"In the long run, we are all dead." -John Maynard Keynes
"An armed populace is its own best excuse." -D. L. Goines
I hail from ancestors who, as near as I can tell, had no political opinions of any kind, beyond a vague allegiance to either the Republican or Democratic party at election time. They did their work, and served their county honorably if called upon to do so, and lived lives completely outside any sort of political arena. They believed that America was the land of the free; that you could better yourself and improve your children's chances if you worked hard and minded your own business; and that they were as good as anybody else.
My own political interest and understanding in early 1964 was precisely zero, despite which I peripherally entered that summer's civil-rights movement at the very tag end of one of the demonstrations at the Sheraton-Palace. I vaguely recollect marching around in circles in front of the Oakland Tribune, but I was there only because some of my friends represented the opportunity to me as a lark and a way to irritate the powers that be.
That dramatic day, October 2, 1964 when I accidentally became involved in what was to become the Free Speech Movement, totally changed my life. I made new friends. I learned about things that I had not even suspected existed, and dedicated the next few years to what I understood as a struggle for political change in a system that seemed to me both dangerous and corrupt.
What I failed to understand then was that all political systems, when they get any real power, become dangerous and corrupt, and that any struggle toward changing the boys on the top would be no more than to exchange one set of bad masters for another.
I think that the amount of free will available to individuals, vis-a-vis their political and social systems, is strictly limited: individual molecules in a liquid display chaotic behavior--considered as a mass, however, their behavior can be predicted with near certainty. People are not much different.
I have come to the opinion that real political change emanates from technological evolution. Political activism has nothing to do with it. Politics are a result, not a cause. The mill does not make the water run. Not only do individuals not have control over this process, they can't even see it. In this, I echo Francis Bacon as cited by Needham in his introduction to Robert Temple's "The Genius of China":
Francis Bacon had selected three inventions, paper and printing, gunpowder, and the magnetic compass, which had done more, he thought, than any religious conviction, or any astrological influence, or any conqueror's achievements, to transform completely the modern world and mark it off from antiquity and the Middle Ages.
Technology is its own fertilizer, making fecund the soil in which it grows. Technology started off slowly, but in a geometrical progression the pace of change increased, feeding on itself.
People living in hunting and gathering societies are almost impervious to change. They don't like it, they don't want it, and they will go so far as to die before adopting it. Our remote ancestors lived for millennia with no appreciable alteration in the ways that they led their lives. Although they were intensely mistrustful of novelty and profoundly reluctant to do anything differently from the way it had been done before, minute changes over this great long period of time did occur. These hunter-gatherers learned enough about agriculture so that they could supplement their diets with food that they had sown and reaped. The rudiments of animal husbandry developed. Longer stretches of good weather enabled people to farm more than hunt, and about eight thousand years ago they awoke to discover that they had, all unwittingly, forsaken the free and easy life of a wanderer for the rooted round of the peasant. Tricked by climatological events to adopt the unappealing alternative of agriculture as a full time job, they rapidly developed all the essential trappings of civilization. Most of these were unpleasant. But, agriculture increased the population, and you can't go back to the bush after you've seen the farm, as it were. Land that will support twenty-five hunter-gatherers will support a thousand farmers. (1)
The use of technology causes increases in population density. Denser population demands more efficient use of resources and thereby promotes new technology.
When the Sumerian world changed from primarily hunting and gathering to one largely agrarian, by around 3500 BC a host of new institutions sprang into being: cities, government, taxes, war, slavery and writing are results of agrarian society.
Slavery was not created by any conscious, malevolent force, nor was it abolished by political activism. Slavery was created by the economics of agrarianism and destroyed by the general change of society from agrarian to industrial and capitalistic. It persisted only in those places where the inroads of industrialization were violently--and fruitlessly--resisted, and then for only a short span. By the beginning of the nineteenth century, slavery had nearly ceased to exist in the proto-industrial West and the Northern United States. Its doom seemed certain even in the fertile, agrarian American South until the invention of the cotton gin, which enabled a marginal cottage industry to dominate the entire landscape. As a consequence, the demands for labor, theretofore satisfied by the local population, outstripped the supply. The illegal and nearly non-existent slave trade boomed. In the process, the South was delayed on its path to industrialization, and made the dupe of separatist firebrands.
