Today, we introduce a new column, The Wheel of Evolution by Eric Steinhart. Dr. Steinhart draws on his philosophical background to create a naturalistic foundation for the Pagan Wheel of the Year.
At Litha, the power of the sun reaches its maximum. Litha therefore signifies the prime of life, the climax of cosmic complexity. As far as we can tell, we are the most sophisticated things to evolve in the universe. Of course, this happy self-assessment needs to be tempered by the recognition that our existence is merely an evolutionary accident. We are not the goal of the cosmos. Furthermore, it seems likely that our universe either already contains or will contain forms of life far more complex than humans. If we ever learn about them, we will need to revise our assessments of ourselves. But until then, it is reasonable for us to provisionally situate ourselves at the peak of cosmic evolution.
The beginning of Litha signifies the prime of humanity, and therefore marks the transition from waxing to waning. After the Summer Solstice, at least as far as we are concerned, the wheel of cosmic evolution begins to roll downhill. The light declines. But Litha takes its place on the wheel in sacred time, and we do not know its location in profane time. Perhaps we have already passed our prime. Pessimists say we have already wrecked our future. Global climate change and environmental degradation now spell an irreversible degeneration. But perhaps these pessimists are wrong. Perhaps we will not reach our prime for hundreds or thousands of years. Optimists say we will continue to flourish and thrive for a long long time. Since we cannot presently know when humanity will reach its prime, and since human civilization has reached a very advanced state of progress, it seems appropriate to let Litha stand for the present human age, right now.
The ascent of humanity comes at the expense of many other forms of life. We are now almost certainly causing the sixth great mass extinction. Our progress entails massive suffering across the whole earthly ecosystem. We kill both individual organisms as well as entire biological species. The death of the last member of some species entails the loss of the value of both that last organism and its biological form. The dying organism makes its axiological demands*: it demands to continue to live, to reproduce, to flourish. But the dying species, immanent in the dying organism, also makes axiological demands. Reproduction aims at infinity; so every species demands to be eternally instantiated. Every axiological demand selects a set of possible universes, universes in which it is satisfied. So every dying species selects the set of possible universes in which it flourishes.
At the climax of humanity, the earth has clothed itself with suffering. All the cruelties which human animals have inflicted on themselves and on others protrude abstractly from our earth, and from our universe, like the painful spikes on a cactus. But these painful spikes blossom into flowers, whose seeds are utopias. Our universe is a plant, whose utopian seeds contain the genotypes of better possible universes. Or, better yet, our universe is a nest, designed and created by a divine phoenix, on fire and burning out, and its utopias are its feathers. These glowing feathers, sparks lifted by the axiarchic* wind, come to rest on the higher slopes of Mount Improbable. From each of these feathers, a greater phoenix will be born, a brighter bird more divine, which will build its own new nest.
*Axiarchism is a philosophical theory which states that reality is ultimately defined by some kind of value. The demands made by value are axiological demands. An axiological demand is a proposition whose truth follows from the nature of the thing which makes it.
Eric Steinhart is a professor of philosophy at William Paterson University. He is the author of four books, including Your Digital Afterlives: Computational Theories of Life after Death. He is currently working on naturalistic foundations for Paganism, linking Paganism to traditional Western philosophy. He grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania. He loves New England and the American West, and enjoys all types of hiking and biking, chess, microscopy, and photography.