Freedom: Haunted by the Idea

(This is the Introduction to a series of posts on Freedom.  The series is not about political freedom, for that would have less to do with Nature and Biology.  I mean “metaphysical” freedom!  How, in a universe of causes discovered by Newton and Einstein in physics, Mendeleev and Linus Pauling in chemistry, Darwin and Mendel in biology, can People, or any other animal, Freely Choose?  There is a way that it ‘kind of’ happens!   They are published for the sake of the clarification of basic philosophical and scientific positions.  Later posts will contain many of these ideas expressed in a different form.  First published 11/04/2018)

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Bryan Cranston as Walter White, “breaking bad”.

What could you do?  I mean, what might you choose to do?  Are you free enough to just up and tell your boss, “I quit”, no preliminaries, just “see ya!”  Or your husband or wife, “I’m done, I want a change; I’m moving out today!”  Or maybe you decide to become a monk or a mountain-top sage; you pack a bag, buy a ticket to Nepal and off you go.

Seems possible.  You just turn off your practical consideration of consequences and any moral concerns, and just choose to do it.  Of course, you’re not going to do any of these things, especially in the whimsical, abbreviated fashion portrayed above; but theoretically, abstractly, is it possible?  You choose, and then do!  You choose to make some drastic change.

I used to think the answer was “yes;” I used to think we were that ‘free’, and I was actually somewhat spooked by it.  “I could do that,” I ruminated, “fully responsible humans are capable of such radical choice.”  By “radical choice,” I mean a choice not caused by outside forces, not even the context of the rest of a person’s life and times–physically, emotionally and in terms of character.  Not caused, simply chosen

kierkegaard-dostoyevsky-nietzsche-sartre
Four of the greatest Existentialist thinkers: Sartre (bottom right) coined phrase “radical choice,”  Dostoyevsky (top right) wrote Crime and Punishment, Nietzsche (bottom left) wrote one of the first explanations for morality,  Kierkegaard (top left) was one of the original founders and predominately concerned with religion.

The famous French Existentialist philosopher, Jean Paul Sartre, coined this phrase, “radical choice”, and he suggested we should think of many of our choices in theses terms: They are totally up to us; each in reality is a true ‘pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps.’  Each choice is your pure and unfettered act of making you who you are and you’re totally responsible!  Wow, no wonder I was freaked by it; it’s really severe!

What’s the basis for this radical ability?  Sartre thought it was ‘the self’, the ‘you’ in “you choose.” In reality, this “self” is disconnected from worldly causes, necessities and influences, he believed, even though it often seems highly connected.  Where you come from, your momentary mood, your upbringing and even peer pressure is not the true basis of any of your choices.  If you think they are, that’s “bad faith,” says Sartre; it’s a denial of “your existential condition.”  The real “self” is above these: It is not an object that is formed in your upbringing, or held by worldly needs, or gravity, or pushed by the wind.  It is not a part of nature, in fact it is characterized by Sartre in contrast to nature!  It is like an other-worldly ‘thing’, it transcends regular objects.  What it can do—choose to do, we often underestimate.*

Maybe the situation is similar to recovering addicts in twelve step programs, they call upon some “higher power” to stay sober.  And, this is freedom: it is not caused but must be made by a “Self” (or some ‘thing’) that transcends causes — a ‘thing’ kinda like God.

Freedom, for these existentialists, is like ‘reasonableness’ which also takes place ‘above the fray’ of causal forces and mundane worldly necessities.  The “self” that is reasonable and free is an unusual ‘object’; it must avoid many worldly distractions.

Often the commission of a “radical choice” is portrayed as a criminal act.  One of the great novels of all time is based on this theme.  Raskolnikov, the main character in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, convinces himself that the murder and robbery of a despicable pawnbroker and loan shark would be permissible, and that he will do it.  He is not inclined by his nature or experience to do it, in fact he is a university student.  What he does believe is his freedom to commit the act, and in the logic of it— the reasoning of the Utilitarian Theory of right and wrong.  To kill the scoundrel will rid the world of an evil person whose fortune could then be used for the betterment of all, he calculates.  What is right, is what is good for the majority.

He is also bolstered by the idea, popular then and now, that great people rise above their personal and historical context and act in great and unconventional ways.  Raskolnikov thinks of himself in Napoleonic terms; today we tend to think of some of our great entrepreneurs in this way and shower them with massive wealth.

A more recent example of “radical choice” was the popular television series, Breaking

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Cancer was the opportunity for Walter White (played by Bryan Cranston) to make a “radical choice”.

Bad.  Here, a high school chemistry teacher makes the startling decision to become a crack cocaine “cook” and eventually “kingpin.”  Implausible to the highest degree, the brilliance of the series’ writing and acting is the convincing portrayal of the mild-mannered man and his choices, including homicide.  He makes his decisions, no doubt, and they are radically out of character.

I no longer believe in “radical choice,” or in it in quite the same way.  It has made my life more tranquil.  “I am who I am”, I more often think,and I make decisions along those lines.  I am more embedded in myself than I was as a young man, more connected to an established life.  It’s a good thing.  I’m not the kind of person who becomes a monk much less commits a vile crime; in any realistic sense, I just couldn’t do it!

But, where does that leave the idea of choice and even freedom?  If we think of ourselves as more embedded in our environment and more tied to our past and the world around us, how do we think of the opportunity to do something significantly different, whether good or bad?

I  believe that the Existentialists were not totally wrong.  We can make significant changes. The Self, as it ‘rises above’, as it  gains ‘a vantage point to look back’ and consider itself and its actions, is not a metaphysical ‘thing’, but a biological and human social construction.  The “Self” has this ability because of the way we are raised to be Persons, and take responsibility and hold others to their roles too.  The Self does transcend, but not in the way the Existentialists thought.  More on this in the coming posts in this series!

In the next post, though, I will swing 180 degrees from Sartre’s “radical choice”, to the idea of humans as machines designed to act appropriately in their environment.  This new view brings humans into line with our universe of causes and effects.  We fit in, like clock-work!

3 Panel Canvas Art Clockwork Fine Watch Gears Colored Wall Art Panel Paint : cheap canvas prints wall paintings pictures
courtesy of ASH Wall Art

*Upon further consideration, I am not sure this is an accurate portrayal of Sartre’s position.  It is more of a strawman, an exaggerated portrayal made to make a point and be easily knocked down.

 

 

 

The New Robber Barons and Their Control of Our Future.

(Extracting economic value in the initial Industrial Revolution. Photograph by the great Lewis Hine.)

Two of the greatest scandals of today’s America are Gun Violence and The Lie that the 2020 Presidential Election was Stolen (and that so many people believe that).  But ranking right up there has to be Our Inequitable Income Distribution.  That the Democratic political party has acquiesced in this massive injustice makes it all the worse and even sinister.

For example, in 2018 America’s richest 20% of households brought in 52% of the nation’s income that year, which leaves 48% of income to the bottom 80% of Americans.  This inequality has been increasing.  In 1968, the top 5% of earners captured 16% of the nation’s income.  In 2020, their portion rose to 23%.  Each percentage point of difference represents a shift of around a hundred (or two) billion dollars! Let us recall from the previous post, that a billion is 1,000,000 millions; that’s a lot of millions!

Economically, how did we get to where we are? And what is its significance, anyway? Prof. Robert Reich of U. Cal. Berkley illustrates convincingly that far, far, too much of our nation’s and world’s wealth is concentrated in the hands and pockets of far too few. Political power then follows that money. Reich is one of our leading authorities on “Political Economy,” the old term for economics. That term is pertinent here because there is a circular relation between wealth and political power. It is Reich’s belief that this is true to the extent that currently Big Money (the super rich and giant corporations) control American politics. We have lost our democracy! contends the former Secretary of Labor in the Bill Clinton administration.

The History

In the late 1800s and into the early 1900s, the first “Robber Barons” ruled our land. This is the accepted historical narrative to describe these times, but also often described as “The Gilded Age,” a period of great wealth accumulation and extravagant consumption. In America, giant railroads were pushing their way across the west. Andrew Carnegie made millions supplying the steel for rails and locomotives. The oil industry was growing and then monopolized by Standard Oil. Children worked six days a week in coal mines and factories . Many cities were growing to an enormous new size.

(In 1869, the first transcontinental RR was completed. For those who bemoan the role of government in society, the connection of the rail systems from east to west was like the modern effort to go to the moon. It was heavily government subsidized and coordinated, and it was full of technical and engineering feats. The Pacific Rail Acts did much of this, and forced the standardization of rail gauge and car specifications to ensure a highly integrated system.)
(Cornelius Vanderbilt and James Fisk built two of the great fortunes of this era, and they were based in railroading. Vanderbilt was the richest American of his day and his family fortune remains one of the largest in U.S. history. Their early and continuing donations led to the name, Vanderbilt University, the renaming of a school located in Nashville, Tennessee. Cornelius was nicknamed “Commodore” from his earliest days as a teenager in the sea transport industry. He was a boat captain for his father’s ferry business in New York harbor.

 

The Progressive Era

The age of the the first Robber Barons came to an end (of sorts) with an era of reform. A rising middle class, a growing prominence for universities and their professors, the competition and growth of newspapers and magazines, all helped motivate changes. Journalists, government (especially local—like Governor “Fighting” Bob Lafollette of Wisconsin), and a growing labor movement including a rise in popularity of Socialism, asserted themselves as countervailing power to big businesses and businessmen. Some giant corporations were broken up by the first anti-trust suits. Working conditions began to be modified by labor laws. The Federal Reserve Act of 1913 attempted to increase the stability and coordination of the banking system.

 

(One of the famous American political cartoons of all time. The oil tank octopus, Standard Oil of Ohio, owned and grown into far reaching power by J.D. Rockefeller was eventually broken up (1911), partly by the work of Ida Tarbell, famous “Muck Raking” journalist. Cartoon by Udu J. Keppler, 1904.
Magazines became increasingly successful in this era.
(By the famous photographer of child laborers, Lewis Hine, 1910. A twelve year old in a Vermont textile mill. Hine was a professor of sociology that took to photography to document the working conditions of his time.)
(“The Breaker Boys” by Hine, 1912. Paid $.75 for a 10 hour day, these boys sat over coal shoots and removed the debris as the newly extracted coal moved by them. The first child labor reform laws were found to be unconstitutional in 1918! )
(William Randolph Hearst showed that journalism could be profitable and influential. Reputed model for the classic film Citizen Kane, his growing chain of newspapers at the turn of the century employed some of the best writers of the time—Jack London and Stephen Crane. They featured both lurid crime-story headlines and exposes of corruption and abuse in government and industry: “Muckraking.”)

The 1950s

This is where Robert Reich takes up his case in his 2020 book, The System. By the 1950s, a system of “countervailing powers” had become established. Major labor unions existed in many industrial sectors in the U.S. Banking regulations and the Federal Reserve system were fairly effective. Markets and manufacturing were still largely national and not international. A certain balance of power to existed and this was reflected in how major corporations were run and how wealth was distributed.