By the time abolitionists like George Fox became aware of slavery as a social evil it was already almost dead. A dramatic change in the way people earned their livelihoods created the institution of slavery, and an equally dramatic change abolished it. Activism only put the icing on the cake, and tapped a few nails into the coffin.
The institution of slavery effectively prevented the Roman culture from exploiting its technological developments. (2) The Romans had all the ingredients for an industrial revolution equivalent to that which occurred some 1800 years later, but failed to put them together. Slavery is anti-technological for a number of reasons. First, it destroys any incentive to find an easier or more economical way to perform a task. Second, it creates a non-consumer class which nonetheless performs much of society's work. Third, it competes with and displaces free men, who in turn become either slave owners or, as in the case of the later Roman empire, the unemployed mob. Last, as much as it creates a disincentive to innovation, it creates a make-work, welfare attitude. Slaves must be kept busy all the time, even if there really isn't enough work to go around. Idle slaves are a menace. Non-slaves, even if they aren't slave owners, become full-time policemen. An examination of the history of Sparta--and, for that matter the ante-bellum South--will illustrate the destructive effect of slaves on slave-owners.
Despite the loss of technical skills and knowledge, the breakdown of the Roman Empire released a considerable technological potential which had formerly been stifled. The middle ages produced technological innovations (windmill, crop rotation, horse collar, metal-tipped plough) devoted to making labor and land use more efficient. These would have made little sense to a slave-holding culture. Just as the excess of laborers inhibited technological progress under the Roman Empire, so did the shortage of manpower stimulate the industrialization of nineteenth century America.
I would argue that The Pill had more to do with the change in the ways women perceive their social role than any number of ex post facto tracts by Gloria Steinem. I do not mean, by this, to denigrate the writings of such progressive thinkers as Ms. Steinem or Mary Wollstonecroft (the mother of Mary Shelley, author of Frankenstein--pretty neat, huh?) in her "Vindication of the Rights of Women" (ca. 1795). They saw a change in society long before it was evident to others less perceptive. But they did not make the change happen. Those who see what others cannot, enable us to act so as to take advantage of the inevitable change, but I submit that the change would happen much the same way whether they were there or no. Apparent political awareness is a response to social change, which in turn is caused by the broad effects of new technology.
Despite the growing conviction that I live in a universe run entirely by the laws of blind chance and probability, I still do not like to think that John Calvin and the Predestination boyos were completely right. I therefore struggle to effect change in my world; to make it more like a world that conforms to my own beliefs and opinions. But I'm not sure that even my own desires to change things aren't the result of my own background and environment. Sure, I want to make the world over in my own image, just as others are equally convinced that the world should be changed in ways I find reprehensible.
My comfort when I see the miserable way that our government's (and everybody else's government's) leaders mess things up, lie, cheat and steal, violate the Constitution and parody the more literate leaders of the past, is that it doesn't matter too much. Crop rotation and the McCormick reaper shaped our modern world, not legislators. Electricity was a real agent of change, not political writers. Semi-conductors will shape the future, not the stated policies of our criminally retarded President or of that silly Pope.
If, on the other hand, I see evil done and do nothing, I would have a hard time living with myself. But the only effect that my actions have are on me. Action on an individual level, for small ends, seems to work well enough. Of course, you don't always get what you wanted. Often, indeed, the results are quite contrary to what you thought you'd get. But the alternative to action is to sit like a bump on a log. And who wants to sit still when everything else seems to be moving?
If, on the other hand, I try to improve the world, I am a much smaller part of a much larger fabric of myriad contradictory activists, all of whom are tugging and weaving this way and that, and creating, by their apparently random actions, a grand, immense tapestry. That the result is scarcely perceptible to even a greatly distanced observer, and certainly invisible except in the smallest part to a contemporary, does not dismay me too much. After all, I can see what other people did in their own times, and even though I can't tell what's going on in my part of the historical woof and warp, sooner or later someone will see that what I did was part of a really interesting era. Unfortunately, it will always be seen through the filter of the viewer's society, and interpreted according to his morality.
I'm not sure that social activism has any but a minor function. Political activism decreases in efficacy and increases in cost as it strays from the local level toward the global. A few dedicated citizens can usually get whatever they want from their school system or municipality. To effect the same degree of change when more people are involved it is necessary to overcome a proportionately greater inertia. At the global level, the realities of the Law of Diminishing Returns demand that a nearly infinite amount of energy is required to effect even an infinitesimal change.
