3rd wayI write about so many topics that my audience is quite diverse, which is why I have the six categories listed at right, each individually subscribable and each with its own Table of Contents. About 70% of my readers tend to read everything I write, while about 30% read only the business posts, those that relate to innovation, social networking, knowledge management, and entrepreneurship. What has intrigued me is that most of the business readers have no problem with my left-of-centre political views, but many get quite distressed about my radical environmentalism. The politics they find quite rational, while the environmental philosophy is “too new-agey by half” and “not well reasoned”. In fact, they say its irrationality undermines, to them, the credibility of everything else I write. They’re worried about my mental health, worried that I’m going to do something crazy, something that “makes no sense”.

I confess that I have not articulated well my impatience with both the rational/logical and moral/emotional constructs that, in combination, lead most of us to live our lives as we do, to believe what we believe, to do what we do, and to not do what we don’t do. When I was younger, I was a fervent rationalist: If there was no scientific logic behind someone’s belief, I disdained it. I disliked religion because it appealed to emotions, mostly (in organized religions anyway) negative emotions ( fear most of all). I saw it as manipulative, using a mob of people brainwashed into accepting certain things on faith to pressure others, notably children, into accepting the same things. It’s a weapon for subjugation of the human spirit. I still believe that most adherents of organized religion are weak-willed people who prefer to belong rather than to think for themselves. I abhor the ‘ends justifies the means’ immorality of most organized religions, which have no compunction about lying, stealing, destroying, torturing or even killing if it brings about the religion’s goals: conversion, growth, reduction in the ranks of non-believers (you have to confess your sins, but all is forgiven). History is largely a record of atrocities systematically committed by fanatical adherents to one religion against others. In the process, the land, money, property, power and souls of non-believers are appropriated for the church. Neo-conservatism, in its various guises (corporatism in the late 1800s and again today, Stalinism, Fascism and Maoism in between) subscribes to the same orthodoxy of blind faith backed up by ruthless power, reliance on fear-mongering to keep subjects from thinking rationally, and end-justifies-the-means immorality. These isms, disguised under a veneer of secularism and populism, are modern evolutions of organized religion, whose end is always power and whose means is always fear.

So for many years I was a rationalist, a disdainer of religion, and constantly astonished that the vast majority of people seemed to be either too dumb or too brainwashed to ‘get it’, to think logically, to think for themselves, to see the immorality of their beliefs and behaviours. I remain astonished at these things, though I understand them better (religion is at heart a coping mechanism, and the more stress there is, the more such a mechanism is needed) but now I am not a rationalist either.

When I was in my 20s, I became an environmentalist. On the surface, that means I believed it was important to protect the environment, and to preserve wilderness for the vast majority of Earth’s creatures who can’t thrive in habitats transformed, by urban or intensive agricultural or extensive monoculture development, into alien landscapes suitable only for humans, a dozen species of genetically modified farmed and domesticated animals, fifty species of genetically modified plants, and the insect, rodent and weed parasites that are readily adaptable to these alien landscapes. I also believed that our ultimate social, political and economic goal should be to reduce and minimize the aggregate suffering of all creatures on the planet. My socialist friends pounced on my new beliefs as a straying from rationalism, from their espoused secular humanism to fuzzy, illogical spirituality. We had fierce arguments where my belief in the value and critical importance of wilderness was thrown at me as anti-human (and in fact many socialist organizations today continue to oppose environmental organizations like WWF for paternalistically ‘stealing’ valuable farmland from third-world peasants to make into wildlife refuges to salve the first-world consciences for their failure to save wilderness at home). For many years I was philosophically at odds with myself, and came to conclude that my environmentalism was ultimately spiritual, rather than rational — the argument that without wilderness and biodiversity our world would be too fragile and depleted to support human beings (taken up by environmental rationalists who say they want the Kyoto Accord in order to defeat global warming for man’s sake) was so transparently thin and feeble that even I couldn’t buy it. I wanted wilderness and biodiversity for its own sake. If I wanted to reduce suffering to animals, my socialist friends said, I should be in favour of their extinction.

I analyzed my environmental beliefs and passions intensely, to try to convince myself that they made sense, logically. After all, if I were to confess that my environmentalism was a spiritual rather than rational belief, how would my beliefs be any more credible, deserving, moral, than the ‘spiritual’ beliefs of neoconservatives, abortion-doctor killing religious wingnuts, animal-sacrificing cults, or Amish with their horrendous puppy mills?

