Through the Prism

After passing through the prism, each refraction contains some pure essence of the light, but only an incomplete part. We will always experience some aspect of reality, of the Truth, but only from our perspectives as they are colored by who and where we are. Others will know a different color and none will see the whole, complete light. These are my musings from my particular refraction.


The Self Is a Society

Interconnection and interdependence are unavoidable, independence an illusion. Cooperation is self-interest.

Those ideas are foundational to all of my thoughts about morality and ethics, politics and justice. At the heart of the "credo" paper I wrote at the culmination of my Master of Divinity degree was the idea of a relational theology, that we know God and the divine through our relationships--to self, others, and creation. I've said on numerous occasions that one of the big problems I see in U.S. society is the cult of individualism.

I'm sure these ideas in one form or another are present in most of my posts. Three that stand out as particularly complementary to what follows, though, are:

  • Cooperation Is Self-Interest - " . . . Milinski's evidence, published in 1987 in the journal Nature, was the first to demonstrate that cooperation based on reciprocity definitely evolved among egoists, albeit small ones. A large body of research now shows that many biological systems, especially human societies, are organized around various cooperative strategies. . . . " And " . . . Entities cooperate because it increases their fitness—their chance of passing on genes to the next generation. Even from the supposedly pure self-interested perspective of hard biology, the best strategy is often not pure competition but cooperation. . . . "
  • Morality & Empathy: A Chain of Associations - " . . . So. Punishment can be for the good of everyone or it can be about revenge (or both), and group interaction--whether in the form of religion, the internet, or other--is likely to accelerate and amplify that effect. How can we keep a beneficial morality as our framework? Consider: What makes you feel disgust? . . . "
  • Cross-Pollination - " . . . That metaphor of seed cross-pollination elegantly captures much of what I hope to get across in so many of my posts on this blog.  Why competition, while a good ingredient, can't be our foundation.  Why we need to take care of each other.  Why cooperation is self-interest. . . . "
Now, on to today's addition to the theme. We start with more examples from biology, an article from NPR by David George Haskell sharing the core ideas in his new book The Songs of Trees: Stories from Nature's Great Connectors:

Life Is The Network, Not The Self

By eavesdropping on chemical conversations within the leaf, biologists have learned that the life processes of a plant — growing, moving nutrients, fighting disease, and coping with drought — are all networked tasks, emerging from physical and chemical connections among diverse cells. These leaf networks are dynamic. In some species, the network changes through the seasons, starting in spring with bacteria that resemble those of the soil, then shifting through the growing season to bacteria that can process the complex mix of nutrients inside a leaf. Fungi inside the leaf protect against herbivorous animals, encourage growth, and confer drought resistance to the plant. Bacteria also promote growth by processing nutrients, cleaning wastes, signaling to plant cells, producing growth hormones, and combatting pathogens.

The leaf network is also a place of tension, its members caught in the evolutionary struggle between cooperation and conflict. Pathogenic bacteria and fungi continually threaten to overwhelm and destroy the leaf, a tendency held in check by a combination of plant defensive chemicals and competition from other microbes. The leaf community contains the seeds (or fungal hyphae) of its own mortality: When leaves weaken, fungi engulf the leaf and start the process of decomposition. This rot isn't always a disadvantage for the rest of the plant. Death can prune shaded leaves, stopping them from draining the plant community's energy. . . .

Living networks are ancient, perhaps as old as life itself. Models and lab experiments on the chemical origin of life show that interacting networks of molecules beat self-replicating molecules in a Darwinian struggle. . . .

The fundamental unit of biology is therefore not the "self," but the network. A maple tree is a plurality, its individuality a temporary manifestation of relationship. . . .

When we gaze at a maple leaf, we now see not an individual made of plant cells, but a thrumming conversation, an embodied network. The "self" is a society.

I want to repeat that because I love the language:

The fundamental unit of biology is the network, a plurality.

Keeping that concept in mind allows me to proclaim what follows with full confidence. I was asked once, years ago, if I felt there was something wrong with my being privileged, why I wouldn't fully embrace and enjoy all the benefits that come from being a straight, white, Christian male in our society, and the response that immediately popped into my head was, "Not if others have to suffer for the sake of my privilege." From Current Affairs:

It's Basically Just Immoral to be Rich

Here is a simple statement of principle that doesn’t get repeated enough: if you possess billions of dollars, in a world where many people struggle because they do not have much money, you are an immoral person. The same is true if you possess hundreds of millions of dollars, or even millions of dollars. Being extremely wealthy is impossible to justify in a world containing deprivation. . . .

Because every dollar you have is a dollar you’re not giving to somebody else, the decision to retain wealth is a decision to deprive others. . . .

What I am arguing about is not the question of how much people should be given, but the morality of their retaining it after it is given to them.

Many times, defenses of the accumulation of great wealth depend on justifications for the initial acquisition of that wealth. . . .

But there is a separate question that this defense ignores: regardless of whether you have earned it, to what degree are you morally permitted to retain it? The question of getting and the question of keeping are distinct. . . .

It’s one thing to argue that you got rich legitimately. It’s another to explain why you feel justified in spending your wealth upon houses and sculptures rather than helping some struggling people pay their rent or paying off a bunch of student loans or saving thousands of people from dying of malaria. . . .

