least the 17th century.

But war, sectarianism and racial hatred aren’t examples of nihilism. Nobody goes to war because they think everything is meaningless. People don’t divide into sects because they lack purpose. Racists value some people more than others for no good reason. That’s stupid, but not nihilistic. Science conflicts with some religious doctrine, but people who take science seriously aren’t generally amoral. So, putting aside the issue of nihilism for the moment, what does Scranton say we should do?

Oddly, by the end of the article, Scranton has declared himself to be a kind of “activist”. He believes some of us will survive global warming. Our species isn’t due for extinction. Therefore:

…it’s up to us … to secure the future of the human species. We can’t do it by clinging to the progressivist, profit-seeking, technology-can-fix-it ideology of fossil-fueled capitalism. We can’t do it by trying to control the future. We need to learn to let our current civilization die, to accept our mortality and practice humility. We need to work together to transform a global order of meaning focused on accumulation into a new order of meaning that knows the value of limits, transience and restraint.

In other words, we need to find meaning in taking care of the planet, not in the all the stuff we can get from burning carbon. We can’t wait for the global carbon-based economy to collapse. If we want to keep the planet habitable for human beings (a few of us anyway) and other living things, we need to immediately cut back our use of fossil fuels.

I’m sure Scranton would like to explain how we can accomplish this. How will it come to pass that so many people will change their way of looking at the world, of valuing what oil and coal do for us? Global warming isn’t such an obviously imminent crisis that the powerful or the mass of humanity will quickly reorient their thinking. It’s not as if a planet-destroying asteroid is heading our way. Nor are we in danger of running out of fossil fuels in the foreseeable future. There are billions of tons of the stuff just waiting to be extracted.

But all that Scranton offers as a way forward is to cite Nietzsche. The German philosopher set forth a position known as “perspectivism”. It’s not exactly clear what he meant by that (clarity wasn’t one of his strengths), but the general idea is that we each have our own perspective on the world; none of our perspectives give us access to the world as it really is; so the best we can do is view the world from as many points of view as possible. Adopting more and more perspectives can get us closer to the truth, even though we can never attain absolute, completely objective, non-perspectival truth about anything at all.

At least that’s how Scranton interprets Nietzsche. Life may be meaningless. The planet is probably doomed. But human beings have a tremendous capacity to find meaning in all kinds of situations. We need to use that capacity to view the planet’s future from as many perspectives as possible, human and non-human:

We need to learn to see not just with Western eyes but with Islamic eyes and Inuit eyes, not just with human eyes but with golden-cheeked warbler eyes, coho salmon eyes and polar bear eyes…

If we can manage that, difficult as it may be, we may be able to stop the Earth from becoming another Venus.

Perhaps you agree about adopting new perspectives, but I think it’s highly unlikely that the world’s leaders or the mass of humanity will ever stop finding most of life’s meaning in the here and now, based on their own particular points of view. Denialists will continue denying there’s a problem. Technologists will continue looking for technological solutions. Incrementalists will advocate or settle for incremental change. Activists like Scranton will propose new ways of finding meaning, while nihilists won’t think it matters what happens.

My own view is that the human race may get lucky but probably won’t. We should, however, still make intense efforts to stop burning so much carbon, while making life as decent as possible for those of us who are already here, including the fish of the sea, the fowl of the air, and everything that travels or grows upon the earth (except maybe mosquitoes and poison ivy). We have to balance the near future in which life is hard for so many and the more distant future in which life may not be possible at all. We will probably fail, but it’s the right thing to do.

Shared Perspectives

Quoting myself from almost two months ago:

In writing about perspective, I’m a little concerned that I may be conflating or improperly jamming together two different kinds of perspective. But I think the two kinds have enough in common to justify discussing them at the same time. One kind of perspective is the personal or individual kind. The other is more social or abstract. 

