Borrowed Thoughts: Freedom is Free, Nature isn’t Natural

Header image by Lin Kuang-I

“At that time yin and yang were in harmonious stillness,
the ghosts and spirits brought no disturbances,
the four seasons found their right measures,
the ten thousand things remained unharmed,
so no living thing met with a premature death.”
Zhuangzi, Chapter Sixteen

Predation abolition. Ever heard of it?

As with so many of my writings, this essay is inspired by a pernicious bit of Twitter discourse. In this case, predation abolition is the idea that the predator-prey relation in nature (i.e. carnivorism, if not herbivorism too) is inherently harmful and should be abolished. Originating in transhumanist anarchism, this idea was widely mocked once it first made the rounds on Left Twitter. And indeed, there are many rightful objections to be made to such a vast and fundamental suggestion about the nature of, well, nature. However, I believe it worth asking whether ridicule is the right response to such ambitions. As leftists, we are surely familiar with the harmful diminishment of forms of oppression, the way that systems of domination are trivialized or naturalized so as to stymie our objections. You would think this leaves us predisposed to treat novel claims of oppression with a certain degree of good faith, at least as long as the supposed ‘oppression’ doesn’t consist of the inability to harm others. Even so, I find that many claims that are slightly outside of the anarchist norm are quickly treated with ridicule and scorn, as with the aforementioned abolition of predation.

On the other hand, is ridicule so bad altogether? Saddled as we are with countless concerns and oppressions of our own, do we not have the right to dismiss those problems that are so far removed from any potential resolution? I believe this is worth considering as well. It seems like a basic truth to me that most people don’t have the time or energy to care about most things. As much as I love to talk about politics and philosophy myself, I am well aware that this is not a primary concern for most of the Earth’s people, nor should it be. In our rush to establish the perfect methods of anarchist self-government, I think we sometimes forget that most people might not want to be involved in the endless debates which a consensus democracy might entail. The capacities of each and all should always be taken into account. In this context, I think it’s fine if almost every anarchist cares not a bit for the idea of predation abolition; its present importance is so marginal compared to anything else we might be involved with. If the idea is just, then as long as even a single person is interested in its realization, it will eventually bear fruit. Our present apathy is thus perfectly excusable.

But ridicule is just one part of the reaction to predation abolition. What really inspired this essay was my confrontation with the idea itself, and the many objections which have been lodged against it. As I said, much of this backlash is perfectly valid. Personally, the better part of my opposition stems from the techno-hubris which seemed inherent to any proposed ‘solution’ to predation. The idea that we could simply restructure a basic aspect of the global ecology without incurring a bunch of catastrophic side effects seems laughable. But this is fundamentally a question of plausibility rather than desirability: we could still suppose that predation abolition would be a good thing if it were possible. In fact, if the whole thing seemed as likely to succeed as any other aim of anarchism, I imagine that a lot of the present objectors would quietly switch sides. For a real, philosophical counter-argument, we should therefore delve deeper, into the fundamentals of what it means to abolish predation.

Luckily, this kind of basic opposition is exactly what my initial response meant to furnish. As someone who wrote a whole essay comparing anarchy to idea of ‘natural order’, the idea of disturbing nature on such a scale would surely be indefensible. Still, there a few different ways in which this position can be elaborated. First, there is the general anarchist response: the abolition of predation implies the mass domestication of nature, the restructuring of ecological systems according to human ideology. If the domination of nature by man is generally objectionable, then this is no exception. Secondly, the Daoism which founds my personal philosophy would oppose this idea almost as strenuously. Since non-coercion is the chief virtue of its naturalistic morality, and the transhumanist ‘solutions’ to predation are founded in alien artifice, there can be no question about our rejection of this idea. So many Daoist writings speak of the inherent cruelty in ordering nature, in imposing a dogmatic illusion of ‘wisdom’ and ‘civilization’ upon the spontaneity of the world itself, that I can’t imagine that any Daoist would readily agree with the argument against predation. Finally, my third philosophical pillar of Buddhism takes the most circumspect view of this issue. Only through a close consideration of its Four Noble Truths, which suggest that our suffering derives from attempting to determine the world unilaterally, can we come to a similar answer as these previous two tendencies. Still, the ultimate advice is just as strong: however much we try to force nature to follow our moral precepts, all we will end up creating is more suffering, be that for our non-selves or for our non-environment. Taken together, the answer seems clear: don’t mess with nature!