This balance of power was reflected in A CEO’s pay. A Chief Executive Officer of a major firm in the 1950s earned about twenty times their average employee.  Today, things have changed to 300 times, notes Reich. Corporations were run in a way that Reich calls “Stakeholder Capitalism.” An executive of a major corporation was considered to be “a statesman;” he maintained an accord among the vital components of his business: stockholders/owners, organized workers, customers, and the community in which the business operated. These were all the stakeholders” in a corporation, and all needed consideration. In these days, a CEO had often worked his way up through the ranks of a company and had lived in that community for decades.

The chairman of Standard Oil stated in an address in 1951, that the job of management was “to maintain an equitable and working balance among the claims of the variously directly affected interest groups.” The Business Roundtable, the most exclusive organization of leading American business executives in the 1950s and today, stated as late as 1981 that, shareholders should receive “a good return,” but “the legitimate concerns of other constituencies must have appropriate attention.”

(My home town, Dayton Ohio, former home of NCR (The National Cash Register Company). They supplied a large portion of this nations cash registers for over 70 years. As a child in the 1960s, I remember riding down the road between these large-windowed brick buildings and seeing men at work at their drill presses, cutting parts and assembling the registers. NCR started in Dayton in 1884.
(One of the early mechanical models. Today, NCR has sold their entire holdings in Dayton and most of those buildings no longer stand. NCR is now headquartered in Atlanta and are in information processing.)
(Akron, Ohio, “the Rubber Capital of The World”: During the 50s, the four largest rubber companies were based there—Goodyear, B.F.Goodrich, Firestone and General Tire. 30% of all the nations rubber products came from Akron and some 58,000 workers were employed. Today, only Goodyear remains there with its headquarters and only a few specialty tires are made in the city. Photo from calisphere.com)

The Corporate Raiders: Accord Among the Stakeholders Ends

In the 1980s, American Capitalism began to change, reports Reich. Men like Ivan Boesky, Michael Milken and Carl Icahn— “corporate raiders”—realized large sums of money were to be made, not by the invention of a new product or improvement in the most direct methods of production, but by manipulating the economic resources already available. They would squeeze from them additional “wealth.” Companies who had a stock value that was lower than the value of their other assets were susceptible to takeover. The raiders would sell off parts of these firms, move their production facilities to low wage areas, and bust unions. Robert Reich contends this was the shift from “stakeholder” to “shareholder capitalism.” By the late 90s, The Business Roundtable now declared that “the job of business is in fact only to maximize shareholder wealth,” reports Reich. The former stakeholders of the community and workers are now abandoned to the goal of rising stock value.

(Raider Carl Icahn specialized in hostile takeovers: Worth a reported $13 billion—that is 13,000 piles of $1 million each pile. He has taken over [or made money in attempted take-overs of] airline TWA, oil companies Texaco and Phillips, US Steel and RJR Nabisco. Picture and above info from The Guardian.)

13 hostile takeovers of companies worth over $1 billion occurred in all the 1970s, reports Reich, but in the 1980s there were 150. In the 80s, over 2,000 “leveraged buyouts” of large companies occurred. A leveraged buyout is when money is borrowed by the raiders, usually through the sale of a special bond, to buy a majority control of stock in the target company. These bonds became known as “junk bonds” due to their highly speculative and risky nature, and huge amounts of money were made on just the origination and trading in these bonds themselves (another example of abstract wealth.). A “hostile takeover” is one where the raiders meet opposition to their takeover by the corporation’s management and some of its traditional owners.

As the 80s continued, the management and shareholders of most large firms realized the times had changed and now stock value, shareholder wealth, meant all. The famous (or infamous) CEO of GE (General Electric), Jack Welch, recognized the trend early and by the time he retired in 2001 the stock value of GE had risen from $13 billion to $500 billion. In the early 80s, Welch laid off nearly one quarter of GE’s workers, totaling about 100,000 layoffs. By the end of that decade, the number of Americans working for GE was cut in half again (a decline of 160,000) and the number of foreign workers doubled to 130,000. General Electric has a history in electricity that goes back to Thomas Edison. Much of that history took place in the upstate New York city of Schenectady where in 1896 Edison moved his young company; today, according to Reich, GE has virtually abandoned that city.

GE’s former headquarter building in Schenectady, NY. That city was called “the city that lights and hauls the world,” as the home of GE and its affiliate the American Locomotive Company, maker of electric rail engines. No longer.
Former General Electric CEO “Neutron Jack” Welch: He certainly ‘blew things up’ in Schenectady New York and for many of those who worked for him. Known for a tactic called “rank and yank,” he contended that to stay competitive the bottom 10% of a company’s executives should be fired and replaced each year. Co-author of three books, he was also big on self-promotion.

In the early 80’s, corporate raiding became a major news story. Many conservative-leaning economists applauded the trend, believing takeovers “…improve efficiency, transfer scarce resources to higher valued uses and stimulate effective corporate management,” said President Reagan’s chief economic advisor at that time. Leading conservative economist, Milton Friedman, had long questioned the management philosophy of respect for all “stakeholders,” but Reich argues that the leading advocate for “shareholder value” was at The Harvard Business School, Michael Jensen. Before crowded seminars, he contended that targeted firms were inefficient, with economic resources “locked up” within them that deserved to be “extracted.”

The Transfer of Wealth

Today, the frenzy of corporate takeovers has cooled, and Prof. Reich sites several reasons. Maximizing shareholder wealth has become the standard philosophy for all large firms, leaving them far less susceptible to takeover. The fate of Unions in our country is a fact that substantiates the contention that the distribution battle has been lost. In 1955, about 30% of all private sector workers were union members; in 2020 that percentage is down to 6.5%!

But “underperforming” firms still exist, and are still being bought and sold, dismembered and manipulated, by “private equity managers” and “private equity firms,” the new and more respectable-sounding name for the old term, “corporate raider,” notes Reich.

Warren Buffet and his Berkshire Hathaway are a prototype for this kind of firm, and probably the most well-known. Buffet calls himself a “value investor” and thus invests in not only underperforming firms but also small firms with growth potential, among other opportunities. Buffet has obtained his funds to expand his assets, not by the use of bonds, but by the acquisition of insurance companies, GIECO for example. Technically, and by law, the money an insurance company receives in premiums is not its own, but it is theirs to invest. (An insurance company has an obligation to meet its payout demands at any point, much like a bank. Insurance is another abstract form of economic product, and Buffet is another example of making money off of money, especially other people’s money.) Berkshire Hathaway can also be considered a “holding company,” and its assets are worth over $600 billion. In 1980, the value of a share of its stock was $275; in 2014 it was worth $186,000 which is an increase of almost 700,000%! Today a share is worth over $500,000 each!!!

“Efficiency” Attained

Here at The Nature Religion Connection, we have often struggled with the problem of Abstract Ways of Thinking. All our experience, and thoughts about it, are to some extent abstract. It is often hard to separate the abstract from the more concrete, or which of the two is more real or important. The economic discussion above has that feature. Abstractions such as The Corporation, Stock, Bonds, Insurance, and even the homely $1 bill are significantly Symbolic and more abstract entities than The House that gives you shelter or The Soup in the pot that you will have for dinner. Among the NOT so abstract are the workers in your company. Yet, in conservative economic theory and in aggressive business practice, Real People become simply “economic resources,” an abstraction to be manipulated and moved about like trucks, buildings and machines!

Abstractions have been a great boon to economics and today seem to often constitute the bulk of it. Also, economic abstractions are currently the greatest problem. The current problem of Income Distribution would not even exist in its current form without a massive apparatus of banking and markets, “investment” and “saving,” record-keeping, reporting, and calculation. Certainly the serfs of Middle Age Europe had a sense of how little they had and how much the Lord of the Manor had. But, in today’s terms of Billions of Dollars, it is difficult to even imagine how much that is had, and what impact it has. Elon Musk, one of the greatest modern-day Lords of Our Land, is estimated to ‘have’ over $200 billion worth of accumulated ‘wealth.’ I find it hard to imagine how much 200,000,000,000 of anything would be: 200 billion grains of sand? drops of water? molecules of oxygen in the air? leaves in a forest?

The economic impact of such massive accumulations of wealth is only occasionally discussed. First, we have discussed the direct suppression of wages and benefits that took place with union-busting by the original corporate raiders, and then the less direct suppression by the placement of new factories and facilities in low wage and non-union areas (as in states with so-called Right to Work Laws and then foreign countries).

GM workers in northern Mexico earned about 1/8th to 1/10th of their American counterparts. One source reported that to be about $25 a day for a 12hr shift. This plant of about 6,000 workers recently (2022) threw out their old pro-company and government supported union after labor law reforms initiated by the new Mexico-Canada-US trade agreement. (US News and World Report)

Second, an economy top-heavy with income distribution, often experiences a short-fall in demand, and this slows economic growth yearly by an estimated 2-4%. Rich people save more of their income than other Americans who largely spend their earnings on very concrete items as soon as they receive it. This spending has an immediate and direct stimulus effect on the economy. Large amounts of savings must find investment (or charitable) outlets that take time and are a less direct positive influence on production. As pointed out several times above, much “Wall Street” activity is just money chasing money; abstract forms of wealth breeding upon themselves. Prof. Reich often refers to much of Wall Street’s ‘wealth’ as gambling, as the “placing of bets” on the success or failure of other Wall Street ventures.

Finally, massive wealth accumulation skews much of an economy’s productive efforts into peculiar directions—like the Pharaoh’s of Egypt had their Pyramids, so Elon Musk has his SpaceX! I suggest that the governments of the Free World heavily tax, and provide no tax shelter, for the world’s super rich. This would take something akin to A New Progressive Era, granted, but with that redistribution of income solar panels, wind turbines, and electric-based transportation could be significantly subsidized around the world. Granted, SpaceX is “cool,” but so is saving the planet from massive climate change. Undoubtedly, we could think of a few other mundane (as in “worldly” and “ordinary”) projects that might also be worthy of the attention and income taken from other forms of modern-day cathedral- building. Excessive amounts of “savings” are always looking for extravagant forms of expenditure, as in the following:

(Top left, Musk’s Starship SN-15 making an upright landing! He envisions such a craft voyaging to Mars. Then rotating to the right, the tallest building in the world, Burj Khalifa in Dubai, over 1/2 mile high at 2,715 feet—tall and thin and used for luxury apartments, hotel, retail, offices. Prototype of a self-driving car. Bottom left, the Marina Bay Sands casino and resort in Singapore. Atop its three towers is The Sky Park that features restaurants, jogging paths, and the Infinity’s Edge swimming pool. Finally, the Volocopter, the prototype for a drone-like air taxi for two passengers and no pilot necessary; powered by eight battery-powered, small fan-like motors mounted along the circular track above it. ARE THESE “INNOVATIONS” REPRESENTATIVE OF A FUTURE GOOD FOR US ALL, and GOOD FOR THE PLANET, or a FUTURE BROUGHT TO US BY THE EXCESSIVE CAPITAL IN THE HANDS OF THE RICHEST 10%—1%—OF US? I fear it is the latter.)