Art tells, truthfully and accurately, what people did and thought. Deciphering the story gets progressively easier as we are further removed from a given time. Art can never lie. Even when people attempt to make it do so, as in frauds or fakes or efforts to paint a pleasant face on an evil man, it only can tell the truth. The Vermeer fakes made in the 1930s and sold to Germany's bully boys for fabulous sums, took everybody in. But now that we are removed only one generation from that time, any schoolchild can spot them a mile off. They look like they were painted in the 'thirties'. Government always lies, always rewrites history to vindicate or glorify its actions after it has come out (temporarily) on top. The function of art is to unmask government. Art is true subversion.
Government can only make a mess of things. The larger the government, the larger the messes will be.
Among other things, Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations emphasizes the pernicious effects of ill-considered taxation, and advises his sovereign to refrain from taxing goods without a careful look at the real results of that taxation. Taxes don't just garner revenue for the state. A tax on rum creates a new class of criminal, the smuggler. A tax on imported linen creates an artificial stimulus to native flax farming. Essentially a reverse subsidy, any future effort at removing the tax threatens the welfare of the inefficient native flax farmers, who will defend their subsidy with might and main. Thus, what seems simply like a way of enhancing revenue at the expense of the wealthy, or at the expense of foreign powers, quickly becomes a tiger by the tail. It becomes clear that any form of government subsidy whatever is pernicious in the long run.
By the same measure, do-gooder efforts to ameliorate poverty (subsidized housing, welfare) result only in an entrenchment of the conditions that created the poverty in the first place, making it difficult or impossible for succeeding generations to break out of the cycle thus created.
Almost all lawmaking is reactive; an ad hoc response to something that is either over with by the time the lawmakers get around to dealing with it, or which would have been far better left alone. Ignorant meddling in complex systems tends to produce results contrary to those desired. The best illustration at my local level is the failed experiment of rent control:
It seems clear to me that much of the stress on Berkeley's housing market has been created by well-meaning, but disastrous, legislative interference.
In 1973, reacting to the razing of comfortable old student-occupied slums, which were generally replaced by ugly new stucco monstrosities, Berkeley enacted the Neighborhood Preservation Ordinance, the object of which was to place a stumbling block in the path of would-be developers. Among other things hidden away in the bowels of this little time-bomb was the seemingly generous- spirited proviso that, in all new construction of four or more units, twenty-five percent of them must be rented at rates attractive to those with lower incomes (Section 4[b]), and for buildings of eight units or larger, at least half must be so (Section 4[c]). Now, the only problem with this is that the balance of the units would have to subsidize the less expensive, thereby becoming noncompetitive with prevailing rents in the surrounding community.
As a result, new construction of rental units in Berkeley declined sharply. Vacant lots appeared where buildings had burned down. Derelict apartments were rehabilitated as shops or office space.
By the late 1970s, we were feeling the pinch. The University of California was still in business, and thousands of students desperately needed somewhere to live. Not only had Bay Area land prices gone sky high, but rental housing that had disappeared was not being replaced. BART construction, for example, knocked out huge numbers of apartments and rentable single family residences, and no new housing was built on the former sites. Low income units at Savo Island Village were razed, to be succeeded by the Berkeley Adult School.
Consequently, the law of supply and demand created what were perceived as startlingly high rents. In reaction to this, in 1980 the Berkeley electorate passed a rent control ordinance, further discouraging landlords from any desire to own or construct rental property in this city. Recent Draconic embellishments on the basic theme have done nothing to persuade anyone in the private sector to create housing aimed at those who have lower incomes, who in this city are predominantly UC Students.
Landlords rent by preference to more stable, middle class tenants. Even without this overt selection, the highly transient student population would inevitably be displaced by the less transient, non-student population. Students are thus forced out, to seek housing in the hinterlands of surrounding communities. The beginning of the school year now witnesses unfortunates who have been unable to find any housing at all and are reduced to sleeping on cots in a disused gymnasium. For this meager privilege they pay the equal of a monthly rent of three hundred dollars.
Students are not the only group elbowed out as a result of this clumsy legislation. The black and elderly population of Berkeley has also declined. Various tardy, feeble efforts at construction of low-income housing have had no discernible effect.
