Here in Ohio and around the nation the issue of “wokeness” is a bell constantly being rung by some conservatives.
‘Woke’ people are those liberals hip to all the repression concerning gender and race, especially in its more subtle psychological forms. It is about pronouns like using “he” or “she” when a person is bi-sexual, and it is about “systematic ” prejudices and barriers rather than very explicit and historically acknowledged overt acts of repression like Jim Crow laws. Well at least its something like that.
I must admit that I am not that good at some of these subtleties. I trip up on the pronoun issue fairly frequently when substitute teaching. Its hard to tell a lot of the girls from the boys (and vice versa) in some of my high schools. I have caught on to that in recent years and try to be more careful, more ‘woke’ about it, I guess I could say.
Much of what is being contended by ‘the woke’ is true and important, I think, but some of it does seem a little nagging , trite, and awkward; this is what conservatives especially jump upon. I do get crossly reprimanded some times when I mistake girls and boys and use the pronoun they do not prefer. In very ‘woke’ meetings among Democrats desired pronouns are often specifically clarified, and some “non-binary” sexual people want to be referred to as “them”!
The conservative columnist who I will focus on below, has recently contended that the objection by progressives to the content of some classic literature is not only trivial but book banning. Discussed in this light was Roald Dahl’s revisions to Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory(both the book and the movie) in the early 1970s. To my knowledge, Dahl made these revisions voluntarily and in response to the Civil Rights Movement of the time and more specifically to the complaints of some black organizations. Afterall, the original book said the “Oompa Loompas” were African Pygmies smuggled from that continent in crates by Wonka! Also revised was the repeated and prominent description of several of the “golden-ticket” winners as “fat” and “ugly.” It was toned down, our columnist contends, because modern parents and children are so “sensitive.” (The sissies: unwilling to be shamed and toughened-up like in the good old days!)
I do not refer to myself as ‘woke,’ and it is younger people that seem to, more generally. I do see the point of much of it, particularly the role of “systematic” prejudices. Its not laws and white-sheeted Klansmen that are the bulk of repression these days, but more ordinary and developmental barriers that restrain the open and optimal growth of too many individuals and whole categories of people. Much of what restrains America’s black community, for example, is poverty , addiction, lack of education, and violent acts and expression. These often seem to be self-inflicted wounds in a way; but this is a difficult contention, too big to specifically discuss now.
The following is my response to the columnist recently submitted to the Columbus Dispatchbut not yet published:
Conservatives Need to Wake Up
Conservatives are dreaming. They see stolen elections where none exist. They imagine evil in vaccination and a hoax in the death of a million Americans from Covid. They see ‘murder’ when a woman asserts her bodily autonomy and aborts a pregnancy long before viability.
Conservative USA TODAY columnist, Ingrid Jacques, suffers from similar delusions. She needs to wake up. In “GOP stands against ‘woke’… but what does it mean?” (3/15 Columbus Dispatch) she contends that Critical Race Theory “has been adapted at the K-12 level” and “is teaching school-children to dislike each other.”
In my 35 years of teaching social studies in the Columbus area, and especially in recent years as a substitute teacher, I have been in many classrooms and in a variety of schools. Never once have I witnessed a teacher teaching students to dislike each other. Never have I seen a lesson plan that I would have explicitly called CRT, nor have I heard a teacher advocate that approach.
Granted, there are lessons taught—and I have authored more than a few of them—that do focus on injustices both past and present. But that is not CRT, it is honest social studies teaching.
Jacques quotes a supposed expert on this topic. Those of us who are awake (‘woke’) to some of these issues think that disparities of achievement between groups are “largely if not entirely the product of oppressive social forces.” But when I see the achievements of Fredrick Douglas, Susan B. Anthony, Paul Robeson, or Ruth Bader Ginsburg for example, I see great talents, effort, and courage. I also listen to their testimony that great prejudices and unjust obstacles had to be overcome in their pursuits.
Barack Obama has recently become the first black president, but what of the first woman president? By the logic of Ms. Jacques, maybe ‘the gals’ are just not capable, or maybe they are just too happy to be pregnant and in the kitchen. Surely it is not systemic bias.
Do I hear a wake-up bell ringing?
I got a real kick out of writing that last paragraph. It seems like a real zinger! And imagine American conservatives continuing in this way their dismal sequence of supposed revelations about what is really going on in this country! They are on one pathetic roll, and they continue to double-down!
(We are starting to make some real progress here at the old Nature Religion Connection—your site for some cool, cutting-edge speculation.Imagine The Universe “speaking” through you in your every movement and utterance! That is a large chunk of imagining; let’s see if we can pull it off in any reasonable way! Here we go.)
Responsible human beings are very complex mechanisms. Humans that are not responsible for their behaviors are still complex mechanisms just more obviously mechanical. They have some causal events that are not normal, and that allow us to disqualify them from the degree of control we normally think we have. Adults not responsible might be falling down an elevator shaft, or off their medicine for schizophrenia.
When we acknowledge that we are complex mechanisms, we are saying that we have ‘given up the ghost,’ in other words, no‘soul,’ no magical kind of‘self.’ There is no single thing—in ‘heaven’ or on Earth—that is a self-initiator, a creator or a mover that is itself not moved by another. Aristotle tried to call it “An Unmoved Mover,” and Christianity just took it to be a “God” who creates the world with no obvious cause and explains ‘him’-self (to Moses) in a neat little self-enclosed definition: “I am who I am,” or “I am that I am”—i.e. Yahweh. “Ghosts” supposedly defy physical realities; they avoid the causes the rest of us cannot, but most of us have learned quite confidently to disbelieve in ghosts, and ‘souls’ too.
The same for any kind of magical “Self”: a self that does things without being caused to do them. Importantly, all our behaviors are caused; how could they not be? What we call “a decision” surely must be some physical activity of the brain. Our bodily movements are clearly muscular and electrical events (physical events) of our anatomy. Ultimately, our movements are determined by the physical laws of our environment and even the state of the particles rolling down to ‘us’ (the particles that are ‘us’?) from the time of The Big Bang.
