For Every Theist there are One Hundred Materialists

selfie

As concerns philosophy of mind, for every theist, there are one hundred materialists in the present-day philosophical community. Theism, purportedly has many problems, but it does do a nice job explaining the seemingly qualitative difference between subjective experience (that is, mind) and the perceived (and purportedly) mind-independent world. I will return to theism at the end.

Among materialists, for every eliminative materialist (as concerns mind) there are five pure property dualists. For every property dualist, there are ten Russellian monists of one stripe or another and a like number of panpsychists. These last two categories often overlap with some versions of Russellian monism (sometimes called dual-aspect monism) becoming panpsychism at larger scales. There are also monisms that do not become panpsychism, and panpsychisms that do not rest on monisms. While materialist philosophers of these various philosophies of mind talk to one another about the differences in their theories (each intended to overcome specific problems seen in their competitors), none of them ever mention the elephants in the room, that is problems that all of these various theories have in common. This essay is the result of my attempts to discuss these common problems with several of these philosophers all of which have been met with stony silence.

Each of these materialist approaches to mind is supposed to solve the “problem of mind” without reference to a Deity who would, should he exist, obviously have the power to create both the physical universe and mind within it. The starting point for all materialist solutions is the physical universe (that’s why they are materialisms), in particular “causal closure”. This fundamental principle comes down to the idea there is only physics in the universe and all the physics that now exists came from physics and nothing else. There is another axiom and a few corollaries to the causal closure principle. The other axiom is that only physics (besides being produced by only physics) itself produces only [more] physics. The corollaries are (1) nothing of physical mechanism is purposeful, or “there is no teleology in physics”, and (2) there is reciprocity in physical mechanism. A cause is always in someway changed by its effect. Physics recognizes two sorts of causes in the universe: macro-physical determinism, and micro-physical indeterminism. Both types of cause fully comply with causal closure, axioms and corollaries.

The central problem addressed in all of these theories (except eliminative materialism) is that consciousness, in particular human mind (though applies also to the higher animals), does not appear on its surface to be material at all. Yet mind does very much appear to be a cause productive of physical effects; the manipulation of some associated individual body. If mind emerges purely from physics, is nonmaterial in some sense, and a cause in the physical, then the causal closure principle as it stands is false.

ELIMINATIVE MATERIALISM

Eliminative materialism is the only PoM that does not entail some change to causal closure. Indeed, it does not suffer from any particular metaphysical issue (there being nothing needing any metaphysical ground), nor any problem with property specification or “interaction”, one or more of which, as we will see, plague every other theory including theism. The problem with eliminative materialism is that it achieves all of this by denying consciousness exists. It saves all of causal closure by claiming that consciousness does not belong in the list of real phenomena (ontology) filling our universe, making itself prima facia absurd! It is to overcome this absurdity (and at the same time avoid supposing an existential intentional source of mind) that all the other PoMs were invented!

PROPERTY DUALISM and EPIPHENOMENALISM

Property Dualism is almost always a basis of the other theories except for theism and even here there are sensible interpretations that are largely property-dualistic and not Cartesian substance or Thomistic hylomorphic dualism. Both monisms and panpsychism, at least in many of their interpretations, come out to mind of our sort being a property that emerges from brains. In pure property dualism, there is nothing other than the physics and biology of brains involved, that is causally closed physics as understood by most physicists. Yet in this view, the second axiom of physics, that physics produces only physics is seemingly violated. In one special case, the case of brains, physics produces something that while yet supervening on physical properties displays novel properties, a seemingly nonmaterial subjectivity, and with this the power to cause physics, to cause a physical change in the brain that results in the uncontroversially physical control of a body. This breaks the first causal closure axiom, and amounts to proposing a third kind of cause in the universe, mental-cause.

As with all of these theories there are variations. Some property dualists avoid proposing a third cause with a variation called epiphenomenalism. Here the idea is that consciousness, our subjective, seems real enough from within it, but as concerns the external world, its powers are purely illusory. Brains do produce consciousness, but consciousness does not “cause physics” (Sean Carroll “The Big Picture” 2016). Epiphenomenalism, however, while preserving the first causal closure axiom doesn’t save the second.

Pure property dualism doesn’t suffer from any particular metaphysical or property specification problem. Since mind comes only from brains there is no need for further metaphysical grounding and since only these brain-based minds are at all mental there is nothing to discriminate or specify as concerns the mental properties of anything other than brain-minds. Property dualism does have an “interaction problem”. As noted above causal closure is violated in at least one (epiphenomenalism), and often two directions.

How exactly does the new dualistic entity emerge from pure physics (we have found no other example of such an emergence), and how, by what means exactly, in its bi-directional variation, does it “cause physics” in turn? No one can say. Henry Stapp’s Quantum Zeno Effect is an interesting speculation (mind can partly-constrain wave function collapse in special micro-structures of the brain). QZE only pushes the problem up one level. It is a suggestion regarding what mind does to brains, not how it accomplishes this feat.

RUSSELLIAN MONISM and PANPSYCHISM

Both Russellian monisms (of various sorts) and panpsychism (also of various sorts) are, conceptually, advanced to suggest solutions to this mystery in pure property dualism. How does ordinary physics under causal closure come to have the extraordinary ability to produce something nonphysical and how does that entity come to have causal effect on the manifestly physical brain? Maybe physics isn’t as purely physical as physicists think. Maybe all they can detect and measure is the physical, but physical law has psychic or proto-psychic (I use these terms interchangeably throughout) qualities built into it? Whenever we measure the physical, we are measuring combined physical and proto-psychic qualities.

When brains come along, they produce mind as we know it because these psychic qualities somehow sum up in brains in a way that expresses them in what we experience as subjective consciousness. Supposedly this avoids violating causal closure because what physics calls causal closure already has the psychic built into it. Brains evoking minds are merely the culminating expression of these qualities.

This is, in essence, the core of both the monisms and panpsychism. One-way or another, either at the micro-level or the universe taken as a totality, psychic-potentials in the form of something positive attached to physics, add up to consciousness as we know it when brains come along. These qualities have to be positive. If they are merely potentials, possibilities, then they are no different from all other phenomena presently in the universe including galaxies, stars, life, and so on. All of them were obviously possible, made that way by the conditions of the Big Bang and the cosmological settings.

Yet while monisms or panpsychisms seem to resolve one issue, and not even that very well as we will see, they raise more than one of their own. Where do they come from? How is it “psychic-properties” pervade physics (or cosmology)? What is their origin? Physics, cosmology, itself has the quantum vacuum. There is all this material stuff and process in the universe because the quantum vacuum is unstable and the macroscopic universe, the Big Bang, is the result. Importantly, the resulting galaxies, stars, planets, and all cosmological evolution at least up to the appearance of life, fall out of our physical equations given the measured cosmological settings. Getting all this requires no extra-influence, no psychic-qualities. Significantly, there are no extra [psychic] terms in the mathematical equations describing any of this.

Monists and panpsychists say the proto-psychic properties are brute, built-in to physics at the micro (monism) or cosmological (panpsychism) scale and what we measure as such in physical measurements already includes the proto-psychic properties. Yet, no psychic-placeholders are needed to represent physical phenomena in our equations. For cosmology, the properties of the big bang, including the values of the cosmological settings, are sufficient to ground (make possible), all of physical reality as we find it, including life. Life’s origin perhaps presents a special problem, but not a topic I will address here (See “Answering Five Questions: The Relation between Science and Religion”). Only mind seems to need something more. Something more that is than the possibilities inherent in pure physics. Other than this, the psychic properties, at any other level, are explanatorily redundant.

Another problem raised by panpsychism and Russellian monism are the properties of the proto-psychic. We can say something about what “psychic qualities” are for our own minds. They are the substance of our experience, our “what is it like to be” and include qualia and intentionality among other properties. Yet except for a negative characterization “it isn’t that”, none can say anything positive about what these micro or cosmological psychic properties actually are. They are not consciousness. So what are they? Nor can anyone answer the related question: what do these psychic qualities do exactly to physics? How would physics be different if they weren’t there?

The retort here is that these qualities are what they are such that when material organization becomes dynamic and complex enough, subjectivity, mind, emerges. This is after all the reason these speculations exist. But if these psychic properties have no effect on physics until complex brains evolve, this solution becomes ad hoc. If brains are utterly contingent (as pure physics has to claim) then they might not have ever evolved. That being the case, psychic properties in the micro physical or cosmological would have had no purpose what-so-ever, more explanatory redundancy.

On the other hand, perhaps the psychic qualities we cannot describe do something long before life and brains come about. What? They would act in such a way as to push physical evolution towards strengthening the likelihood of otherwise contingent evolution to produce life and eventually brains! If this is the case, then to be clear, teleology, purpose, is put back into physics, the purpose, in this case, of evolving minds! Now we are face-to-face with some purposeful mind behind all of this, or we must accept that, purely by accident, there is attached to physics that which cannot be detected, comes from nowhere (the Quantum Vacuum doesn’t help here), and happens by sheer chance to push cosmological and biological evolution towards mind.

All of this though begs again the question of the mechanism of this influence. A self-respecting chemist will scoff at the notion that any process, even one as finely tuned as a living being or a brain does anything, on the purely physical level, but satisfy the physical equations. Any influence the psychic has would have to be invisible to what pure physical theory addresses perfectly well, for example selecting mutation X over the equally likely mutation Y. Since no such influence can be detected, we face again, although the devoted will object, a manifestly nonphysical phenomenon (except by stipulation that it must be physical because there is nothing else) that has some effect in (and on) the physical. We have, in short, an “interaction problem!”

In short, philosophers put up a placeholder that supposedly explains the capacity of the material world (at the micro or cosmological level) to invoke consciousness from brains, but can say nothing positive about this placeholder. They cannot say how it happens to exist or where it comes from. They cannot describe any of its properties, they cannot say how it manages to work, how it interacts with physics. On top of all this the theoretical edifice must either add teleology back into physics and cosmology or it is explanatorily redundant until brains happen, contingently, to arrive on the scene!

THEISM

Theism is the notion that some minded and purposeful entity, God, exists and has the power to spawn the physical universe by some mechanism (perhaps the big bang), and purposefully direct its evolution towards life and mind. Under theism, there must be a purpose to otherwise purposeless physical mechanism. Since God is purportedly infinite (eternal) and uncaused-cause (unique in the universe [of which the physical is but a part] having no prior-cause), postulating him puts a stop to infinite-recursion of causes.