Post Script

There is much more to be said on these issues, and I plan to do some more reading on the topic. The overall impact of Globalization (US companies production facilities moving overseas, increased international trade, a global financial system…) is unclear. Several of the trends seem to be U.S. Consumers have benefitted by a drop in prices and a flood of low priced (in relative terms) products produced abroad. In this sense, the same American consumer can benefit by cheaper products but also be hurt by lower wages due to union-busting. Third World Countries can benefit by incoming manufacturing facilities, but also lose by the increased competition for their own companies from foreign giants.

But another of the trends that seems clear is that the world’s economic elite are Not, by and large, among the losers from globalization. The rich are getting richer.

Elm Court, the estate built as a summer home by Cornelius Vanderbilt’s granddaughter. In the rural Berkshire region of Massachusetts, it has 47 bedrooms and 27 baths. It has been the site of many historic gatherings including the meetings the preceded the Treaty of Versailles that ended World War One. On sale in 2020 for $12.5 million. The largest shingle roofed building in world.
STAYING PLAYFUL AMID THE RISING HEAT. Drawing by Marty. FOR MORE ECONOMICS—see preceding post in this section.

Too Much in Too Few Hands: Economic Value

Economic Value is an Emergent Value of The Universe. Well, at least here on Earth it ‘exists,’ but not in the terms of Physics or Chemistry—Economics is nothing to them, literally—but in the terms of Human Societies and Social Organization, economics means a lot and especially to the Persons that compose these larger units, our so called “societies.”. In fact, “Value,” itself, is a term not at home in physics or chemistry, yet we are all quite sure that many kinds of value do exist to us and form the basis of our human form of existence.

(The Mona Lisa by Leonardo Da Vinci is considered the most valuable painting of all. Though quite a few paintings are considered “priceless,” this barely smiling lady was insured for a record value estimated at about $860 million.)

It is curious that believers in Free Will, such as philosopher Dan Dennett and physicist Sean Carroll, have argued for its emergent reality by comparing it to music and money (Dennett), and Carroll to baseball, in a rightly noted (and short) article with the title “Free Will is as Real as Baseball.” ‘Things’ like these—free will, money, baseball and persons— have emerged all on the same existential “level,” so to speak.

(Baseball is somewhat like cricket. Played with ball and a bat and a pitcher, both are highly rule-bound activities. If the movements of baseballs and baseball players are determined by the lawful movements of particles originating in The Big Bang, then the rules of baseball are also curiously compatible with this ancient state of the universe that is now determinant of our current situation.)

From the point of view of “the hard sciences,” the universe is a machine that grinds out outcomes that are very predictable and even totally predictable in some ways. A Market Economy can work similarly. It too grinds out products, shifts resources, and creates and destroys new or old component parts (much like Natural Selection and the Evolution of Species in biology).. At its most abstract level, a market system or a Capitalist System (I’m not sure what the difference might be) can be said to “Produce Wealth,” as Adam Smith described in 1776 in his The Wealth of Nations, or David Ricardo in his The Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (1817). Both of these intellectual pioneers argued for the mutual benefits of Free Trade between nations, but Ricardo went a step further and argued for the value of increased organization and willful coordination of this growing economic machine by the creation of Central Banks.

“Wealth” can be very concrete and very abstract. Most Americans who have a positive amount of wealth have it in their home and cars. A shockingly large number of Americans actually have No Positive Wealth; their net assets are worth less than their debts. A $20 bill is a concrete form of wealth considering how few of us even carry them any more; we now simply rely on electronic tabulations of how many dollars we have and how many we have spent. But mostly it is very abstract; the bill itself is only a piece of paper with print and pictures with a certain certification as to its integrity. Stocks and bonds are even more “figurative” forms of wealth, and this especially by comparison to a house or your flock of goats. (“How is your flock doing? Mine is very well, thank you.”)

Abstract forms of wealth are much easier to work with than wealth in concrete forms. If your pig is worth $750, you can sell it and buy a round trip air ticket to Acapulco. If you brought your pig to the airport to trade, none of the airlines would know what it was worth, what to do with it, or even want to deal with it in the least. Abstract forms of wealth are not only easier to deal with, but also easier to accumulate and maintain, in some ways. Yet, leave us not forget, that in the case of Economic Value and Wealth, the Abstract is totally based in the Concrete. If you are hungry or cold, it will do you no good to have just a $20 bill. You cannot eat a $20 bill nor find shelter under it. You need real food and real shelter, or someone willing to provide those and accept your abstraction in their place.

It is one of the Central Theses of the Nature Religion Connection, that today we persons have great difficulty intellectually distinguishing and prioritizing our experiences that are Very Abstract from those that are Very Concrete. Each are real and equally important; all experience is a combination of both abstract ideas and concrete experiences. In Economics, we have an excellent example of where abstractions (money, stocks, bonds, credit) have both greatly enhanced our economic life and the wealth it has produced, and often brought the economic system to a halt or persistently diminished its functioning to produce the concrete necessities (homes, food, jobs) upon which we ALL rely.

(Abstract Wealth: Stock certificate signifying your ownership of a very small potion of The Disney Corporation. In the run up to 2008, banks “bundled” mortgage loans into giant packages and sold them to investors. Called a mortgage-backed security (MBS), the practice led to wide-spread abuse and then The Great Recession.)

Some Interesting Perspective on the Accumulation of Economic Value

The Cleveland (Ohio) Browns, an American-style football team, are paying their new quarterback $230 million total in a 5 year contract. That is over $40 million a year to chase around the other boys/men in a game with a ball.  There are 22 women who have filed civil suits against him for sexual harassment and assault. I hope the women get a lot of that money!

Jamie Dimon is the CEO of JPMorgan Chase.  He makes about $20 million a year and is worth almost $2 billion.  In 2013 his bank was fined about $20 billion by the Securities and Exchange Commission for offenses from the Great Recession of 2008 (10 million people lost their homes then to foreclosure).  JPMorgan still had a great year in profits, $18 billion after the fines.  Dimon got a pay raise in 2008 and his company got a government bailout.

A billion is one thousand millions.  Imagine Jamie Dimon with a personal wealth of 2,000 piles of a million dollars each.  Imagine Michael Blumberg (no outstanding legal issues as far as I know, and this has nothing to do with him as former Mayor of New York either), he is about the seventh richest person in the world—he has 58,000 piles each of one million dollars!  That’s a lot of piles, $58 billion worth.

(1962, the first WALMART in Rogers, Arkansas, founded by Sam Walton.)

The Walton Family, originally from Arkansas, are the heirs and owners of Wal-Mart, the worlds largest company (by revenue, and employees). They have an estimated worth of $175 billion. How many piles of a million is that? Let’s see: $175,000,000,000 is $1,000,000 times 175,000! Yes, that many piles of $1 million each. Hell, I wouldn’t mind having 175,000 piles of a single dollar each! They were considered to be the world’s richest family. Yes, they have more money than Bezos and Gates and Warren Buffet, but these guys are in the running, or should I say “in the ballgame.” They are in the contest of who can accumulate the most—abstract—wealth.

My wife is Not in that “race.” She has been a preschool and kindergarten teacher for many decades. She has taught hundreds of children to come to school, to learn to read, to look at science, math, and the geography of our world for the first time in a classroom. She has helped most of them to love learning. How many piles of a million dollars is she worth?

We do alright. My wife and I don’t complain much, but at my wife’s salary it would really take a while. In her entire teaching career, now spanning close to five decades, she will have earned about $2 million. Our Net Worth, our “Wealth,” is far far below even a single pile of a single million. Our new quarterback, he makes 40 piles a year (salary). But to put this in additional perspective, it has been estimated in recent years that over 13 million American families do not have a single dollar of net worth! Their debts are greater than the value of all they own!

In Conclusion

Much of the above comes from Prof. Robert Reich’s 2020 book, The System: Who Rigged It, How to Fix It. It is a good read: not pedantic, full of facts, clearly laid out in ordinary terms. Reich is our greatest progressive advocate and expert on income distribution, economics and politics. That used to be called Political Economy. Reich was our former Secretary of Labor in the Bill Clinton administration. Of course, he is not responsible for the metaphysical contentions in the above, nor all the “piles of millions that make a billion” stuff. That is my own.

(From the first round of Trust Busting in the early 1900s, President Teddy Roosevelt brought suit against several railroad conglomerates. Today, monopoly power is most often discussed in relation to Facebook, Microsoft and other tech giants but also some of the largest American banks like JPMorgan Chase and Citigroup.)

His conclusion is that way, way, too much money and power has become concentrated at the very top of our society, and that concentration works to the serious detriment of The System functioning well and functioning well for the vast majority of us and for the planet itself. His solution is To Break It Up! Like in the days of the old Progressive Era, to bring anti-trust action against many of the biggest corporations, seriously re-establish banking regulation, and heavily tax the super rich. His point is that Western European nations already does much more for their regular citizens, and we all should do more of it. We need to help re-establish governments and various community organizations as counter-balancing powers to Big Money and Big Business.

Our species has much Accumulated Knowledge. “Knowledge” is also an Emergent Reality and the above is a little Economic Knowledge that it is time to use to right this ship.

Here at THE CONNECTION, juggling all the factors. Drawing by Marty.

The “Secretly Profound” Idea of Emergence

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(Complex Forms with Numerous Qualities Have Emerged From Microscopic Structures with Limited Qualities.    Drawing by Marty)

So, what is “Emergence”, anyway?  This is the second passage on it and it’s time to say — more explicitly — what it is.  After all, we all kind of know what the term refers to, or do we?

Many chemists and physicists do not like the term.  “What is its point?” For example, if you take the CHNOPS chemicals and mix them just right, Life “results” or “occurs” or “is caused”.  Why say life “emerges”?  What is added?  It sounds unscientific, spooky-like. 

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(The Alchemist in Search of the Philosophers’ Stone, painting by  J. Wright of Derby , 1773)

Yet, noted physicist, Sean Carroll has written an entire book (The Big Picture) pretty much dedicated to this concept.  “There are many ways of talking about the world, each of which captures a different aspect of the underlying whole”, he writes.(1)  This vision of reality is “innocuous-seeming but secretly profound” and he calls it “Poetic Naturalism.”  What is vital is that all these “stories” must fit together.  “Higher level” ways of talking must be consistent with those ‘below’ it.  He then declares, “One pivotal word enables that reconciliation between the different stories: emergence.”(his italics, 2)

Emergence is as much a logical concept as it is a physical one.  Carroll cites 19th century French philosopher Auguste Comte as the first to explicitly delineate a “hierarchy of sciences”.(3)   We all tacitly acknowledge this hierarchy, with not much dissent.  Physics is “the most microscopic and comprehensive level; out of that emerges chemistry, and then biology, and then psychology, and finally sociology”, Carroll summarizes Comte’s view.  But here is the controversial part, each layer does not ‘collapse’ into those below it because each “way of talking” or each “effective theory” — as Carroll also calls them — is valuable and logically autonomous in itself.

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(Not quite the idea of a Hierarchy of Sciences, but the general idea of a hierarchy of  existence has been around for a long time.  It has been called The Great Chain of Being. The above is Thomas Acquinas’ fourth argument for the existence of God, the argument from degree: there must be a lowest and highest degree of Mindfulness, Spirit, or forms of existence.. Thanks to Chegg Study for diagram.)

