Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

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Monday, July 28, 2008

How the Universe Works:

A Guide to Planetary Behavior from an Aureliun Perspective

The Greek philosopher, Empedocles (490 B.C.), believed that the world could be explained by the presence of two forces, love and strife, acting upon four basic elements: fire, air, water, and earth. Since, logically, something cannot come out of nothing, he thought that nature must be composed of a mixture of these elements, and that the death or destruction of its individual parts is simply a rearrangement of their basic configuration. Love and strife being the forces which act upon and cause the changes we perceive all around us.

Certainly, our understanding of nature in the last 2,500 years has come a long way since Empedocles. But his basic theory was pretty good. If instead of "love" you substitute the word "attraction," and replace the word "strife" with "repulsion" you have the essential concepts for two of the fundamental laws governing the universe as we know it: the electromagnetic force and gravity. The reality is that every physical change in nature can be explained as the influence of gravity upon matter or the effect of electromagnetism on elementary particles such as protons and electrons. Whether or not this is simply a case of Empedocles making a fortuitous guess, nevertheless, his belief that all motion or change can be understood as the result of attraction or separation is inspired. It gives us a useful metaphor for understanding why change occurs, both in the physical world and in the arena of human behavior.

A. Politics

In a democratic society, the activity which most concerns its people, aside from the essential laboring required to keep one's self alive, is politics. The fact that many people do not vote or listen to political debates is beside the point. Everybody has an opinion about how things should be and is free and even anxious to express it. Today, you often hear the claim that our government is polarized with politicians from both parties entrenched in their respective views. At times, our two party system seems almost designed to promote disharmony and conflict. Democrats and Republicans act as though they represent two entirely different species, each with its own agenda, incapable of any useful communication with the opposing side. Why is this? What is it about the two parties that makes governing so contentious? Is this simply the natural order of things, such as the so-called war between the sexes? Or is there some other explanation for social disharmony? Let us consider the nature of the contending parties. What is it about democrats and republicans that makes cooperation so difficult?

1. The Conservatives

If we employ Empedocles model of two basic forces, love and strife, we readily see that the conservatives belong to the former category. Love stands for attraction (i.e., contraction), or as Empedocles might say, when two bodies move toward one another they are "attracted" to one another. Conservatives band together because they have shared values or beliefs. For example, they prefer the status quo or the way things are now, over some hypothetical future. Thus, they are inclined to preserve what they already have (tradition) rather than exchange it for something newer or different. This resistance to change is conservative in its orientation to the world. In philosophical terms, it represents the idea of "being" over the idea of "becoming." In public policy terms it translates into a preference for less government, less taxation, and less interference in private lives. This predilection for less is not universal, however. Conservatives approve of wealth without restriction. Thus, their belief in unrestricted markets, free from the taint of government interference. A conservative's view of the world starts with the idea that conflict or war is the normal state of nature, as propounded by Thomas Hobbes. And though civil society is an improvement over nature, it too is marked by conflict over scare resources in a never ending competition for survival. Thus, in capitalism the free market exhibits the same aggressive behavior as is found in nature, except that in civil society violence is eschewed for the endless pursuit of wealth. But as in nature, so in the marketplace there are winners and losers, booms and busts, fortunes alongside poverty. The conservative view is to accept this natural cycle of financial success and failure as being preferable to any artificial manipulation of the economic pendulum. This economic view, which might be compared with the Darwinian model of nature (i.e., the tendency for some forms of life to become extinct) is offset with a strong religious conviction that God oversees everything, and nothing happens without reason. Thus, if some people die of disease or malnutrition it must be that God's will requires that human sacrifice.

The notion that some people suffer while others prosper is troublesome to conservatives because they believe in the idea of justice. The idea of justice rests on the assumption that God punishes the guilty and watches over the innocent. Yet conservatives are not so naive that they believe the innocent are protected from harm. They see the world as a corrupt and dangerous place to which man has been exiled due to his original sin against God. In other words, the world is a battlefield between good and evil, in which God's faithful will someday be redeemed. But in the meantime, the life of man is, as Hobbes put it, "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short."

