There is a growing awareness that the natural world cannot sustain modern civilization in its present form. Humanity must change if the whole chain of life is to continue living on Earth. A plausible solution for the persistent problems caused by modern economic, scientific, and political applications cannot be achieved merely by using better engineering or more advanced technology so long as we are bounded by the limits of our modern philosophical underpinnings. The conflict between man and nature has reached an impasse, and resolution seems impossible within the dominant paradigm; the roots of this stalemate are linked to the very assumptions of the modern worldview. A radical transformation is needed and a very important first step is to discover and reconsider the root causes of our predicament.
This article examines the philosophical underpinnings of modern humanity’s problematic relation with the bio-physical environment. These views, many critics say, suffer from anthropocentrism and dualism. After establishing these problematic viewpoints, I will turn to investigate nondualism, an alternative mode of thinking mostly promoted by religious traditions, which I believe can help us transcend the predicaments of the contemporary man-nature relationship.
Anthropocentrism and dualism
Modern humankind is anthropocentric. The centralization of humanity, accompanied by an ontological hubris, leads to the prioritization of humanity’s needs and pleasures. This justifies the transformation of the Earth into a titanic factory that supplies security and pleasure for humankind whilst destroying the biosphere.
There is another problematic aspect of anthropocentrism as it pertains to ethics in general and environmental ethics in particular. Ethical relativism seems to be the logical conclusion of human-centeredness. When an individual human being becomes the center of the world. subjectivity reigns, because there are as many “centers” as there are cognizant humans. Here, vulgar forms of ethical relativism emerge.
Can we transcend this predicament? Different forms of Kantian ethics and utilitarianism tried to rescue anthropocentrism from this self-destruction. They wanted to establish anthropocentrism without ethical relativism and skepticism. Retrospectively, as postmodern criticism has compellingly argued, it is difficult to say we were able to avoid the tension between anthropocentrism and ethical objectivity. On such a ground it is very difficult to establish an all-encompassing ethos regulating our relationship to nature. If, as a species, we need to relate ourselves to nature in a constructive way, then this degree of subjectivity seems pernicious.
As postmodernist and existentialist epistemologies argue, we inevitably interpret the world by extrapolating from ourselves. All of our cognitive activities intermingle with surrounding structures (political, economic, linguistic), rendering us subjective beings. It seems like as a species we are bound to remain anthropocentric. I do not think anthropocentrism is a bad thing, per se. The centralization of humanity could actually be a constructive power if it is accompanied by a sense of responsibility and humility. What makes anthropocentrism extremely dangerous is its alliance with another philosophical underpinning of Western thought: dualism.
The blend of anthropocentrism and dualism, in other words dualistic-anthropocentrism, is what nurtures an ethics of exploitation of nature. A dualistic conceptualization of existence poses several problems which directly influence our attitude towards nature.
First of all, dualist ontologies and epistemologies envisage a rupture between the two ends of the dichotomies. This leads to an ontological and epistemological alienation of man from both nature (res extensa) and other human beings – or other minds. It not only isolates humans from their surrounding environment, but also distances them on a vertical plane. The very nature of thinking in terms of binary oppositions leads to a hierarchy between parts of any dichotomy. Therefore, those possessing privileged properties (man, reason, male) can easily justify envisaging themselves as having the right to dominate those possessing what are perceived as inferior properties (nature, intuition, female). This mode of thinking, I believe, constitutes the subconscious of modern humanity as it deals with nature. It paves the way for the exploitation of nature and its resources.
Secondly, a dualistic categorization of existence is a mental construction, an abstraction. There is enough reason to suspect that this mental construction does not exhaust the extra-mental reality – namely that existent things do not simply consist of two distinct units. Dualism may be stifling the dynamic flux, interplay, and receptivity of different beings. As Heidegger indicates, every abstraction is a distortion. Imposing an artificial rupture between things results in a clash between mental constructions and extra-mental reality, creating an imbalance in the very fabric of nature.
Nondualism and religions
It is obvious that humanity needs a new way of seeing the world, and of self-understanding, to eliminate this humanity-nature dualism, as well as our anthropocentric fantasies. Modern humanity since the Enlightenment has developed its relationship with nature under the imposition of these two underpinning principles. Having a genuine relationship with nature as well as other human beings seems possible only through reconsidering the roots of this alienation and reasserting a different epistemology which can unite us on both the physical and metaphysical plane, thereby bridging the abyss between man and nature.
Questions arise here. How can religions help us overcome anthropocentrism and dualism? How do we go beyond these two principles, which are so embedded in our thinking?
Due to the domination of the philosophical outlook of modernism, religions too have long been interpreted under the imposition of anthropocentrism and dualism. But the pre-modern understanding of religious ontologies and epistemologies tend to be more theo-centric and non-dualist. This approach confirms the multiplicity of beings on the physical plane and bonds them to each other on the metaphysical plane. Insight into the nondualistic reality and interdependency of all things reveals the fact that humanity is not radically different from other creatures and is in need of everything else in the world.
Extrapolating from the pre-modern interpretation of the man-God-nature relationship, I believe that all religious traditions should develop, within each tradition, a discourse which is critical of and claims to offer an alternative to anthropocentrism and dualism. To put it bluntly, the alternative to dualism is nonduality, which does not envisage a radical separation between man and nature. A profound interplay between species, as well as mutuality, receptivity, and dependency, are founded on nondualism. To transcend the predicament of dualism, nondualism keeps an eye on the well-being of the whole. Since every part is organically and inseparably intertwined, every part has equal worth.
This is in sharp contrast to the dualism that categorizes, separates, alienates, and creates hierarchy within existence. There is no hierarchy in the phenomenal order; there is no part which is subordinate or of lesser value than any other. This leads to the ontological decentralization of humanity. Freed from dualism, humanity can enter a new mode of being, a nondomineering relationship with other beings. Once one is released from dualistic ego-centrism, things in the world appear no longer as alien and threatening, but as interrelated phenomena.
Growing awareness of the interplay and profound receptivity of all things brings an expansion of the mind which invites us to transcend the constrictions of dualistic ego-centrism. If I use Said Nursi’s analogy, the ice cube of ego dissolves in the ocean of existence, reaching a more comprehensive state of being – and, as Rumi adds, without losing the consciousness of its inherent “dropness.” This expansion allows things to manifest themselves in more novel, creative, aesthetic, and complete ways.
In a nondualistic context the distinction between cause and effect blurs, too. As J. Zimmerman aptly puts it, “the idea of nature as totality of causes and effects has validity as a mental picture and only so long as no absolute ontological claims are made for it.”
The Buddhist notion of “mutual coproduction” is helpful here: “All phenomena arise simultaneously in mutual coproduction.” For a Buddhist, causality is a progeny of dualistic thinking, a mental schema relating natural phenomena without corresponding the nature of reality. The significance of this way of seeing is that when ego, the primary cause, is decentralized, cosmocentrism emerges. Humanity’s unique position as the primary cause effecting its surroundings disappears, and the profound receptivity of individual human beings emerges. Things are no longer independent, self-enclosed, substantial entities, but rather profoundly interdependent, receptive phenomena arising simultaneously. This in turn leads to a holistic view of life that decenters humanity and fosters care for all beings.
Establishing viable alternatives to anthropocentrism and dualism is a major task facing humanity today. Humanity can learn to let things be and to allow them to manifest themselves in accordance with their own limits. Theological systems which promote these values in a consistent metaphysics, whilst being in accord with what we know about the physical world, don’t just pass the test of time – they point the way forward.