Philosopher Daniel Dennett contends that there is a perfectly good sense of “Self” that has gotten caught up in much superstition. The self really is “a unitary and cohering point of view of the world;” it is the center of my ongoing “narrative” about who “I” am and what “my” life is about. This story-telling is a Social Reality—we all do it. It has a point and purpose to “me” (my “self”) and the “persons” with whom I live and interact. “The Self” is Real in our kind of Society; it is as real as “a game of baseball,” and as real as “responsibility,” “money,” and “music.” All of these involve very complex behaviors that take on meanings that seem to be in addition to whatever meaning behaviors may have for physics, chemistry, biology, or neurology.
Dennett contends that “The Self” is a kind of illusion, “a cognitive illusion.” at least from some of our points of view. But even then, it is one of the useful illusions needed for the way we live. We seem to be “Selves” that Act Freely and Initiate Events, just as we seem to be, additionally, baseball players, musicians, parents, and bankers.
The following are some of the reasons we believe in a magical self, reasons that have led us into the superstitious beliefs of “A Self” beyond our social realities.
An Information Processor
“Whatever else we are, we are an information-processing system,” Dennett contends, and our “information-gathering apparatus (are) our most impressive causal interface with our surroundings.”
But information processing does not have to be that complex. All processing systems are firstly a form of screening or filtering in a literal sense. A sieve separating the biggest particles from the tiniest is information processing in its simplest form. From there, it is up to you, the designer of this processing system, to use the smallest particles or the largest—the pieces thus separated—and continue their processing to some goal. The whole point of “information processing” is to be selective; it has a particular point of view and some “reasons” for it. It is “a somewhat idiosyncratic way of gathering and partitioning information about the world,” reports Dennett; much as “a self” in its demystified form.
But to demonstrate how Information Processing can be deceptive,leading us to believe that something magical—self-initiation—is going on, Dennett contends we are “essentially an organization of switches and triggers.” He replaces my older mechanical example of selectivity (a sieve, which is not very mysterious or complex) with a more modern electronic example for separating ‘the wheat from the chaff,’ and then bypassing any talk of “purposes” by simply saying that the switches are put together in “an organization.”
And his point is that “input information”into the processor (in this case, us) is often far less evident or dramatic than the “output” results. “All information-processing systems rely on amplifiers of a sort,” he contends; “Relatively small causes are made to yield relatively large effects.”That tends to confuse us; we think that something beyond causes is occurring.
“Input switches,” like photo electric cells or biological sense organs, “transduce” input information into a form usable by the processor. “The ‘firing’ of a retinal neuron may be ‘triggered’ by the arrival of a single photon on (that) receptor,” for example. That is amplification because a photon is staggeringly small. In appropriate circumstances, that single photon may “trigger output effectors”: “arms, legs, mouths, wheels, projectiles, rockets—(that) use very little energy to initiate, modulate, and terminate…(they are) activities that expend dramatic amounts of energy in clearly observable ways,” Dennett insists.
This enhanced output is the result of stored and accumulated energy in the organization or design of the information processing system. “Stored energy is controlled by modulation of lower-energy events,” he says. Human engineers and inventors, but ultimately The Universe, as Mother Nature with her process of Evolution by Natural Selection, began discovering more efficient mechanisms and accumulatingefficient mechanisms into more complex mechanical systems long ago. Little in, can seem to result in, much more out. We tend to think we are “free”, free from any causal chain—we are an unmoved mover!
But, a much better answer is: in any good mechanism, Value is in its Design—its Organizationof Parts in relation to its environment.
“The Headquarters” Deep Within!
And so in information-processing systems—like other people or animals or even some machines—we do not see, from our vantage point outside them, the processing going on, the work being done, within. Dennett: “We see the dramatic effects leaving; we don’t see the causes entering; we are tempted by the hypothesis that their are no causes.”
Even in our“self,” this deception occurs. We take our “decisions” to be “the focal events in the life of a genuinely free agent,” reports Dennett. “Decisions are ‘voluntary’ if anything is,” he says. But even from “our introspective vantage point,” the “causal paths…are inscrutable.” “We” are supposedly ‘in’ the black box ‘with’ the processing going on, and still we don’t see the mechanisms or causesor “the self.”
We do recognize a certain difficulty about “decisions.” Though we think we “make them voluntarily;” they “can also be seen strangely out of our control,” reports our philosopher. We don’t witness them “being made” in any way! “We witness their arrival,” he contends. “They bubble up to consciousness” from somewhere. We do not know their source, even when it is supposedly within us and just us.
This has lead to an awkward theory,“a strange idea,” says Dennett: Deep inside us lays “A Central Headquarters.” It is “where the buck stops.” as Harry Truman characterized himself as President. It is where the ‘Decider-in-Chief’ resides. “My True Self” is the decider who is the initiator of its own action and who is not divided among itself and so possesses the clear and only view of who it is. Like Yahweh, “I am who I am,” says Our True and Original Self!
Now in electronic information processing, we can think of this HQ as its computer program and a central processor. In biological info processing we can think of it as the Genetic Code and the brain. And these situations are pertinent to us—humans, who are biological and a bit like a computer, but to many of us—we want more. If we took “more” to mean Our Cultureand our personal history in that culture, that would be a very good answer. In society, we do have “a sense of self” and “take” a large amount of responsibility for it; we explain who we are in its terms. “Self” is more like a literary device, than an object that takes up space and made of some material: it is the main character of a story.
But even if we avoid any metaphysically ridiculous answers, like “the Self” is a special kind of material—“a soul” or “a spirit,”—we then often fall into personification and reification of a different type. “A True Self” resides in a place,“a headquarters” that is “deep within us,” and is inhabited by—What? Answer: a more unified, more singular Self! It’s like a ‘smaller’ person within our larger person! “Smaller” because—well—it is more unified and singular, but also, I guess, it does have to fit in my head. That is an awkward theory!
What we are really doing, contends Dennett and others, is taking the real Social Process of Self-Formation which is interpersonal, and internalizing it within our own self-awareness. A child learns its role and part, by interaction with parents and teachers and peers, and eventually graduates to a more demanding role—adulthood. The internal dialogue can get really intense at that point!
