How is the Earth Given to Us. Part 1: Givenness.
apologies in advance for a particularly dense essay 🙏🏾
Table of Contents
Beyond IS and OUGHT
If you watch or read the news regularly, you'll see climate change and ecological collapse covered in one of two fashions:
1) As a natural phenomenon that just ‘occurs'- so much carbon, so many species, so much acidity and so on. Lets call this approach "ISism" since it privileges the way the world IS.
Thanks for reading my newsletter! Subscribe to receive new posts in your inbox.
2) As a moral phenomenon that ought not to occur or should be prevented from occurring, so that we have to do what it takes to keep temperature rise below 1.5c. Lets call this approach 'OUGHTism' since it privileges the way the world OUGHT to be.
This essay started with a question: is there any system of knowing the Earth that's beyond ISism and OUGHTism?
The first alternative that comes to mind is fiction (and art' in general), but I'm not ready to call art a system of knowledge- not everything has to be 'knowledge'! - so we cant call off our search quite yet.
Hypothesis: our detective work will pass through the GIVEN. What is the GIVEN?
Introducing the GIVEN
There are many ways in which the world is GIVEN to us. Here are two:
When you open your eyes, a scene is given to you. We take this scene to be a truthful description of the world around us and any inferences you make about the world (such as seeing the snow on the ground and the hearing of scraping noises as indicative of a neighbor shoveling the snow on the sidewalk) take the given scene as the starting point.
In this case, the given is the foundation for other cognitive acts. If you believe the neighbor needs help, you might walk out of your house with a shovel in hand. But the given doesn’t always have to be treated as an entity deserving great respect. Consider a word problem in school. A typical problem statement might go thus:
Rajesh has a small farm. He wants to grow some rice and some vegetables. Rice will fetch him 5 rupees/ kilo but the buyer is willing to drive to his doorstep and pick up the rice; meanwhile vegetables will fetch him 23 rupees/kilo, but Rajesh will have to pay for transporting them to the market. Transporting the first five kiloes of vegetables cost Rajesh 10 rupees/kilo but then on it will cost him an additional 2 rupees for each five he adds to the total (so that the second five kiloes will cost him 7 rupees/kilo and so on). How much Rice and Vegetables should Rajesh grow to maximize his income?
In this situation, the cost of transportation and the sale price of Rice/Veg are given and our eager learner has to solve for the best possible outcomes based on those givens. However, the given here is completely made up and while it has to be taken seriously within the world of the problem (just as chess moves have to obey the rules of chess (the GIVEN in a chess game!) the given is given to us as a made up contrivance.
The same goes for a dream - if you didn’t help your neighbor out, your guilt would be a lot less upon waking up from a dream than doing it in reality. The precise manner in which the given is GIVEN is important. But in both cases, the given supports inferences and prompts actions. We need a trustworthy starting point before we can analyze and theorize. That starting point can be ‘data,’ ‘perceptual experience,’ ‘the word of god’ or ‘the rules of the game’ but we need something we can trust to be the starting point of our engagement with the world.
What are the origins of that trust? From where do we get our trust in the rules of chess?
Hint for the future: we take the earth - the ground beneath our feet - as a given even if it gives way during an earthquake. And for a fish, water might be the given precisely because it gives way, just as the air does for us. Many traditions started with a taxonomy of five or seven elements that make up matter - earth, water, fire, air, wood, for example - these are all material GIVENs.
Note how the GIVEN proliferates its roles: it’s noun, verb, adjective and adverb. It presents itself in experience and makes a material impact.
The Human GIVEN
One of Wilfrid Sellars’ main contribution to contemporary philosophy is what’s called the ‘Myth of the Given’ where he questions whether the given is unassailable and preconceptual. Once we accept that the given is ‘constructed’ the door opens to a very rich exploration of how the given comes to be the way it is.
We can then ask how the human mind is an active contributor to the given rather than a passive recipient of the world as it is (which is the Kantian project of which Sellars is an inheritor), but we can also go out of the mind into the world and ask what forces make the world be given to us the way it is? Further, why assume the influence is one way: if the mind is an active contributor to the givenness of the world, what if the world shapes how the mind is given to others and to itself?
This mutual givenness of the subject and the object is particularly important in the Anthropocene which, after all, is the era in which the earth as a whole is given to humans (but not as a gift!) and we are given to the earth and to ourselves. I might even go as far as to say: the Anthropocene is the era in which the human is the central given on this planet, the ‘hub’ given out of which all other spoke givens radiate outward.
Consider how the Anthropocene made its way into planetary history. While it has many starting points and 1492 is often taken to be a good signpost, 1945 is the best starting point since it inaugurates humanity’s capacity to end all life on earth. Soon after which we see the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
The UDHR was discussed at the UN Commission on Human Rights in 1947, 1948 and 1949. It was adopted by the General Assembly on 10 December 1948. The UDHR was framed as a consequence of the experience of the Second World War — The UDHR was adopted by the newly established United Nations on 10 December 1948, in response to the “barbarous acts which […] outraged the conscience of mankind” during the Second World War.
Going back to last week’s discussion of the Cold War 👆🏾, it’s not surprising that the tussle was between rivals who took a universal approach to humanity - at least in principle - and were both signatories to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We understand the backward-facing nature of the declaration. It was done just after WWII and the Holocaust. But what’s missing in most analyses is the forward-facing nature of the declaration:
Humanity was given to itself as humanity at the very moment that humanity became capable of destroying all life on earth and has ever since been living under that sword.
Human self-givenness is one circle of the same dynamic that also delivers the givenness of the earth. Both of these, in turn, are products of cybernetic systems that continue to extend their control over the lives of all beings.
This cybernetic tapestry runs through the cold war, globalization, the climate crisis, the computing revolution, the cognitive sciences and the genetic revolution.
These modes of givenness aren’t reducible to one another - how football players negotiate the givenness of the rules of the game isn’t the same as the way they negotiate jumping at the ball near the goal, but there’s a clear resemblance between the two and we can leave it at that.