At that time I started using a term as a ‘place-holder’ for something I couldn’t quite figure out, something neither rational nor spiritual. The term was instinctive. I believed and believe that all practices that cause suffering — war, torture, child and spousal abuse, factory farming, laboratory experimentation on animals, and so on — are repugnant. I become completely irrational when I hear of these things, let alone see them first hand. I know many people who have to change the station when such things are portrayed or described, not because they find them irrational or immoral or guilt-inducing, but because they physically can’t bear to watch them. These acts are, according to most worldviews, inhumane. Repugnant and inhumane are interesting words. On the surface, they’re not really rational terms. You would be hard put to set out a logical argument against doing something simply because it was repugnant or inhumane. In fact, you could probably just as easily set out a logical argument for doing something despite acknowledging it was repugnant or inhumane. Without putting animals through excruciating pain and endless suffering, we could not have developed many of the drugs that have vastly improved quality of life for billions of humans, and for some pets as well.

But these terms are not moral/emotional terms either, even though we try to make them so by putting the word ‘morally’ in front of ‘repugnant’. You would be hard put to set out an emotional or moral argument against doing something simply because it was repugnant or inhumane. In fact, you could probably just as easily set out an emotional or moral argument for doing something despite acknowledging it was repugnant or inhumane. To some, killing abortion doctors is defensible, even though killing is a sin. To many, going to war to defend a principle is justifiable, even though the process is horrible. The end justifies the means.

So if repugnant and inhumane are not rational/logical or moral/emotional constructs, what are they? What is it that we feel when we see an animal tortured in a laboratory to test a new bleach, that makes us want to burn the place to the ground? What is it that makes us cry in despair, pain and fury when we see the once staggeringly beautiful old-growth forests of Clayoquot Sound in British Columbia clear-cut, bull-dozed to the ground to make cheap newsprint? What is it that makes us so incoherent with rage when we see thousands of acres flooded, millions of animals drowned, whole communities eradicated, to build a new dam to power a new factory to make SUVs?

I would argue (though it’s hard, because I’m limited to a few words like inhumane and repugnant that haven’t been appropriated by rationalists and moralists) that it is instinct. When we hear about or witness these things, there is somethings deep in our bones that screams in revulsion. If a young child were to witness these things he or she would react exactly as we do, because you don’t need to be taught what is rational or moral to know that this is awful, ghastly, repugnant. You just know. Instinct is knowledge that is ingrained in your DNA. Before man evolved a big brain, and created the complicated rational and moral codes that we now live by, before even there was language, we had this instinctive knowledge. We have it still, though it is usually drowned out in the noise of man-made rational and moral argument.

I have used negative examples, but there are positive ones as well, though they are more elusive and subtler these days. Sunrises and sunsets, the smell of rain, the sound of birds, all appeal directly to our instinctive selves, they bring us joy that does not require us to understand the concept of beauty, or learn the words to describe the scenes, or to have an aesthetic or intellectual appreciation of why these things bring us joy. I would argue they don’t even need a large brain. All they need is senses. If you spend much of your life close to nature, or even if you only occasionally get away from the man-made artifice that blocks us from realizing the joy that these sensory pleasures bring, a joy that is completely different from, and even more profound than, intellectual delight or emotional happiness, you just know. You know it is right, it is how we were meant to live. Not right, or wrong, rationally or emotionally, but instinctively. This is knowledge that you don’t have to learn.

Reason Morality Instinct
Interface with the world Left Brain Right Brain, Heart Senses
Centre of the world Man God Nature
Goal in life Understanding Righteousness Harmony, Happiness
Central discipline Science Humanities Art
Knowledge acquisition Learned Evoked, Nurtured Encoded
What you trust most Logic Feelings Intuition
Unacceptable behaviour Irrational, Uninformed Immoral, Evil, Heartless Inhumane, Unsustainable
Frame to justify violence Enlightened self-interest God’s will; Rid world of evil Restore balance

I can hear you saying, ironically, I am still not making sense. Ironically, because if you can’t use rational argument, or moral argument, with languages that are utterly and completely preoccupied with rational and moral argument, you can’t ‘make’ sense. Intuition, instinct, is purely ‘sensible’, it is the way our bodies ‘made sense’ out of sensory stimuli before we had brains cluttered with abstraction and logic and language and moral precepts. When we shut our eyes instinctively when someone brushes up against our face, we do so in an infinitessimally small fraction of the time our brains would take to think through the threat to our eyesight and relay the decision to our eye muscles. Without instinct we would all be blind. When we smell a perfume or a plant that we haven’t smelled since we were children our response is immediate, overwhelming, and it short-circuits and renders unnecessary any analysis our brain may attempt to make of it.