Do We Need A Center?
We don’t need “a center” as any postulated and supposedly material (or spiritual) “thing,” Dennett contends. We do not need ‘some particle’ that initiates itself physically or even psychologically. We have our modern society and its social roles and our biology and its instinctsand conditions; we would be more consistent and wiser if we just left it at that. Our modern problems lay not in discovering our real individual “self,” or “soul, “or “spirit,” or “god.” Our problems lay in our incoherence and inconsistencies of our basic points of view and basic needs.
We have the problem of Human Freedom and Choice flipped on its head. We do “choose” and are “free” to do what we do, usually, normally, unless we are under the influence of an abnormal cause. But “Our Choice” is the last in a line—or more like a pyramid—of Conditions Already Determined, or Screening Processes, already in motion. When we think of information processing from the top down, from “the world view or attitude of a deliberator”—says Dennett, we can distort the whole process.
But with this ‘pyramid’ of qualifications, the top of this process is not in control! By the time “we”—as in “you” or “I”—get our turn to ‘chime in’ “The Situation” has already been Qualified and Quantified through these many “layers.” Physics, chemistry, biology, all play huge roles—how could they not?—but from our point of view as “deliberators” there is still some room for determination. As Cultural Animals, the historical realities of The Human Race and Our Society are determinative, but then so are the Sociological realities, and the Psychological realities of my life, and the neurological realities of my brain. “The Decision” “bubbles up into consciousness,’ but it is only at this highest, latest, social and cultural level that that term—“a decision”—is appropriately applied.
We seem to have made it, but in many ways we do not know how. This process of human information processing has long been tested and refined. Dennett contends that our cultural history clearly shows that we have turned our pattern recognition faculties back upon ourselves—we often review our decisions in search of flawed habits (patterns). We can revise one pattern of behavior with an improved one. “We” are a set of patterns seeking to fit in with a universe of other patterns. In that sense, a pattern has no ‘real’ center; but also in that sense, We seem to do things, and in a way We do!
If we accept This Rather Optimistic Attitude, Dennett contends that we are left with a rosy thought. As Information Processors we are Complex Mechanisms whose ultimate output—its “decisions”—“come bubbling up from below.” And that is fortunate because both ends of the process are real. The bottom of the pyramid is as real and important as the top. Human choices are just as real as neutrinos, but “real” in a different way. Curiously enough, we have ended this this search, and this post, with a conclusion sometimes attained in the history of philosophy and various other abstract human pursuits: We live in a Universe that has stumbled upon a path toward Understanding or Visualizing Itself!
Our profoundest hopes, and the Universe’s course, may not be all that divergent.
What if in your entire life, you never avoided anything? Everything that was ever going to happen to you, did happen. Well, you might imagine that you did not last long; you came to a quick demise.
But what if you did last for a while, in fact you lasted as long as you lasted, and that—yes—everything that was going to happen to you, did happen to you. How could it not?
And all that is OK, I will contend, following the lead of my favorite philosopher, Dan Dennett, more from his John Locke Lectures delivered in 1983 in Oxford, England and published as Elbow Room, The Varieties of Free Will Worth Wanting(1984). And this is A Revised and Greatly Improved version of An Earlier Post!
I must admit, “not avoiding” seems rather bizarre. It seems like we human beings wouldn’t be as powerful as we think we are. As if, we are not in as much control as we often think.It’s rather humbling!
On ‘Avoiding’ Things
So, consider the very idea of “avoiding.” It is a peculiar idea. Maybe it is a misperception or a semantic confusion. After all, we can easily reframe many events—all events?—to be an act of avoiding one thing or another.
This very moment, my heartbeat allows me to avoid death. Gravity helps me avoid the problem ofmy coffee floating out of my cup and drifting about this room. Sitting here avoids additional wear on my shoes. In conclusion, it seems that anything that happens avoids all the things that possibly could have happened in its place. “To avoid” something presumes that real alternatives exist. These alternatives are “real possibilities,” we might say; but how real can the possible be?
Philosopher Dennett cites Mark Twain’s musings on these matters: “I am an old man, and I’ve seen many troubles, but most of them never happened.” Dennett contends that there are confusions in the way we think we “avoid.” Imagine that, confusions among some of our basic ideas. Maybe they need a little rearranging.
“To avoid” is one of the “preeminent verbs of agency,” contends Dennett, doing some philosophical analysis of everyday language. Verbs like “help”, “avert”. “protect,” “bring about,” “thwart,” are all used to describe us as “actors,” “initiators.” “doers,” as opposed to simple receivers. We are not merely passive creatures, the mere site of occurrences that happen “to us.” We can “make a difference;” we like to believe. We can “change the course of things” by avoiding, protecting, bringing about, helping, starting…, at least we often contend so, he says.
Here are some examples of some prominent events that we have recently successfully “avoided”: Donald Trump’s Presidential Coup of January 6, 2022 (narrowly avoided), The 2018 North Korean Nuclear Missile Attack on Los Angeles (avoided by a much wider margin), The Great Comet Strike of 2019 in which millions of people in China died (avoided by a very large margin, I was unaware of any such “real” possibility—but none the less, Avoided!). We can, of course, think of many other important events that did not occur;“avoided,” we might think, and some avoided due to our efforts.
So, what are “the possibilities?” If we are going to avoid things, what are the events we can possibly “avoid” and what can we possibly put in their place? Can we even remotely reign in this idea?
The noted philosopher Willard Quine, one of Dennett’s mentors, was famously skeptical of meaningful talk about “the possible.” He would ask you something like the following: “How many imaginary fat men can stand in that doorway? Surely fewer imaginary fat men than imaginary thin men. How many imaginary thin men could fit? Remember, imaginary thin men can be pretty thin, and imaginary fat men can be very fat!”
But Dennett draws our attention to a very ordinary case of possibility and avoidance, much more realistic than imaginary men in doorways or North Korean missile strikes.
You are at a baseball game and sitting along the third-base line. A foul ball comes off the bat and it is a line drive right at you. “Luckily,” you say, “it missed me; I ducked; I was going to get hit right in the face!” In what sense were you “going to?”
