(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)
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.
(Wow, this topic sure has been haunting me, as in my post: “Freedom, Haunted by the Idea” in the Freedom and Mother Nature series. I sometimes wake in the night with ideas. Do we have to be separate from our environment to be free? We are making some progress on this, and it is such a fundamental issue — “Can we really do things or does stuff just always happen to us?” I believe we do have Agency and still can remain faithful to scientific principles. The issues are more complex than simply saying ’causes, caused, causes, caused’ all the way through no matter the situation. In this post, a distinction will be attempted (again) between being “informed” and being caused. This kind of difference will give us more to marvel at and to celebrate in our unity with the universe. Freedom is the ability to do more.)
When Jesus rose from the dead, or transformed water into wine with the wave of a hand, that is what I call “being free from the environment”. When the Angel Gabriel grasp Mohammed and held until the opening verses of The Koran poured from his mouth, that is being ‘free from the physical environment’! When The Buddha finally broke through the vast layers of illusion and reached Nirvana, sending the trees and flowers of the world into instantaneous bloom, that is what I call “being free from your environment”! These folks were supposedly SuperNatural beings and part of SuperNatural interventions into our normal earthly and human, physical environment. Freedom, for us mere mortals, does not need to be this extravagant.
Surprising to many, there is a rather wide ranging debate occurring in some circles — though probably not yours — about Free Will. Does it exist and in what form? One of my best readers, rom and his site rom’s corner, has commented that Freedom must mean, free from the/your environment. I certainly see how that can be taken as the definition but it is not what I intend by the term. Nothing is “free” from its environ. Early on, in fact post one — Freedom: Haunted by the Idea — in the Freedom and Mother Nature post series, I thought I made it clear that thinking of freedom as the ability to do anything, as being unconstrained by your environment, was not acceptable. That is not the kind of freedom I want, nor is it real.
Freedom is, instead, the ability to do more. Freedom is not defying the laws of your physical environment, it is working in conjunction with your environment to get the most out of it and you. Greater abilities to act involve new kinds of environments; the two go hand in hand. It is like flying airplanes. That is freedom. It is a gradual progression of the abilities of a creature to function successfully by adapting to their environment and then, in turn, influencing that environment, itself. Flying an airplane utilizes the natural forces that once held humans to the ground. Flying airplanes then also precipitates the design of enhanced wings and engines, the building of airports, the refining of fuels, the gradual history of aviation progress, the creation of traffic controllers, and the manufacturing facilities to construct these craft. Freedom is based in feedback loops. It is two way, not the one way determination of causal forces.
(The evolution of human flight is an example of how persons can come to be able to do more. In conjunction with their environment and reflective thought, humans utilized our environment’s opportunity for powered flight and its successive improvement.)
This concept of freedom is not completely irregular. There is a sense in ordinary usage that freedom is enhanced ability. A bird is free to fly; a horse to gallop. In engineering this sense has been conceptualized as “degrees of freedom”. A door on hinges has a degree of freedom; it can open. A hip with its ball and socket has more degrees of freedom; it can move at multiple angles. This idea of freedom is championed by philosopher Daniel Dennett, among others, and is a tenet of Compatiblism. It contends that freedom does not have to be unlimited to be real — a door has a limited kind of freedom.Being determined or caused is not incompatible with being free as long as you have enhanced abilities.
(Falcons can surely do more, and do it well! Their design gives them Degrees of Freedom with astounding qualities. Images from wildlifeanimalz and Difference Between)
I must admit that to hedge and create a coherent position by contending that freedom is optionsand constraints in an environment at the same time is a difficult task. ‘Hard determinists’ like Dr. Coyne on his site — Why Evolution is True, propose an austere, straightforward and courageous (in their eyes) position that ‘we are not free but are determined in all that we do.’ Whether it is the physical layout of the sub-atomic particles shortly after the Big Bang, or the socialization we received from birth, we do what we are caused by these to do.