Theism has an inverse counterpart to Eliminative Materialism, Berkeley-ian style “pure idealism”. The idea is that nothing is real except mind, our individual mental arenas. What “appears to mind” as the external world from the inanimate to other persons, even our own bodies, is put into our minds by God. This idea is not as prima facea absurd as eliminative materialism. It accepts mind, at least my own mind (idealism can drift towards the solipsistic), as obvious and since God is infinite he has the capacity to do exactly what idealism claims he does.

Idealism is even less popular than eliminative materialism because God is needed to make it work. But it has other problems. For example, why should this mind of ours find, what amounts to a simulated mind-independent world, so complicated? It is one thing for God to put a virtual tree outside my virtual window, but as I further explore the tree I discover incredible complications. Not only the tree’s cells their macroscopic (deterministic) intricacies, but all the rest down to quarks and the Schrödinger wave equation. Doesn’t all of this amount to God deluding us about what seems to be a reality independent of mind even if recognized only from within it? For these reasons the preponderance of evidence favors a genuine, mind-independent, world whose properties we discover through application of mind.

A good God would not be in the business of deluding us. If there seems to be a mind-independent world, and if, with mind we appear capable of grasping its intricacies, then evidential experience suggests the mind-independent world is real. At least at middle size scales (roughly dust motes to mountains) there is a remarkable correspondence between the world and its representation in mind.

Besides idealism there are two well-known theistic PoMs, Cartesian-style substance dualism and Thomistic (Aquinas) hylomorphism, the first being much better known than the second. I do not believe either is satisfactory. Hylomorphism is vague about what exactly is formed, or what mind is a form of or in. Cartesian substance dualism has never given enough credit to brains. For Descartes, mind, being immaterial, should in theory be able to float free of any particular instantiation. Why is mind associated always and only with brains?

My own view is closely related to materialistic property dualism adding a catalyst that evokes the nonmaterial mind from the activity of brains. The catalyst (Cosmic Mind, perhaps a poor choice of names) is not mind as such and combining the two (brains and catalyst) is required. For more on this and how it differs from Cartesian dualism see “From What Comes Mind”. My interest here is how theism in general compares with the materialistic theories as concerns their metaphysical issues: origins, teleology, psychic qualities, and the interaction problem.

Regarding origins, brains are physical and come up an evolutionary chain. The catalyst comes, in one-way or another by some direct of indirect route, from God as does the physical universe within which evolution occurs. God, being eternal-uncaused-omnipotent, has no particular metaphysical problems of his own granting his existence for the sake of argument. The question “from whence comes God?” is answered. God comes from God.

The relation between the teleological and causal closure, a problem for panpsychism and Russellian monisms is also solved. Causal closure in physics is true. Mechanisms in the physical are well and truly purposeless. At the same time God has, seemingly, a purpose for purposeless physical mechanism. Universe physical outcomes, governed by the conditions of the big bang and the cosmological settings, do not merely allow for life and later mind, but were intended, deliberately, to deliver them over time. Even if Cosmic Mind has no teleological role before the appearance of brains (I do not assert this to be true, but my argument does not hang on its truth) it is not redundant (as are proto-psychic properties with no teleological impact) because the eventual appearance of brains is not, under a theistic view, contingent.

The description or properties problem, acute for panpsychism and the various monisms, is not an issue for theism because there are no proto-psychic qualities to describe! Stars, rocks, and thermostats have no proto-psychic qualities, nor does the physical universe as a [physical] totality. The equations of physics need no proto-psychic term because there are none to apply. Nothing is psychic until brains evolve and then the interaction between Cosmic Mind and brains evokes subjective consciousness. Notice that this not only includes animal brains, but supports exactly the hierarchy of consciousness that we find on Earth. Lower-order brains have lower-order consciousness. There is something it is like to be a bat, and something less to be a lizard, and less still a fish, and so on. Cosmic mind, uniform throughout the universe, invokes mind only to that level the underlying brain makes possible.

This then brings us to the interaction problem. Theism does little better here than panpsychism, Russellian monism, or for that matter both two-way property dualism and one-way epiphenomenalism. Every PoM apart from eliminative materialism suffers from the same interaction problem! Even so, theism does a little better than the others. Nobody can say how any of these theories (their implied ontologies) work to evoke mind from brains, but theists can say, at least, there is someone who knows the trick. Further we have no reason to suppose that this trick of God’s is comprehensible to the minds invoked by it.

It does no-good for the Russellian monists or panpsychists to argue that they have no interaction problem because the claimed “proto-psychic” properties are built-in to physics and so physical by stipulation. This move is part of the whole point of these theories but it is disingenuous, merely pushing the lump to another part of the rug. The proto-psychic presumably has some impact on what would happen in the physical. Physics would presumably come out differently in its absence. Without being able to say what this impact is, how physics differs thanks to these properties, and merely stipulating that they are physical without distinguishing them from a physics without them, makes them explanatorily redundant.

Of the three problems, metaphysical ground, property specification, and interaction, theism resolves two and makes sense of our epistemic incapacity to resolve the third — God’s powers are beyond our ken. The gap between mind and the doings of the physical brain is intrinsic to the nonmaterial character of mind and the causally closed qualities of physics. Mind cannot be directly probed from the third person perspective, and from the first person, its own origin is phenomenally transparent.

Meanwhile, the PoM consequences of theism suit experience. Why does the evolution of mind in the universe seem to be something more than purely contingent? The intuition is true, mind was intended. Why is mind alone, within a teleology-free physical mechanism, purposeful (intentional)? Because the source of both mind and physics is intentional, minded. Why does consciousness appear nonmaterial from its own viewpoint and invisible from the viewpoint third parties? Because the catalyst (Cosmic Mind) is not material. The nonmaterial is grounded in all three of the “fundamental joints” in reality (see “Prolegomena to a Future Theology” and “Why ‘One Size Fits All’ Ontologies Never Work”).

I could go on and others of my papers explore some of this from different perspectives. The point here is that Theism answers questions and resolves ontological and epistemic mysteries much better than do any of the non-theistic PoMs. In fact, these theories leave everything out! Their only reason for existence is to reject theistic explanations. There cannot be a God, so what then supports mind? Is it mysterious proto-psychic properties that have no discernible origin or metaphysical ground that we can find or even speculate about, no properties we can say anything about, and suffer from the interaction problem they were stipulated to avoid?

Of course philosophy must be free to speculate about experiential phenomena from any perspective whether theistic or atheistic. My problem with the atheists in PoM is not that they advocate for their ideas, but in my extensive reading not a single one acknowledges any of the fundamental problems I have here raised. What happens if the proto-psychic is subtracted from physics? Materialists can say only that, while the cosmos would look much the same, mind would never appear. Even if brains evolved, the creatures animated by them would be David Chalmers’ P-Zombies! By contrast, if God were subtracted from the universe, there wouldn’t be any universe at all, but rather nothing. This outcome is philosophically advantageous. It is this common origin of both mind and physics that grounds the metaphysical possibility of their interaction. No, we cannot fathom the interaction mechanism, but under materialist PoMs even the possibility of the proto-psychic is left unexplained.

Review: A Very Stable Genius by Leonnig and Rucker

selfie

The idea behind these commentaries and book reviews here is that in many cases (whether politics, science, or philosophy), the books themselves leave dangling and potentially interesting philosophical issues un-addressed. Exploration of such issues is not usually appropriate (in my opinion) in a book review, so I bring the reviews over here always attached at the end of these little (and sometimes not so little) commentary essays, along with a link to the book itself on Amazon.

In this particular case there were no dangling philosophical issues that struck me as worthy of an essay. But because this collection of my reviews of books about the Trump administration is growing (“Fire and Fury”, “Fear”, “A Warning”), I’m including this review for the sake of completeness.

A Very Stable Genius (2019) by Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig

Here we have yet another very carefully and competently written book illuminating the dysfunction in the American Presidency of Donald Trump, addressing both the man and the administration. Journalists Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig have done both the Washington Post and history proud with this tale of malfeasance and character disorder in the man himself and the chaos among those who surround him, some trying to moderate Trump’s worst impulses while others encourage them.

This is the fourth book on this subject that I’ve read and reviewed. As each one, all excellent histories, slides into the ocean of non-fiction literature, they seem to have less and less impact on the world, though perhaps that is only my jaded perception. This one is superbly written, told broadly in temporal sequence from the 2016 election up to September 2019 when Trump asked “a favor” on a call with Ukrainian President Zelinsky, witnessed (listening in) by several military and foreign policy personnel. This particular call follows by a few weeks Trump’s “exoneration” by Mueller.

Although it moves along generally from the past towards the present, it preferentially follows subject threads to their conclusion rather than try and document everything that happened on a particular day or week. Sliding as necessary between domestic and foreign policy matters, eventually all the days and weeks are covered somewhere. I can’t remember any of the salient matters reported in the news (not to mention Trump’s tweets) that aren’t in the story. Following the text, there are copious notes and documents listed. Historians will appreciate this.

In the opinion of the authors, Mueller made a big mistake. He treated his mission (the Russia probe and accusations of obstruction on Trump’s part) perhaps appropriately for a normal administration in which the Justice Department and Congress were not prior-determined to “protect the boss at all costs”. Mueller did not feel it was his job to say, explicitly, that Trump should be impeached or indited on the obstruction charge at least, obstruction being more clear cut than any personal collusion with the Russians. Instead, he phrased his report in such a way as to leave it to Congress to decide. Yet even a democratic congress did not begin the impeachment process until the content of the Ukraine call emerged.

The book ends with that call. The book’s authors are at that point sure not only that Trump committed a clear-cut crime, but intimate at least that Congress and the Senate would at last do their job and get rid of this embarrassment to the American presidency. History has shown otherwise, and we are now faced with a president, surrounded by sycophants (most significantly a throughly corrupted Justice department), who thinks (apparently correctly), that he can get away with anything.

Like the other books written on this subject, this one is very scary.

Review: Surrender is not an Option by John Bolton

John Bolton raises no philosophical issues in this book, in fact he elides them where they would naturally emerge. This is a book about events, what happened, what was going on in the U.S. State Department and around the world, and what John Bolton did about it given the role he played at any given time. The philosophical issues arise from the tension between nationalist-oriented “American interests” versus “global interests”, and also between the need for foreign-policy continuity over decades versus the task of executing the policies of the “administration du jour”.

On the first issue Bolton is clearly a nationalist. He is not opposed to working with the international community, even furthering the interests of other nations (usually our allies) provided doing so also furthers American interests. This nationalistic bent reveals itself most starkly in the U.S. (and so Bolton’s) opposition to the ICC (International Criminal Court). The great moral light of the national community, a nation that was front and center in the prosecution of Nazi war crimes, opposed (and still refuses to recognize) an international body charged with prosecuting war crimes and other “crimes against humanity”. One has to ask why? The answer is two fold. First, being the elephant in the room of nations, enemies of the U.S. would be (and are) constantly charging the U.S. with crimes to distract the world’s nations from their own bad behavior. Second, however, the U.S. has in the past, and continues to be at times, guilty of crimes!

