Panel 7: Philosophical Dilemmas



Panel 7: Philosophical Dilemmas

The Ontological Brakes of Primordial Time

Benjamin Ross, University of North Texas

We are constantly urged to go faster, to work, consume, and experience more. This author posits that this fascination with acceleration may be leading us to a “Snow Crash-esque cyberpunk dystopia” by 2050 unless we alter our perspective of time. This presentation stresses the need for a new, primordial view of time that is capable of reevaluating our role, and place in the world (more).

Human Behavioral Evolution and Climate Change: Evolved Dispositions, Climate Action, and Integration with the Humanities

John Mustol, Fuller Seminary

What can science tell us about what kind of creatures we are, why we behave as we do, and how we might change our behavior in regards to the planet? This presentation will suggest some answers to these questions based on human behavioral evolution, that might be integrated with the humanities and other sources to help show a way forward and make 2050 and beyond more livable – for us and for other creatures (more).

Weakening Nationalities: The Anthropocene as an Era of Personal Responsibility

Larissa Basso, University of California, San Diego

Current institutions seem incapable of dealing with the reality of climate change. This presentation imagines a world in which current fragmentation is intensified as a means to address this deficiency. The author proposes to acknowledge the heterogeneity that exists inside of a nation state and to consider it beyond its borders. By implementing different measures considering personal/group carbon footprint, climate change could be more successfully tackled and a more just climate future could be created (more).

Working with Dirty Hands: A Christian Realist Environmental Ethics

Dallas J. Gingles, Southern Methodist University

This talk draws on the 20th century ethicist, Reinhold Niebuhr’s, “Christian realism” to argue that we are right to feel regret, remorse, and even guilt when we realize that we are always already complicit in the problem of climate change. Through this lens, as we work to ensure that the Earth continues to be habitable in the coming decades, the presenter stresses we must be indefatigable in pursuing goods and solutions of all kinds while being realistic about our limitations (more).

Q & A

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7 replies
  1. John Mustol, Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, CA. says:

    Re. Human Behavioral Evolution . . .
    This talk raises many questions that you don’t mention. Here are a few:
    (1) If these evolutionary dispositions, as you call them, are real, how do they interact with culture? Can culture modulate or override them? How?
    (2) What about your question about self-interest or self-care? How much IS enough? This is a key question for climate justice and equity. Can you unpack this?
    (3) Presumably you are a Christian from a Christian theological school, but you don’t mention religion or Christianity. What role does religion in general or Christianity in particular play in addressing climate change? Does it have anything to offer? In the face of the changing climate and other ecological problems, what will Christianity look like in 2050?
    (4) If these dispositions lead us to continue to behave more or less as we are now (business as usual), and social advocacy and political action does not make sufficient progress, what will eventually change us and lead us to behave in ways that deviate from or transcend our evolution?
    (5) You say that evolutionary biologists might work with musicians, writers, and others to help develop stories, movies, music, etc. to help us move toward a better, fairer climate future. How so? What might this look like?

  2. John Mustol, Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, CA. says:

    Re. Ben Ross, The Ontological Brakes . . .
    Ben, a wonderful talk. Do you think that general systems theory might deviate from the linear, reductive, inert view of matter and physical existence that you criticize? Do you think systems theory can help us change our view of matter, slow down, and find a better path to 2050 and beyond? Or, do you think it will require something less “scientific” – more mystical, religious?
    john mustol

  3. Dallas Gingles, Southern Methodist University says:

    Hi, all.

    Thanks so much for taking time to view and interact with the talks. The abstract of my talk might be slightly misleading since I concentrate more on a specific feature of Niebuhr’s concept of responsibility–its Weberian hinterland–than the regret we feel when acting responsibly. I think these are obviously and deeply connected with one another, but I wanted to try to be faithful to the theme of the conference by suggesting something closer to a concrete proposal, and it seems to me that the idea of *acting* responsibly is more conducive to that than reflecting on the regret that follows from acting responsibly.

    In any case, I look forward to the conversation. I am literally moving across the country today to take a new position at the University of Evansville. That means that I will be in a moving truck for the next two days (undoing all the carbon neutrality of this conference by myself), but I will be keeping up as best as I can on my phone, and will be back at my computer as soon as I get to my new office.

    Thanks again, and I look forward to any questions and/or comments.


  4. John Mustol, Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, CA. says:

    Re. Dallas Gingles

    Thank you for an interesting and very scholarly discussion. In our current context, perhaps you are right about combining Weberian disillusionment with Niebuhrian responsibility for a kind of worldly pragmatism in order to get at least a little done.. But if climate change “changes everything,” then maybe ultimately only some kind of catastrophe will be necessary. The German people didn’t “repent” and really change until their country was more or less completely smashed after WWII. Just how major social-economic-ecological change occurs (short of catastrophe) in today’s world is a big question for climate change activists and for others who would like to see big changes.