To illustrate the delicate blend that I am proposing, I argued in Haunted by the Idea, that as the person I am, I am not realistically capable of committing some heinous act. Theoretically, I can think very abstractly about what it means to be a Person and Make Choices. I can imagine myself “very large” and see many options within my ‘grasp’; and in that abstract situation I can think that I am capable of many different kinds of acts, including very bad ones, contends Dennett. Or, I can think of my self as “very small” and ‘see’ no options only the constraints imposed by the forces within and around me. In reality, we are all a combination of these two perspectives. Our past can be a powerful force in continuing the present direction, and this especially if we are content with it. In my case, I have very little inclination to do something radically new, especially at this point in my life.
But, that is the kind of concept Personhood is; it is about shifting Perspectives on yourself and your environment, about choices, and the Responsibility we have to our self and other persons when we make them. Personhood is importantly about coordination with others, and flexibility in reflection and adjustment in action. (See Persons, Large and Small in the Freedom series)
We lucky, educated, and basically emotionally healthy individuals of the 21st century live in an Environment of Personhood. No, freedom is not being free from your environment, it is living in an environment that fosters and provides vast options for choices and the acts that follow from them. Freedom is living in an environment that has constantly focused on our responsibly to Reflect on our past behaviors and their circumstances before we act again. Our environment of Persons puts us in a place to think and act, to be significantly Self-Controlled, not simply to be impelled onward into continuous repetitive behaviors.
Persons are “free”, but in a complicated sense of that word. Person are not free from their environments, in fact, our freedom must be in coordination with much of our environment. We are not free to do anything we want, nor free to defy natural law; yet, human beings have pretty clearly Progressed in our abilities to do more and have more options about what to do. A Compatiblist Philosophy — one that tries to explain a limited kind of freedom and real progress in the human condition — tries to describe these complex conditions. In our freedom we are a part of this universe, not totally apart from it! How to conceptualize this? In this post, some of our options will be reviewed.
Reflecting on Our Environment
Modern socialized and responsible humans Reflect on their lives at many moments. What we experience in an environment is always at least subtly different from the past. We, ourselves, are at least subtly different at each new time. When we contemplate and then act, it is true that configurations in the form of chemical reactions and sub-atomic fluctuations are occurring in ‘our’ brains and in the world that includes ‘us’ that are associated with our decisions as persons to act and those actions themselves. Yet, we still say, “I am responsible for what I did”, and that is from the point of view of persons. In other situations, we say “I am NOT responsible for that and it was something that happened to me” and we are still speaking as persons in making that assessment and recognizing that freedom and responsibility has its limits in various ways in various situations.
A very personal example involving a dear and subtle situation: My mother and father had a very tumultuous relationship. One night after a very bad and prolonged argument, my mother was in the back yard crying and I was trying to comfort her. I was 12 and the oldest of 5 (!), and she asked me if she should divorce my father. At that point, I felt a tremendous pressure come down upon me. Sadly, what dominated my thoughts was my Catholic education and the stigma of divorce — in any religion — in the early 1960’s. I told her “No, you shouldn’t do that.” Not long after that, as the arguments and even physical and emotional abuse continued, I felt very guilty about what I had said that night. It was only in my early 30’s that I sought counselling to discuss that very night. With help, I realized that I was Not Responsible for what I said that night. My mother’s question was an unfair situation to place a 12 year old. I also came to realize that my father, for whom I held much anger, was a complex man for whom there was significant good and that he was, after all, just a fallible person, himself. I seriously reflected and realigned some significant emotions and thoughts in those counselling sessions. I left a lot a guilt there. That is the power of Reflection and Personhood. I felt and acted, in some sense, very differently from that point on.
Images of an Overwhelming Unity
Yet — strangely, why would you even want to take this perspective of such an event? — from the point of view of chemistry or physics or other hard determinist positions, it seems we have several options for how to think about that epiphany. How can we think about the relation of these ‘underlying’ realities —- the chemical reactions in my brain, my history of socialization… —- to the moment of this very personal and emotional realization?
