(This is the seventh post in the Series on Freedom. In the previous post the process of Reflection was described. That description continues here by introducing the idea of The Virtuous Circle. It is only through these circles that we, human persons, have the freedom that we have. Post four, Persons in the Human Social Organism, explained the biological history of the increasing complexity (the preceding circles) and Our Social Organism from which our freedom derives. Post three, Persons Large and Small, introduced a circle, the feedback loop of human, language-based, interaction. There, we ‘see’ ourselves ‘reflected’ in the feedback we get from other persons. In post six, Persons Reflect, I attempted to expand this process of Reflection beyond persons and into its base in evolution. In a sense difficult to defend intellectually, but maybe not so hard to intuit, Mother Nature was contended to be The First Person, all be it, in a qualified and fundamental form. A sense of reverence is starting to arise in this Series for the processes that create us. This current post, hopes to continue that, and also our scientific understanding, through the seminal concept of “Virtuous Circles”.)
The relationship of an organism to its environment, the relation of organs to organism, and the relation of a person to their society of persons are all, what I will call, a “Virtuous Circle”. The concept is derived from a comment by philosopher Daniel Dennett. Discussing the basic idea of “information”, he contended that “information” is circularly connected to the concept of “design”. They are defined in relation to each other, he says, “but it’s a virtuous, not a vicious, circle.”
“Information is design worth getting”, he argues. In each of the Circles above, information and overall design connect their component parts — organism, environment; organs, organism; person, society — into a necessary and mutually interactive dependence. This interactive dependence runs in two ‘directions’: ‘horizontally’ and ‘vertically’, so to speak.
By ‘horizontally’, I mean structurally.At every given moment their parts are understood and function in relation to each other. The organs of an organism operate in this classic manner. Heart pumps blood through veins. Lungs aerate blood and release carbon dioxide. Liver and kidneys remove other waste. Stomach provides nutrients. Intestines process and eliminate waste. Bones provide shape and space, while muscles move bones for locomotion and other organs in their functioning. And so on. Human artifactsare also similarly designed structures. An automobile has wheels, motor, transmission, brakes, lights, seats all existing and functioning side by side for the given purpose of transporting people.
In each case, auto and organism, it is difficult to think of any of their component pieces existing alone and in isolation from their functions in relation to the other components of these systems. These parts are in an “interactive dependence”; they are circularly defined and designed. Hearts do not exist (for long) severed from their bodies, though pumps do operate similarly in other systems with many analogous parts and purposes.
“For the given purpose” and “with analogous purposes”, these are important phrases and
they lead me to the second ‘direction’ of mutual interaction for a Virtuous Circle. ‘Vertically’, systems of highly related parts refer to theirover all purpose. Telling phrase, “over all purpose”!
Here is an old point in philosophy. The 17th century philosopher and simultaneous creator/discoverer — with Newton — of calculus, Gottfried Leibniz, stated it well. Any purpose or function ‘lies above’ (transcends) the parts that carry it out. He once observed this while walking on the shop floor of the factory of a master craftsman. The point of all the busy piece-work of the apprentices at their separate stations was not readily discernible; nowhere was the purpose of it all, itself, stationed on that floor. Further, no apprentice doing his specific job had the whole plan; each did just his own part and did it as told. But, Leibniz, rising to the platform above the floor on which the master stood, saw the function of it all, the point of each station, from that transcendent position.
And that is information. Circularly designed functions create a system that has a form, astructure, as if, “informed” from above; their over all purpose is beyond them. This “in-formation” runs not only between the component parts but, also, beyond these parts,beyondtheir level, so to speak, to structures or objects, goals or purposes beyond them. Virtuous Circles ‘point’ beyond themselves!
Two important points should be made, or referred to, concerning this point.
First, some will think I am tipping my hand, that my true mystical and supernatural colors are here beginning to show, but that is not so. It is true that this is where the argument for god from design is used by theists, but not by me, nor Darwin, nor Dennett (I’ve placed myself in illustrious company). Instead, this is where the Theory of Evolution enters, and it refers to these well designed systems but explains them differently.
The second point, in reference to these Virtuous Circles and their pointing beyond themselves, is this is what REFERENCE is, and how it happens. In this discussion of human freedom, we will find two important ways objects interact in our world: causally and referentially.
How does the word, “red”, or the collection of letters, “r-e-d”, indicate/point to/refer to an instance of the color, red, in the world? Because, the system of contrasting color termsand their place in our system of language — this information system, points beyond itself and toward non-linguistic objects. We do not think of this as a causal relationship. It will be important that this distinction stand — designation is not causation — for humans to have some freedom!
Let’s see how this may work.
An organism, a society, an environment each inform their parts — organs, persons, organisms. Please recall post four, The Human Social Organism. Persons are functioning units that act with their goals in mind and they form a society; and yet, persons are formed by that society — that “transcendent object” — just as much as they form it!
We readily accept this view when discussing a society’s economic system. Doctor,
lawyer, teacher, construction worker, farmer all have their job to do and this functions only if their counterparts do their job. This is not supernaturalism, though it is a reference to objects more abstract than some others. We can point at the totality of a person but it is harder to point at the society to which they belong. We can point at an organism, but it is harder to point at its environment in totality and all at once.
Additionally, when we talk about an organism we do not talk about its atoms. We talk about organs, and their worth. “Do they function well?” we ask. Mother Nature asks through her process of Selection. The master craftsman asks the same question of his factory and its apprentices, and so do we, persons, ask of our efforts that compose our lives: “Do they function well? Do they serve the purpose? What is their goal?”
The organs’ worth is in their purpose and how well they achieve it: Not a surprising statement! But in light of our modern skepticism about value and purpose in the universe, maybe this statement is surprising. To Dennett, it should not be; it is, and should be, essential to our self-image. We are agents; we ‘rise above’; we act; we do things for purpose. We do things and not just have things done to us. Like the master craftsman, we are out of the loop of causes on the floor below. These are our components.We are their ’cause’, or at least, the point to which they strive!
When we think of ourselves as actors/ agents, somewhere we must be able to attain a bit of separation. Utilizing the Virtuous Circle of Person and Society, persons can “take the place of the other (person)” and figuratively look at ourselves from outside. It is from this vantage that freely chosen changes to our habits of behavior can be initiated.
These points about purpose and worth, made about an organ and its organism, must equally apply to the other Virtuous circles: organism and environment, person and society. It is becoming obvious that, herein, freedom lies. From the “transcendent position”, more causal connections occur between the components below.
The unity of an object, and the point of an action, always stands aloof of its analysis into parts and pieces.
In the following post these points will be specified.
One further characteristic of great significance must be attributed. Virtuous Circles are “from a particular point of view.” It was meant as no mere analogy that the master craftsman stood above the shop floor. His point of view is decisive, and an aspect of all purpose or function is that they occur for a particular point of view. It is a way of ‘seeing’ the situation, and interacting with it, in relation to the important information it contains or offers. It is Dennett’s position that with the first functioning objects in the world, the foundation was laid for the possibility of the evolution of objects with conscious and self-conscious points of view.
(This is the Introduction to a series of posts on Freedom. They are not light reading. Please give them a try, if only skimmed to collect what is of interest to you. They are published for the sake of the clarification of basic philosophical and scientific positions. Later posts will contain many of these ideas in a more accessible form. The series is about Freedom but I do not mean 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!)
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!
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 notthe 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
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!
*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.
