Calls for urgent climate action and a shift to global sustainability are multiplying fast in the infosphere. While the most common argument made is for human survival there are others such as economic and aesthetic ones. This article presents the case for the ecological civilization based on the nature of sense experience which displays a fundamental desire for consistency, coherence and comfort. A philosophical examination of this desire leads directly to the vision of total global sustainability. Modern thinking takes sense experience to be the ultimate source of truth, dismissing the previously recognized spiritual and intuitive sources as superstitious or nonexistent. Despite the limitations of Anglo-American empiricism and Continental phenomenology I adhere to their methods as I explore sense experience, considering it strictly as experience.
I open my eyes and I see a panorama of colored shapes. At the near edge I see the images of my hands and my legs in front of me. I also have the sensation of my body touching my chair. Taking my experience as a whole I find that my experience isn’t in my body, but rather that my body is in my experience.
I can look at the whole scene or I can focus my gaze on one object in it – the hanging basket, for example. When I look at it specifically I see it distinctly, with objects around it appearing less distinctly as a background. I can look at a lamp in the same way, seeing it distinctly against a less distinct background. Then I look specifically at the shade. Now it is most distinct while the base is less so. In this way I see the shade as part of the lamp. While I can only see the hanging basket as a distinct whole object and not as a part of anything else, I cannot see the lamp shade in any other way but as part of the lamp unless it is removed and set apart from the base. My perception defines objects depending on where I focus my attention, with contents compelling me to see them as whole objects or parts of whole objects.
My experience also has a temporal dimension. Strictly speaking it is only in the present which is a brief interval rather than an instant. It is, however, continuous and reveals a desire for consistency. For as I sit in my room I feel comfortable that the image of it and everything in it will remain constant. I would feel sudden discomfort if there were an earthquake tremor or the power went out. At the same time I expect to experience certain changes. When I put my dough in the oven I expect to see a baked loaf an hour later. If then it’s still raw dough I’m uncomfortably surprised.
Experience includes the five senses plus emotions and non-sensory mental phenomena. An extremely important kind of experience is language which is heard or seen as written figures. What makes language meaningful? I see some words on a screen, and I hear myself saying, “Zebra.” “Pen.” “Drive.” Sky.” They are so many separate words. Then I see and say, “Today is Monday, March 22.” This is a sentence which I see as a continuous whole image and which I hear myself say as a continuous whole sound. It is meaningful in virtue of its sensory unity, while the first set of words is meaningless in virtue of its sensory disunity. That is to say, the sentence is coherent while the separate words are incoherent. The first satisfies my desire for coherence, and the second doesn’t. In addition words have definitions. If I see a round red object with the word “apple” beside it I feel comfortable. Seeing the word “orange” there makes me uncomfortable.
These basic observations could be expanded to apply to all experience: some contents are experienced separately and others as parts of unitary wholes. Moreover experience is loaded, so to speak, with expectations for contemporaneous and sequential contents, reflecting desire for consistency and coherence. This explains why custom, culture and technology exist in human life.
I don’t feel the desire for consistency and coherence. It is only revealed in feelings of fulfilled or frustrated expectations. Other kinds of desire are experienced as feelings. These include hunger and thirst, which are felt as sensations in the body and are satisfied by consuming food and drink. Some feelings are painful or pleasurable, and not all, like hunger and thirst, are desires. Excessive cold and heat are painful, while warming and cooling relief are pleasurable. The feelings I have mentioned relate to survival, and although personal death is not an object of experience for anyone, the painful fear of death is a salient emotion. Experience as a whole tends to revolve around experiences related to survival.
Certain experiences involve exceptional degrees of coherence. A sentence is a whole with a certain meaning, and it is composed of words which have separate individual meanings. A true work of art is not such a collection of parts, not even a poem. The parts are indivisible with the whole, and it inspires a sense of beauty. A landscape may be seen as a beautiful composition and further inspire a sense of awe or wonder. Having a lesser degree of coherence, beautiful or wondrous organisms may be seen as wholes and their parts specifically as parts of their wholes but never as separate and distinct objects. This is also true for organic communities formed by schools of fish, flocks of birds, herds of mammals and intact ecosystems. Organic parts can only be perceived as separate and distinct insofar as they are viewed in some other respect. Examples are a tree branch viewed as a prong on which to hang a bird feeder or as the support for a bird’s nest. Beauty, wonder and awe have opposites – the feelings of repulsion, horror and shock inspired by things such as corpses and scenes of catastrophe as well as marked discord.
An incredible amount of experience at present consists of information. Instead of tackling its overwhelming volume and complexity I reduce it all to the matter of coherence. A sentence I comprehend is read or heard as a whole. One I don’t understand is not experienced as a whole, but rather as separate bits. I see the words on the page; I understand some of them, but I don’t see them all fitting together. In addition, there is the matter of truth and falsity. Either I see the round red image fitting with the word beside it, making the label true, or I don’t, making it false. All of understanding boils down to comprehending linguistic objects rather than being boggled by them and finding that they fit with their correlated nonlinguistic and linguistic objects.
The totality of sense experience consists of perceptions, emotions and linguistic phenomena, all underlain by desire for consistency and coherence. A total experience may be concentrated on content related to bodily survival. It may also be “low-information” or laden with nonfactual or false information. The former kind is impoverished, for there can be so much more that enriches it and brings pleasure. The latter kinds are dangers to themselves, setting the stage for painful reality checks, because resistance to cognitive dissonance only goes so far. Catastrophic impacts from climate change, zoonotic pandemic and global economic non-sustainability are perfectly realistic expectations now.
Experience’s desires for consistency, coherence and comfort are satisfied by the global plan for degrowth and establishing largely self-reliant and sustainable local economies that conserve the environment to which I referred in Change the Dominant Idea . One of its principal virtues is that it creates human communities – living wholes of which each person is an organic part. Today human “communities” are commonly no more unities than random words on a sheet of paper. Virtually all that the separate items share are places – in the case of the town a geographic space and in that of the words the page. Further, participatory democracy in living communities enhances not only everyone’s life and freedom but also their experience. If my experience were set in the ideal community I would perceive my body performing maximum service to myself, my community and the earth.
Another emotion that belongs to experience is moral satisfaction or pleasure, of which the proposed experience would provide plenty. Like other varieties of pleasure, it has some opposites – the painful feelings of shame and guilt. Achieving the ideal experience with its pleasures would prevent these painful feelings and many others that are expected to accompany its non achievement.
According to strict empiricism and phenomenology experience is all there is. It follows that a person should want theirs to be the best possible. Everyone in fact does, regardless of their philosophy. I will add that the two interpretations reduce language to nothing but sounds and figures on paper that have correlations with images of objects and other such sounds and figures. This makes beauty, harmony and joy supreme, an insight which Beethoven acknowledged in the words “Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy.”
This article is a digest of my essay The Ecological Inclination .