COSMIC VIRTUE – PART X – SCIENCE – OVERVIEW

Of course, scientists have been told to be socially responsible. Of course, I think society should be scientifically responsible as well.” – Sydney Brenner, Nobel Laureate in Medicine, 2002.

 

In this section, we have been exploring virtue, the first of four critical features of a meaningful life. Virtue manifests at five levels: oneself, others, society in general, the cosmic, and the ultimate. We have reached the area of cosmic virtue which I divide into two domains – Nature and Science. We have just completed analysis of the two subdivisions of Nature, animals and the physical environment. Now we will delve into the less tangible cosmic realm – science – especially physics and cosmology which study the smallest and largest aspects of physical reality. My goal in the coming essays is to define virtue or ‘human excellence’ in regards to science and the cosmos.

Virtue at this level seems to fall into four general categories. First one must investigate the methods and data of science in sufficient detail to accept the model in general and specific conclusions so derived. In other words, skepticism is permissible in the search for truth, but not as an excuse for denial of reasonable and generally accepted deductions. Second one must challenge and reject ‘pseudoscience.’ For example, astrology appears scientific, but is in fact completely speculative while astronomy is based on advanced tools and careful data collection. Third is the ethical use of science; this ultimate tool of good can easily be manipulated to serve dubious or evil purposes. Consider nuclear physics which can serve the potential good of an alternative form of energy or be used to create nuclear weapons which can kill millions. Last is the immersing of oneself in the cosmos itself – recognizing the place one occupies within it, the unfolding trajectory of the universe, and its ultimate meaning.

The following posts will examine in more detail these four categories starting with the appropriate attitude to scientific inquiry and conclusions.

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COSMIC VIRTUE & NATURE – PART IX – SYNTHESIS ON ENVIRONMENT (final)

We continue here specific guidelines of virtue on segments of the environment .

LAND

“The physicochemical conditions prevailing on the crust of the Earth are ideally suited – and perhaps uniquely so – for the emergence and maintenance of life.”6 However the picture is complex as organisms are both transformed by the environment and transform it, a fact particularly applicable to humans and our civilized spaces. What makes humans unique is our unfortunate tendency to sacrifice environmental quality for short-term rewards. But this does not make us immune to the powerful governing influence the environment exerts on our character and lives. Most ancient people empirically determined that human well-being depends on “ways of life in harmony with the natural world.”7 One noteworthy example is the oldest known Chinese medical text of the Yellow Emperor which states, “Live in accordance with the laws of the seasons.”7

There are four basic subtopics within the physical environment.

Soil. Humans are responsible for soil degradation, erosion, and toxic waste. There are many well-established and practical means to reverse soil deterioration including composting, use of natural fertilizers, avoidance of pesticides and herbicides, and sustainable agriculture. The virtuous person will be an agent for soil preservation and protection through exemplary conduct.

Non-fuel Minerals. Minerals are vital to industrialized societies, but are a finite resource. The mining and processing of minerals is destructive to terrains and contributes to air and water pollution. Thus recycling and self-control in purchase of finished goods are critical ethical measures the individual must consider in the interest of ecological ends.

Energy sources. Coal, oil, and natural gas are the results of millions of years of geological forces on organic materials. These irreplaceable sources of energy must be conserved as possible for future human needs and because too rapid use likely is a factor in climate change. Virtue involves increasing renewable energy use and avoidance of waste.

Territory. Man’s late arrival to the history of Earth tells us of the immense organization which preceded us, the transformation of organic and organic materials by various forms of life, and the interdependence of various species in a seamless web of life. We know for example that predators inhabit specific ranges and that differing species work different components of the bounty of living things leading to a natural ‘steady state.’8 Terrains as varied as desert, rain forest, and prairie are spaces where these steady states arise and sources of natural beauty that belong to all life present and future. Virtue entails curtailing the growth of human space when they threaten endangered species habitat and irreplaceable aesthetic landscapes.

In closing, the bar is high when we come to virtue in the setting of the environment, perhaps higher than any of us can hope to reach. Still a meaningful life can be poisoned by cosmic guilt should we neglect reasonable actions which safeguard our home planet, Mother Earth.

Next time we look at the last component of cosmic virtue – our approach to science and the universe itself.

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6Dubos, René, Environment in Wiener, Philip P. (editor), Dictionary of the History of Ideas Volume II, Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York, 1973. ISBN 684-16423-X, page 121.

7Ibid., page 122.

8Sears, Paul, B., Life and the World It Lives In, in Haydn, Hiram and Saunders, Betsy (editors), The American Scholar Reader, New York Atheneum Publishers, New York, 1960. Pages 228-235.

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COSMIC VIRTUE & NATURE – PART IX – SYNTHESIS ON ENVIRONMENT (continued)

We come now to more specific guidelines on features of the environment.