(INTRODUCTION: This is the initial post for this blog, “naturereligionconnection.org”. This post has a long and personally significant history. It initially appeared as a letter to the editor in the Columbus Dispatch in late 2007. I was gratified by the response. That Sunday morning the phone rang several times, early, and I ignored them, cursing “those damn telemarketers.” After several more calls I finally answered to find a lady asking it I was the author of this morning’s letter. She went on to explain how moved she was, literally, saying she shouted, “Yes!” at one point while reading, and leaped up from the couch. The following week I received a half dozen letters expressing appreciation for my effort. A Sunday School teacher wrote that he intended to use it with his teen-age group to provoke discussion. One scrawled and rambling letter explained how I was going to Hell. This current post is a slightly revised version of that original, letter.)
Sometimes in presidential races, religion becomes a topic. That was the case in 2008 and especially in the Iowa caucus. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romneyspoke passionately about his religious beliefs because they were apparently adversely affecting some Iowans. The editor of our local Columbus newspaper interviewed E. Gordon Gee, President of The Ohio State University (Columbus Dispatch 12/2/2007) who hopes we can “restore civility and thoughtfulness to politics.”
The first obstacle cited, by Gee, to this “more civilized political discourse” was religious prejudice and ignorance. Gee is a Mormon, as is his friend Romney. He said it was “hogwash” to think that Romney would govern differently, or that he, Gee, would administer a university differently because of their religious belief.
Here at NatureReligionConnection, we believe that, but also that there is more to say. We think it is ‘hogwash’ that there is so little civil and thoughtful discourse about religion. Politics aside, the Christmas season was then in full swing and that, too, made it an excellent time to ask: how is it that so many of us hold so many different, so many contradictory, so many fanciful religious opinions? If Gee and Romney want thoughtful political discourse then let us start a thoughtful discourse about religion to accompany it.
For example, Mormons believe that in the year 1823 in Palmyra, New York, (not exactly a ‘mecca’ of religious activity!) an angel named Moroni helped Joseph Smith obtain buried golden tablets that were written in an ancient language about an ancient people that once lived there. Mormon, the author of the plates, was a prophet and historian for these people, the Nephites, who had come from Jerusalem to the New World in 600 B.C. by boat.
In the New World, the Nephites created a great civilization, eventually destroyed but not before Jesus Christ came to them soon after his resurrection and personally ministered to them. Joseph Smith used special stones (the Urim and Thummim) that came with the plates and allowed him to translate them into the Book of Mormon, the sole source of this ‘history.’ After the translation, the angel Moroni took the tablets back for safekeeping, but not before they were shown to 11 witnesses (see the front of the Book of Mormon for their testimony). Mormons believe that the Nephites are the ancestors of Native American Indians.
That’s a unique twist on Christianity, and—for good reasons—most of us don’t believe it, unless you were born in Utah.
Another belief that most Americans don’t hold: In the year 610 A.D. Muhammad was fasting and praying in a cave outside of Mecca, now Saudi Arabia. He wished his people to possess a book like the Jews and Christians and finally on this occasion, after days of prayer and abstinence, the Angel Gabriel appeared and ordered him to “recite.” He could not, so the angel took him in something like a bear hug and held Muhammad till breathless and again ordered him to “recite.” But nothing came forth.
Finally, after releasing him from a third embrace, Muhammad, gasping for breath, found the opening words of the Quran tumbling from his mouth. Muslims don’t believe that Christianity is wrong but simply that it is incomplete, that the Quran completes the teachings about God.
We don’t believe that story either, certainly not in any literal sense, but one billion people from North Africa through the Middle East and deep into Asia do, and many of them now live in the United States and Europe.
In the name of Allah, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful: All Praise is due to Allah, Lord of the Universe.
“The Opening” of the Quran, Surah Al-Fatih
Finally, a story that many Americans subscribe to. It’s a familiar story and one that profoundly moves us especially during the holiday season. We won’t repeat it in detail; it too involves angels, ancient events, a special book, ascension into heaven, a pregnancy without sex, and a god who was also a man. Of course, this story is just as hard to believe.
Many Americans do believe, it’s our story, but of course intimate familiarity is the primary criterion for belief in any religion. If you were born and raised into it, you believe it.
But it is more than intimate familiarity that is at work, it is also the feelings of connection, metaphysical insight and deeper purposes engendered by religious beliefs that is cited by believers as evidence of truthfulness. All serious Mormons, Muslims, Christians, Jews, Hindus, etc. feel the validity of their faith; and since this feeling is had by all it is no proof to any for their specific stories.
It’s time to say what we believe. Here at The Connection, we believe that ethics and morality are real things but are degraded by supernatural explanations. We believe that the “faith” of religious believers is really their intuition of their actual involvement in something that is larger than themselves, that is the source of meaning, and that is of immense value.
A small but significant discourse is underway centered around courageous biologists and other theorists, who seek to gain our assent through reason and evidence that is accessible to all regardless of place of birth and socialization. Traditional religion can be replaced, and interestingly it is the science of biology that is leading the way. The design of the natural world, always the best argument for the existence of God, is being understood by evolutionary theory to be “That Large Thing” mentioned above.
It is the Tree of Life, and we humans are incorporated in the inner relations of this Biosphere. As physician and medical researcher, Lewis Thomas wrote, “the earth is a loosely formed, spherical organism.” So, it is with scientific justification that we can, with affection, admiration and even awe, look to our planet and gain inspiration. It is Mother Earth, of which we are a part: Our planet is a massive and irreplaceable piece of living art.
If this scientific discourse can continue and expand, and if each of us have the courage to examine our own basic beliefs, we, here at the naturereligionconnection, believe that traditional religion can be replaced by more rational and uniform ideals. Mother Nature’s human creatures will then have a sounder basis for civility and thoughtfulness in our political relations.
Sorry for the hiatus in new posts. I have been returning to some of my earlier posts and revising them, improving them. Happy to say I have liked them, and mostly just improved upon them. I know it does not rank up there with twisting Curly’s ears, but if you have the time you might want to check a few out. In the Parenthetical Post Intro I have noted the ones that are revised. (Go Bucks! Impeach Trump!)
I appreciate the garden. Sheri and I work hard on it and have for 20 years. We carved it out of a very ordinary suburban backyard with a rusting swing set, but some great trees. I also want to understand that garden, and recently I sought knowledge of the humble Zinnia. It’s an unassuming annual, that I have grown for years and often from seed. Likable for its late bloom in late summer — mid to late August — i.e. now. After most else has withered, here comes old dependable.
It turns out to be a Compound or Composite flower. It’s ‘a flower’ made up of many small flowers! What? Oh, there is that theme again: A ‘thing’ that is importantly many smaller things.
But what is more important, the Zinnia as a whole or as a simple aggregation? A pile of gravel is not an important development of the individual stones that make it up. You can double its size, cut it in half, throw in some sand; you can have the right side, I’ll take the left: Who cares? Can we say the same for the Zinnia? Is the whole Zinnia an important development of its pieces? Remember, that ‘one’ flower ‘is really’ ‘many’ flowers!
But Sheri sometimes says, “Shut up and just enjoy the Garden!” Maybe she is right, but, please follow me down this rabbit hole, even if for just a little.
How many flowers are there in a Zinnia? Well, first of all, botanists call the thing we call its flower “an inflorescence”; it’s the group of smaller flowers. To them, it’s important enough to have its own name for the various reasons we will discover.
In the inflorescence at right, there are at least 42 flowers, by my count! Each ‘petal’ is actually a modified flower; about 27 it seems. They are not true petals because true petals are a modified leaf in a Simple Flower, but not a compound one. Here, they are modified flowers called Ray Flowers, each with (some of, it varies) their own sexual equipment — pistil and stamen. In the Zinnia, though, these ray flowers are sterile, I believe; and each has for itself one large modified true petal that we see as the petal of the Zinnia, thought it is not; it is the ray flower’s petal. OK?