For example, the chemistry and neurology of the brain will someday “explain” all the ‘truths’ of psychology we might want to say, but Carroll disagrees.  “The emergent theory (in this case, psychology, gww) describes true features of the system that might be completely hidden from the microscopic point of view”, he argues.(4)  He contends emergent theories are additional knowledge of the system; more precisely, they are knowledge of “useful ways of talking” about it.(5)  The microscopic theories do not say, or explain, all that is worth saying about the system.

What is this “usefulness”?  It seems to be a shift in, a build up of, perspective.  In fact, Carroll cites Ludwig Boltzmann’s explanation of entropy: Entropy is “a way of counting how many possible microscopic arrangements of the stuff in a system would look indistinguishable from a macroscopic point of view.”(6) 

For example, what we refer to as “the sky” is a physical situation with high entropy ; many different atomic and sub-atomic layouts (descriptions) of any particular view of the sky could be possible and accurate. They would all “look the same” to us; each could be (as far as we are concerned) whatever the actual atomic configuration was. “The sky” is not a highly organized “thing;” but for what we would call “more complex or more highly organized phenomena”—like a living thing or a human society—far fewer atomic descriptions of it could be accurate, fewer would be, or look, the same to us. They have low physical entropy, and therefore a much more exact and limited range of atomic description.

In that sense, a point of view has now become integral to this vital scientific principle; microscopic occurrences can be taken, or have significance, in different ways!

When we describe the world from the point of view of physics — with its objects and laws — it is, as if, persons don’t exist.  Physics is not a ‘human’ perspective.  It is universal and, therefore, almost totally abstract.  Physics “ignores” all the many layers of complexity that we humans deal with constantly.  No macroscopic ‘solids’ or ‘fluids’ stand out to it; no color or sound, no feelings or meanings, no living things, no perceivers, are conceptually present in its vocabulary.  For physics, these ‘things’ do not exist except as crude, initial, data that is in need of analysis.  They are “subjective phenomena” for which their ‘true nature’—their microscopic sub-structure—can be discovered. This is just what Carroll is arguing against with his advocacy of “Emergence” and the different “Levels of Effective Theory.” There is more to our world than its atomic structure. Gee, that seems rather obvious!

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(“Where is Waldo?” as the popular book series asks. He is not in this portrayal of the movement of the basic particles of the universe as obtained following a high speed collision in a super collider.  “Waldo” is an idea from a vocabulary far different than particle physics.  Image thanks to pixabay.)

“Physics is the simplest of all the sciences,” Carroll says, “not ‘simple’ in the sense that the homework problems are easy, but simple in the sense of Galileo’s trick of ignoring…”(7)  He says, some make of this that “if we completely understand the microscopic level,…we know everything there is to know…Whatever (macroscopic, gww) questions you might have can be translated into the microscopic language and answered there.”(8)

Carroll agrees, in one sense; all the ways we talk about ourselves (if it is legitimate talk) must be compatible.  So, ‘our’ behavior, as a system of atoms, is predictable and determined by the laws of physics and chemistry.  The idea of “You” is “not a part of our best theory of atoms” or any other microscopic object.  Carroll continues, “you are an emergent phenomena, meaning that you are an element in a higher-level ontology that describes the world at a macroscopic level.”  As “You”, it is “perfectly appropriate to talk about wants and feelings and desires” and also choices.  “Those are all real phenomena in our best understanding of human beings”, he concludes.(9)

So, atoms don’t have wants and feelings, nor do waves in a quantum field.  Even though ‘you’ are made of such things, and understanding ‘you’ as a particular collection of them, can predict, “in principle”, all the movements of ‘you’. We can still legitimately say ‘you’ have wants and feelings. 

Nor are wants and feelings caused by atoms.  That is a mistaken way to talk, says Carroll.  It is incoherent; it is mixing two vocabularies.  Wants and feelings are caused by other elements at the vocabulary level of ‘you’ (10), things like ‘need’, ‘instinct’, ‘ambition’, ‘expectation’, ‘socialization’, ‘desire;’ these cause wants and feelings.   Atoms (or quantum fields, or whatever) only interact with other things of their kind. Each way of talking is at its own emergent level.

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(The movement of these collections of particles can be predicted and described by physics, but the terms “predator and prey”, “cheetah and gazelle”  would not appear in that vocabulary, nor any emotion or need these creatures might be feeling.)

This is Emergence, I believe: it is an ‘unfolding’ of potential, not a necessary sequence of caused objects.  It is our good fortune that from a microscopic world of quantum waves or sub-atomic particles more complex unities appeared.  It did not need to happen and it is a somewhat rare occurrence in the universe, apparently.   But, on our special planet, it did happen, and  from our point of view, as rational humans, many emergent properties and abilities needed to emerge for us to get to our current situation.   We can trace ‘our’ origin to the Big Bang, but there is a huge gap from there to humans going to the moon and sending robotic explorers into deep space.  Also, humans have a reasonable understanding of the entire universe at a microscopic level, and we live to write about all this and consider the significance of these accomplishments.

So, the connection between the Microscopic World and the various Macroscopic Worlds (“ways of talking” about the micro) is not causation, but “usefulness”and “emergence” according to Carroll.  It is how the microscopic order is ‘taken’, ‘used,’ that matters to Poetic Naturalism.  There are some patterns among these microscopic structures that stand out to us—in addition to abiding by all physical laws—as if they were our ‘shadow,’ a trail of more complex patterns that are us, ourselves Emerging through all the levels.

Life, consciousness, animal societies, human language is what can possibly evolve from the simplified nature revealed in the hard sciences.  Useful ways of talking about the microscopic add new properties, new abilities and new objects that are “autonomous” and meaningful on their own, because they are a set of interrelated structures, functions, and qualities. “The emergent theory is autonomous (it works by itself, without reference to other theories)”, and “truly new”, contends Carroll. (11)

That is a nice thought!  It is real and legitimate to understand the universe as useful to us as persons.  Emergence allows us, literally, to see this, and the concept of “emergence” allows us to understand that we do fit in this universe as a qualitatively rich and complex place.  We can look out and see it, hear, smell and feel these developments.  We can also try to understand these emergent wonders.

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 (OUR WORLD OF NUMEROUS QUALITIES AND COMPLEX OBJECTS.  Allegory of the Sense of Smell, painting by Peter Bruegel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens, 1617.)

A Puzzle To Be Solved?

I am not sure Sean Carroll has solved the problem of the relationship of one level to another. As a physicist, he speaks out strongly for the a dominant role of that version of reality. But physicists are persons too, and perhaps primarily. Maybe the social and historical level of “Effective Theories” will in the end be just as significant as the hard core physical? After all, physics has itself changed its view of “ultimate reality” often. The self-reflective process of human history maybe the most reliable understanding of our human condition, but a very open-ended one.

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(THE WORLD EMERGING IN MY BACKYARD, photo by GWW.)

So, there is more to the universe than atoms in motion.  The next post will provide Carroll’s basic examples of how the universe “emerges” from these atoms.   The universe becomes more than its basic stuff, and is “for our purposes”, “useful” and ‘significant’ to us!   Two important mechanisms or structures for emergence will be described: coarse-graining and fractal organization.

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(Prades, the Village (1917)  Painting by Joan Miro.  “Intense color, light, space and form are used to express the artist’s emotional state,” guggenheim.org.  Or is it another “useful” description of the world.)

Notes: From Carroll’s The Big Picture:  1. page 93   2)  94  3) 104  4) 108  5) 108   6) 227  7) 25   8). 108   9).113 10) 113  11) 106-7

12)  Compatibilism is the idea that higher qualities and abilities are compatible with a Deterministic Universe.  Just because physics knows a lot about the movement of the basic particles and quantum waves of the universe, does not mean that there are not still more interesting and significant things to be said about those microscopic realities.         13. page 17

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naturereligionconnection.org

Emergence and a Strange Thing called Human Choice

More complex things “Emerge” from a background of simpler things, argues the diversely talented physicist, Sean Carroll, in his book The Big Picture. It is a “secretly profound idea that there are many ways of talking about the world, each of which captures a different aspect of the underlying whole,” he writes. (1) (This is a follow-up post, see Things Emerge for initial ground work.)

(The Caltech Physicist, Sean Carroll. Photo from Physics Forum.)

Let us now consider an application of this idea of Emergence to a real-life situation.

In no way does a single atom choose, and it seems hard to imagine how a collection of atoms could do much better, we can state rhetorically. But Choice does exist, argues Carroll, and “it would be difficult indeed to describe human beings without it.”(3)  A basic tenant of Carroll’s Poetic Naturalism is that each “way of talking”, each emergent and “effective theory,” has its own vocabulary, its own ontology of objects, that it describes with consistent and orderly relations.  I am confused by the contentions of radical reductionists and eliminativists.  They want to think about “persons” and undoubtedly use the idea in their everyday life, yet make theoretical contentions that exclude central parts of what seems to be “personhood.”  You cannot eat your cake (pizza) and have it too.

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(If all we do is determined by causal forces far different than the qualities of good pizza, then arguing about ‘best pizza’ is an empty charade, as would be debating free will.)

Carroll contends that they make a category mistake.(4)  They illegitimately mix two ways to talking.  Physics-talk or person-talk, “either vocabulary is perfectly legitimate, but mixing them leads to nonsense”, he contends.

It is confused to say, different electromagnetic wave lengths cause us to see different colors. It is no help to say different patterns of neural activity causes us to see them; at least we should say, color is associated with these physical events.

Another example of this confused way of thinking, I believe, occurred recently on the WEIT blog.  A light-hearted debate arose over which is better pizza, Chicago style deep dish or NY style thin.  Coyne—the defender of a form of “determinism”—jumped in to advocate for deep dish; being from Chicago, it’s his favorite.  But I commented, raining on this light-hearted parade, that “Who cares?”  “If humans have no free choice in the matter and are not responsible for their likes and dislikes (as Coyne believes), then what is the point of debating; other than the fact that the debaters can do no other than what they do—debate. It is a debate whose outcome is already determined and whose terms are ungrounded. So what is the point?” I concluded.

So at the Level of “person-talk”—at which this pizza debate took place— there must also be talk of some things or qualities more or less like what we call “texture,” “spiciness,” “aroma,” “flavor” (sensation terms) More essentially, “person-talk” seems to need ideas something similar to “responsibility,” some talk and reality of “social roles,” a concept of “us” or “our people,” “choice and decision,” “antecedents and consequences,” and then of course a variety of “things that are not persons.” All these are the concepts that make talking of “persons” important and coherent: all these are ideas and qualities at that level. This will be a topic returned to, here in The Connection: What is person-talk?

Carroll’s contention is, being a no-free-willer, no-true-chooser AND debating what is the best pizza, is nonsense, pointless, vacuously circular.  How can physics explain your preference of pizza? The two sets of terms just don’t match up.

