Responsibility is Something to “Take”

(They always blamed Curly!)

(See also yesterday’s post “On Avoiding” and how we supposedly do it. It’s a good one, full of ironic realizations! Immediately following this post under the menu category The Connection. We are on a roll, here at The Nature Religion Connection. And now back to this ‘Responsibility’ thing!)

Adults have the responsibility for what they do, or so we normally think. There are limits to this, of course. If you trip and then fall down a flight of stairs, that is “an accident“–-it happened to you; you did not intend that and with different luck and a little more attention it would have been “avoided,” we normally think. It was not your fault.

So, having responsibility is not automatic. We all kind of play along with this rather uncertain situation. The very language we use reveals that. We say a person “takes” responsibility, and that often we (other persons) have to “hold” them responsible if they don’t take it. It’s a social thing. Seemingly it is for the benefit of all of us—collectively—even if it is not so great for us individually, if we run afoul of the norms.

And you can always ‘appeal’ a decision. You may refuse to “take” that responsivity and ‘plead’ some special circumstances. “I wasn’t responsible for it because…”

But this “holding responsible” becomes clearer as having a responsibility” when in many situations we are all in agreement. If you are what we call “a parent,” “a teacher,” “a doctor,” or even just climb behind the wheel of a car, you have responsibility because if you mess up your fellow “persons”/”citizens” can come down on you hard!

There are few options often, because these are some serious norms. We almost all always play along with them, and it is like Responsibilities Are “Real” because We All Believe In Them and Act Accordingly. We are trained to do so; it’s called Socialization.

We often say, “Seeing is believing,” but how about “Believing is seeing”? That happens too, it seems. “I can see my responsibility, clearly,” we could say!

(The Ghost of Marley appears to Scrooge! Would “ghosts” be real if we all believed in them and acted accordingly? What of the “ghost” of Responsibility? Could a great scientific discovery prove that none of us are really responsible? Maybe this has already occurred.)

So, how did we get to this, this system of “responsibility”? Personally, it really was not that long ago that you and I were still pooping our pants and peeing our diapers. Socially, it was not that long ago when, without “civilization” and “government, “life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short” as Thomas Hobbes said—our “natural” state, he contended. And in nature, though it was a fair ways back—some 17 million, thousands of years ago—all was just a flash of pure energy some nanosecond after The Big Bang. It has been a long and winding road to this “doorway” of “Responsibility!” Like trying to compose a great song; you have to slowly and painstakingly put each piece together to create the new whole.

Putting Together a New Song, and then the singing of it.

“Responsibility” is part of a New Whole

Or so Dennett contends. When we talk of it, we are singing a new song. We are allowing for new possibilities. When we all play this game, we do assert the power to be in control of ourselves and be responsible for our actions. Like a god, a little bit—“I make myself and am therefore responsible it!”

But most of us also know that that is Not Absolutely True! Only fanatics, like Ayan Rand, take such extreme positions to be fact. They are extremists; they are Absolutists unwilling to acknowledging the reality of the gray areas.

To the rest of us, Responsibility” is more reigned in. It means doing the best with what we have been given and Making the most of ourselves considering where we started. When we “take” responsibility for ourselves we also acknowledge our limited nature, but pledge to do the best we can with it.

Luckily (or “naturally”), a thing we call “learning” is also part of this new song of “Responsibility.” We believe that when we examine ourselves and our behavior, and also “the world” around us, we find that we can and do change, and often in a more self-aware and self-controlled way. We learn, and many of those social norms no longer seem so foreign and demanding. They become part of us.

So, it wasn’t that long ago that I was peeing my pants and pooping my drawers. My parents kept trying to teach me and may have even become impatient and demanding at some points when my inabilities lingered. But eventually I got it; I took control of my bladder and bowels. I was now Responsible for them! It was a harbinger of bigger things to come.