Despite a drop in population between 1970 and 1980, Berkeley remains among the most densely populated cities in the United States. In a city this crowded, the less driving about, the better. Unfortunately, when students can no longer find housing near the university, they are forced to commute. Many residents, victims of the aggressive anti-growth attitude that this city has displayed over the last two decades, find work in other cities. Traffic worsens as a result of dramatically increased commuting.
Throughout the seventies, as housing inexorably tightened, the city's middle class population inevitably increased. Berkeley changed to accommodate its dominant population. The rise and proliferation of our famous gourmet culture, for example, parallels the rise of the middle class over the same interval. By the time rent control was enacted, the shopper's paradise was fully formed. As a further by-product of rent control, the disposable income of the average Berkeley resident was effectively increased, subsidized by the landowners. This has gone far to enhance and expand Berkeley's vigorous, trend setting culture.
If the electorate had actually set out to deplete the city of its poorer population, to create traffic snarls and encourage the costly proliferation of functionless, rapacious bureaucracies, it could not have done a better job.
Anticipatory legislation is often the result of misplaced social concern (the prohibition of tobacco or hard liquor advertising on TV), scares (homophobic anti-AIDS laws), gross misinformation (cutting down all the eucalyptus trees in the Berkeley hills after the great freeze of 1972) prejudice (the incarceration of law-abiding citizens of Japanese ancestry during World War ii) or all three together (anti-firearm campaigns). Things can get badly out of hand sometimes: only a government can wage war; only a government can exterminate millions of people because of their religion, race or political allegiance.
Laws passed to inhibit social evils, such as prostitution, drunkenness or drug addiction, serve infallibly only to worsen the situation. Their first result is instantly to transform law abiding citizens into criminals. If being a hooker, boozer or hemp farmer is not illegal, then there is no crime. If it is illegal, then ipso facto there is a crime. Nothing has changed except the law. The second result is to transform a lawful, free-market business into an unlawful, underground and highly lucrative criminal calling, thereby making it worth people's while to do it. As a byproduct, the users of the newly illegal drugs, for example, suddenly cannot pay for their habits through normal jobs, and become burglars, dealers and whores. In no case have these laws mitigated the problems they set out to ease.
The most outstanding illustration of this Schlimmbesserung (worsening by improvement) in our century is that of "the noble experiment," Prohibition. Between 1919 and 1932, the manufacture, sale or consumption of alcoholic beverages was against the law. People did not stop drinking, however. Indeed, they drank more than they ever had. All that Prohibition did was to create, ex nihilo a nation of scofflaws, whose heroes were common criminals. Even though Prohibition was, at last, repealed, the damage to the American psyche will tarnish our nation well into its future. Psyche aside, another result of Prohibition was the creation of a huge, powerful machine dedicated to illegal activities; when Prohibition went away, the Mob did not. Playing right into the hands of this criminal underground is, of course, the entirely counter-productive "war on drugs," which we lost about thirty years ago.
Now, there are indeed such things as natural crimes (murder, arson, rape, theft) as opposed to artificial crimes (growing marijuana, turning tricks, draft dodging, tax evasion). I agree that any body of people must get together and deal with real problems, but the ideal is to avoid contaminating the lawmaking process by legislating every damned thing that comes down the pike. That's the whole problem with having professional lawmakers: they think that they should make laws all the time.
Even seemingly small systems are, in fact, large enough to have unpredictable (and undesirable) results when they are interfered with. In the early 1930s, the newly formed Federal Radio Commission began to test its authority and moved to revoke the broadcasting licenses of certain individuals whose operations it felt were not serving the public interest. One of the first people the feds went after was the "Goat Gland Man," Dr. John R. Brinkley of Milford, Kansas. His station kfkb, "Kansas First, Kansas Best," broadcast an eclectic mix of programs that included the "Medical Question Box," a forum for Brinkley's quack claims. The FBC decided that such advice should not be broadcast and in 1931 stilled the voice of the Midwest's surgical swami. In response, the resourceful Brinkley accepted an invitation from the Del Rio Chamber of Commerce to build a station across the Rio Grande in Villa Acuna, Mexico. Dr. Brinkley's border blaster, christened XER ("The Station Between The Nations"), went on the air with 100,000 watts in October of 1931. Eventually, the station got up to 500,000 watts, with directional antennas that boosted the effect to one million watts. (By comparison, the most powerful American AM stations are limited to 50,000 watts, and most broadcast with only a fraction of that power.) A million watts reached not only the favored audience in the gullible Midwest, but effectively blanketed the whole of North America. Now Brinkley could sell to a far wider audience, unhampered by any restraining legislation.