The other flowers that are obvious are the little yellow ones. There are 6 of these and they are called Disc Flowers. They actually look like flowers to us non-botanists and truly are. They have a full set of sexual equipment, fertile upon pollination, and produce one seedeach in that case.
I am including about 9 other disc flowers in this above photo, those being the little white spots near the yellow. I believe they are soon to open or wilted ray flowers.
The Sunflower is also a composite flower. In this photo, if you look closely, you can see the wilted disc flowers (black) each on top of a developing single seed (green and domed) with ray petals at the edge.
But this is not all; 27 ray plus 15 disc equals 42 flowers in the inflorescence initially pictured. There are many more disc flowers though not evident in the Zinnia.A Shasta Daisy is also a compound flower and one with its disc flowers more evident. By my count (two tries) there are about 70 to 80 in this inflorescence at left. It doesn’t seem that many at a glance, but try for yourself; maybe I counted one twice! I did include about 15 on the perimeter as opened (thus indistinct in appearance) disc flowers.
Compounded Complications in the Composite
But the world of the Composite Flower gets even more complicated. Some compound flowers are all ray lowers and no disc flowers! As in the common Dandelion or Mum. Others are all disc flowers.
Even the Zinnia has a variety that is predominantly ray flower, the double bloom.
Returning to the theme of The One and The Many. A disc flower in a composite flower is not only distinct in appearance from a ray flower, but also has its time or order of opening determined by its place in the disc. Ray flowers open first, but then disc flowers develop from the perimeter of the disc moving to the middle. This is most elegantly displayed in some varieties of Sunflower.
(On left, the ray flowers opening on a new inflorescence of Zinnia. Right, the vague yellow circle within the disc of this Sunflower is the advancing blossom of disc flowers moving toward the center.)
That this Compound living together of the disc and ray flowers determines their maturation suggests a significant influence of the whole over its parts. All is not causation through time; some is definition of part in relation to part, as in any significant Structure. In other words, some is Participation not just causation. In the composite flower, flowers participate in their large aggregation as if by agreement, and thus become more than a mere pile. They become an entity with a significant unity that shapes their existence as individuals. They are a whole that is more than the sum of its parts taken individually.
More could be said about this unity of the many in the Zinnia and other composite flowers, but I do not believe it would enhance the case more than tax the reader. Enough said. Let us close with the following pictures.
The Garden as Metaphysical Instruction: the Zinnia as an Autonomous Structure.
(—This is an improved version of the original post — “Faithfully Play Their Part in Our Society“, that’s not happening as much as I would like these days. Too many people are disappointing in this way. How about you? Disappointed, morally shaken? Mass shootings, thinly veiled self-seeking, abuse of position, lack of personal courage: Is this the theme for our times? It’s a moral failing. It’s a lack of moral clarity. What is morality anyway? Maybe this post will help. Please comment, I need to hear your thoughts and feelings!)
A lot of extremely unfortunate things happen in our world. They happen to people, and many are perpetrated by people. We want to know, why? We want to know, “can anything be done?” It’s clearly wrong, we feel and think, but who is responsible? Are they morally responsible?
Dr. J. Coyne uses “responsible” to mean, any series of causes that pass through you; i.e. you simply did the act/event , no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ attached to it. He is consistent with his position of “hard determinism” and contends nothing is added of any value by calling a behavior moral or not. Our behavior just is. It is determined by causes — from the neurology of your brain to the quantum state of the universe — to be what it is (or was), and there is no alteration of it nor personal control.
Dr. Coyne is a biologist with the University of Chicago and the author of a blog, “Why Evolution Is True” (WEIT). His blog has a following of over 20,000 and has some rip-roaring debates about Free Will. Is Free Will true, or even possible? Dr. C says “No!” Everything, in a world best described by science, is caused, and this makes ‘morality’ an illusion.
I have often disagreed with the good doctor on these issues. I support how we commonly use the word “moral” and “morally responsible”, by and large.
(The Bible– painting by Van Gogh —and Koran in Islamic calligraphy. I do not support the often accepted idea that morality has a divine source. In fact, this post argues for a naturalistic explanation of moral good and evil.)
“Moral” does add significance; it does add an enhanced and legitimate meaning to responsibility, I believe. Actually, to my mind, “responsible” (the common use of it) often implies a moral sense, so “He is responsible” usually implies blame, or sometimes commendation: “He is morally responsible.” Coyne’s use — a human act is just another cause and effect in a giant chain of those — is artificial, an alteration, in my opinion.
If you are falling down an elevator shaft, it is happening to you (Coyne’s sense) but you are not “responsible” or better “morally responsible” for it. It is an accident. The doors opened, you weren’t looking, you stepped in, and the elevator was not there! Your falling was an accident, but it did definitely happen through you, and to you. In Coyne’s sense, you will be responsible for the mess at the bottom of the shaft (it’s what’s left of you), and, in the common sense use , we could loosely agree; but we certainly would not say you were morally responsible for it: You wouldn’t be a bad person, nor would we be shaken, disappointed, and even feel undermined by that unfortunate event, though it would certainly be considered horrible luck!
By contrast, Dayton is my home town. Following the mass shooting there, I felt betrayed and angered. People should not do that to other people! Especially in the home town toward which you feel great connection!
Similarly, though less severely, if you are waiting in line at a traffic light and the car behind you doesn’t stop and rear ends you, you then hit the car in front of you; you are “responsible” for hitting it in Coyne’s sense (your car hit the car in front), but not legally responsible nor mortally responsible. No cop would cite you. The car that hit you — whether due to drunkenness, distraction, or in the midst of a heart attack — would be legally responsible, and morally responsible if drunk or distracted, but not if having a heart attack.
The Crucial Distinction
We are now getting to the point of the distinction between “responsible” and “morally responsible”. It is amplified by Coyne’s rather artificial use of the word “responsible”.
“Morally responsible” points more explicitly to the element in these situations that involves Our Trust, Reliance, and Righteous Dependence on other persons to Faithfully Play Their Part in Our Society. “Morally responsible” tries to ‘get at’ the element of our lives, our social lives, that, as much as we may say and think, is Caused, it is also a situation Agreed Upon. To say someone is “morally responsible” implies that They did Not Have To Do It. They could have reflected upon their life further and in a better fashion; and thus done otherwise.
There are causes that bring us to live together — we were born this way, we know nothing different, it’s the way modern society (any society) works, people live together! — yet, we take it a step further, We Pledge Ourselves to It; we accept it, and this is the first step in our Reflection upon our self and others.
In many minimal ways, and often wholeheartedly, we state our allegiances to others. We state who we are: “I am an American; I am a school teacher, …a hockey fan, …an artist, …an Ohioan, …a Democrat, …a good person, …an atheist” . We say these things, and things like them, all the time. These statements seem to be a mixture of simple fact and a choice, fact and a preference. Or minimally, fact and acceptance: as when I acknowledge, “I am a man; I am old; or hypothetically, I am an alcoholic, …a depressed person, …mentally ill.
I can not change the fact that I was born in America, that makes me an American at least in a minimal sense; but I do not have to continue to live here. It’s a choice, a preference. I became a school teacher (fact) through a series of choices, but I did not set out in life, early on, saying that is what I wanted to do and march straight down that path. As a boy, I wanted (and tried) to become a baseball player, then an astronaut (read a number of books on the topic and followed space history avidly). In the 5th grade, the nuns even had me ‘searching my heart’ to see if I had “a calling to the priesthood”! Notice how I blame that on “the nuns”, but I can assure you, I was also a ‘willing’ — though young and impressionable — participant, for a while, in that scheme. So, life is not all preferences and choices either. It’s choices and facts.
