The Synthetic Negation of Human Progress

1.

The purpose of this paper is analyze our (human) relationship to the non-human universe and how our relationship adversely impacts the environment around us; and, from this, where does this relationship come from and, more importantly, where are we going with it?  As part of this process I will contrast two different metaphysical views:  the metaphysics of Emmanuel Kant and object-oriented-ontology as rendered by the disciples of Alfred Whiteheads process philosophy.  It is not a bold stretch to assert that the concept of anthropocentrism is boldly conscious in the collective consciousness of western civilization and I am going to posit that any philosophical system that begins with accepting the following proposition as true:

Humans are more significant than non-humans.

is, ontologically speaking, making a bold philosophical assumption to start and part of the thought experiment (that is this paper) is to categorically reject this proposition as, at best, false and, at minimum, unknowable.  The problem with rejecting this philosophical assumption is it removes the grounding humans have defined themselves upon.  Like, for example, if we want to assess what the purpose of nature is, or a public park.  Is a park a model of nature for us to observe — like a natural museum; or is it for my purposes and play— a recreational play space for my amusement?   This question has many different perspectives but all of the perspectives assert that humans, the viewer and observer is capable (ontologically) of making the decision in the first place.   Many different ideologies will contest to know what to do with a forest and what is best for this and that, but the reality of things is we cant really know in any true way what nature is for.  And, if I reject the proposition that humans are more significant then the grounding upon how we make such decisions vanishes and the question itself (what is nature for) becomes nonsensical and shall float into the silence.   If the project of philosophy (if there was such a thing) was an attempt to understand the world and as part of that process remove all assumptions in pursuance of this understanding then, shouldn’t we, reject the boldest assumption of all: that we have the vantage point to render answers?

Western philosophy, beginning with Parmenides, has been the search for the perfection or the single idea that pulls everything together into a tight system— rooted in the aforementioned assumption that we have the vantage point to know such things.  The theory of everything.  I will signify the perfection with the numeric value of 0 and deem this 0 as the objective of western civilization (broadly construed) and, if we have failed to discover this perfection that we have diligently strived to find then we have fallen short of it— meaning, we are less than 0 (perfect) and we are situated within the -1 (less than perfect).  To posit that this metaphorical -1 does not exist and to further posit that we are and already have been situated within 0 for our entire existence and our attempts at desiring the perfection has been an action towards trying to elevate ourselves beyond what is (paradox ensues), or what was, I have to make philosophical assumptions that further negates my process but, also, otherwise underlines the problem.   The problem, or paradox, with my line of reasoning is that if I argue that there is a state of human neutrality of which we are the 0 and that the justification to search for the perfection is presupposed by the assertion that there is something missing to start only holds water in asserting that A) I know what human neutrality is and B) and that my knowing of this neutrality is guilty of the same ontological assumption I am casting stones at.

Notwithstanding this paradox, I will posit that the reasoning to support this paradox as being evident to my means resides within the evidence to reject my project (or philosophical assumption) in whole.  For example, if I was to say human neutrality = X, and that nature = Y and that it is absurd to assume X and Y are inclusive of notions of non-anthropocentric ideals, it would be fair to assert that I am guilty of the same anthropocentric assumption as I am assuming:  I, as mere viewer, as mere human, that can isolate human neutrality to an abstraction that I can enumerate with 0 and that all attempts to at striving at defining the perfection are presupposed by a reduction of humanness (as implied by the assumption of the search itself) to the -1.

So instead of implying that human neutrality = X and that nature = Y, I am going to simplify the problem to state that we assume, as a thought experiment, that anthropocentrism is a false assumption.  And this, metaphysically speaking, removes the grounding or basis of human inquisition— meaning, if I assert we actualize Lacan’s claim that “there is no meta-language” then any act to assert some grounding that becomes the launching point of any metaphysics becomes a non-starter— if we have no assumed truth or even a language to define the process, how can we seek to understand the simplest and most profound question of our species: what are we?  Without any grounding to the questions themselves, how do the questions themselves not float away into a void of nothingness only to be grounded again by the next metaphysician who decides to root them back into an assumption: albeit God, Rationalism, Science, Consumerism, et al.  