Vietnam comes to mind, the Eisenhower administration’s blocking of the 1954 unification vote precipitated 20 years of civil war in which millions died. Today, despite its communist government, Vietnam is an ally and important trading partner. A year earlier (1953) the CIA over-threw the elected government of Iran solidifying the monarchy of Shah M. R. Pahlavi. Then there was, and still is, Cuba. What the Kennedy administration did (or tried to do) to the Castro government (not to mention Castro himself) surely comes under the heading of “crimes against humanity” and if not “war crimes” then at least “acts of war”. A little later (1973) came the CIA sponsored coup in Chile and the murder of its legitimately elected president. All of these crimes reflect irrational American anti-communist panic. The U.S. has never (to this day) been able to distinguish between communism and socialism. Castro was a socialist but not a communist until the U.S. embargo literally drove him into the arms of the Soviet Union!

Such shenanigans go on to the present day as we look aside while right-wing autocratic regimes murder journalists and opposition figures. In Israel today, though its slide to the political right was well along in Bolton’s time at the UN, the farthest right, who also happen to be the settlers in the formerly Palestinian (Jordanian) West Bank are now such a huge voting block, having out-reproduced other Israeli Jews for 3 generations, they either control or have veto power over the national government! Treatment of West Bank Palestinians by the far-right settlers is sometimes akin to the treatment of American blacks in the South during the first half of the 20th century! While perhaps not an Israeli policy, the government’s turning a blind eye to it surely is some part of a “crime against humanity”.

These just a few examples of America or its allies behaving badly. There are others, but the broader problem is how to live in an anarchic world community being the biggest kid on the block and having to fight (often diplomatically at least) to maintain the product and resource flows (both in and out) that maintain your biggest kid status. Bolton repeats several times the mantra that “the [UN] diplomats work for their respective governments, not the other way around”. If one accepts that for a given delegation only the national interest is at stake, then it will be surely guaranteed that nothing will get done. Short of military intervention or economic destruction so thorough it precipitates a period of anarchy, no nation will agree to act against its interests. Bolton is right to complain that far too much of what the UN throws up in the way of opprobrium is so watered down that even to agree to the terms does not much slow the offender down. Even many of the potential “sticks” (and the carrots too) are both ineffective and expensive in global economic or military terms, while accomplishing little but steeling the bad player’s resolve or triggering a hot war.

I agree with Bolton that empty agreements are no agreements, but substance is not easy to achieve unless both sides can give up something substantive. Too often the global community has not sufficient motive to surrender or spend what is necessary to make something substantive happen. Surely Bolton is aware of this. He does not seem interested in reflecting on it, though he is, and especially now (in 2020 after his stint as Secretary of State), in a very good position to say something interesting.

Besides the national-international world tension, there is the matter of U.S. State Department thinking. Some of the dynamics that drive global competition never change (geography) while others change every few decades with broad changes in trade flows and military power. Still others change every few years, especially in democracies having typically short election cycles. Bolton says both that the State Department must “think and act long range”, while also telling us that the job of an employee of State is to serve the policies of the “elected person at the top”. It should be obvious that these two mantras can easily come into conflict. Bolton fails to make any attempt to reconcile them. As I said at the end of my formal book review (attached below), I look forward to what he might say in his new book.

Surrender is Not an Option (2008) by John Bolton

Awaiting John Bolton’s new book on his short stint as Secretary of State in the Trump Administration. I thought it would be good to familiarize with his thought about his efforts in more conventional administrations. I have to wonder, given what he says in this book, if he has at all changed his mind about the proper role of career people in the State Department.

Surrender is not an Option begins briefly with Bolton’s introduction to politics as a 16-year-old volunteering for the Goldwater campaign in 1964. He never really says why he was so drawn to the Republicans, but other than alluding to his dislike for Democrats he doesn’t much compare and contrast them. Obviously a smart man, Bolton got the right education (Yale law) and was at the perfect age to mount the first rung of the State Department ladder under Reagan continuing into the elder Bush (Bush 41) administration. Skipping over Clinton (he went back to law practice) and then again jumping into government with the election of Bush Jr (Bush 43) in 2000.

Bolton seems to have earned each new rung on the ladder through good work for his superiors. He also seems drawn naturally to the neo-conservatives whose broad approach with foreign policy was to engage with the world for the purpose of shaping it to American interests. The first half of the book is about what he did at State from Reagan through the first Bush 43 administration. In the second half, he details his work as UN ambassador during Bush 43’s second term, two plus years, from August 2005 (the Senate never would confirm him, his time spent as a Bush “recess appointment”) until the end of the year 2007. These were all years of constant crisis whether the Iran-Contra scandal, disintegration of the Soviet Union, North Korean or Iranian pursuit of nuclear weapons, genocide in Sudan, or the mess in Somalia. He mostly skips past the disastrous (Bush 43) debacle of Iraq saying only (in his concluding chapter) that it was right to depose Saddam notwithstanding we mostly botched the aftermath. He is short here on details.

In the book’s first half, he is little critical of the State Department under Baker (Reagan and Bush 41), and even Powell (Bush 43) in his early days, but as his experience at State grows he finds much to dislike about the later Bush years. As UN ambassador he finds a lot to dislike about the UN, and understandably so having become mostly a debating society now and for many decades, something even the liberal “high minded” as he calls them, recognize. In both parts, he bemoans international diplomacy as too much carrot and concession and not enough stick. He says little in the first half about what the sticks might be though he does address this in his conclusions.

He gets into specific recommendations in the second, UN-years half of the book, but here the tendency of others (including Bolton’s superiors at State) to compromise over-much and give away the store (at least as far as American interests are concerned) before real negotiations begin is front and center. Bolton is ideologically far to my right, but his observations, “process over substance” and numerous problems with UN diplomatic ritual (not to mention outright failure and corruption in places) are accurate portraits of organizational dysfunction.

Bolton does his best to represent U.S. interests as he sees them and at the same time be a loyal soldier of the Bush 43 State department. There certainly was enough nonsense going on in the UN to fill several books, and as the second Bush 43 term winds on he finds much to criticize about the Rice State Department as well. No one gets away unscathed here except Bolton himself. He would come across a statesman except he ruins the effect with incessant (almost every page) derogatory remarks targeting both individuals and various collectives.

Time marches on, and much has happened since the end of 2007. Has Bolton learned anything? The international community is less stable than it was 13 years ago, much of this we might say due to American and international failure to take Bolton’s advice. On the other hand, very much might just as easily be laid at the feet of an international community (including the U.S.) too willing to engage in stick-wielding at the wrong time and place. He tells us the job of the people at State is to implement the policies of the big boss, the elected president. Does he still believe this about the current boss? I am very much looking forward to his present thoughts.

Theodicy in The Urantia Book

Picture of me blowing smoke

If God is infinite, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent and wholly good, why is there evil or, if that is too loaded a term, even merely pain, in the universe? This is the fundamental question of what philosophers of religion call theodicy. How can there be evil in a universe governed, ultimately, by an infinite God who must, himself, be good?

I have addressed this question in various papers (see in particular the “Prolegomena to a Future Theology”,  and “Why Free Will?”). Here I want not only to review those answers, but specifically explicate the view of “The Urantia Book” (from now on “the UB” for short) on the theodicy question. It is this book from whence comes the distinction (I do not find it anywhere else in philosophy) between accident, error, evil, sin, and iniquity. Various philosophers with whom I’ve corresponded challenge this five-way distinction. The root of the challenge is philosophy’s implicit assumption that anything bad that happens to us, anything that causes death, pain, or disability, is evil. In short, evil is “any bad-stuff that can happen to us”. That this is mistaken I have pointed out in various ways. For example this conflation often includes even animal death (or pain). But consider; if the dinosaurs had not been wiped out (presumably painfully), we humans would likely never have evolved to be asking these questions.

As I say I have made note of all these objections in various essays. Here my purpose is to summarize the UB’s answer to the theodicy question. The distinction between accident, error, evil, sin, a distinction I find nowhere else, rests on that book’s entire ontology and teleology. In particular the first two categories, accident and error, needs some digression into purpose of the whole of the material creation is, according to that book.

Before beginning, a note about a few common terms. “Human”, “animal”, and “mind” as used here are not limited to creatures that we find on Earth. The UB claims the stars we see in the sky on a (increasingly rare) clear dark night are not a light show for our benefit. “The myriads of planetary systems were all made to be eventually inhabited by many different types of intelligent creatures?” [UB 1:0.2]. By inhabited the book means evolved biological beings on evolved physical worlds. Evolved here implies cosmological (solar), geophysical (the planet) and biological evolution of primitive life and up to the point of minded and personalized beings, in short people. This is the claim although the specific physiology and the entire planetary ecology, physical and biological, can vary greatly from the course taken on Earth. Perforce I take my examples from the human experience on Earth.

A second matter must be born in mind throughout. We tend much to associate evil with pain and death. UB theology hangs together as a piece. As concerns death (I deal with pain below), from the UB’s viewpoint [almost] nobody dies. Yes there is physical death, but that is not death from God’s viewpoint but more like sleep from ours. Everybody “wakes up” somewhere else (I’ll not get into details here see “What is the Soul?”.) as something else. Importantly, in that awakening, the entity recognizes the continuity between the new self and the old one. The new self is immediately aware of having “survived mortal death” as the same self.

This the UB calls this “personality survival”, and its view is in great contradistinction to the doctrines of religious institutions world wide. It should be said that some few mortals do experience physical death and no survival. Such a person would, by their own choice, have become utterly iniquitous — see iniquity below. The UB characterizes this as “cosmic suicide” compared to ordinary suicide or the vast majority of physical deaths. Importantly according to the UB, no one, and I mean no one, experiences cosmic elimination because of the first category, accidents, nor for that matter the second, error. This “matter of fact” assertion of post-mortal survival underlies the book’s theodicy for obvious reasons.

The UB, however, does not lay-out its theodicy in any straight forward manner. It is left to bubble up by implication from the book’s description, broadly, of the nature and character of God, the nature of the time-space domains (our physical and moral universe), and the relation between the two. What follows then is my humble attempt to pull these implications together. Excellent electronic copies of The Urantia Book can be found here for as little as $4

THE FIRST CATEGORY: Accidents, wants the most discussion about what the UB claims is the over-all purpose of the physical universe as we find it. All the other categories (error, evil, sin) rest, ontologically, on this one. This physical universe includes such events as exploding stars, earthquakes, disease, and other such disasters that can and do maim and kill both animals and human beings. How can a “wholly good God” have created a universe in which natural processes hurt us? Why is this “fact of the matter” about the physical universe not evil?

