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WORLD-VIEWS AND VALUES FOR THE FUTURE

Henryk Skolimowsky - Copyright Pierre Le Neveu

Henryk Skolimowski

 

World-views are like riversthey may be nourishing and they may he poisonous. A world-view is nourishing when its general principles arc of such a nature, such a fecundity, that even after centuries of its existence we can still derive from it the imperatives for our actions, and the principles for understanding the world. Thus, potent world-views continually help us to explain the world and to live in it satisfactorily.

Traditional world-views are religious in nature as they assume an invisible deity to he at the origin of the universe, often overseeing its workings. Traditional world-views are usually expressed in scriptures such as the Upanishads or the Bible. The language of such scriptures is impreciseparticularly when judged by the criteria of modern hard sciences. But this imprecision is also a strength, for it allows diverse interpretations of the sacred word. Indeed, fertile world-views (such as the Vedic world-view, as based on the Vedas and the Upanishads) are astonishingly malleablethey, can take quite a variety of forms and interpretations without losing identity. This is what enables them to survive for centuries and millennia, with undiminishing power to inspire and sustain which is the power to nourish.

The power to inspire and sustain is a very subtle capacity for we do not know how it works exactlyonly we know, that it does. Words and ideas, some born of visions in ages past, bear an energy so extraordinary that we still find them nourishing. It would be too simple to say that these are the eternal verities, the cosmic laws, or the primordial Brahman, which we discovered, and which sustain because they represent eternal truths. Truth is a subtle and difficult matter. When we look deeper into it, we really do not know what it is. All kinds of edifices, purportedly based on eternal truths, have crumbled in human history. Besides, the variety of cosmological and moral structures that have historically survived are very diverse in nature. Nor do they seem to comply with the same notion or criterion of truth. The enduring instances are Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism and the Judeo-Christian traditionfour different world-views, with perhaps four different concepts of truth. What then, enables these world-views to survive and flourish? Obviously not the volume of words in which they were expressed. Take Taoism for instance, which was originally expressed in about 500 lines most of them tantalizingly vague. Yet Taoism, making an astonishing comeback in our times, must have expressed something of the essential nature of the human condition. And the two are inseparable from each other: a sustaining picture of the cosmos usually gives us an illuminating image of what the human person is in this cosmos and the role he/she plays in its overall plan.

Thus we see that neither vagueness nor precision of formulations are factors that count. In the ultimate matters of cosmology and human destiny, vagueness is not necessarily bad and precision is not necessarily good.

We must now turn to the scientific world-view which emerged out of the 17th century conception of the universe as a clock-like mechanism and the conception of knowledge as power. This world-view has praised itself for its precision and often rejected other views (particularly of traditional cosmologies), merely because they were vague. The scientific world-view has also claimed to have possessed the monopoly on truth. And whatever or whoever disagreed with their truths were deemed antiquated and irrelevant, or worseas obscurantist.

The downfall of the scientific world-view is at least partly the result of its quest for precision and its obsession with putting everything into neat, exclusive boxes. As time went on, the rigid boxes were transcended in every department of knowledge and the whole mechanistic scheme has been invalidated many times over by the recent extensions of physics. This augurs ill for a view of the world which is conceived in rigid and sharply defined terms. Because of its quest for precision, and because of its adherence to the mechanistic metaphor, the scientific world-view is very brittle (whereas a traditional world-view is elastic). When the confines of the sharply defined mechanistic world-view began to be transcended (and the Newtonian truths showed to be not eternal verities but the first approximations in our understanding of the colossal structure of the physical cosmos) the whole brittle structure started to fall apart. And it is still falling apart!

At what point does such a structure become non-nourishing and indeed turns into a poisonous river? At that point at which we recognize that the structure is no longer valid, that it does not possess the monopoly on truth, that its brittle nature makes it fall apart. Nevertheless, we still insist on forcing the variety of life and the variety of knowledge into it. Such a strategy is counterproductive.

There are some other reasons why the scientific world-view is no longer a nourishing river. From the Vedic world-view (based on the Upanishads) one has derived the principles of ahimsa and dharma. From the Buddhist world-view one has derived the principle of universal compassion. These are very important ethical principles which have served us well during the past millennia. As a human society, we need such principles. Our solidarity with all beings in this universe too, requires such principles.