A man who seems to have missed out on a lot of the finer points of responsibility and socialization. Or maybe he’s still soiling himself, too!
Thanks to Tom Toles, I hope he doesn’t mind me using it.
Another “Long and Winding Road,” except this one tends to stay way in the background of “Responsible Human Behavior!” Scientists and philosophers who think that scientific truths eliminate human responsibility are also Extremists and Absolutists but on the other side of the spectrum from Ayan Rand. (Not this photo again!)
“We almost all always” now there is a qualification! Logo by Marty

You’ve Never Avoided A Thing

(The Real Shocker: The Stooges made a career of not avoiding things. How about you?)

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?

(Everything that was going to happen to them, did happen to them. A brilliant philosophical insight! Maybe that is how the future works.)

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 of my 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 arereal 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.

(Maybe there are more Stooges, than simply three? It is kind of hard to tell sometimes, when you get stuck in an unproductive loop. The Stooges keep carrying on, surely they recognize our frustrations!)
(Humanity in an unproductive loop.)

“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.

(“I was going to get hit, but luckily I ducked” is something you hear in American baseball. Ball shown in this picture above smiling-man’s head; everyone else is ducking or looking for or chasing that ball.)

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 mechanism designed 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.

Shocking Claims

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.

PSEUDO-AVIODANCE

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 prevented by 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!

(Whoa! This picture looks familiar. “We were never going to have polio for any longer than we had it.” Another brilliant insight! In other words, in an important way, the future has already been determined. Imagine all the red tiles above as polio; they just start and then stop, from this perspective. It had nothing to do with what we did!
So I guess the old song is right: “I got a feeling something ain’t right…Here I am, Stuck in The Middle With You. Clowns to the left of me, Jokers to the right…stuck in the middle with you”)

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 had the power to reach out ahead of ourselves in time (into the future) and switch things around.

(The Stooges often tried “to think things through” and make the best decision.)

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!

(It seems like this coin toss has “an open future.” It can land Either heads or tails. Or is that Just how it Seems To Us? Surely, all the causal factors determine its outcome, if only we knew them! Does our limited knowledge gives us at least some perspective on what is Really Going To Happen?)

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 is the 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.

(The future is Not like buffet dining! “Let’s see, in The Future I will have a Harvard education, with a side of good marriage, and two well-adjusted children for desert.” Well, that is not how my life has gone; has yours? And don’t I feel guilty about it!)
“Here I am, stuck in the middle with you! And I don’t know why I came here tonight; I got a feeling that something ain’t right. Clowns to the left of me, Jokers to the right; Here I am…” (1972)

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” is common 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.

(The Richard Feynman version of this equation, with annotations added above each section by physicist Sean Carroll to help indicate their contribution. From Carroll’s book, The Big Picture. The movements of the particles and waves that make our ordinary world and us are known and predictable.)

Implications

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 past and 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 decide and 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.

(God creates Adam with a divine touch of the finger: that was quite a decision! Apparently like our decisions, it supposedly came “out of the blue.” Hey, who can question ‘the will of GOD”? But even if god need not explain himself, we need to explain ourselves; not to god but to other humans and to ourselves! “The Creation of Adam” from the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, by Michelangelo.)

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!

PARTICIPATING IN LARGER THINGS; we must do the best we can from the perspectives we have! Here at The Nature Religion Connection, “Electric Prisms” by Sonia Delaunay, 1914,
Like The Stooges, The Nature Religion Connection continues the quest of Discovery!

Stuck in The Middle, Resolution: We Generally Do What We are Supposed To Do!

(A Dog “can” bark and a Coin Toss “can” come up heads. That’s the kind of “looseness” we need to seem to be FREEEE! But unlike dogs, the coin toss never barks and “can” have a head and a tail—at best— consecutively. For more profound insights please continue reading!)

(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.

(The famous Willie Mosconi as a young man. In 1954, Mosconi “ran” 526 balls—over 35 racks!—at an exhibition match; still considered the record. Photo from the NYTimes.)

