It seems to me that one of the greatest ethical challenges for thought is to encounter the world as being enough. While ontology ought not be evaluated on ethical grounds (i.e., we shouldn’t let a set of ethical and political commitments determine what is or isn’t ontologically true), it is nonetheless the case that how we think about the world has practical consequences for how we relate to the things of the world. And like James Bond, one of the repeated trends throughout the history of philosophy is to treat it as if it were not enough.
This treatment of the world as not being enough can be situated in terms of Graham Harman’s concepts of undermining and overmining. As Harman writes,
1. Undermining. You can say that objects are a shallow fiction of common sense, and that the real action happens at a deeper level: whether it be tinier components discovered through the sciences, some sort of “pre-individual” realm, an outright blob-like apeiron, a vaguely defined mathematical “structure”, or some other variant of one of these options.
2. Overmining. You can say that objects are a falsely deep and reactionary holdover from olden times in philosophy, based on superstitions generated by noun-verb Western grammar, or whatever. What is real is not individual things, but processes, events, dynamism, surface-effects.
With few exceptions, philosophy repeatedly traffics in overmining and undermining. Thus, for example, Plato is one of the great overminers, treating the things of the world as mere appearances and these appearances as requiring a supplementary existence in the case of the forms. Certain variants of atomists (I do not count Lucretius in this category as emergence is all over the place in his thought) are underminers of objects, treating objects as mere cognitive abstractions on our part from elementary particles as in the case, as Lukas reminds us, of Van Ingwagen. Likewise, despite his respect for the existence of a plurality of substances, Leibniz, in his “best of all possible worlds” thesis and design argument is a sort of overminer insofar as he rejects the thesis that interactions among substances is enough and instead argues that we must appeal to a divine plan to account for the order and lawfulness of the world.
There are also ethical overminers and underminers. There are those ethical overminers who are unable to imagine how collectives could invent their own norms and who instead find it necessary to appeal to transcendental universals or divine laws. Then there are those ethical underminers like Nietzsche and perhaps Freud who claim that these norms are “just” a will to power, drives, affects, etc., with no unique novelty beyond that of their own. Likewise, in political theory we encounter overminers he always treat collectives as lacking, subordinating them to a sort of eschatology whether that eschatology be of a religious sort or whether it be of a secular sort as in the case of early versions of Marxism. Likewise, we get political underminers that see politics as “just” power struggles and the whatnot.
Overmining and undermining are not without consequence. They are not simply innocent ontological debates and differences. No, undermining and overmining have all sorts of practical consequences. If I believe that substances are falsely deep (overmining) or that they aren’t deep enough (undermining), we are also justifying various types of conduct towards substances. If I am a certain type of Platonist that believes substances are just appearances and true reality resides in the forms, then there’s no point in me having regard for the substances of the world. Indeed, as Plato repeatedly suggested, we should turn away from our own bodies and the bodies of the world. If I am a political eschatologist then the present can only appear as deficient to me, as something to be destroyed so as to more quickly reach the real social world lying in wait in the future. If I perpetually undermine a person’s ethical claims and commitments, seeing nothing in them but malicious hidden motives and ugly, dirty drives and desires I undermine any possibility of sincerity. If I am an eliminative materialist, believing animals and humans are already dead then there’s really nothing to prevent me carrying out experiments on them like the CIA did with so many victims. Undermining and overmining have consequences. Those consequences are worse in some cases than others, but they are consequences nonetheless.
It’s very difficult to love the world and the things of the world. Throughout the history of both philosophy and popular fight we find an endless hatred of the world, an endless insistence that we must refer to something else, beyond the world, to account for the world. There is so much ugliness, so much suffering, so much injustice, so much inequality, so much unfairness, so much hatred. We thus concoct shadow worlds where this wouldn’t exist. What is really challenging, however, is to treat the world as enough or to find the resources within this world to fight these things without overmining and undermining in ways that degrade the beings of this world. This is not a formula for political and ethical quietism or to accept things “as they are”. After all, we also find overmining not just in the case of eschatological forms of thought but also in the phenomenon of nostalgia, where an idyllic past has been lost such that the present is fallen. Change is a part off the real of the world as well. What it is is a call to love this world, to find in this world enough, to love the things of the world without need of referring to otherwoldly supplements as ontological explanatory principles or to justify the world.