What are the ethical principles we derive from the scientific world-view ? Well, if knowledge is power, and if the cosmos is a mechanism to be manipulated, then what is important ispower, manipulation, control and efficiency. These have indeed become the prevailing values of the scientific-technological society. If there are no higher gods than efficiency and rationality, then the more efficiency and power we possess the better. This leads to ruthless competition (which becomes another social value), to trampling upon others, to egoism and to crass materialism. These are not exactly the right ethical principles if we realize that we live in the same spaceship earth which is interconnected and tied in so many loops of interdependence.

Moreover, pursuing the scientific world-view (and the values it contains) it is rational and hence justifiable to exploit nature (for we then show our power over nature), to pollute rivers, to amass power and money, even if it impairs the earth and ecological habitats. Obviously, if a world-view allows such a concept of rationality in whose name you can plunder, ruin and destroy (nature especially), such a world-view must be fundamentally defective. Thus, it is not a river that nourishes. It is a poisonous river.

Time has come now to perceive with clarity where we might want to go and where we must go, as we approach the 21st century and look forward to a more distant future. We need to create world-views which will sustain and nourish the whole human family along with other creatures of the globe and also be beneficial to the integrity of the earth, sustaining its richness and beauty. Such a world-view must recognize our spiritual nature and our inherent quest for meaning. It must also recognize the idea of justice for all and must include a principle of non-harming (ahimsa) as the fundamental mode of our interaction with all the beings of this world. Thirdly, it must recognize the recent extensions and achievements of science.

In transcending the mechanistic world-view (the world-view of Newtonian mechanics) we do not want to be anti-scientific Luddites. We only want right science which explains how all things fit together in this cosmos, how we are a part of this incredible cosmic tapestry, and how, inspite of its fantastic diversity, the whole universe makes sense and is coherent. The kind of world-view we are seeking, I would be inclined to call an ecological world-view, as it strongly emphasizes our allegiance to, and responsibility for, nature.

Ecological values, as an integral part of this new world-view, form the foundation for peacethat precondition for all right ecological practices and for so many other endeavors in our quest for a life endowed with meaning.

We are divided by different languages. We are divided by different ideologies. We are divided by our respective cultures which are often possessive and exclusive, and want to separate us from each other. Yet what we have in common far outweighs the divisions which we ourselves have created, sometimes inadvertently, sometimes deliberately. What we all have in common is the heritage of life; the planet earth itself, the desire to live in peace and harmony and have a life endowed with meaning. We are all aware of our common biological heritage, namely that all forms of life are built of the same building blocks, so that the life of a mosquito and the life of a lion (and to a lesser degree the life of a blade of grass) pulsate with the same rhythm of life. We are less aware of our ecological heritage, although of late the ecological consciousness has been gradually arising.

What is the difference between our biological heritage and our ecological heritage? The difference is subtle but important. The biological heritage accentuates the material aspects of lifethe building blocks of life which are necessary for life to survive. Biology treats forms of life as energy machines. The ecological heritage, on the other hand, accentuates the conditions of the well-being of life, analyses the underlying matrix, the deeper structures which enable life to thrive and blossom. The laws of biology are concerned with the survivability of particular individuals or particular species. The laws of ecology are concerned with the quality of life and with the maintenance of healthy diversity across various forms of life; are concerned with optimal conditions for various forms of life to live together. The laws of biology are quantitative and expressed in chemical (or physical) terms. The laws of ecology are qualitative and expressed in teleological termsthe design of life and its purpose must be taken into account while studying the ecological heritage. Now let us unfold some of the hidden layers of the ecological heritage.

 

The heritage of

LIFE

is the heritage of 

INTERDEPENDENCE

The modes of interdependence is a creative 

SYMBIOSIS

The raison dtre for genuine symbiosis is 

REVERENCE

 

Thus the very understanding of the complexity of life implies and necessitates the understanding of not only biological processes, but also deeper interconnecting structures which regulate and assure the well-being of larger habitats. In the final analysis, we should understand that these deeper interconnecting structures are laden with values. Ecological values arise at this juncture of human history when understanding of life cannot be confined to the biological matrix only. Ecological values represent our understanding of those normative processes, within larger ecological habitats, which are responsible for the well-being of organisms: or, in more general terms, for optimal conditions of diverse ecological habitats.

