A Review of Everybody’s Story by Loyal Rue

A Review of Everybody’s Story by Loyal Rue

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In this broad ranging, thought-provoking, and engaging book, in which there is much to admire and a great deal to learn, Loyal Rue argues that, to a great extent, science should replace religion.

The religions, Rue claims, are out of date and contradict each other.  They have tried to provide the story by which people are to live.  But they have not been able to get everyone’s agreement.  This is because their stories have not been sufficiently compelling.  And in numerous areas, such as cosmology, they face competition from the sciences, which have called many of their teachings into question.  [36]

The major traditions have in fact played themselves out.  Once it is recognized that they are equally viable, their contingency becomes evident.  In addition, their dualism has led their adherents to think that human beings are external to nature.  And their individualism, including their emphasis on individual salvation, [37] has made it difficult for them to provide the basis for social solidarity.

Moreover, we are living on the brink of self-induced disaster.  There are too many people and the better off among us consume too much.  The result is that natural and social systems are stressed on a global scale.  Consequently we need new wisdom and we need to learn again how to live in harmony with nature.  We need to enlarge our sense of solidarity.  We need something that can unite everyone.  We need to think as one species and we need to give birth to a global culture.

While the religions remain divided, the sciences are more unified than ever.  A scientifically based story, which will include contemporary cosmology and evolutionary biology, and which will serve as the basis for a new ecological awareness, can get the agreement of everyone.

This scientific story tells us that we are the fortunate beneficiaries of a series of accidents.  [79] Life emerged spontaneously from non-living organic molecules that had earlier emerged from inorganic matter.  [67] And conscious life emerged from preconscious living things.  From the outset, the universe seems to have been “finely tuned” for life.  Since we have benefited from these processes that have given rise to our existence, we should be deeply grateful for them.

Rue identifies various phases in human cultural development.  Once communities include people who are not genetically related, cultural sources of solidarity and cooperation have been needed to bind communities together and to serve as the vehicle that will transmit learning on from one generation to the next.

But today solidarity at the level of the tribe or the nation is no longer enough.  What we need is global solidarity, and that in turn requires a globally relevant story.  Rue’s proposal, in a nutshell, is that we should recognize that we share a history with all of life, that everybody and indeed every living thing, is part of the same story, everybody’s story (ES).

Human cultures always involve ideas about how things are, including an account of our place in the cosmos; and they involve ideas about what things matter.  ES says that the account of who we are is to be provided by science.  Based on this will be an account of what things matter that consists in a new ecological ethic.  (I am using “ES” to refer to the account, to be provided by science, of who we are and of the history that we share with other species.  So the ecological implications that Rue means to derive from ES are just that: implications of ES and not part of ES as such.  I think I am following Rue in this regard.)

Rue believes that awareness of the “common origin, nature, and destiny shared by all human beings” [49] will unite humanity, providing a new source for solidarity and cooperation, enabling us to think as one species, binding humanity into a global culture [2, 29, 135].  Of ES he says that:

“[The] story of cosmic evolution reveals to us the common origin, nature, and destiny shared by all human beings.  It documents our essential kinship as no other story can do …  This story shows us in the deepest possible sense that we are all sisters and brothers – fashioned from the same stellar dust, energized by the same star, nourished by the same planet, endowed with the same genetic code, and threatened by the same evils.”  [49]

Actually there is something slightly puzzling here.  ES seems better suited to providing a sense of kinship with all living things, and not merely with fellow human beings.  Moreover, isn’t a sense of kinship with all living things more desirable from Rue’s point of view?  A stronger sense of kinship with other human beings, at the expense of other living things and the rest of nature, probably will exacerbate many of the problems that are rightly of concern to Rue.  Indeed Rue criticizes the dualism and individualism that have been associated with traditional religions precisely on the grounds that they “[have allowed] humans to think of themselves as essentially apart from the mundane order, thereby free to overlook the integrity of natural systems in the pursuit of ideals, goals, and projects.”  [37] Surely he is not in the business of giving us a new way to deepen our sense of being divided from nature.

Perhaps he is reasoning as follows.  While we share part of our history with all existing things, we share more of a history with living things, and yet more of a history with other conscious living things.  And then we share with other human beings the most extensive history of all – so that while we have grounds, to varying degrees, for a sense of solidarity with other existing things, we have special grounds for solidarity with other human beings.  With them we share all of the following: cosmic history, the history of the evolution of life, the history of the evolution of consciousness, and the history of the evolution of our particular form of consciousness.  ES provides a special basis for each of us to identify with other human beings because it says that the history shared with other human beings is particularly long and multifaceted.  In addition, it provides the basis for all human beings to jointly embrace the ecological ethic that, he believes, is associated with ES.