What is amazing is that, with our complicated rational and moral codes, our learned logic and morality and language, we no longer trust our instincts. We are suspicious of them, because they defy analytical and emotional justification. It was our instinctive knowledge that saved us from extinction before we had science, religion, or language, that evolved our brains to compensate for our rather pathetically ill-suited and weak bodies and senses, to the point where we could develop rational and moral codes and abtract reasoning and language. So now we are out of touch with our instincts, and our senses, and hence we are disconnected from all other life on the planet. And we live in cities and farms that have been largely transformed into alien landscapes to obliterate as much of the need for, and applicability of, instinct as possible. For most of the people of the world, they cannot even really imagine wilderness, let alone have any appreciation for its powerful, connecting effect on the psyche, the soul, the senses and the body.

So when I tell you that my instincts tell me:

  • that human ingenuity isn’t going to get us over the hoop this time,
  • that as wilderness and biodiversity is disappearing in this century at a rate faster even than most of the great extinctions that have wiped out most life on Earth in previous cycles, we are losing our last chance to save our world,
  • that if we can’t bring about a drastic reduction in human population and in resource consumption (and the resultant pollution, degradation of the land and ecosystems and waste) in this century, our world, not just our species, is doomed, and
  • that the only sustainable way to live is in harmony and in communion with nature and with the other creatures with which we share the planet (that does not mean going back to being hunter-gatherers, but rather using knowledge and innovation and technology to move past our consumer-acquisitor growth society to a new relater-sharer society),

I’m not surprised that some of you tell me I’m not making ‘sense’, that I’ve gone off the deep end and should perhaps seek professional help.

I can’t explain rationally why I know this, and I’m sure that is troubling (believe me, it troubles me to, I don’t like believing what I can’t prove scientifically). I certainly can’t justify it morally, since I’m just not a ‘means justify the ends’ kind of guy. I just know these things are true. I’m not asking you to accept them on faith, or at all for that matter. Maybe there’s no point me saying these things at all, if I can’t justify them in words and in arguments, and I can’t. But there’s something about human nature that makes us want to say what we believe, whether we can convince others or not. I don’t think my beliefs are spiritual, because spiritually they trouble me as well. But I don’t think I’m insane either. I’m just telling you where I stand, and trying, incoherently, to explain why.

Derrick Jensen says “If you listen to the land, in time, you will know exactly what to do.” He is talking about paying attention to our senses and our instincts. But to the vast majority of people I know, including many that I have come to love and respect, this advice makes no sense. The radical actions he encourages (though he’s not that prescriptive: he uses examples of what he’d like to do, and will do if and when we pass the point of no return) are thought by most to be either immoral (“eco-terrorist”) or irrational (“emotionally damaged and insane”).

OK, I’m done. Another raid on the inarticulate, not very successful. Or, perhaps, a futile attempt to teach what cannot be taught, communicate what cannot be communicated. You just know, or you don’t.

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  1. sue says:

    Amen. As I tell people about oil and gas consumption, dinosaurs are not a renewable resource.

  2. Dermot Casey says:

    Daveits another excellent piece. Your category of Reason/Morality/Instinct fits in some respects with a short piece by a former Professor of mine called “The end of modernity” where we move from a “Bureaucratic terrorism – Machine Metaphor” of the modern to the “disguised bureaucratic terrorism(flat structures)” of post modern to eventually “organisatons of natural ‘life-worlds”communities of practice'”. Its not a perfect match but there are interesting overlaps. Its about the return of mystery to the world. He also quotes GK Chesterton “The madman is someone who has lost everything except his reason”, pointing out that there are limits to reason (not that we should abandon it). [Let me know if you want a copy (I can scan the pages for you).]Two other quick points I’d make on this piece. You use the word ‘repugnant’. To many of those ‘wingnuts’ a lot of what you (and I) would see as fine is also ‘repugnant’. Just because someone says its repugnant doesn’t make it so. The proper discussion this would require is too much for my addled brain at this hour.Finally the piece strikes me as true. Honest, open written from the heart. That makes it much more than “Another raid on the inarticulate”. Telling your story may be the only way to communicate what otherwise cannot be communicated.Keep up the good work (someone who reads and enjoys the 100% even when he doesn’t always agree with it)RegardsDermot

  3. casual psuedo reader says:

    Sorry, but I think you often don’t make sense because you drone on and on, think you’re smarter than you really are, and are consistantly annoying. (I agree with your politics, btw, and pretty much everything I read here for that matter) I look for interesting headlines on your blog, but almost never can I stand to read a whole post. I’ve been wanting to tell you that for awhile now.Take care!