ATMOSPHERE

“The atmosphere is that dynamic sea of air that bathes all living things and affects their survival.”2 It has two vital layers: the troposphere with its vital balance of oxygen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide, and water vapor; and the stratosphere with its protective layer of ozone.3 Add to this the feature of temperature where a change of a few degrees (as is occurring due to the ‘greenhouse effect’) has a profound effect on living things. Human influence includes ‘Brown Haze’ (as opposed to natural “Blue Haze” and ‘Gray Haze’) or air pollution – noxious gas and particles resulting from industrialization, that obstruct sunlight, coat rain droplets, and are inhaled by animals.4 Changes in atmosphere can be due to natural phenomena such as volcano eruptions and natural forest fires, but in general natural changes occur at a slow geologic pace which allows animal and plant evolutionary adaptation. Human effects occur more rapidly and do not permit gradual adjustments by living things.

Virtue here focuses on the axiom that diversity of life is a good, thus we must protect nature’s diversity by limiting our contribution to these changes (i.e. purchasing electrical vehicles and avoiding fluorocarbon products known to be major factors in the greenhouse effect and depletion of the ozone layer) and supporting social policy that protects the atmosphere.

WATER

“That we live on land is, in the grander scheme of things, best regarded as an anomaly or even an eccentricity- albeit with sound evolutionary justification. The story of life is, if we retain a true sense of proportion, a story of life at sea.”5. Life began in water, and cannot exist without it and even today perhaps 90% of living things live in water.

Salt Water: The most important issue is overfishing which has led to a 90% reduction in some edible predatory fish like cod and tuna and forced commercial fisheries to “fish down the food chain”.  Some previously abundant species are now endangered. Humans have become the apex predator of the ocean. Meanwhile tropical coral reefs around the world are being depleted by runoff from terrestrial farming, deforestation, pollution, climate change, and dynamiting.

Fresh Water: Only 3% of all the water on Earth is fresh water of which 77% is frozen in the polar ice caps. Here is a dual problem: habitat reduction for fresh water species and danger to humans from unclean and falling water supplies. Increasing human demand is depleting vital ground water and causing rivers such as the Rio Grande and Colorado to nearly dry up. Fresh water was once considered an unlimited resource, but population growth and livestock and crop needs threaten the supply while sold and toxic wastes jeopardize water safety.

The virtuous course for us as individuals is water conservation (e.g. not running a faucet while brushing teeth) and personal responsibility for contaminants (choice of laundry detergent or weed killers for example). Lists of practical measures one can take are available on a simple Google search. In addition each of us must support appropriate social policy even when that entails sacrifice.

(further continued)

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2Schaefer, Vincent J. and Day, John A., Atmosphere (Peterson Field Guides). Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York, 1981. ISBN 0-395-97631-6, page vii.

3Ibid., page 1.

4Ibid., pages 5-9.

5Quote by Philip Ball in his Biography of Water. See Ellis, Richard, Aquagenesis: The Origin and Evolution of Life at Sea.Viking (Penguin Group), New York, 2001. ISBN 0-670-03023-6. Page 1.

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COSMIC VIRTUE AND NATURE – PART IX – SYNTHESIS ON ENVIRONMENT

“We are living beyond our means. As a people we have developed a life-style that is draining the earth of its priceless and irreplaceable resources without regard for the future of our children and people all around the world.” – Margaret Mead, Cultural Anthropolgist

 

During our investigation of cosmic virtue as a feature of the meaningful life, last time we identified 5 guidelines with respect to planet Earth: (1) treat Nature as an ecosystem, (2) consider humans (and animals as possible) as ends not means, (3) observe and study Nature multi-dimensionally, including through symbols, the witness of elders, and science, (4) consume natural products as possible, and (5) overcome alienation from Nature by frequent exposure. The next step is to list some fundamental principles of greatest certainty regarding the environment.

  1. The Earth today is the result of over 4 billion years of geological processes.
  2. Geological changes are slow by comparison to a human lifespan.
  3. The terrestrial and marine areas of Earth are finite.
  4. Land is the habitat of plants and air-breathing animals and bodies of water the habitat of fish, some air-breathing animals and plants.
  5. Breathable air is essential to land animal life.
  6. Clean water is essential to fish and other marine species.
  7. Mineral resources are ultimately limited.
  8. The Earth is the only known planet capable of supporting life.
  9. Landscapes are a source of beauty for current and future generations.
  10. Human actions have effects on the Earth, some of which are potentially catastrophic.

Mixing these guidelines with the axioms and principles developed in an earlier blog1 on virtue regarding animals, we now have the building blocks necessary for a personal philosophy of virtuous conduct with respect to the environment. A few key items from the list of axioms of the Universe bear repeating. First the trajectory of the universe is an increase in complexity and life is the most compact complexity known by us. Second the value of individual parts of the universe is directly proportional to their contribution to the trajectory of the universe. Third all things being equal, a larger number of species of animals is superior to a fewer number. And fourth natural ethics for humans is founded on net benefit of good over evil in actions combined with a few categorical imperatives.