Humans Do Choose

Choice is a deeply human characteristic, Carroll says. I think it would be best to say “person,” because humans in comas, or with extreme mental deficiencies, do not make choices.  Persons are deeply characterized as “choice-makers.”

Carroll gives us a simple example.  In the morning, you walk to our closet to choose a shirt for the day.  Should I choose this blue one or that yellow one, you wonder.  “That is a decision you have to make,” he says, “you can’t just say, ‘I’ll do whatever the atoms of my body were going to do.” (5)

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(Choosing is not just a mental act, it is built into the way we live.)

Two points about this.  First, I would like to emphasize that your choosing is not just an issue in your head —as if it were only a mental state and possibly an illusion.  If you are standing in front of your “closet,” you ought to be thinking about “choosing.” That situation is built into the physical design of your house:.it is built into the way we live.  Our mental perspectives is necessarily connected to the physical arrangement of the environment.

Your wardrobe hanging in front of you is equally a physical thing that is all about choosing from among it.  Driving down the road, every intersection is a choice-opportunity. At a grocery store, aisle after aisle of choice-opportunities, and on and on. It is deeply confused to think you could take human beings and our ways of life and just pluck out the idea of “choice” (switch this mental state) and still have something nearly the same.

This issue goes deeper still, The rudiments of choice go back into biology, into single-celled organisms and plants in general.  They and their environment—from Our point of view—are Structurally Organized to create optimal ‘choices,’ rudimentary ‘decisions.’ To us, their environment to them would seem limited, and their responses often predictable. That is ‘proto-choice.’ A creature far more sophisticated than we might think the same of our decisions, but our decisions do not seem that way to us! There is a very “deep” and complex relationship between living things and Their Environment, the two are very much designed for each other. That environment (as it seems to the organism) and that living creature are not part of the vocabulary of physics—physic’s talk is at least several “levels” down the scale of complexity. It is far more abstract.

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Person’s “choose” because they have incomplete knowledge.  That is our condition.         Wikipedia diagram.

Secondly, and the point Carroll emphasizes, no matter what a physicist might know will happen next, You Don’t.  As you stand in front of that closet, Choice is real for you because you are limited in your ability to know.  Carroll says it is a matter of “epistemic access”.  It is “the unavoidable reality of our incomplete knowledge (that) is responsible for why we find it useful to talk about the future using the language of choice…”  “None of us knows the exact state of the universe, or has the calculational power to predict the future even if we did”, he writes; “we know about the rough configuration of our bodies and we have some idea of our mental states…given that incomplete information…” we choose and “it’s completely conceivable that we could have acted differently.” (6)

The Conclusive Point

This is the conclusive point, to my way of thinking.  We have strong evidence, as Carroll argues, that the course of our world is (in some sense) predetermined.  Its course is physically necessary, but we do not have practical access to that knowledge.  From our limited and inclusive participation in that world we have been rightly designed to act as if the future is open and that our choices are significant there in.

I think that the wide-ranging physicist, Sean Carroll, has brought us a long way in our consideration of Emergence. Whether I will agree with his final conclusions, I am not yet sure. I have a suspicion that he may be too physics-oriented. Physics is vital, but so are many other ways we talk and act.

Notes— A few page references: 1) 93  2–4) page 379  5) 380,  6) pages 380-1

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When we are Particularly Impressed with the Beauty, Coordination and Good Fortune of Our World.       Logo by Marty.

New Things “Emerge”

“Huston, We have a problem,” was astronaut Jim Lovell’s famous call to Earth. Let’s put in a similar call. Somehow we humans get colors, joy, death and freedom from a washed out bunch of subatomic particle. That is getting a lot of Qualities out of much less substance. (See the preceding posts for the ground work on this theme.) I know it takes a bunch of math, to get from there to here, but is it ever really enough? Here is someone who can help.

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Sean Carroll is a noted physicist from Cal Tech.  Known for his wide ranging interests and knowledge, he also has a desire and ability to share his expertise with a broader audience—me and you. He has written The Big Picture, a book from 2016 that exemplifies his versatility and desire to communicate.  Its subtitle is “On the Origins of Life, Meaning and the Universe Itself.”  Yes, wide ranging.

So, in the very broadest sense, Where do all the different things around us come from? Dr. Carroll will help us answer that question.

Physics and the ‘hard’ sciences are not my forte, so I needed to tackle this book — some 450 pages of it — to solidify (or refute) the claim that interesting and more complex objects “emerge” from the quantum fields and sub-atomic particles that are now known to be “the basis” of our world and the universe (“itself”). We all know that all things are matter and energy, but we sure have a lot more to say about “things” than just that!

(Maybe Breughel and Rubens were wrong! Maybe all the difference in the world is NOT what really matters. The Sense of Sight, painting by Jan Breughel the Elder and Peter Paul Rubens, 1617.)

Carroll is a “Compatiblist”, a philosophical position that argues that both the objects of physics are real and significant, and so are the objects of our ordinary world that we call ‘people’, ‘zinnias’ and ‘the Atlantic Ocean’, to name but a few.  The microscopic and the macroscopic largely fit together without too much tension, he believes (1).  In The Nature Religion Connection, this is also our belief, but how does it happen? How are we both “persons” and swarming masses of sub-atomic particles, for example? Carroll believes we can be these two seemingly different kinds of things without too much confusion.

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(Note each letter suspended from a puppeteer’s string.)

Others do not believe the world around us does has so many different and wonderful kinds of things and abilities! Radical Reductionists believe that since the objects and laws

of physics underlay everything, macroscopic objects lose their status (in some important sense) as real, or legitimately significant (2). Too much of the way we think of these macroscopic objects does not fit with our ‘scientific vision’, they claim.  Neuroscientist and famous atheist, Sam Harris contends that ‘free will’ is an illusion and the choices we make are caused by mechanical forces outside us and in.  There is no free will, no freely choosing, therefore, we should eliminate such talk.  

Biologist Jerry Coyne, University of Chicago,, believes we do not freely choose and, therefore, talk of ‘responsibility’ and ‘morality’ is also unfounded (see his popular blog, Why Evolution Is True, or WEIT).  These folks are called by Carroll not only reductionists — macro objects are really micro objects — but also “eliminativists.” 

(A double-petalled Zinnia from the garden of Greg and Sheri. Is a flower still a “flower” if we speak of it only in atomic terms? Photo by GregWW.)

Their position has undeniable cogency; why talk about ‘the same thing’ in two very different ways?   For example, a Zinnia is a collection of sub-atomic particles and also a biological object with needs, satisfactions and efforts.  Which way of talking is more important, which way is true?  Should we talk in both ways? If so, how do they fit together? After all, atoms in themselves do not have needs; they do not even have a color, yet the above zinnia seems beautifully orange and has a need for sunshine.

The flavor and attitude of this eliminativist claim might be captured in this famous quote by Ernest Rutherford, the experimental physicist who in 1909 was crucial in discovering the structure of the atom.  He not only diminished the significance of macro objects but also the less fundamental sciences; he said “all of science is either physics or stamp collecting.” (3) If you want to really know how things are, study physics, that was his rather arrogant contention.

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(Rutherford’s famous gold foil experiment.  “All science is either physics or stamp collecting,” he said.)

I must admit that I feel a significant degree of confusion about this connection of the microscopic to the macroscopic world. How much can we eliminate  from a particular discourse, or change the discourse entirely, and still be talking about the same thing?  To me, a flower exhibits some distinct qualities different from inanimate objects, and this is the historically recognized belief.  People make “choices” and are “responsible” for their actions, we also believe, but such talk has no place when considering atoms.

And aren’t these empirical claims; don’t we just see it? A flower has color; it grows, blooms, makes seeds that then reproduces “itself” in a very similar flower—its offspring.  We can manipulate its breeding and encourage the enhancement of some traits by contrast to others in the offspring.  We know there are “laws,” “rules,” by which this happens.  It is called the science of biology.  So, is a “flower” still a flower if we decide to speak of it only in atomic terms?

The Power of Physics

Some day, our knowledge of physics may expand to the point that the behavior of all things may be predictable in advance.  Crazy to think, but Carroll says that, “in principle,” that day is already here!  Physicists now possess accurate and detailed knowledge of the workings of the universe but also “an effective theory of the everyday world.”(4)  He calls it “the Core Theory” and it is “the specific set of fields and interactions that govern our local environment.”  He continues, “Everything we want to think about human beings has to be compatible with the nature and behavior of the pieces of which we are made” and then adds an interesting proviso, “even if those pieces don’t tell the whole story.”(5)

That is the crux of the entire debate.  What sense can be made of that proviso?  How can the particles and forces that compose us at the most basic level behave as physically predicted, yet, not be all that is worth saying?  What more can be added that does not fall into silliness and superstition?

Here is  the equation that puts ‘the nail in the coffin’; it is the physics that is the basis for the prediction of all that happens around us, and with us, in our macroscopic world.  Its called “the path-integral formulation of quantum mechanics”.(6)   It was pioneered by Erwin Schrodinger but this is the “compact and elegant” formulation of contemporary physicist Richard Feynman, reports Carroll.

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Carroll has added to the equation the solid lines and descriptions that distinguish the different sections of this formulation: “quantum mechanic”, “spacetime”, “gravity” etc.  In general, the equation describes “the quantum amplitude for undergoing a transition from one specified field configuration to another, expressed as a sum over all the paths that could possibly connect them.”(7)  That is what W is, it is the amplitude of a wave expressed as an integral that is “summing up an infinite number of infinitely small things”: “the possible things the field can do in between the starting and ending, which we call a “path” the field configuration can take”, says Carroll.

I can assure you, the above equation is not the style in which his book is written.  If it was, I would not have gotten beyond page one!  The above equation is the only one to appear and it does so in an appendix as an effort to give the reader a taste of the unvarnished work of contemporary physics.  It is amazingly impressive stuff, and Carroll contends that its accuracy and specificity is such that even if in the future scientists come to think of its components in very different ways, this formulation will still be true in its own terms and for the domain to which it applies forever! (8) Vive la physique!

Some Things Emerge

Interestingly, Compatiblists are themselves Eliminativists concerning some issues.  Carroll argues that our most basic framework for understanding what is real is physics with its Core Theory, exemplified by the above equation.  This eliminates any good reason for talk of gods, souls, ghosts, or mind (as something beyond the physical) and even what he calls the “strong emergentist” position (which will be discussed later).  They all are incompatible with physics and the evidence that supports it.

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(Protons and Neutrons establish a new set of standards by which to consider the world. A level up from the world as quarks and gluons.  “A proton is composed of two up quarks, one down quark, and the gluons that mediate the forces “binding” them together.” Wikipedia)

He does offers us a list of objects that do legitimately “emerge” from the more basic and simpler underlying pieces of the Core Theory.   This is where we start to return to the Core Theory as not telling “the whole story.”  This “whole story,” he says, includes (9): protons and neutrons, stars and light, life, multicellular organisms, consciousness, language and abstract human thought. These are an ascending hierarchy of abilities and complex objects (we might say) that spell out what is possible from the simplified world of physics.

