by Tom McBride


Tom McBride 

From a forthcoming book, The Surveillance of Icebergs: Great Philosophers and Climate Change. 

Philosophers of existentialism would start with two simple facts. We were tossed upon the Earth without any choice in the matter. And we are all condemned to die. Our births are contingent. Our deaths are necessary. There is nothing we can do about either of these facts, and they form a huge chunk of what Simone de Beauvoir calls our “facticity,” as opposed to our “transcendence.” We are transcendent in that we can choose to die when we wish, if we wish to choose, and we are transcendent in that we can contemplate our death and its meaning, while all the time knowing that we are factitiously powerless to prevent it happening someday. We can make plans for achieving our own non-conformity and authenticity—why be a carbon copy, as was once3 asked—while also knowing that those plans can be rendered null by happenstance. We live, said de Beauvoir in a tension b between our facticity and our transcendence. If part of transcendence is trying to find, or make, the meaning of our existence, such is not readily inscribed for us to discover or create. Albert Camus said this was absurd. We know we need the water and are compelled tp  find it but it seems nowhere. Or perhaps it is everywhere and nowhere. This is ridiculous. 

     De Beauvoir and Camus, among other philosophers focused on the question of existence itself, are vague writers of self-help-to books. They do not have surefire formulae for fulfillment. Camus suggests that when Sisyphus is rolling the rock up and up and up and up the unconqerable hill, he can at least think intense thoughts. De Beauvoir says we should enlarge our own freedom while enlarging those of others in order better to serve our 

own. What they seem to have in common is that we as human beings are in a certain fix, and as long as we are alive and sensate and conscious, there is no real solution to it. In that sense they might be called realists. You will only make things worse if you seek, and think you’ve found, a final solution. You are at your most authentic, and most fully alive, when you give up on final solutions and accept your lot as stuck between limiting facts and experimental individuality; there is no way to become unstuck; the only thing to do, really, is to deal with it with as much awareness as you can muster. This is not mandatory. Most people do not think about these things, except in an occasionally nagging way that they work to ignore ro to scare off with bogus resolution. But this does not change the a priori situation of their existence, which is the same as yours and mine. 

      The only solution is to admit there is no solution but to live with as much fervid originality as possible. Faill. Fail better. 

     Our penultimate question, though, is to what degree this condition, and the process that arises from it, can become relevant to non-humans. A moth is non-human. The Earth, which climate scientists say is hanging in the balance, has humans upon it, but the Earth itself is not human, any more than Jupiter is. The Earth, unlike Jupiter, just happens to have human beings upon it. Lucky earth, right? How sad for Jupiter!  Virginia Woolf once wrote a great short essay about the death of a moth, which, according to Woolf as she watches the day moth spend its eight hours on Earth, seems to come naturally by what it takes human beings a long time to learn: that life itself is the greatest thing we shall ever have and what we most likely take for granted. The moth is no existentialist hero but teacheas us how to become one maybe. There is no particular evidence that Woolf ever heard the word “existential,” which did not come along in popularity until after her death, but she seems hyper-aware of the moth’s own little struggle between facticity and transcendence, the latter of which, in the moth’s case, is to hang on for perhaps five minutes more. For it, transcendence is life itself. For us it might be meaning grounded on life itself. Here the words of Wittgenstein are apt: “A dog may fear its master will beat him, but he will not fear that his master will beat him tomorrow.” Only we are condemned to fret about being beaten tomorrow or dying tomorrow and needing to find meaning before it happens. It is absurd to think that such a discovery or manufacturing of significance will make a difference and equally absurd not to look for it. We and the moth and the dog exist in time, but only we are aware of it.  This is our chance, and our sentence. 

      And so we turn in this milieu to the planet and climate change. Is the Earth itself caught between its own facticity and transcendence? Not, presumably, that it is aware of such. Only we its denizens are conscious of the predicament. And yet the Earth has its own mega-version of the tension. After all, unlike Pluto, it’s a full-fledged planet. 

     At first glance the Earth is replete with facticity.It is a natural phenomenon and cannot do anything outside the bounds of what natural phenomena (other than human beings) can do.  Like us, the Earth did not choose to exist, but unlike us, it has no choice about what it will do about it. It cannot commit suicide but will have to wait for the Sun to burn it up. This is the whole intellectual premise of climate change admonitions: the Earth cannot do other than it must do when heated too much. It is law-bound. Of transcendence, it has none. By contrast, the whole existential premise is not only that there is no solution to the human paradox but also that between birth and death the individual human is unpredictable. In contrast, the Earth is predictable as to what it will do—how it will react—while being smothered with the dreaded greenhouse gasses. Recently, ice caps melting in the Arctic at an unprecedented rate made the oceans off the Caribbean unobservable as clouded by smog. Predictable. 

     And yet…and yet the Earth may have smuggled in its own transcendence. Scientists will generally deny that there is any such thing. If the Earth is unpredictable, it is only because we have yet to discover a Theory of everything. It is not that the Earth has transcendence but that we have as yet been unable to find the underlying basis of its facticity. 