Note that I use the term ‘accident’ here in the old philosophical sense meaning something like “accidents of time”, what moderns call “natural disaster” and becomes “natural evil”, an oxymoron if ever there was one. This category includes all sorts of potentially human (or animal) harming events, classical examples of which include earthquakes and disease, even death due to old-age (body parts wearing out). What all such events have in common is they are the outcome of natural physical processes that have nothing to do with human choice.

I am not talking about the conventional use of the word ‘accident’, for example a person driving a car who accidentally slams on the gas instead of the brake, killing someone. Such an “accident” belongs to the second category, error, I address below. To understand why “accidents of time” are not evil in the UB’s view I must review what the UB says is the point of the physical creation as it stands.

The point of the physical creation, cosmological evolution in time, is to produce, eventually, the “best possible universe”. This is not, by the way, a phrase the UB uses, but it serves, standing-in for “whatever God creates must be the best of its kind there can be.” The UB asserts this, but it happens also to be a logical deduction from God’s infinity. “Best possible” does not entail perfection in every possible attribute, a quality of God’s infinity itself. God must want the best there can be. Simultaneously, what God creates is (or as the UB contends, will be) the best that could be created.

While philosophers of the past (Leibniz for example) have correctly inferred that a good God must create the “best possible universe”, they have [mostly] mistakenly assumed the universe, as it now stands, is that universe. Their view has been that “best possible” is meant synchronically, best now and going backwards and forwards in time forever — or at least as far back in time as the physical universe goes. According to the UB this view is a mistake. Time is an essential ingredient of the process. God intends to produce the “best possible universe” through time. The universe is not complete now as it will be complete in the future. It achieves that state by evolution through time. The UB’s view is diachronic.

In UB terms, “best possible universe” comes out to a condition reminiscent of what Teilhard de Chardin called the Noosphere (the collective mental milieu of the planet) evolving into the universal will-to-do-God’s-will of all the people of the Earth culminating in the Omega Point, the manifestation in the universe of the God-complete. Except that for the UB, it isn’t merely the Earth, but the entire inhabited universe! Literally the entire universe of creatures having freely elected to love one another, and that this condition obtains for all future time. Such a situation precludes war, crime, and other negatives that amount to humans deliberately harming humans.

Even that future however does not preclude “accidents of time”. The perfection implied by God’s doing the “best possible” is moral at least and may extend to other domains, but it does not amount to “infinite perfection”. Nevertheless, the humans of that future era would have long since learned to mitigate the effects of accidents. No one lives in houses that collapse in earthquakes.  Intellectual and economic differential might yet exist, but nobody is poor, all find creative work and so on. According to the UB many changes (physical, mindal, spiritual) occur in the universe when this status comes about. I haven’t room here to sketch them, their description constitutes a goodly part of the book.

Why should the best possible universe be diachronic? God is omniscient and omnipotent. He surely can see that his evolutionary universe will cause pain and death to the creatures that occupy it. Why not just create the best possible universe immediately? Why can’t “best possible” be synchronic? The UB gives us three answers.

First, God already did that. There is a “universe” (the UB means this term in a technical sense. It has parallels in what Max Tegmark in “Our Mathematical Universe” called the “Type I multiverse”) consisting of a billion worlds on which live morally perfect immortal beings. In common with us these beings live “in time” and are not in all possible ways perfect. They must learn, but as concerns the moral, they are immune from error and were created that way. They have a perfect totalizing grasp of any moral situation they might face. They know what God himself would do in their situation and always do that. They do not, indeed cannot, make moral mistakes, though perhaps they may err executing their choice. From this they learn. I am not going to say more about this answer, it is irrelevant to what follows having to do with our universe in which such universe-wide moral perfection plainly is not the case.

The second answer is embedded in the UB’s process theology. The existential God manifests himself in different ways, and one of those ways it calls “The Supreme”, God manifested in timespace, what process theologians like Teilhard thought might be the God. But that manifestation is, presently, incomplete and will not be complete, not be recognized by timespace creatures (persons throughout the universe), until the “best possible universe” is fully evolved. Yet incomplete as The Supreme is now, there is a hierarchy of agency within timespace that has much to do (as do we) with his evolution. I will return to this answer briefly at the end of the essay. It will be the subject of a future paper.

The third answer, the one I am most concerned with here, begins from a certain principle of psychology expressed as “She who learns the most in achieving a goal is the most appreciative of the achievement and what has been learned”. A classic example in Earth-human terms a convert to some religion as compared with someone born into the institution. Converts, it is commonly observed, are more zealous participants in the institution (for good or ill notwithstanding). We see this in many other areas of life. People who “work hard” for what they achieve appreciate it more than those who do not. The greater the personal gap (economic, social, intellectual, spiritual) between the starting and finishing points the greater is the achievement and the appreciation for it. While not philosophically rigorous, this effect appears to be a fundamental feature of human psychology.

In the phrase set out above, the “best possible universe”, its moral perfection (at least), is in someway an outgrowth of the most learning possible among the minds, and particularly the personalized minds, of the universe — all of them. The people who most understand what the “best possible universe” achieves when manifest are those who took part in the achievement. They are those who learned the most about how to create a “best possible universe” (universal love) and what it means to get there. In short, according to the UB, this is the whole point of the physical universe as it stands. God intended the widest possible gap that could, conceivably (and that by God), be crossed.

So what manner of physical universe would give God the greatest possible gap? God can only be purposeful. He cannot do anything without a purpose. The same is true in the main for any minded creature, though to be sure “in the main” here hides many skeletons, but the “greatest gap” lies between the infinite-eternal purposefulness of God and something purposeless. That, is exactly what material physics gives us, a universe of purposeless mechanism. There is no teleology (purpose) in the mechanisms of the purely physical world. This does not mean the physical as a whole is purposeless, but mechanism, physical cause within the physical, is properly purposeless and this is one of the fundamental insights of all science.

Is this as far as God could go to create the most contrast there could possibly be? Although the mechanisms of the physical are purposeless, they are after all, regular, predictable. Would not a greater gap exist between God and a physics whose mechanisms were not only purposeless, but irregular? Yes and no. Could God create a universe of irregular purposeless mechanism? Probably, but not at the same time getting from it evolution to minded-status via that mechanism alone! An irregular physics would preclude the very evolution that is (seemingly) God’s objective — emergence of the intended end without further intervention.

God cannot do the logically impossible. Incompatibility of intent can rise to logical impossibility. God cannot set up an X (the farthest gap) that accomplishes Y (produces the greatest universe) through process Z (evolution of value discriminating free-willed minds) if the nature of the X precludes Z! This universe, our universe, is at the level of physical mechanism, the most unlike God there is while still supporting evolution of the necessary complexity. To get personalizable minds, there first had to be animal minds, and before that ecology and biological evolution beginning with non-minded forms. Before any biology there had to be the right sorts of planets, stars to produce concentrated energy, and for them galaxies, and so on up the chain to the Big Bang.

The evolutionary processes that produce people happen sometimes also physically to kill them and if we include “natural death” stemming from entropy (perhaps the key to the stability (regularity) of purposeless mechanism), always physically kills them! If ignition of a star and evolution of a life-suitable planet are not evil then those same processes cannot suddenly be evil because living beings are sometimes in the way of them. While bad and tragic from the human view these processes cannot at once be good when they foster our existence and evil when they don’t. Humans, and in particular philosophers, must get over this immature straw man. Not everything that is bad in our experience is evil.

What about pain? For complex creatures to evolve there had to be some mechanism that signals damage to some part of a creature’s body, locates the damage, and grabs the creature’s immediate attention. The mechanism worked out (mindlessly) by evolution and not God directly is something we call pain. Can we imagine some other sensory mechanism that achieves the same result? Signaling damage? Yes. Locating the damage? Yes. Immediate attention? No. It is precisely that we can easily ignore every other sensory experience that makes them unsuited to the task. Yes we can ignore pain too, but not so easily.

All of this then gets us to an answer for the category of accidents. The only way to generate the “widest possible gap” and at the same time evolve participants in the making of the “best possible universe” was to evolve those creatures out of purposeless mechanism, which, since it is purposeless (mindless), cannot “take note” of its causing harm to living beings (minded or otherwise). The same regular physical processes that produce stars also produce earthquakes and earthquakes sometimes harm us. Put otherwise, unless one is to claim that all physical mechanism is evil, accidents cannot be evil because they are not the product of processes controlled by any mind, even God’s.

THE SECOND CATEGORY: Error. When we make the move from accidents to error (and then evil and sin) we cross a divide from the mindless to the minded (for the UB’s philosophy of mind see “From What Comes Mind?”). Errors are mistakes made by minds, and not only human minds. A lioness chasing a zebra might zig to the left just as the zebra zags to the right. The lioness misses the zebra and goes hungry. It made a mistake, an error. To be sure this is not a moral error. Only humans can make moral mistakes because only humans discriminate values (Truth, Beauty, and Goodness, see “What are Truth, Beauty, and Goodness”). But moral errors and evil are related in that the former signal the potential for the latter.

Like accidents, error can and often is hurtful, causing pain and sometimes death. The manager who failed to put enough concrete into the wellhead beneath the BP Horizon oil platform in the Gulf of Mexico killed a dozen people, caused billions of dollars worth of damage, and hundreds of years of ecological problems for the Gulf. All of this is bad, the same category of bad that happens when a driver, seeing a child dart out from between two parked cars accidentally slams on the gas instead of the brake killing the child.

Besides such errors bringing about accidents in the common use of that term, there are moral errors, errors entangled with the values, and this is why moral error is potential evil. These vary in severity from the catastrophic to the trivial. You settle down on your couch to watch the big game on TV when a friend calls asking you help getting his car unstuck from a snowdrift. You refuse because you want to see that game. This is a moral error because in a universe where all people are brothers given a “Universal Father” no game is more important than assisting a brother when such assistance is easily (and sometimes even not so easily) within your power. Even if, in the end, your friend gets himself unstuck and no harm comes from it all, you have made a moral mistake.