1) ‘It’ was always going to happen. Wanting to preserve the unity of a Scientific Reductionist View, we could argue that the universe was and is aligned so that the collection of particles taken to be ‘me’was always going to be ‘sitting’ on that ‘chair’ and in that ‘counselling office’ and ‘speaking’ and ‘thinking’ and ‘feeling better’. Of course, none of those scare-quoted words are in the vocabularies of physics or chemistry, the disciplines that form the backbone of the hard determinist contention. For them, it should be particles or quantum waves or chemical reactions all the way through. Which then raises the question, ‘In what sense are we talking about “the same” event?’ The event I recounted was very personal and emotional; the event described by these sciences is very impersonal and objective. How are they the same event? How does the one kind cause the other? Isn’t the flow of endorphins in my brain “causing” a cessation of guilt and a realignment of my emotional life a little like water becoming wine? (See, “The Secretly Profound Idea of Emergence” in post series, Emergence and the Work of Sean Carroll)
(Illustration of an actual Human Heart and photo of an artificial Human Heart. Are they the same thing? Both do The Same Job: Isn’t that what is most important? Are they”The Same” , basically? Photo from howthingswork.)
An interesting feature of this view, emphasized by physicist Sean Carroll, is that, for physics, Time is reversible. With the right laws of physics — The Core Theory, we can go from any momentary state of the universe and understand it back to the origin of the universe or forward to the final states of the universe. Physics discovers a necessary sequence of events.
Yet, the event I recounted seems to have a unique climactic kind of character. This seems essential to it! When we think of our personal history, and even world history, we don’t tend to see it as locked-in, past and future, in that kind of way. We seem to be surprised by its new developments; new qualities and abilities appear. Carroll even expresses wonder at the progression of the macroscopic qualities of water from vapor to liquid to ice! To him, there are surprising new qualities there.
2) Regardless of “always going to happen”, shortly before it did happen — even if only by milliseconds — a brain monitor (of a hypothetical brain “reading” machine) could have picked up the neural activity and recorded what I was going to say and feel before I said it or was even aware that I was going to say it or feel it. This is an argument advanced by the neuroscientist and hard determinist, Sam Harris. Our ideas ‘bubble up’ from deep in our mind where forces beyond our control and awareness are at work. They are caused by these ‘deeper levels’ of physical occurrences.
But, this too suffers from the earlier objection: A Spanish speaker and an English speaker would not emit the same color words (the same sounds!) when similar color associated parts of their brain were stimulated. They would emit the sounds consistent with the order of the language they spoke. “Language” is itself an autonomous structure different from the neural interconnections of brains, which are an entirely different level of structure with there own patterns. Each language is then itself a self-contained ‘thing’ within that broader category of “language structure”. Neural activity does not cause me to say “red”; neural activity and socialization into the English language do, then, form a consistent association of phenomena on two different levels.
Or, a different variation: A Super Psychologist and Almost-Like Novelist could recreate the events of my life from my memories and her research, and plot the ‘scenes’ as they “led to” or “resulted in” all the subsequent decisions and feeling, including my epiphany in that psychologist’s very office. It would be like the movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, except instead of God revealing to Clarence, “the angel second class”, the circumstances of George Bailey’s life. My Super Psychologist would have those abilities in a more naturalistic form and reveal those inner causes, or themes, of my wonderful life to me. I was caused by my upbringing and its necessary progression of events to come to that epiphany.
For hard determinists, there are many different causal chains that can be extended from our environmentto ‘us’, described in many different forms. But, we also have less restrictive ways of thinking about our actions.
Images of Participation in Unity
3) The Strong Emergentist Position: My thoughts and reflections are “in control”. Through the conversation with the counselor, new Ideas changed neural patterns and chemical reactions. They shaped the physical world. As Carroll says, “they swerve atoms.” A person is free from and controls its environment, including the waves in their brain, at least often. This position does often seem true, and it is acknowledged by many writers on this topic to be the way people ordinarily think of persons: We often control ourselves and our environment through our thoughts and decisions.
(The Whole is Greater than the Sum of Its Parts. The Portuguese Man-of-War is “actually” composed of 3-4 different organisms that always live and work together; they are One, each functions differently and needs the others. The “sail” is one, and it rises about 6” above the water and is about 1′ long. The tentacles are of several types and can stretch as long as 90′ ! see post The Human Social Organism.)
There is also an additional take on Strong Emergence. The emphasis here is on an important Structural Character of some emergent objects: They come together in a way that allows
The Whole can be More Than the Sum of The Parts.
Some Strong Emergentists — like the famous mathematician and Idealist Philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead — see this feature as the basis for the priority of patterns and structures over the materials that instantiate them, a kind of Transcendental Mind over Matter Metaphysical position; but there are other interpretations as we will see below.
Participation Through Enhanced Environments
4) The Weak Emergentist Position is hardest to explain. It tries to split the difference between one and two, taken together, and three, Strong Emerge. Weak Emerge does Not want to allow “higher Level” or “more Complex objects” to alter the course of atoms (lower level events). Yet, it wants persons to be free, and moral responsibility to play Some Significant Role in contributing to behavior.
For weak emergence, it is a false dichotomy: freedom vs the environment. A more balanced assessment includes freedom through our environment. One of the great insights of Compatibilist thinking is the latter’s assessment of “the environment”: it is a place where creatures, and evolution, have ‘downloaded’ massive amounts of ‘knowledge’. It is the way ‘the environment’ (as the stripped-down and universal environment of physics) can also become ‘our environment’ (as the qualitatively rich and complex home for living things and persons).
(“The” Environment and “Our” Environment. Do Flowers and Butterflies have an autonomy and dignity beyond the molecules that compose them? A theory of the logical interrelationship of each level of Reality contends they do. Images from thoughtcom and GWW)
On the other hand, I also argued that “Freedom” can not exist in many kinds of environments, and of this we are quite well aware. If you are in a prison camp, you are not free in many significant ways. You are physically constrained. If you are falling down an elevator shaft, you have few real options. These are not very ‘personal’ environments and in the latter you are little more that a pool ball destined for the spot it will land due to the forces beyond it. It seems that hard determinists equate all our environments with that elevator shaft: forces beyond ‘us’, and running right through ‘us’, determine our outcomes no matter the environment. Freedom must be — free from the environment, they say.
How to evade this conclusion, if only by a limitation of it? First of all, the “no matter the environment” contention will not fly. We, humans, we, persons, place great significance on setting up just the right kind of environments we want. We strive to send our children to the right school. We want to live in a nice neighborhood. We want a good work environment. We want our house to be comfortable and reflect our personality. We strive for a healthy body (well, kinda!). Why?
So that our environment influences us, even causes us, in a manner we want.
In that sense, we understand thatour environment IS us and we are good with that. No object acts independently of its environment, but there is a hierarchy of environments that is vital to understandingthe greater abilities of persons, in contrast to the ability of pool balls.
In these enhanced environments, we extend our “self” out beyond our bodily organs and into the world around us. I understand, and am comfortable with seeing, “my” kidneys as part of “me”, and functioning for “my” benefit (if healthy). But a hammer is also very
beneficial to me and I know it almost as intimately: I reflexively hold it by its handle and use it for the purpose of pounding. And the modern biological sciences knows that a beaver’s dam and the pond it creates, and a bee’s hive, and a human’s home and its city are natural extensions of these creatures. They function as externalized organs of these individuals and/or societies. Dennett, among others, has aided in this understanding of ourselves “made large” and stretching out to form not just “the” environment, but “our” environment.
As parts of ‘our’ environment, our relation to these ‘externalized organs’ can be causal or, from our point of view as persons, INFORMATIONAL. When a spider senses activity in its web and responds, we can think of it either way. It is being caused to respond or it is responding to information.The fact that the spider will respond every time and in the same way will then tend to lead us to conclude its behavior is “instinctive”, “built in” and “genetic”. The famous biologist, Niko Tinbergen, discovered the shockingly repetitive, but also rather complex, nesting behavior of the “digger” wasp (sphex). This animal is stuck, from our point of view. It can be easily and obviously tricked, only to restart its routine anew time and again. It is clearly unable to alter its behavior even though additional information seems clearly available to it. We would expect a person to reflect on what we would recognize as new INFORMATION and alter their behavior. The wasp is unable to do this. It is stuck in its design.
(The ‘Digger’ Wasp has highly ritualized nesting behavior. Baseball is also highly ritualized, BUT baseball players Learn from their experience; the wasp does not. This runner is being called “OUT!” and NEXT TIME — in much the same situation — he may Not try for second base. PERSONS evaluate the outcomes of their behavior andmay change their routine.)
Persons are self-controllers. Persons try to recognize the opportunities and the limitations to what they can do. Persons, as scientist, also try to understand the world objectively as a place where things like “persons” do not exist. The Scientific Image of the world that scientists have created, has achieved much success.
But so has our personal point of view. Dennett calls this more subjective view The Manifest Image of the world. It is the level of vocabulary, behavior and reality, in which humans are socialized and become persons who are then trained to act with freedom and responsibility according to the standards of various professions, such as scientist, doctor, teacher, artist, carpenter, mayor…, and various roles, such as mother, father, child, student, employee, employer, … Society tends to hold us to these standards, and we tend to hold ourselves to them.
In these roles, and as persons, we act according to “the Idea of Freedom” contends Dennett, following Immanuel Kant. And this, in spite of the fact, The Scientific Image suggests otherwise. The Manifest Image is the ladder we use to climb to, and maintain, the free and responsible actions of scientists and others. To think that once glimpsing The World as seen by Science, we can then kick away the ladder we used to get there and declare the world void of persons and freedom, this is a reductio ad absurdum.*
We need to fulfill the promise of the world of persons, not throw it overboard for some vaguely perceived and not actually lived alternative of Total Science.
Stay tuned for Freedom 3 in this series! It’s ready for publication. It’s the hardest in the series — anticipated length of 4 posts. In it I will describe The Relationship Between Things that is more important than causation: Reference, Intention; “it’s MEANING, baby, meaning!”
*That most famous and enigmatic modern philosopher, Ludwig Wittgenstein used the ‘climbing the ladder and then kicking it away’ analogy but not as a reductio, I believe.
In the “Library of Babel”, a short story by author Jorge Louis Borges (1941), a vast, astronomically large — though not infinite — collection of All Possible Books is imagined to exist.They are housed in a Library that is also inhabited by a people who have never found a corridor or a room that did not lead to other corridors and rooms all filled with books. They have always lived entirely inside this Library. They believe that it contains all the possible variations of their 22 letter alphabet along with the space, the comma and the period. Therefore, they also believe that it contains all their knowledge and everything that could possibly be known, including a perfect index of The Library of Babel’s contents. But where is it? There is no order to these books and as these people travel the overwhelmingly vast number of books they open contain pure gibberish.
Here a naturereligionconnection.org our organizational problems are less severe.
There is a new format that will keep different Series of Post and categories of topics separate and therefore more accessible. There will still be a general post category titled “The Connection.” All this will be accessible from the Home Page.
In the vein of the above Libraries, Dan Dennett has proposed a “Library of Mendel”. It contains all the possible varied assemblages of DNA composed of its amino acid “letters”: A,C,G and T, and therefore all potential organisms. Biologist R. Dawkins has then commented that there are surely ‘vastly more ways to be dead (not alive) than ways of being alive.’
Thanks for your patience and your readership. GregWW
(I feel obligated to forward this for your consideration. For the sake of our planet and our sanity, I thank the NYTimes and Paul Krugman for allowing this use — Times 12/12/2019. Krugman has always been one of my favorite commentators. He is the Nobel Prize winner for Economics in 2008 for his modelling of international trade. This column reads smoothly and quickly. It is a short, devastating and dire analysis of Climate Change and the American Republican Party. ‘God save us’, for surely we will not save ourselves, GWW)
The Party That Ruined the Planet: Republican climate denial is even scarier than Trumpism.
by Paul Krugman
The most terrifying aspect of the U.S. political drama isn’t the revelation that the president has abused his power for personal gain. If you didn’t see that coming from the day Donald Trump was elected, you weren’t paying attention.