I can not change the fact that I am old, but I can accept it. This fact becomes Reflected in a conscious awareness of it. I can, or should, or might, then do something aboutit. I should go to the gym more often. I might get my affairs in order. I want to eat better. And similarly, I may be a person with a mental illness, I accept this. What can I do about it, what might I do, …should I do, …want to do about it? Acceptance is the minimal position in a moral dilemma; it signifies the awareness of it. It signifies the shift from something we are — something that is happening to us — to something we Know About. This is a shift from a causal relationship to a relationship of Reference: I have ‘stepped outside’ the dilemma/the situation and now have Perspective, or Additional Perspective. I have a point of view on it and some reflective separation from it.
Morality is about what you do and did, but more so it is about your reflection on that, or lack there of.
Faithfully Being With Others
Our participation in our social way of life is, generally and very significantly, Accepted By Us even when it is seemingly and largely Forced Upon Us. It is as if we have Taken An Oath to our fellows that we will Live Together in the mutually acceptable way. Often we explicitly take Oaths that we will Do Our Part in relation to others Faithfully.
(Above we have various oaths being taken by people in various situations. Starting at top left, a doctor swears to serve their patients, immigrants an allegiance to their new country, citizens joining the military of their country, people swearing to tell the truth at a hearing or in court, in marriage an oath to be faithful to each other, a President swearing to serve the people of his country and uphold their Constitution. — photos from the public domain)
That is what Morality is based in. It is our commitment, above and beyond all the causes that have gotten us here, to this life together. We make a commitment to it. Our point of view of it, is, minimally, one of acceptance and basic respect.
And our oath to each other need not be explicitly made. In common and everyday situations, it is, as if, we have Taken An Oath to our fellows that we will Live Together in some way, or state, above that of “a war of all against all”, as Thomas Hobbes, the famous philosopher, put it. It is implicit in what we do and say, that we will behave with an agreed upon modicum of decency toward our fellows.
If you cannot do this, behave in this minimally decent way, options are available, if you can Reflect Upon It! In fact, in our society, You Have The Obligation To Seek Help, and even to Remove Yourself From Our Company until your affiliation improves! Move to Idaho and live alone in a cabin in the mountains. Stay in your apartment, if you live in the city, and come out as infrequently as possible. Seek emotional counselling! Write a novel or read poetry about your situation. Join an alternative political party or religious sect. Even, as a last and somewhat reasonable option, commit suicide. But, you have No Right to disrespect others and undermine our faith in our togetherness in many of the ways increasingly common today: mass and random murder, the abuse of positions of power or trust, and the lack of courage to speak up for what is right. That is being wrong, morally.
The Background of Morality in Nature, History and Religion
The Englishman, Thomas Hobbes, was one of the first (the 1600s) to explore and hypothesize about this idea of an oath to others, aSocial Contract or Covenant. Significantly, he contended — and absolutely correctly, we here at naturereligionconnection.org believe — this oath is so important and functional that it establishes a new Level of Organization with new abilities that accompany it.
It establishes anew creature, contended this originator of social science. We here at NatieRel have called it “the human social organism” (see posts 4 and 5 in Freedom series); Hobbes called it “The Leviathan”. That is how closely we are connected! We function together as a single creature.
But this image and idea of “a larger embodiment” of individuals is not confined to politics and political philosophy. It is also exemplified in Nature and its various highly social ways of living for many life forms. We have flocks, schools, colonies, herds and packs.
(From top left, murmurating starlings, schooling sickleback, colony of army ants, herd of bison and pack of hyenas at bottom right. None of these biological forms of social living are consciously committed to by their participants.)
We have “parliaments” of Burrowing Owls
and the Portuguese Man-of-War.
(The Man-of-War is a siphonophore, like a sea anemone (which also has stinging tentacles). But, it is actually a Colony of 4 individual animals, called polyps. Its gas-filled bag is one; it functions is to move ‘the animal’ as a sail. Three other polyps hang below with individual functions of capturing prey, digest prey (the stomach for all yet its own animal) and reproduction (for all). It’s a strange arrangement and not yet fully understood! Photos and diagram thanks to National Geographic)
In religion, of course, participation in a larger embodiment/a larger unity is a prominent
theme. Ecstatic and mystical forms of religion often involve the participant in forms of consciousness and ritual characterized by loss of individual self. The Whirling Dervish of Sufi Islam, the Kabbalah of Judaism, and the tradition of “speaking in tongues” of Pentecostal Christians, all are examples. Even in the more institutional and dogma based religions, images and beliefs of a larger unity occur.
The tradition of “the mystical body of Christ”, mystici corporis christi, is prominent in The Bible and one of the favorite themes of Saul of Tarsus. From my Catholic school days, I still remember a piece of art with the exact theme of Hobbes’ Leviathan except instead of the King as embodied by his subjects it was Jesus embodied by his followers: the Catholic Church as the Corpus Christi.
Ironically, when I first published this post, I did not explicitly consider the use of “God” in oath-taking. An oath is a “solemn vow”and has generally invoked a deity, as witness, guarantor, retributive agency. This theme may generate an additional post.
Going Beyond Biology and Religion
The human way of being together, starts with biology but goes beyond it. Social animals are social via the evolution of their physical traits. But, as with some other large-brained animals, in humans a new form (or organization, or design) of sociability began to emerge: Culture. Humans are now most pointedly social, by being cultural. Beyond our living in close proximity and our division of economic labor, we share thoughts! A brain is an individual thing, but a Mind is connected brains working together within a cultural system.
“Memes” ‘infect’ our brains.* We have language, the predominant form of meme. We pass on our memes/thoughts. We socialize our children (see post four in Freedom series-“Persons in the Human Social Organism”). We discuss our thoughts, reflect upon them. All this is somewhat like programming a computer, except here, we — the computers — are reviewing and revising our own program!
A malcontent, or one suffering from mental illness, often has opportunity to review their thinking; usually, they have a variety of influences upon them. This provides Choice, Options. Those close to them also have moral responsibility to the the ill or depraved person, to themselves, and to their society. This is modern morality, the shared responsibility for our togetherness.
Individually, this process of review and revision is what we call, our personal history; but writ large — socially — it is Human History. Thankfully, this process has brought us to Democracy and the social safety net provided by most democratic governments. Currently, democracy is the most moral form of political organization but others are imaginable.** In this way, we have developed the basic interpersonal, agreed upon, respect that characterizes “us” — our society — and distinguishes us from “them” — social ways of life foreign to us. Ancient autocracies like those in Egypt and the Roman Empire, even modern drug and gang states that exist in Central America, are examples of living together without our kind of accord and characterized by fear, domination and manipulation. Slavery is another such example. The frequent and arbitrary outbursts of mass violence in America today extinguishes trust and civility, the Moral Basis that underlies “our” kind of modern society, at its best. We are deeply shaken by it, for it strikes at the roots of our moral togetherness. We no longer share thoughts, we receive bullets.
A Final Example of the Difference Between “Responsibility” and “Moral Responsibility”, and A Holistic Perspective.
The general background for this position on morality involves, also, a very curious argument that some respected philosophers have currently advocated. They contend that most of the things we believe must be true. Most of the things we say must be honest. A curious contention, but think about it; how would our lives and social lives be possible if they were not overwhelmingly true and real, our statements basically honest? Our consciousness would have no wheels that got traction; our togetherness no gears that meshed into other gears. It would all be spinning wheels — illusions — and manipulative or defensive interactions. No opportunity for the large scale cultural progress that have characterized our history.
