Saturday, April 4, 2009

Life, Death, Meaning and Meaninglessness

The older one gets the more one thinks about death. When thinking about death one is going to obviously consider the meaning of one's life. When we hear the news of someone's death we often consider the life of that person and wonder what purpose the person served -- we wonder if their life had any meaning. More importantly, we wonder if that person believed their life had any meaning. When we hear of suicide, we might be even more intrigued by the person's life.

I had never heard of David Foster Wallace until his suicide made national news this past fall. He was found dead in his home in September of 2008 at the age of 46. I read his commencement speech given to the 2005 graduation class from Kenyon College and I was immediately intrigued. Here was an obviously very intelligent individual who had had some success as a writer and then decided to end his life because living was just too painful. From a very limited perspective, I have some empathy for his feelings. I have been lucky to have never suffered from depression in my life. However, DFW’s writings had an appeal to me because of his ability to describe the meaninglessness of everyday life in our society.

I went to the library and checked out a couple of his books. He railed against the ironic, and coplained that irony was making it very difficult to be a fiction writer in today’s world because television had surpassed the novel as the descriptor for modern life. DFW believed that television was the prime mover of irony in modern society. I’m not sure if his depression was a result of his inability to find true meaning in his life, but I have a feeling it must have played a part. DFW was smart. He was a lot smarter than I. As I read him, I could not help thinking in my mind as he made acute observations on the mundane world around us, that this person eventually killed himself and basically came to the conclusion that life was not really worth living -- for any of us.

I know depression is more than just an intellectual exercise. I also understand that some people who are clinically depressed are really not that intelligent to begin with. But, the inability to find meaning in our lives is a symptom of modern society and the rise of depression must have something to do with the ironies and meaninglessness that surround all of us.

Reinhold Niebuhr observed that “every universe of meaning is constantly under threat of meaninglessness,” or something to that effect. Niebuhr was a social critic and a theologian. He had an understanding of the ironic and was aware of both the comforts and the pitfalls that science and modernism has brought humanity. Materialism has brought television, automobiles, cell phones, and other conveniences. The modern age, along with science, has also demonstrated the folly of certain religious beliefs and makes individuals who attack scientific theories such as Darwin’s evolution seem foolish and intellectually dense. Niebuhr had no problem with recognizing the limitations of literal beliefs from the Bible. However, Niebuhr’s observation that the Bible and religious faith provide meaning within the meaninglessness of existence is worth heeding attention to and could have saved DFW the torment that eventually led him to take his life. I think it might be the only thing that saves any of us from following DFW's example.

DFW was cool. He made many references to popular culture. He was obviously well-read and could pontificate on many subjects including philosophy, mathematics and literature. But, he could also talk about television and the internet. He was not just an intellectual. He wrote for Rollingstone, Harpers and the Atlantic. DFW was fully immersed in modern society and popular culture. But, despite his talents and success, the meaning of his existence eluded him. Was he just too smart?

Charlie Walters died on January 17, 2009 at the age of 83. I had never heard of Charlie Walters until a few years ago when I began subscribing to an organic farming magazine called ACRES,USA. The magazine was very informative and contained a wealth of information on farming and gardening that arrived each month. Charlie was the editor and, I assumed he put together many of the articles that gave me many facts for becoming a better gardener by taking care of my soil and using different organic techniques. But, the real value of the magazine was Charlie’s editorials. Charlie was a genius. He was incredibly smart, like DFW a lot smarter than I.

Charlie understood how to find meaning in his life even though he was confronted daily with the same ironies and meaninglessness from modern society as DFW. No, being smart, or thinking about all the examples of the meaninglessness in our lives and jobs in not necessarily a sentence for depression and eventual suicide. There has to be meaning among the meaninglessness. We have to find it. Sometimes that takes a little faith, but even when we find meaning it has to be understood that this meaning will be under attack by meaninglessness as Niebuhr says. So where do you find meaning? I cannot answer that and I’m not sure that Charlie can answer it either. Faith can mean many things and it can also lead one to blindness, but in the end everything is built upon the faith in something and because of this meaninglessness is built into any metaphysical or religious thought. But we can’t address the mystery without some sort of metaphysics and beauty in the world is as unexplainable as the ugliness and the mundane.

Meaning in our lives is found wherever we can find beauty or maybe love. We can tear down all of this meaning with irony and, I suppose, that was why meaning could nosustain DFW. For Charlie Walters, equally aware of the ironies and meaninglessness of modern life, meaning was sustainable because he had faith in something beyond the meaninglessness, call it God, call it humanity, call it beauty or love. Charlie had faith in something and I don’t think DFW had faith in anything. I can understand why DFW didn’t either and that’s what scares me most.