In light of the aforementioned problem I am going to posit we accept anthropocentrism as false, but not to presuppose that I will place this metaphysical grounding with something anew, but as a jumping off point to assert we go back to the drawing board and attempt to understand the questions of human existence, before any attempt at answering the question is made.  In other words, before answering the question of to be, lets deconstruct the question itself and remove the assumptions that lay hidden within the question.

As alluded to earlier in this paper, my means is purely ecological and even my rational for claiming that we go back to the drawing board to start is evident in the ecological disasters that await on our doorstep.  Meaning, simply, it is quite probable that human activity will be the catalyst of a causal force towards our own extinction, and unless we want to include will-to-annihilate as being a natural component of humanness then we should use our ecological reality as de facto evidence that this investigation has merit.

Inclusive of Kant, western metaphysics has been in search of the perfection in an act of bringing ourselves back to human neutrality— or 0.  And, as the perfection has been sought out in God, science, rationalism and idealism, to name a few, I posit the that consumerism (on the back of the post-industrial revolution modernity) has transferred the goal of the perfection into actual things— like electronics, fashion, cars, etc.  In other words, consumerism is the religion of modern capitalistic society.  I argue that Kantian philosophy (not exclusively) contributed to A) fixating the human species as the ontological center of the world and B) subsequently, that this ontological fixation has lead to the changing consumerism to the object of desire, our -1, our search for the perfection.

2.

Kantian epistemology as a metaphor: If, all of the world is inside of a fish tank, then the human subject stands outside the fish tank and looks in.  According to Kant we can intuit the sensible world as grounded in time and space, meaning we see the form of the sensible world of the fish tank as objects in time and space and we receive this sensible datum receptively (Anschauung) (Kant)— the information is passively received by us (Ewing).  Then, in congruence we actively categorize and synthesize this information, sorted by a priori judgements that enable us to categorize.  Or, simply put, “our mind has a capacity for synthesis that allows it to organize and unify sensory data.” (Grondin,136)  And, understanding the concepts created from this categorization is the understanding and combining past information (imagination) and our own unique impression creates the synthetic unity of apperception.  As returning to the fish tank metaphor: the fish tank glass can be seen as a filter that separates ourselves from the things-in-themselves (noumena) and the apparent objective reality that we see/categorize.  Meaning, we can never know what is really in the fish tank, but we can receive the sensual data and organize it as to create an understand of the objective reality.  Or put concisely by Whitehead, “[according to Kant] experience is a process from subjectivity to apparent objectivity” (Whitehead, 156).  We can never know the world (noumena) but we can know the world equally through our capacity for synthetic a priori judgments— or, in short, we will never know the world, but the world we know we will know equally and henceforth, objectively.  Moreover, he also indicates the Kantian view as a being a philosophical misconception: “The Kantian doctrine of the objective world as a construct from the subjective experience” (Whitehead, 156).   The flaw with this Kantian ontological view is that to put us as subject first is to assert that our subjectivity presupposes our objective world and this “monopolizes experience, and exempts [ourselves] from immersion in the experience.” (Shaviro, 50)  As, to say, returning to the fish tank metaphor, while being a subject peering into an objective tank (through our own subjectivity) we are also objects within another fish tank of which we can never escape.  Or, to put concisely, there is no in-there or out-there….its all just there.  As Timothy Morton states, “outer space is a figment of our imagination: we are always inside an object.” (Morton, 17). 

In this regard Kant is formulating a distinction between humans as a rational being and the world-out-there that humans are a viewer of.  Which devalues the external world to merely an objectified world that is from the human subject.  Or as, Whitehead states, “For Kant, the world emerges from the subject [as opposed to] the subject emerg[ing] from the world…” (Shaviro, 21)  This illustrates promptly the shift between the world being something objectively created from our rational faculties to something that we were born into as mere object, like all other mere objects.  Moreover, as Whitehead states in Process and Reality, “consciousness presupposes experience, and not experience consciousness” (Lucas, 86), as to state that our subjectivity frames our are experience and not the opposite.  So even though our experiences are actively framed from our consciousness as we “[emerge] from the subject” the opposing notion drives us to to view the world as from the subject and henceforth thrusting the human subject to the ontological center.   And, moreover,  the objective world of appearances is there for us to desire and to obtain— as, according to Kant (as interpreted by Steven Shaviro), “[t]he act of desiring is the cause, and the existence of the desired object is the effect.” (Shaviro, 7)  In other words, out of sheer will-to-desire we can bring about the objects of our desire and subsequently objectify the world-out-there as a thing we can desire and obtain (with ease); which becomes a rationalization as to assert the quality of anthropocentrism as a human quality— the world is our (apparent) objective oyster to desire and obtain.  And with consumerism as our driving force of desire it stands to reason that consumerism is now our -1 and the perpetual negated thing that we try to resolve with the act of consuming— our perfection, our God, the thing that will make us whole is the act of object accumulation.

