March 2016 Archives

Evolution of Sustainability Thinking


In searching for an old paper of mine from 2004, I found this definition of sustainability. It was the first version that I had written down. No mention of flourishing, but I find it an interesting step away from the Brundtland definition of sustainable development.

Sustainability is a possible way of living or being in which individuals, firms, governments, and other institutions act responsibly in taking care of the future as if it belonged to them today, in equitably sharing the ecological resources on which the survival of human and other species depends, and in assuring that all who live today and in the future will be able to satisfy their needs and human aspirations.

The Brundtland definition is still present in the last parts, but laying on us the responsibility for the future is new. The complexity context is there in the recognition that any new future state of a complex system is always only a possibility. That tomorrow will be the same as today is also only a possibility. Hmm…

Finding Flourishing in Victorian England



I am taking a course at my school for retirees (read, old folks like me) on the roots of liberalism and am currently reading the works of John Stuart Mill, who remains a cornerstone for thinking about liberty. The class this week included a reading of Chapter 3, “Of individuality, as one of the elements of well-being, from On Liberty, his still in-print set of essays, originally published in 1859. This Chapter follows one in which he lays out his case for protecting freedom of expression and discussion. It is as valid today as it was in the 19th Century. Arguing that freedom of expression/thought is of little practical value unless it is accompanied by freedom of action, he wrote that one should be able to think and act free of any encroachment, except where the thought or act harms another person.

A longish passage caught my eye as I was reading. Mill writes in the style of his times, often very long convoluted sentences that stretch almost a full paragraph in length. He was arguing that freedom of action was essential for the full development of human beings. Here is the passage. This comes after a critique of what he sees as the dominance of conformity in British society.

It is not by wearing down into uniformity all that is individual in themselves, but by cultivating it and calling it forth, within the limits imposed by the rights and interests of others, that human beings become a noble and beautiful object of contemplation; and as the works partake the character of those who do them, by the same process human life also becomes rich, diversified, and animating, furnishing more abundant aliment to high thoughts and elevating feelings, and strengthening the tie which binds every individual to the race, by making the race infinitely better worth belonging to. In proportion to the development of his individuality, each person becomes more valuable to himself, and is therefore capable of being more valuable to others. There is a greater fulness of life about his own existence, and when there is more life in the units there is more in the mass which is composed of them. … To be held to rigid rules of justice for the sake of others, develops the feelings and capacities which have the good of others for their object. But to be restrained in things not affecting their good, by their mere displeasure, develops nothing valuable, except such force of character as may unfold itself in resisting the restraint. If acquiesced in, it dulls and blunts the whole nature. To give any fair-play to the nature of each, it is essential that different persons should be allowed to lead different lives. In proportion as this latitude has been exercised in any age, has that age been noteworthy to posterity. Even despotism does not produce its worst effects, so long as Individuality exists under it; and whatever crushes individuality is despotism, by whatever name it may be called, and whether it professes to be enforcing the will of God or the injunctions of men.
Having said that Individuality is the same thing with development, and that it is only the cultivation of individuality which produces, or can produce, well-developed human beings, I might here close the argument: for what more or better can be said of any condition of human affairs, than that it brings human beings themselves nearer to the best thing they can be? or what worse can be said of any obstruction to good, than that it prevents this?

I read this as a definition of flourishing, very close to the one I have been using, as attaining the full human potential. He is examining only the cultural piece. Look at the second paragraph. Earlier he touched on what I have been calling authenticity, differentiating between acts from within and those following traditions or custom. Here is what he wrote about this.

It is desirable, in short, that in things which do not primarily concern others, individuality should assert itself. Where, not the person’s own character, but the traditions or customs of other people are the rule of conduct, there is wanting one of the principal ingredients of human happiness, and quite the chief ingredient of individual and social progress.

On Liberty is Mill’s argument that the present norms and social structures in Victorian England are squelching individual liberty, both of thought and action. He blames both public opinion (social norms) and government practices. His language is often stilted relative to today’s styles, but the thought is clear. That he feels it necessary to write such a powerful critique supports my argument that flourishing has been recognized as central to human being in the past, but that it has languished under the cultural realities of the time. It is no different today. The world is much changed, but cultural force still repress flourishing. Anyway, I feel ever more empowered to write about flourishing and how to create it today when I find such strong evidence in the work of such thinkers as Mill.