Now this is an especially interesting case of avoidance because “ducking” is a human reflex. It is a mechanismdesigned and evolved right into us. Biologists call it “a situation-action mechanism” and animals have many of them, like a clam closing its shell at the least disturbance. It’s automatic, considering ample stimulus input.
So, not only did the ball not hit you, it was never going to hit you because you were always going to duck (given the situation as it was). The “Duck!” response is automatic. We can say it is part of the great causal chain of nature, that long sequence of events that started quite a while ago and is like billiard balls through time ricocheting on the universe’s cosmic billiard table.
SPOILER ALERT: In the end, this reflex idea of ‘avoiding’ will turn out to be pretty much correct.
Dennett then makes a shocking claim: All acts of avoidance are (“merely”) cases of faulty human anticipation(Freedom Evolves, p.59). If you were smarter—if you had known ‘The Bigger Picture’—you would have known better! You expected the ball to hit you, but it didn’t. Your impending injury was (“merely”) a product of your limited knowledge. From a “wider context,” a perspective now provided to us by our philosopher or by the science of physics or biology, you can now see what was always going to really happen, happened; not only did you escape the peril, there never was any! It was automatic, you were made to “Duck!” and so you did.
What should we make of these contentions? Dennett allows that maybe we should consider the above case “pseudo-avoidance.” This level of reflexive avoidance is not “genuine avoidance.” After all, even the simplest amoeba ‘avoid’ some of “the bad” and are ‘attracted’ to “the good;” it’s that primitive and that mechanical.
Maybe we need to up-grade the quality of our avoidance, from “simple ‘hard-wired’ avoidance [to] fancier varieties,” Dennett contends. And so in the history of living things—in Evolution— we have done that; we have progressed and maybe now we have “genuine avoidance.”
For example, Polio. In 1988 the World Health Organization reported 350,000 cases world wide, and launched a prevention/avoidance campaign. By 2012, they reported merely 175 confirmed severe cases. Polio has been ‘truly’ avoided and preventedby extensive scientific research, mass public education and vaccination. Clearly, the course of history was changed; a difference was made: polio has been avoided, we commonly conclude and not by some simple reflex action.
ANOTHER SHOCKING CLAIM
“If we want to change the course of history we are in for a big disappointment,’ says Dennett. “We cannot point to any real event that was ever avoided...No event that actually has happened, is happening, or will happen is an event that was, is being, or will be avoided.” If we think we have “replaced one future event with another” —lots of polio for very little polio—we are wrong. In fact, that idea is, “in this undoctored form, incoherent,” he argues, because “future events” are not real events and are as slippery as imaginary thin men in doorways.
But surely, we should reply, “Something was changed! We went form polio to no polio; the future was changed!” Well, at least “apparently,“ says Dennett: “All of the verbs of ‘making a difference’ involve a tacit comparison between the way the world was apparently going to go, and the way it turned out to go.” Dennett is arguing that it is not that history was changed, but that our anticipations about history—“the future”—were wrong.
Maybe, we were never going to have polio for any longer than we had it. Maybe “the universe” and “our wishes” are not so far out of line.We may be luckier than we tend to think!
It’s an epistemic issue, the philosophers would say. More polio in the future, and the baseball smashing your face, they were never “in the cards”(the real course of history) in the first place! It just seemed to you that they were, contends Dennett; it was a matter of your knowledge and perspective.
That is an interesting contention! It was us and our expectations that were faulty, not that we hadthe power to reach out ahead of ourselves in time (into the future) and switch things around.
But don’t we have that ability? Isn’t the future “open” and being determined by us “now?” We “deliberate;“ we “think things through” and then “decide,” and “act.” This is where we started this little essay, with “the verbs of action”: avoiding, protecting, creating, doing…and thus “making a difference.” We are reaching out into the future!
IS THE FUTURE “OPEN”?
This “open future” needs careful consideration. We will find out that it is not as open as we thought. Maybe everything we thought we avoided, was never going to happen in the first place. We should think about our thinking and deciding and ‘doing’ in a different way! Our ‘doing’ may be just what we needed to do, to align ourselves with what is to happen!And that is just what Dennett and I will argue!
We Deliberate and Decide to keep up with What is Really Going to Happen: “We Act Under The Idea of Freedom.”
Dennett comments that we often acknowledge that we cannot change the past, but we should equally acknowledge that we cannot change the future! It isthe event that will actually happen, and “happen to happen—in the fulness of time,” he insists. “The future” is not some collection of events from which some will actually occur.
Once again, we are confusing what we anticipated might be the future with what the future really was.The future did not change and we did not change it only our anticipations of it are often misguided. It seemed open, but it wasn’t.
All this confusion about “the future” iscommon in our everyday lives. It is how we talk about it, and it is not consistent. In many situations, what will happen is supposedly very much up to us; in other situations it is not up to us at all. In the middle, lay a huge number of situations that are an indeterminate mess of “up to us” and “a product of forces beyond us.” I guess that is why people write novels and read them. They want examples of how this works out.
But, we have other strong evidence (beyond Dennett’s analysis of our ordinary language) that “the real course of history” is already determined. Modern physicists believe that, in principle, the equation that predicts the movements of all the particles that compose our everyday world has already been discovered; it is called “the path-integral formulation of Quantum mechanics.” But chemists. neurologist and biologists have their own “determinants” of our lives now, and in the future.
So where does this leave us? Should we stop “trying to make a difference” because the future is already set?
Dennett does not recommend that course. Instead, we should regard our fancier varieties of action—scientific research, religious faith and ritual, ethical behavior, and human planning in general—as on par with our more reflexive forms of action. All our behaviors are caused by the pastand by our current environment, that they are determined in this way, does not diminish their stature.