2. The Liberals

Going back to Empedocles' two primal forces, we find that liberals are characterized by their affinity for strife (or in electromagnetic terms, expansion, i.e., repulsion). This connection with strife might seem ironic since liberals, by and large, adopt a very benevolent view of humanity. They believe that the entire human race is capable of perfection, or if not perfection, significant moral improvement. Yet, this idea of progress derives from a dynamic model of nature in which everything is continually evolving towards an optimal stage of development. This might take the form of the "good society" or Marx's "withering away of the state." In theological terms, it might be conceived of as the city of God or paradise regained. This utopian view of the world contrasts sharply with Hobbes notion of the eternal "war of all against all." Liberals believe that conflict can be resolved peacefully through negotiation, hence their affection for such institutions as the League of Nations and the UN. Liberals also take seriously such statements as "all men are created equal," and spend a lot of their time worrying about injustice and man's inhumanity to man. Thus, the liberal agenda includes a lot of rhetoric about racial equality, gender equality, economic fairness, cultural sensitivity, inclusive social planning, etc. The favorite social model seems to be "one world," "one people." This global perspective is perceived as being more rational, more civilized than the view that people are intrinsically hostile toward one another. It is as if the liberal God is a kinder, more gentle deity than the Old Testament God of "an eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth."

Liberals are against war unless it is absolutely unavoidable. But sometimes this depends on the war. Most republicans were opposed to our entering World War I or II (until after Pearl Harbor), but most liberals were opposed to Viet Nam and Iraq. In general, if liberals perceive that the strong are persecuting the weak (Somalia, Bosnia), then they endorse the use of American military power. On the other hand, if the dispute involves money, oil or the restoration of colonial rule, they believe we should mind our own business and stay away.

Liberals are also troubled by the manifest presence of inequality in the world. The idea that some people have certain advantages over other people seems unfair and "un-American." It clashes with the original Puritan idea of man's collective guilt and sinful nature. The modern liberal's idea of universal brotherhood derives much of its energy from the historical events of the Enlightenment, a distinctively French philosophical movement which was transplanted to American soil by way of Montesquieu, Rousseau, Diderot, Smith, Locke and others. But universal brotherhood didn't flourish immediately, and it was not until after the Civil War that liberals could nurture the idea of a distinctively American version of happiness. Unfortunately, the pursuit of absolute social equality is still on the distant horizon.

Meanwhile, liberals cherish all movements and beliefs that lead toward their idea of the "new enlightened man." Socialism, trade unionism, Green Peace, Sierra Club and other environmental groups continue to mark the liberal discomfort with Darwinian politics. The liberal view is one that is man-centered, not God centered. They believe the only evil in the world does not come from Satan, but from the ideology of conservatives who oppose human progress (i.e., the universal brotherhood of man). Liberals favor expanding the domain of human rights wherever possible. This includes such developments as gay marriage, drugs, pre-marital (and extra-marital) sex, artistic expression, health care, euthanasia, and abortion. Curiously, liberals, who normally oppose war and capital punishment, favor abortion and euthanasia; whereas conservatives who normally oppose governments intruding on private lives, favor a ban on abortions and euthanasia.

Evidently, life has a sacred value only for certain people at certain times.

B. Physics

The universe that we conservatives and liberals inhabit is governed by four elementary forces: gravity, electromagnetism, the strong nuclear force and the weak nuclear force. We used to believe that Earth was the center of the universe. Now we know better. Earth is not even the center of its own solar system, or the galaxy, much less the center of everything. In fact, we don't even know where the center of the universe is, if it even exists. Since the boundaries of the known universe are believed to be infinite, there is no logical way of defining where the center might be.

At the moment (i.e., given the current theory), we believe the universe is expanding and will continue to do so forever. Just how long is forever? Current predictions give a total life span of (depending upon the theoretical model) from about 50 billion years to 100 trillion years. On the other hand, our sun is using up its nuclear fuel at such a rate that it will burn out in 5 - 6 billion years. That pretty much limits the time allowed for any Earth-bound civilization. Unless we migrate to other planets, we are down to our last 5 billion years. Of course, humans have only been around for about 400,000 years, so we still have a ways to go. Biologically, unless we succeed in increasing our life span, we have only about 250,000,000 generations to evolve before we become literally homeless. That's assuming that global warming is, as the conservatives say, only a scam. If it isn't a scam, then we might have to adjust our estimates downward.