The four basic components of the ecological heritage: Life, Interdependence, Symbiosis, Reverence, can be presented in a mandala form:

 

LIFE  

  REVERENCE          

INTERDEPENDENCE  

SYMBIOSIS  

        

A deeper reading of the mandala should make us aware that interdependence and symbiosis are not only descriptive terms. They are also value terms; at least value-laden terms. Why should we care about many forms of life and not just one, our own? Why should we care about symbiosis rather than allow one cancerous form of life to eat other forms of life? Because we are partial to the whole heritage of life! This partiality does not represent a scientific attitude but represents our value stand, our deepest commitment to the beauty and mystery of life.

It should be emphasized that science, and its value-free descriptions of the world, cannot take any stand on the issue of value, on the importance of life, on the importance of the diversity of life. Diversity itself is an important concept. For (again) it is not only descriptive but also a normative one. We value symbiosis and diversity as vehicles assuring the vibrancy and resilience of life.

This analysis attempts to show that behind the idea of optimal conditions of ecological habitats there lies a set of ecological values which life has re-enacted over and over again. My overall argument is simple, and it is the following: the underlying matrix of the ecological heritage of life, and values embedded in it, is the one that can assure and provide the conditions of peace among people. Ecology and peace are united on this level of analysis when we understand the laws of the quality of life.

Obviously human societies are more complex than ecological habitats; at any rate they contain some layers of complexity which nature does not contain. I am not advocating a blind transplant of the laws and structures regulating the well-being of eco-habitats onto the present human world but am rather maintaining that the implementation of the laws of the ecological heritage may be an important step to lasting peace. It is such an important step, in my opinion, that we cannot not take it.

One of the specific and important values of the ecological heritage, and the one which is of crucial importance is reverencereverence for life in general, for all life. Indeed a deeper justification of the concepts of symbiosis, interconnectedness, and diversity are hardly possible without the idea of reverence as being their anchor. We have to learn not only to think about reverence, but to think reverentially . We have to teach reverential thinking to children and students. Reverential thinking is not the usual objective thinking plus a bit of piety. Reverential thinking is a new kind of thinking whereby the objects of our understanding and thinking are embraced by our mind in the framework of empathy. The act of reverential thinking helps life to grow, helps us to be inwardly connected.

Another important ecological value is that of responsibility. Although not immediately obvious as a value of the ecological heritage, this value is very important for our times and for the state of the present world: the responsibility which exceeds ones own ego, the responsibility for the environment, for the whole planet, for other human beings, for other living beings, for the cosmos at large. Yes, responsibility for all. This form of responsibility is a part of the ecological consciousness. If one is truly aware of the interconnectedness of all things, particularly in the organic universe, one cannot shrug off ones responsibility for the wellbeing of other forms of life, and other human beings. Let me emphasize: responsibility for the well-being of the planet is one of the ethical imperatives of our times. Responsibility conceived in this sense is also one of the cornerstones of peace among nations. It takes a momentary reflection to realize that the well-being of the planet equals peace; peace is a precondition of the well-being of the planet.

In between responsibility and reverence, and connecting them in the ethical space, is compassion. Compassion is a mode of understanding, and an ecological value at the same time. It informs us that in the interconnected universe, in which reverence for life is a real force, compassion is the vehicle through which reverence expresses itself in daily life. Compassion is also a form of responsibility. And conversely, genuine responsibility for the well-being of others must express itself, at times, through compassion. We can see that the three concepts: reverence, responsibility and compassion co-define each other and depend on each others meaning.

Yet another ecological value must be discerned and analyzed. If we live in the world of limited resources, and if we wish to live responsibly, then our life style must not impinge on the life style of others; our consumption, or over-consumption (in this interconnected world) must not lead to the impoverishment of others in other parts of the globe. In short, wholeness of life and reverence for it, implies frugality, which is another of our ecological values. Yet we must think about frugality in appropriate terms, for it is not a form of poverty, self-denial or abnegation, but a positive value: doing more with lesssomething that nature does so beautifully so often. In the human universe frugality can be defined as grace without waste. At the basis of the idea of frugality is our sense of symbiosis, we cannot live at the expense of others, indeed we must help the universe through our acts of sharing. In this context frugality is an important modus of sharing and of solidarity.

