Creation Waits

Speculative Realism, Existential Theology, and Apocalyptic Pedagogy

Month: September, 2015

“No Ecology without Anthropology”

I continue to reflect on Pope Francis’s claim, “There can be no ecology without an adequate anthropology.”

On the one hand, this seems like the exact opposite view of those involved in the “speculative turn.” The speculative realists engaged in object-oriented ontology encourage us to move beyond correlationism, the thesis that we cannot interrogate being except by considering the human person: the being for whom being is a question.

On the other hand, there is a sense in which Byrant, in The Democracy of Objects, begins his object-oriented ontology with an anthropology. Before advancing his own version of speculative realism (that is, before presenting his ontology of objects), he argues that we must understand that human subjects are themselves objects. In so doing, he is explicitly jettisoning a false anthropology.

Moreover, Bryant’s project is surely motivated by humane concerns. It is largely, if not precisely, because of the terrible consequences suffered by humanity and other animals, which flow from our blindness to the being of non-human things, that he seeks to articulate a robust account of being as such which is free from the reigning anthropocentrism.

So can there be an ecology without an anthropology? Not for us. We find ourselves under the spell of ideologies of rupture and, especially, a subject-object dichotomy which blinds us to diversity of being and our place within it. Hence, to see the things of the world right, we need to first set our understanding of ourselves right.

Is Francis’s Integral Ecology Incompatible with Biocentrism?

As I’ve already explained, in Laudato Si’, Pope Francis (2015) rejects anthropocentric ideologies of rupture, which allow us to think of ourselves as radically other-than the creatures of the world and of our social systems as disconnected from other “natural” systems. What I failed to mention is that he also rejects biocentrism:

There can be no ecology without an adequate anthropology. When the human person is considered as simply one being among others, the product of chance or physical determinism, then “our overall sense of responsibility wanes.” A misguided anthropocentrism need not necessarily yield to “biocentrism,” for that would entail adding yet another imbalance, failing to solve present problems and adding new ones. Human beings cannot be expected to feel responsibility for the world unless, at the same time, their unique capacities of knowledge, will, freedom and responsibility are recognized and valued. (Sec. 118)

The gist of this passage is clear: human beings are uniquely moral creatures, and his integral ecology shouldn’t be understood as denying this. Nevertheless, the way that biocentrism figures into the discussion seems puzzling to me, since I had assumed, prior to getting to this section, that Francis was presenting a kind of biocentricism.

Biocentrism is the thesis that all life has inherent value. Francis seems to assume that if we accept this, we must accept that we do not have “unique capacities of knowledge, will, freedom and responsibility.” This strikes me as a non sequitur. I conceive of biocentricism as expanding our sphere of moral concern rather than diminishing our understanding of our own value or being. I would certainly agree that if biocentrism entailed the denial of our own unique moral capacities and responsibilities, then it would be a faulty view. But it isn’t clear to me that it does.

To begin to see why, let me note that I assume that to say a being has inherent value is to say that its value is a function of its being; that is, it is owing to what that creature is and that it is. Such a claim denies that the value of a being is bestowed upon it by some other creature. There is no real tension between the biocentrist affirmation of the inherent value of all living beings and the recognition of our uniquely human moral capacities and responsibilities, for inherent value is superadded, so to speak, to whatever a being is. Within a Christian framework, this superaddition is a function of the fact that all beings, in virtue of being what they are, participate in a creation that is a communion, which has as its head, Christ. And for those of us who possesses moral capacities and responsibilities, those capacities and responsibilities are aspects of our being, which determine how we participate in this vast, universal communion. But the present point is that other beings very different from us also possesses inherent value, though owing to appropriately different bases. I interpret biocentrism as the view that a particular human being is valuable qua particular human being, a pelican is valuable qua pelican, a bee or bee colony qua bee or bee colony, and so forth. (Could it be that only certain animals are valuable qua individuals, while others are valuable qua the collectives of which they are a part? That is a provocative question worth further exploration.)

We might wonder, what is the practical consequence of claiming that all things are inherently valuable? Does it entail or require that no creature can be used by another? That seems like an absurd and life-denying conclusion. Perhaps something like that intuition drives Francis’s rejection of biocentricism. If that were the case, this would constitute only a rejection of biocentricism in a nominal sense. I say this because it seems to me that biocentrism requires an adjustment first and foremost to our ontological assumptions, with adjustments to practical reasoning following in a secondary sense. While it surely follows that we cannot use other beings in all the ways we are accustomed to, it seems perfectly in keeping with an acknowledgement of other beings’ inherent value that we, like them, must use some of them as food, and that our interests will come into conflict with theirs.

The sort of ontological adjustment that biocentrism requires is a recognition and appreciation of the ways in which the beings of the world dwell in communion with one another, as well as a recognition of the inescapable limits imposed upon our understanding of creation; although we can recognize that we live in communion, as creatures within it we cannot impose detailed, totalizing narratives upon it. Like everything else, we can only attend to the “local.” In other words, we can recognize and acknowledge that we uniquely dwell alongside other beings who themselves uniquely dwell within a beautifully diverse creation, even if we cannot fully understand or comprehend the whole in its totality.