More on Flourishing


desert plant

I am back at work on a book, but finding a new structure for it. Both my previous books were basically critiques of the “modern” paradigm, that is, the set of beliefs and norms that has been driving much of Western culture for hundreds of years. I see unsustainability, a collection of persistent, significant problems, as evidence that this paradigm is no loner befitting of today’s world. I still strongly believe that this is the case, but have a new argument as well.

I have come to see flourishing, not simply as an evocative normative vision, but as an element of human and other life forms’ ontological structure. It is part and parcel of what and who we are. Flourishing is a description of the state of attaining one’s potential. This framing takes some careful explaining. I started to do this in the last handful of posts to this blog, but it takes some repetition and reworking. That’s what this post is doing. If you haven’t read the previous post, you probably should before you start on this one.

The word, potential, is inherently teleological; it suggests that there is some end toward which the passage of time is taking us, and if we do the right things, we will reach it.. (This is the foundation of modernity and its vision of progress, a fundamentally teleological concept.) Otherwise stated, it suggests that there is some inherent purpose to life or to the cosmos. This statement, by itself, is not problematic for the many who attribute our presence on the Earth as the work of God. It is much more difficult to locate any purpose in the mechanistic, objective worldview of modernity.

Science, which reveals the inner workings of the universe, can describe the functions and interactions of almost all objects, including human beings, but cannot ascribe a purpose to them. The Big Bang model of how the cosmos came to exist is awesome and miraculous, but purposeless. The origin of life is also a miracle. I am defining miracle as Loyal Rue does in his book, Nature is Enough. A miracle is “any event, the occurrence of which is so radically impossible as to be completely unbelievable.” There is nothing about the hand of some transcendent designer in this definition.

If we examine living organisms carefully, an apparent purpose becomes evident. Life forms exist to maintain their life. Rue calls this trait, viability. I am more convinced by the biologically based work of Varela and Maturana who called the basic life process, autopoiesis, meaning continuous self-[re]producing. (See their book, The Tree of Knowledge) No living species can be found that does not act to keep itself alive as a fundamental process. Rue takes pains to label this feature an objective feature of life, thus attributing an inherent teleology to it. To live is to act to maintain life. For humans there is more to it than this, but all life shares this purpose. Contrary to my earlier arguments that humans have no inherent nature, I accept this one: that the fundamental purpose of life is to preserve viability, that is to stay alive. Evolution doesn’t change this basic feature, it merely changes the structures of organisms, improving the viability along the way. Less miraculous, perhaps, than the initial appearance of life, but a pretty miraculous process all the same.

For most non-human species, the process of living goes through a series of development stages, based on their genes, as their structure changes from simple cellular forms to increasingly complex structures to senescent forms and finally death. If a non-human species is successful in moving through all these stages, it will have attained everything that was potentially available in its genes. I equate this with biological flourishing. (Extinction is the polar opposite to flourishing.) Human beings follow the same pattern and have an equivalent biological, genetic potential, which, if attained, constitutes the same biological flourishing. But this is not everything for humans and a few other species that have developed cultures, that is, patterns of behavior that have been invented for purposes beyond those associated with the expression of the basic viability drive.

Our human ancestors have been on Earth for a very long time. For most of this time, there is agreement that they lived in ways not very different from other animal species, as hunter gatherers in small migratory groups. To the extent that they survived and reproduced, they flourished. Along the way, as they evolved, they developed language-symbolic representation of worldly phenomena-that enabled intentional action and social coordination. About 35,000 years ago in a period known to anthropologists and archaeologists as the “Great Leap Forward,” human cultures boomed. Here’s what Jared Diamond says about this event.

We know that our lineage arose in Africa, diverging from that of chimpanzees and gorillas, sometime between 6 and 10 million years ago. For most of the time since then we have been little more than glorified baboons. As recently as 35,000 years ago western Europe was still occupied by Neanderthals, primitive beings for whom art and progress scarcely existed. Then there was an abrupt change. Anatomically modern people appeared in Europe and, suddenly, so did sculpture, musical instruments, lamps, trade, and innovation. Within a few thousand years the Neanderthals were gone.