An individual’s perspective is the place from which an individual perceives the world, where “position” includes not only the individual’s location in space and time, but also anything else that affects how the individual perceives or understands things. For example, my perspective is affected by my perceptual abilities, my history, memories, beliefs and desires, and also by external factors like whether the sun is shining or how much noise there is from passing traffic.

Usually, something like the noise from passing traffic won’t affect my perspective on an issue like global warming, and having seen An Inconvenient Truth won’t affect my perspective on whether you said “yeah” or “nah” just now, but the factors that affect my perspective can be mysterious. Since so many factors can come into play, my perspective is “where I’m coming from” in a very broad sense. Regardless of what affects my current perspective, whenever I offer an opinion or reach a conclusion about anything at all, I do so from my particular perspective or point of view.  

The other kind of perspective is, at first glance, divorced from individual perspectives. The other kind of perspective is shared. It’s a general way of thinking or perceiving. Pope Francis, for example, has his individual perspective on global warming, but he also views the issue from a Catholic perspective. Many other members of his church do so as well. When thinking about global warming, they take into account the Church’s teachings regarding the creation of the world and our relationship with nature, as well as the church’s position on science.

Yet there are many Catholics who don’t agree with the Pope about global warming. Some of them are ignorant about the science or the church’s teachings. Some of them don’t look at the issue from a Catholic perspective at all. Others think the Pope has the Catholic perspective wrong or is misapplying it in this case (even though the Pope has the authority to speak on global warming from the church’s perspective, if anyone does). 

One problem is that it’s often difficult to say what constitutes a particular perspective. What is, for example, the Catholic, scientific, French or Tea Party’s perspective on any given subject? When trying to put a shared perspective into words, the best we can do is summarize the relatively common features of the individual perspectives of the individuals in the group being considered (for example, scientists or the French).

But not all of the common features are relevant. It’s only the features that pertain specifically to the group of people we’re interested in. The French, for example, are all Europeans, so they have a European perspective. But to identify the specifically French perspective, we would have to identify the perspective shared by French people qua French people (by virtue of their being French and not, for example, Danish).

We might try to identify the French perspective or the scientific perspective on a given question by conducting a very good opinion poll. We could try to find out how the majority of French people or scientists would answer the question, but also what factors affected the answer they gave. We would want to know what considerations they thought were important, but also what unconscious assumptions or tendencies came into play when they gave their answers.

In some cases, however, we wouldn’t be interested in what the majority of our target population thought. Perhaps the majority of our population allowed unrelated factors to affect their thinking. For example, the truly scientific perspective on a difficult or controversial topic might differ from what the majority of scientists are currently thinking. From a scientific perspective, we now understand that human activity is raising the average temperature of the earth’s atmosphere and oceans. But if most scientists were employed by oil or coal companies, they might weigh the evidence differently. They would be more likely to share their employers’ perspective while supposedly viewing the evidence scientifically.

Finally, we should keep in mind that any conclusions anyone reaches about a general, shared perspective will be made from that individual’s own perspective. Every claim that a certain fact is true, or a particular course of action is correct, from a common perspective, not merely from the speaker’s perspective, is made from the speaker’s perspective, and should be evaluated on that basis. In other words, if I claim to view the issue of global warming from a scientific perspective, I may be mistaken about what the scientific perspective really is. I may even be trying to borrow the prestige of the scientific perspective for my own point of view. All judgments are made from an individual’s perspective, including judgments about shared perspectives.

Both kinds of perspective, the individual and the shared, are ways of thinking and perceiving that are affected by certain features of the world. The difference between them is that one is a mixture or summary of the other.

Perspectives and Perspectives

In writing about perspective, I’m a little concerned that I may be conflating or improperly jamming together two different kinds of perspective. But I think the two kinds have enough in common to justify discussing them at the same time. One kind of perspective is the personal or individual kind. The other is more social or abstract. 