…all of us are linked by unseen bonds and together form a kind of universal family, a sublime communion which fills us with a sacred, affectionate and humble respect. Here I would reiterate that “God has joined us so closely to the world around us that we can feel the desertification of the soil almost as a physical ailment, and the extinction of a species as a painful disfigurement.” (Sec. 89, quoting his own Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium.)

Levi Bryant (2014) offers an analogous, albeit a secular, account of this reorientation. He argues that human subjects are themselves objects, ontologically on par with all other things. Far from leading us to abandon ourselves within the “democracy of objects,” this serves to refocus our attention on our unique mode of dwelling and reawaken us to the reality of which we are a part in such a way that we recognize that this “world” evades our attempts to impose upon it a totalizing unity. We may speculate about being, but we are not outside, we do not stand over and above the “world,” such that we can ever legitimately say that we now understand “it” and can, therefore, rightly assume the position of masters over it.

And yet, this “it” that we recognize is beyond our comprehension is nevertheless our home (our “common home,” to use Francis’s phrase). How can we at once reaffirm our place within the world or creation while simultaneously heeding the lesson that we cannot legitimately impose a totalizing narrative upon it?

In her book, Minimal Ethics for the Anthropocene, Joanna Zylinska writes,

“The world” does not really name any kind of objective external reality. Rather […] this term should be understood as first and foremost referring to a temporary mental organization, undertaken by a spatially embedded and embodied human, of the various processes of which she is part. (p. 77)

I think this is largely correct. The critical intellectual move is to attend to the embodiedness of our thought, recognizing that we each find ourselves in a locality while also recognizing that other beings dwell within various other localities and that these localities are interconnected in ways that will always surprise us and disrupt our conceptions of the whole. This allows us to suspend our desire to dominate and understand the whole without leading us to reject its reality.

Of course, I suppose this is a sort of totalizing narrative of its own, but it leads us into a reflexive aporia which is totally unlike the false confidence encouraged by the technocratic ideology.

Works Cited

Bryant, Levi (2011). The Democracy of Objects. Open Humanities Press.

Francis (2015). Laudato Si’. Encyclical Letter on Care for Our Common Home.

Zylinska, Joanna (2014). Minimal Ethics for the Anthropocene. Open Humanities Press.

Panel Discussion Contributions

On Thursday, September 10, I participated in a panel discussion at Loras College, which had the aim of introducing students to Pope Francis’s encyclical, Laudato Si’. I was asked to briefly summarize my interpretation of the encyclical and indicate what I took to be the most important take-away points. I’m pasting below my prepared remarks.

Francis’s first task in the encyclical is, in his words, to make us “painfully aware” of what is happening to our world and how the ecological crisis threatens the integrity of the earth’s natural systems and our brothers and sisters (sec. 19).

However, Francis doesn’t simply reiterate the consensus view of the scientific community that anthropogenic climate change is threatening ecological equilibrium. As I interpret it, his project has at least these three basic elements, though they are not presented in this order: First, he provides a diagnosis of the underlying disease (“dis-ease”) which has given rise to our environmental crisis (see Chapter 3). Second, he shows how the Christian faith requires that we rehabilitate our relationship with the earth and he argues that it demands that we respond to the ecological crisis in a particular sort of way (see Chapter 2). Finally, he seeks to engender a form of dialogue which is aimed at curing the underlying dis-ease that is wreaking havoc on our common home (see sec. 121, 143, 146, and Chapter 5).

I’d like to briefly unpack each of these three points, beginning with his diagnosis of the underlying disease. First let me state what he doesn’t say. Some commentators have interpreted Francis as arguing that the root of the ecological crisis is a failure to believe in God. This isn’t quite right, since many of the people who have contributed to the present ecological crisis have been and are believers of one variety or another. Francis does claim that Christians and others have not adequately appreciated the gospel of creation as it is presented in the Bible (Chapter 2), but our rupture with the earth and our fellow creatures, like our rupture with God, is a condition in which believers and non-believers are implicated.

Indeed, if we had to isolate in a more precise manner one overarching and important cause of the ecological crisis, it would be one that clearly influences believers and non-believers alike: and this is what Francis labels the “technocratic paradigm.” The technocratic paradigm is the worldview or ideology which sustains and perpetuates a socio-economic system that encourages blind and directionless economic growth at the expense of the environment and both human and non-human populations. This system requires and encourages a constant acceleration and intensification of the extraction of natural resources, the production and consumption of goods, and the disposal of waste (see sec. 18). The problem is that neither we, as individuals, nor our social structures, nor the earth’s natural systems are well-equipped to handle this constant acceleration (sec. 18). In short, our existing practices are neither socially, economically, nor environmentally sustainable: they cannot be sustained over the long term without causing significant and perhaps irreparable harm.

