Going deeper with philosophy

The discipline of philosophy is rich with ideas of use to sustainability, and much common ground is shared between them.

Discussions about how we should act; what is right, what is moral, and what is just – these are the philosophical domain of ethics. Ethical discussions, assumptions, and beliefs underpin much of our society; from how we structure it politically and legally, to what we consider socially acceptable.

The scientific method, a crucial tool for understanding environmental and other problems, is grounded in philosophical ideas too – a mixture of rationality, empiricism, and the logic of induction. These ideas belong to the philosophical domain known as epistemology – essentially, the study of knowledge.


Logic

Note that between the concepts of rationality and empiricism, there is a separation of mental and sensory faculties (the mind and the body, more simply). This is discussed in the next section on dualism.

Ethics and knowledge are just two examples. Big ideas too, like how we should think about death, immortality, annihilation and existential risk are all clearly relevant now too, as we face down a multitude of threats. 

Dualism

The dichotomy of “human” and “nature” mentioned earlier (metabolic rift) is echoed in philosophical ideas. Cartesian dualism, which takes its name from the ideas of French philosophe Rene Descartes, introduces the idea that the human mind is different from the human body; that they are two distinct and separable entities. It is also sometimes referred to as mind-body dualism.

The mind, in this idea, is often viewed as non-physical; something that cannot be reduced to explanations that rely on neurobiology (the science of the mind) and physics (the science of basic reality – how things work at every level from atomic to cosmological). This specific claim about the non-physicality of the human mind is referred to in philosophy as property dualism.

It can be argued that Cartesian dualism and property dualism have contributed to our separation from nature. We often view the human mind as the prime point of separation between us and “animals”. It is human ingenuity, adaptability, intelligence, willpower, and genius that we often feel makes us unique. From the perspective of property dualism, the difference is also not just one of “human versus natural”, therefore, but also “mental versus physical”. This model suggests that our anthropocentric bias is partly driven by a belief in a type of human non-physicality. This might explain, for example, our collective reluctance to come to grips with the very physical impacts and constraints of our world, and the very physical consequences of our actions.

ExistComic1
ExistComic
A comic about dualism, from Mohler, 2019[1].

Sustainability and your mental health

First published: February 25, 2018 for Woroni[2]. Reworked in 2019 for The Grass Ceiling.

I’m a student of sustainability who has come dangerously close to withdrawing from university – because, in part, what I’m studying can literally drive one crazy.

The first time I studied a tertiary course was at the University of Wollongong. As a promising student with a high ATAR, I’d just enrolled in a special “Dean’s Scholars” Arts degree complete with a hefty scholarship, where I was free to build my entire program however I wanted.

I chose philosophy, and nothing else. For two and half years, I did four philosophy courses every semester, gazing daily into an abyss of endless questions – many of which were impossible to answer. Eventually, as you might imagine, this decision of mine to dwell endlessly on serious topics messed me up badly.

The existentialists

In high school, I’d been a huge fan of the philosophy of existentialism. And as it turns out, it was studying this topic at university that led to a breakdown and my eventual withdrawal. The existentialists ask some of the biggest questions we can. Albert Camus, my favourite existentialist, dealt at length with one very big question. ‘There is only one really serious philosophical problem,’ Camus argued, ‘and that is suicide. Deciding whether life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy. All other questions follow from that’. To understand why he thought this, it helps to know that Camus saw life as absurd; without meaning or hope of any deeper understanding. It sounds pessimistic, even nihilistic, but there was a life-affirming quality: if life is truly absurd, shouldn’t we simply enjoy the ride? Regardless of where one lands on these issues, there is a cost for those who dwell too long on them. It’s not healthy to go around every day questioning whether life is worth living.

My problem with sustainability

Upon returning to university to study sustainability, I’ve exposed myself to the same dreadful abyss of ideas that broke me all those years ago. Studying sustainability can be a relentlessly and brutally depressing undertaking. Whereas other subjects might stress their students out with too much work, sustainability can sap its students of a will to survive; because we continue to fight in a battle that we are taught may be futile. The enormity of our challenge is daunting. We are constantly subjected to seemingly impossible problems where our existence as a species is at stake. And outside of classes, we are met with a disheartening wall of indifference and apathy when we try to speak of the horrors we’ve witnessed and the need for unprecedented change. At best, we are met with tokenism and the smallest shreds of progress.

