This post is not part of the philosophical theme that I have been posting. It is a letter to the editor of the Wheeling News-Register on the national deficit.
Many pundits and politicians extol the current growth of the American economy and ask, “What’s wrong with that? ”I want to point out one of the things that is wrong. The recent increase in the growth rate of our economy, which has been growing steadily over more than eight years, was due in large part to the tax cut. The problem, which supporters of President Trump’s policies seldom mention, is the spike in the deficit caused by the decrease in revenues.
Government debt is not necessarily bad, but if the debt becomes too large, the payments on the debt could make it impossible to meet other public needs. Timing is also important. In time of recession, pumping more money into the economy by borrowing becomes necessary to get the economy growing again. George W. Bush and Barack Obama took such measures to reverse the recession in 2008 and 2009. It worked. The economy has been growing ever since. A time of growth is a time to reduce the deficit, as Obama did steadily for eight years.
Trump inherited an economy that was moving in the right direction in wealth and job growth as well as in deficit reduction. Instead of continuing, he cut taxes, and now we face what might become an unsupportable burden on our children and grandchildren.
If the supporters of Trump can explain either why there will not be a great increase in the debt, or why it doesn’t matter, I would like to hear their reasoning. This is the conversation that we need to have, and is more important than the foibles of any politician.
Richard P. Mullin
A Contemporary Defense of the Good
In spite of the modern rejection of a natural ethics as presented in the previous post, theologian John Haught argues for a morality rooted in nature. Haught argues that for us to connect our moral life to the natural world, we would have to “…discern in the cosmic process some general aim or purposiveness with which our own life might be morally aligned” (God After Darwin, 126). In the ancient and medieval worldviews of Aristotle and St Thomas, the connection between nature and ethics appeared to be obvious. Every natural creature as well as every human ethical act could be understood in terms of seeking an end or fulfillment.
But Haught contends that in spite of the apparent chasm between nature and human ethical striving, we can develop a metaphysics, compatible with science, that presents the cosmos with meaningfulness coinciding with human striving. For this purpose he draws on the “process theology” that stems from the metaphysics of Alfred North Whitehead.
Haught acknowledge that the ruthlessness in nature seems to exclude the possibility of some overarching purpose in the universe. He mentions that most theologians attempted to find meaning in human experience in spite of the meaninglessness of the non-human natural world. But Haught credits Whitehead for developing a cosmology that unites our human striving with the whole history of the universe. Haught contends that Whitehead’s philosophy and the process theology that flowed from it perceives the universe as a process in which all the contrasting and conflicting occasions merge into harmony of contrasts that expresses an intense cosmic beauty.
The shaping of the universe expresses an “aesthetic cosmological principle” by which the elements are being brought into harmony. This idea is different from what some have called the “anthropic cosmological principle,” which sees the whole universe as leading toward the emergence of the human race. The aesthetic principle sees the whole process as leading to the production of beauty of which the emergence of humanity constitutes an aspect. As Haught phrases it, the emergent beauty that stands out in our terrestrial experience is “…the emergence of life, subjectivity, freedom, consciousness, and community” (128). As the universe grows in complexity, it most probably grows in consciousness, not only on earth, but throughout the universe.
The correspondence of complexity and consciousness was be taken up in earlier posts on consciousness (July 7- September 6, 2018.) In this current post I am contending that good can be seen beneath what appears as an overwhelming evil in the physical world.
The point that I tried to make earlier, is that good consists in the fulfillment of the aesthetic principle. Consciousness slowly becomes embodied in nature. The process happens all too slowly in terms of a human life span, but it is happening. This embodiment of consciousness presents itself to us most obviously in the physical and cultural evolution of the human species.
As stated in the earlier posts, consciousness while the most universal and familiar of topic, eludes attempts to provide analytical understanding. Yet, consciousness stands out as the most essential condition for anything that we might call good. Materialism reduces consciousness and therefore all good, to an accidental product of blind, indifferent, unconsciousness physical events. But my thesis affirms the reasonableness of holding that consciousness precedes the evolution of the human brain, which becomes a channel of consciousness. If this view, as opposed to the materialist view is correct, then goodness is real and the meaning of our life consists of promoting that which is good aesthetically and ethically
In the following posts I will strive to show what the priority of consciousness has to do with Biblical religion, how it can also provide meaning for those without religion, and how it enhances our understanding of environmental ethics, economic, and social ethics.