“Genuine avoidance” is a confusion, and even as such it offers us no better than “determined” or “reflexive avoidance.”In each case, the peril is avoided. A thunderstorm is a real thing, and now that we know they are determined by natural causes, that does not diminish their status. They are still “a thunderstorm,” as powerful and full of lightning and rain as ever, even now when we can fairly accurately predict when and where they will occur. “Genuine Avoidance,” like a “genuine decision,” is supposedly when you simply decideand do something without physical causes, you do “what has been decided upon” and, like “God,” there was no mechanism to it; it is simply a decision out of nowhere, divine fiat: “Let their be light!” “I HAVE DECIDED!” we tend to think and say.
The same is true for “deliberation,” contends Dennett. It may seem paradoxical to think that “to deliberate,” “to think things through,” makes sense even from a mechanistic, deterministic, perspective. Deliberation is Not important because the outcome of that deliberation is open. It is not. To physics and to Laplace’s Demon, the outcome of your thinking (all those brain waves and molecular jumblings) are as historically set as anything else. But this is not paradoxical in the following way.
From the perspective as an actor—as the doer of the thinking, we do not know the outcome of our own deliberations! We must carry them out. That a particular future seems open to us, just as does the future in general, is our perspective. We must “Act Under the Idea of Freedom,” the title to the fifth essay in Dennett’s Elbow Room. “The course of history” is out of our control; we have very good reasons to believe that; but from the perspective of an actor inside that grand scheme of things, we cannot “see” it in its totality nor its outcomes. We should “keep our shoulder to the grind stone,” says Dennett, we must “keep our head down” and concentrate to do the best we can with the situation we have.
It’s like “follow-through” in a golfer’s or baseball player’s swing. “The trajectory of the ball [or even contact itself] is already determined before the follow-through commences;” yet “follow-through” is a wise and rational policy, argues Dennett. We continue our swing and keep our eyes down and focused on the area of potential contact, even after the contact has or hasn’t occurred. It allows for the smoothest swing, a swing that is “most effective” and seems to give us the best results. Follow-through tends “to ensure that the right, desirable sorts of things happen at the crucial time in the swing,” even though it occurs after the outcome (the ball was already hit, or not hit) has already been determined.
And so in life, we have done pretty well acting as if we are free, and responsible, and efficacious. History has often rewarded us with a beneficial outcome, beneficial from our point of view of course. For a creature with limited abilities, it is possible to see much progress.
This above realignment of ideas is part of that progress itself, believes Dennett. We ‘only’ act as if we are free and responsible! Understanding this makes science more compatible with our everyday ideas of ourselves as actors. I believe it even allows a quasi-religious sense of awe and participation. History is one of those Big Things that give us a part to play but is outside us and our ability to control. History is our destiny. It is beyond us, and yet still us, at the same time. Maybe we should try to regard it with a sense of awe, a sense of humility and even reverence. And then just ‘keep our head down’ and our ‘shoulder to the wheel’ and do the best we can!
(The start of this essay is in the previous post. That post is situated temporarily below this one in The Menu under the category, The Connection, varied topics. Please start there for a more complete understanding.)
In the previous post, “All the World in the Flip of a Coin,” philosopher Dan Dennett explored the curious truth that a Coin Toss has two apparently contradictory characteristics.One, it is “Open” to diverse results—heads or tails. Two, it is obviously totally determined by causal forces near and far; the result (“Heads!”) had no “Elbow Room,” it had to be what it was determined to be and therefore never “Open.”
Dennett concludes that a coin toss exists on two different levels for us.Our Limited Knowledge and Powers make it seem flexible, a head or tail were possible; yet if we knew much more no mystery as to its outcome would exist. A more powerful intelligence (“Laplace’s Demon”) would have understood each of the many factors that compose its “sufficient cause,” but to us more limited knowers, we need and search for “a necessary cause,” one or two or three factors that play a more prominent role in the event. Among a world full of contributors to it (the event’s sufficient cause), sometimes a more prominent cause is apparent.
How is this possible, this co-existence on these two levels at once? It is here that Dennett applies “a promised”Third Form of Causation: Final Causes or Purposes. We are limited in our Powers of Knowing and Doing so therefore we are merely theoretically aware of the world as a massive interconnection of sufficient causes, and most often are satisfied only by the discovery of a smaller set of necessary causes that some events possess. This introduction of Purposes as a form of causation is his (and some other philosophers as well) attempt to “Resolve”—as in the title—this tangled idea of “causation”: sufficient, necessary, final.
In “All the World in the Flip of a Coin,” a coin toss was Dennett’s brilliant example of an event (“a thing”) that was both caused and not caused at the same time. Its outcome is “sufficiently” caused by a great variety of factors but “necessarily” caused by no one or two of them, that is why we have so much trouble controlling it. Will it be Heads or Tails? We don’t know, and in this case we don’t want to control all the diverse input. The open outcome of the coin toss is useful to us, its Purpose.
Consider coin-tossing in comparison to pool. Pool is designed to maximize the role of skill, not luck. In pool, the field of play is isolated and constructed to allow the player almost total control of the outcome. The vast number of contributing factors (its sufficient cause)—or potentially contributing factors—are manipulated and utilized to allow the necessary cause for the outcome of each shot to be clear and almost singular. For example, pool is never played outside in a howling storm. Quite in contrast to coin-tossing, it’s a situation with a very different design and purpose.
Other examples given of events without Necessary Causes are many of the movements of the Stock Market. Even World War One, that war was going to happen and any number of events without the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand could have, would have, set it off. But this way of saying it, “event without necessary causes,” is not the best way—only a first attempt—to describe a curious character within our tangled sense of “causation.”
Dennett focuses on Designed Events, Designed Objects that Function, as the most important examples of occurrences in this tangle. They all exhibit the importance of Purposes and Goals, and the “openness” they create.
Returning to the Original Theme
Coin-Tossing is a human convention. It would not still be around if it did not serve some useful (and important) purpose to us. It is a good way to make a decision, when a decision is needed and there are no reasonable or necessary deciding considerations. Coin-tossing is a great tie-breaker, that is its purpose or goal.
To call “purposes and goals” causes,is an old way of talking. To call them “Final Causes” is even more suspect. Aristotle ‘coined’ (pun intended) that term, “final.” We moderns tend to not want to understand a goal as a cause, except when we are talking about subjective motivations. Otherwise, we like to keep our “causes” more public and observable, like pool balls bumping for all to see.