But, there are more mundane examples of emergence. An automobile is composed of atoms, but they are seldom mentioned. To design a car, its atomic substructure is not referenced. To build a car or repair one, only its functioning parts at the macroscopic level are referenced. Things like “pistons,” “bumpers,” “drive shaft,” “chassis,” “brake,” “accelerator” are used because these terms are most useful and are obvious to us. To drive a car, we never consider its subatomic structure! This is a dramatic example of emergence, and thanks to biologist Richard Dawkins for it.

 

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(Our first Eukaryotic Ancestor.  Diagram of the merger of free-living Spiochette and an Archaebacteria.  Out of Two came One. Thanks to PNAS, 2006)

How do these higher level objects form valuable additions (beyond physics) to our understanding? This is “that crux of the problem” mentioned earlier.  It is a “secretly profound idea that there are many ways of talking about the world, each of which captures a different aspect of the underlying whole,” he writes (10).  Carroll is, philosophically, a Naturalist; this is his basic commitment to science as the doorway to what is real “at the deepest level.”  Then, when he adds the “other ways of talking”, “emergent theories” and capturing “the whole story”, he admits he has now become what he calls “a poetic naturalist”. (11) 

“Poetic naturalism is a philosophy of freedom and responsibility,” he very pointedly declares (12).  Though physics captures the universe fundamentally, there are other “useful ways of talking about certain subsets of the basic stuff”.  They are useful to us for various reasons.  First, “it would be horrendously inconvenient if ” to explain anything “we were to list a huge set of atoms and how they were arranged.”(13)   Second, and most importantly, “we really do learn something new by studying emergent theories for their own sake, even if all the theories are utterly compatible” (with physic’s theories). (14)

So we are Both vast conglomerations of particles and scientific forces, And persons who ‘eat, love and pray,’ to borrow the current phrase. In the next passage, let’s apply the Idea of Emergence to these two different kinds of “Us” and see how that works out!

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(A taste of what is to come: If all we do is determined by causal and atomic forces far different than the qualities of good pizza, then arguing about ‘best pizza’ is an empty charade.)

 

 

Notes— Since this post is a review of aspects of this book, I thought a few page references would be appropriate.  I did attempt a close read of this material and it is a respected work.   1) page 379   2) page 19   3) 105   4) 177-9   5)       6-7) 437   8) 179   9)  102  10) 93  11) 15-19   12) 21   13) 108   14) 108 

cropped-img_34702-e1565808476815-11
When we are Particularly Impressed with the Beauty, Coordination and Good Fortune of Our World—-Even in Dreary Times. Spring, Where are You?     Logo by Marty.

Gradualism and The Great Chain of Being

There is A Great Chain of Being

How did it all start? Where did all the different things come from?

We have been considering this big and broad question and have come to some conclusions. To think that in the beginning “Something came from Nothing,” is fruitless; no “god” can help us, for that concept is as mysterious as the problem we started with. (See previous passage.)

So, we have agreed that “More has come from Less” and that is, in deed, the modern answer. We are all quite familiar with the idea that, in some sense, everything is “just” matter and energy. The noted physicist Sean Carroll was quoted in the previous passage, that in a very important way, everything is gravity, electromagnetism, electrons and nuclei.

(Depiction of The Big Bang. You can’t say much existed here. Though, in these first few seconds/nanoseconds a whole lot of a couple kinds of things were really cooking! Thanks to nbcnews.com)

But it should be pointed out very quickly, that what we seek here—in the Nature Religion Connection—is not a scientific explanation of our ordinary world, but a re-enforcement of much of it. Too often a scientific explanation is a reduction of a very ordinary and important thing into terms very much unlike it. “Color” is electromagnetism. A “person” is a biological human animal. “Consciousness” is really neural activity, and Purposes do not exist at all in the world as understood by our most basic sciences.

Yes, many intelligent people believe that the hard sciences, with the help of Darwin and evolution, have chased Purposes (teleology or goals) from nature. “Life is pointless, in a cosmic sense,” they contend. But, this position comes to nonsense, and these thinkers “should add, for consistency’s sake, that science has also demonstrated the unreality of colors and of life itself…Atoms are all there is, and atoms aren’t colored, and aren’t alive either,” contends a philosopher more formally introduced below.* That the character of scientific explanation has its limitations is what should be concluded and that is an old and persistent contention among some philosophers (and scientists) going back at least into the 17th century and Rene Descartes.

Nor does The Connection seek religious supports and explanations for many of these important ordinary ideas. Persons are unique because of their relation to God, it is said, and their possession of an immaterial “soul.” Consciousness and life are themselves “Spirit” and not simply matter. Of death it has long been said, ‘The spirit passes from the body.’

Both Science and Religion have to be re-aligned. Here at Nature Religion Connection we seek a viable modern philosophy, one that has great respect for the accomplishments of science, but also a sense of its limitations. Not quite the same can be said for religion; there we seek something more like a re-invention and a rehabilitation of religion’s still existing archaic forms and habits.

Gradualism

So let us return to our topic, Where does all the variety of the world come from? How does it happen? It has Evolved, we have concluded, through enhancements in structure and design. And Evolution does not allow just anything and everything to appear; there is a very long and connected Chain of developments. It is getting More from The Less that immediately preceded it, a gradual bumping up.

Yet, a few things still stick in our “craw” on this topic of More from Less. Is not there a “leap” from non-life to life, from matter to consciousness, from neural activity to ‘seeing color,’ from things being caused to things that freely choose, to name just a few such stark contrasts. What of “the gap” between “good” and “evil”?

Daniel Dennett, of Tufts University in the Boston area, is a guiding light for the Nature Religion Connection.

But, in reality, there are no drastic gaps, there are only shortcomings in our intuitions and imaginations, argues Dan Dennett, one of the leading philosophers and commentators on our times.

On the above topic of the problem with some scientific explanations, Dennett contends there is “an equivocation” evident among biologists, for example. “Talk of functions and purposes is really only shorthand, a handy metaphor, and that strictly speaking there are no such things as functions, no purposes, no teleology at all in the world,” biologists are forced to awkwardly contend in the end, says Dennett.* They admit that really ‘eyes’ are not for seeing, ‘hearts’ are not for pumping; each—and all—are merely a clump of atoms with no further implications, no more to be said beyond the laws of physics.

Dennett disagrees; there is much worth saying beyond atom-talk. On all the drastic contrasts listed above, he insists that there are between them a series of Gradual Changes, slight adjustments, incremental installments that create slightly different things, sometimes more complex things, more capable molecules, states, and creatures. There is more we should understand as real, than what physics may contend. “Evolutionary processes brought purposes and reasons into existence the same way they brought color vision (and hence colors) into existence: gradually.”* Billions of years of tiny attempts form the evolutionary road to where we are today. Gradualism is one of the principles of our viable modern philosophy.

(Representation of “a spherical-shaped, measles virus particle,” courtesy of the CDC Its size is approximately 20 to 30 millionths of a millimeter.)

For example, viruses occupy a gray zone, neither alive nor dead. Viruses both reproduce and are incapable of reproducing on their own. We can, in a sense, appropriately call them “a bug,” as in “flu bug.” Yet we know they do not eat (metabolize). They are sort of alive, as are early stage fetuses and brain-dead patients. There are different “levels” at which we find it useful to describe many objects.

The Great Chain

Sensitivity and consciousness are other examples of borderline phenomena. In our ordinary world, we tend to think of a continuum of creatures who possess lesser and greater degrees of “mindfulness”—of consciousness and sensitivity. An ant is like a little person, in some ways. It is full of intentions, scurrying about with jobs to do, goals to achieve. Many of us feel a twinge of regret if we step on one. ‘Oh, it must have felt pain,’ we say, but we acknowledge that the ant is not a full-blown person or consciousness when we kill a hundred of them with insecticide when they invade our kitchen.

(At the center of The Tulip: “Pistil, Color, Petal,” photo by GregWW.)
Two Old Dogs

A plant is even less sensitive than an ant, but the family dog ranks way up there —fully conscious (?), loyal, nearly a person. This continuum of growing consciousness, abilities, and ‘person-ality’ is what Dennett calls “a deep fact, the kind you build a theory on.” This fact reflects the history of the evolutionary appearances; a fact recognized in western culture starting as far back as Aristotle and very prominent in the middle ages. There is a Great Chain of Being.

This Great Chain started with God at the top and ran down to angels, humans, animals, plants and finally most inanimate objects. It was thought to be the manifestation of God and Value into the world. In this sense, Gold was thought to be “the highest” mineral; the Lion the highest animal, and the Rose or Oak the highest plant. The King and Queen were the most valuable and god-like of humans. The Sun, Moon and the Planets were thought of as “the most noble” objects, ‘the eternal orbs.’

(The medieval social order was meticulously outlined in The Chain. Notice in this rendition, Actors rank just below Beggars and just above Thieves.)

Of course, this Great Chain is “a top-down model of creation,” points out Dennett. Initially it was used as a central argument against Evolution. “Only Absolute Wisdom could create lesser wisdoms and abilities. From Absolute Ignorance (inanimate matter) no creation occurs,” argued a prominent 19th century English critic of Darwin. Nonetheless, the chain exhibits an awareness of the Gradualism in nature, especially biology. Today’s best understanding of it is as The Tree of Life.

(The History of Ancestry among living things is generally agreed to demonstrate (in many cases) a growing degree of complexity of Design and increases in Ability.

What does this Tree of Life, this Great Chain, really show us? It shows us Life Evolving from non-life, Purposes gradually rising from pointlessness, Advanced Civilizations starting out as bacteria, and Consciousness as a product of insensate materials. In 2017, Dennett wrote his book From Bacteria to Bach and Back (The Evolution of Minds) to demonstrate how it is possible for Whole Things to be More Capable than the Pieces That Compose Them: more intelligent, more free, more responsible, more loving (at least sometimes).

An Enhanced Imagination

Finally, Dennett contends that if you are still skeptical of gradualism and a believer in metaphysical leaps, you need to up-date your intuitions and imagination. A “bottom-up” vision of creation is readily available in fields beyond evolutionary biology.

For example, machines can, now, think! Not only do we have home computers that help us write, calculate, find information and organize ourselves, but we have specialized computers that write first-class music, play chess and solve puzzles too complex for human researchers. Alan Turing’s first modern computer broke the German submarine code (The Enigma Code) back in WWII.

(IBM’s Deep Blue computer beats world champion in 1996. Deep Blue was capable of considering 200 million possible chess positions per second. Thanks to IEEE Spectrum.org for photo and info.)

The so-called “miracles of God” are rivaled on a daily basis by modern science and technology. Doctors replace organs, artificially inseminate pregnancies, and study the body’s interior through various scans and pictures. Scientists read the genetic code of living things and search deep into outer space for signs of other life. Ordinary people routinely communicate with each other in real time across countries and continents.

Dan Dennett, himself, has participated in this enhancement of our imagination by convincingly arguing that humans are very fancy, evolved, biological machines, and that soon human designed machines (robots) will come to be considered “persons,” though not biological persons.

Robin Williams as The Bicentennial Man, 1999 movie.