A wave of "outlaw" broadcasters quickly followed Brinkley's lead and hightailed it south of the border to set up powerful stations. Norman Baker, a former vaudeville mentalist and proprietor of a guaranteed cure for cancer, lost his station KTNT ("Know The Naked Truth") in Iowa soon after Brinkley lost KFKB, and built a huge transmitter in Nuevo Laredo. Cancer cures, laxatives, get-rich-quick schemes, and weight pills were important, but it was the preachers, most notably the natural cataclysm Reverend Ike, who paid the bills. Television has supplanted the glories of evangelical border radio, and North American skies are no longer shattered by the jackhammer howls of Wolfman Jack.
If the government had entirely ignored Brinkley and his ilk the problem would have remained minor. Instead, they drove him into what proved to be an enterprise lucrative beyond the dreams of avarice. By ill-considered action, the FRC effectively created a problem that was not only far worse than what they had tried to eliminate, but moved it to where they couldn't even get at it.
When the Chinese government in the 1950s responded to a proliferation of rats, which ate huge portions of the crops, by putting a bounty on them, the peasants started raising rats.
Essentially, the cure is always worse than the disease. Any meddling with very large systems, such as the ecology or the economic or social structure of nations, results, seemingly inevitably, in a worsening of their condition.
The article "Classical Chaos" in American Scientist magazine discusses the essentially chaotic nature of large systems. If you don't consider all the elements of a system, you can't accurately predict what will happen if you do something to it. Thus, as has been adequately demonstrated to even a biased observer, the use of pesticides, broad spectrum antibiotics, price controls or arms control agreements will not necessarily yield the desired outcomes. Furthermore, they cannot yield the desired outcomes. (3)
Most systems are so large (or complex) that they can't be understood. Efforts at simplifying them leave out the very things that need attention. There is no faster way of finding out how a chaotic system will evolve than to watch its evolution. The system itself is its own fastest computer.
Trying to make the system more orderly doesn't work, either. The introduction of computers on a large scale into business and government might be thought to have had the effect of making things more orderly and thus more predictable, and to increase the amount of work performed as well as reducing the cost. No such thing has happened. If anything, less work is being performed at greater cost. Although the computer has lightened the burden of manual labor, the effect has been to displace highly paid blue collar workers into the relatively lower paid ranks of white collar employees. The consuming ability of the society as a whole has thus actually decreased. Although manufacturing is much more efficient and cheaper, management has become more crowded and inefficient. The predicted gain has perhaps emerged as a zero sum.
On the New York Stock Exchange, for example, although the use of computers has decreased the frenzied shouting on the floor while increasing the volume of trading, prices seem more volatile than ever. The very ability to predict the market, by ordering previously unmanageable masses of information, has made the market less predictable. Furthermore, since everybody is using much the same systems to analyze similar information, they all make the same decisions at once, throwing the whole shebang into chaos at perfectly random intervals. (4)
A "Scientific American" article "Beaches and Barrier Islands" underscores the idea that efforts to stabilize or preserve even small natural systems are futile. Most manmade structures designed to protect these landforms along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts of the U.S. eventually fail. The article concludes that it might often be wiser not to interfere with the course of natural events. Observing the paradox that manmade structures do not merely fail to protect beaches but actually destroy them, in 1973 the Park Service adopted the policy of letting nature take its course on all the national seashores.
It has only recently been concluded that the systematic, vigorous prevention of forest fires has created problems that are worse than if fires had been allowed to occur.
We entered the Vietnam Conflict with the express goal of preventing the spread of Communism, and succeeded only in pouring gasoline on a fire that would likely have burned itself out had we left it alone. We completely misunderstood the nature of the conflict. The lesson we got from Vietnam was learned by some of the people, but by none of the leaders. In that country we brought about the very thing that we opposed.