  4. I kind of understand what you are trying to say but I am not sure that I agree. I can’t explain why you feel the way you do but I am not sure that it is ‘instinct’.I think most people would agree that giving two people swords and forcing them to fight to the death is ‘repugnant’ but there was once a time where this was in fact a major part of society.Most people now feel that the concept of a travelling circus whicher bears, tigers, lions, elephants are constantly locked up in small cages is repugnant, but it wasn’t long ago that these were completely accepted in society. I’m in my early 30’s and I remember going to the circus as a child.Why is it that we don’t consider climbing on the back of a horse and going for a casual ride repugnant?I personally consider the death penalty to be pretty repugnant, but I am probably in the minority (even here in Canada many people support it).So, I guess I have to wonder whether repugnantness (if that is a word) is as much a societal thing than an instinctual thing. If it was instinctual, wouldn’t everyone feel the same repugnance as I? or you?Beauty, on the other hand, is instinctual and there are scientific explanations for this. A lush, green forest is instinctinvely beautiful because it represents life, prosperity and a likely source for food. A beautiful sunset is instinctually a positive since it represented good weather conditions for hunting and gathering. The type of woman men find beautiful is instinctual because the shape of a woman is an indication of her child bearing abilities. The type of man a woman finds beautiful is instinctual because the build of a man is representative of how well he can gather resources.I am not sure that you can argue that finding animal abuse repugnant is an insctinct in the same way.I guess what I am saying is that instincts can be explained by science using rational/logical reasoning and if you can’t explain why an instinct exists it probably isn’tan instinct.

  5. Cyndy says:

    I completely understood what you were writing and while I was reading I observed that I tend to lean toward instinct and intuition in almost every facet of my life. Often even the rational or logical is completely overruled by something I instinctually ‘know’. Often, again that knowledge doesn’t seem to have been learned. Perhaps it has been learned but I can’t recall where.I wonder if there is a difference of gender involved in the process.

  6. Don Dwiggins says:

    I’ll use the following quote (from the 3 bullets that your instincts tell you) as a hook for what I want to say: “if we can’t bring about a drastic reduction in human population and in resource consumption (and the resultant pollution, degradation of the land and ecosystems and waste) in this century, our world, not just our species, is doomed”.It’s useful to remember that our world has been around for quite a long time, and will be for quite a long time to come. The Chicxulub meteor that wiped out most of the Cretaceous life 65 million years ago didn’t kill the world, nor even the biosphere (and it was the 5th major impact, along with several minor ones that caused lesser extinctions). Edward Wilson may be right that we’re causing the 6th major extinction, but Gaia will recover. For all our effects on the biosphere, and our insistence of putting ourselves at the center of the drama of life, we’re just one thread in the tapestry of evolution (and if we don’t get it right, maybe a short thread).With that as a frame, I’d like to look at your model from an evolutionary viewpoint. (Quote from the science fiction writer Spider Robinson: “It took a couple of hundred million years to develop a thinking ape and you want a smart one in a lousy few hundred thousand?”) The question is, why are our brains wired as they are? Well, like all of our characteristics, they’re the result of evolutionary processes working on the available material in our ancestors. So, what would one expect from a few tens of thousands of years of evolution working on the “third chimpanzee”? Looked at from that viewpoint, it’s not too surprising that our minds are kind of a muddle; after all, our bodies aren’t perfect, either, and they’ve had far more time to have the kinks worked out. (What nimrod designer had the bright idea to cross the esophagus and the trachea, anyway? Or to run the male urethra smack through the middle of the prostate?)Which brings me to the main point: possibly the major characteristic of our minds, that sets them well apart from those of our close relatives, is the extent to which we can learn new behaviors and concepts, both at an individual and at a social level. This relates to the “Knowledge acquisition” row in your table, where I’d like to suggest a change in the right column: replace “encoded” by “evolved”. I have a feeling that evolution and human learning are very similar processes, and are going to become more closely intertwined once we advance past the stage where we keep shooting ourselves in the foot. (In Teilhard de Chardin’s terms, learning just might be “interiorised evolution”.) Part of this advance will be integrating the three aspects of your model, so that our learning becomes whole rather than fragmented.I hope this makes some sense to you. In any case, thanks for triggering me to articulate it.

  7. Repugnant – instintively bad, Marey Midgley calls it the Yuk Factor I believe.Pity you have to surrender the middle-ground of good / bad / morality to some fairy tale character called God, closely linked with State for several millenia. Harmony, happiness, balanced nature are equally good morals that come from humans.They are evolved too – I prefer Pirsig’s Levels of Quality as my model of evolved morals.