But to the ancients, all the things here on earth were striving (like a person)to attain the Harmony of The Spheres, an eternal perfection and an unrelenting constancy that lays outside and beyond each individual earthly thing. The Spheres were self-enclosed, circular; all that was to them was within them, we might say. And this is the character of goal-driven, purpose-guided objects. The ancients thought The Universe was goal driven, but we still recognize that organisms, artifacts, and persons “can” be.
How Purposeful Things Behave
“Generally” is how things constructed for a purpose work, in our world. Especially by contrast to the Harmonious Spheres which lay in the background, objects with purposes are not forever, not consistent every time, but only generally they do what they are designed to do.Purposes are always limited and from a particular point of view. A coin-toss results in heads or tails at generally an equal rate; a dog generally barks in certain situations; a bridge generally stands; I generally pick the shirt that I rather simply “want” each morning; at least from our point of view.
To do so, each designed situation or “thing” must simplify its situation. It cannot function in the world of total causal interaction like Laplace’s Demon or the world as displayed in physics. Designed things are limited things and as such, Dennett says, they are “an information processor” in the sense that each must ‘make decisions’ about what is important to it, and keep track of that information or that stimuli, only. All the other massive and multiple factors must be somehow relegated to “The Background” for it. “The Background” is a kind of holding pen for significant things (sufficient causes) but things not of primary importance (the necessary causes) to the purpose.
Dennett explains how this is possible. The Coin-Toss is designed to “amplify’ all the sufficient causes, he says, and then ‘interpret’ them (“push the digitizer”) into one of two modes—heads or tails.A dog barks when all the causes around it are interpreted, and this means many of them ignored, and undoubtedly to the dog many causes simply cancel each other out,—but in the end “the digitizer” (The Dog) is pushed by “its stimuli,” “its information,” into “Bark” or “No Bark” mode.
The game of pool is an excellent example of that kind of highly controlled and manipulated environment. When Willie Marconi lined up a shot, he did not think about gravity, though it was one of the most vital components of the game. Even less did he think of atomic decay or fields of electrical attraction—though present and operative they were relegated to the deep background for this purpose. Much more to Marconi’s concern where the very the levelness of the table and the smoothness of its surface, the lack of debris and the chalk on his stick’s tip. Pool is a highly designed situation, and it gave Marconi the “Elbow Room” to focus on true lines, appropriate momentums, and effective angles and contact. The game of pool—like much in Our World—is a limitation that allowed him the freedom to attain his goal.
This may not seem like much, but it is! At particular points, “all the world”comes to either a head or a tail for a coin toss, or a bark for a dog, or a particular shirt for me this morning, or a bank shot for Marconi.
Back to My Old Dog
In “All the World in a Flip of a Coin,” I started this essay joking about a congregation of atoms that I keep as a pet and how confusing it is to also talk of them as a dog that I have bonded to electrically, neurally, emotionally? I don’t know, but that’s the point.
So, this is how it is possible for a thing to be more than just one thing, by it having having wide-ranging “significance.” In other words, it is a “sign” of things beyond. This outcome—a bark, or the head of a coin—is a summation of the forces around it, expressed through the situation of—the design of—” a dog,” or “a coin toss,” contends Dennett.
In all purposive objectsand events, its structured design sums up and counter-balances most causal forces around it and they are relegated to the background of sufficient causes. By doing so, its purpose has ‘the space,’ “the Elbow Room,” to operate through a few necessary causes.
An automobile, for example, stands against gravity and bares an additional load, it corners and it propels itself. When we speak of autos, we generally do not mention the expansion of the universe or the drifting of the continents; we speak of “the brakes,” “the starter,” “the chassis,” “the traction of the tires…” But this a new way of talking is not arbitrary; it is, and has been, tested against the physical background. It has proved itself. We have found some Necessary Causes in the massive background of Sufficient Causesthat surround us, and made them work for us. They have a Purpose To Us.
It is a way of talking of a situation that from some points of view is a bit contrived, in the case of The Auto we call it “transportation.” Relative to the physical background that is apparent to “The Demon” (and that is the focus of the physicist), nothing is “really” being ‘carried through’ (“transported”) from one sub-atomic moment to the next. Each massive background is a total connection of (sufficient) causes shifted in its relation to the next total background of causes.
It is us, in our limited capacities, that focus on some specific set of particles and “see” some continuity from moment to moment, from background to background, and understand some purpose for that specific focus. Why, to “the demon,” Time is not even an essential element of “reality”! To it, past and present and future are all one!
Each automobile is a summation and balance of the forces and conditions around it; just as is each coin toss, and so for every other designed thing or situation. They are an abbreviated representation of the environment around it, for the sake of carrying out a purposeembedded in their physical structure. Whether an organism or other designed object or situation, each is a system with a purpose, even if as minimally as the tossing of a coin for a method of human choice.
“There is a familiar way of alluding to this tight relationship that can exist between the organization of a system and its environment: you say that the organism continuously mirrors the environment, or that there is a representation of the environment in—or implicit in—the organization of the system. ”
Dan Dennett, The Intentional Stance, 1987
One of Dennett’s main objectives is to understand howmany of our ordinary and basic concepts are very useful, even ingenious. Ideas like “person,” “reasons,” “can,” and “rationality” are not just subjectively real but objectively grounded against their background. The same can be said for “dog,” “skyscraper,” and “Mississippi River.” It just goes to show that in our world—the world as it seems to us—Whole Things and Situations “can” be as Real as the Parts that Compose Them. Physics does not always have the last word. My dog came to a lot more than just atom-talk!
And we are lucky that our world has come to so many interesting, even if often tragic, outcomes.
My pet dog was a loveable animal. For over ten years, she showed great enthusiasm for life. Always an avid eater, very day she chased squirrels—a related kind of creature—and never caught a one. She even loved snow; it seemed to fascinate her that beneath it lay smells—signs of other things she “savored.” But she got old, and both she and I have limits. She declined faster than I. At about the age of thirteen, we “put her down.”