(continued next post)

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COSMIC VIRTUE AND NATURE – PART VIII – SYNOPSIS ON ENVIRONMENT

Like it or not, we humans are bound up with our fellows, and with the other plants and animals all over the world. Our lives are intertwined. If we are not graced with an instinctive knowledge of how to make our technological world a safe and balanced ecosystem, we must figure out how to do it.” – Carl Sagan, Billions and Billions.

I have divided cosmic virtue into two main theatres – Nature and Science; and further divided Nature into (1) animal considerations and (2) responsibility to the environment (or Mother Earth). I formulated an ethical approach to animals in earlier blogs1 and now begin a synthesis on the environment by integrating what we discovered in the last five posts on land ethic, Christian creation care, and the wisdom of native peoples.

First an ethical approach must treat Nature in its innate form, that is, as a series of interconnected ecosystems. Virtue then will require a holistic attitude to the Earth, balancing a multitude of consequences of human actions. While there can be no shortcuts here, environmentalists need to recognize there can be no ethical duty when there are insufficient facts to guide action. Thus recycling may not be a categorical imperative when one cannot be sure whether the process itself creates more environmental harm than deposition in a landfill does. Ethical behavior depends on an evidence-based analysis, not personal opinions, for a final verdict.

Second the Christian humanist is correct in pointing out that humans must be treated as ends not means and thus the needs of people (as well as animals) are a significant factor in environmental decisions. The virtuous course may be uncertain or at least debatable. For example forced reductions in human fertility may be evil when used as a means to limit population even if intended for the worthy purpose of allowing animal species diversity.

Third the virtuous individual will learn from Nature by direct observation and through science. Since language is symbolic and human understanding is enriched by myth, it follows that symbols in Nature and the lore of the elders and of the great spiritualist tradition can enlarge our world view.

Fourth, if Nature is the arbiter of rightness, then strong arguments can be made that humans, as creatures of Nature, ought to procure food in as natural a way as possible consistent with other human purposes. Even food animals must be treated ethically and thus factory farming should be minimized. Moreover we should consume natural and ‘organic’ foods rather than chemically or genetically modified products when possible.

Last if ‘the good’ includes what furthers Nature, the Earth, and the Universe, than human alienation from Nature is an evil that must be overcome. Frequent exposure to natural environments are a remedy for the indifference that underlies our degradation of the environment.

Using these basic guidelines, we are ready for our synthesis on environmental virtue which is the subject of the next post.

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1See posts this site dated 3/12/21, 3/15/21, 3/17/21, 3/19/21, and 3/22/21.

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COSMIC VIRTUE AND NATURE – PART VII – NATIVE AMERICAN VIEW (continued)

Having diagnosed the diseased ethic of Western society vis a vis Nature, the indigenous American peoples offer a therapeutic approach which McGaa calls Nature’s Way, a spiritual path that relieves our alienation and leads to our conservation of the environment and honoring of Nature. It consists of two parts: (1) learning from the habits and aptitudes of animals and (2) defeat of the Blue Man or self-interested humanity.

The first part entails respect for Wamakaskan or the animal world. Native peoples believe the Creator favors diversity and that animals are our peers. Animals are entirely truthful in their consistent practices especially in their avoidance of overpopulation and as such serve as symbols of virtue. For example, the eagle with its superb vision and lofty realm make it the great observer of nature. Humans can extract from that model a pattern of heightened observation by increasing exposure of our senses to nature, from the wisdom of the elders, and even from the study of science. McGaa posits other animal symbols including: the bear, the lion, the wolf, the orca, the owl, and the tiger which symbolize preservation, balance, the one among many, intuition, seeking of truth, and striving for freedom respectively.

The second part of Nature’s Way is the transformation of the Blue Man (self-interested humanity), and his ‘four horses’ or threats to Mother Earth as envisioned by Black Elk. Again using symbols McGaa chooses the cottonwood treat for the yellow horse or heat and climate change, the deer for the black horse or thinning of the atmosphere (the ozone layer), the buffalo for the white horse or ‘gone’ as in overexploitation and species extinction, and the rat for the red horse or the ‘too many’ meaning human overpopulation. The red horse seems to be key; he notes the Iroquois have a saying, “The frog does not drink up the pond in which it lives.”8 Can the same be said for us?

The philosophy of native peoples is full of metaphor and primitive wisdom not unlike Eastern philosophy. However it adds a powerful message of man’s place within Nature and of his responsibility to align his interests with those of all living things and the Earth. As John Trudell, Santee Sioux, tells us: “We must go beyond the arrogance of human rights. We must go beyond the ignorance of civil rights. We must step into the reality of natural rights because all the natural world has a right to existence. We are only a small part of it. There can be no trade-off.”9

Next time I will try to bring together the principles of land ethic, Christian creation care, and native American wisdom into a program of virtuous relationship with Nature and the environment.

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8McGaa., page 255.

9Cleary, page 19.

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