Published September 2017
Ill.: Art by Anish Kapoor
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The final philosophical question

by Erland Kiøsterud


The role of science is to uncover all that is considered factual about the world, and to describe this. Through the use of controlled, demarcated and verifiable experiments, science discovers an item’s weight, a molecule’s traits, the way electricity works, how a planted gene functions in a foreign organism, and so forth. The more complex the systems investigated by science, the more unreliable it becomes. By its mere nature, science depends on stable, transparent and verifiable conditions, in order for the experiment to be repeated and verified.

This demand for method, unfortunately makes for a limited science. It is impossible to perform tests that can be repeated, checked and controlled on life itself, using Earth as biotope. Life within the biosphere – evolution – develops irreversibly. Being part of it, we are unable to completely comprehend it: something unknown will always pop up, another unexpected occurrence. We are ourselves such an event.

The biosphere consists of all organic and inorganic life forms on Earth. This include the effects of our sciences and our own explosive growth. It is an intricately composed entity where everything develops through mutual impact. When life eludes science, when it cannot be grasped by it, it is due to science being a subordinate part of Earth’s life. Our only options to understand life are through narration, philosophy. By the use of philosophy, humans try to find the correct way to understand the world, how it can be made sense of and what should be applied; how we are to live within and alongside the biosphere, from our understanding of it.

Philosophers draft descriptions of our biotope and recommend how to exist therein, and how we ought to live with and within this, our world. These descriptions, our world vision, constantly change. For the longest time, our experiences indicated that absolutely everything possessed life and soul. Plato, in his quest for stability, considered the world an imperfect imprint of an ideal, invisible realm. Christians allowed a permanent, almighty God to create Earth – and happiness. Whilst modern man swapped God for the individual and the dream of happiness with eternal growth.

The last five hundred years, philosophy has increasingly turned towards the actual world and its phenomena. It now boasts a closer connection with reality. Philosophers have tried to completely letting go of lofty ideas in a bid to better describe the world as it appears, as it is sensed and experienced. Science’s fact-based reality orientation played a crucial role in this development.

Today, we know almost everything about ourselves and our life on Earth. We even understand life's random genesis. No longer do we speculate about the reasons we are here, nor do we pose the big questions. The metaphysical ideas have ‘flattened out.’ Philosophers have, based on science, started to describe the world as it is, and how best to exist within it. Many feel that, this way, philosophy is nearing its own demise. One final philosophical questions needs to be answered before we can shut down philosophy and concentrate on life practices. The answer to this, the final query – if it indeed has an answer – will direct our understanding of what is and what is not, what applies and what does not apply: how to live.

How will humans be able to go from their violent dream of sovereignty and infinity to being able to live with its own and the biotope’s finiteness?

The fact that this question has surfaced in the last fifty-sixty years, is mainly due to two things: the growth of technologies making it possible to exploit our habitat more than it can withstand and to commit mass murder – humans have already irreversibly changed the Earth’s geological and biological future. An extension of this is a new understanding of – new insight into humans’ extermination of peoples, species and nature. We now know what it is all about, the obvious has been revealed. Earth has restricted space with limited resources, and one person is not worth more than someone else, one group of people has no more right to exist than another.

No longer are we able to, as we have done hitherto, justify exterminations and murder of other people, other species. We have a problem.

In a short amount of time, Homo Sapiens became seven billion individuals. We are everywhere. Only now do we truly see the massive violence we as a species directly and structurally have exerted, and continue to exercise. There is nowhere to go for those who want to start over. Everywhere is occupied. There is valuable life everywhere.

For the very first time in history, is the question of violence in the biosphere asked in all its totality. The question has earlier been asked on an individual level: Buddha’s answer to the problem of violence was terminating desire and letting the world flow freely through the desire-less human; Christ answered by loving the outcasts and turning his cheek to the rain of punches. However, violence as a problem of the biotope was never posed until now.

The final outstanding philosophical question is this: How can two different organisms, two separate species or groups come together, without one of these radically changing or being eradicated by the other; how am I able to live without excluding, or kill other valuable lifeforms? How do I become myself without excluding you, your life and your ideas? How is my culture able to continue without destroying other smaller or larger cultures? In other words: How do we create justice?