I sat next to her as her atoms lost the orientation we call life. Soon, she (they) stopped functioning completely. We cremated her remains and still have those ashes, somewhere. Her specific structure and purposes are gone. My pet dog is now clearly just atoms. No more squirrel-chasing for them! I think I will find those remaining carbon compounds, and release them from that plastic bag and from that tin canister, and return them to the Earth where someday soon they will be free to mingle with my own. Like they say, “From dust to dust.”
(Getting down to the bottom of things, all in a simple read! A revised version of an earlier post. The mystery of the different Levels of existing things is explored through the example of the simple tossing of a coin. Keeping it pretty lite and pretty curious while trying to popularize the ideas of philosopher Dan Dennett, from his 1983 John Locke Lectures delivered in Cambridge, England and published as Elbow Room, the varieties of Free Will worth wanting, 1984.)
HOW CAN A THING BE TWO THINGS? Well, they can, and we think that all the time as long as the many different ways we characterize a thing don’t trip all over each other. Some large degree of consistency is necessary. A dog is a mammal and a chordate and an animal, that works ok.
But also a dog can be my pet, a mammal, a Beagle, Nika, and a congregation of atoms. I guess that means that I have pet atoms, and if I owned two dogs I would still have pet atoms just two different clumps of them. Funny how my pet clump loves to run about the yard in perfect attunement to the expansion of the universe and the constant decay of her sub-atomic particles. Those adorable little particles sure do get a charge (a different electrical charge?) when my wife comes home! My dog’s brain-waves love my mammalian mate. Its cute little tail (and brain waves, I presume) wiggle and waggle all over the place on those occasions.
Now that didn’t sound quite right to me, but I guess it’s true somehow. We just have to keep all our radically different ways of talking about something in their own compartments. We cannot mix them like a tossed salad. And speaking of tossing…
When we think about coin-flipping, we have a somewhat similar issue. How should we talk about it?
On the one hand, there is “elbow room,” “wiggle room,” says philosopher Dan Dennett. We don’t know whether a fair human flip will come up heads or tails, but we do know that it will come up one of those. In fact, we have a whole set of “laws,” the laws of probability, that say in the long run heads and tails will come up with equal frequency. So if, oddly enough, you have just flipped a coin five times and they all came out heads, don’t say “Tails, it’s got to be” for the sixth flip, because it doesn’t. Yes, that is elbow room; that coin has some room to maneuver!
Dennett cites the famous 18th century English philosopher, David Hume: we want “a certain looseness” to exist in our world. It “prevents the possible from shrinking tightly around the actual,” says Dennett and is “presupposed in our use of the word “can.” The flip “can” come up heads or tails. Many things “can” do various things and have various states. Water “can” be a solid, liquid or gas. This kind of flexibility is presupposed in our idea of human freedom, and in much social science (“She can vote Republican or Democrat.”), biology (“The dog can bark.”) engineering (“The auto can accelerate.”), but also in statistics and probability (“Any gene of the father “can” be passed on to the offspring, but only 50% of the offspring’s genes will be paternal.). This “openness” is very important to us.
But on the other hand, we also believe that every flip of that coin is completely determined by all the physical laws and conditions that compose it; in other words,no elbow room. If we could control, or know, all the conditions, no mystery to the outcome of any flip would remain. “Mystery gives way to mechanism,” as Dan Dennett has stated in many circumstances.
So, is it elbow room or no elbow room? Contemporary magician turned mathematician, Persi Diaconis has developed a highly accurate mechanical coin-flipper. And Pierre Laplace, the famous 18th century French physicist, postulated that with Newton’s laws, if we had a very powerful intelligence (often called “Laplace’s Demon”) capable of discerning the position of all the particles of the universe at any one instant, to that knower the past and the future would be one, all movements and destinations—including our flipping coin—would be known. As Hume feared, to the demon, the possible has collapsed into the actual. From that perspective there is no wiggle room; what actually happened was determined to happen long ago and even far way.
So what is the truth of this two-sided event? Is it designed to allow “a certain looseness” or is it totally determined to come to the one and only outcome that did in fact out-come? How do we think both ways about this ‘simple’ event? Dennett has tried to make much of this combination and much may ride on it including human freedom.
First Dennett contends, we have limited knowledge. We are not Laplace’s Demon; we are too much in the middle of all things: too much limited in time and in space. The position and velocity of all particles at one instant is well beyond our capabilities (beyond anyone’s). We have this Ideal of Perfect Scientific Knowledge as ‘a guiding light,’ but our limitations are well known to us and deeply embedded in our way of thinking. We know we have limits and here we have run right into them.
Second, in a very important sense, The Outcome of a Coin Toss has No Cause. How could this be? A coin toss has many causes, Dennett just said that. Some of us might think that a human being can doun-caused, “free,” things, but not a dead and dumb disc of metal. But, there are ambiguities in our idea of “cause” explored by philosophers going as far back as Aristotle. A sufficient cause and a necessary cause is the distinction Dennett will use here, but at another point a different idea of causation will also be prominent. The coin toss has no “necessary” cause, he contends.
A coin-toss has sufficient causes, argues Dennett. Its outcome was caused by many things, including the positions and qualities of the particles of the universe one minute after the Big Bang. Whatever the situation of those particles, they were at least sufficient to allow the outcome of this coin flip these billions of years later.
More immediately, we are sure the outcome was caused by the many, many, specifics of the situationat the time of the coin’s flight (humidity, wind, the specific gravity of its location…), and the various exact features of the flip itself (speed, rotation, height of toss, size of coin…). All these factor into the exact outcome of any and all particular flips. In this sense, that event—and all events, you picking a shirt from your closet this morning, for example– have causes sufficient for their occurrence: they are sufficiently caused.
But who cares? Dennett says this kind of cause is “diffuse, complex and uninteresting.” We can really do nothing with it. What we really want are Necessary Causes, not sufficient causes, he says, and this is just what a coin toss lacks. No one or two or three factors exist (or are evident to us and evident to us in time) to determine the outcome in a fair human coin flip. The outcome is “up in the air” so to speak. It has no Necessary cause,in that way. It is a very ordinary event (no “spirits,” no “mind,” no extraordinary “powers”) and it has no (necessary) cause!