But while some of the details are unclear, there is no question that his view is that humanity can agree in seeing itself as sharing the history that is recounted by ES.  And humanity can join in pursuit of the ecological ethic that, as I will discuss later, Rue believes to emerge from ES, thereby acquiring a new common human project.

ES also provides the basis for a new approach to what makes us feel good about ourselves or wherein we get our sense of self-esteem.  Rue puts a lot of emphasis on this.  We face the problem that in rich countries people’s sense of self-esteem is tied to over-consumption.  And in poor and overpopulated countries, the sense of self-esteem is tied to having many children.  Rue’s view is that our sense of self-esteem is a “wild card” [119]; it could just as easily be linked to, say, building an orphanage for street children, creating local spaces for other species, or saving a species from extinction.  In particular, in Rue’s view, we need to link our sense of self-esteem to contributions to ensuring the stability of natural and social systems.

Rue waxes almost religious in his praise of the conception of reality presented by ES:

“This story, more than any other, humbles us before the magnitude and complexity of creation.  Like no other story it bewilders us with the improbability of our existence, astonishes us with the interdependence of all things, and makes us feel grateful for the lives we have.  And not least of all, it inspires us to express our gratitude to the past by accepting a solemn and collective responsibility for the future.”

 It seems that if religion is to be done away with, many of its trappings are to be retained!  (See also 133).

Actually there are indications here and there that Rue is open to the possibility that the religious traditions might play a more constructive role than they have played in the past.  The idea seems to be that there will be stand-alone versions of ES and, on the other hand, versions that are grafted on to one or other of the religious traditions.  [132] The latter, it seems, would involve an endorsement of contemporary cosmological and evolutionary theory by the religious traditions.

The latter part of Rue’s book concerns what he calls ultimate and proximate values.  There is one ultimate value, namely the enduring prospect of life.  “It is,” says Rue, “wrong always, everywhere, and for anyone, to value anything above the enduring prospect of life.”  [105] Below, I discuss the meaning of this claim and its relationship to ES.

Rue’s discussion of “proximate values” has a number of aspects.  He begins by saying that there are just a very small number of factors that motivate human beings.  These are: curiosity motivators, hedonic motivators, and social motivators.  The things that make us tick are as follows: the attempt to satisfy our curiosity, the attempt to have pleasure and to avoid pain, and the attempt to seek emotional fulfillment.  (“Intelligibility, pleasure, and emotional fulfillment – these things matter to us as intrinsic goods because they satisfy our longings.”  [115])   All members of all species pursue the ultimate goal of viability and in addition there are species-specific proximate values that are “embedded within the general strategies of a species to achieve viability.”  [110]  The idea seems to be that the pursuit of viability takes different forms for different species and, in the human case, takes the form of attempting to satisfy ourselves in these three areas.  Thus curiosity, for example, involves “a challenge to understanding [that] keeps the individual aroused in a deficit state until appropriate behaviors result in the experience of intelligibility.”  [111]

(The numerous questions raised by these remarks include the following.  Are intelligibility, pleasure and emotional fulfillment really the only things that motivate us?  Why not think of knowledge, for example, as something that is of ultimate value rather than of merely proximate value?  Why assimilate social motivators and the search for emotional fulfillment?  Why think of the value of survival as ultimate but the value of everything else as proximate.  (Obviously, some people sometimes pursue, say, the promotion of a certain social goal at the expense of their own survival.  Rue says that pleasures are “valued for their own sake” [112] which suggests that they are ultimate.)  Is personal wholeness not another way of talking about emotional fulfillment?  If it really is distinct, is it not another motivator – as distinct from being a higher level organizer of our pursuit of what motivates us?  I am sure that Rue can answer some or even all of these questions but they are not answered in the text.)

Next Rue says that our pursuit of these values has to be organized in some way.  For example, we need to know how to balance the pursuit of knowledge and the pursuit of happiness.  (“Our entire lives are constructed, moment by moment, through our efforts to harmonize the demands put on us by our relentless need for intelligibility, pleasure, and emotional fulfillment.”  [118]) He first mentions two organizing principles that enable us to impose coherence on our response to these motivators.  These “proximate values”, which play the role of effectively managing our response to the human motivators, are personal wholeness, which is a matter of there being “well-integrated, stable, robust personalities” and social coherence, which is a matter of there being “well-integrated, cooperative, harmonious groups”.  [117] And then there is a third proximate value, namely biospheric integrity, or the physical and biological conditions for human existence.  [120-1]

Psychotherapy promotes personal wholeness.  Politics promotes, or at least should promote, social coherence.  And “ecotherapy” aims to promote biospheric integrity, which is to say that biodiversity is to be maximized.  In part, what Rue is saying here boils down to the simple claim that a good human life requires that the ecosystems we inhabit should be healthy.  No sensible person would quarrel with this.