  8. Kevin says:

    To me much of the environmentalist thought falls under logic and and reason. My environmentalist thought does not neccesarily rely on morals and intuition, although without them I probably would not have made the logical connection between how we treat the ecosystem that keeps us alive. It is only logical that if we don’t want to put pressures on our ability to meet our basic needs for life, and if we want our children to have a liveable world, that we do not put pressure on the system that provides it. The central discipline which then gives us the actions we should (or should not) take to keep the planet, and ourselves alive, is science. Don’t put more CO2 into the atmosphere than can be assimilated by nature, don’t put more poisons into the rivers than can be assimilated, etc.However, even as I write this, I see how it was once controlled by instinct, an instinct we have burried. Not destroying the environment is like breathing. We can stop breathing, but we have to pay the price (we will die), just as we can stop taking care of the envionment. It is therefore logical to breathe, but we don’t have to think logically about it because we do it instinctivly. Somehow, too many of us have lost the instinct to take care of the environment, so now we have to rely on logic to tell us to do it. We should figure out how that happened… lest we lose the instinct to breathe as well.

  9. Anne Morris says:

    Dave–It makes perfect sense to me. Amen. Amen.Anne Morris (a colleague of Susan Hales–part of the vocal minority in south Alabama).

  10. Cyndy says:

    Gaia will heal herself. If she sees humans as a problem she will purge us. If there were any logical proof needed you need only look to the blackout last year and the environmental studies showing some recovery related directly to the lack of emmissions during that period. I think some of the intuiton inherent as a part of human nature as it relates to environment nature (Gaia) is retained the closer physically you remain to nature. If we can’t take care of what natural wilderness we have remaining and work to take care of what we keep available for human habitation then our race will be eliminated. Many people don’t care. Quite simply, they feel they will be raptured. No big deal to them. That’s what the US is facing right now. Others think technology will save the human race. Maybe, but (see above) is holding us back. Science is not valued. Use up what we have. My intuition tells me ‘cry’. (then the rebel in me says ‘fight’!)

  11. Gary says:

    Makes sense to me, too. I’ve always thought of ther three domains as a unity, with each performing checks and balances over the others. One who is well-balanced in all three areas is a thinking, evolving being. We only run into trouble when we value one or another domain and ignore the rest. Instinct, the urge to self-preservation (and by extension that of the species), might tell me that homosexual = bad, but morality (yes) and reason convince me otherwise. I think it is our very purpose to use all three domains to transcend and raise any one of them.

  12. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks for the kind comments, and brave attempts to reconcile, rationalize, and/or integrate the three domains. Like me, you were somewhat successful, but limited, I think, by language. I also think Cyndy is right — women are generally more intuitive, more in touch with their instincts, their senses, than men. Don’t know why that is, they’re just more ‘earthbound’. Don’t know what that says about me either, though it took me a long, long time to get here. I’ve read several books, notably by the late Stephen J Gould and by Canadian Wade Rowland, that try to reconcile the moral and rational realms, religion vs. science, and in my opinion neither of these very articulate guys succeeded either. So adding a third dimension has, perhaps, made the task impossible. Or maybe rendered it unnecessary. Ultimately, your senses tell you, you aren’t because you think, or because you feel. You just are. Or you aren’t.

  13. Life Tenant says:

    Dave, some people “intuitively” find homosexuality disgusting and immoral, and their “instinct” is to avoid people who are identifiably homosexual, or even to hurt them. You may find it “amazing” that we are “suspicious” of our instincts, but it’s a good thing not to rely on them entirely. It is good to experience our instincts and feelings fully, but instinct is not an infallible source of knowledge about how to behave. The morals of every person and society are ultimately founded on a set of non-rational beliefs that you might call intuitive. But we have a responsibility to assess and apply those beliefs in a rational way. As for the artificiality of cities which you detest, many city-dwellers live in ways that are kinder to the Earth than do their suburban and country cousins in North America, and the denser they are packed the better, as discussed in “Green Manhattan,” a wonderful article by David Owen in the October 18, 2004 issue of the New Yorker (excerpts available here. Also I agree with the comment by Mr. Dwiggins that humans do not threaten the survival of life on Earth. Rather we threaten our own survival and we threaten the survival of an Earth that is comfortable for us. Life has survived extreme events before and will go on in spite of our worst efforts.

  14. Dave Pollard says:

    Subdude: Revulsion of homosexuals is not instinctive, it is learned behaviour. I don’t detest cities, and acknowledge that if we have to have 20 times the number of humans the planet can sustainably support, better they be concentrated in cities so at least a bit of wilderness be saved. My point is that cities alienate us from nature, and our true nature.

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