As “accidents of time” stem from the purposelessness of physical nature, error stems from the perspectival (a term from John Searle) nature of individual minds. Subjective experience associated with brains is necessarily individualized. Although human brains (on Earth) are similar as are the minds that spring from them, each has a narrow individual viewpoint. An individual of necessity directly senses the world only through the deliverance of its own sensory systems. Human individuals may try intellectually to expand their native individuality to gain wider purchase on a theoretical universal viewpoint, but such attempts can never reach full universality. Even intermediate goals (for example the viewpoint of my local community) will not succeed in erasing the limits of my individuality.

Error and accidents have in common their inevitability. It is for this reason that neither is evil. Evolution (and within it the accidents of time) give us ourselves. Our individual perspectives, because they are limited, make mistakes (moral and otherwise). The point of mistakes is to teach us how to do better. When, given a certain set of circumstances, we choose a certain course of action that turns out badly either for us, others around us, or both, under normal circumstances we “learn from the mistake”. The next time we experience the same (or similar circumstances) we choose a different course of action, which of course might also be a mistake, an error. From this we learn yet more. Eventually we come to a course of action that results in few or no bad outcomes.

Error, in particular moral error, is [supposed to be] our great teacher. If some “honest mistake” precipitates a disaster, we are expected to learn from it and not make that same mistake again. God knows that minds evolved out of purposeless mechanism have limited perspectives. It would be impossible for such minds properly to grasp all the implications of every, even most, choice-action. Inevitable error then cannot be evil even though “bad” can clearly follow from it. As pain is intended to grab our attention immediately, error, more precisely its consequences, are intended to teach us about which sorts of choices work and which do not. Such mistakes are “natural consequences” of limited perspective just as stars and earthquakes are natural outcomes of purposeless mechanisms. For this reason, neither is evil.

THE THIRD CATEGORY: Evil. Finally we arrive at genuine evil, actual evil as compared with the potential for evil in moral error. Like error, evil is always a product of some mind. Unlike error, which may or may not have some moral part, evil always has a moral component. Evil is “deliberate error”. It is, if you will, making a mistake knowing that you are making a mistake and choosing (making it deliberate) to make that mistake. It is this choice that always invokes the moral because it is, due to its deliberateness, in opposition to one or more of the values (truth, beauty, goodness). Since the values are the pointer to God’s character that human mind is able to discriminate, anything done in knowing contravention of them is done in opposition to God’s intent and character exhibited in the values. That is what makes it evil!

Evil is characteristically different from error even if its worldly effects are sometimes identical. The error destroying the BP Horizon oil platform killing a dozen men could conceivably have been evil, the potential rising to the actual. The manager making the decision to stop pumping concrete might have done it knowing it would destroy the platform and likely kill people. Crucially, errors teach lessons to those still around after the results have propagated through the world. This includes the mind that committed the error!

Under typical circumstances, a man who makes a mistake, even a moral mistake, not only accepts responsibility for it, but actively works to mitigate its effects. Evil is not usually like that. Others, those who experience its consequences may learn to better prevent or mitigate them, but the one who commits the act already knows it is error. He often commits to disguising his responsibility for the act (a lie, yet a further evil) and not committed to any sincere effort to mitigate its effects.

The deliberateness that characterizes evil does not entail any intellectual grasp of the root ideas of truth, beauty, or goodness in some purely abstract philosophical sense (today even most philosophers don’t understand this). It is enough that the individual involved deliberately acts in such a way as to likely cause death or destruction (including more subtle forms like emotional hurt and so on) and knows this is the case. One need not directly intend any particular death or destruction let alone grasp that the choice is in some sense in opposition to God’s will.

For example a man hijacks a car and leads police on a high-speed chase ending in the death of an innocent bystander. On stealing the car and stepping on the gas, the man did not intend that particular death. He certainly wasn’t thinking of his act’s relation to the value goodness. But he did know (or as we say “should have known”) the act was dangerous and likely would end in some death or injury. He did it anyway and that doing does happen to oppose what is refracted to human consciousness by the value goodness. It is the deliberateness coupled with the contravention of the character of value (in this case mostly goodness) that makes up the evil in the mind of the actor. It is the actor who is evil. We extend the term (rightly so I believe) to the act because (again) it is a deliberate act.

The means by which God has [apparently] chosen to create the “best possible universe” very much rests on the reality of free will in creatures (on Earth called humans) who are potentially sensitive to values. The higher animals also have free will, but since they are not sensitive to values, their free will does not extend into the moral domain. A lion cannot “do evil” as that term is used in the UB. The presence of moral free will coupled with purposeless physical mechanism is, according to the UB, the key to the whole progressive evolutionary enterprise. I address this at length in “Why Free Will”. One often hears criticism of the form: in such a universe as ours, God should have known evil would happen and therefore God himself is evil (knowingly contravening his own values) by creating a universe in which evil would necessarily occur.

The UB denies the necessity of evil, but not the need for its potential. Error (moral or amoral) is unavoidable because evolved perspective is limited, but moral error (potential evil) alone is sufficient progressively to align human choice with the values. Even when such attempts themselves are badly (wrongly) conceived or executed, their outcomes bring home lessons on doing it better next time. The inevitability of error is enough to carry the lesson that free-will attempts at alignment with the values typically leads to better results all around. To get his (and our) “best possible universe” God had to create a universe in which error was a necessary ingredient.

In contrast to error, actual evil is not a necessity in a universe evolving in time however likely it may be. Potential evil is enough to provide the contrast needed for moral choosing: “Potential evil is inherent in the necessary incompleteness of the revelation of God as a time-space-limited expression of infinity and eternity. The fact of the partial in the presence of the complete constitutes relativity of reality, [and] creates necessity for intellectual choosing…” [UB 130:4.14] Actual Evil is always the choice of a personalized mind to do error deliberately.

Even on this planet, rife with evil, we observe that no person is compelled by the world to do evil. The seeming inevitability of evil on Earth is a product of what the UB claims is a convoluted and a-typical (compared with most worlds) history, not to mention confused and immature ideas about God. Evil’s apparent inevitability is a seeming resulting from a limited perspective. Evil on Earth is virtually inevitable. It is in no way metaphysically necessary.

THE FOURTH CATEGORY: Sin. I hope by this point in the essay my reader begins to see a pattern here. Accidents are not the doing of minded beings — primitive and superstitious belief that “God causes” this or that disaster not withstanding. Error entails mind, but not intent to do wrong. Evil entails both mind, and intent to cause harm but not awareness (at least not immediate, present to mind awareness) of the act’s relation to God. Sin is exactly that.

“Sin must be redefined as deliberate disloyalty to Deity” [UB 89:10.2]. Some readers have interpreted this to mean that to sin entails knowing what God’s will is in some particular instance. Under this reading, no human could ever sin because no human ever knows specifically what God’s will is about any single individual act, though we can make well-reasoned guesses in simple situations. But human beings can know what God’s will is generally speaking. Sensitivity to the values, truth, beauty, goodness, give us that. One can then commit evil knowing not merely that the act will likely cause harm, but also that it stands in opposition to one or more of the values and therefore in opposition (however generally) to God’s will. Even that does not quite get us to sin. Our carjacker is not likely to be philosophizing about values and such even if his history includes some awareness of them. Awareness that what he is doing is “in opposition to goodness” is only slightly more universal than merely being aware the act “is wrong” from a cultural viewpoint.

In discussing the subject of sin, the book seems always to associate it with some insincerity. Returning again to our carjacker we can suppose that not only does he know his act is wrong and that it contravenes goodness but that, at least in part, the act is chosen because it goes against the value. The carjacker is not only deliberate about doing harm, he is deliberate about doing it because it is evil and in opposition to God’s goodness.

That additional layer of [im]moral intent renders the act insincere. No external rationale (for example “I thought the police would kill me”) excuses the decision because at least some part of the actor’s motive is the contravention of goodness. Any excuse resting on such explanations would be automatically a lie because some part of the real motive is freely, deliberately, to contravene God’s will. That makes the act deliberate disloyalty to Deity and therefore sin.

THE FIFTH CATEGORY: Iniquity. I said at the beginning of the essay that everyone has a soul and almost everyone experiences personality survival after physical death. Evil and sin both corrode the soul, the later more rapidly than the former. In this, evil and sin are analogous to filling healthy lungs with smoke. Smoking always corrodes lung function but it doesn’t destroy it at once. Lungs can still sustain life up to a certain level of degradation.

Reaching that level can take years. Smokers can quit and at least partially heal their lungs if the damage has not progressed too far. Evildoers and sinners can repent. Evildoers and sinners yet have living souls and quitting sin and evil can, eventually, reestablish their healthy condition. Of course the repentance must be sincere. An insincere repentance is, by UB lights, no repentance at all. “In gaining access to the Kingdom of Heaven, it is the motive that counts.” [UB 140:3.19]. God would have to be a perfect, the perfect judge of motive, and this notwithstanding that human motives are often mixed. He would know that too.

Yet there comes a point with smoke where the lungs become too degraded to sustain life. Likewise repeated choices of evil, and especially sin result eventually (assuming the creature does not physically die before this stage. A 30-year smoker who is yet 10 years from fatal lung degradation can get hit by a bus) in a condition in which the yet-living person loses the capacity to discriminate the values, loses the ability to tell right from wrong and the free-willed capacity to choose what is right. The person has become self-identified with evil and sin to the point where he can choose nothing else. He has become iniquitous and his soul is dead. On physical death, the personality of this person dissolves back into the infinite and nothing survives except, as it were, in God’s memory. UB theology has no Hell. Either you survive and retain a shot at immortality by God’s lights, or you vanish.

“Death of the soul” is a cosmic suicide. Such a state can come about only as a result of repeated free-willed choices by the agent whose soul it is. If an otherwise normal (i.e., not iniquitous) person suffers loss of ability to tell right from wrong as a result of an accident or disease that soul, we are told, is developmentally frozen and survives when that person’s body eventually dies. Cosmic death can be only a product of cosmic suicide. As the soul grows through choosing the true, beautiful, and good (and as I discuss in “What is the Soul” this has nothing to do with intellectual belief), it dies only through the consistent and repeated choice of evil and sin. A soul cannot die by accident. It must be willfully withered to death.

A WORD ABOUT MITIGATION

We live in a relative (nothing to do with Einstein) universe. There is in the mix both good, bad, evil, and even sin. For now, this is just the social fact of the matter. Accidents and errors we learn to avoid. We build structures that don’t collapse in earthquakes, we learn to cure disease, we train so as not to make harmful mistakes. This learning and mitigating should not be controversial. Mitigating real evil is another matter. No human may pronounce judgment on the status of another’s soul, but preventing the pain of further evil on the part of the evildoers is a morally [and can be physically] messy process. Sometimes it is necessary to kill, even to go to war, to prevent yet further evil as this unfolds in time. The problems here are well known. Often evil goes, if not undetected, un-fought until its consequences are spread deeply through the social world. At that point, uprooting them, mitigating the effects, can be costly in dollars and often lives.

