I agree wholeheartedly with Michael Karlberg’s premise that, one way or another, religion will inevitably play a pivotal role in the Great Transition. When confronted with an existential threat (as we are today), one becomes predisposed to spirituality, to contemplate the meaning of life before it is ended.
The life-and-death struggle which the Transition embodies raises tough questions about “the nature, meaning and purpose of human existence,” and religion is well-suited to explore these deep mysteries. What are we doing here? What, if anything, are we trying to accomplish? And, vexingly, why are we screwing up so badly?
Karlberg calls for a “critical normative discourse” to illuminate these issues, but where to start? Clearly, values will be key to any such discussion. But which values are important, and where do they come from?
This may sound a bit morbid, but peering into the abyss may actually help locate a starting point for a discussion about values. Here is what I mean: Suppose our species is extinguished as the result of catastrophic ecological disruption (sadly, not an unlikely outcome). In that case, no people or person would be left to assign value to the loss of the human experience. We would just be gone, a forgotten footnote in Earth’s history. The universe would be no better or worse than before our arrival.
Notice, though, that this is only true if everything we value is of our own making. It would only be true if good and evil, right and wrong, truth and falsehood, and aesthetics too, were all social constructs, products of the human imagination. If that were the case, then all these things would evaporate; our extinction simply wouldn’t matter. I find this “thought experiment” jarring.
It may be hubris, or maybe a product of our sense of human exceptionalism, but I can’t believe that we don’t matter. I can’t and don’t believe that we invented beauty or love or moral rectitude. If, instead, these things exist independently of the human experience, then maybe our extinction (especially if self-induced) really would damage an unseen fabric, diminishing the goodness of the wider universe. Our absence in that case would be genuinely misfortunate, perhaps wrong, even pathetic, according to some larger measure.
If one can accept that some important values exist independently of human experience, then we will no longer be working for planetary sustainability for our own sake alone. We will be held to a higher standard. What we do and how we do it will leave a lasting mark on the evolutionary trajectory of the universe itself.
When philosophers refer to the noumenal domain, they mean an ideational space that is home not only to what we construct socially, but also to what may be called “absolute values” (Platonic forms, if you prefer) such as the good, the true, and the beautiful. We have access to these absolute values; we can engage with them and apply them to critical issues facing the human population today. This speaks to the possibility that we can effectively revisit the philosophical foundations of modern industrial society and rebuild the moral content of those foundations with the solid bricks of unchangeable, universal values. New ideas suited to this purpose may emerge from individuals, or from synergies ignited in the domain of our collective human experience.
Karlberg’s essay concludes with a short series of practical questions which must be addressed. I have not offered any answers here, but it seems to me that we may be able to get a better handle on them by engaging with the critical normative discourse he recommends, and by digging more deeply into the values and “systems of meaning” which inform our religious propensities.