Solidarity is a potent concept. It holds much promise for the understanding of ecological values. For solidarity is an expression of the bond of human unity, ultimately the bond of unity with all creatures. We often do not readily respond, at least at a deep emotional level, to such concepts as reverence and responsibility. Yet we respond to the call of solidarity for it reverberates within us with the chords of a common heritage of life. Yet solidarity analyzed in depth spells out compassion and responsibilityand reverence when we are not afraid to embrace the spiritual context of life.

All ecological values are interconnected and they support each other, so that symbiosis can be seen as implying frugality and frugality can be seen as a mode of creative symbiosis. Aristotle was aware of the idea of frugality when he asserted that the rich are not only those who own much but also those who need little.

If we compare ecological values with the two other sets of values: religious, of the pre-Renaissance Western culture, and secular or scientific values of the present technological era, we obtain the following picture:

 

Religious Values

Scientific/Technological Values

Ecological Values

Worship

Mastery

Reverence

Obedience

Control

Responsibility

Grace

Power over things

Frugality

Unity with God

Separation/atomization

Interconnectedness/ symbiosis

Submission

Objectivity

Compassion

 

Let us underscore some main points. Religious values are God-centered. They regulate mans relationships to God; and to other human beings.

Scientific-technological values on the other hand are object-centered. Let us emphasize this point: the values which are most cherished in the advanced technological societies: control, manipulation, power, objectivity, atomization and analysis have little to do with other human, beings or with God. They simply regulate mans relationships with objects. It is but dimly realized that scientific values have detached us from the human context and from the sacred universe. These values continually defy us and firmly attach us to objects.

Finally, ecological values are universe-centered, and life-centered. They reconnect us with all forms of life in the universe. They empower us and entrust us with responsibility for all. For we are a part of this grand sacred tapestry called the cosmos. We are minute particles of this tapestry yet terribly important as conscious weavers of this tapestry.

Seen amidst the spectacle of chaos of our times, and amidst the indifference if not brutality of our behavior and thinking (which are justified by what we perceive as greed, competitiveness and aggression of others), ecological values may seem too idealistic, particularly the value of the reverence for life. Yet upon a deeper reflection we may have to come to the conclusion that it is precisely reverencefor other people, for other cultures, for life at largethat may become the most important vehicle for establishing a universal concord for all living beings, for establishing peace on earth for all nations.

Amidst the forces of chaos and disintegration, we can bring sanity and harmony not by employing the same forces, but by seeking different strategies and forces. What unites us is the bond of solidarity, the understanding of compassion, the courage of reverence.

We shall readily acknowledge that the dialectics of social life are complex and full of tensions. Yet these tensions must not lead to destruction, for then we are confronted not with the dialectical process but with the destructive one. We must acknowledge, above all, that as in nature, so in human society, the basic mode of interaction is that of symbiosis and cooperation, not one of annihilation and destruction. Throughout many millennia the underlying social contract of enduring societies has been one of cooperation, interdependence and symbiosis.

Jean-Jacques Rousseau expressed these very ideas eloquently and forcefully in his Social Contract. Man is a social animal. He craves individuality and independence but his stature as a human being and his status as a civilized being totally depend on his capacity to accept social good. If a human being is to live up to his potential, of necessity he must accept and use all the glorious achievements that society and culture have accumulated. The give and take is the essence of social life. Therefore, a sane and enduring social contract is a symbiotic one.

Yet Rousseau was already swimming against the current. A century before him, Thomas Hobbes announced the idea that Homo Homini Lupus Est (Man is Wolf to man). Hobbes idea has been accepted and taken much too seriously. The empiricists, and then Neo-Darwinians, have misread the behavior of nature as basically ruthless and aggressive. In fact, we have created a new social world in the image of his Homo Homini Lupus Est. Our war against nature is an extension of this idea. Our inability to come to terms with nature and with different cultures, indeed with the cosmos at large is the result of pursuing a mistaken social philosophy within which the social contract is nullified.