Moreover, the technocratic paradigm encourages us to buy into and live our lives in service to technology and capital (sec. 109). Francis argues that these impersonal and inhuman creations of ours have become our masters (sec. 107), whereas we ought to be masters over them, employing them in the service of the common good. He very clearly states that technology and capital have an internal logic of their own (sec. 108), and, when left unchecked, they impose their own ends on our political, economic, and social activities.

Unfortunately, we have internalized this technocratic paradigm (it has become our worldview) and it colors our values, desires, fears, anxieties, how we conceive of things, and–I would argue—our spiritual lives (sec. 110; cf. sec. 111).

In opposition to the reigning order, Francis suggests that political and economic structures have to be repositioned to facilitate the good work of civil society, by which he means the various social groups and collectives that are organized in pursuit of the common good (see sec. 38 and 166). He suggests that neither the state nor free markets, by themselves, can be trusted to offer us deliverance from the ecological crisis (sec. 109).

It is with these sobering thoughts in mind that he appeals for us to start a dialogue about how to shape our future (Chapter 5). This is meant to be a multifaceted exchange between not only scientists and religious leaders, but all people of good will. As he notes, many of the efforts to establish concrete solutions to the problems we face have been suffered, on the one hand because there are powerful people with political and economic interests in maintaining the status quo (see sec. 52, 54, 56, and 107), and on the other hand because there is a worrisome lack of interest on the part of ordinary people (sec. 14).

Now, in light of all this, there are three tightly connected take-away points, or really, calls to action, that I would identify as being uniquely important for this audience (students and faculty here at Loras). They are as follows:

(1) The first is destructive: We need to engage in an intense, interdisciplinary, inter-religious critical examination and deconstruction of the reigning technocratic paradigm.

(2) The second is about recognizing and seeing things differently: We need to awaken our understanding of our co-creatureliness. I believe this requires learning to think in terms of systems and networks. We need to not only recognize that all things (including ourselves) are enmeshed in the vast communion of being, but we need to see how this interconnectedness bears on all of our significant relationships and complicates our ethical decision making. (See sec. 139.)

(3) The third is constructive: We need to imagine alternatives to the technocratic paradigm and develop new and different ways of engaging in economic production, using the earth’s resources, and disposing of or reusing waste. These new practices must be oriented toward greater asceticism, justice, and authentic sustainability.

Of course, all of this will be both intellectually and existentially challenging. Most of you probably came to college with the intention of receiving training that would make you well-suited to take up a post in our technocracy in one way or another. And we faculty take this to be part of our job. We want you to be successful, responsible contributors to society. But together we need to think carefully about what this means. Are we sending you forth in service of the status quo, or will you be conscientious, engaged citizens who can face the worrisome realities with which we are confronted while challenging and seeking to create alternatives to the technocratic paradigm?

Work Cited

Francis (2015). Laudato Si’. Encyclical Letter on Care for Our Common Home.

Francis and Bryant on Anthropocentrism

In the Introduction to The Democracy of Objects, Levi Bryant calls for a decentering of the human in our ontological thought. He suggests that the reigning ontological anthropocentrism, which is premised on a strict distinction between the subject on the one hand, which is the source of meaning and signification, and the object on the other, which waits upon meaning to be conferred to it, is both philosophically indefensible and practically disastrous.

In Laudato Si’ (esp. sec 115ff.), Pope Francis shares this unfavorable view of anthropocentrism, and he even explicitly rejects the subject-object dichotomy as part and parcel of the technocratic paradigm. However, whereas Bryant has been accused of neglecting the human (a charge that doesn’t hold up, in my opinion, and one which he has rightly rejected), Francis seeks to reinvigorate an appreciation for human dignity.

We can look to Francis for insights about how best to characterize the move that Bryant has referred to as the decentering of the human. While Bryant’s language is not, in the final analysis wrong, it can lead one astray insofar as it seems to suggest an anti-humanist perspective. Francis suggests an alternative way of framing the move: namely, as an expansion of our sphere of concern and awareness. Worded this way, we are encouraged to consider where such an expansion starts from, for an expansion needs a center. This is not to undermine Bryant’s overarching concern: ontologically speaking we do need to decenter the subject: the reigning anthropocentrism is untenable and philosophically suspect. But Francis, unlike Bryant, strikes the right chord, a metaphor I use quite deliberately, for it is a dyad of sorts, composed of two distinct “notes.” The first is an ontological note which calls us to reject the subject-object dichotomy and ontological anthropocentrism. The second is an ethical one which calls us to affirm the ethical dignity of all people and recognize their creatureliness. The source of harmony which unites these two notes, which allows us to strike them at once without creating a jarring tension, is the affirmation that, as creatures, we are enmeshed in the vast networks and systems that constitute creation.

Works Cited

Bryant, Levi (2011). The Democracy of Objects. Open Humanities Press.

Francis (2015). Laudato Si’. Encyclical Letter on Care for Our Common Home.