How wouldn’t this affect our mental health?!

What I’ve discovered is that sustainability asks the same question suicide does, but on a species level. Sustainability, however, is not of the same philosophical nature that Camus was. In all my studies, I haven’t once seen a scholar question sustainability’s fundamental premise: that humanity is worth saving. It is a given, in every case, that it is worth saving. The profound realisation for me has been in understanding that we are all, to one extent or another, engaged in the conflict Camus described: between a futile endeavour (achieving sustainability) and simply enjoying the ride. Perhaps more subtly, we are engaged in a conflict between where our focus should lie.

As sustainability students, we are taught to fight against our seemingly inevitable demise. We are also taught to consider “business as usual” – enjoying the ride without a care for its inevitably gloomy and fatal end – as the enemy. To evoke Camus’ allegory of Sisyphus, we are taught to push that rock up the hill, and never question whether this is where our energy should be focused.

For me, engaging in that battle sometimes makes me deeply unhappy, because it all feels so futile at times. It’s like I’m wasting my time on a futile task when I could be appreciating other things more. But these binaries are just borne of frustration – there is a middle ground between the two that I’m learning to discover with the support and love of friends. For me, the middle ground is a space where we fight for the greater cause while appreciating that other things in life may matter just as much in the end.

Unlike in philosophy, sustainability has never broached the fundamental conversation about what we’re doing, and why. Sustainability has no Camus. In a very real and problematic sense, we’re not equipped to deal with the feelings we’re inevitably going to encounter because our courses never address them, or the things that cause them.

The Fall

There is a moment in the show The West Wing when a character recounts a memorable scene from his favourite movie, The Lion in Winter. Three men are locked in a dungeon, about to be executed. One of the men, Richard, tells his brothers not to cower – but to take it like men. One of the other men cannot fathom this. ‘You fool!’ he says, ‘As if it matters how a man falls down?!’.

Richard’s reply is something worth remembering in dark times: ’When the fall is all that’s left, it matters a great deal’.

We are potentially in our own species-level fall right now. And yet, even if all hope for survival is lost, I’d argue that things still matter. How we go out – that matters. It’s okay to go out fighting, despite the odds of success, like our sustainability lecturers beg us to do. It’s okay for us to resist what might be inevitable. There’s profound courage and nobility in that.

But we need to have that conversation. We need to ask what sustainability is: an exercise in ensuring our survival? Or an exercise in dying well? In this time of uncertainty, is it not potentially both? Reflect on that. On how, considering both possibilities, you might want to best use your time.

Finding a way forward

When it comes to sustainability, I would advise you all to be careful how long your own stare lingers. Don’t delve too deeply into serious topics, such as those explored in this column, without making sure you have other avenues open. There is a kind of madness that will find you if you narrow in on existential questions too much. Study other things. I recommend studying the arts, in particular –  as it can heal your soul, and give you ways to express feelings that otherwise might remain invisible.

Study poetry, or French, or basket-weaving, or cake decorating memes – whatever makes you happy. Not only can the arts play an important role in communicating sustainability, but it can help you find new paths to happiness you may not have otherwise.  It may just be the case that this is all that matters in the end; finding your own happiness on the way down.


Footnotes

[1] Mohler, C. (2019). Captain Metaphysics and the Ghost in the Machine. Retrieved from Existential Comics: http://existentialcomics.com/comic/47

[2] Blood, N. (2018, February 25). Sustainability and Your Mental Health. Woroni.

Key philosophical concepts

Sustainability from Two Sides

The discipline of philosophy is rich with ideas of use to sustainability, and much common ground is shared between them. This episode explores various philosophical ideas and their implications for how we think about and practice sustainability.

We often think of things in terms of a binary or a dichotomy: black and white, right and wrong, left and right. Binary thinking often puts two ideas in opposition or competition with one another. In a situation where one idea’s success comes at the other, we often call it a zero-sum game. Two ideas that are argued to be incompatible (such as it being either daytime or night-time) are mutually exclusive.