You can't successfully fight communism by promoting another form of tyranny. Vietnam wasn't a communist country until the United States promoted a succession of dictators who were very unpopular with the people they ruled. Eventually, they were swept away by the forces of liberation that came down from North Vietnam. With our policies, we made it look as if, in order to be for freedom you had to be against the Americans. Which was ridiculous. Ho Chi Minh himself was addicted to our constitution. He originally wanted to set up a republic independent from France, with a constitution similar to ours. We forced him to look in the only direction where he could get help. Peter Davis
We seem to be repeating the error in Central America and elsewhere. Fortunately, we are not alone in these mistakes. Our chief competitor for the hearts and minds of men seems to be performing the same dumb stunts, albeit on a more modest scale.
Progress consists of great and small revolutions against authority." Thomas E. Starzl, President of the International Transplant Society and the American Society of Transplant Surgeons, "The Puzzle People: Memoirs of a Transplant Surgeon", as reviewed in "American Scientist", September-October, 1994, page 482.
All governments are evil, inefficient and wasteful of life and property. The outward form of government, such as democratic, oligarchical, communistic, fascistic and so on is neither good nor bad. My observation is that where the land is wealthy, the government is good. Where the land is poor, the government is bad. The actual form of government is largely unimportant. Any effort to change the form of government is, therefore, pointless. The only valid effort that one can make is to diminish the power of government, to make it less evil in degree, largely by a reduction of the amount of money that the government has to play with. This would be universally valid, regardless of the putative form of the governmental system in question. All governments can be improved by making them weaker.
Small systems are more efficient than large ones. The larger the machine, the less efficiently it uses fuel, turning more of it into heat as a result of friction. More fuel is required initially to overcome the greater inertia, and more energy is wasted in the form of heat when the machine is slowed or brought to a halt. Think of a Cadillac versus a Moped.
A really large machine, like the federal government, is almost perfectly inefficient, consuming nearly all the energy put into it simply to run itself. Local government is aware of local problems, and can deal with them relatively quickly and cheaply. The further away the source of remedy, the slower, more expensive and less effective it will be.
Taxes levied and consumed at the municipal level tend to get more work done per dollar than larger sums gathered to a central government and then redistributed.
Thus, the goal should be, not to replace one large system of government with another (which cannot be any better), but to reduce the size of government at all levels.
The problem is that any bureaucratic system, once begun, tends to grow forever. Parkinson's Law is important when evaluating political systems. His law states, in essence, that "work expands to consume the resources allotted to it." Thus, all governmental systems grow infinitely, performing no more work regardless of size. Furthermore, it is a concomitant that they desire to grow and become more powerful. They have no interest in performing any function beyond that. If anything, the history of bureaucratic systems is that they are not only not productive, they are the enemies of productivity. Motion of any sort threatens their existence. The purpose of bureaucracy is to stop things from happening.
It is possible to view the First World War as an event resulting from the increased productive capacities of the conflicting nations. So few workers were needed to supply the antagonists with food and materiel that, although hideously expensive, the war could nonetheless continue for years. For the same reasons, the latter part of this century has seen an increase in the size of bureaucracies. So few people are required to provide the goods and services upon which society depends that the percentage of essentially functionless workers can proliferate nearly infinitely. So we see bureaucracy supplanting war as the meaningless consumer of excess productive capacity.
The smaller the basic unit of government, the less room it has to grow. A local government, once again, will always have fewer resources available to it, and will more easily be pruned back when it starts to get out of hand.
Ideally, the federal government should be extremely weak, the state governments slightly stronger and the local governments, relatively, the strongest of all. But they should all be feeble, compared to what we have today.
That government is best which governs least. (5) By this measure, the most desirable government would be one that did not exist. I realize that Classical Anarchism is an unattainable goal, but the next best alternative of moderate Libertarianism seems realistic, though flawed. Not that I have any intention of actually becoming involved with these bozos, mind you, as my next observation about the nature of political systems is that the ones on the outs can always afford to be good guys, but as soon as they actually attain any measure of real power, to that same degree they become corrupt. This is true of individuals, as well. By definition, idealists cannot exist in positions of power. Power corrupts. The less power available, the less corruption.
Art is history, technology is change, politics is bunk.