If I had written this essay earlier, or in a different state of mind, this conclusion could easily have been where I left it. However, not only has my position on predation abolition changed somewhat, but I believe this specific example can help me to disambiguate some of the basic precepts of my syncretic Buddhist-Daoist-Anarchist worldview. Specifically, I think it can partly resolve what I mean by terms like ‘freedom’ and ‘nature’, terms which are so variously defined to begin with. And so, while predation abolition is ultimately just my stepping stone to a greater insight, allow me to turn to its consideration one more time.

So, once more onto the breach! Why should we not reject this massive alteration to our biosphere, even if all these theories of liberation seem set against it? The operative word here is ‘seem’; on further reflection, I believe the possibility of a world without predation can still be a moral good within all three of these traditions. The key is to dismantle their shared objection: that predation abolition amounts to an exercise of control over nature, thereby harming both it and ourselves. One easy way of doing so would be to eliminate the aspect of ‘control’. For example, what if we could suppose that the predator-prey relation is itself a form of control? In that case, the abolition of this relation for all time would mean a mass reduction in the future amount of control in the world. If it’s not authoritarian to fight authority, then why is it controlling to eliminate control?

But this response is unsatisfactory. Not only does it start to tend towards an instrumental logic which my syncretic ideology is wholly uninterested in, but the very analysis of the problem seems defective. Predators are not driven by the desire to control their prey. To the extent that they are aware of what they hunt (and I guess they must be at least a little bit), their intent is based in survival rather than domination. If that’s still a form of control, it seems rather excusable. At best, we should blame the system of predation rather than the individual predator.

Instead of framing this situation as a matter of control, let us look at it from a different perspective. Regardless of the predator’s intentions, it seems obvious (from behavioral analogy at least) that the being who is prey is still suffering. Both predator and prey are eager to survive, and it seems unfair to the latter to treat the entire equation as simply a zero-sum game. Should the prey’s freedom to live not be respected? From this point of view, the whole affair seems rather tragic. And just as tragedy consists of painful inevitability, so does the entire ecosystem now seem to rely on a foundation of harm. In the end, is it perhaps our yearning for the freedom of all beings itself which justifies an attempt at predation liberation?

No, it does not. For even if we could come up with some futuristic anti-predation tech that would respect the autonomy of all beings involved (and this seems extremely dubious), there is still the aspect of ‘nature’ to consider. If the course of nature itself is sovereign, then any change we might think to bring to it would automatically be a form of control, however benign. The resulting dilemma therefore consists of a choice between suffering and control, between freedom and nature. It’s one of the worst moral quandaries I could think of: do I try to free the world at the risk of controlling it, or do I let things be at the risk of letting suffering persist? If the choice were unavoidable, I’m not sure which of these evils I’d accept more willingly.

However, for reasons that will soon become obvious, I do not believe in necessary evils. The choice before us is a false one, another horrible hypothetical which results from bad framing. Freedom versus nature? How could such an opposition be coherent, unless we live in a fundamentally unjust reality? This I refuse to believe. To defend this intuition, I will now move into a careful consideration of both freedom and nature, one which will reveal their ultimate moral convergence. As a philosophical strategy, I would compare it to the Tiantai Buddhist concept of the ‘interpervasion of all points of view’. Basically, this school of Buddhism claims that all moral perspectives will ultimately converge on a holistic reality, the full realization of each revealing another aspect of the total picture. While I’m not that much of a syncretist, I do believe I can reconcile this present dichotomy of freedom and nature. Here goes!