All these are “intuition shakers” and “imagination stretchers” contends Dennett, and they facilitate the belief in what was once considered merely a shameful, godless fantasy: The Bottom-Up Creativity by the Gradual Accumulation of Design. Yes, we have gotten More from Less Gradually through the process of Evolution.

What new and larger system or creature might we be able to imagine ourselves a part of?

Shame, shame! Now here is a kind of critter that didn’t do much with the opportunities life afforded them! But what a chauvinistic thing to say! Hey, they persist!

*From Dennett’s Bacteria to Bach and Back, page 38, 34 and 37-38.

GETTING MORE FROM LESS at The Connection! —–Logo by Marty

God and Evolution: Something from Nothing, or More from Less

(The Creation of Adam, Michelangelo’s centerpiece to his Sistine Chapel paintings [1508-1512] in Rome.)

I almost stumbled into a theological debate the other day (pre-pandemic). It was at a family gathering , and I was under strict orders from the wife to keep things light. A young in-law (undoubtedly trying to set me up) commented that he was taking a required course in theology. He was an incoming freshman at the University of Dayton (Ohio), a Catholic school. Surprisingly, he said he liked it; he appreciated its logic and its abstract thoughtfulness.

An older in-law chimed in saying that he too took that course many decades ago. He is a graduate of U.D. and slightly religious, but mostly he is a very practical man, a successful business owner and a person not inclined to obtuse thinking in any form. Yet, one idea from the course had stuck with him all these years, he said: “that in the beginning there was nothing, and now there is something. God was necessary to get something out of nothing.”

Trying to follow directions, I declined to respond directly to that idea. Instead, I suggested other theological arguments were also of interest, like the argument for God —as the Grand Designer— from the Intricate Design exhibited in the world. Even the “ontological proof” is a curiosity, but that is where the discussion pretty much ended.

(God The Father, by Conegliano (1510). The Design of Our Planet and the many things upon it has long been an impressive fact calling for some kind of explanation: “God The Father” as the master designer and craftsmen.)

So where do Things come from, in this largest and basic kind of way?

“The vast majority of life is gravity and electromagnetism pushing around electrons and nuclei,” contends physicist Sean Carroll in his widely read book, The Big Picture, On the Origins of life, Meaning, and the Universe Itself. Here, I will try to provide an answer that goes beyond Carroll’s four components. After all, “people”, “color”, “jet airplanes”, all sorts of “living things”, and “the Sun” —to name just a few— also seem to exist, and somehow “come from” gravity and the others.

But getting these macro objects from such a micro world is itself quite a leap, it seems. The way we talk about, and see, and even have feelings about, these familiar concrete things is very different from such rather dry abstractions as “electromagnetism.” I must admit that when I am trying to get along with my wife, I don’t think of gravity or electrons at all! (Maybe I should, for God knows, I have tried almost everything else!)

The Big Bang, some 14 billion years ago, very few different kinds of things existed then! Image courtesy of ThoughtCo.com 6/11/19

The Traditional Answer

The traditional problem does not involve electromagnetism, of course, but it maintains the same flavor. Some Magic must be imposed upon some very inferior substance or even nothing at all — “The Void.” A divinity must intervene. Some ‘breath’ (the Greek noumena) must be added to “the dust.” Some ‘spark’ must be applied; a spark like a common earthly spark —in some ways— but much more potent due to its immaterial character. You need to add some ‘spirit’ to matter; some supreme being must be at work, it is said.

Concerning “something from nothing,” the answer I could have given my theistic relative is this: “You have painted yourself into an intellectual corner. In common experience and scientific research, we never discover the predecessor of a thing to be nothing, or the working components of a thing to be nonexistent (no insides!). Yet this is how you have framed your problem —“How from nothing, something?” It is little winder that you need to go fishing and come up with an equally baffling idea for an answer, God.

(Our Solar System is a system within our galaxy. The Earth and its many systems are in our Solar System. Image courtesy of California Academy of Sciences.org)

So, “there is no something, from nothing,” and that is a satisfying answer suitable for any free-wheeling family get-together. But what of More from Less? If there are processes inside of processes, and cycles on top of cycles, these may come together (sometimes) in a new way and create a new thing and new qualities and abilities emerge in that object. “‘Emergent’: important word that,” says noted biologist and commentator Richard Dawkins.

In other words, from a world of gravity and electromagnetism, now we have a world with Color, Language and Flight. Where did they, and all the rest, come from? Is there some deep mystery that needs more than a physical explanation for us to understand it? Is it “a leap” as unlikely as ‘getting blood from a turnip,’ as the old saying puts it?

Getting More from Less

No, it is not a metaphysical leap, but it is Evolution that does the job. And, in one sense, we do need a special explanatory principle. Evolutionary Theory is how we explain the origin and existence of complexity; it is how we explain “Climbing Mount Improbable,” says Dawkins.

“The basic Darwinian motif” is “in the beginning there was some relatively unstructured and unsophisticated raw material; mutations of one sort of another occurred; and out of this emerged something novel,” contends Dan Dennett, philosopher and cognitive scientist. This novel thing will be more structured. It will be the outcome of a more sophisticated organization, a more designed “raw material.” That is how to get more from less: Enhance the design!

(An evolutionary line of descent exists from this simple ancestral insectivore to all this later diversity of form and ability. Diagram from ResearchGate.net)

The new qualities or abilities may be as humble as the combination of two atoms —hydrogen and oxygen— that are usually characterized as gasses, combining to form a liquid, water. This leap from gas to liquid does not shock us, though maybe it should considering it is a precursor of more startling things to come.

For example, it seems that the proper combination of six inanimate chemicals can lead to life. To add insult to injury, for those confounded by that apparent fact, five of those components can be purchased at your local hardware store (and in the right proportions) for around $100. The sixth can be attained by distilling urine!

Of course, as in the case of all Emergent Qualities, the ‘magic’ is in the recipe. It is like Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. At this moment, various biochemists around the world are working to put those six basic components of life back together to recapture in a laboratory what apparently occurred 4 billion years ago deep in the ocean near a volcanic vent.

(The Earth as a complex collection of systems. Has The Biosphere reached the stage of development where it too is on the verge of existence as a Single Living Organism? Diagram courtesy of NASA)

So, we have ‘many things under the Sun’ because New Things with new Qualities have Evolved and Emerged. We all have a pretty clear intuitive sense of what this means, though firming it up theoretically is harder, that will be the job of subsequent passages. The following passage will attempt to show how intuitive this succession of evolved occurrences really is and one of the basic rules by which Emergence and Evolution occurs.

Let us end with a list of Emergent Objects; places where new abilities and qualities occurred, as formulated by the noted physicist Sean Carroll. To his credit, he is one of physic’s most forthright advocates of the idea of “Emergence” and of the different “Levels” at which we can consider “the same” object———–

For after all, I am…a 21st century American, a person, a biological organism (a composition of 11 major organ systems), a collection of single cells, an assemblage of biochemicals, an ongoing inorganic chemical reaction, an object with a given mass, density and inertia, …and finally Carroll’s “gravity and electromagnetism pushing around electrons and nuclei.” Gee, isn’t that swell!

Sean Carroll’s list of Emergent Transitions:

—Protons and Neutrons out of Quarks and Gluons (in the early universe); Atoms out of Electrons combining with Nuclei (several hundred thousand years after the Big Bang); the first Stars; origin of Life; Multicellular Organisms from the merger of individual single-celled organisms; Consciousness from neural activity; origin of Language from sounds and signs; original invention of Machines and Technology. (List from previously mentioned book, page 102.)

So you can’t get Something from Nothing, but you can get More from Less. In the following section, we will consider some of the “rules,” or it might be better to say “logic,” of Evolution and Emergence.

It is amazing the number and variety of things, qualities and abilities that exist in this world. It is time to close the gaps between all the different ways we experience and understand this diversity. What ways do we have to hold it all together? Surely the ideas of Emergence and Evolution are important to that effort.

The Sistine Chapel ceiling is a Physical Object that “communicates,” an idea or ability not at home in the vocabulary of the inorganic substances that compose it. Meanings and significances Emerge from it that have been central to Western Societies and Culture.
HOLDING IT ALL TOGETHER? The Tree of Life was a literal contention in Norse Mythology. Called “Yggdrasil” (pronounced the “Y” as a short “i”), it was said to be a massive ash tree at the center of the cosmos. Depiction from 1847, unknown artist.

Campaigning and the Pandemic

These two do NOT easily fit together! Yet here in The O-H-I-O it must happen. In November of this year (9 months from now) an election will be held crucial to this state and to the nation. Ohioans will elect a new governor and a new U.S. Senator. The recent Republican Party strangle-hold on this state must end! The newly drawn voting districts for this state are already being challenged in the courts by the Democratic Party, but also independent organizations as reputable as The League of Woman Voters (Update: The Ohio Supreme Court ruled yesterday that both maps for the state legislature’s districts and for our US Congressional Districts were unconstitutionally biased in favor of the Republicans that created them. They ordered new districts to be drawn once again!) A moderate (in some ways) Republican Governor, Mike DeWine, is under fire from the extreme right wing of his own party. The Democrats are fielding a strong candidate for Governor in opposition, Dayton Mayor, Nan Whaley, who has distinguished herself and her leadership abilities during several dramatic events in that city—a mass shooting and a tornado.

Nationally, the Senatorial race in this state is huge. The U.S. Senate is tied, 50 Democrats and 50 Republicans, with Vice President Kamala Harris holding the decisive Democratic vote in a tie. If Ohio goes Democratic with this seat, it will be a shift in this current stand-off (but only one of among a number of decisive races).

Democrat “TJ” Johnson for US Senate

I have been working with a local, long-shot, candidate, Traci “TJ” Johnson. I fear the front-running Democratic candidate, Congressman Tim Ryan, will not adequately motivate the crucial Democratic voting bases in the big cities (Black Democrats) and in the suburbs (especially women). Even if TJ does not win the Democratic primary, at least she can help stir up interest, concern and awareness about the significance of this election. She will promote a bigger turn-out. See the earlier post—-https://naturereligionconnection.org/2021/11/28/tj-johnson-for-u-s-senate-from-ohio/

I have mostly been writing for her website and other campaign material, and making phone calls to create a campaign team. I have not gathered many signatures to qualify her for listing on the May primary ballot. I cannot go out in this pandemic, and now the Omicron surge, and interact with numerous and random people. This is not a good situation. I already have lung issues. Yet, here comes this crucial election!

Here is what I have written recently, in response to a Pac’s (Political Action Committee) request for information on these issues, before they will consider donating money to TJ’s campaign: Church and State, and Gun Violence.

The Separation of Church and State

“The right to worship in one’s own way is as fundamental as any Human Right.  That our government and its agencies must steer clear of religious partisanship has once again become an increasing concern,” insists TJ.

Unfortunately, we live in a time when some Americans have insisted upon bringing their religious beliefs full square into the political realm.  A very vocal wing of the Republican Party insists that they are “Pro-Gun, Pro-God, Pro-Life.”  This is inappropriate and maybe even frightening.