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.

(The Harmony of The Spheres: Value and Purpose enter The Universe with the idea of Design. Image from Jerry Brotton.)

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.

(Alfred North Whitehead, the old Oxford philosopher. One of my initial favorites, he argued that for any significant event, all the world was a coming together in that thing’s design: It was “a concrescence.”)

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 objects and 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 Causes that 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 purpose embedded 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

(The organism “mirrors” the environment, and the environment “mirrors” the organism. It’s a reflective relationship. “Day and Night” by MC Escher, used without permission because it is not old enough.)

One of Dennett’s main objectives is to understand how many 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.”

Logo by Marty

Stuck on this song!

STUCK BETWEEN SUFFICIENT CAUSES AND NECESSARY CAUSES—Stuck In The Middle with some kind of PURPOSE!

All the World in the Flip of A Coin

(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.

(Two Old Dogs)

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…

(A Fair Human Coin Toss)

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.

(The accurate Coin Flipper. The spring must be finely adjusted for each location and time. Heads-up will bring you a Heads-outcome at a very high rate for some appreciable time thereafter.. The coin flips from pictured red cup, and then lands there.)

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.

(In Roman times it was called navia aut caput, “ship or head.” The head is that of Emperor Pompey the Great.)

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.     

(Called by some philosophers, “The God’s Eye Point of View”: From above it all, God seeing All the Universe At Once and in a Single Instant. Tapestry by Cima de Conegliaro, 1504. )

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 do un-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 situation at 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 wayIt 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 not a 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.

(“All is One” : Ouroborus, the Egyptian and Greek symbol of a snake eating its own tail in an eternal act of self-destruction and recreation. Pronounced various ways including: ‘Ore-o-bore-us, all o’s are long.)

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.

(‘Get it together, for God’s sake!’ What if all the interacting forces and particle in this part of the universe almost totally cancelled each other out?  It would be like a galactic Sargasso Sea, a lot stuff but just not doing much of anything more.) 
(A diver swims below the debris of the Sargasso Sea.
But most of our world seems to be highly diverse, interactive and consequential: Simpler things accumulate, bond, congeal, constitute, formulate more complicated “things.” What then is ‘more real,’ the little pieces or the big thing they compose?  Are there any limits to how big this process of accumulation can grow, and on what terms do these processes of congregation occur?)

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 Demon is 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 are ideas 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!

(In a universe of interconnected causes, Subjectively we seem to jump in, jump into the middle. This mediate perspective is crucial to our situation, argues Dennett.)

We are free because 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 recognize a 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.

(My friends and I are Not too concerned about fashion!)

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!

STUCK IN THE MIDDLE WITH YOU.” —–“Stealer’s Wheel” one and only hit, but a good one!

The Feeling of Connectedness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 as an established part of American’s sense of liberty. “An entire generation has come of age free to assume Roe’s concept of liberty in defining the capacity of women to act in society,” they wrote in their decision.

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

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

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

And thus the ruling was decided.

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

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

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

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

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

John Dewey

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

The New Robber Barons and Their Control of Our Future.

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

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

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

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

The History

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

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

 

The Progressive Era

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

 

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

The 1950s

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

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

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

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

The Corporate Raiders: Accord Among the Stakeholders Ends

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Transfer of Wealth

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

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

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

“Efficiency” Attained

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Post Script

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

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

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

Too Much in Too Few Hands: Economic Value

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Interesting Perspective on the Accumulation of Economic Value

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

The “Secretly Profound” Idea of Emergence

cropped-img_34702-e1565808476815-2
(Complex Forms with Numerous Qualities Have Emerged From Microscopic Structures with Limited Qualities.    Drawing by Marty)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Puzzle To Be Solved?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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naturereligionconnection.org

Emergence and a Strange Thing called Human Choice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Humans Do Choose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Conclusive Point

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

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

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

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