At the same time, much that happens on this world still and many others in other stages of development is a product of ignorance-of-relationship. We still go to war not for personal survival but for political reasons. All sub-global constructs (nations) are useful for administrative reasons, but otherwise artificial. We are one world in the sense that we are all, equally, children of God. Yet none of this does away with the need, in particular on this world, to live with these issues and do out best to mitigate their myriad negative consequences. Mitigation of actual evil, sometimes by horrific means themselves evil under normal circumstances, is sometimes among our moral imperatives.

The “best possible universe” entails a “settled world” and by that the UB means an economically, politically, and socially, unified planet. No political or social entity would think of “going to war” against another. We are obviously a long way from this. Nevertheless, given our starting point, we who are here now are supposed to do our best to move the needle, or perhaps set the stage for its movement, or something. Our individual participation in the evolution of the best possible universe might amount to little more than being a good brother, neighbor, citizen, and so on. Being good means also “getting better” as one grows and learns: “Can you not advance in your concept of God’s dealing with man to that level where you recognize that the watchword of the universe is progress?” [UB 4:1.2]. Experience brings us into contact with both error and evil at collective and individual levels. Learning from that, personally is also a part of that present world experience. All of this evolving process is going on from the individual to the grand collective at the same time. We all play some role in it for good or ill.

According to the UB, for reasons rooted 200,000 years in our past, we are, especially given our technological development, among the most (if not the most) benighted planets in the galaxy! Thanks to ubiquitous evil the people of this world literally have an even greater gap than do the vast majority of humans on other worlds in the universe. When we learn to mitigate evil, we are learning much more than others whose lives are not so steeped in it. Believe it or not (remember no one dies) this is supposed to be a good thing!

Imagine you are born into the poorest part of the poorest city (perhaps refugee camp) on Earth. if you grow up knowing nothing of the world outside that place, you might be forgiven for thinking the rest of the world is just like your little part of it. Essentially, that is our situation on this world. This too bears on the book’s theodicy because it is saying, in effect, not only are we on a way to a “best possible universe”, but most other inhabited worlds, if not perfect, are much better off than us now. As it turns out, as concerns a “good God creating a universe with evil”, even the rest of this “relative universe” is doing better (not perfect) in this regard than we are on Earth in the 21st century.

Conclusion

So where now does all of these leave us in the broad issue of theodicy? Events of Earth history (the tip of a very big iceberg, and related to the UB’s extensive discussion of “Process Theology”) does set up the present, particular, problem with evil and ignorance on our world. The UB, while it insists on an infinite existential God has in it a significant Arian thread (see this link for more on Arianism), and this thread bears its own relation to the theodicy question. “If man recognized that his Creators — his immediate supervisors — while being divine were also finite, and that the God of time and space was an evolving and non-absolute Deity, then would the inconsistencies of temporal inequalities cease to be profound religious paradoxes.” [UB 116:0.1].  But as concerns theodicy as this is understood in contemporary philosophy of religion, the over-all tension between the concept of an infinite good God and a relative, partial, incomplete universe of time in which error is inevitable and evil always potential remains the foundation of the UB’s answer to the question.

The matter comes down to this: There is evil in a universe created by a “wholly good God” because that God is not the only actor in the universe. God has (seemingly) decided the “best possible universe” emerges out of his creation (purposeless physical mechanism) in combination with evolved (thanks to mechanistic regularity), perspective-limited persons having free-will, the capacity to sense God’s character (the values), and therefore the ability to choose freely to try to instantiate (bring into the world) that which is sensed. To come out to what really is the “best possible” universe, the free-will (in particular) must be sacrosanct (the real “prime directive”) in the sense that God will never contravene it.

I speak here of course of moral choice. You will learn something if you eat food to which you are allergic; don’t eat that again. But as concerns the “best possible universe” this is about choices that have value-implications and so moral in the broad sense. This life is not some Harry Frankfurt thought experiment where God lets you choose freely if you choose his will, but otherwise intervenes if you are about to do otherwise. Nor does God ever force you to err or do evil let alone sin. If you can freely choose to do [what you sincerely take to be] God’s will (you might be mistaken or botch the try. It is the sincerity of the attempt that counts. Right or wrong, good or bad [outcome] you will learn something) you can also do the inverse. You can choose to do error deliberately (evil) and even choose to do evil knowing full well that your choice contravenes God’s intention (sin).

God cannot, or rather will not, intervene not because He is incapable of intervening, but rather because He cannot get the outcome he wants (an outcome that necessarily must emerge in time) unless all the moral choices of all the agents in the universe are always free of His interference; the choice of the agent and only the agent. That then is The Urantia Book’s answer to the theodicy question. Human beings, especially on this benighted world, are charged to grow up and stop blaming God for evil perpetrated by man.

Book Review: The Once and Future Liberal by Mark Lilla

I include this book and commentary here on the blog because it is an important contribution to the American political debate, not that anyone will be listening. There are few philosophical implications not brought out in the book itself. My purpose in this commentary is to note other of my reviewed books that address this issue, and to describe, briefly, my own experience with identity politics.

First Slavoj Zizek who in his recent book “The Courage of Hopelessness” (linked) and several other recent books, gets into this subject at some length making, in Zizek’s inimical style, exactly the same points. Another is Cathrine Mayer’s “Attack of the 50 Foot Women” (linked), and also Mickel Adzema’s “Culture War, Class War” (reviewed, but not on the blog. Link is to book on Amazon) which touch broadly on the same issues. All four of these books make the same point: Identity Politics has had a corrosive impact on the ability of liberal voters to come together with a coherent program offering any hope of countering the rise of intolerant Right-Wing politics. Adzema blames all of this on the political Right, but the other three note correctly that the Left is complicit in the process.

My own experience with identity politics comes from social media, the 21st century editorial arena. I was some years on Google+ (now defunct) and so now with an outfit called MeWe (MeWe.com) which is structurally similar. I am also on Twitter. As for Face Book, I have no account, but my girl friend has and she shows me plenty! All of these forums both illustrate and facilitate the corrosive impact of identity politics. This has become especially noticeable as we enter the 2020 election cycle. Identity politics narrows dialog between groups. Social media reinforces that constriction (the “silo” or “bubble” effect well noted by many authors) by allowing users to choose those and only those whose views they will see and to which they respond.

The various identity factions simply do not (or very rarely) talk to one another. I have been hammered (and blocked) by those identifying with the LGBTQ+ community, sub-segments of the black community, American natives, or sex workers, merely for suggesting that their political interests might be better served if they aligned, politically, with a wider community. None of them seem to get it. Hyper-narrow political self interest cannot foster the kind of broad consensus needed to take and hold political power in the United States.

The present Democratic field illustrates the problem. Half the candidates in the race are perceived (rightly or wrongly) as supporters, primarily, of one identity or another. Back on social media I cannot tell you how disappointed I am to note how many of their various supporters say they won’t vote if their favorite candidate is not the nominee, exactly the attitude (on the part of Bernie Sanders supporters) that got Trump elected in 2016. If I try to point this out to people, if I try to say in one way or another that electing a broadly liberal democrat, whomever it might be, is more important than any emphasis on a particular identity I am summarily rejected from the community of that particular silo.

You might think that climate change would be the sort of issue that could unite everyone. It is, like world war, a matter that impacts everyone. But climate change, while it will become far more disastrous than any world war to date (not to mention possibly spawning the next one), grows more impact-full over generational time scales, far longer than an election cycle. Compared to the immediacy of perceived identity discrimination, no one today has the patience to work for a solution to the already-upon-us effects that will continue to grow more severe for the next three or four generations even if we acted, as a world, both decisively and immediately.

In his conclusion, Lilla extols liberals to find a vision that will transcend narrow identity issues and gather the flock. Roosevelt did it in the 1930s, but his vision promised, and mostly delivered, change-for-the-better that could be felt over a single generation. I do not know what can be offered now that will fill that requirement!

The Once and Future Liberal by Mark Lilla (2017)

This is the story of what ails the American Left, really the center-left, the vanishing species called “the American liberal”. Lilla begins with what he takes to be the furthest left America has ever been, roughly that period from 1934 to 1970 (the “Roosevelt Era”), quickly fading and dead with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. The American Left wasn’t socialist, and certainly not communist. It did represent the redistribution of tax wealth into projects that uplifted the broad swath of the American people producing infrastructure, regulation, and services that made possible all the subsequent wealth coupled with a clean environment generated from 1980 to the present. It also kicked off the social movements that resulted in a more inclusive American society. Not only was it inclusive, it was a vision of shared moral responsibility, citizenship. A vision that motivated even the hippy movement of the 1960s.

In a sense the left did too well. The social fabric of the country and its booming economy made it possible for individuals to abandon the moral demands of a citizenship and focus instead on their individual aims, goals having no moral obligation to the nation. By 1980, the Roosevelt vision of a shared America where people and their government worked together to uplift all had lost its luster. In his re-election campaign, Jimmy Carter told the American people that recovery from the excesses of “Great Society” spending and the Vietnam war would take work, conservation, a shared vision of doing the hard work now so things would be better again in the future. In short, Carter advocated austerity (ironically, had America taken that path we would be now much farther along in the process of curtailing greenhouse gas — this an aside, not Lilla’s subject).

Reagan guessed correctly at the new national mood. He resurrected the myth of American hyper-individualism in a later 20th century form (ironically beginning the debt-fueled-growth America remains locked in today). Moral obligation to “the nation” disappeared from the American dialog, all the way down to the elimination of civics lessons in public schools. This, the “Reagan Era” has continued on down to today. The election of Donald Trump marks the logical conclusion of this doctrine, the idea that if everyone just does the best he or she can to get what he or she wants, the country will do fine. But when a national people are shorn of any obligation to think in national terms they gradually lose the ability to do so. The result is a loss of shared identity, a reason to compromise with others with whom you may have political disagreement.

Meanwhile back in the late 70s, on to Reagan’s election and beyond to today, the Left, the liberals, having accepted that things had changed, made a strategic blunder, really two of them. First, they put their energy into higher education figuring that a technologically savvy America would require large numbers of people with advanced educations. Surely their choice proved correct from an economic viewpoint, but not the political. The universities became separated from the broad middle of the country, their graduates perceived as effete snobs “out of touch” with the average person.