These ways of thinking are often at odds with the kind of broader approach we’re taking in this project, as we try to incorporate multiple perspectives at once. The discipline of informal logic, a field within philosophy, has developed a list of what it calls logical fallacies – common argumentative mistakes that people make. One of them, relevant to these ideas, is that of the false dichotomy, which argues that some things should not be compared in a binary way. For example, comparing only two options out of ten and pretending they are the only two? That is an example of a false dichotomy. Once you become aware of this type of thinking, you begin to see it everywhere.

Illustrating this are a few examples of common and relevant binaries within sustainability practice, and theory, some of which often spawn false dichotomies in the way we talk and think.

Objectivity vs. Subjectivity

Like the difference between rationality and empiricism, the difference between objectivity and subjectivity relates to knowledge; specifically, to our levels of certainty. Subjective experience refers to our personal perspectives, lived experiences, emotions, opinions, biases, and internal thought processes. By contrast, objective experience (especially in the sciences) aims to eliminate that “human” element of observation, and through that, arrive at “hard facts”.

As an example, consider the relatively straightforward task of measuring a tree’s height. Using scientific instruments, we can obtain what we could consider the objectively-knowable height of the tree. Contrast this with asking someone how happy they are. That is a far more subjective question, more difficult to know with the same level of certainty as the height of a tree.

When it comes to sustainability, we typically prioritize objective knowledge: the information science and other experts give us, over subjective knowledge: the stories, feelings, and emotions of individuals and groups. This bias can lead to negative outcomes because a great deal of valuable knowledge is subjective. Indigenous stories and culture are intrinsically related to lived, deeply personal experiences. The fears and anxieties of a society, even though they can be represented by proxy statistics like a Consumer Confidence Index and reflected in our cultures, still don’t fully capture the totality of subjective knowledge.

In our studies here at university, we are pushed towards the scientific and academic model of knowledge; the peer-review and journal publication process, held aloft as a paragon of objectivity. What is telling is that in this increasing age of neoliberal, corporatized universities, we are seeing the truth motive of academic publishing replaced by the profit motive[1]. Objectivity and the relative value of academic knowledge is being eroded here as it is elsewhere (the “post-truth era” being a good example).

The implication is that objectivity is an idea that can be called into question: to what extent is academic knowledge worthy of the attention and support it receives? How do other factors such as the profit motive and commoditization of academic knowledge affect its value?

Even empirical observation can be “tainted” by subjectivity. To return to the example of the tree height measurement, we face the issue of measurement error, a human-induced (subjective) influence on what was supposedly definitive (objective) observation. In science, reducing measurement error often means doing as much as possible to eliminate human mistakes and biases.

Qualitative vs. Quantitative

Dovetailing from the concept of objective and subjective, are the ideas of qualitative and quantitative knowledge.

Quantitative information is something we can put a number (a quantity) to. The height of a tree is quantitative data. How that tree makes me feel when I look at it, that is qualitative. Measuring the two requires different approaches.

These concepts match with ideas of subjectivity and objectivity. Quantitative data is typically objective, and empirical. Qualitative data is typically subjective and rational (or emotional). This binary between what we feel and what we see again drives much of our thought about sustainability. Just as we bias objective knowledge, we often bias the quantitative – numbers, statistics, and “what we can all see”.

The potential implications here for sustainability are considerable: how much important knowledge is de-prioritized because it is qualitative?

Arts vs. STEM

The war between Arts and Humanities, and their Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) counterparts exemplifies the culmination of these previously mentioned ideas. STEM is the domain of objective and quantitative knowledge, whereas Arts and Humanities embody the subjective and qualitative. Separating the two like this, however, is an example of what I consider a dangerously stupid false dichotomy:

When it comes to sustainability, it becomes hard to disentangle the cultural from the ecological, or as the Ancient Greeks framed it, the scientific from the artistic. They really are two sides of the same coin. When looking at future challenges and opportunities for our species, potentially any discipline is relevant. One key challenge therefore lies in finding as many ideas as possible, and then prioritising them. Under this kind of approach, you become far more hesitant to disregard contributions, regardless of the discipline they originate from.[2]

[1] Gill, R. (2009). Breaking the silence: The hidden injuries of neo-liberal academia. In R. Gill, Secrecy and Silence in the Research Process: Feminist Reflections. London: Routledge.

[2] Blood, N. (2018, August 8). Art vs science: A facile and dangerous debate. Et Cetera.