Of course, when you start talking about whether it is moral to be rich, you end up heading down some difficult logical paths. If I am obligated to use my wealth to help people, am I not obligated to keep doing so until I am myself a pauper? Surely this obligation attaches to anyone who consumes luxuries they do not need, or who has some savings that they are not spending on malaria treatment for children. But the central point I want to make here is that the moral duty becomes greater the more wealth you have. . . .

We can define something like a “maximum moral income” beyond which it’s obviously inexcusable not to give away all of your money. . . . everyone who earns anything beyond it is obligated to give the excess away in its entirety. The refusal to do so means intentionally allowing others to suffer, a statement which is true regardless of whether you “earned” or “deserved” the income you were originally given. . . .

Of course, wealthy people do give away money, but so often in piecemeal and self-interested and foolish ways. . . .

The central point, however, is this: it is not justifiable to retain vast wealth. This is because that wealth has the potential to help people who are suffering, and by not helping them you are letting them suffer. It does not make a difference whether you earned the vast wealth. The point is that you have it. And whether or not we should raise the tax rates, or cap CEO pay, or rearrange the economic system, we should all be able to acknowledge, before we discuss anything else, that it is immoral to be rich. That much is clear.

When the self is society, then taking care of society is taking care of the self.

As an example that John Green somewhat famously shared, in terms of being taxed for public education:
Public education does not exist for the benefit of students or the benefit of their parents. It exists for the benefit of the social order.

We have discovered as a species that it is useful to have an educated population. You do not need to be a student or have a child who is a student to benefit from public education. Every second of every day of your life, you benefit from public education.

So let me explain why I like to pay taxes for schools, even though I don't personally have a kid in school: It's because I don't like living in a country with a bunch of stupid people.
On a related note, the principle applied to a current topic in the news from the magazine America: The Jesuit Review:

The United Airlines debacle isn't about customer service. It's about the morality of capitalism.

Here is why United Airlines kicking off and countenancing the assault of a paying customer is a big deal: It helps to reveal how corporate America often puts rules before people and how capitalism often places profits before human dignity. (I am speaking not only as a Jesuit priest but as a graduate of the Wharton School of Business, someone who considers himself a capitalist and a veteran of several years in corporate America.) . . .

When we watch the video of the event something in us says, “That’s not right.” Pay attention to that feeling. It is our conscience speaking. That is what prompted the widespread outrage online—not simply the fact that people who have been bumped from flights share in the man’s frustration but the immorality of a system that leads to a degradation of human dignity. If corporate rules and the laws of capitalism lead to this, then they are unjust rules and laws. The ends show that the means are not justified.

Someone in authority—pilots, stewards, ground crew—might have realized that this was an assault on a person’s dignity. But no one stopped it. Why not? Not because they are bad people: They too probably looked on in horror. But because they have been conditioned to follow the rules. . . .

Is this a “first-world problem”? Yes, of course. Most people in the developing world could not afford a ticket on that flight. But it is very much a “world problem” because the victims of a system that places profits before all else are everywhere. The same economic calculus that says profits are the most important metric in decision-making leads to victims being dragged along the floor of an airplane and eking out an existence on the floor of a hovel in the slums of Nairobi.

The privileging of profits over people leads to unjust wages, poor working conditions, the degradation of the environment and assaults on human dignity. . . .

What is the solution, then, to a system that gave rise to such treatment? To recognize that profits are not the sole measure of a good decision in the corporate world. To realize that human beings are more important than money, no matter how much a free-market economist might object. To act morally. And to respect human dignity.

Because, when I am my network, a system that regards individual wealth accumulation over the care of other parts of my network is a system, ultimately, of self-harm.

Finally, a recent example of a network spontaneously working, surprisingly to many, to benevolent rather than destructive ends, with a complex set of dynamics like coalitions and negotiations in the mix:

When Pixels Collide

Last weekend, a fascinating act in the history of humanity played out on Reddit.

For April Fool's Day, Reddit launched a little experiment. It gave its users, who are all anonymous, a blank canvas called Place.

The rules were simple. Each user could choose one pixel from 16 colors to place anywhere on the canvas. They could place as many pixels of as many colors as they wanted, but they had to wait a few minutes between placing each one.

Over the following 72 hours, what emerged was nothing short of miraculous. A collaborative artwork that shocked even its inventors.

From a single blank canvas, a couple simple rules and no plan, came this:

Each pixel you see was placed by hand. Each icon, each flag, each meme created painstakingly by millions of people who had nothing in common except an Internet connection. Somehow, someway, what happened in Reddit over those 72 hours was the birth of Art.

How did this happen?

While I followed Place closely, I cannot do justice to the story behind it in the few words here. There were countless dramas -- countless ideas, and fights, and battles, and wars -- that I don't even know about. They happened in small forums and private Discord chats, with too much happening at once, all the time, to keep track of everything. And, of course, I had to sleep.

But at its core, the story of Place is an eternal story, about the three forces that humanity needs to make art, creation, and technology possible. . . .

It's not a simple process, but from even the most unlikely networks cooperation can emerge in ways that benefit the entire pluralistic organism.


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