Much of Rue’s book is convincing.  One reason I value it (proximately) is that it serves as a challenge to the religious traditions to do more to contribute to solving the problems that Rue identifies, and to which he thinks ES to be the solution.  And the idea that we should get our sense of self-esteem and our sense of success from the extent to which we contribute to solving important problems is a sensible and impressive one that is deserving of implementation.

I will identify some worries and objections.  But I should make it clear that what follows is largely offered in the spirit of contributing to Rue’s project, of asking how it might be improved, and not in the spirit of finding fault with his central claims, or at least not with all of them.  These are the comments of a fan who considers this to be in many respects an inspiring book.

My critical comments can be divided into two categories: some that nibble at Rue’s claims (1, et al) and some that may constitute more serious problems, perhaps taking a significant bite (A, et al) out of those claims.

Nibbles

1.  In what sense have the major global religious traditions played themselves out?  It goes without saying that they show no signs of disappearing; and their adherents are just as confident as ever.

In addition, numerous people in numerous traditions believe the balance of the evidence to favor their position.  Why should they begin their reflections from Rue’s starting point?  Rue believes that the scientific story provides the correct story, or at least it is the available story that is closest to being correct.  But it is one thing to say that, for example, the account of the origin of the universe offered by contemporary cosmology is correct whereas the accounts of creation offered by each of the religious traditions are mistaken insofar as they differ from the account provided by contemporary cosmology.  It is quite another to show that this is so.  Rue could settle for offering a scientific alternative for those who find none of the traditional religious stories convincing.  But he wants more than that.  Nor does he merely want something that will influence the religious traditions, pushing them in the direction of being more ecologically responsible, although he certainly would also go along with that.  No, he has in mind – at least most of the time – something that will replace them.  His view is that insofar as any religious tradition is making claims that are at odds with (and perhaps also claims that are not supported by) the sciences, those claims are mistaken, and the traditions in question are no longer intellectually viable.  But it is one thing to assert this, and quite another to show it to be correct.  Perhaps Rue will say that Rome was not built in a day – so that consequently it will take more than a day to dismantle Rome, Jerusalem, Delhi, Mecca, and all the rest.  And he can not be expected to take on all of the traditional religions, one by one, showing what is the matter with each of them.  That would require many other books.  Yet I think there is no denying that there is a certain incompleteness in his project at this point.  To ask the reader to accept that none of the global traditions is any longer intellectually viable, or – another of his claims – that the traditions are equally viable, is of course to ask a great deal.

2.  Would an acceptance of ES actually resolve conflict?  Perhaps disagreeing scientific factions would behave much as disagreeing religious factions have behaved.  At present there are, for example, competing cosmological theories.  If these came to be central to human communities, perhaps they would spawn, or sustain, competing cultural traditions.

Rue’s response would, I think, be that at least in the case of science there are mechanisms for resolving disagreements.  And science is, overall, probably moving in the direction of more agreement.  There is little reason to think that there will be as much disagreement, or as much conflict, among the advocates of ES as there has been among the religious traditions.

I am inclined to accept this response to this rather speculative concern.  But I would just note that, say, Protestant and Catholic Christians, like Sunni and Shiite Muslims – examples can of course be multiplied – have agreed with each other about a great deal.  In particular they have agreed, broadly speaking, on a common account of the origin of all human beings, indeed everything living and everything that exists.  This is provided by their account of creation.  And yet these groups have frequently been at odds with each other to the point of killing each other with gusto in large numbers.

3.  Rue says that enhanced prosperity on the part of impoverished regions of the world and less consumption on the part of the rich is needed.  [20]  And he could not be more right in both respects.  However, if the prosperity of poor people is improved, they will probably increase their consumption.  If so, the problem of consumption will be exacerbated.

We face a dilemma that is only going to become more acute in the coming decades.  Our global problems include massive poverty and large-scale environmental degradation.  Attempts to solve the former are very likely, in practice, to exacerbate the latter.  There are available, to be sure, interpretations of what development ought to consist in that would make it less environmentally harmful.  But the reality is that more prosperity for the poor almost always means more environmental degradation.

Bites

A.  Perhaps the religions can be more helpful than Rue recognizes.  Many religions have indicated that they support a better relationship with nature, the preservation of ecosystems and of biodiversity, as well as ending human hunger.  Perhaps the fault lies with religious people and not with their religion.  At the end of his book Rue seems quite open to the possibility that revamped versions of the major religions might emerge.  These would consist of the combination of ES with suitably modified versions of the traditional religions.  (Here we might mention the vast amount of creative work in environmental ethics that is emerging from the religious traditions.  A good place to start is the series of volumes from the Center for the Study of World Religions at Harvard Divinity School.)