Which brings me back to Niebuhr’s “every universe of meaning is under constant threat of meaninglessness,” or something like that (I don’t remember the exact quote, but it really was something either exactly like that or very close to it). It’s a tenuous hold on sanity for all of us. People like Charlie and Niebuhr shine a light on meaning and faith, while not asking any of us to be fanatics or to sacrifice our intelligence to fundamentalism. This faith or meaning is mysterious and our inability to describe it or defend it with reason is what makes it fallible. It is the same as saying there is not Truth or nothing we can point to that describes exactly the workings of the universe – or knowledge is not discovered, but made. Acknowledging this does not mean we are nihilists. We can still be pragmatists and still have a faith in a meaning of our lives whose outcome is not predetermined or known by a larger being or entity. The meaning can be in the process of living or even our acknowledgement of the beauty and order amongst the chaos or meaninglessness.


Ecological Economics

Although there are other alternatives to neoclassical economic, it is hard not to talk about the economy without referring to this model in some form or another. Understanding neoclassical economics is important for gaining insight into our current financial crisis to understand how markets operate. Neoclassical economics offers a very simple and elegant model for understanding markets. As I've indicated before, the problemwith neoclassical economics is believing these models are natural systems or laws that provide us guidance into how our economic system must be run. I want to talk about neoclassical economics to give some insight into our economic system and why we are in a crisis and what restructuring has to take place if we are going to put ourselves on a sustainable path. But first I want to talk about some alternatives to neoclassical economics.

There have been many proposed alternatives to neoclassical economics. Critics of neoclassical economics often criticize from these alternative positions. Marxists are the most well-known example. My contention is that Marxists and neoclassical economists suffer from the same affliction. They are both based upon scientific thought and what economics needs more than anything is an ethic that goes beyond objective valuation – which is the key ingredient for and economics school of thought to be labeled scientific. One of the latest alternative schools of thought to neoclassical economics is ecological economics and two of its founders and leaders are Herman Daly and Robert Costanza.

According to Herman Daly, Ecological Economics “seeks to ground economic thinking in the dual realities and constraints of our biophysical and moral environments” while promoting “truly transdisciplinary research in which practitioners accept that disciplinary boundaries are academic constructs irrelevant outside of the university.” With Robert Costanza and others, Daly has launched this bold new discipline seeking to displace the standard economic theory known as neoclassical economics. Although well-intentioned, Daly and Costanza are only the latest in a long line of academics attempting to make economics a more exact science.

Costanza’s contention that economists versed in the natural sciences would have a greater appreciation of the biosphere is correct, but ecologists should be wary about versing themselves in the seductive jargon of neoclassical economics which treats the biosphere as a commodity. Costanza’s 1997 $33 trillion estimate of the values of environmental services is one example of the folly of linking ecology with economics.

In the history of economics there have been many attempts at creating a theory that is rational and objective emulating the standards set in the natural sciences. Philip Mirowski has thoroughly documented these attempts and trends in his two seminal works More Heat than Light and Machine Dreams: Economics Becomes a Cyborg Science. Mirowski describes three waves of immigrants from the natural sciences during the 200 year history of economics. The first wave occurred during the mechanistic era of physics from 1870 to the turn of the century. The second phase of immigrants occurred during the operation management era of the cold war. The final phase is happening right now and is characterized under the heading of inter- or trans-disciplinary studies. Mirowski says in Machine Dreams:
The ubiquitous contraction of physics and the continuing expansion of molecular
biology has not only caused sharp redirections in careers, but also redirection
of cultural images of what it means to be a successful science of epochal
import. In many ways, the rise of the cyborg sciences is yet another
manifestation of these mundane considerations of funding and support;
interdisciplinary research has become more akin to a necessary condition of
survival in our brave new world than merely the province of a few dilettantes or
renaissance men; and the transformations of economic concepts…is as much an
artifact of a newer generation of physicists, engineers, and other natural
scientists coming to terms with the traditions established by a previous
generation of scientific interlopers dating from the depression and World War
II, as it is an entirely new direction in intellectual discourse.”

