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.