Here’s an example of the first kind. On her first day of kindergarten, this little girl’s parents strapped a movie camera to her chest so she could film everything that happened “from her perspective”.
school

That’s a kind of perspective each of us has. It’s even fair to say that the camera has a perspective (as in “the teacher was visible from the camera’s perspective, but her desk wasn’t”). Cameras lack consciousness, but they do record data from a particular point of view. Do all inanimate objects have perspectives? There doesn’t seem to be any reason to say that a bottle of water has a perspective, but there are probably some difficult cases. At any rate, every individual perspective begins with a physical location (the here and now) from which the world is perceived or, as in the case of the camera, from which data is recorded.

However, there is more to a perspective than location, because a location from which nothing is being perceived or recorded isn’t really a perspective. We might say, for example, that the ocean is visible from the perspective of that mountaintop, but that would only be another way of saying that an observer on top of that mountain could see the ocean. Mountaintops don’t actually have perspectives. Like any other location, a mountaintop can only play a role in someone or something else’s perspective (and it can be a very helpful role, which is why telescopes are often put on mountaintops).

I don’t mean to suggest that there’s very little difference between a camera’s perspective and a person’s. But I think perspectives occupy a range from the very simple to the very complex. Cameras and bacteria have relatively simple perspectives; you and I have more complex perspectives; redwoods (?) and rabbits fall somewhere in between. (The HAL 2000 computer had a perspective, although I’m not sure where it fit on the continuum.)

How is a person’s perspective (or HAL’s) more complex than a camera’s? If it worked properly, the camera above was able to roughly capture some of what the little girl saw. If it was set to record sound, it also captured sounds similar to the ones she heard. But the camera couldn’t do more than that. It couldn’t even approximate how her new shoes felt or how her lunch tasted. Relatively complex organisms like us have a variety of senses that allow us to gather information about our bodies and the world around us, giving us relatively complex perspectives (some neurologists think we have as many as twenty-one senses; it’s agreed we have more than five).

But other factors besides sense perception affect our perspective. For example, it’s said in this review of The Diary of a Teenage Girl that the movie “aims to tackle a coming-of-age story from a girl’s perspective”. That doesn’t mean the director filmed the movie so that every scene was shot as if we in the audience were looking through the girl’s eyes (some directors do that kind of thing, and it gets annoying fairly quickly). A film being made from a certain character’s perspective means that the events and characters in the film are portrayed as they might have been experienced by that particular character, for example, by a teenage girl who had a certain background and a certain set of memories, beliefs, emotions and needs. The director tells the story as if this particular teenage girl were telling it. 

This is the broad sense of perspective that’s captured by the phrase “this is where I’m coming from”. During a conversation, I might express my opinion on the topic at hand, but simultaneously admit that my opinion is partly determined by who I am and where I’ve been. We all understand, or should understand, that how we experience and evaluate the world depends to a significant extent on our individual perspectives.

So what’s the other kind of perspective I mentioned hundreds of words ago? That’s the social or abstract kind referred to in titles like these: “Spender’s Anthropological Perspective Was An Eye-Opener”; “Forgiveness From a Humanist Perspective”; and “The Russian Perspective”. Anthropological, humanist and Russian perspectives aren’t the same as personal perspectives, but they don’t float around in the ether either. They’re connected to the individual perspectives of, in these three cases, anthropologists, humanists and Russians. I think I’ve got something to say about that kind of perspective, and how the two kinds are related, but, from my perspective, that’s enough for now. 

Good and Bad Behavior From a Perspectivist Perspective

And God said: “Take now thy son, thine only son Isaac, whom thou lovest, and get thee into the land of Moriah; and offer him there for a burnt offering.”

A few days later: “They came to the place which God had told him of; and Abraham built an alter there, and laid the wood in order, and bound Isaac his son, and laid him on the alter upon the wood…And Abraham stretched forth his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.”

But God presented Abraham with a ram to sacrifice instead!