The undermining of a providentially ordered universe and where we stand today.
In the nineteenth century, many social economic and cultural events undermined the
notion of a world that is providentially ordered. The most important event philosophically was probably the publication of Darwin’s Origen of Species (1859), which not only led many thinkers to the notion that there was no need to posit a God-Creator, but that the brutality of the process is incompatible with such a God.
A post-Darwin natural morality emerged with a theme of “survival of the fittest.” Herbert Spencer, who coined the term, applied it not only to Darwin’s biological natural selection, but also to economic and social policy, an idea that came to be known as “Social Darwinism.” Industrialist, Andrew Carnegie, expressed his debt to Darwin and Spencer for providing an ethical and philosophical background for his industrialization and the harsh living conditions that accompanied it. Carnegie justified any harm done to people and to the environment by trusting that “All is well since all gets better.” The optimistic thinking of the Enlightenment was not abandoned, it was just projected into the future.
The social reformers who saw the need to reverse the fortunes of the working class believed that they had to act contrary to the principle of natural selection. They believed that rather than live by the “law of the jungle,” our humanity required us to take care of the weak and the poor. Rather than follow a “natural law,” morality involves acting in spite of nature, or even against nature.
Two examples, one from the late 19th century and the other from the late 20th century illustrate the divorce of morality from nature in the wake of Darwin. The first is William James, who referring not to a natural morality, but to a natural spirituality, said that such a thing is impossible. The romantic view of nature that flourished in the 18th century is built on an illusion. In his lecture, “Is Life Worth Living,” he emphasized the role of religion in an affirmative answer to the title question. But he agreed with those who held that “the physical order of nature, taken simply as science knows it, cannot be held to reveal any one harmonious spiritual intent. It is mere weather…doing and undoing without end.” James, whose background was scientific biology and psychology, asserted that “Our science is a drop, our ignorance a sea.” As an interesting aside, James loved nature, and hiking and camping were among his favorite activities.
Morality requires some degree of spirituality since free will cannot exist without some independence of the mind from the brain. In James’s one essay on moral theory, “The Moral Philosopher and the Moral Life,” he explicitly rejects the notion that we can find the good in the nature of things. Rather, the good is simply what conscious beings, human or divine, claim to be good. Therefore, the highest good is to create a moral universe, or as he also calls it, a moral republic, in which as many claims as possible can be satisfied. In James’s pluralistic view, we may try to connect as many things as possible, but some things will remain unconnected. When the material world perishes, as it ultimately must, we may hope for salvation in a non-material realm.
The second example of divorcing morality from nature is Richard Dawkins, an uncompromising atheist and materialist, who nevertheless holds that we can create morality by opposing nature. In his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, he argues that all living things are disposed to preserve, not their own individual life, but the genes that they carry. In the process of natural selection, the only genes that survive in the long run are those that direct their hosts to replicate themselves. So if parents, of any species, sacrifice themselves for the sake of their offspring, their genes will survive. The genes of parents, or potential parents, who do not care about their offspring, will die with the individual organisms. So every organism that has survived so far has a strong inclination to pass on its genes. But human beings alone have the ability to act contrary to the “selfish gene.” As was stated in an earlier post, we may act contrary to the natural inclination to preserve our genes out of either individual selfishness, or out of an altruistic care for those who are not in our genetic line. Much moral thinking after Darwin holds that if the good exists at all, we can find it or create it only apart from nature or even contrary to nature.
John Haught, however, argues for a morality rooted in nature. Haught argues that for us to connect our moral life to the natural world, we would have to “…discern in the cosmic process some general aim or purposiveness with which our own life might be morally aligned.” In ancient and medieval worldviews of Aristotle and St Thomas, the connection between nature and ethics appeared to be obvious. Every natural creature as well as every human ethical act could be understood in terms of seeking an end or fulfillment. But Haught contends that in spite of the apparent chasm between nature and human ethical striving, we can develop a metaphysics, compatible with science, and that presents the cosmos with meaningfulness coinciding with human striving.
In my next post I will try to explain Haught’s reconstruction of a natural ethics.