It’s a holistic argument. Like wooden-ship sailors, who could replace a leaking plank or
two in the hull while at sea, but they couldn’t replace them all at once! We can tell some lies and sometimes violate our trust of others. We can have some mistakes in our belief system. In each case, we can revise our beliefs piecemeal and catch the few lies told in a democratic society, but there is no ReasonableWay to change all your beliefs at once, nor have a democracy fundamentally deceitful.***
Does that make sense to you?
Salesmanship is the final example. It is not a very exciting example of human togetherness but telling nonetheless. If a salesperson sells you a product that will do the job you want, if they do not lie about their product’s abilities, if they do not hide some significant defect, and if they allow you to make the decision to buy without undo pressure, that ismoral salesperson-ship.
Of course, we all know that the caveat, “buyer beware”— caveat emptor — applies; the buyer also has moral responsibilities to look out for themselves. Each knows that the other’s interests are not completely symmetric with their own. Each knows that the other is “under pressure”, but not caused, to make some transaction. It is out of the independence of the two, buyer and seller, that their eventual moral interaction raises them to a new level of enhanced functioning. They both benefit. Each comes away with more than they would have separately. It is a win-win.
Morality is the affirmation, or betrayal, of our trust in other persons. It is the basis for the interaction of persons at their higher level of existence.
(Complex human interactions based on shared ideas and trust.This is moral responsibility and activity. From the operating room to the football field, from the organized flow of traffic to the stock market, from the classroom to voting, all are based on a foundation of trust—though with sanctions and penalties to re-enforce it.)
Most of us feel, and sometimes think, deeply about morality. Our trust has been shaken by current events. Can we live together? Can we act in unison, and pledge ourselves to this? Yes, we can and must! Morally responsible action is the basis of our human life at its most rewarding level: we must struggle to maintain it.
I hope this post helped clarifythe Fact of Morality and bolsteryour preference for it. Your reflection is necessary. Today, a discussion exists; today the character of morality hangs in the balance, as it has at other times in our history. Act now. Human trust is worth the struggle.
(An estimated 4,000 workers rallied and marched for jobs and increased wages in Detroit on this cold day in March. At the Dearborn city line, police fired tear gas and bullets. Marchers scattered but then regrouped and pushed forward, throwing rocks and bottles, one mile into Dearborn heading for Ford’s largest auto plant. From an overpass, police sprayed fire hoses on the cold and advancing workers. Ford ‘security’ forces fired bullets. 22 were wounded by gunfire, 4 killed. The march was then abandoned.)
*For presentation on Memes, see D. Dennett, From Bacteria to Bach and Back, chapters 10-11. The concept of Meme is a cross between concepts of a Thought, a Gene and a Virus. It allows Dennett to discuss Cultural Evolution and its changes of intellectual themes with great latitude. By contrast, Hard Determinism has virtually no ability to discuss the complexity, marvel and effectiveness of our intellectual lives except in vague platitudes about ‘adaptions to environments’ and ‘future neural discoveries’.
**Plato argued, with some plausibility, for a government by Philosopher-King. In general, the theme being explored here is that the origin of morality is closely associated to the origin of language. Both of these are then connected to the beginnings of Reflective Thought. Themes to be tackled in the future (Oh joy!?).
***There is a strange movie about a man who has no memory, long term (?) or short. He is totally freaked out, and, of course being a movie, determined to find out What happened, but also, Who did this to him! He has few lasting ‘connections’ to who he is and what he is trying to do. So, he takes a lot of notes, for himself, including tattooing some really important info on his body! “Memento” released in 2000. Nor is there a reasonable way to think that all, or most, of our beliefs are wrong. To think that consciousness is illusion, gives us no avenue to consciously come up with that idea. The argument undermines itself.
“This is modern morality, the shared responsibility for our togetherness.”
(Written several days after the mass shooting in the early morning hours of August 4, 2019, in Dayton, Ohio. Cartoon added post factum.)
We’re from Dayton! On Saturday night, a gunman walked the street of a popular entertainment area in Dayton. In 24 seconds of shooting, he killed 9 people and wounded 26. In 24 seconds! How is that possible? See the picture of the gun below and how it was equipped.
Here at naturereligionconnection, my wife and I both grew up in Dayton and lived there somewhat as adults. We still have very close friends and family there. Sunday morning I was already upset by the mass shooting in El Paso, Texas, in which 20 people were killed and 27 wounded. My wife called, she told me of Dayton; it was like getting punched in the stomach. Two mass shootings in 13 hours and “We’re from Dayton!”
Dayton is not a huge city, but it is no small town. With about 150,000 residents, it is far from its hay day in the early 60’s when it had nearly 300,000. Its suburbs have continued to grow.
Know as the birthplace of aviation, the Wight brothers lived there and built their first powdered aircraft. Later it was the headquarters of NCR (National Cash Register), and as a child I remember riding along Patterson Ave. which was lined on both sides with six story red brick building with large windows all filled with machinists building cash registers for the world. But that was then, and now NCR has moved away and so have all the auto plants.
When I began to write this blog, I said that it was Not going to include politics, even though my wife and I are very involved in it. This is an exception! I will not sit quietly as this carnage continues. Anti gun-violence has always been a cause of ours, and our yard is often ‘graced’ with various political signs including gun violence signs. The sign at the top of this blog is now nailed to our tree facing facing the street.
This morning I have already called 3 elected officials, all Republicans, and appealed to their best instincts; well, in 2 of those cases there may be some ‘best instincts’, to the third, I simply threatened to work till I drop to see him defeated unless he do something to limit gun access.
This summer so far, here in Columbus, there have been at least 4 shooting deaths of teens by teens. In our state, an assault rifle can be purchased by an 18 year-old but that 18 year-old can’t buy a beer!
Yesterday, when I was so frustrated and angered upon hearing of the shooting in Dayton, I tried to call my best friend there to commiserate with him. He was not available so I left a message expressing my outrage and sadness. But shortly thereafter, I realized, what if he is Not OK;what if he or his wife is among the dead or injured? I called right back, for they often frequent that area of dear old Dayton that was so violated, and this time he answered. As shaken and angry as I, and more so, they were fine and they had been there, to that district, the night before! Life is too precious and short already, this violence cannot go on.
Some say, “But what can stop it?” I say, let us do any reasonable thing, any reasonable SIX things, and see if it helps. Red Flag laws, universal background checks, raising the age for purchase, banning enlarged magazines, ending concealed carry, increased mental health services, required safe storage, BANNING ARs —– anything that limits guns and their abuse. And even if, after this, the violence is not greatly diminished, at least we will be able to say: WE ARE NOT A PART OF IT, WE TRIED.
Doing nothing enables more : Help change the cultural climate.
Please, Do Something NOW, Help End Gun Violence in America!!!
(Back from vacation! Thanks for your patience, I needed the break. This first year of blogging has been very exciting and more tiring than I realized. Much was accomplished, and yet the Human Freedom Series needs to be finished; hopefully just several additional posts. This current post sets out in a very different direction, far more accessible, far more enjoyment. I hope it works for you! I apologize for some of the layout difficulties, some of them are just insurmountable. All Flower Photos are by me and taken from The Garden of Sheri and Greg — “our little nature preserve”. Thanks, GregWW)
The beautiful goddess of the day — hemerocallis — the daylily, is in bloom in central Ohio. Gracing the backyard with its ephemeral structure, each blossom lasts only a single unbroken span of daylight, yet, long enough to serve the plant’s purpose —fertilization and reproduction — and our purpose — delight and amazement.
