Sunday, October 07, 2007

A Philosophy of Connection & Autonomy

Ever since flirting with being an Objectivist my first year of college, I've been fascinated with the idea of philosophy. I wanted to know everything about everything, a trajectory that led me to try to write an undergraduate thesis linking T.S. Eliot's Four Quartets with quantum physics and William James' pragmatism. The thesis never quite came to fruition, but the idea is still a good one, and I come back to it all the time.

Although I've outgrown Ayn Rand and her very thin, black-and-white fanaticism, I still admire her tenacity of mind and organization to bring followers with her in her thinking. Back in that freshman year of college, I had the poster on my wall listing her main tenets, covering the major branches of philosophy:
  • Ontology: This is the only reality there is.
  • Epistemology: We know what we know because of reason.
  • Ethics: Self-interest.
  • Aesthetics: (Can't really remember other than to say she hated emotional music ala Wagner or sentimental art ala Monet, which I discovered when the President of the Objectivists came to my room and tried to argue with me about why I liked the Monet poster hanging on my wall)
  • Social Organization: Democracy. (Not sure but must have been Representative Democracy, because she wasn't very optimistic about the intelligence of the masses or trusting of their ability to go beyond emotional pleas to reasoned voting patterns)
  • Economics: Capitalism. Period.
There's an objectivist institute. Objectivist books. Objectivist positon papers on current events. Alan Greenspan was an acolyte. This woman had followers. She did for philosophy what Frank Lloyd Wright did for architecture. She made lay people fans.

There was a time -- years, actually -- when Atlas Shrugged was the second-best-selling book in the world, second only to the bible. The bible.

Ever since that time, and after reading quite a bit of lay person quantum physics (Brian Greene and Heinz Pagels, high among them), I've flirted with my own philosophical structure of belief. Ayn Rand was a modernist, but we've moved to the postmodern age. A quantum age.

What holds it all together? Why do Rilke and Heisenberg both describe the same thing, and why does it resonate so powerfully?

I've written about connection, and implicitly about autonomy, but recently while reading the introduction of Edward Said's Culture and Imperialism, I realized these two form the basis of what I believe about everything. Together, they form my ontology.

Ontology: Connection & Autonomy

Gravity operates at all levels, pulling us toward leaders, attractive people and ideas. Where our autonomy is overpowered by this influence, we are sucked into the black hole and lose ourselves. Where our autonomy overpowers our attraction, we lose connection. In the balance, we find growth, health, and love.

From these, all things can be derived, from the atomic level to that of political systems, love, family, etc.

So how do we know what we know? How do we know what's real? What are the building blocks of how we live, how we think, how we reason, how we love?

I think there's a hierarchy, or at least a progression. I believe it goes something like this:

  • Awareness
  • Kindness
  • Respect
  • Impulse toward meaning
  • Choice
  • Identity
  • Family
  • Community
  • Culture
How do you know how to act?

I think there's an ethics that flows from the balance between connection and autonomy, too.


  • Sharing - information and resources (the balance to find here would be leverage -- maximizing connection in a way that capitalizes on the autonomy of both sides to benefit both
  • Listening/receiving - needing both openness and acceptance -- vulnerability being as important as strength
  • Prioritizing - ordering our connections, our own needs, our values, and our actions
  • Valuing/celebrating - the ability to appreciate and be grateful is one of the ultimate purposes of consciousness. Think Color Purple: "Everything wants to be love. Trees do everything people do to get attention accept walk. It pisses god off when people walk by the color purple without noticing."
  • Cultivating/sustaining - we take our celebration of the world one step further when we plant, kern, harvest -- cultivate and perpetuate what grows, in our fields, in our families, in our communities.
Consciousness is our ability not just to notice the world but to construct narratives about it, adding lyrics to the melody of what grows and the rhythm of what is. Plants can dance; we sing.

Love is the degree to which we can strike the balance between our respect for others' autonomy and our attraction to the connection. Where those two things enrich both -- it's healthy love.

Power is the extent to which we can manipulate gravity and pull others into our sphere of influence through both space and time.

Given this definition, what makes a good politician? What's the difference to the universe between Hitler and Martin Luther King, Jr.? Those who strike a balance between protecting the rights of the individual with the good of the community. Beware of any leader who asks for personal sacrifice for the good of all -- or asks that individuals compromise what they know to be right for a bigger cause.

So what is justice? That which maintains the balance between autonomy at the small scale and connection at the large scale over space and time. What is expedient in the short-term but doesn't lead to a sustainable connection over time? Not just. That which asks the community to bear the burden of negative impacts for what's good for one little capitalist at one point in history? Not just.

There are implications for faith that I'm still trying to explore. This is the first pass. As Prof. Claudia Isaac would say, it's the first pass at creating the groove in the head. Each pass makes it deeper.

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