But surviving until the sun runs out of hydrogen is not our biggest concern. It is just conceivable that we might self-destruct long before nature finishes us off. A lot depends on how our long standing feud between liberals and conservatives plays out. The conservatives are banking on the Second Coming of Christ to redeem mankind from its evil ways. However, there is no way to know for sure when or even if that is going to occur. It is unquantifiable, as the bean counters say.

That leaves the liberals faith in man's evolving into a superior being, whose intelligence will enable him to prolong his lifespan through genetic re-engineering. This too, is unquantifiable. If you constructed a probability table using historical data from the last 2,000 years, you would not get a very optimistic result. It seems much more likely that cockroaches will be here in 50,000 years, but not mankind.

One thing we know for certain. Change (attraction & contraction) is all around us and by the time the universe runs out of gas, we'll be long gone. Which brings me to Marcus Aurelius.

C. Metaphysics

What do we do in the meantime? How do we conduct our business, that is to say, the business of living out our human lives?

The first thing we should do, says Marcus Aurelius, is learn to distinguish between the things we control and the things we cannot control. Of the things we cannot control, there are many: where you were born, the mother who gave birth to you, whether the wind blows or not, the movement of the stars in the sky, how long we will live, what people will say of us when we are gone. Of these things, we have no power to choose. And if we cannot affect them, then why spend any time in thinking about them? Let those concerns fall away.

What things should you be concerned with? Your duty. Your work. Whether you are using your abilities and your intelligence in the best manner possible. Avoiding waste and lethargy.

The next principle to keep in mind is the clear understanding that everything we see is temporary. Our own life is but a brief interval between two eternities of darkness. Since mortal time is short, do not waste it. Apply yourself to the task at hand. Don't equivocate.

Another idea to keep in mind is the duty you owe to others. Aurelius believes in the responsibility of individuals to their family, to their country, and to all mankind. Personal happiness or pleasure counts for nothing. Only what serves the good of all. This is an idea which falls heavy upon modern ears. We have enshrined as one of our core beliefs the right to pursue our own happiness. This idea is born of the Enlightenment reverence for freedom and personal achievement, however it is conceived. It derives from the belief that individuals have rights and that these rights are bestowed by our divine Creator. Yet Aurelius, though allowing for the existence of God, does not put man, as an individual, at the center of creation. Rather, it is the institutions that man has created, government, law, the culture that benefits everyone, and the structures that make civilized life possible, that require our loyalty and protection. For without them, we descend back into that primeval world of nature, mere beasts in the jungle, " in tooth and claw." Our own lives are as nothing compared to the larger ordeal of mankind striving to rise above its human limits. Toward that higher end, all men must yield.

Although these Stoic principles might sound foreign to our ears, accustomed as we are today at hearing proclaimed the virtues of individualism, yet the need for people to cooperate in the interest of society cannot be denied. Hobbes believed that we join together out of fear, not friendship. And so the social contract endures only as long as people believe that it serves their interest. Once that belief weakens, the bonds of civil society dissolve, and we return to that primordial condition of nature. In other words, we become as strangers again one to one another.

To avoid that fate, St. Paul calls us to acknowledge a higher calling than our own self-interest. To serve God in all things is the first principle of a Christian society. This duty comes before our own needs or pleasures. Inherent in this duty must be the practice of Christian humility and tolerance for our neighbors, since our own failures and sins are ever known to our Creator.

From a different perspective, the existential creed declares that we ourselves are responsible for our fate, yet such a view is not contrary to the needs of society, as long as it is remembered that our fate is bound up with that of our fellow men. Religion and philosophy are but two ways of reconciling our minds to the world around us. When our will and our virtue are in harmony, then we may advance the cause of mankind. Otherwise, we will fade from the canvas of creation leaving no sign of our presence, no memory of our demise.


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