Why do we need to agree on ES in order to unite to resist further damage to the environment?  In fact, trying to get people to agree on ES may be a distraction from taking the really important steps.  It may be more effective to look for common ground among the various traditions, or to look for environmentally positive themes within them, and to build on those elements rather than setting out on the Herculean task of trying to replace the traditions with something else.  (I can’t pursue this here but it may also be more effective to appeal to self-interest.  That provides everyone with a very strong reason to keep the planetary ship afloat, whatever may be the story of our origins.)

The religions, as they are, go very deep with people.  If people were to abandon their religious tradition, this will often shake them to the core, and it may in fact in some cases jeopardize or diminish for some time to come their ability or willingness to pursue the ecological project.

Here, I think, we should reiterate the point made above that Rue’s book can serve as a goad that will encourage the religious traditions to do a better job than they have been doing.

B.  Next I want to raise some questions about the attempt to show that an ecocentric ethic is supported by ES – for this is what Rue believes.  How does he propose to get the blood of an ecocentric ethic out of the turnip of the scientific conception of ourselves that is provided by ES?

At first glance, it may seem that the ethic that would emerge from using ES to define who we are would be one that would endorse ruthless competition.  Or it may seem that ES has no clear implications.  We are to learn from our history, and cooperation as well as competition is part of that history.

However, this is not Rue’s starting point.  A central part of his thinking here is, I think, just this simple point: once we see that we share a story with all of life, then we will have a sense of kinship with all of life.  And seeing that we, and all living things, have had the great good fortune to be the beneficiaries of a series of extremely unlikely accidents, we will move to protect all of life.  These are both psychological claims about the effects of seeing that ES is correct.

But Rue is not merely predicting that we will endorse an ecological ethic once we accept ES.  He means also to give us reasons to adopt this sort of ethic.  However, some of his reasoning in this area is questionable – even to those of us, such as myself, who agree with many of his conclusions.

At times he seems to be reasoning mistakenly from

(I) each of us values his/her own life above all else

to

(II) each of us should value all of life above all else.

(II) has the following meaning: what determines whether or not an action ought to be done is whether it promotes viability or “the continuation and fulfillment of life.”  [101] (II) is, in fact, a controversial and bold statement of a sort of environmental ethic.  I take these to be statements of (II): “it is wrong, always, everywhere, and for anyone, to value anything above the enduring prospect of life” and “the standard of viability is what makes something right or wrong.”  [103]

(The meaning of (II) is unclear in some respects.  It seems to mean something like: maximally promote life.  Or perhaps: ensure that there is as much life as possible over as long a time as possible.  As with other claims that something is to be maximized, there are standard questions that need to be asked here.  Is it the sheer number of living things that is important?  Or is the diversity of life also important?  Diversity seems to be important because Rue says at 101 that viability is the same thing as biodiversity.  Perhaps, then, fewer living things spread across more species would be better than more living things belonging to fewer species.  Perhaps neither types of life nor the number of living things is what is to be maximized: perhaps it is some combination of these two.  It is also a little puzzling both to identify viability and the continuation and fulfillment of life and to identify viability and biodiversity.  The mention of fulfillment suggests yet another element that needs to be considered, namely the quality of life.  And are some lives (e.g. human? primate? mammal? vertebrate? conscious…) worth more than others?  And so on.

Then there is the question of time.  Would life that has algae as its highest and most developed form and that continues for 2x years be better than life that has apes as its highest form but that only continues for x years?  Suffice it to say that the claim that life is to be maximized requires a lot of clarification.  It is also worth noting that it would be quite difficult, or even impossible, for us to prevent completely the continuation of life.  Life, in some form or other, will continue irrespective of what we may do.  Yet another problem.  At the top of 103 Rue writes that to say that “any behavior contrary to the value of viability may be judged with objective certainty to be wrong … is to say [that] the standard of viability is what makes something right or wrong.”  But it is obvious that these are different and that to say the former is not to say the latter.)  Here, on the other hand, is what I take to be a statement of (I): “for all species of life there is one thing that ultimately matters, that is, living” [100].  I take this to mean that all members of all species value most their own continued existence.  By way of example, Rue points out that algae seek out sunlight in order to live.  (Ibid.)

In the following remarks Rue seems to be sliding from (I) to (II):

“[The] business at hand … is to defend the claims that viability is both a universal and objective value.  The claim for universality says that all species are designed to optimize viability above all other valued outcomes.”  [101]

The second claim (in the second sentence) may be that every member of every species seeks (above all?) to preserve its own life, in which case it may amount to (I).  By appealing to (I) here, Rue may mean to explain or to defend (II), which is expressed in the first sentence.  But (II) is neither explained nor defended here.

Attempts to argue from (I) to (II) are obviously problematic.&nbsp

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