During the interwar period, Jewish Marxist Walter Benjamin studied the written works of German Nazi and lawyer Carl Schmitt, to understand the role and nature of violence in the world. Schmitt opined that it would always be a person – the sovereign – who solves the crises by residing over violence. Benjamin answered that only a wide, populistic general strike will end the violent state and change the logic of violence.

Do we yet again have to provide nature with its own ‘spiritual’ life to re-enter a respectful dialogue with it? or do we have to reintroduce the sacred in a bid to become wise?

Simone Weil worked on the nature of violence, simultaneously with Benjamin. Weil felt that the problem was the Western ego with its large personality and exclusive rights; personality must be stripped down to naked life and form part of the work for justice for all, she said. At the end of last century, due to the European Holocaust, Emmanuel Lévinas and Michel Foucault posed the question of violence with renewed power and weight.

As the massive violence humans exert directly and indirectly towards nature became evident to us in this, our century, violence became the main issue of philosophy.

In USA, thinkers including Cora Diamond, Marc Bekoff, Donna Haraway and Cary Wolfe position our relationship to animals in new perspectives: animals are as sensitive as we are. In Australia, Deborah Bird Rose and Freya Mathews investigate new forms of cohabitating with the vulnerable nature – in the countryside as well as in the cities. Whilst the Dutch Tim Ingold and David Abram research the sentient human animal with its alert movements hunting food and experiences. German Peter Sloterdijk has developed an understanding of our cultural forming as the human body’s extended immune system against potential enemies, and asks how the various immune systems are able to coexist.

Italian Roberto Esposito, another ‘immunologist’, asks who this command in our heads is who states that another part of us is an animal requiring discipline. He investigates what happens when the biological body’s need for immunity becomes the starting point for politics, as it was during the Nazi period, and today. Esposito searches for alternatives to what a human can be. In his large work Homo Sacer, fellow Italian Giorgio Agamben uses a magnifying glass to look for alternatives within our history, and investigates strategies for successfully evading violent power and dominance, and win freedom. All the while, the French François Laruelle puts an end to all the philosophies’ world descriptions, deeming them equal reality drafts, then proceeds to describe the world entirely from the stance and experience of victim’s, the outcast’s and the voice-less’.

From their very differing viewpoints, they all circle one question: how can you and I live without excluding another valuable life – how can life live alongside itself on Earth? How will humans be able to go from their violent dream of sovereignty and infinity to being able to live with its own and the biotope’s finiteness? There are no simple answers, this conversation has barely started. They do, however, agree on one thing: It is as separated from life, from nature – as disconnected from our origins, ourselves, that we are able to destroy our own basis for existence. How did we become so blind? And how are we able to reconnect with nature, including our own – how will we again be able to listen to and collaborate with our origins, co-exist with nature, without destroying it, as well as each other?

Do we yet again have to provide nature with its own ‘spiritual’ life to re-enter into a respectful dialogue with it? Or do we have to reintroduce the sacred in a bid to become wise? Only time with tell. Technology will help us. However, technology is worthless, even dangerous, until we have developed a finely tunes sensitivity – until we have, with our entire beings re-joined, reconnected, to our basis of existence. How will we regain our sight?

The Greek Thyestes seduced the wife of his brother Atreus. Atreus sought revenge by killing Thyestes’ children and serving him them for dinner. Precisely the way Gudrun in the ancient Voldsunge saga served King Atle their joint children for dinner. They enjoyed the food. Only after Thyestes and Atle were told that they had just devoured their own children, did they feel sickened and reacted. As this unfolded, the sun is said to have changed direction in pure disgust.

We are, at our base, innocents. We are unable to see our mistakes until we are told, until we acquire knowledge of these. Many perpetrators and abusers have themselves suffered violence and abuse, they see it as normal. A perpetrator must learn that what he is doing is wrong.

Our destruction of nature has finally dawned on us. We are faced with philosophy’s final question. How can we live without destroying life itself?

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