Has there ever been a more disputed political concept than freedom? I consider myself fortunate that my own threefold synthesis is relatively inter-compatible in this matter. All of these tradition seem to define suffering as an expression of control, be that in the frustration of controlling others or in the harm inherent to being controlled. Freedom, if we may define it as the absence of suffering, is therefore the elimination of this coercive tendency, both in ourselves and in others. What remains may be called autonomy, self-directed action which neither harms nor is harmed. Of course, this combined definition knows its particular nuances in each of its three branches. Whereas anarchism is not too interested in the futility of control itself (just its interpersonal manifestation as coercion), Buddhism and Daoism take it to be a major folly. Whereas Daoism asserts that freedom asserts itself spontaneously, anarchism and Buddhism are more concerned with the specific rules of our practice. And whereas Buddhism is uninterested in the freedom of a nonexistent self, anarchism and Daoism want us to feel free in the present life. Each and all of these perspectives are valuable, and only in trying to harmonize them do I believe I can find true wisdom. It’s a quest that’s still very much ongoing.

So much for freedom; what about nature? Here I would refer back to my previous piece comparing anarchy to the idea of natural order. As I suggested there, a term like ‘natural’ generally knows three meanings: involving the ecosphere, being aesthetically or morally superior, and implying inevitability. It is this latter definition that I am most interested in, since it explains the inherent sovereignty which nature as a concept displays. It is because ‘nature’ describes what is necessarily so that any deviation from it will produce ultimate disaster. This does produce certain paradoxes, of course; if human civilization defines itself in opposition to nature, will its unnatural nature not lead to an inevitable collapse? While I would say ‘yes’, this also brings me to a second paradox: how could the nature of something be unnatural? Am I just playing with words here? Again, I would say ‘yes’, but bear with me here.

What I’d like to focus on is what it even means for something to ‘have’ a nature. Here the Buddhist within me grows violently enraged: there’s no such thing! Nevertheless, if I were made to furnish such a definition, it would be this: the nature of something is how it develops by itself, spontaneously, in the absence of any alien determinations. But hey, this sounds familiar, doesn’t it? This sounds a lot like my conception of freedom! And indeed, this is my big philosophical secret. There can be no opposition between freedom and nature, because freedom IS nature. That is pretty much the foundation of my personal syncretic faith.

Of course, this still leaves me to take care of the earlier word games. How can something’s nature be unnatural? Well, if unnatural is sometimes just a harsher term for unsustainable or self-contradictory (in short, naturally prone to collapse), then phenomena like civilization or the self can meaningfully be called ‘naturally unnatural’. As for coercion, the nature of which is to spontaneously disrupt the nature of other things, I consider it to be a kind of stochastic parasite. It emerges as part of the natural abundance of phenomena, then persists by infecting other phenomena as a new attribute. In other words, coercion reproduces and systematizes itself until we realize its ultimate folly (and thus become Buddhists, Daoists, and/or anarchists). Its folly, in case it isn’t obvious already, is that trying to determine the course of other things without considering their nature (ie how they always already try to develop by themselves) is bound to fail. All you’ll generate is harm. This is basically my answer of the theological ‘problem of evil’. Even without a distinct god, it’s still worth explaining why my naturalistic cosmology still allows for anything that isn’t already Anarchy/Dao/Nirvana. We’re just a bit stuck; work in progress!

As I promised at the start, we’ve now reached a more general exposition on my philosophy from that initial discussion of predation liberation. Speaking of which, the etiquette of essaying demands that I give you some closure regarding my final estimation of this idea. However, I fear that this conclusion will only reconcile the opposing sides in the sense of uniting them against me. This is because, just as I believe that non-nature is actually perfectly natural, what we call ‘nature’ can certainly contain unnatural aspects. Even if I’ve already argued that coercion as such is not the goal of the predator, it is still the case that not all living beings (including apex predators!) are free to develop along their own lines. This isn’t a problem of intentional design, of course, but accidental arrangements can still be harmful.