This Backyard’s Variety
There are 19 species of Daylily, and the plant is native to Asia. The Orange was first brought to America in the 17th century from England and it, and several other varieties, became subject to intense breeding. There are now over 80,000 registered cultivars! Soon the original oranges escaped the gardens and populated roadsides and ditches. That plant is now considered an invasive species.
Ironically, the Daylily is not a true Lily, as are Easter, Asiatic or the Oriental lily. No longer considered part of the Lilium family the change occurred in 2009 due to genetic analysis. It is now classified as an ASPARAGUS — Aspragales! There is some structural similarities and this new classification is more consistent with the little known fact that the daylily can be eaten by humans and has been for possibly thousand of years!
The daylily flower stalk (right) resembles the flower stalk of an asparagus (left) in appearance and structure. The above is the stalk of a Tiger Lily which I ate this morning, raw, after finding out they were edible. Being a fan of raw and fresh asparagus, I found the consistency similar, but the more developed flower bud of the daylily was more leafy and lettuce-like upon eating than the asparagus and left a rather tangy, pepper-like, and pleasant aftertaste.
From the 6-7 inch wingspan of the above purple, to the 3-4 inch diameter of the above yellow-throated red, different daylily flowers vary greatly in size. Their flower stalks can range from almost knee-high to those of the Tiger Lily which often soar above much of the rest of the garden at and above 4 feet.
One of the great joys of the Hemerocallis is it dramatic settings of Pistil and Stamen.
These male and female parts flow from the throat of the flower with the pistil, the female part, always extending far beyond the male part, the stamen. The Stigma of the pistil is its extended tip. Here is where the pollen must land and almost literally take root. The stigma is sticky and the pollen that lands there then grows a Pollen Tube that must traverse the length of the pistil, called the Style, to the ovary and its egg deep in the throat at the base of the flower. The stigma is difficult to photograph, for me, due to its small size and luminous, glowing, surface.
Mother Nature, in the design of the daylily, has chosen to follow a rule not often duplicated in many other flowering plants. She, like the nuns at my Catholic grade school, has chosen to keep the boys and girls far apart at recess, in an effort to forestall any easy fertilization. The longest pistil in my garden was over 4 inches in length, running far ahead of the stamen.
The stamen are a different story; they are dramatic and easy to photograph among all the contrasting colors and shapes.
There are always 6 stamen, each composed of its Anther that tops its Filament. The anther is, of course, the pollen producing organ. and it often displays noted markings and can be loaded with yellow pollen grains .
Ruffles have been a characteristic sought and developed through Selective Breeding. A cultivar is a variety of plant developed through the efforts of human breeders. In the wild, Nature Selects the characteristics of living things — the process of natural selection — but as is true of so much around us now, humans select and design much of our own world (see post 5, “Advantages Within the Human Social Organism” in the Human Freedom Series). This is certainly true of the Hemerocallis, with its 80,000 cultivars! Ruffles, colors, sizes, bloom rate and repetition, all have been intelligently designed through breeding.
But Selective Breeding comes at a cost. It is through a brief description of the method that this cost may become evident.
A good Breeding Line of daylily will focus on a goal of enhancing a particular characteristic, say ruffles. The breeder will seek to enhance the depth, the color, the definition, along with the reliability of each offspring having that ruffle; along with diminished unfavorable traits.
This is accomplished through some out-crosses, but mostly inbreeding. A sibling-cross is the deliberate fertilization of a plant with the pollen of its sister/brother, in other words, plants with the same parent each with strong ruffles. A back-cross is a parent being fertilized by the pollen of one of its offspring displaying strong ruffles (or the offspring being fertilized by its parent’s pollen). This inbreeding is repeated many times to secure a strong line of breeders for that trait. The result can be a good breading line, but also sterility. These plants are no longer capable of reproducing sexually through seeds, but still capable of asexual reproduction through side-shoots.
The Life Cycle of the Daylily
The daylily starts to push its finger-like foliage from the soil in mid spring here in central Ohio. By time of flower bloom these leaves are about an inch wide, arching from the ground and then bending back ground-ward; their peak no higher than the knee but often lower.
By mid to later June, flower shoots begin to appearand rapidly stretch upward. Their increasing maturity is apparent day by day.
The blossom below (left) will open the following day. The flower below (right) is in the act of opening early after the sun has risen.
By later June, weather depending of course. flowers on some varieties will begin to open. Each stalk will contain 4 – 6 buds that hopefully, and usually, will open in succession. Total bloom time in central Ohio is about 4 – 5 weeks or from later June to about end of July.
But as stated, the run of a single blossom is only a day. The question now is “Has it been fertilized and will it set seed?” First, the wilted flower must be left on, no dead-heading if you want your lilies to go to seed. If all goes well, at the base of the flower a seed pod will begin to appear. It takes 40 – 60 days for that pod to mature at which point it will dry and begin to crack open.
Some experienced breeders contend Daylily seeds germinate better after experiencing a stretch of cold weather. They recommend seeds be put in the refrigerator for at least one month. Others contend that seeds can be put directly into the ground or a paper towel and kept moist till germination in about 1-2 weeks. I have no personal experience with this, but can happily report that the experiment is now under way in my backyard and refrigerator.
Reflecting Upon My Practice of Growing the Hemerocallis
As writing this blog, I began to think back on my own methods of growing Daylilies. As has been contended on this site, Self-Reflection is what separates we humans from the rest of the animal kingdom and poor plants are left even farther behind. I came upon several insights.
One of them was quite shocking. I had no seed pods on any of my daylilies! None. In our 12 patches, we had not a single pod. At first, I though about sterility, but then soon realized that it was our meticulous habit of dead-heading. Nothing inhibits the enjoyment of the day’s fresh bloom, like the wilted mess of yesterday’s expired beauty right next to it. Without allowing the faded flower, the seed pod cannot form.
As I began to think of this further, I felt some concern, maybe guilt, that our practice had so seriously disrupted Nature’s Cycle, Nature’s Goal. The flower’s Purpose is the sexual reproduction of this organism; its goal is to set seed and disperse them. Our goal, my goal, was their beauty. Our Aesthetic Experience had supervened to disrupt this cycle. Nature’spurpose had been superceded by our own!
I have now decided to cut back on dead-heading. I have started to allow some exhausted blossoms to remain and hopefully go to seed. Experts contend that approximately half will go into pod production given a good environment.
And this will allow me to start toying with breeding. Ironically, my realization of the disruption has now motivated me to further exert myself in shaping this organism. And this, too, is Nature’s Way. Long before human’s started to consciously breed plants (and animals), animals, including humans, Unconsciously Bred Plants. The rule of thumb, ‘Eat the fattest and sweetest’ — and other such reasonable impulses — has led to the alteration of most of the plants that we consume.
For example, the wild strawberry is minute. Natural apples are an inch in diameter. The wild almond is bitter and contains cyanide! The original banana held sizable and inedible seeds. The list goes on and on. And the effort of shaping plants to our use (and animal use, in general) started very early. Evidence indicates that Peas may have been one of the first domesticated, deliberately grown plants by 8000 B.C.; “olives by 4000 B.C., strawberries during the Middle Ages and pecans not until 1846″, says Jared Diamond in his wonderful book Guns, Germs, and Steel.
Goodbye to The Hemerocallis for This Year!
As I started this post, the daylily was starting to bloom; as I end it, they too are fading. August is upon us and only a few of the latest bloomers still thrive. This post is coming to an end also, and the effort to write it, and display all its photos, was far in excess of what I had anticipated. I learned much, and enjoyed much. I hope you did too.
It was rather thrilling to wake up the other day and check my site. I had a reader from Russia! (Hopefully it’s not a troll or a bot; maybe they are looking to plant a pro – Trump story. Not On This Site!)