First, it is unfortunate that the ownership of a gun has risen to a symbolic level comparable to belief in God and the respect for the value of human life.  Gun ownership is not that important.  Second, by “Pro-God,” these Americans have shown themselves to mean “Pro-Christian God.”  Third, the decision that a human life starts at conception, or at the first audible heartbeat, is not a generally accepted standard.  It is not endorsed by the scientific or medical communities.  If you wish to believe in those standards, that is your private opinion, and one that often seems based in your specific religious affiliations. 

In conclusion, the American Government is not Christian.  Abortion is a basic option reserved to each woman in consultation with her doctor and loved ones, with some modifications based on community standards.  Gun ownership is now a political issue only because too many gun-holders, sellers and manufactures are irresponsible and in violation of the general welfare of our community and themselves. 

“Do Something” About Gun Violence

Once again it’s time for Ohioans to choose: continue with the bloodied status quo, or try to change it.  There is no good reason that an 18 year old Ohioan is not old enough to buy a beer yet can buy an AR-15 Assault Rifle.  There is no good reason that background checks are not universally required — close the gun show loophole!  There is no good reason for our streets to be flooded with weapons easily accessible (often to teen-agers) for the use in robbery, homicide, domestic abuse and accidental discharge.

In recent years, four of our major cities have ranked in the nation’s top 50 in homicides per 100,000 population –Cleveland, Dayton, Akron and Cincinnati.   Columbus and Toledo have set new homicide records in each of the past two years.   The overwhelming majority of these murders occur by gun.  

In 2019, a mentally disturbed 24 year old killed 9 and wounded 17 on a summer’s evening in Dayton in a shooting rampage that lasted less than 30 seconds.  Daytonians gathered in the aftermath and shouted to the Governor, who was surveying the scene, “Do something, do something!”  The Republican controlled State Legislature has refused.  The U.S. Congress has refused.

“A majority of Ohioans have consistently voiced their support for reasonable increases in gun controls.  When elected I will recharge this campaign to save lives and restore civility in this state and around our nation,” pledges TJ.  

Choose to Limit Guns, Choose “TJ” Johnson!

Always busy here at The Connection!

Reading “Catcher” with High School Juniors During a Pandemic, and Other Activities

Yes, I have been busy for the last two months and blogging has not been one of my activities, so I felt an explanation necessary.

Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye. Thanks to the Little, Brown and Company for drawing.

A teacher friend of mine at one of the high schools asked me to start the year for her in her English III classes. She enticed me by suggesting I could read ”Catcher in the Rye” with them. She had a unit plan all drawn up fro it. Well, I bit on that, and it was really fun and interesting. This is not a high income, high academic school. I wondered how many kids would get involved with it. But Holden Caulfield’s nonconformist, underachieving, emotionally damaged personality won out with a majority of them.

I read many of the major parts aloud —four times a day sometimes— so not to put all the burden on them to read on their own. I had a captive audience. I was curious how effectively I could read Holden’s free-flowing and affect-filled narrative. I did OK, sometimes all I could notice was the silence of the room as I read; students were either listening or quietly involved in their own thing—-social media or games. I tried to diminish those options but it is more like choosing your poison — off-task and disruptive or off-.task and quiet.

A large number of students expressed appreciation for the book as expressed in their essay answers. Just the unusual amount they wrote was testimony to their commitment. I felt obligated to read almost all of it, since I preached that detail and subtlety was necessary to give this book its due. It was a blessing and a curse, as I read and read over 100 tests with 15 essay questions each.

I, myself, gained a new appreciation for the book. Interestingly , all the events in the book were to have taken place over about four days, it seems. A number of kids explained their interest in the book as a curiosity with Holden himself: Did they like him or not? We had some pretty good discussions about Holden’s idea of ”a phony,” and whether Holden himself was a phony? Some kids were convinced that he was and that the whole theme of the book was not to grow up and be ”mature.” Apparently some of the ‘Cliff’s Notes’ and ’Spark Notes’ available on line, that some kids accessed too frequently, was pushing that interpretation. I kept suggesting other themes.

Holden is a gripping character, if you are at all prone to that kind of nonconformity. One evening I found myself in the grocery store thinking about ”the phony” standing in front of me. It made me laugh; that Holden, he is infectious.

I read —on line, of course— that JD Salinger carried a copy of the manuscript in his backpack as he fought at Normandy in WWII. You know, he never did sell the rights for a movie, even when Leonardo DiCaprio wanted to play Holden. According to someone who sought to have the book banned from public schools, Holden says ”goddam” 435 times. But I did a little censoring myself, I skip over chapter 19 (but it was still there for anyone who wanted to read it) because there is some homophobia there and a little elsewhere. That topic also led to a decent discussion with some of the groups about how times had changed.

The Pandemic also is worth mentioning. It greatly complicated the teaching. Early on we had 5 and 10 kids absent in each class and for 10 days at a time. Kids would get sick and I would get a call from the principal’s office asking who had sat near them earlier that day or the previous day. Many of those kids would then be quarantined. I had to keep accurate seating charts, space desks out, and keep kids from congregating unnecessarily. Due dates tended to disappear because I couldn’t keep track of who was out and when, and I didn’t even try. Masks were optional but a fair number wore them.

There were discussions about getting vaccinated or not and some kids had the craziest ideas. I, and most teachers, got vaxxed up real quick. A fair number of kids did also, when it became available to them. The quarantine regimen eventually changed and number of infections slowed, and attendance picked back up. Curiously that created a new problem. These juniors had not yet had a single undisrupted, normal, year of high school. As the room filled back up behaviors started to change. Some of those kids were out of practice at being students. That is the point at which my time was done; the teacher came back from maternity leave. Good luck to her and to so many of those wonderful young people I met. To even some of those that weren’t so pleasant to teach, it was hard to say good bye!

Why did Holden keep asking the cabbies what happened to the ducks in Central Park when winter came? Answer: Because he was a little concerned about what he would do next, too.

Tomorrow a follow-up post on THE OTHER ADVENTURE I HAVE EMBARKED UPON that slowed my Blogging————————————————————————POLITICS!!!————————————————

Making all the Connections at the NatureReligionConnection.org

On “Goodness” in General; ANW Weights In

Philosopher and mathematician

Alfred North Whitehead taught at Cambridge for decades and then finally at Harvard. He co-wrote Principia Mathematica, published 1903-5; with Bertrand Russell, which attempted to build upward from the principles of symbolic logic all the truths of mathematics. It was a multivolume effort that Russell once quipped had been read cover to cover by about a dozen people in the entire world. Whitehead individually wrote the esoteric Process and Reality, but also the popularly successful Science and the Modern World (1923), a book still well worth reading on the origins and nature of the natural sciences. The material used in the following is from his lectures published as Religion in the Making (1926).

What Makes the Good, so Good

“The universe is through and through interdependent,” in this way A.N.W. sets the stage for his broad and basic characterization of Goodness and Evil.

In this interdependence it is both the individual things considered in themselves and all things taken together as a unit that are both valuable, determinate, and real. Goodness and evil is the interplay of this unity in difference, and this forms “the topic of Religion” in its broadest and most non-denominational sense. Religion is about “individuals in community,” he contends.

And the power of his Metaphysic comes full bore in Whitehead’s contention that, each individual is “an occasion” that “has in its nature a reference to every other member of the community…each unit is a microcosm representing in itself the entire all-inclusive universe.” Wow, how ’bout dat for a contention! It is not unique to Whitehead; it is a basic contention of all philosophical holism going back to Gottfried Leibnitz in the year 1700 with his Monadology and further back to the Greeks and Parmenides with “The One” as “the only true being.”

The interplay of Whole and Parts makes for the drama of Good and Evil. M.C. Escher drawing, Day and Night (1938).

Now a problem soon arises. This massive interconnection is a massive mess. All the individual things and all things taken together, where and how are there any boundaries? ANW contends that this unity among difference is “a boundless wealth of possibility.” So, how does one actual resolution occur? One actual world appear?

ANW contends it is “a balance” of all these factors and thus “an epochal occasion.” It has a unique character among all these possibilities and this for only as long as it actually lasts.God is the determination whereby a (single, one–GW) definite result is emergent.” “God…imposes a balance on the world,” a moral order. GOD is this one actual realization of a world and its universe among all the abstract possibilities!

“God” serves this role in Whitehead’s system. He also remarks that this kind of reasoning gives no relief to those seeking grounds for belief in a personal god. And Whitehead’s God has its limitations. The balance, that is this God, is not “a complete determinism.” The world at any one time “is not completely self-consistent; it changes; it is a “temporal world.”

Evil is this inconsistency within the world. The individual members of any actual world often suffer physically or mentally, and evil is also “the loss of the higher experience in favour of the lower experience.”

So, Change is real and vital in reality, in Whitehead’s system. Creative Change is the progressive link between the real but abstract Ideas and Possibilities and an actually existing individual world (an epochal occasion or God). Evil is a regressive link between these. Evil is the growth of suffering in some actual existing community and the loss of “higher forms of experience” replaced by lower forms.

Progress is the creation of “vivid experience;” out of all the mess and possibility; Reality seeks some “definiteness” of feeling and experience, and in this way “the mental” is of greater Value than “the physical,” though definitely emergent from it. Greatness of Quality is the contribution of “all the elements of a complex whole…to some one effect, to the exclusion of others.” One thing, one group of highly related things —a community– actually occurs. It is a unity in difference.

Claude Monet, Charing Cross Bridge, The Thames, 1903. Monet captures the progressive change from vagueness and indetermination of character and experience to an actual determinate reality. The Good starts with an actual determination arisen from the vast and indeterminate realm of possibility.
A Unity in Difference Omnibus Est. An Actually Existing Community of Similarities evolving from, and to the exclusion of, the vast realm of remaining indeterminate Possibilities. The Tree of Life as an actual and living work of Art.

Discussion:

There is surely much to be said here. Is Human Experience better in some way than Canine Experience? Is it even legitimate to call it more complex? Why is Complexity an improvement over Simplicity? A great philosopher who also taught at Harvard with Whitehead, John Dewey, contended that his goal as a philosopher (in one way) was ‘to achieve a sophisticated innocence’ of character and outlook. So, isn’t the above characterization of good and evil just naïve. In what sense is it Objective and not simply biased (anthropocentric), personal and Subjective? After all, Goodness is just a Feeling (we often say)!

ANW prejudiced his metaphysic from the very beginning by declaring that All Things are Real; Feelings and Thoughts are as real as Atoms and Gravity. In fact, in his system, feelings and thoughts are more Valuable than the merely physical. All is of value, and it is of the nature of Value that it comes in degrees, I believe he contends. Some things just are Better; they possess a greater degree of Goodness! A Complex Unity like The Tree of Life becomes of a higher quality when one of its members (us) becomes Aware of Themselves as participants in that Unity of Design and Existence. A human experience can be of a higher quality than a dog’s because of our Self-Awareness of it and our abilities that arise from that, contends Whitehead.

Hand With Reflecting Sphere (1935) by M.C. Escher

——–Well, isn’t that Good! Over the years, I have often said,——— ————————–“It’s good to be good!”—————————–

OMNIBUS EST—–Logo by Marty