     If we take, however, the most recent trends towards such an all-encompassing theory, we find some replica of the facticity-transcendence tug of war. Physicists have, via computer models, thrown massive amounts of sand grains upon a table. As they pile up, there are inevitable spill-overs, or avalanches. They find themselves unable to predict when these avalanches will occur or how big or small they will be. They cannot predict whether a lot more grains or just a few more grains will start one.  There seem to be no laws by which to do this, which is analogous to predicting the weather, where so many complex variables come into play and where just one or two extra gusts of wind in the upper atmosphere may spell the difference between snow flurries or a blizzard for a given area. Weather predictions are good but unreliable more than five days out, and they are sometimes changed drastically at the last minute. The Earth, it seems, in its full panoply of winds and clouds and fronts and sea currents and ground temperatures is

 determined to act rather existentially, however little it is aware that it is doing so. 

     This, though, is day to day or month to month or year to year or decade to decade. Here the existentialist concept of facticity versus transcendence becomes startlingly parallel. Geologists know there will be a gargantuan earthquake in California sooner or later. They cannot predict when. This is parallel to the a priori of existentialism: we know that we are all going to die but cannot say when. Between birth and death we are free to do other things, just as the plates and fissures and tectonics are free to do whatever between the last big one and the next one.  But the quake and the death are certain—anxiety and angst, anyone? 

     Physicists trying to research the latest Theory of Everything report that while they cannot predict the when or amount of sand avalanches in their computerized models, they are able to find generic patterns in the sizes of the sand-slides. So within the purview of large numbers (in this case, of grains being thrown over and over again in various amounts on a finite table), there will be a small number of huge avalanches, a middling number of medium ones, and a very large number of little ones. They can tell us what will happen in the long run but not in the short run. Some of them think the same patterns also emerge when it comes to everything else, including wars and stock markets. But here we are discussing the Earth itself and not the people upon it.  

     In other words, in the short run they don’t know about these avalanches, though in the long run they do know. In the short run, we do not know about our own avalanches of human existence, but in the long run we will all be dead. It is as though we and the Earth itself are fighting for our own transcendence even as we must yield in the end to our own laws of facticity  

     So: does this analogy make us more inclined to support the climate science and policy that will rescue our planet? This is a tough question, but we should not shrink from the challenge any more than we run from our conflict between the factitious and the transcendant. 

     One answer is suggested by de Beauvoir and Camus in different ways, and the answer is yes, acknowledgement of our human condition should move us to do what we can to prevent climate change that will harm future generations. De Beauvoir avers that our own freedom to face and negotiate the polarities of our condition is dependent upon the freedom of others. If we wish to test the limits of our transcendence by affecting others, there must be others to affect, and there is little point in attempting to affect them if they have no choice but to be influenced. What is the point of being a great parent to a family of robots? Does not own authenticity and meaning depends upon the autonomy of others? So protection of that autonomy for future generations—offering them freedom from premature death—seems in harmony with the expansion of freedom on which our own authentic potential for liberty relies. And then there is Caus, whose famous character Mersault opens The Stranger with a casual declaration that his mother died yesterday though it might have been day before yesterday. This curiously indifferent and affect-less character, once he ends up condemned to death only a few hundred pages later, tells a priest that he is condemned to die but then so are we all. He finds a solidarity with others in his own ceasing to be, as though some sort of latent altruism had been released by his own absurd and inexplicable fate. Altruism seemed to be an a priori essence that preceded human existence itself, and so if saving the planet is altruistic, then Albert Camus is your uncle. 

     All that is one answer, but it is not the only one, and we have only to look at the Earth itself to see why. If the Earth struggles between its own transcendental uncanniness and  the physical laws from which it cannot escape—if the planet continues to be unpredictable while its human scientists continue to predict that someday they will find THE deterministic pattern of everything—then it will only be released from this tension when it ceases to be, perhaps as part of the disintegration of our solar system (but a tiny blip in the full scheme of things of course). The same goes for each of us. We too cannot evade the conflict between limit and possibility until we die, however it happens, and that becomes our final solution. To seek any other is to become a nihilist, a fanatic, a serial killer, a Democrat, a climate activist, and so forth and dream that these (take your pick) are the final answers. They are not. There isn’t one. So to become a climate change activist is perfectly fine, but it will finally solve no existential problems in the end, any more than saving the Earth can rid it of its own struggles between the laws of being and possibilities of becoming. Besides, there is no certainty whatever that saving the Earth is any sort of ultimate meaning in a universe where such things are extremely hard to come by for the honestly struggling human animal.  

     In his 1938 novel Nausea, Sartre’s protagonist is writing a biography of an eighteenth century French diplomat.  He looks for an ending that will give the whole life meaning but finds he searches in vain. The more he learns, he more he senses that the diplomat’s life was overrated, self-important, and arbitrary, as is, he now sees, his own. He and the long-dead diplomat need each other in order to cover up their own meaninglessness. Existence itself begins to turn surreal for our protagonist. Names and objects become de-linked, and he is disgusted by the objects of existence themselves. There is a profusion of existence everywhere—nauseating. He mentions such things as seats on a tram. But a pristine lake freed from excess carbon would have aroused the same reaction. The physicist Steven Weinberg said the more the learned about the universe with its Higgs particles as a basis for its existence, the more meaningless it became. 

     Climate salvation is desirable. It seems to be urgently expedient and honorable at once. It is hardly the way out of the human trap. The human dilemma will go on whether or not the ice caps vaporize, for those who remain. Sartre even said once that the French under Nazi occupation were never more free because for the first time they saw what freedom was, or h had bee. 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *