The Feeling of Connectedness

(The tree of life (1948) by Marc Chagall. There are “Wonders In The Tree,” I contend in my latest post series. So did Marc!)

A feeling of connectedness, is yet to come. The final entry in the Our Sacred World: The Tree of Life and Its Distinctions will be forestalled until next week. I have had some supply chain issues in my brain. I hope I have worked out some of these final problems that I have been struggling with. It’s a good series I believe, and the ideas in it are fairly profound, it seems to me. I’m searching for a more active, a more vibrant, a more hopeful, sense of belonging to my own life and to this universe.

I feel a fog is lifting. The last year or so has been difficult; many things have happened both personally and generally. Many of those things have weighted upon me and weakened me; they have made me less optimistic and energetic. One of those is that I am now 70 years old. That seems a long time, and much has changed. Older, weaker, sick; stiffer and flabbier is how I often am; and the idea of decline and death seem far too obvious. Yet, now I am struggling to see—and a light is dawning—how much is left to be hoped for and accomplished. All has not been in vain.

I have been moved by some recent events. My dear Ohio has once again disappointed me in its political choices. Strange that I even feel such allegiance to My State—O-H-I-O; why should I care about such often insignificant geographic boundaries? But I do. Boundaries are important, and yet not. That is the message of Mother Nature and The Lines She Does or Does Not Draw: Our World can be Sacred!

A concluding story, the pertinence of which I am not sure.

Recently I went up the road one weekday morning to get some eggs and coffee. It is a little local diner at which I have eaten breakfast fairly often. Owned and run by a Greek man and his family; he has made the local paper for his efforts, working his way up and through the Columbus restaurant industry and now running his own rising little establishment. The music played there is inconsistent and often rather bad, but not obtrusive. This recent morning it was obtrusive to me. It was contemporary country-style Jesus music. It was laying it on pretty thick and soon I noticed.

“God this” and “Jesus that” it heartfully contended, and continued in that vein song after song. Once I had noticed, I could not shake it. Soon I called the waitress over and asked her, “Since when have you started playing such religious music?” Her eyes got large and round and astonished, “Why every weekend, we play it,” she informed me. “But it’s Jesus-music,” I said, “I come here for eggs and coffee, not a double-side order of Jesus.”

She paused and then replied, “Sir, if you do not like it, do not eat here.” I was now somewhat astonished. I had expected at least some respectful sympathy and maybe even an apology, but that not at all.

I was finishing up, anyway. I saw her talking to the owner’s wife and looking back at me. As I left, I approached the owner and politely told her I did not appreciate this kind of music with my breakfast. To which she replied, “I love you, sir; but we like this music and if you do not like it do not come here.” That galled me; I’m not sure if it was the “I love you, sir,” or the “do not come here” that bothered me the most. I assured her she would not be seeing me again, and left without a monetary “tip,” only the clue thus far given.

I have seen other signs of this kind of insidious anti-modern mythology growing in my neighborhood, and I vow to fight it. We can feel connected in other and more truthful ways, I say.

For those ways of understanding our real connections to Larger Realities, see the first three parts of Mother Nature Draws No Lines in this section of The NatureReligionConnection! Next Sunday the Concluding Part, I promise. Sorry for the delay.

The Fight Against Crime and Insidious Religious Mythologies Continues here in The O-H-I-O!

The Distinctions in The Tree of Life

(Depiction of The Forests of the Permian Period, all lost in “The Great Dying” of 250 mya.)

Our thesis has been the Wholeness of The Tree; its Gradualness of growth and change; its Continuity from bottom to top and side to side; its Contrasting set of Qualities and Values; Its Unity of Process. In this sense, Darwin and Dennett have argued that The Distinctions within The Tree are secondary, interdependent, and vague by comparison to this massive swath of overall Creative Unity. A true source of Awe, say I: A massive piece of Organic Art.

And Darwin said at the end of his “Origin” : “Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

The Distinctions in The Tree of Life have Increased with Time

Dendrogram Eleven: An unusual one, from page 87 of Dennett’s Darwin’s Dangerous Idea [1995]; apparently specially formulated for this book. It clearly shows the explosion of diverse species with the discovery of the multicellular way of living at about 700 million years ago—that is 700 thousand of thousands of years in the past.)

In spite of its shocking Unity within a Massive Diversity, Lines of Distinction are evident. A Daylily is not an Elephant, as was initially suggested at the start of this series.

Darwin acknowledged this when suggesting we imagine all the “forms” that have ever existed returning to The Tree to create a most minutely grained array. When we look from one major branch to another, one side of the tree to another, “a natural arrangement” would be evident. Flowering Plants are not Mammals. And from bottom to top, the earliest creatures to the most evolved current forms, huge differences in size and complexity jump out at us. All the mitigating and intermediate living structures help to soften these largest differences, but these large differences do now exist in themselves as stark contrasts.

(The Species of Domestic Dog is a good example of the significance of Intermediate Forms. Its unity as a single gene pool and interbreeding population is only assured by its Variety of Varieties. The Tree of Life exists with this kind of extension of relations, only more so.)

Biologist Richard Dawkins suggests the following connection of relations within The Tree. At many points on a single branch and even between major branches of life, there can be a variety of Evolutionary Routes between any two distinct kinds of creatures. One route of development is assured, the one that actually exists through The Tree when two forms are traced back to their Nearest Common Ancestor and then their varied development understood from there. Dawkins then contends that other routes may be possible with different Evolutionary Pressures applied. Current forms are still evolving. The following example is a stretch, but it conveys the intended point, Maybe someday Pigs Will Fly!

Intermediate kinds of species are crucial to The Unity of The Tree of Life, but there are specific forces working against their survival. First, Competition will tend to hollow out The Tree. Darwin: “competition will generally be most severe between those forms which are most nearly related to each other in habits, constitution and structure…all the intermediate forms will tend to become extinct”(my emphasis).

(Hollowing out The Tree: Nine of our most prominent ancestors that are among the approximate 25 extinct species of Hominins–for which we have fossil evidence–that compose our evolution from our common ancestor with the chimpanzee over the past 7 million years: from Sahelanthropus tchadensis–oldest– upper left, to Homo floresiensis bottom left, to Homo neanderthalensis–most recent– bottom right. See the amazing six minute video by American Museum of Natural History: Seven Million Years of Human Evolution. Highly recommended!)

Second, Distinctions can be self-reinforcing. Once a living creature has begun to establish a “new way of making a living,” as it is often put, those initial developments set up (and foreclose) many secondary developments/adaptations. A very interesting discussion occurs in Dennett’s book concerning these “logical” developments in living bodily structure.

For example, it makes sense to have opposing thumbs and fingers, for grasping. A single finger at the end of an arm would not nearly be as useful. And the same for two arms as opposed to just one; or legs—two, four, six…make more sense in an engineering way than does just one leg, or three or five. And yet in fish, having one main central source of power or “push” in the rear—the tail—works quite well for locomotion in water. (These kinds of facts should also be taken into consideration for Wonders Three and Four from Part II of this series: Evolution by Natural Selection does discover Value and Efficiency, and in that way is (or is like) an intelligent process!) Once started down an evolutionary path, certain further adaptations become possible and more likely, while others less likely and less opportune.

(Bilateral Symmetry is smart! Mother Nature has well designed creatures.)

But as Dendrogram Eleven makes clear, several large Evolutionary Developments established a foundation from which a growing diversity and complexity of ways of life could occur. The revolution of the Nucleated Cell at about 1.4 billion years ago, and then the onset of Multicellular Creatures 700 million years ago. The first started the development of internal complexity, the “equipment” (says Dennett) to then diversify into many different relationships with the environment by which to survive and reproduce, as demonstrated in the multicellular stage. A diversity of Distinctions now started to become dramatic and self-reinforcing.

Third, Extinctions have hollowed out the array of forms in The Tree of Life. An elephant is very different from a day lily. Many different kinds of creatures have occurred in Life’s History, but in the Five Major Extinctions whole classes of significantly different creatures were lost. This set the creatures that survived (or were yet to evolve) into sharper contrast.

Crocodiles are an ancient life form—a “living Fossil”—that continues into today, as are horseshoe crabs; both are quite distinct in contrast to more modern creatures. It is estimated that for every one species alive today about 100 species have gone extinct. (Most specific extinction information from below from National Geographic 9/26/19)

(Dendrogram Twelve: an edited Tree of Exiting Life Forms. Notice in the middle of this tree ‘a bare spot.’ an open area below the three birds [Aves] and above the crocodilian and snake; that is where the synapsids and dinosaurs were before their extinction. Birds are now in sharper relief without the raptors that led to them. Thanks to FAIRHOPE GRAPHACS for the use of this tree.)

THE FIVE MAJOR EXTINCTIONS that helped to Distinguish the Life Forms in our current Tree of Life.

  • The Ordovician Extinction, 445 mya. Most life was in the sea, and up to 85% of species were lost at this time. Caused by plate tectonic movement, the most well know class of animal lost were massive varieties of trilobite, one of the most common animals of the time.
(Ya gotta love those Trilobites! So far over 20,000 fossil species described. With us no more!)
  • Late Devonian Extinction, 370 mya. Caused by volcanic activity and meteor strikes and resulted in a 75% extinction rate of living things mostly in the sea. Most noted victims were Conodonts, and Goniatites (which were similar to modern octopus and squid.) Also lost were the dominant fish of these times, the Placoderms; not a single species of them survived this and the next extinction.
(Not Nice! Conodonts: eel-like creatures with maximum size so far found to be about 1.5 ft. or 40 cm. 11 fossil imprints exist and plenty of fossilized teeth.)
(What a shame, we lost all the Armored Fish! Placoderms–“plate skinned” fish–dominated the waters in the Devonian Period and ranged from 15 cm. to 9 m. in length. An apex predator, there are over 400 fossil species identified.)
  • “The Great Dying” of the Permian-Triassic Extinction, 250 mya. 96% of sea species and 75% of land species perished. Caused by massive volcanic activity in Siberia which released huge amounts of carbon into the air and onto the land. Lost in the carnage were most varieties of synapsid, who ruled the land before this extinction and before the dinosaur.

(A synapsid, Lystrosaurus or “shovel-lizard, is one of the ancestral relatives of mammals. Once referred to as a “mammal-like lizard,” now referred to as a “stem mammal.” Six recognized fossil species with sixes from .5m to 2.5m long.)
(Another cute one? Also lost, the Placerias, an anomodont. Grew to one U.S. ton—2,000 lbs., just smaller than British tonne.)
  • The Triassic-Jurassic Extinction, 200 mya. Again it was volcanos, but this time from the middle of Pangaea that broke apart the ancient supercontinent and formed the Atlantic Ocean. It is estimated that 80% of all species went extinct. This extinction finished off the Conodonts. Many forms of Crocodile-like creatures also were extinguished but those that survived then diversified and flourished into the Jurassic period were they eventually met their almost complete end. It is this extinction that starts the age of the dinosaur.
(The array of extinct Crocodilians. Some lived completely in the sea. Others rose on their hind legs and ran for short distances! As small as 2 ft. (40 cm.) or as large as 40 ft. (12 m.), some had long legs and somewhat resembled a dog. Once a vast order, now only a few of its families and species currently survive.)
  • The Age of Reptiles comes, and then goes with The Late Cretaceous Extinction, 65 mya. The cause of this extinction is still debated but it is generally connected to the impact of a 7.5 mile (12 km.) rock from space crashing into the Earth at 45,000 mph. off the coast of the Yucatan Peninsula of today’s Mexico. 76% of all species were extinguished including all dinosaurs except for one of its branches, birds! This is the last of the Great Extinctions, but of course many argue that we are currently in the midst of another extinction.
(Amazing to think that Dinosaurs came in an array, as they must, of course. Above are the Tyrannosauroids.)
(Sauropsods—All gone!— of which the Brontosaurus is our most commonly known example: four-legged, longnecked herbivorous dinosaurs.)
(Dendrogram Thirteen: partial Tree of Sauropod Dinosaurs. 300 described fossil species so far! From Wilson & Sareno, 1998)


How vast The Tree of Life! How full! How amazing the process of Evolution! This short review of major extinctions has made me aware of how many times The Great Tree has had to regrow itself or at least huge portions of itself. And yet, we can return to the opening statement:

“Our thesis (is) the Wholeness of The Tree; its Gradualness of growth and change (between extinctions); its Continuity from bottom to top and side to side; its Contrasting set of Qualities and Values; Its Unity of Process. In this sense, Darwin and Dennett have argued that The Distinctions within The Tree are secondary, highly interdependent, and vague by comparison to this massive swath of overall Creative Unity. A true source of Awe, say I: A massive piece of Organic Art.”

And Dennett says at the end of his Darwin’s Dangerous Idea : “The Tree of Life, an utterly unique and irreplaceable creation…(It) is neither perfect nor infinite in space or time, but it is actual, and if it is not Anselm’s ‘Being greater than which nothing can be conceived,’ it is surely a being that is greater than anything any of us will ever conceive of in detail worthy of its detail. Is something sacred? Yes, say I with Nietzsche. I could not pray to it, but I can stand in affirmation of its magnificence. This world is sacred.”

THANK YOU, I hope you learned as much as I did! For details, Please return to the previous 4 posts in this series, temporarily stored in The Connection, Varied Topics section.

Turning the Constitution into an Old Dead Document: A Review of the Overturn of Roe v. Wade

With Friday June 27th’s ruling to overturn Roe v. Wade, I was surprised to hear how little discussion was spent on the exact argument used. Surely to most people the legal justifications were far less significant than the simple fact of its undoing, but still its grounds matter. There is an interesting mindset that lies behind its reversal.

“Jane Roe” was the pseudonym adopted by Norma McCorvey in 1969 when when she sought to abort the pregnancy of what would have been her third child. She lived in Texas, which allowed abortion only when pregnancy was a threat to the life of the mother. McCorvey and her two female lawyers brought suite against the state by proxy through the local district attorney, Henry Wade. Their challenge to the antiabortion law was upheld by the District Court’s three judges and on the case went to the fateful day, January 22, 1973, when the Supreme Court ruled in her favor: she had a certain right to abort her pregnancy. Meanwhile, McCorvey had had her baby and given it up for adoption.


On that Friday, Justice Samuel Alito wrote for the majority in overturning the prior decision. He was joined by Trump appointees Kavanaugh, Barrett and Gorsuch. Justice Thomas concurred and wrote his own opinion that was more radical than Alito’s, contending that other ‘rights’ based in the 14th Due Process Amendment could also be in jeopardy. Chief Justice John Roberts voted with the majority but in his opinion he sought to uphold the Mississippi abortion law in question (banning abortions at 15 weeks except for medical emergency) but without overturning Roe.

The crucial point in the Roe decision was the 1973 court’s ruling that a woman had a right to privacy concerning her own body, at least to a point. This right was supposedly based in some combination of amendments and was not explicitly stated in any one of them. Alito, himself, reviews these amendments and the possible combinations, and overall finds them lacking and writes of the Roe decision: “its reasoning was exceptionally weak.” The amendments in question are One, Four, Five, Nine and Fourteen.

The First Amendment has little to do with abortion, other than help to establish some clear limits to government action. An American government cannot be in the Religion Business. It cannot push its own form of religion and it cannot restrict the religious practices of others. Then similarly, the Constitution asserts the broader principle that Government cannot tell people what to say, write and when they can gather together. These limitations do provide a clear background concerning the character of “liberty,” in general.

The Fourth Amendment seems to me to be very relevant. It declares “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects,” Granted, its emphasis is on protection from governmental action (“unreasonable searches and seizures,” and the need for a warrant based on “probable cause”); not protection for your acts in your own house or body, but surely the one implies the other. The Fourth seems to declare a Right to Privacy in certain places and situations. This is not how the court’s majority reads it, or at least in terms of abortion. Most damming, they contend that the Constitution’s lack of explicit reference to abortion in any sense, puts an abortion right in grave doubt.

That the lack of explicit mention, or any clear boundaries, of a right has long been a sticking point for Constitutional Law. This problem surfaces repeatedly.  Conservatives have leaped upon the band wagon of “original intent” ( see NYTimes, 6/28),  that the Constitution should be interpreted in a stricter conformity to its exact words and historical context.

For example, all the state legislatures that ratified the Constitution were filled with men, and they perfectly knew well, and agreed with, the Declaration of Independence, that “All men are created equal;” yet “men” was interpreted literally at the time to exclude women from voting and other opportunities, and exclude men of different races from civic participation and protections.  Where in the Constitution is “women” or “race” mentioned? Yet, we almost unanimously agree, now, that gender and race are irrelevant to political rights, and have amended and interpreted the Constitution to say so.

The Supreme Court proved its reason for being and its equality with the other branches of government, early on, by the necessity to interpret the Constitution.  It was not perfectly clear and especially in reference to new circumstances.  Gun law is a good example of the latter.  Automatic weapons were not in existence in 1788.  It took a person many seconds and even minutes to reload a rifle or hand gun after a single shot. Today, we have an abundance of mass gun-murder and the mass murderer in Dayton Ohio, for example, fired 41 times in 19 seconds to kill 9 people and wound 17.. Would the framers of the Constitution have written the Second Amendment today, as is?

To invoke “the original intent” of a document has value, but is clearly not decisive in the above cases.  Conservatives invoke this strategy selectively and arbitrarily to suit their wishes. They risk killing the relevance to modern times of this historically great document—The US Constitution.  Below, the 14th Amendment will be discussed; it too makes a broad reference to “liberty” and one which some “original intent” proponents contend should be held to mean what liberties were acknowledged in 1868, the year it was ratified! Now there is an ossified contention but lets return to the abortion issue of today and its specific grounds in American law.

The Fifth and Ninth Amendments do not seem to me to obviously help the pro-choice position, and Alito declares that it is generally agreed, by judges that support ‘rights’ not specifically mentioned in the Constitution, that the Fourteenth “Due Process” Amendment “does the work.” “Nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law,” states the 14th, but Alito quickly dismisses the “due process protection” as not pertinent in this case. The prevention of abortion is not discrimination against women—no “invidiously discriminatory animus” against women exists in these cases writes Alito, quoting a previous lower court ruling. Therefore, no special scrutiny is necessary based on unfair or arbitrary treatment of some citizens, i.e. women. And this is the opinion of the majority of Justices, no matter how firmly this is disputed by numerous feminists. For example, Gloria Steinem has has stated, “the very definition of patriarchy is trying to control women and birth giving.”

Alito then turns to dismissing Roe on various grounds. One, no explicit mention of abortion in the Constitution. Two, no legal history or common law support for it before Roe (which to my knowledge is true, but misses the point that many women felt the need to obtain abortions in spite of its illegality). And three, that a right not mentioned in the Constitution’s previously established rights must be “essential to our scheme of ordered liberty,” a phrase used in previous cases concerning “rights” and possible “rights.”

“Constitutional analysis must begin with ‘the language of the instrument,” declares Alito quoting a ruling from 1824. The Constitution, “the instrument” in question, makes no mention at all of abortion. The majority of these conservative Justices then conclude that Roe was “an exercise in raw judicial power” as contended by Justice Byron White in this dissenting opinion to the 1973 ruling. Alito declares that Roe was “wrong from the beginning.”

And indeed, there is something interesting to this particular point. The Roe decision was like a detailed “piece of legislation.” From not a single direct reference in the Constitution, Justice Harry Blackmun, and his concurring six justices, created an elaborate abortion compromise in their original Roe v. Wade decision.

This was Roe’s Trimester System. A woman had the right to privacy and control of her own body up to the point of the fetus’ “viability.” At that point on, roughly the end of the second trimester, “the State had a legitimate interest in protecting ‘prenatal life,” writes Alito in summarizing Roe.

But here was part of the instability of Roe. Fetal viability has changed due to medical advances—coming sooner than the end of the second trimester, 21 weeks—and increased scientific knowledge has made us more aware of fetal development before viability. “Pro-life” proponents (as they are often called) seized upon these changes to push for decreased opportunity for an abortion. Ohio law, as it now stands in the wake of Roe’s reversal, is that abortion is illegal upon the ability to hear a heart beat (at approximately 6 weeks) and a new law has been proposed to declare conception as the moment of legal protection for what these believers call “persons.”

The final legal milestone preceding June 27th’s reversal, took place in 1992 in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (known as “Casey”). The state of Pennsylvania had passed a new law requiring a woman to under go a waiting period, notify her spouse, or have parental consent (if a minor) before having an abortion. The Supreme Court ruled in favor of Planned Parenthood in general, but did uphold the waiting period and parental notification. The new law placed “an undue burden” upon the woman’s right to an abortion the court ruled in a divided decision. A woman has this right to abortion by the 14th Amendment’s “due process” clause, they declared, and supplemented the viability standard with this clarification of “an undue burden” can not be placed on a woman seeking to enact her right. Roe’s trimester system was dismissed, as no longer relevant.

Casey is a difficult decision to understand. The five concurring judges agreed in general principle that Roe should be upheld but could not agree on specific reasons why. The four dissenting judges now for the first time questioned Roe in its entirety. This led to a new significance in this case for the legal principle called stare decisis (as in star-then long a, then the root of our word decision with a long i in the middle)—“to stand by things decided.” The three judges writing the plurality opinion relied heavily on this principle believing that The Supreme Court, and laws themselves, need stability. They could not always sway according to political fashion and varying trends, without losing respect. These three justices voted to uphold Roe on the basis of its character as an achieved precedent and as an established part of American’s sense of liberty. “An entire generation has come of age free to assume Roe’s concept of liberty in defining the capacity of women to act in society,” they wrote in their decision.

(Souter, O’Connor and Kennedy wrote the plurality opinion in Casey. All three were appointed by Republican presidents and voted to uphold Roe partly on the basis that it had become an ingrained element in our society and a part of what had come to be expected as a basic human freedom.)

But for Alito and four of the five concurring Justices did not see it this way. Chief Justice Roberts wrote his own opinion trying to form a middle ground that upheld the the new Mississippi law (banning abortion after 15 weeks) and also refusing to rule on Roe, but this path was accepted by no other justice. Liberal Justices Sotomayor, Kagan and Breyer maintained the law unconstitutional as an undue burden on a women’s right to abort.

Of course, the new decision striking down Roe does not make abortion illegal. It turns the issue back to the individual states to decide their own law. Alito contends this is where the issue properly belongs: “It is time to heed the Constitution and return the issue of abortion to the people’s elected representatives.” He approvingly quotes Justice Scalia’s dissenting opinion in Casey: ‘The permissibility of abortion, and the limitations, upon it, are to be resolved like most important questions in our democracy: by citizens trying to persuade one another and then voting.” 

And thus the ruling was decided.

And now the war continues on many different fronts. Ironically, Justice Alito in his decision criticizes the court’s previous rulings for not resolving the issue of abortion. He wrote: “far from bringing about a national settlement of the abortion issue, Roe and Casey have enflamed debate and deepened division.” And The High Court in the Case ruling also referred to this role of the court as ultimate arbitrator. The plurality decision contended, “the Court’s interpretation of the Constitution calls the contending sides of a national controversy to end their national division by accepting a common mandate rooted in the Constitution” (my emphasis).

In my opinion this reversal of Roe will “enflame” and “deepen” conflict. Already here in Ohio, the Columbus City Attorney (a Democrat) has pledged to not prosecute abortion cases under the new law. Small towns, without abortion clinics in them, are attempting to enact abortion bans over the objections of many of their residents. And a 10 year old girl, raped and impregnated by a family friend, was forced to journey to Indiana with her mother to obtain an abortion.

The court should have upheld Roe but also allowed various states to modify the abortion right as they saw fit. A decision similar to Robert’s opinion, or the three liberal justices, would have done much to dampen the flames of controversy. The Supreme Court has ample basis to insist upon a basic abortion right based on a woman’s right to privacy; it should have held that line! States that wish to limit that window of privacy should be given that right up to the point that it infringes upon the woman’s privacy and places “an undue burden” on her ability to enact her right. For example, Ohio’s current 6 weak “Heartbeat Bill” should be unconstitutional; 6 weeks is too early for many women to realize and act. The newly proposed Conception Bill is outrageous. As my moderately conservative Republican brother-in-law stated, “to insist that a fetus shortly after conception is a person, that’s just your religious opinion!”

SIGNING THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDANCE by Robert Edge Pine. August 2, 1776, the Continental Congress signs the document in he Pennsylvania State House.

“Time and memory are the true artists; They remould reality nearer to the hearts desire.”

John Dewey

THE NATURE RELIGION CONNECTION—-Thanks for Dropping In, PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT, I Would Love to Hear Your Ideas!

The New Robber Barons and Their Control of Our Future.

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

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

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

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

The History

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

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


The Progressive Era

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


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

The 1950s

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

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

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

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

The Corporate Raiders: Accord Among the Stakeholders Ends

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Transfer of Wealth

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

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

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

“Efficiency” Attained

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post Script

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

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

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

Too Much in Too Few Hands: Economic Value

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Interesting Perspective on the Accumulation of Economic Value

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

The “Secretly Profound” Idea of Emergence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Puzzle To Be Solved?

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


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

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

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

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


Emergence and a Strange Thing called Human Choice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Humans Do Choose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Conclusive Point

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

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

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

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

New Things “Emerge”

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Power of Physics

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

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

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


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

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

Some Things Emerge

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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



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

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

Gradualism and The Great Chain of Being

There is A Great Chain of Being

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Great Chain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An Enhanced Imagination

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

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

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

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

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

Robin Williams as The Bicentennial Man, 1999 movie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Traditional Answer

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

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

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

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

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

Getting More from Less

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sean Carroll’s list of Emergent Transitions:

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

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

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

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