People and Particles

People are, by most accounts, individuals. Thus the challenge of building good societies becomes a question of the role of individuals within a collective.

“Individuals” and “society,” as John Dewey bemoans, are often treated as antitheses. Building societies degrades the individual while individual freedom degrades societies.

Within this framework, one’s only hope is to develop strategies to balance these opposing interests. Individual freedom should be supported, but only within reason – laws should protect the collective whole.

As individuals within a society, we may debate where the proper line is – should laws govern firearms? Seat belt use? – but the framework is the same. Balancing the individual and the collective.

In The Public and its Problems –¬† spoiler alert, the public has many problems – Dewey refutes the individual vs collective standard:

A thing is one when it stands, lies or moves as a unit independently of other things…But even vulgar common sense at once introduces certain qualifications. The tree stands only when rooted in soil; it lives or dies in the mode of its connections with sunlight, air and water. Then too the tree is a collection of interacting parts; is the tree a more single whole than its cells?

Now, this all sounds a little earthy crunchy, as it were. Yes, yes, we are all connected. All part of nature. Blah, blah, hippie speech. Maybe it’s because I grew up in Northern California, but I’ve heard this all before.

It sounds good in theory, a skeptic might say, but does this cosmic connection mean anything in the real world? I am still me, you are still you, and you and I are still unique individuals. We still have a challenge: individual vs. society.

Or could this be an issue of frame?

Consider Peter Singer’s argument for acting as a global citizen. He begins by quoting¬† the Victorian philosopher Henry Sidgwick: We should all agree that each of us is bound to show kindness to his parents and spouse and children, and to other kinsmen in a less degree…

Singer reports that his students “nod their heads in agreement at the various circles of moral concern” which Sidgwick goes on to name.

Then the Victorian takes this little jaunt: [We should show kindness] to those of our own race more than to black or yellow men, and generally to human beings in proportion to their affinity to ourselves.

Yikes. Awkward. Singer’s students “sit up in shock.”

Treating your family with more care than others seems, perhaps, natural, but preferring your own race over others seems racist. Because it is racist. The notion appropriately ruffles our modern morality.

The point, of course, is to highlight this dissonance. This type of moral reasoning – that I should care about those “close to me” above others – is so pervasive that it too often goes unchecked. I may believe it’s immoral to care more for Europeans than for Africans, but accepting that I do have “circles of concern” makes me prone to such an outrage.

Singer argues that we need to re-frame the question of who is “like us,” by recognizing the common humanity that binds us all together.

I’ll leave that argument aside for the moment and bring this back to Dewey by saying that if you accept circles of moral concern – if you love your children more than a stranger – that is indicative that the individual/society struggle is more complex than a duality. There are many levels of association in between.

As Dewey goes on to describe:

Any human being is in one respect an association, consisting of a multitude of of cells each living its own life. And as the activity of each cell is conditioned and directed by those with which it interacts, so the human being whom we fasten upon as individual par excellence is moved and regulated by his associations with others; what he does and what the consequences of his behavior are, what his experience consists of, cannot even be described, much less accounted for, in isolation.

It is only when we strip man of their associations that we find the abstraction we call an “individual.” But in taking away the associations, we have taken away the meaning, the context – the “individual” as we know it is but a reflection, a placeholder, a simplification of the truth.

In true Deweyan fashion, I think I’ll conclude this post with a science metaphor.

Light, as you may know, is both a particle and a wave. In some experiments, it will behave as a discrete, complete particle. A single whole.

In other experiments, it will behave as a wave – altering the waves around it and radiating outwards with no discernible beginning or end.

A particle and a wave.

While this was first demonstrated with light, a core principle of quantum physics is that every material object, every thing that exists, is both a particle and wave. Yes, indeed, you yourself are a particle and a wave.

At least in a physical sense.

But, of course, one could apply this metaphor to associational living, with each person both a particle – a discrete ball of something – and a wave – a changing presence which affects those around it just as it is affected in turn.

Our families become atoms, our cities molecules, our countries cells, and our world a collective whole – consisting of a multitude of of cells each living its own life.

And somehow this complex world of dual natures and interactions becomes something coherent. Amidst the chaos, the randomness, and noise. It is complex, indeed, but it works.


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