The second blunder was worse. Liberals abandoned the “all in it together” vision that had given liberalism its power in the post WWII period. Instead, liberals began emphasizing more narrow definitions of identity, dissipating what had been previously unified. This proved highly popular with students because it reinforced their natural tendency to identify with people more like themselves instead of making broader and more difficult connections demanding compromise. The result emphasized the Reagan vision of hyper individualism and helped corrode away any pull that a broader concept of “belonging as citizen” might have had.

This then is the problem we face today and for the next (2020) election cycle. The Right’s hyper-individualism has wiped out much of the middle class creating a nation of the hyper-rich few and the mass of the rest whose economic prospects have steadily dimmed over the past 50 years. But the modern left (the liberals and progressives) have offered no unifying vision. Instead they are trapped in the monster they created, the intolerance-of-difference of modern identity politics. Lilla ends here, extolling the liberal-left to articulate a new “all in it together” vision. Alas, I see no evidence of this happening.

All of this is the subject of Lilla’s book. I have tried to summarize it here, but there is more in the details he gives us.

Book Review: The Universe in a Single Atom

Picture of me blowing smoke

We’ve all heard of or noticed it… The solar system: a sun and planets, mostly empty space. The atom: a nucleus and electrons, mostly empty space. As above, so below! The analogies are in-exact, but they still serve to illustrate that the stuff of the universe is mostly empty. That part is true unless you count fields. Fields aren’t made of atoms but they do pervade empty space. In this book there isn’t much discussion of fields, though they are mentioned. Mostly the book is about consciousness, but I’m going to focus on the metaphysics of Buddhism as the Dalai Lama summarizes it because as must be the case it grounds the Buddhist view of consciousness, identity, and has implications for the matter of free will.

It all begins with that emptiness. It is worth quoting some key passages here because they hold in their language the key to their truth and error.

“At its [the theory of emptiness] heart is the deep recognition that there is a fundamental disparity between the way we perceive the world, including our own existence in it, and the way things actually are. In our day-to-day experience, we tend to relate to the world and to ourselves as if these entities possess self-enclosed, definable, discrete, and enduring reality. … The philosophy of emptiness reveals that this is not only a fundamental error, but also the basis for attachment, clinging, and the development of our numerous prejudices.”

“All things and events, whether material, mental, or even abstract concepts like time, are devoid of objective, independent existence. To possess such independent, intrinsic existence would imply that things and events are somehow complete unto themselves and are therefore entirely self-contained. This would mean that nothing has the capacity to interact with and exert influence on other phenomena.”

“Effectively, the notion of intrinsic, independent existence is incompatible with causation. … Things and events are ’empty’ in that they do not possess any immutable essence, intrinsic reality, or absolute ‘being’ that affords independence.”

“In our naive or commonsense view of the world, we relate to things and events as if they possess and enduring intrinsic reality. We tend to believe that the world is composed of things and events, each of which has a discrete, independent reality of its own, and it is these things with discrete identities and independence that interact with one another.”

Is his eminence correct about our ordinary, commonsense way of seeing things? I do think my automobile is a discrete particular I can positively identify in part because it endures through time. But those existence (enduring through time) and identity (my car, is a different particular from your car) criteria exist only because a mind (mine or yours) abstracts them from the concrete reality of the object. Independence here (in both the commonsense and philosophical view) implies only independence of a particular from mind. The object exists and has certain characteristics that I can name, but I do not create them. Nor, however does it imply that there endurance is any more than temporary, for a time, and that one day they will cease to exist.

Obviously automobiles can interact with the world causally. Certain of their properties, mass for example, have causal implications. If all the Dalai Lama is saying here is that no object, no event, is permanent, eternal, then this is but a trivial truth. It seems to his eminence that “independent existence” entails changelessness, not merely “mind independence”. Of course he is right that material object or event is eternal, but that does not mean it lacks all independent existence if only “for a time”. The object is not empty, even though it is temporary.

I do not agree with a lot of what Graham Harman believes, but he does handle this issue well. In summary:

1. Everything (material things, events, thoughts, intrinsic and extrinsic relations, etc) is an object.
2. Every object has both an essence and dispositional properties. The dispositional properties can be enumerated and quantified, the essential properties never entirely known.
3. Even given #2, objects and their essences are temporary. They come into existence at a time and go out at another time.
4. It is through their dispositional properties, not essences, that objects interact causally and relationally.

Harman claims to be a realist albeit from a continental background. While he need not represent here the majority opinion in modern philosophy he is comfortable with objects having an essence which does not participate in events (causally or otherwise) and at the same time dispositional properties that do. I suppose what makes this possible is temporal dependence, something the Dalai Lama denies is possible for essences. Because no eternal object exists (East and West [mostly] agree), they cannot (in the Lama’s view) therefore have essences. In the Western view (if one holds there are essences), this object, essence and all, had a beginning and will have an end. Putting this another way, the one physical phenomenon to which essences relate, or in which essences participate, is time!

Another quote is telling: “By according intrinsic properties of attractiveness, we react to certain objects and events with deluded attachment, while toward others, to which we accord intrinsic properties of unattractiveness, we react with deluded aversion.”

If there is one thing all modern western philosophy has in common it is the assumption that there is such a thing as “mind-independent reality”. The debate in Western terms is over what can be said or known about the mind-independent world, not its existence. To a realist, real objects (whose dispositional properties are discoverable by mind) exist and have all their properties, essential or otherwise, prior to and independent of their apperception by any individual mind, human or animal. Not all objects are like this of course. Thought-objects (Harman a big fan) of course do not, but even some material objects. A particular automobile, once built and prior to its someday destruction, is mind-independent now, but its origin in the past, its coming into existence as a mind-independent object, cannot have been possible without some mind’s intervention in the causal stream.

Who today, in the Western tradition, would say that attractiveness was an intrinsic property? It is in the Western sense, a relational property between some (possibly) presently-mind-independent object’s dispositional properties and some mind! One of the insights of modern science is that the mechanisms of the mind-independent universe (essences or not) are teleology-free (see “Fantasy Physics and the Genesis of Mind”)! Attractiveness, by contrast, is implicitly teleological. It is attractiveness for the purposes of some mind whether for some pleasure, survival, or merely aesthetic appreciation.

In the Dalai Lama’s view, the ground of all reality is empty of all properties. At this ground, there is no distinction to be made between mind-dependent and mind-independent reality. All are equally empty. His eminence takes this to be a fundamental truth. So when we get to what amounts to an illusion of a differentiated world he does not, other than superficially (from within the illusion) distinguish between mind-dependence and mind-independence, emptiness all!

There is yet another problem. The emptiness doctrine might be incoherent. If the fundamental ground of everything including space and time is emptiness where does all this illusory stuff come from? That is to say where does anything that can have illusions come from? Emptiness at least implies quiescence. Not only must it be free of any real, mind-independent, stuff, it is free also of any process. Nothing happens! How is it that anything comes to be at all?

How does the emptiness doctrine impact the matter of free-will? If the differentiation of everything is an illusion, then that we (an illusion) have an effective will must also be illusion. One of the great differences between Hinduism, and especially Buddhism, as compared to Judeo-Christianity and Islam is that the former religions aim at being a “vessel of the divine”. The personal goal of those religions is to realize the emptiness of all that is. The net result is quiescence, merging with emptiness as a drop of water merges with the ocean. Will, among our illusions, has nothing therefore to do. In fact doing anything, willing anything is counterproductive, and precisely what leads to desire and misery. It isn’t that God wants us to do nothing, it is that like everything else God is empty. Technically speaking there is no “divine” only the empty ground of all that is.

Western religions, by contrast are religions of action. God and the universe are not nothing. They have positive existence. The goal of these religions is to bring what God wants (ultimately for us to love one another) to fruition and this takes place only when we freely will (of our own volition) and so act (or attempt to act) to bring that state about now and in the future. If free will does not exist (not because all is empty but because only brain-states have any causal efficacy) obviously this would be impossible; impossible that is to “freely choose” to do God’s will.

If a transcendent God of a sort envisioned by Western religions exists (this is not to say the real God would in all qualities be what is said of him in Western holy books see “Prolegomena to a Future Theology” for a less conflicted portrait) not only must free will be real, it must be the linchpin of the process for getting from the present to the future God intends (see “Why Free Will?”). But why would an omnipotent transcendent God set things up this way? Why not just make the universe the way he intends it to be from the beginning? The answer can be inferred from our sensitivity to values (see “What are Truth, Beauty, and Goodness?”) free will itself. What God intends must be that universe resulting from the mass-exercise of value-sensitive minds freely electing to instantiate (literally “make instances of”) the values.

If the Dalai Lama’s metaphysics of emptiness was true, and everyone on Earth achieved union with it, human history would end; everyone would starve to death! By contrast if the transcendent God exists, and everyone freely chooses, to the best of their evolving capacities, to do his will (the collective instantiation of truth, beauty, and goodness being love) the life of every individual on the world would be paradisaical! Because we (who are not illusions in this view) are partnering with God, freely choosing his way rather than what might be our own, the universe ends up better (apparently) than what God could have done by himself because all value-discriminating wills in the universe are freely on board!

The Universe in a Single Atom by the Dalai Lama 2005

Who can critique the Dalai Lama? He is a smart, wise, man with a curiosity about pure science, and a pragmatic streak about technological applications. Should they benefit mankind, alleviate suffering, they are good. The Dalai Lama seems to have wanted to write this book thanks to a life-long fascination with science coupled with insights of his years of Buddhist training. He tells us as a boy growing up he had no training in western science whatsoever, but he was fascinated with a few (first-half 20th century) examples of western technology belonging to his predecessor. As a young man, once vested in his office, he availed himself of a new-found access to many of the world’s greatest minds, philosophers, scientists, artists, and so on. He has gone on talking and learning from great minds ever since.

After this introduction, the book looks at the physical (cosmology, quantum mechanics, relativity) and then life sciences. I was hoping he would not get into a “Buddhism discovered it first” argument, and mostly he does not. He comes close on the subject of quantum mechanics but I think mostly because at the time, the people from whom he learned it still took seriously the idea that individual human minds (for example that of a researcher) could be responsible for wave-function collapse. If this were true (the idea has long been put to rest as concerns individual minds) the tie-in with the Buddhist mind-first world-view and deep exploration of that first-person (consciousness) world would indeed be strong.

Even within quantum mechanics his eminence is sensitive to the great gulf between the western scientific paradigm and the focus of Buddhism. He well illustrates these differences while pointing out to scientists that much of what they take to be the “structure of reality” is a metaphysical assumption. It does not follow necessarily from scientific methodology which so well illuminates structure as concerns the physical world.