The very slow pace of evolutionary changes suddenly accelerated. Something new emerged. Emergence is a key explanatory process that accounts for the sudden appearance of new orderly structures in otherwise apparently random systems, for example, the evolutionary process. Life, itself, as evidenced by organisms driven by autopoietic processes, is a phenomenon that emerged during the chain of events that has shaped the cosmos since the Big Bang. Both life and the subsequent emergence of human culture have no inherent meaning or purpose, per se, but created meaning in the subsequent histories of the species. The great leap forward was a period of increasing complexity as human beings interacted more frequently and technology brought new challenges to everyday life.

Humans are driven by a fundamental viability or autopoiesis, and a similar purposeful existence to maintain cultural integrity. Alternatively, one can ascribe a “nature” to human beings as creatures that seek and find meaningful lives. The cultural part is historically based, emerging during the Great Leap Forward; the biological piece has been there since living entities first emerged from the primordial soup.

I have taken lots of words to lay out this story because it is new to me and also because my prior writings make a big deal out of disparaging the idea of human nature. This emergent human “nature” is categorically different from the one I have criticized previously. The modern notion of humans is that they are inherently rational, self-interested creatures, always driven to maximize pleasure and avoid pain. This has become narrowed to an economistic view by equating pleasure with material properties, so that wealth acquisition is now the primary societal driver. The “real” human nature is meta to this as a more abstract drive for preserving life and cultural integrity. The modern view is simply a description of a historical, idiosyncratic instantiation, but is not absolute. If it were, we could all fold our tents and disappear over the horizon because, then, the economic game we have been playing, assuming infinite resources in a finite world, has only a zero-sum outcome. Nature wins, we lose.

Loyal Rue bifurcates the cultural purposive, meaningful trajectory into personal wholeness and social coherence. He builds this upon an assumption that these were the two domains of life that the humans paid most attention to during the great leap forward and later. I would label individuals and societies that attained these two states as flourishing. At any time in history, such ends can be defined as the attainment of the human cultural potential, leading to my definition of flourishing as the attainment of individual and collective potential. The connection between individual and collective flourishing also arises from the emergent process in which the two were indistinguishable. The distinction is the result of the analysis, rather than being functionally separate.

If the observed nature of humans is only a historical artifact, resting on top of the fundamental drive to preserve culture, then it can be changed by introducing new cultural structure that would induce new patterns of behavior. Caution is necessary because the configuration of emergent states cannot be predicted, but I believe we already have a very good sense of how to proceed.

I will end today with a short discussion aimed at tying this blog to my previous work. The categories of Rue, above, correspond to my use of care as the basic ontology of human Being. Caring actions are intentional acts aimed at producing or preserving the cultural conditions for flourishing. I use four categories in analyzing care: care for the self, other humans, the rest of the world, and transcendence. The first lines up directly with “personal wholeness.” The other three are dimensions of social coherence, which I would define as paying attention to one’s connections with the world outside of oneself with the intent of maintaining the coherence of that world..

The challenge posed by creating a flourishing world is two-fold. The first step is to adopt the meaningful flourishing model of human nature in place of the modernist, economistic model, and establish it as the primary goal for the individual, societal, and natural world domains. Then, once that is done, begin to introduce changes in the structures of institutions, starting with the society and working down to all the institutions nested within the society. First, inject the belief about humans as caring creatures, pursuing a meaningful existence. Next, because the effectiveness of caring or any intentional action depends on the closeness of the actors’ presuppositions about the nature of reality to reality itself, introduce practices to enrich the context that surrounds whatever processes are called on in creating and expressing the act. The last statement is worth repeating because we don’t usually think about it. Our effectiveness in living depends on the match between the models we hold in our individual and collective “minds” and the real world. If they are exact, our intentions will be precisely met. Given that the models we actually use are rarely exact because they lack specific context for the immediate situation, our actions do not produce the intended outcome perfectly. The more context relevant to the immediate situation we can add, the more likely we will get what we intended. See my blog of February 3 for a discussion of the role of context.

ps. The last 6-8 posts have common threads and are somewhat repetitious. They illustrate the challenge of finding clear, accessible language and images to present what are becoming the foundational ideas for my work. I appreciate your willingness to hang in there.