Why am I so drawn to the mechanical solidity of a determinist world? Why am I so eager to accept a system which denies an attribute that, in other contexts, I cherish--that of free will and the ultimate responsibility of the individual for his own fate? Why am I inclined to deny the tenets of religion, and embrace in its stead a universe based solely on mechanical principles and mathematics? Why do I want to believe that nothing I or anyone else does as individuals really matters very much? Why am I, otherwise a rather hopeful and optimistic person, so inclined to a philosophy that eventually boils down to an almost primitive fatalism? Am I overlooking something--the effects of blind chance, some hidden pattern, a further reality?
I was raised a Protestant. Lutheran Christianity is centered on the idea that the individual is strictly accountable to an eternal, omnipotent, omniscient deity. This despite the equally important tenet that all things happen by God's will and knowledge. The quandary so created, that of free will versus predestination, is not resolved, and always leaves the sincere Calvinist with the nagging fear that he may or may not be among the elect. Although salvation emanates solely from faith, faith without works is dead. The outward evidence of works is worldly success, but, as we all know, it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Likewise wise men and famous men. So, if you are favored by God and become rich, famous or wise, you have thereby endangered your salvation.
Despite the need for works as outward evidence of faith, they alone will not effect salvation. Thus the good man who lacks faith is nonetheless damned. Damnation is the incontrovertible fate of all who do not believe. There is no provision for those who were born before Christ, with the possible, arguable exception of those Jews who were so favored by God as to be among His chosen people. They, of course, would necessarily have been the recipients of grace by acceptance and belief in the God of Abraham and (at some point) the coming of a Messiah. When the Messiah actually came, those Jews who failed to accept Him as such were, perforce, unbelievers thenceforth. It goes without saying that all other peoples not so fortunate as to have been chosen by God, all those who lacked faith because they had never heard, all those whose cultures and native religions prevented them from accepting either the God of the Jews or the Christian Messiah, are damned.
Being raised in the disturbing, capricious universe of Protestantism can be hard on someone who examines the tenets of faith rather than accepting their various paradoxes without question.
When I at last rejected my natal religion, I needed something to replace it. Had I been raised without religion, perhaps I would not have sought one in a more secular form. But I still want everything to make sense. In part, I think that this rather gloomy philosophy pleases me because contained within it is the notion that there is, finally, an explanation for everything, even if nothing has any ultimate meaning. It is pleasingly Calvinist, allowing for a certain scope of individual free will within a framework of unbending determinism. Like Christianity or the Old Testament Jehovah, belief or unbelief neither creates nor renders it invalid. But, by comforting contrast, there is no eternal penalty for the philosophical heathen. Neither is there any reward.
(1) The last glacial was at its maximum only 18,000 years ago; and then temperatures rose relatively quickly. It has been known for a long time that the last glacial did not go out with a whimper, but instead the onset of warming was interrupted by short, sharp periods of new, deep cold. The last and mast dramatic of these is called the Younger Dryas Event, a cold period lasting approximately 1,300 years and ending roughly 11,500 years before the present, when average air temperatures suddenly rose by about 7 degrees Celsius. In this case "suddenly" really is the right word. Most older estimates indicated that the transition to warmer temperatures took place over a period of about 50 years. New evidence from Greenland suggests that both the Younger Dryas/Allerod shifts happened in less than 20 years, and perhaps as few as three to five yearsa level of climatic violence totally unmatched in the following 11,500 years. The last glacial lasted about 100,000 years. A relatively sudden cessation of eustatic sea-level rise in the Mediterranean about 6,000 years ago caused a change in siltation that produced the Nile delta and, with it, allowed the evolution of pre-Dynastic civilizations based on agriculture. (Keith Stuart Thompson, "Northern Exposures," "American Scientist", Volume 81, November-December 1993, pages 522-525)
(2) For a discussion of the role of slavery and technology in Ancient Rome see "A Roman Factory," by A Trevor Hodge in the November 1990 "Scientific American".
(3) See also Seth R. Reice, "Nonequilibrium Determinants of Biological Community Structure," "American Scientist", September-October 1994, pages 424-435p
(4) This passage was written well before the exciting events of October, 1987. Oh! my prophetic soul!
(5) "Civil Disobedience", Henry David Thoreau, or as Emerson said, "The less government we have, the better--the fewer laws, and the less confided power," Essays, Second Series (1844), "Politics."
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