But this same methodology can say very little about consciousness. It is with consciousness that he spends much of the book examining the views of modern brain-science and how they might relate to Buddhist discoveries. The views of these different worlds stem as much from the purposes of their separate investigations as the technique; empirical 3rd-party evaluation versus highly-trained rigorous introspection. Becoming a master monk takes as many years as obtaining a PhD in physics (more in fact), but he mis-uses the term ’empirical’ here. What the monk does and what the monk learns in the doing should not be dismissed by western science, but it is still subjective and for that reason not empirical. He advocates for joint research. Neuro-scientists together with trained monks, he thinks, might help unlock some of the mind’s mysteries. He also is aware that not all mysteries are unlock-able!

In the book’s penultimate chapter he uses the then-new technology of genetic manipulation to plead with the scientific community to take it slow. He wants us all to be asking the right questions concerning the long term affects of the possibilities on our humanity. Here the contribution of Buddhism is the importance of compassion, of constant awareness of the mission to alleviate suffering. He is very good at identifying frightening possibilities in the technology and lists them. At the same time, aspects of the field, the need to produce more food, provided it isn’t motivated purely by financial gain, can be good. In his last chapter, his eminence returns to the same subject, a cooperation between science and Buddhism’s focus on bettering the human estate, not only physically or biologically, but socially, psychologically, and spiritually.

The book is full of interesting philosophical implications I will perhaps explore on my blog. These have more to do with physics, cosmology, and what western philosophy calls metaphysics than with consciousness which Buddhism takes more or less for granted. The idea that the stuff of the universe is fundamentally phenomenal suffuses all schools of Buddhism, while in the West the idea, while not unknown, is viewed with great suspicion. Where consciousness is concerned, his emphasis falls on intentionality, our capacity to direct our attention, but he never mentions free will. Like consciousness itself, perhaps Buddhism takes free will for granted.

Book Review: A Warning by Anonymous

What more is to be said about this book (the Amazon review included below)? Its author clearly does not believe, giving good reasons throughout, Donald Trump is fit to be the president of the United States. In his last chapters he (or she) asks what is to be done? He (or she) tells Democrats that their visceral hatred of Trump, their “get him out by any means” attitude, is not helpful to the very process of getting him out. Although this is perhaps technically true the author does not seem to understand the origin of the reaction because he (or she) yet remains a Republican albeit not a Trump supporter. Three options are explored, the 25th Amendment, impeachment, or electoral loss.

The 25th Amendment (majority of cabinet and vice president certify to the speakers of House and Senate that the president does not have the capacity, is not fit, to conduct his duties) route is rejected immediately. Yet despite a whole book of argument that Trump is in fact incompetent (for intellectual and moral reasons), the author believes 25th Amendment criterion are not technically met (Trump is not in a coma). Moreover, it is claimed that the exercise of this amendment would tear the country apart like nothing since the civil war. What are we being told here? Does the author believe that the violent white supremacist cohort who unanimously voted for him would explode into killing sprees across the country? Surely that this particular cohort is so fully behind him is one good reason for the visceral hatred of the man? If you hate Nazis, why wouldn’t you hate a man who gives them rein?

Impeachment the author takes to be a viable and legitimate process, but almost as divisive as using the 25th Amendment. Moreover he accuses the House Democratic majority of being distracted, by impeachment, from real work. But the House democratic majority accomplished a lot prior to beginning the impeachment process, all of it summarily blocked without even debate by the Republican majority in the Senate. If Trump is immoral and broadly incompetent, supporting his agenda must also be immoral at least. Now there isn’t anything particularly new here as concerns congress. Corruption knows no party affiliation. But given that Republicans curry votes of the rich (and most who fantasize about being rich), the democrats must curry favor with the broader swath of the American electorate. As result, the democrats are less likely to be corrupt in the direct and obvious ways true today of most Republicans.

Corporate interests have captured much of both houses of the American congress. This has been true long before Trump. But Trump has poured gasoline on the fire of Republican greed. Today congressional Republicans will vote for anything, even bloated Federal budgets they have historically opposed, so long as it promises to make them richer, not to mention getting them re-elected; hypocrisy taken to extremes! Is this not another reason for the visceral hatred now directed at their ranks?

Finally the author tells us we can vote Trump out and that this is the cleanest and least controversial way to get the job done. But we are cautioned there must be an overwhelming vote against Trump. Why overwhelming? Because, we are told, if the vote is close his (or her) reading of the man is that he won’t leave without challenging it, trying to block it in courts that he himself has packed. Could he get away with this? Not if majorities in both houses (whether democrats alone or a mixture of both parties) opposed it. But if the senate remains in Republican hands, and those Republicans stand behind the challenge, we will be in far more dangerous waters than has ever been the case here in these United States. Seems to me another good reason for visceral hatred!

How did Trump get elected? The Russians did not (as far as I know) hack voting machines and change votes. All they did was flood social media with propaganda. Once Trump became the nominee it was inevitable that registered Republicans would vote for him no matter what the Russians said. Russian propaganda had far more impact on Democrats and Independents. The more ignorant among these, not immune to the propaganda directed against Hilary Clinton, were persuaded not to vote at all, and that is what swung the tide for Trump.

More interestingly, the question is how did Trump become the nominee? It cannot be simply that he supported the traditionally Republican “wedge issues”, pro-gun and anti-abortion. These issues have swayed Republicans against their own economic interests since Reagan. Every other Republican candidate, all universally castigating Trump during the primary process, advocated the same positions on such issues. The answer lies with those white supremacists who never much voted before because no candidate, on either side, gave them a voice. Trump did give them a voice and they voted for him en-mass in primary after primary.

Personally I do fear the Trump administration. Not so much Trump personally but rather the combination of Trump and all the senior White House staff (not to mention Republicans in congress) who appear to be encouraging his destructive behavior. I fear the collection because I think Trump is an evil clown but not a very smart one, except as concerns his instincts regarding his base. I would be more afraid if he was both evil and, like Hitler or Stalin, also smart. Trouble is greatly multiplied when an evil figurehead is supported by others who are not only evil but also smart, or in Trump’s case at least smarter than him.

I do disagree with the author of “A Warning” on this one point. Those who voted for Trump, and especially those who continue to support him (whether in congress or the electorate) now three years into a term in which the U.S. has lost all international good will and generated a ruinous debt, deserve all the opprobrium directed at them! There never were, and are not now (especially) any “good excuses” in the matter. Supporting Trump can only mean outright evil for its own sake, hypocrisy for the sake of personal gain or religious delusion, or willful ignorance.

A Warning by Anonymous (2019)

Each year seems to bring out a new and negative book about the Trump presidency. I’ve read and reviewed now three of them, Wolff’s “Fire and Fury”, Woodward’s “Fear”, and now this one by an anonymous source who claims (at least at the time of writing) still to be in place monitoring the administration from inside the White House. The material is certainly recent. Published in November 2019, it relates episodes that occurred as late as October of this same year! There is good reason to want to rush this out and make sure it is as up-to-date as possible.

A Warning is less detailed than the other two books. The author does not give us detailed time lines and lists of the players involved in specific events except as needed to flesh out what he (or she) really wants to say. To be clear, the author is a republican who began his tenure in the Trump White House with every intention of carrying out the duties of his (or her) office supporting a broadly Republican agenda. What he (or she) discovered, however, is that the president not only doesn’t know the Republican agenda, he doesn’t much care. Nor does he know anything about how the U.S. government works (or is supposed to work), how the three [supposedly] co-equal branches interact, or how America fits into the global system of which it is (or was) a linchpin! I suppose it is still a linchpin, but is quickly breaking down..

The beginning of the real problem as the author sees it, is not that Trump doesn’t know how all these complex entities work and come together. Almost all incoming presidents are less than masters of one or more or these matters. The difference is that other incoming presidents care! Most stay up late reading about these things and get up early to acquire still more understanding. They listen to dissenting voices and factor their views into policy considerations. Trump doesn’t read. He doesn’t want to read, and he doesn’t care for advice from anyone either unless it reinforces his already naive and dangerously simplistic view of every issue including the very laws and principles (and history) that are the foundation of the United States! Trump has, it would seem, only one agenda: to glorify himself in comparison to everyone else. He is, in short, a megalomaniac!

That is, broadly speaking, what this book is about. It sketches Trump’s mania through chapter after chapter on issues ranging from his moral character, the domestic legislative agenda, appointments (the lack thereof) to key departments, his relation to both parties in congress, and on to foreign policy in which Trump appears to be methodically cozying up to America’s enemies while alienating every ally the U.S. has worked with for the past 75 years! Indeed the author appears flummoxed on the matter of foreign policy. Unlike Trump’s domestic problems which might be laid up to ignorance (and not caring) his actions on the world stage (about which he is equally ignorant) appear to be deliberately aimed at denigrating any world leader beholden to his (or her) people broadly conceived; both those who agree and those who disagree whether they are legislators or merely voters. In Trump’s mind, leaders who take dissent into account are weak, while he admires the autocrats who need not care much about what anyone else thinks of them (and we are back to moral character).

In the last third of the book the author turns his (or her) light upon congressional (House and Senate) republicans and looks at how and why most of these folks swung from near universal condemnation of Trump during the run-up to the 2016 nomination to near universal approbation! In the early stages of Trump’s administration, there were voices who all thought would surely help to direct the president towards a steady hand on the tiller of State. Trump named Rex Tillerson as his Secretary of State. Many condemned his choice. “Another member of the establishment Trump promised to dismantle.” I thought: at least Tillerson was a man with years of experience in international affairs, especially in Russia. Mattis (Sec. Defense), after all, was a general. Each was competent in his domain. But to be competent means to disagree (sometimes or often) with a superior who happens not to be competent in that arena. Trump takes any disagreement personally, as disloyalty, an affront. Disagreement, and so competency, is fired from the Trump White House. All the competent people in positions of policy authority are gone.

One might certainly dismiss all of this as fiction even if the so-called source ever did work in the White House. Either that or this individual is one of the new breed of “never-Trumpers”. But I do not buy that. I was born and grew up in New York City. I am only a handful of years younger than Trump. You had to live in a cave not to have heard of his shenanigans. Back then of course nothing he did was any more odious than that done (still done) by wealthy self-important men all over the world. The problem is that what this book claims Trump is doing now is perfectly consistent with his character as it emerged on the local news since the 1990s.

In his last chapter and epilogue he (or she) extols us to do better next time. Good luck with that. What Trump represents did not start with Trump. It began with the turn away from liberal arts in American higher education in the 1970s. Politically it took shape in the 1990s with Newt Gingrich’s “Contract with America” and intolerant ideology of the Tea Party. Whether Trump stays or goes, all of that will still be with us. So much the worse for us all!