But seriously, this site is still struggling to build a basic and consistent following, but when I find that starting to happen, as it is now, and then some of those readers are from across the globe, it’s extraordinary! Thanks to WordPress’ technology, I am provided with the countries of origin of some of my readers and thus far I can report at least occasional readers form as far away as Israel, Germany, England, France and Japan. It’s a nice feeling for a humble central Ohioan such as myself.
Thanks to All, and please leave a comment — even if a harsh one. I need your input! GregWW
Post Script: The day following the above post, my readership consisted of a resident of Finland, Singapore and Russia again! Around this house, they are starting to call me “Global Greg” and that’s no longer for just the shape of my stomach!
(This post “gets down”! Some serious metaphysical speculation occurs. Tighten your seat belts, or better, pull on your waders for the S#!% gets deep! As the title would suggest, we discuss very basic things and come to a Quasi Reverential Conclusion. This is not about god: It’s about something better, something real, something more reasonable. This post is being published in both the Human Freedom Series (post 15) and in The Connection (posts in general). It is pertinent and accessible to both. It is a short description and defense of philosophical Holism.—this post is revised from its original version—)
“To the ancients, it was reasonable to believe that there were all kinds of fundamentally different things in the world; in modern thought, we try to do more with less.”
Physicist Sean Carroll, author of The Big Picture
The universe is full of many different things. These different things have even more different qualities. Flowers have a quality. Stars have a quality. Stars and flowers have qualities that they share. The color red has a quality, similar to green but also very different.
In previous posts, I have attempted to argue that all these different difference have “emerged” from from a source not so different, in fact, a lot the same. “Structure” is the foundation of this contention. Differences in structure, or the Design, of our basic substance allows this “One Thing, to Become Many Things”. Not surprisingly, this idea has attracted some criticism.
One of my closest readers and critics is a chemist from western Canada, I believe. Recently he challenged me to specify “emergent”, as in: the pieces come together and what “emerges” are abilities and qualities that are “more than the sum of their parts” (my terminology). He contended that I was calling for some kind of “magical” event and he gave me a situation in chemistry where some atomic elements ‘come together’ and nothing much of significance happens that is new. I guess they are like a pile of sand; a pile is a way of being ‘together’ but it just sits there, no different if it were half its size or had some slices of pepperoni thrown in. He asked me to give him an example he could accept. Here are my attempts.
A car is obviously a complex of atoms. But, when we talk about cars, we don’t talk
about atoms. We talk in terms of “rods and pistons”, “axles and wheels”, “driveshafts, starters and brakes”. And to talk this way actually works to drive a car, to fix one, to design one. Biologist Richard Dawkins used this example, in The Blind Watchmaker, to describe the “complexity” he contends exists in a car and its abilities that lay beyond the need for ‘atom talk’. The point is, first, to talk of these kind of parts (and not the grains of sand in a pile) is effective, it works; and, second, it’s effective because the atoms, usually and normally, don’t interfere with that ADDITIONAL LEVEL of structure. They (the atoms) are ‘the clay’ that is molded — it would seem; do they ‘call the shots’ here? Somehow the design has a significant ‘say’; and, in this way, something new and important happens in cooperation with atoms that has never happened before ‘in our neck of the woods’: humans now move across land in great comfort and with significant efficiency.
A living thing
A living thing is my second example. “Hunting the Elements” is a very enjoyable episode of Nova hosted by technology writer, David Pogue. David and a biochemist go to a hardware store to buy all the basic ingredients to create life. Yes, CHNOPS* is common
enough to be found there. You can pile it into one overflowing shopping cart (in their appropriate proportions) and purchase them for a little over $100. Well, all except the phosphorus, which is obtained amusingly by processing five gallons of David’s urine that he dutifully returns to the men’s room, repeatedly, to obtain. So, it’s not hard to get the basic pieces for life, the issue is how to ‘get them together’ properly for anything other than dry goods to “emerge”.
In his book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (“dangerous” because it is so revolutionary), philosopher Dan Dennett discusses the origins of life by citing prominent biochemical theorist and researcher, Manfred Eigen. “There is an unmistakable engineering flair to Eigen’s thinking”, says Dennett; “His research is a sequence of biological construction problems posed and solved: how do the materials get amassed at the building site, and how does the design get determined, and in what order are the various parts assembled so that they don’t fall apart before the whole structure is completed?”
These living structuresdo something very different from the chemical elements that
compose them. These are their Emergent Qualities. They function to meet needs that preserves their living structure not only through a prolonged period of time but even generation after generation. Living structures Defend themselves, Ingest additional energy and develop behaviors to Seek it; they Reproduce their structures in what we call “babies” or “offspring”. Imagine an automobile having babies, seeking gas to refill itself and defending itself from damage. Or the Sun, seeking additional hydrogen and dividing itself like a single-celled organism.
Interestingly, cars are now driving themselves (goal-seeking behavior and centralized command) and working to avoid contact (self-defense) by sensors (sensation) and automatic braking. Hurricanes ingest additional warmth and moisture and thereby grow. So, the line between living and non-living is a fuzzy one as Evolutionary Theory demands (a claim by Dennett) and any Holistic Philosophy would advocate. An accurate science-based philosophy recognizes Science’s Quest to explain all phenomena in a deterministic manner but also recognizes that activity and functioning based on standards to attain goals and needs as also real. The Activity of Doing Science by living, choosing, human beings must be reconcilable with the Deterministic World science uncovers.
So, through emergence, it’s a very tricky process to get more out of less.
A protein is my final, and prolonged, example. I believe it will get us into the murkiest and most subtle areas of “emergence”. Again, we return to Dennett:
“Shape is destiny in the world of macromolecules. A one-dimensional sequence of amino acids…determines the identity of a protein, but the sequence only partially constrains the way the one-dimensional protein string folds itself up. It typically springs into just one of many possible shapes…This three-dimensional shape is the source of its power…” (my added italics)
Some sequence of code, a message like the following: A–G A–G T–C G–A A–G T–C (only much longer) becomes a specifically shaped protein as below. What controls or determines the protein as a specific shape?
An extra “dimension” is added at the level of “protein”; the 3D shape is the emergent property. The linear sequence of amino acids, “A–G A–G T–C G–A …” , couldbe maintained at the level of protein with no constraints on the shape that protein takes. The shape, as protein, could be perfectly circular or many other shapes, and maintain the sequence of amino acids in order. Yet, the ‘movement’ from a “one dimension” sequence of information, at the level of amino acids, to a determined three dimensional shaped protein is consistent and “Emergent” and, as such, the “source of its power” as a protein.
This emergent behavior in the building of proteins was “a puzzle” noted as far back as 1958 by biochemical researchers. The famous biochemist,Jacques Monad, solved this puzzle in the early 1970’s, says Dennett. Admittedly, it is an “abstract” issue, almost beyond the most immediate scope of biochemistry and verging on philosophy. “That a one-dimensional code can be ‘for’ a three-dimensional structure shows that information is added. Indeed, value is added. The individual amino acids have value (by contributing to the functional prowess of the protein)…”, (Dennett and his italics). Monad describes it as “function is linked to a three-dimensional structure whose data content is richer than the direct contribution made to the structure by the genome” (Monad’s italics). This added “value“, this “data content is richer” is the reality of Emergence in the world around us.