Flourishing Has Roots in Reality


desert plant

If you have been following my work, you know that the concept of flourishing popped up one day without any warning. The definition of sustainability that I started with some fifteen or so years ago was, “Sustainability is the possibility that humans and other life will flourish on the planet forever.” The predicate of that sentence came out of my mouth during a training exercise and shaped my work for quite a few years. I have abandoned the conventional usage of sustainability in place of sustainability-as-flourishing, tying the endpoint to the emergence of a flourishing world.

After much thinking and writing, I now believe that flourishing is more than just a better goal for human beings (and the rest of the world) than some measure of material well-being or the psychological state of being happy. It is more than Aristotle’s eudaimonia. It is rooted in the basic teleology of life. I have been reading a very interesting book, Nature Is Enough, by Loyal Rue, a professor of religion and philosophy.1

The genetic part is fairly simple. Every living creature develops according to the genes present in their cells. That development is affected by the environment in positive and negative ways. If the course of development is positive and the adult organism expresses the full potential in the genes, the individual is flourishing. A rose grows from a seed to a flower that has become a symbol of beauty and perfection. Until it is plucked or begins to wither, it is flourishing, having attained its genetic potential. The life cycle of simpler cellular organisms is relatively limited to reproduction. As long as simple organisms are reproducing, they are flourishing. This is consistent with the basic observation of Darwin and others who saw that reproductive success was the most basic building block of evolution.

Rue calls this characteristic of all life forms, viability, and ascribes a meaningful component to it. It is present in the behavior of all species, but not in the consciousness of individual members, except for humans. For those that would immediately jump to argue against this as invoking some sort of intelligent design theory, Rue argues, based on the work of Terrence Deacon, that this apparent teleological feature of life is an emergent result of cosmic phenomena, even as seems to be a miraculous outcome, appearing against all odds.2 Deacon has a theory, based only on natural processes, to explain the rise of life and its genetic nature.

For human beings, this basic purpose is hugely insufficient to explain the centrality of the intentional, meaningful, behavior that pervades human exostence. One needs some explanation of the origin of all the shoulds and other moral guides that are part of human existence. Rue, and others, including myself, argue that as Homo sapiens multiplied and wandered about, and as the capability of language grew, guides for success in everyday (cultural) life were invented as observable patterns emerged, showing up over and above new forms of order and interrelationships. These moral, that is directives about what ought to be done, would start, perhaps, with rules for hunting and the division of the kill. Rue adds the possibility of the development of more elaborate rules, as encounters with other groups of humans became more likely as their numbers grew and the drive for food led to nomadic movement. This story is pure hypothesis, lacking good data on what actually took place, but seems to be a reasonable guess. Language, itself, is a repository of symbols representing the observations of those who added new meaningful words and gestures. The earliest, known written texts were mostly about codes of behavior.

Rue, interesting, argues the purposeful existence of human beings as manifest in cultural activities is derivative of the natural, inherent viability drive. Further, the purposes can be be divided into two classes; one having to do with individual integrity/wholeness and the other with social relationships. Rue calls these two: personal wholeness or personality and social coherence. He notes that this is a “distinctively human way” to “pursue the holy grail of viability.” While viability is an objective, abstract, timeless feature of life, the particular forms of personality and social coherence are historical and change with the passage of time (phylogeny). I add that the same is true for individual human beings (ontogeny). Our personality and social relationships change over a lifetime. Another philosopher, Martin Heidegger, writes that we become who we are through a process of a meaningful existence interacting (caring) with the world: Being-in-the-world.

Rue, with some linguistic acrobatics, then claims that, since viability is an objective (reductionist) teleological (meaningful) feature of life, and further, since other meaningful categories of human existence, personality and social coherence, have emerged from this drive as humans multiplied and culture became more complex, that intention, purpose, meaning or any other word ascribing directedness or goal-driven is an objective feature of human life. In other words, it is in our nature to live meaningful lives. Nice going, Loyal Rue. You have glued together two seemingly incompatible ideas.

I have argued against the idea of an objective human nature, largely to dispel the notion that we are just a part of the great cosmic machine of Descartes and Newton. But if our nature is to live meaningful lives, that’s swell with me. I have taken meaningfulness for granted only because it seems to better fit observations, but now I can relax a bit when I say that 1) human existence is unique among other species, 2) Heidegger’s philosophical conclusions about care as our ontological foundation have objectively valid roots, and 3) that caring is the right term to use for the process by which humans actually express their biological viability.