Ecological economics is part of the latest interdisciplinary push that has united the natural sciences and economics within the confines and constructs of neoclassical economics. Daly demonstrates his devotion to the “scientific method” as the only means for reforming neoclassical economics by offering objective valuation criteria for our resources at the expense of all other intellectual pursuits with his admonishment to other thinkers using alternative methods to “keep silent.” He states in his Ecological Economics textbook:

“…many members of the intelligentsia deny either nondeterminism, nonnihilism, or
both, yet they engage in a policy dialogue. It is not just that we
disagree on exactly what our alternatives are in particular instances, or about
what our value criterion implies for a concrete case—that’s part of reasonable
dialogue. The point is that determinists who deny the effective existence
of alternatives, and nihilists or relativists who deny the existence of a value
criterion beyond the level of subjective personal tastes, have no logical basis
for engaging in policy dialogue—and yet they do! We cordially and
respectfully invite them to remember and reflect deeply upon their option to
remain silent—at least about policy.”

Even if you agree with Daly that we should do more to protect our resources and opt out of a consumerist and materialist culture, he wishes for you to remain silent if you are unable to adhere to a nondeterminist program for discovering real and objective valuation criteria. Daly, like most scientists, believes we cannot act until we frame our arguments within objective, scientific rhetoric. It is as if we cannot trust our senses and argue for the nonproliferation of nuclear armaments, the reduction of CO2 emissions and the preservation of our air, water and wilderness areas because we just think (or God help us, believe) that this is the best course for the future of humanity. If we cannot come up with a reasonable valuation criterion demonstrating irrefutably that clean water is better than a high GDP and job growth, we should remove ourselves from the discussion. If we cannot play the economist game then Daly wishes we would all just shut up—respectfully, of course.

The determinists and nihilists Daly is referring to are the poets, novelists, artists, philosophers, and others in our society creating a culture valuing aesthetic beauty, peace, clean air, wilderness, and solitude over a consumer and materialist culture. Many of these individuals value inter-subjective agreement over discovering an objective valuation measure existing in its own right.
Daly has a strong attachment to the theology of “universal truth” and feels economics is tainted by its devotion to determinist Darwinism, which believes that historical contingencies play a greater role in the evolution of human society than the ultimate design by some universal entity. He misplaces the faults in neoclassical thinking by noting that this leads one to believe that “the natural world is just a pile of instrumental accidental stuff to be used up in the arbitrary projects of a purposeless species.”

A belief in ultimate ends does not guarantee one will also hold a belief in the importance of the stewardship over our environmental resources. Perhaps believing in a creator of this Earth will help one develop an environmental ethic and perhaps not. Regardless, Daly’s diatribe against determinists and nihilists needlessly isolates allies in a liberal agenda for preserving our planet from the excesses of modern consumerist culture.

One can believe that there is no purpose to human existence and still advocate a future for protecting the environment over a future of material gain and a buying culture. Environmental destruction and an accelerated pace towards extinction for the human race is as likely a future as one promoting stewardship and solving the many large environmental catastrophes currently facing us. The only way to ensure the latter choice is by changing culture through persuasive argument and convincing the majority of humans on our planet that a culture promoting wanton destruction of our planet in order to support a materialistic culture for a minority of inhabitants will lead to misery for the rest of us. I believe a search for an “ultimate truth” revealing the “real value” of our environmental resources is a fruitless and ultimately wasteful endeavor.

The problem with Daly and most ecological economists is not that they don’t feel strongly about the need to change the direction of our economy through reforming how economists think about valuation. The problem is they think, like scientists about truth, that a valuation criterion still exists out there in the real world somewhere and the economist’s job is to discover what this objective measure is and where it is at. In addition, ecological economists follow the example of others in scientific circles believing truth is discovered and not made through inter-subjective agreement among humans. This is a problem because, instead of using all means of persuasion available for changing culture around the world from aims toward consumerism and rising GDPs to one promoting an ethic of stewardship, ecological economists wish to replace neoclassical economics as the only game in town by discovering the one and only ultimate end which they propose falls under the rubric called ecological economics.

We would be better served if we realized price is a human creation but value is unknowable. Value defies scientific thought and is impossible to model accurately no matter what economic system we create. We need to rely on ethics and morality as the means for valuing natural resources. Accounting for them in a national accounting system will never provide the protections we need for the world we live in. Such an accounting system may have some desirable effects, but it is bound to have flaws which can be exploited by savvy entrepreneurs in search of profits.

What we should be striving for is not an amalgamation of economics with ecology, but rather the reduction of the role economists play in policy making and a greater emphasis upon the role ecologists, artists, novelist, poets and communities make in policy decisions. Both ecologists and economists need to open up their ears to the opinions and arguments of all members of the human race, rather than beseeching some to “remain silent.”