Part II of an invited lecture given by Clive Doucet at Carleton University
The human world has always been divided into two parts, those who believe that there is an ultimate meaning to life and those who do not. This division is as old as civilization. In the ancient world, it is Socrates who most clearly defined that division when he said, ‘perfect virtue depends on perfect knowledge and since perfect knowledge is impossible there is no such thing as perfect virtue.’
Another way to express this is that virtue is relative and life itself is relative because all choices including moral choices depend on the evolution of possibilities and these change over time. Makes sense to me. For if you believe life is eternal which the evidence seems to indicate that it is or so close it makes no difference, evolutionary relativity must be one of the guiding forces of all life. It was the dinosaurs and it is for human mammals.
This is, however, a minority opinion. It is today in Canada and around the world. Mr. Harper has clearly stated that he considers moral relativists as people without any moral anchor. In short, they’re dangerous. He belongs to the belief based section of humanity that believes that there is a ‘right and a wrong way’. His new Office of Religious Freedom is all about protecting moral absolutists from each other and making sure they have a safe haven in Canada while he does what he can to eliminate the laws, public institutions and funding that supports relativists from whom the idea of separating church and state sprang.
I used to think that the principal fractures in human society were around language, culture, religion and colour. I no longer do. If you are a relativist, the divisions of language, culture, religion and colour can always be overcome through compassionate actions and a willingness to entertain more than one idea to create solutions. This is never easy because there are no perfect solutions and no simple answers. It requires a well educated population, a willingness to debate and strong institutions and laws to broker the complexities that this view of human destiny requires.
Until recently, this was the kind of country Canada was famous for being. It made us a world leader at the United Nations, made us principal player in the formulation of the U.N. Universal Declaration of Human Rights, U.N. peace keeping and so on. It is no longer. Mr. Harper has been steadily and relentlessly chopping away at all those public institutions, civil organizations, laws which were derived from the view of the world that life is eternally evolving and there are never any final or perfect solutions.
The belief driven meaning of life is primitive and always has been. We see it in action today with Mr. Harper’s approach to climate change. It is the approach of a petulant child. In sum, it is: “we can’t do anything until everyone else does something and since everyone else won’t, we won’t. Further, it probably is useless so we should just wait until the climate catastrophe happens and then we will start building civilization over again.”
This is what a child does when he or she had trouble with their building blocks. They smash them down and start over again. The most primitive manifestation of the belief driven life does not even anticipate rebuilding the blocks after they have been knocked over. It’s simply the end as in : ‘we the people with belief have the correct belief, thus we will go to heaven and where we live happy, eternal life after the catastrophe comes.’
The belief driven life’s principal defense is assassination. You simply kill the opponents of your beliefs. Socrates was just one of many whose lives were extinguished in ancient Athens for not being sufficiently subservient to the gospel of the absolutists. Nothing much has changed over the millennium. When pushed by thoughts which challenge the belief driven life, murder and the extinguishing of science is regarded as reasonable reaction.
For those like myself who are relativists, the meaning of life is always difficult to discern because there’s no handy code to refer to every time I lift a fork to my mouth or pick a grand child to hug. Part of the meaning of life for myself has always been found in the struggle for more sustainable cities. It started when I was twenty year old student at the University of Toronto and I was living on a street called Spadina. By chance, I was living just a few blocks away from Jane Jacobs, one the 20th century’s seminal thinkers about cities and a central leader in the resistance to the destruction of the pre-1950 city.
It was not difficult to imagine what an expressway down this broad city boulevard was going to do to the University and every community that lived beside it. I got involved. Sold buttons. Marched to City Hall. Gave speeches at the student centre and the extraordinary end of this first battle for a more sustainable city was – we won. Nobody expected we would. The Mayor and City Council had duly signed off on the demolitions required and the funding of a six lane highway to bisect the city, but the premier cancelled it and so began the story of my life and much of its meaning.
My young life started with this great success but I can’t say the rest of it has been. Virtually every battle, I’ve engaged with I have lost. We lost the struggle to have the Sens Stadium built in the city centre instead of in the middle of Class I corn fields at the city’s edge. Most Ottawans don’t even realize bringing NHL hockey to Ottawa was financed by rezoning Class I agricultural land for tract housing, warehousing and car lots. It was never about hockey. It was a post-1950 city, re-zoning a pre-1950 city for more malls and sprawl.