No, the real revelation has been the utter depravity of the Republican Party. Essentially every elected or appointed official in that party has chosen to defend Trump by buying into crazy, debunked conspiracy theories. That is, one of America’s two major parties is beyond redemption; given that, it’s hard to see how democracy can long endure, even if Trump is defeated.
However, the scariest reporting I’ve seen recently has been about science, not politics. A new federal report finds that climate change in the Arctic is accelerating, matching what used to be considered worst-case scenarios. And there are indications that Arctic warming may be turning into a self-reinforcing spiral, as the thawing tundra itself releases vast quantities of greenhouse gases.
Catastrophic sea-level rise, heat waves that make major population centers uninhabitable, and more are now looking more likely than not, and sooner rather than later.
But the terrifying political news and the terrifying climate news are closely related.
Why, after all, has the world failed to take action on climate, and why is it still failing to act even as the danger gets ever more obvious? There are, of course, many culprits; action was never going to be easy.
But one factor stands out above all others: the fanatical opposition of America’s Republicans, who are the world’s only major climate-denialist party. Because of this opposition, the United States hasn’t just failed to provide the kind of leadership that would have been essential to global action, it has become a force against action.
And Republican climate denial is rooted in the same kind of depravity that we’re seeing with regard to Trump.
As I’ve written in the past, climate denial was in many ways the crucible for Trumpism. Long before the cries of “fake news,” Republicans were refusing to accept science that contradicted their prejudices. Long before Republicans began attributing every negative development to the machinations of the “deep state,” they were insisting that global warming was a gigantic hoax perpetrated by a vast global cabal of corrupt scientists.
And long before Trump began weaponizing the power of the presidency for political gain, Republicans were using their political power to harass climate scientists and, where possible, criminalize the practice of science itself.
Perhaps not surprisingly, some of those responsible for these abuses are now ensconced in the Trump administration. Notably, Ken Cuccinelli, who as attorney general of Virginia engaged in a long witch-hunt against the climate scientist Michael Mann, is now at the Department of Homeland Security, where he pushes anti-immigrant policies with, as The Times reports, “little concern for legal restraints.”
But why have Republicans become the party of climate doom? Money is an important part of the answer: In the current cycle Republicans have received 97 percent of political contributions from the coal industry, 88 percent from oil and gas. And this doesn’t even count the wing nut welfare offered by institutions supported by the Koch brothers and other fossil-fuel moguls.
However, I don’t believe that it’s just about the money. My sense is that right-wingers believe, probably correctly, that there’s a sort of halo effect surrounding any form of public action. Once you accept that we need policies to protect the environment, you’re more likely to accept the idea that we should have policies to ensure access to health care, child care, and more. So the government must be prevented from doing anything good, lest it legitimize a broader progressive agenda.
Still, whatever the short-term political incentives, it takes a special kind of depravity to respond to those incentives by denying facts, embracing insane conspiracy theories and putting the very future of civilization at risk.
Unfortunately, that kind of depravity isn’t just present in the modern Republican Party, it has effectively taken over the whole institution. There used to be at least some Republicans with principles; as recently as 2008 Senator John McCain co-sponsored serious climate-change legislation. But those people have either experienced total moral collapse (hello, Senator Graham) or left the party.
The truth is that even now I don’t fully understand how things got this bad. But the reality is clear: Modern Republicans are irredeemable, devoid of principle or shame. And there is, as I said, no reason to believe that this will change even if Trump is defeated next year.
The only way that either American democracy or a livable planet can survive is if the Republican Party as it now exists is effectively dismantled and replaced with something better — maybe with a party that has the same name, but completely different values. This may sound like an impossible dream. But it’s the only hope we have.
Surprising how things can turn out. I was greatly moved by this movie. Funny how The Powers of Reflection can so swirl, and so shine back on things. “Things” can and do truly improve in this world of frailty.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhoodis a slow moving, emotional, drama centered about that most slow-moving character of all, public television’s Mr. Rogers. It’s based on the true story of the deliberate effect Rogers had on the life of a talented and successful, but deeply cynical, young man; a journalist who comes to interview Rogers for Esquire magazine.