Further, the dichotomous opposition of the development of personality (inner integrity) and social coherence (worldly integrity) correspond to the two modes of behavior-authentic and inauthentic-that I, and others, use to point to the source of the rules with which we design and enact our intentions, that is, our meaningful actions. Authentic acts come from the persona, the self that belongs to me, the self I have created out of my own process of attributing meaning from experience. Inauthentic acts are those arising from the rules I have acquired from the voices of the external world; rules whose meaning is derived by other processes than my own. With the dichotomous, but important nature of both of these two classes, it is much clearer to see why Heidegger did not give one primacy over the other.

I realize another important consequence coming out of my reading of Rue’s book. I have been structuring my arguments for a new paradigm on a pragmatic critique of the reductionist world of modernity, arguing that the modern paradigm has ceased to produce the outcomes that legitimated it for some centuries. I still find that claim compelling, but now, I have another distinct argument based partly on an objectivist view that finds fault with the mechanistic human nature model of the Cartesian, Newtonian tradition. The key to Rue’s development is to glue on top of the basic notion of viability as the inherent human nature an emergent process that creates the omnipresence of intentionality. This explanation is completely consistent with the parts of my argument that reductionism blinds us to the key feature of complexity: the emergence of qualities, including flourishing and other long-standing social norms.

In providing an inherent telos to human existence, Rue grounds the idea that flourishing is a indicator of the degree to which the human potential has been attained. This takes what I have been writing a step further. It also allows me to make a more definitive statement about the normative place for authenticity and inauthenticity. I have either directly or indirectly implied that the route to flourishing was via authentic action. I noted that, given the social nature of our species, it is impossible to live exclusively authentically because that implies the complete exclusion of social norms. This is, however, a logical impossibility, because to be a social creature is constituted by the incorporation of such norms in one’s behavior.

Flourishing means a life where the two categories are reasonably balanced. Where the fulcrum is can be determined only by observing, pragmatically, future societal activities. Modern life provides only evidence of a great imbalance, overweighing, in Fromm’s words, having over Being. Re-balancing personality or authentic self, as I may call it, will require honing skills like empathy and self-reflection, that have been largely submerged in the evolution of modern, Western cultures.

Care, as the description of authentic action, is another way to think about intentional actions. Arguing that personality and social coherence fully circumscribe emergent patterns of intentional human behavior is another way of pointing to the domains that humans care about. Care here refers to actions that have a sense of intention about them. Heidegger has a long list of acts that represent care: “having to do with something, producing, attending to something and looking after it, giving up something and letting it go, undertaking, accomplishing, evincing, interrogating, considering, discussing, determining, and so forth.” I should add that the idea that intentionality is an emergent human characteristic emphasizes interconnectedness as central to human consciousness. Intentionality necessitates that we act out of a sense of whatever is at the other end of our arrow of that intentionality.

My intention (sic) for this post is to note that most of, if not all, of the ideas on which I base my writing and thinking are coalescing and intermingling. The rivulets of emergence, complexity, Being, Care, flourishing, meaningfulness…, are starting join into a larger stream. That’s the good news. The bad is that I have to put much of what I have written earlier and am working on now aside and start afresh. I will have to apologize for some of the errors I have made. Flourishing and the need to rebuild our societies makes more sense than ever with a newly discovered positive argument reinforces the still valid pragmatic critique of the modernist world.

  1. Rue, L. (2011). Nature is Enough: Religious Naturalism and the Meaning of Life. Albany, NY, State University Of New York Press.

  2. Deacon, T. (2006). “Emergence, The Hole in the Wheel’s Hub.” in The Re-emergence of Emergence. P. Clayton and P. Davies. New York, Oxford Univ. Press: 853-871.

Still Around


I know I have been away from this blog for quite a while. I am working on the book that has hung around for much too long with good results. I will post here soon as I feel I have gotten the key thoughts down. One of my frequent source for posts is the oped columnists, but they are all preoccupied with the reality show called the nominating process. I find it is so far from my sense of what it should be that I cannot but turn away.

For those who know I had a total knee replacement in late December, I am recovering very well. Pretty much into my normal routines. I find going down stairs still a bit difficult, but most everything else goes well thanks to a couple of great physical therapists.