    • Dallas Gingles, University of Evansville says:


      Thanks for your question. It might be that catastrophe is necessary, but we have catastrophes of all kinds all of the time, and it sometimes seems as if very little gets done. I’m hesitant to speculate about any imagined threshold that might cause us to take action. And this not least because much of what concerns us in these conversations is actually a failure of politics rather than the existential threat posed by climate change (though that is a real threat). To keep with the same example from my talk, take the NRA. It’s not like we haven’t had enough catastrophes related to gun violence in the United States. But even this very personal, very proximate problem hasn’t brought about any meaningful political action beyond a few measures at local and state levels.

      Rather than imagining the threat level necessary to “fix the problem,” part of what I’m arguing here is that we accept the problem isn’t fixable in any final way. It, like all political problems, is an ongoing problem. Whatever penultimate solutions we find will almost certainly bring about other problems that will themselves require penultimate solutions–and so on. This sounds like tragedy: the endless addressing of unsolvable problems. And that’s exactly what Weber’s ethics of responsibility equips us to do. Politics is the task of undertaking penultimate solutions for ostensibly ultimate problems.

      While Weber’s pessimism rightly reigns in our utopian desires, and restrains our tendencies to congratulate ourselves by reminding us that the best of our efforts will inevitably be frustrated, he gives us little reason to be hopeful. Niebuhr’s theological realism helps us here by arguing explicitly that our penultimate solutions are meaningful rather than tragic. But the same ultimate standard (God’s love) that makes history and our actions meaningful also does a more thorough job of reigning in utopian desires and self-congratulatory tendencies. By infusing Weberian politics with a bit of heavenly mindedness, Niebuhr makes it of more earthly good. He suggests that our frustrated political actions are finally undergirded by the God who loves humans and their history so much that he will ultimately vindicate them and it. On this telling, then, we are free to engage in the work of responsible political action, because it is that penultimate arena for which we *are responsible.* Abdicating that responsibility isn’t just an affront to modern notions of “doing one’s duty;” abdicating responsibility is an affront to God.

  5. John Mustol, Fuller Theological Seminary, Pasadena, CA. says:

    Re. Larissa Basso’s discussion


    Thank you for a wonderful talk. When I saw that you are from Brazil, I felt a little connection. Three years ago, my younger son married a fine young lady from Sao Paulo. She has been a delight to get to know a little and to learn a little more about Brazil.

    Your discussion was wonderful in summing up the global ecological nature of climate change. I agree that individual change is an important part of the solution to the problem. As a member of the top 10%, I try to do what I can – replaced my car with a bicycle and public transport, vegetarianism, reduced consumption, recycling, and so on, and I used to advocate this among family, friends, and others. But I have changed my thinking. There is the so-called “bell curve,” or “normal distribution,” for phenomena that are generated by multiple variable factors. If human ecological behavior is understood in this way, then what we would see is that a minority of people would respond to calls for personal change in response to climate change (and other ecological problems); the majority of people would just “go with the flow” of dominant culture; and a minority would be highly resistant to personal change. And indeed, this seems to be what we see in human populations (at least in the US).

    This is not to say that personal change isn’t important. You are correct. It is very important. But the key question is how to induce large numbers of people to change. This depends on what motivates us, what approaches will persuade us, what kinds of things will lead to actual behavioral change in large numbers of people. It seems to me that this will require systemic change (political and economic change) and also some kind of global propaganda/marketing approach to get people to change.

    So I’m interested in what you think of this – the bell curve. Is it correct? If so, what impact does it have on needed change and are the best ways to try to bring about needed changes in human behavior. Thank you again for a wonderful talk.

  6. Rick Thomas, UC Santa Barbara says:


    I wanted to thank you for such an insightful talk. I really appreciate your thoughtful presentation, it made me think quite a bit. I am not too familiar with time in the philosophical context, and it is quite a fascinating subject. Your presentation is about applying the ontological brakes and speaks to the fact that we often move too fast in our lives, viewing time only as a linear arrow. I am in agreement that as a species it would be beneficial–for our spirits at the very least–to slow down, but I am curious as to how your vision of time would apply to the climate crisis. Many presentations in this conference emphasize the need to mobilize fast and now in order to effectively slow the impact of climate change.
    Do you worry that in the space it takes us to reevaluate time and humanity while we strive for this primordial view of time, we may miss our window in the present future to make a lasting effect on the climate crisis?

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