15 December 2016


A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy. He described how the earth orbits around the sun and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on.” “You’re very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old lady. “But it’s turtles all the way down!”
After beginning his Brief History of Time with this story, Stephen Hawking goes on to ask the reader, "...Why do we think we know better?" Or, let me ask, do we at least have some idea of what is at the foundation?

The Wikipedia article on the turtles story cites a number of versions of this fable and proposes that essentially it is "a jocular expression of the infinite regress problem in cosmology posed by the 'unmoved mover' paradox." I see the turtles used two different ways. First, the fable pokes gentle fun at naive attempts to oversimplify phenomena that are either complex or not understood at all. The second use is more or less the opposite: the "turtles" are some under-recognized thread or factor that unifies or helps explain complex realities.

For example, I think the first time I heard about the turtles was at Carleton University during my very first semester as a student. In one of my sociology classes, we talked about the size and scale of organized groups, and how they became exponentially more complex as they grew arithmetically -- and therefore social control also threatened to become exponentially more urgent, complex, and domineering. At one point the professor said that, instead of turtles, our reality is "politics all the way down."

The next time I ran into the turtles was in 1977, during a presentation on spirituality and sexuality by John Yungblut at the Friends Center in Philadelphia. Philadelphia Yearly Meeting Friends had been working on gay and lesbian concerns for several years at that point. Yungblut was not exactly opposing the increased acceptance of homosexual people, but he was pleading for an understanding of the male-female duality as something not to be minimized in both its biological and spiritual, even cosmic, manifestations. Arguing that this binary dynamic pervaded the structure of the universe, he said, "It's sex all the way down!"

What really does unify all creation? I think both politics and sex relate to the answer, at least metaphorically. Both are aspects of relationship; both are arenas in which power flows, is hoarded or shared. As we participate in all sorts of relationships, we are constantly challenged to consider, implement, and struggle for the points of our moral compass that can guide us at every level.

If John the Evangelist is right, those moral priorities are shaped by love.
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. ... Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen. And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister. (1 John 4:7-9, 20-21, New International Version.)
Politics involves how we allocate scarce resources; love ideally shapes why. (Quaker economist Kenneth Boulding comes to mind, in that he may be one of the few economists whose thought had an explicit place for love!) If God loved creation into existence in the first place (which I do believe), then that gentle, persistent, and ultimately victorious universal force of love, despite all our bumbling and fear and selfish resistance, must go all the way down, to the last turtle and beyond.

One of my exercises in moral prioritizing is to read even the flattest or most skeptical analyses of politics and other relationships through the eyes of love. The Lord knows, we have plenty of opportunities to practice this discipline, choosing (in Kenneth Boulding's terms) whether we will act in specific situations through threat, exchange, or love.

Avoiding false witness in the Time of Trump: a mildly positive review of the Secretary of State nomination; avoiding sloppy categorizations of Trump's cabinet picks; putting Russia's alleged role in perspective.

On the other hand, what comparisons might we make between Putin and Trump? (That is, if "we" were Masha Gessen.)

Alexei Navalny announces his candidacy for the Russian presidency in 2018's election.

Why aren't Russians protesting war crimes in Syria?

"Obama’s embrace of white innocence was demonstrably necessary as a matter of political survival." Ta-Nehisi Coates, My president was black. Update: the Political Gabfest panel just interviewed Coates about this article on their most recent podcast, which should shortly be available here.

John Wilson's favorite books of 2016.

A weary world rejoices.

"Now I found somebody to go my bond."

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Read much of the Coates piece on Obama last night, ran out of time. Just now watched much of Charlie Rose's interview of Coates on PBS -- WOW! -- went back to finish my reading. What amazing depth of perception and analysis!