Now, some people think God would never have let Isaac be sacrificed. God does not or cannot do bad things. Other people think God could have let the sacrifice proceed. In that case, depending on who you ask, Abraham should have killed Isaac, because that was God’s will, or he shouldn’t have, because it would have been immoral (and maybe God was hoping Abraham would spare Isaac anyway, just like the tricky aliens in Star Trek often test the humans). Then there are people like me who think these verses from Genesis are nothing but a provocative story.

What makes the story provocative, of course, is that it sets up a supposed conflict between God’s commands and morality. On one hand, disobeying a direct order from God might be a very big mistake, not just because of the lighting bolt thing, but because the Supreme Being presumably knows what’s best for all of us. On the other hand, morality is often thought to be the ultimate perspective from which to evaluate behavior, whether human or divine. The ethical thing to do is always the right thing to do. 

So what should Abraham have done? It’s relatively easy for the non-religious or anti-supernatural among us, comfortably moralizing in 2015, to say Abraham should have refused to sacrifice Isaac. But from a religious perspective, one can easily conclude the opposite. From that perspective, our fundamental responsibility is to obey God’s commandments, whether they’re truly ethical or not. The theologians who argue that God can’t do anything immoral seem to be trying to glorify God, rationalizing like those of us who do bad things but want to believe our actions are ethically justified. If the religious perspective is different from the ethical perspective, perhaps the ethical perspective isn’t supreme after all. Not for everyone anyway.

If you don’t think a religious perspective could ever trump the ethical one, consider a perspective we might call the “relational”. In 1793, William Godwin asked his readers to consider which of two people they would rescue from a fire: a great humanitarian who would serve mankind for years to come or a lowly chambermaid who would never rise above her station. Godwin thought it was obvious from an ethical perspective that the humanitarian should be saved first, risking the life of the chambermaid, since that would have the best consequences for the most people. You might agree, but what if the chambermaid was your mother? 

It could be argued that saving your mother would be the ethical choice because of your special relationship. What kind of unfeeling, disloyal child would let his or her mother burn to death instead of some stranger, even a world-famous humanitarian? But giving special consideration to the members of one’s family is questionable from an ethical perspective. We can try to explain how favoritism can be ethical but that’s simply more rationalization.

Kant, for example, took morality so seriously that he once claimed we should never tell a lie, not even to “a murderer who asks us whether a friend of ours whom he is pursuing has taken refuge in our house”. If there is an absolute ethical prohibition against telling a lie, and the ethical perspective is the supreme guide to life, so much the worse for your relatives hiding in the basement when the Nazis show up. Or consider the ethical argument for donating much of your income to help refugees in Africa or the Middle East. Is it ethical to pay for music lessons for your children when you could use that money to make a Somali child’s life more bearable? Perhaps favoritism should trump morality sometimes (where the “should” isn’t meant in the ethical sense). We know it often does.

Of course, I’m not saying that the ethical perspective is unimportant. Society could hardly exist without it. But I think there are other perspectives that are also important. They come into play whenever we make a decision or evaluate behavior. In fact, the only way to justify ethical behavior as a whole is by appealing to non-ethical perspectives (just as you cannot justify being practical from a practical perspective or viewing the world scientifically from a scientific perspective). 

Why should we concern ourselves with morality at all? Historically, it’s often been justified from a religious perspective (God commands us to behave ethically) or from a practical perspective (society couldn’t function without it; you’ll get into trouble if you’re unethical) or from a personal perspective (I want to act like a virtuous person). Another justification that’s been popular among philosophers is from a rational or logical perspective (we should treat all people equally since there are no relevant differences between us).

I think it’s important to understand the various perspectives from which we view the world and try to live in it, as well as the relationships between those perspectives. Admitting that we don’t always behave as if the ethical perspective is paramount is a good first step. We might then do a better job figuring out how to balance our many perspectives, such as the ethical, religious, “relational”, practical and scientific; as well as my perspective, your perspective and the perspectives of other living things. After all, even when it comes to morality, the fundamental rule we first learned is to evaluate behavior from other people’s perspectives as well as our own.