The same may be said for the “choice” of your shirt this morning: it had no particular and necessary cause! An openness existed to it, from our perspective. Like the coin toss it had sufficient causes but no one or two obvious and determinate (necessary) causes). “I’ll wear the blue shirt, today,” I decide, for no obvious reason. It seems to be a “choice”by me and nota causal event forced on me.
WE SHOULD PAUSE AND APPRECIATE THIS RECOGNITION. Nothing in particular (no physical force, no environmental condition) caused the coin’s outcome, or even the choice of my shirt. A coin toss is both caused and determined in its outcome (by sufficient causes) and NOT caused and determined (by a necessary cause) at the same time. Let us explore these circumstances.
Maybe this idea of Sufficient Causation is not helpful to us? As Dennett has already said, this kind of explanation is all over the place (“diffuse”), extremely protracted (“complex”), and “uninteresting” because it does not exclude much of anything. “Sufficient Cause” seems to appeal to our inclination to think of everything as being involved with everything else, at least in some sense.
In this obtuse way, the idea of sufficient causation is helpful, I suppose, and Dennett acknowledges this and then suggests: we seem to be lucky that the world we are in has the character that it has,because a lot has come out of it. All the many different things interact and it comes to some notable occurrences.
Some interesting sh!# does happen! For example, we know much about the chemical and structural character of the simplest living things, yet we cannot recreate them, cannot produce Life from Non-Life in a lab. We know much about its pieces and parts, but just can’t put them together to work There seems to be “many more ways to not be alive than to be alive,” a prominent biologist, Richard Dawkins, has concluded. We are lucky to have the degree of complexity that we do have, for even in our own universe (let alone other “possible universes”) there seem to be many places where “things” just don’t come to much.
And when ‘all’ the world comes together to make a very specific things or event, sometimes a necessary cause will jump out at us from all these sufficient causes. A traffic accident was “caused” (necessary cause) by the car that ran the light, in addition to the state of particles shortly after the Big Bang and Henry Ford’s invention of the auto assembly line in 1913 that made mass auto transit feasible— all parts of the sufficient cause that do play their role in this car crash. Stock market fluctuations, World War One, are other examples; things that may lack a necessary cause.
Laplace’s Demonis very much at home in this world of massively interacting sufficient causes. The Demon would have the capacity to know them all and precisely trace each exact contribution far into the future (and back into the past). But we humans do not; we have limited horizons. We do not even know with certainty the outcome of the day we are in. “Subjectively our future is open,” says Dennett. Objectively, from the demon’s point of view, all movements are already determined. Like a coin toss.
So, we choose by taking hold of (taking advantage of) a more limited pattern that we do see (a necessary cause, hopefully); we act, and then wait to see what happens. Choice and responsibility, free will and planning (avoiding the bad, seeking the good), and rationality, all areideas based in our limited knowledge and abilities, contends our philosopher.
It’s a good thing to be a creature with limitations, we might conclude. It seems like we are free, in a universe that is already determined! In this way, our freedom and our responsibility are conditions of “our epistemic limitations” and not our most wide-ranging ontological condition. Subjectively there is looseness in our lives; different events “can” happen!
We are freebecause often we know no necessary causes to explain much of what happens to us. We are like our flipping coin, no cause seems to stand out. This morning when I chose my shirt, gravity did not necessarily cause that, nor did entropy, nor the food I ate yesterday and every day before that (they were all sufficient causes, real and active but in a subtle way), nor was my mother abusive in my childhood by always screaming at me and demanding: “Wear blue on Wednesdays!” Like the coin rotating in the air (head or tail?), we are subjectively free to make “a choice:” red shirt or blue?
But “choice” is not always the best word to use. We do not say that the coin chooses head or tail, but we do recognizea new set of standards apply to the outcome of the flip from our perspective.A different way of talking about the coin toss becomes applicable. The Coin Toss exists and behaves at two different ontological levels:the micro-physical level of Laplace’s Demon and the hard sciences; and the macro-physical level of everyday interactions.
At the macro level this morning, an openness seemed to exist and I used it to (very briefly) consider the color for my shirt. ‘What color pants am I going to wear?’ ‘What color shirt did I wear yesterday?’ ‘It’s winter, wear subdued colors,’ I thought. Of course, gravity and entropy and millions of chemical reactions were also playing their part as sufficient causes in the background for “my decision.” But, I now had the “Elbow Room” to utilize my fashion standards and some other even more important standards, to make my decision according to The Standards for “a free and responsible person!” Or so we say.
Spoiler Alert: If you think I have put our “freedom” in somewhat of a precarious position, you are right! We are stuck between the Eternal and Fixed Background of Physical Laws and our own limits and needs to Think and Act Reasonably. “Stuck in the Middle with You!” It’s the basis of a Nature and Religion Connection! Stay tuned for the resolution!
A feeling of connectedness, is yet to come. The final entry in theOur 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.
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.
THE NEW CONSERVATIVE BLOCK of The US Supreme Court
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 asan 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 notresolving 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 opinionthis 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!”
“Time and memory are the true artists; They remould reality nearer to the hearts desire.”
THE NATURE RELIGION CONNECTION—-Thanks for Dropping In, PLEASE LEAVE A COMMENT,I Would Love to Hear Your Ideas!
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 beOur 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.
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, giantrailroads 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.
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.
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 nationaland 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 earnedabout 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.”
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.
13 hostile takeoversof 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.
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 ofUnions 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!!!
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).
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.)
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.
Economic Valueisan 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.
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 andmoney (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.
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 Valueand 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 economicsystem to a halt or persistently diminished its functioning to produce the concrete necessities (homes, food, jobs) upon which we ALL rely.
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.
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 donothavea single dollar of net worth! Their debts are greater than the value of all they own!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 viewhas 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!
“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.
This is Emergence,I believe: it is an ‘unfolding’ of potential, not a necessary sequence of caused objects. It is our good fortunethat 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, ourselvesEmerging through all the levels.
Life, consciousness, animal societies, human language is what can possiblyevolve 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 understandthat 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.
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.
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