Emergence is Real, but It Can’t Come From Nothing
Now the hard part. How to explain these emergent appearances. Without reasonable explanation, emergence is just magic or supernaturalism. The claim that All Things Cannot Be Fully Explained In The Terms of Physics, is a claim important to the very basis of this blog, naturereligionconnection.org, and the claim that gives “Emergence” its urgency. It is a claim repeatedly discussed in the Human Freedom Series of posts. It is the claim that Explanation by Reduction to ‘less complex levels’ of physical objects is useful, but limited in its accomplishments. The concept of “Emergence” must explain how this added “value” and “richness” occurs. The answer to this is that the emergent property “functions” in a context “larger” and “more complex” than used in the initial description of its components, its “parts”.
Language is often used as an example. As when a child is learning, and points and says “doggie”, whatever meager meaning this may have to the child at this early point, later, when the child knows “cat”, “bird”, “pet”,”animal” and some other related terms, the child is become aware of, and is using, a much richer network of indicators and significance which gives “dog”—a single part— more meaning.
The structure as a whole is greater than its parts taken ind8ividually.
The Keystone: How a Whole can be Greater than the Sum of Its Parts, an ancient example.
In an arch, once the keystone is set in place, the arch has structural integrity. Until then it must rely on temporary supports, scaffolding and frames. This wedged-shaped stone at the top of the arch is the last to be placed and locks all the other stones (the voissor — pronounced vu’swar/) in place. Remarkably, the keystone bears almost no weight! The design of the arch is such that the downward force (tension) of the load is conveyed outward (compression) through the arch and only eventually and partially downward. Beneath the keystone there is almost no tension, no downward push. What is the arch’s load limit?
“The ability for arches to hold load is far beyond any other structural element, even those today…For the Romans, and even engineer’s today, a solid arch structure’s yield point is far beyond realistic loads that structure would ever see“, according to Interesting Engineering blog.
Sorry for the digression on arches, but here is the point concerning the source of an emergent property: Yes, it does “emerge” from the structure but only partially. The additional source of information is from the thing/things around it that benefit from the “emergence.” A structure, if it is to have Emergent Properties, must have them for a more comprehensive, ‘larger’, structure for which the emergent properties function.
Therefore, an Emergent Property exists and is good, only to those who use it. The information necessary for the emergence is contained not only in the structure, but also in the environment in which the structure is to function.
A car and a protein only have value beyond their atoms due to their design which is useful to us (the car) and useful to living things (the proteins). Even living things have Emergent Richness beyond their atoms only due to the rolesthey play, the functions they serve, the things they doforother living things, this planet, and to us, humans, who are starting to become conscious of this.
Outside of that Larger Context —- that arena of their usefulness —- they have no extra value! Take arches (one last time!) — or arch-like structures: They are useful to us as architectural technology, but they could certainly be used for similar purposes by other ‘more natural’ objects. Just Google “arch” and you will get a lot aboutFEET! Still, in each case, an arch exists for the thing for which it Functions. Its value is what it does for the thing it serves. It only “emerges” for the Larger Context in which it works.
Folks, this is what is called, Some Serious Philosophical Speculation. It’s down-right Metaphysics! And just to make sure you know what “camp” you are in, if you buy the above argument, You are a HOLIST. You want to make as much of life around you ‘fit together’ in a meaningful (coherent) Unity. It can be pictured a little like nested bowls or Russian dolls successively packed inside each other; and it sounds a little like religion, this always seeking this greater unity. And it is; we here at Nature Religion Connection will agree. Its the basis for a NATURALISTIC REVERENCE.
Emergence exists Only for the Thing for which the Function Occurs
Now, automobiles, and life, proteins and arches, did not have to emerge on this planet. It is a lucky development; lucky for us, I would think. It has been contended here, at naturereligionconnection, that emergent properties are not in contradiction to the most abstract laws of physics but they are, also, not a necessary outgrowth of them, either. They are an historic accident, in some ways, and then have become ‘solidified’ by what has developed after them that depends on them. That will be an important point in this discussion: primitive life stuck, and then much has developed based on it and its discoveries. Arches worked, and then much has been learned and developed from them.
Here is Origination, Holistic style: a larger context exists, but indistinctly; an emergent property comes to exist that fits that context. The first thing it does is give that environment much more clarity and
specificity (it becomes an informed environment). They begin to interact. The thing and its environment feedback on each other.
Think of a primitive environment as if it were a rudimentary lock. No simple key initially exists to turn it. Many varied formations ‘tried’. Finally one fit, and opened the lock to its revealed new abilities and qualities (it now really is a lock, for surely locks could not exist without keys to open them). Maybe, then, yet another round of development of locks and keys occurs, each changing, yet still as lock and key, only better. With luck and time, if the innovations are ‘rich’ and ‘valuable’ enough, much can possibly develop. Our little corner of the universe has a long history — from our point of view — of such fortunate growth. We can ‘see’ and ‘understand’ the reasons for it. It is the basis for persons and their informed “point of view”. **
And this is the answer to an earlier question. If the DNA code only partially informs (determines) the protein, leaving a three-dimensional shape as a “richer” consequence that “appears”,
where does the additional controls, the additional information, come from? Not any old shape will do, and a regular set of functional shapes of that protein does occur. Think back to the lock and key. It is the environment (the lock) that contains the additional information.It must “select” the key that will turn its tumblers. And here on Earth, we have been very fortunate; many locks have been opened, and many more keys have been generated.
Dennett uses the example of DNA to make the above point. “Note that this reasoning does not yield the conclusion that double-stranded DNA must develop, for Mother Nature
had no advance intention to create multicellular life. It just reveals that if double-stranded DNA happens to begin to develop, it opens up opportunities that are dependent on it. Hence it becomes a necessity for those exemplars in the space of all possible life forms that avail themselves of it, and if those life forms prevail over those that do not avail themselves of it, that yields a retroactive endorsement of this raison d’etre for the DNA language. This is the way evolution always discovers reasons — by retroactive endorsement” (Dennett’s italics, my bolding).
But some, who are enamored by the laws of physics, insist the basic ways we think about ourselves, and maybe even “life” in general, are mistaken, illusion. Animals don’t really “Do New Things”, by comparison to the chemicals that make them; they onlyappear to, and are, in reality, only prolonged chains of those chemicals reacting. Humans don’t have ‘Free Will’; they are not‘Responsible’ for their behavior. Again, those appearances are ignorance, illusions akin to seeing ‘gods’. “The world is really long chains of basic causes and it is foolish to speak differently”, they say.
But sometimes, appearances are enough! As we look out from our position in space and time the world comes together to us. We are impressed with our own active efforts, and the active efforts of those around us — both human and non-human. It’s the Tree of Life, with all its related objects and their advancing series of motives, intentions and abilities. Nature has given us this foundation and it’s panoply of reasons from which we may seek further growth. We will even learn more physics, and use that knowledge to “Emerge” with greater ability to act and hopefully a more firm understanding of how all things may be able to work together for mutual enhancement. It appears those opportunities are available to us, but part of the equation is that we try — we act according to the highest standards set in our most prized cultural settings. For creatures that must ‘see’ an open future, possibilities must “appear”!
**This description of “Origination, holistic style” may sound pretty fishy. It is rather, but is has a significant history in philosophical thought. Recently, it was associated with the discussion of ‘when is a thing still the same thing even after it has changed?’ and was a pivotal topic for Wittgenstein, I believe. Going back to some of the origins of abstract thinking in Greece, it was associated with Plato’s problem of, we might say, ‘what is “a chair”, if every chair that exists is not “the same” exactly — and many do vary dramatically — as any other “chair” that exists?’ In the end these issues come down to the problem of Reference or Representation, I believe. How is one thing ‘about’ or ‘represent’ another thing? Reference or Representation seems to be a very different kind of relation than Causation, and therefore a real curve ball for scientific explanation. And, of course, science is itself a representation of the world.