Monday, February 19, 2007


Nature and Human Nature, More on Kant's Fourth Cosmothesis

By John Taylor; 2007 Feb 18

Continuing with the fourth thesis, Kant has been saying that we all have a natural desire to be alone, to exist in a state where everything around does our will, where the "I" is lord and all it contacts is a tool or appliance that does our bidding without question. But there is an equally natural desire to merge forces with others, to combine with other wills into a "we." The fruits of social life are far more than any one person alone could ever hope for. They are enticing, but at the same time total merging is impossible and indeed not desirable; recall the Qu'ran's "two seas" with a barrier parting them "over which they shall not pass." The ideal is a dynamic balance, a struggle between unique but still very similar beings to distinguish themselves from one another. This Kant calls "unsocial sociability." He continues,

"Thus he expects opposition on all sides because, in knowing himself, he knows that he, on his own part, is inclined to oppose others."

If all stay within due bounds the solitary and social phases combine and all are galvanized, harmonized and become maximally productive. This allows progress towards the universal ideal: full participation in the enlightenment project.

"This opposition it is which awakens all his powers, brings him to conquer his inclination to laziness and, propelled by vainglory, lust for power, and avarice, to achieve a rank among his fellows whom he cannot tolerate but from whom he cannot withdraw."

Self-esteem comes only from real self-worth, from struggling for hard-won independence, not from ease or comfortable circumstances in themselves. When such a dynamic balance is achieved over many generations the benefits become apparent. Just as our genes pass on bodily attributes, our minds learn the lessons of past struggles and we gain a coherent culture and civilization.

"Thus are taken the first true steps from barbarism to culture, which consists in the social worth of man; thence gradually develop all talents, and taste is refined; through continued enlightenment the beginnings are laid for a way of thought which can in time convert the coarse, natural disposition for moral discrimination into definite practical principles, and thereby change a society of men driven together by their natural feelings into a moral whole."

Civilization, Kant says, is growth from coarse moral discrimination to "definite practical principle" -- here is as clear a prophesy of the Baha'i principles as any I can think of. A universal civilization is fueled by principle, not ideology or other imitative reflexes. Principled activity done together transmutes natural feelings into a "moral whole." Here we see Kant going beyond his inspiration, Rousseau, who thought that the people express their will in an absolute, unchangeable, inaccessible and arbitrary manner. No, Kant replies, the will of the people is something we earn and make and improve together in consultation with reality.

"Without those in themselves unamiable characteristics of unsociability from whence opposition springs -- characteristics each man must find in his own selfish pretensions -- all talents would remain hidden, unborn in an Arcadian shepherd's life, with all its concord, contentment, and mutual affection."

With superficial, materialistic unity we would be like happy cows munching their cud in a field, to use the Master's favorite image. Baha'u'llah in fact commanded us to regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value; only the mining operation called education can extract them. The problem is that this opposition between self absorbed individuals and oppressive groups is inherently incompatible, but with lubrication it can be made to work. This is where, Baha'is believe, the Manifestation puts in His Hand, so to speak, and oils the works. His mystical unity of opposites harmonizes inherent incompatibilities of thought and being. His suffering, inflicted by sinners, sheds light on otherwise dark and untouchable places; it makes our own struggle and suffering into mirrors of goods-in-themselves. Kant continues,

"Men, good-natured as the sheep they herd, would hardly reach a higher worth than their beasts; they would not fill the empty place in creation by achieving their end, which is rational nature."

Our reason for being, then, is to strive to go beyond what animals do, merely survive, and achieve Kant's ideal goal, rational nature. A rational nature has the amazing ability to harmonize social and anti-social elements. Rationality is no dry abstraction for Kant. We see this in the next passage, where he waxes uncharacteristically rhapsodic.

"Thanks be to Nature, then, for the incompatibility, for heartless competitive vanity, for the insatiable desire to possess and to rule! Without them, all the excellent natural capacities of humanity would forever sleep, undeveloped."

In Kant we see the modern mind coming to grips with the many contradictions and distinctions in nature. Even the word "nature" has so many subtleties that somebody calculated that J-J Rousseau alone used the word with over a hundred distinct meanings. The battling natural incompatibilities becoming evident in Kant's time later gave birth to evolutionary theory, which documents how species use sex to adapt relatively quickly to a changing environment. Humans adapt even quicker because we have adaptable and replaceable software in our brains, but this happens only if we attain to our "rational nature." Because we have a dual nature what we wish and what conduces to our greater good tend to be two polar opposites.

"Man wishes concord; but Nature knows better what is good for the race; she wills discord. He wishes to live comfortably and pleasantly; Nature wills that he should be plunged from sloth and passive contentment into labor and trouble, in order that he may find means of extricating himself from them."

Each of us struggles against dire afflictions to gain the fruit of our existence, a fruit which is never visible in this world. But this phenomenon science is beginning to discern even in natural ecosystems. I came to understand this when I read an article called, "When co-operation is the key to survival." (by Bob Holmes, news service, 03 February 2007) This explains how ecologists are coming to recognize that they may have been overemphasizing competition at the expense of cooperation. Sure nature is "red in tooth and claw" on a microcosmic scale, but if you take a step back the macrocosm looks more harmonious. Ecologists,

"For decades have tended to focus on the "selfish" ways organisms make life harder for one another, such as when one species preys on another or competes with it for space or food. In contrast, relatively few ecologists have studied the ways in which species - unconsciously, of course - make life easier for their neighbours. These positive interactions have generally been assumed to play relatively unimportant roles in ecosystems.

"That assumption is wrong, some now claim. `People weren't really looking at the big picture of why a group of species is found together. Often it's because of the positive effect of some other species,' says Andrew Altieri, a marine biologist at Northeastern University's Marine Science Center in Nahant, Massachusetts. These so-called `foundation' species can underpin an entire ecosystem by creating a suitable habitat for all the other species that live there." (

One study on the pebble beaches of Rhode Island found that if they took away the "foundation" species of either ribbed mussels or cordgrass, all other life forms in the area would disappear. They provided shade and dug crevices that bolstered the survival of a thousand other life forms against the battering of waves and the beating of the summer sun. Similarly the Manifestation braves the full onslaught of human opposition, thus creating a toehold for our spiritual growth, and providing shade from direct radiation. Our devotions can thus act as "foundation acts" themselves for a whole complex chain of human benefit. Consider how complex natural ecosystems are,

"What is more, adds Altieri, these beneficial interactions can be complex, as, for example, where snails depend on mussels which depend on cordgrass. `There are not just facilitators and species that get facilitated. There are facilitators of facilitators.' Each link in the chain may be essential to the survival of the whole system."

Given all this, consider how much more complex human society is than natural ecosystems. Humans are not ruled by instinct but interact in willed, conscious relationships. How far beyond our ken our actual role and contribution must be from what we imagine them to be. Yet the God Who cares if a sparrow falls from heaven (and cares for the ecosystem that bred it) is surely concerned with whether we and our society fall or rise.

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