Now we get to problem of the -1, which is inscribed by the desire to champion humans as a significant species: anthropocentrism.   Let us assume the proposition: humans are not more significant than non-humans.  If that is so, then we have to have accept and viscerally acknowledge that the experiences and ontological considerations of all humans, non-humans and non-sentient beings as being equal.  This is not to say that we are giving carte blanche considerations to rocks, as to say that if a rock falls on somebody the rock would be charged with a crime, or any other similar absurdities.  But, rather, it is to note and accept that we are not mere viewers of the objective reality but are, conversely, a part of the objective reality and that is a reality we can never escape.   So it would not be about making a rock ethically atone for its actions, but rather recognizing the rock as a force in the world that can intersect my reality in a profound way that is equal to how I can intersect its world.

Additionally, the ontological vantage point that Kant thrusts us into presupposes that we can be a passive receptive viewer like, as if, we can view the world from a skeptical objective scientific view with the semblance of passivity— the world is from the “spontaneous cognition” (Shaviro, 64) of our passive intuition.  This perspective rejects our interaction in the world as being a component of how we are in the world.  “It is rather that activity, no less than passivity, is a dimension of receptivity itself.  Every experience, every feeling, is at one and the same time an ‘inheritance’ from the past and fresh creation” (Shaviro, 65).  That is to say, to return to the fish tank analogy:  we are objects in a fish tank and we subjectively view objects in other fish tanks though the lens of our subjectivity, however, we do not only passively view the fish in the tank as pure passive sensible datum, but rather our past experiences, emotions and all that was “inherited” from the past becomes an “active” component in our ontological vantage point.  What we see is both an active/passive process and not merely a passive singularity.  Moreover, even beyond the “inherited” experiences, the process of receiving sensible intuitions is “a process of being affected” by the intuitions “within” (Shaviro, 64) the intuitive process.  The objects I see in the fish tank immediately and actively impact how I see the fish — otherwise known as the observer effect.  But, as the objects in the fish tank have equal ontological consideration, then we must consider the notion that the objects (fish) are equally part of the equation and their active intuition may in return affect us as observer as we are then affected in our observing of them, ad infinitum.  That is to say, we are in the world and not of the world.  We once thought that our earth was the center of the universe and the Copernican revolution brought upon the modern view that we are not the center, but a mere part, and for that matter not even a significant part— in fact, we are a mere speck in the universe.  But, after this Copernican switch, the Kantian view (carried over from the cartesian tradition) fixates us into the ontological “VIP Box” (Morton, 18) as to assume we can view the world without being in the world and that our process of being does not impact the world— for better or worse.

Our anthropocentrism was once fueled by being the material center of the universe and once science debunked that notion we replaced being the center of the material world to being the center of the metaphysical world.  Did Kant awake us from the “slumber of our immaturity” (Shaviro, 45) — no, he just replaced one fetish, one belief, one desire with another.  A brand new shiny toy to placate our desire to be unique, special and significant.  Mature adults?  “[W]e have not reached that stage yet,” (Shaviro, 45)  as Deleuze responds.

3.

If we take a step back and perceive the ecological disasters that sits on our doorstep as problems that are thrusted into existence by our ontological disposition, then perhaps the problem will remain and destroy us completely.  If we continue to see ourselves as of the world instead of in the world our path will continue towards this fate.  As, in some regard, global warming is just a mere object (or Hyperobject as Timothy Morton argues) that we can not calculate or reason with. And, when we examine the astronomical size of its force, we could note that the process of atoning and accepting its existence as being the product of human progress is more difficult than trying to calculate the problem in of itself.  Meaning, the efficacy of presuming we can transcend our ontological-egoism is unlikely, but more than that, as we stare down the barrel of our own extinction that is our collective monster — our Frankenstein — all we can do to atone with this hyperobject that was born out of collective hyper-cognitive-dissonance.  In other words, it becomes easy to accept the fate of our extinction as being geologically determined (fatalist) than to accept that we are at fault.  When reality and our world-view (anthropocentrism) conflict the path of least resistance becomes the preferred path— in short, to utter the the concise brilliance of Nietzsche:

“[We] prefer to will nothingness, than will nothing at all.”  (Badiou)

Notwithstanding our proclivity to “will nothingness,” I posit the way out this maze is twofold.  First, work towards a resurgence of the spirit of the enlightenment that goes back to the drawing board and rethink how we perceive ourselves as humans and create a new understanding of what it is to be human.  And, this new view should recognize that we are mere objects in a world of objects and within an object and there are objects within us— ad infinitum— and that even though we are subjects within this world, our subjectivity is an active process that interacts with all other objects.  Secondly, the proposition:  the problem of global warming is a human problem, presupposes and underlines anthropocentrism in of itself.  Meaning, claiming that it is our anthropocentric ontological vantage point that caused the problems does not imply, when we reject anthropocentrism, that it becomes a human problem as ipso facto.  We do not own the world nor can we fix the world (inclusive of ourselves).  Moreover, we do not own humanity, nor can we fix humanity.   Henceforth the aforementioned proposition should be amended to: the problem of global warming is not a problem, but, rather, it just is. 

Even though I pointed the finger of partial blame towards Kant and his epistemology, the reality is, as Hegel teaches us, regardless if you accept or reject Kant’s critical philosophy it paved the way for what became Whiteheads process philosophy and later object-oriented-ontology.  And beyond the Hegelian dialectical history that argues that there is no such thing as a wrong philosophy (Hegel, §2), Kant’s transcendental aesthetic also paved the way for Whitehead to push the aesthetic experiences to the limits to find the “depth of satisfaction” (Shaviro, 70).  But, even though it is possible to detail the lineage between Kant and Whitehead —  inclusive of their epistemology and ontology —  there is still reasonable merit to call notice to the impact Kant had on the world-out-there— outside the decontextualized chasm of philosophical discourse.    And with that said, we should be cognizant of the impact left by Kant (and the entire enlightenment era) as the echoes of the industrial revolution churn away and turn people to mere cogs in the wheels of capitalism machinery (as Marx would contest) and then perpetually consume the earth’s materials to satisfy their desire to remove their self-created negative one.

So as we return to the drawing board and revaluate ourselves as a species and accept that we are in the world and not of the world and that there is nothing we can do to stop global warming.  With that, the best we can do is accept ourselves as mere object (without an objective vantage point) in a world of objects and respect the power and force of all other objects and work with the world and not against it.  This may not prevent our extinction, but maybe millions of years from now when life returns and flourishes anew our successors will dig up the remains of our history and see the records of us becoming awakened to what it is to be and will smile upon our legacy and learn from our enlightened ontology as to showcase the reality of what is.  To be is to become.  And to become the zero, the human in neutrality, and reject our synthetic void of -1 (our anthro-ego), is to become what it is to be and the closest we will ever get to human perfection.

In short:  the negative one does not exist.  

 

 

 

 

SOURCES:

Badiou, Alain. Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil. London: Verso, 2001. Print.

Grondin, Jean. Introduction to Metaphysics from Parmenides to Levinas. New York: Columbia UP, 2012. Print.

Ewing, A. C. A Short Commentary on Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Chicago: U of Chicago, 1938. Print.

Hegel, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich, and Arnold V. Miller. Phenomenology of Spirit. Oxford [England: Clarendon, 1977. Print.

Kant, Immanuel, and Norman Kemp Smith. Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason. Unabridged ed. New York: St. Martin’s, 1965. Print.

Lucas, George R. The Rehabilitation of Whitehead: An Analytic and Historical Assessment of Process Philosophy. Albany: State U of New York, 1989. Print.

Morton, Timothy. Hyperobjects: Philosophy and Ecology after the End of the World. Print.

Shaviro, Steven. Without Criteria Kant, Whitehead, Deleuze, and Aesthetics. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT, 2009. Print.

Whitehead, Alfred North, and David Ray Griffin. Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology. Corrected ed. New York: Free, 1978. Print.

Whitehead, Alfred North. Science and the Modern World Lowell Lectures, 1925,. New York: Macmillan, 1925. Print.

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