For any hope of predation’s ‘resolution’, I would primarily turn to a Buddhist analysis. Its psychological tendencies seem more applicable here than the distinctly political message of anarchism and (partly) Daoism. Generally speaking, the response of our deluded self to a harmful experience comes in two flavors: either we change the immediate conditions of the experience, or else we shift our conscious attitude towards it. While both of these response can be part of the Buddhist, neither of them constitutes the goal of the Eightfold Path itself. That would be nirvana, a somewhat ineffable state of omnipresent unconditionality which liberates us from our ignorant, controlling impulses. Since it has been imagined so variously throughout the history of Buddhism, I can give no clear reading of it here. My radical suggestion would be that extending our awareness of ‘Emptiness’—the conditionality of all phenomena except nirvana—leads us exactly to the kind of spontaneous non-coercion which marks both Daoism and anarchism. After all, when we learn that the world’s cannot be coherently defined or controlled, and any force within its is always being complicated by ten thousand others, what can we do but try to act harmoniously?  This conclusion is heretical perhaps, but I greatly like it.

So, what does all this mean for the presence of predation? Should we start teaching the dharma to all living beings? Since some Buddhist schools hold that even animals can attain enlightenment ‘in their present form’, this is not as bizarre as it seems. Still, I would like to contextualize it a little bit. If the ultimate way of dealing with harmful conditions is the  cultivation of nirvana, here defined as the development of some kind of pervasive non-coercive drive (the Dao!), then this cultivation will necessarily reach beyond ourselves. After all, the whole Buddhist argument about non-coercion hinges on there not being a self! The attempt to change the self will always already change the world, and vice-versa. To put it another way, healed people heal people. And again, since the Buddhist method is founded in the elimination of suffering, its progressive realization will also affect those forms of harm which seem to arise accidentally (but which also ultimately stem from some attempt at control).

So far, so good: we just start practicing Buddhism-Daoism-Anarchism and everything will take care of itself. “But what does that entail in reality?” I hear you ask. “I’m not interested in simply believing in liberation, I want to fight for it!” Alright, alright. I get that my profession of faith in Dao/Nirvana/Anarchy seems utterly alien to the usual secularism of Leftist politics. Trust me, I was never looking to sound this spiritual myself. But okay then, let me try to throw out some concrete suggestions for dealing with predation along these philosophical lines.

First of all, I’m not in the transhumanist business of using technology to directly eliminate predation. There is a role for technology in dealing with non-human beings and their problems, but this issue is hardly as simple as ‘uplifting’ every species and granting them the power of photosynthesis. As far as technical solutions go, animal and plant communication seems like a far more fruitful avenue to explore.

Secondly, there are some prefigurative practices which can help us to affirm our necessary compassion towards the living world. Even if we can’t reasonably protect animals and plants from being consumed, it’s not as if this constitutes the sole source of their troubles. By simply living among rather than apart from ‘nature’ (an illusory distinctness anyway), we already come to develop the kind of empathy and awareness which can have untold benefits for the ecology as a whole.

Finally, we must be open to future strangeness. The development of a new harmonious relation to our lifeworld, including the development of helpful technology in that pursuit, is sure to pursue possibilities that are yet inconceivable. Even if I don’t strictly believe in the utopian origins of the Zhuangzi excerpt quoted above, neither do I believe that such an arrangement is impossible altogether. Indeed, if my faith in Dao/Nirvana/Anarchy is as strong as I claim it is, this should be the end result of all our endeavors. Or something even weirder and less coercive than that. Anyway, if predation is ever going to be ‘abolished’—and abolition was always already the wrong framing, this isn’t some institutional injustice in need of revolutionary intervention—it’s going to happen like this: strangely and unpredictably.

Well, so much for that. I hope this puts an end to me ever having to talk about predation abolition again (probably not). Still, I found it a fruitful opportunity to develop and exemplify some of my basic philosophical convictions. If my reasoning was unclear or even harmful at any point, please do let me know. If there’s one thing I hope I’ve made obvious, it’s that harm, suffering, coercion, rulership, etc. are absolutely antithetical to my syncretic system. Also, this combined philosophy of Buddhism, Daoism, and anarchism is something I’d like to keep developing in subsequent writings, perhaps in a more fundamental and abstract form. Until then!

Borrowed Thoughts is a series of short essays exploring the personal philosophy of The Inner Moon

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