I have even seen defeat snatched from the jaws of victory. With the north/ south pilot light rail line we won a national sustainability award. Then a national procurement award for its full service extension and had signed a contract that would have delivered 26 kilometers of new rail service to Ottawa, the cheapest in North America. The contract was torn up by the new Mayor, Mr. O’Brien, millions were paid in damages to Siemens and the new project which replaced it will cost 4 times as much and give the city no new service. It’s a zero impact project.
An international design competition was launched for the revival of Lansdowne Park inviting the best designers from around the world to come to Ottawa and propose a new plan for Ottawa’s famous Victorian Exhibition Park – Lansdowne. Lansdowne goes back to 1868 and fronts on a UNESCO World Heritage site, the Rideau Canal. The city simply has no more important, no more valuable piece of real estate in its portfolio. Yet, the international competition was cancelled in order to give the land to local mall and sprawl developers who had never before redeveloped any municipal park anywhere. Their proposal for a condo and big box development was accepted by city council without any further reference to a competitive process.
These kinds of losses are not easy to swallow and can batter one’s sense of purpose and even one sense of the meaning of life itself. How can it not? If your whole life has been dedicated to a simple proposition: Cities if they are to endure must grow within their means. This is the only way we can assure their prosperity, security and success for future generations.
Every one of these losses will make it harder to develop a sustainable Ottawa and it’s clear we’re not getting anywhere fast. More people used public transit per capita in 1960 Ottawa than they do today; which brings me around, in a round about way to the meaning of life. For someone who can’t rest on a belief driven life, what happens when the meaning relative to your own times and life that you are trying to create is not successful, that the story of your life has not been marked with success. How do you resist sinking into a morass of ‘what’s the point?’ Thoughts.
It requires the humility of eternity.
My life is important to me, but from the perspective of the eternal, little different from a tree that blooms each spring. I suspect if you asked a dinosaur after a 160 million years of life on our planet what the meaning of life was, the dinosaur would have looked up from his foraging and said: “I exist therefore I am.”
And if you think that’s trivial, you’re free to do so, but will we humans be able to say we have existed for 160 million years? Anything is possible but we’ve got a very long way to go, having only existed in our present form for 200,000 years and only as a hominid for five million. I suspect if you had asked one of our relatives just a hundred thousand years ago: What was the meaning of life The response might have been the same as the dinosaur, “I exist therefore I am’.
A little later, say 60,000 years on if you asked tool making man what his or her meaning of life it might have been: “I do therefore I am”
St. Augustine nuanced this with: “I believe therefore I am.”
Descartes with: “I think therefore I am.”
Jean-Paul Sartre with: I choose therefore I am.”
We have a federal government now that wants to turn the clock back to ‘ I believe therefore I am’ and in the service of this life maxim funds religious organizations like Focus on the Family, defunds environmental like the Suzuki Foundation, doesn’t need statistical analysis and government science that contradicts belief driven policies.
One of the things that is clear if you are a relativist is that change doesn’t happen sequentially or in a single, forward oscillation. Change happens in intersecting ellipses. The old cycle of change is always part of the new cycle. The new part of the old. “I believe therefore I am” remains a powerful reality for billions of people in the 21st century. More people read St. Augustine today than did when he was alive. President Obama says he’s one. More people also read Marcus Aurelius and Jean Paul Sartre than when they were alive.
Another thing that is clear if you are relativist is that these oscillations bringing change are a manifestation of the divine. It is clear the creative spirit loves change and diversity for this is what we see all around us, has been all around us since the birth of the planet and all indications are always will be.
Perhaps, the Meaning of Life for some of you will be to become rich and I hope you do. Perhaps for others, it will be to have many children and I hope you do. Perhaps for others it will mean something else. It is my thought, that it will be up to you to decide what the meaning of your life will be. When I look back on my life, I certainly would have liked to have won more battles for sustainable cities but I didn’t, and no amount of rhetoric or rationale examination will change this and these losses will always remain like wounds which never quite close.
But in the end, if I am right that life and the meaning of life are relative concepts, then all of the above holds. “I exist therefore I am” is as true for humans as it was for the dinosaurs. Because if the human species does not exist there can be no meaning of life at least for our species on this planet. In this way, we are no different from the dinosaurs.
I do. I believe. I think. I choose. Surely these thoughts are also part of the meaning of life also. They can’t be separated. Belief must be part of life as is thought, although for me belief isn’t connected to the Augustine thought that a transcendent God awaits me with his city of God prepared for my citizenship. For me belief is about prayer and prayer is about hope. And my prayers are for a better, kinder, smarter, more sustainable world, no matter what the present scene may be.
I have put my small shoulder to that great wheel without regret.
Thank-you for your kind attention.