I must admit I have always been a sucker for “Billy Budd” characters and that is Fred Rogers. He is Lenny from Of Mice and Men; he is the slow, deeply religious and epileptic brother from The Brothers Karamazov. They are seemingly too good to be true, or at least too good for this world. Simple, honest, kind, and profoundly right; it’s Tom Hanks as Forrest Gump all over again.
Maybe this movie does take this man and raises him beyond what he was. Who cares? The movie skillfully suggests that Fred had his faults and failings too, but Fred keeps working at them and this in literal ways. He practiced self-reflective techniques, one of which quieted the theater and brought me into reflections on my own less-than-ideal life and personality. Fred prayed; he read the Bible and was very religious. It is the kind of religion — it would seem to have to be — that only brought out the humility and love in this man. He was not judgmental at all, no matter what his opinions might have been. It’s a kind of religion that we don’t often enough find. Fred, also, played and believed in puppets.
I’m not saying that you might not fall asleep. This movie not for everyone. It’s not about escaping life through a series of exhilarating and fake car-chase scenes. It is about embracing the kindest side of life and holding on to it. It’s about emotions and healing and men.
Director, Marielle Heller, does a masterful job. She has put together a movie with an ingenious approach to presenting a man that spent his life talking in the simplest fashion to four-year-olds. She took Fred Rogers’ “Land of Make Believe” and made it more important than I ever realized it was. She shows us a hero of a truly unique sort. And Tom Hanks is masterful as Fred; a portrayal of the man that is maybe more memorable than the real man, himself.
I’m pleased to report a recent surge of readership here at naturereligionconnection.org. Modest as this may be, on Monday Nov. 11 we had 10 visitors who viewed 23 posts. Most were from the good old U.S.of A. and our Canadian friends up north (thanks especially to Rom and John), but, one visitor was from China and viewed 4 posts! Posts receiving the most attention recently are “Sean C and Our Freedom to Choose” 25 recent views (rv’s), “Nika No More” 16 rv’s, and “What is Morality” 36 rv’s. Thank you for your consideration! Please don’t be shy, comment!
(I’ve seen a couple of good movies lately and want pass on some recommendations. These movies are in keeping with our theme here at NatieRel. So, here is the first.)
Chilly Gonzales, funny to think that the Universe spewed forth this gentleman! But, I will not give the U all the credit. “Gonzo” is a man who invented himself. The documentary, “Shut Up and Play The Piano”, wonderfully captures that process of self-invention. The movie and its main character are both very interesting.
For me, it was utterly significant that I knew of Chilly’s recorded music before I saw this film. Wow, did I have the wrong impression. Such quiet and contemplative music is his early releases Solo Piano (2006), Solo Piano II (2012) and Chambers (2015), and this from such a volcanic personality! This music is a fusion of jazz and classical and its creator is all talent, experimentation, sweat, sexuality and personality. And I thought the music was from some politely trained but slightly rogue classical musician. Wrong.
“Shut Up” explains that Chilly was not even born “Chilly Gonzales”, but he was born to a family of great talents and wealth. He took that privilege and went to obscure places to find “who he was” and “what he wanted.” New Music was that answer. Starting with classical piano training from an uncle, to leader of a rock band in his youth in Toronto, to the Berlin performance art and Techno Punk-Rap scene in the late 90’s, his search was on the extreme edge.
That process was intensely self-reflective. “Who is Chilly Gonzales?” he asks repeatedly. And it is “ALL about him”. How would a “megalomaniac” begin a piece of music? he asks and then convincingly shows us. “He has so much to give” explains a friend and fellow musician. In deed, Chilly does have a massive genius. He is a presence in which ‘the world’ is enveloped and then spit back out to behold itself.
So, who is Chilly Gonzo? Stay tuned. He and his alter egos are still working at it, but this movie is a good place to start.