In this context the legacy of Karl Marx and of Marxism at large must be re-examined. We know that as the world changes, our thinking about it changes. This much is obvious to anybody who possesses an iota of dialectical understanding. What we must employ are not dogmas but creative dialectical thinking.

Marx was much inspired by Rousseau. Indeed his moral indignation, while witnessing social injustices and the plight of human beings, was very Rousseauian. Yet ultimately Marx chose to follow Hobbes rather than Rousseau. Marxs idea of society, namely, that it is an organism in the state of continuous warfare is very close to Hobbes. The class warfare is the basic modus of history, that is, according to Marx. In a sense, Marx institutionalized conflict and class warfare as legitimate and, indeed, indispensable vehicles of social progress and of understanding of history.

It can be, of course, argued that Marx did not invent conflict as the underlying force of social life but merely observed it. Yet the issue is not that simple. Within the social realm what is observed and what is invented are not so easily separable. Let us be quite clear: every social structure is a human invention. Every deep interpretation of society is an inventive act. To the degree that Marx was an original social thinker, he was an inventor, a great inventor in the social realm indeed.

Now, even if it were true that all past societies can be best understood through struggle and class warfare as their modus operandi (which I myself doubt), we are now living in a new social reality. This reality requires new forms of social thinking. We are so interconnected on this Globe nowadays that we simply cannot afford the social philosophy based on the idea of Homo Homini Lupus Est. The nuclear threat, and the threat of the environmental destruction make it imperative that we live in some form of symbiosisthis is our only chance of survival. We live in

unprecedented historical times in which old ideologies based on the assumption of inexhaustiveness of nature and of indestructibility of the world no longer apply. Our new ideology must be so conceived that it assures the survival of the human race, and not just one social class or another. Marxist teaching which emphasizes class warfare as all-pervading does not help us in this matter.

Thus a new social contract must be created and implemented. This social contract has to be based on values of cooperation, symbiosis and interdependence; and ultimately reverence for life and reverence for each other, regardless of the political system we live in and regardless of the social class to which we belong. The perceptive reader will recognize at once that the new social contract must be based on a set of ecological values, or some similar sort of values.

This analysis reveals further why ecological values can be seen as the foundation for peace: in enabling us to create a new social contract which will be cooperative and symbioticecological values pave the way to lasting and just peace. In this sense, ecological values can become the spine of a new world order. If so, then they are of importance second to none.

The heritage of life is immense and we need not apologize to learn from it, especially to learn from those structures and underlying grids of life which assure its diversity and richness over billions of years. In promoting and articulating ecological values we are not inventing new fictitious philosophical entities but only unearthing the principles and structures which have proved life-enhancing in complex ecological habitats.

All life is a unity; we are part of it. Since social life is a part of life in general, it must be governed by life-enhancing laws and principles. A new symbiotic social contract is an imperative of social life threatened by the nuclear and environmental destructions.

The point of this paper was not to dwell on the exclusiveness of ideologies that divide us and set us apart but to emphasize our essential unity as a species and as intelligent and sensitive beings craving for and deserving of life endowed with meaning and a modicum of grace. Ecological values are trans-ideological, just as the oxygen we breathe. Ecological values may be viewed as a part of a new unifying philosophy which we wish to implement in order to survive.

Ecological values should not be viewed as a separate and independent set but as a part of a larger structure, a part of a new philosophyfor our times do require a new philosophy which would be global and universal, holistic and healing, generous and humane, morally responsible and intellectually coherent. I call this new philosophy Ecological Philosophy or Eco-philosophy. Under the auspices of empiricism and other similar philosophies, we have created, in the past, a deficient code for reading nature and a deficient matrix for interacting with other beings. The time has come to create a new philosophy which corrects these deficiencies and provides a framework for unity and symbiosis.

 

Notes

For further discussion of these points and other points raised in this paper, see: Henryk Skolimowski, Eco-Philosophy, Designing New Tactics For Living. 1981; Eco-Theology, Eco-philosophy Publications, 1002 Granger, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48104, 1985.

 

 

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