Monday, August 4, 2008

Is it enough that it just is?

I have always been inquisitive - the one who asks the question ‘but why?’ more times than could be answered to any satisfaction. More recently, my concern for the precarious state of our natural environment lead me to associate with many other concerned individuals and organisations. They all promoted an agenda to suit their specific problem – the old growth forests, the wild rivers, oil depletion, climate change – but forgot to first ask the question ‘but why?’ Many of the so-called solutions were ill conceived and down right counter-productive. So began my search for the root cause of environmental problems as a means to discovering the real potential environmental remedies.

Along the way there were many stumbling blocks, probably the main one being the acceptance of the difference between normative and positive analysis. What most of us see in our daily lives is normative, that is, we seek to tread a path to what should be. Positive analysis on the other hand simply describes the way things are, without prescribing the value judgment necessary to determine the ‘should be’ of normative analysis. It appeared that almost all environmentalists had their own independent versions of what ‘should be’ without first understanding ‘what is’, and therefore where subject to classic mistakes of logic.

The shear impossibility of the task of determining the ‘should be’ on a societal level lead me to a more positivist arena, where through scientific rigour, causal links in the real world could be investigated (for those interested look into Arrow's impossibility theorem).

At this point I have reached an ideological standoff. Quite simply I now believe that ‘what is’ is always exactly what ‘should be’. A Darwinian view proclaims that all causes themselves have a cause, and as such, there is a reason for the present state of the universe. But reason or cause does not imply purpose, which is truly the issue at hand. In the environmental scenarios I have witnessed, the question of purpose is never contested, and often is never even given. ‘Save the old growth forests’ is printed in a banner in my neighbourhood, but I must ask why? At the risk of getting off track, I will follow the logic of a ‘why’ inquiry into the subject of old growth forests.

“Why do you want to save the old growth forests?”
“Because they are a habitat for wild species, they are rare, and they are beautiful”

“Why do you want to save wild species, and why are these things beautiful?”
“Because they are part of the natural ecosystem”

“Why do we need to save the ecosystem?”
“Because it supports life in Earth”

“Why do we want life on Earth?”

And so on.

To truly ask why, you must dig until you reach a point of sum ultimate point, which is – what is the purpose of anything? And now I have come to the realisation that rather than invent some purpose for which I will believe the universe exists, I will accept that there is no point, that it just is. Unless you specify what you believe the ultimate purpose of existence may be, then you cannot advance the opinion that one thing is good, while another is bad.

To bring this discussion back into line with the environmental theme presented earlier, I would say to those in the environmental community to please ask themselves the ‘why’ question. Unless they can clearly express the ultimate purpose of the universe, then they cannot simply announce to the world that what they believe is good, and what others are doing is bad. Also, since it is impossible to determine the preferences of society as a whole, we are still left without a social benchmark upon which to measure whether the progress we make as a society is a step in the right, or the wrong direction.

For those who feel like this is all a bit bleak, that there is no purpose to the universe, be assured that this does not imply you cannot strive towards some purpose in your own lives. By accepting the universe as is, you can have the freedom to determine you own purpose. But if my view is too simple, dull and downright pessimistic I would advise you to take heart that just because there is no purpose to it, does not make the world any less an intriguing, complex and glorious place than it was. To quote Richard Dawkins – “science is the poetry of nature”, although it only seeks to explain ‘what is’ does not make it any less wonderful.


  1. At a purely basic and selfish level there is purpose - To live a good life.

    I think to disagree with that you have some sort of self-hate thing happening. So if you accept that, surely looking after the planet so it is possible to live a good life follows....

    i.e. not a planet or life where if you're asthmatic you need to stay indoors on a bad day.

  2. I guess my point is that to live a good life, you need to make a normative statement in determining what is good.

    We can take social references as a way to determine what is 'good', or 'moral', but that by no means makes it right by some absolute measure. If we were in medieval times, excessive barbarism may, through social referencing, been deemed the good life.

    Also, there is nothing wrong with social referencing to determine what is good or moral. It is just that we must accept that there are other versions of goodness and morality that cannot be proved wrong.

    So my point is, that those who seek short term pleasure at a long run environmental cost are not doing the wrong thing. They can have at least as good an argument to support why their stance is correct over a long term view.

    My example might be that since many resources are finite, we will run out of them at some point. Why should we delay that point? If we live it up now, we will reach the point faster, but we would reach it anyway, and by taking the long term appraoch, missed out on all the great things we have done in the mean time.

    Got to go now. But there will be plenty more blogs to come.