It’s a Matter of Perspective

One afternoon, about four years ago, I was walking along in our neighborhood when it occurred to me that every perception or thought we have, every emotion we feel, every conclusion we reach, every command we issue or question we ask is from our particular, individual perspective.

Well, of course. That’s a truism, a statement so obviously true it’s hardly worth stating. We each have our own perspective. So what?

I don’t know, but ever since then I’ve been thinking about what it means to have a perspective or be from a perspective, and how different perspectives relate to each other. Not every waking moment, of course. But you might be surprised how often you’ll see the word “perspective” or a similar expression like “point of view” or “frame of reference” once you start paying attention.

For instance, there’s the way paintings or drawings give the impression that a two-dimensional surface has three dimensions. Turner used perspective when he painted Oxford’s High Street: 

high_turner

Underlying the artistic technique is the fact that we each have a physical perspective from which we observe the world. Each observer has what physicists call a “reference frame”, a “coordinate system attached to [the] individual observer’s perspective”, from which measurements are made. It’s one of the key concepts in Einstein’s theory of relativity.

Frame_of_reference

In addition to our physical perspective, we each have what our own “personal” perspective. It includes our particular desires, needs and interests. Personally speaking, It seems like a good idea — from my perspective — to be writing this (I have my reasons). From your personal perspective, it might be better to take a walk or go to bed.

Another type of perspective depends on what conceptual schemes or ways of thinking. We usually deal with the world from what we think is a practical or prudential perspective, but sometimes opt for a perspective that’s ethical or religious. We complain about politicians who function from a purely political perspective and celebrate those who champion a scientific or global perspective. There are so many perspectives that library shelves sag under books with inviting (?) subtitles like “Ecological and Experimental Perspectives”, “A Probabilistic Perspective”, “Perspectives from Philosophy, Psychology and Theology”, “Multicultural Perspectives” and “A Supply-Chain Perspective”.

In future posts, I’d like to occasionally discuss perspective from various perspectives. For example, why choose one perspective instead of another? Are multiple perspectives always better? How can a perspective be justified? Can it only be done from another perspective? Is there or should there be a hierarchy of perspectives? Is it really possible to adopt someone else’s perspective? Does morality depend on being able to do so? How does the philosophical position called “perspectivism”, associated with Nieztsche, differ from relativism? And is perspectivism preferable to the better-known view? 

For now, here’s a passage from Sarah Bakewell’s How to Live: Or a Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer:

In the view of William James, as of Leonard Woolf and Montaigne, we do not live immured in our separate perspectives, like Descartes in his room.We live porously and sociably. We can glide out of our own minds, if only for a few moments, in order to occupy another being’s point of view. This ability is the real meaning of “Be convivial”, this chapter’s answer to the question of how to live, and the best hope for civilization.

Illness

After what doctors call a “complication” from a medical procedure, I’ve just spent three days in the hospital. I haven’t been this sick since having pneumonia many years ago.

One thing I was reminded of is how difficult it can be to sleep in a hospital bed, while connected to various tubes, with inflatable straps around your legs to prevent blood clots, the bed undulating to prevent bedsores, high-tech machinery beeping, chugging and whooshing, and periodic visits from the nurses and technicians. They should call it a “patient platform” instead of a “bed”.

The more significant thing I’ve been reminded of is how illness can change your perception of the world. Having an abnormal perspective makes the world seem very different. What is normally interesting, enjoyable or possible isn’t anymore.

I’m very glad that I’ll recover soon. I wouldn’t want this unpleasant state to start feeling typical, the way being healthy becomes a memory for people with chronic illness. Being ill for a long time doesn’t mean that it’s normal to be ill — you can still compare your state to a healthy one. But maybe you can adjust after a while, your abnormal perspective becoming “normal for you”. The world might seem interesting and enjoyable again.

I don’t want to find out if I could get used to this particular perspective. Apparently all I need is some more hemoglobin and the world will again seem normal.