The undermining of a providentially ordered universe and where we stand today. In the nineteenth century, many social economic and cultural events undermined the notion of a world that is providentially ordered. The most important e
Chaos as the Default Mode
Building on John Haught’s insights, as presented in the previous post, I offer a variation on the theme of creation and chaos by affirming that if there is a God-Creator, He does not need to create chaos; chaos is the default mode that exhibits lack of creation. If God is a perfect being, all-in-harmony, then nothingness is all-in-division, complete chaos and disorder.
My description rests on the assumption that “nothingness” remains unthinkable. But if we can imagine nothingness and creation ex nihilo, the first stage of creation would be all-in-division. The process of world-formation would consist first of drawing the most elemental particles into more harmonious configurations such as atoms, then molecules. Once life begins, the story becomes much more interesting, at least for us living creatures on earth.
Atheists, as described in an earlier post, see the ten billion years from the big bang to the beginning of life on earth, and the 3.5 billion years from the beginning of life to emergence of human scientists, as a prodigal waste of time, and evidence that there is no creative intelligence at work. But during this time the heavy elements such as carbon formed in stars and exploded and scattered throughout the universe. These explosions produced the earth with all of the right stuff to allow life to begin.
In both physical and biological evolution two factors oppose each other. The opposing forces include the tendency toward cooperation that accounts for molecules, then cells, ultimately organisms working together to sustain life. But countering the move toward cooperation we find the competitive tendency to see the other as an enemy to be avoided or destroyed.
On the level of inert matter, the elements appear to be impenetrable and repel each other. But they also form bonds and become parts of more complex atoms and molecules. At the level of life on earth, organisms fight to the death for survival, but also form symbiotic communities and develop in complexity. In biological evolution two factors oppose each other. We can see this dual tendency from the most fundamental particles up to and including human society.
Inert matter is impenetrable; organisms fight to the death for survival. The conflict takes place between the original nothingness, the all-in-division, from which beings are called and the harmony to which they are called. The tragic irony consist in the fact that the more reality and integration that an entity has, the more destructive it can be in its pursuit of self-preservation. So the process from non-being to being exhibits the best and the worst.
In the preceding paragraphs I used some problematic phrases such as: “drawing the most elemental particles into more harmonious configurations,” “the harmony to which (beings) are called,” and “pursuit of self-preservation.” These expressions constitute anthropomorphic metaphors, and as I pointed out earlier, materialists also use such metaphors. As Hawking and Mlodinow say of their own work, it makes use of “model-dependent realism.” Whatever view we have of reality, it must be filtered and formulated by human understanding and language. The “inner” working of non-sentient entities remains hidden from us. Even within our conscious life we do not understand the movement of the impulses on which our consciousness depends, for example the impulse that travels from our conscious choice to type a word to the movement of our fingers on the keyboard. Physiologists can explain the movements from the brain to the fingers, but only from the “outside”
Randomness occurs in the firing of neurons in our brain and nervous system but unless we suffer from a debilitating disease, we are able to harness the neuron-firing enough to move meaningfully through life. A materialist might counter that the consciousness is a mere by-product of the neuro-physiological events rather than a power that causes or even directs the impulses. Some refer to consciousness as an “epi-phenomenon” meaning that, in Bertrand Russell’s analogy, consciousness can no more move the nerves than the smoke from the chimney of a locomotive can move the train. The only advantage that this theory has going for it is its ability to maintain the materialist world-view. But even Leonard Mlodinow, in a book emphasizing the predominance of randomness in determining the outcome of whatever happens in life, affirms the ability to put forth effort.
When scientists look at elements from the outside, they can discern both randomness and law. Without randomness there would be no change and therefore no evolution. Without lawfulness, there would be no preservation of change and therefore no science, and no scientists or other living things. The contrast and sometimes conflict between randomness and lawfulness does not constitute a dualism between nature and spirit. A very brief historical synopsis of dualism can help situate the contrast that I am presenting. A dualism between matter and spirit pervaded much, but not all, of ancient and medieval thought. For example, Plato compared the study of philosophy to dying because its purpose was to free the soul from the distractions and limitations of the body. Although official Christianity rejected the view that matter and spirit were in radical opposition to each other, some forms of Christian asceticism saw the need to subdue the body through fasting, suffering, and deprivation, so that the soul could be free.
By contrast, The Enlightenment provided a view of nature as divinely ordered so that Newtonian physics and Jeffersonian democracy were possible.
In my next post I will deal with the nineteenth century undermining of a providentially ordered universe and where we stand today.