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.