The Emergence of Freedom | Interview with James Barham

The Emergence of Freedom | Interview with James Barham

James Linder interviews James Barham, PhD, historian and philosopher. Barham is challenging the traditional views of Darwinian evolution in this in-depth interview.

Interview with James Barham

Interview Transcript

(Editor’s Note: The following transcript has been lightly edited to improve clarity.)


James Linder: I kind of want to toy with the idea of you thinking of me as like a voter for your ideas, you’re trying to convince me. I’m not sure how I feel about that yet. But just something I had in mind.

James Barham: Well, that’s what philosophy, I think, consists in. You try to present . . . argue for . . . a position, a proposition, and be persuasive. Certainly. Yeah.

James Linder: Good, good, good. And I’m basically gonna be your sidekick, you know. I hope to push back a little bit, here and there, but more in terms of just trying to understand what you’re saying. The goal isn’t to . . . as we talked about before, the goal isn’t to have any gotcha moments or shoot down your ideas.

James Barham: Well, it’s okay. I mean, push-back is normal, that’s part of the philosophical “dialectic,” as they say. So . . .

James Linder: Well, that’s assuming that I can keep up with you to push back. That’s quite an assumption.

Full Interview

James Linder: Hi, this is James Linder with Academic Influence, and today I’m interviewing James Barham. James is a historian and philosopher of science. He earned his master’s degree from Harvard and his PhD in history and philosophy of science from Notre Dame. He is challenging the traditional views of Darwinian evolution, and that’s what we’re talking about today. So, James, thank you for being here. You know, obviously, like we just talked about, I want to learn from you and, to the extent that I can, to keep up. But the first thing I want to do is learn about you.

So, tell me who you are. What was your religious upbringing? And what was your academic journey?

James Barham: Well, thank you for having me, first of all. Who am I? Well, I’m now 70 years old, so it’s a long story of how I got to where I am today. Over 70, I should say. I was born in ’52, so I was raised in the 1950s—a long time ago—in Dallas, Texas. And just looking at the things that are pertinent to my intellectual journey, I was raised with some exposure to the Southern Baptist faith, Protestant religion. But I was always interested in books for as long as I can remember. I just, you know . . . really, I was kind of solitary, nerdy, as a kid. I didn’t have a whole lot of friends, you know, I was bullied and so forth and so on. I found my refuge in the world of books.

And so, I discovered this whole wider world beyond the one that I was exposed to by my immediate family. And I remember reading—with respect to religion—I remember reading Bertand Russell’s essay, “Why I am Not a Christian,” around the age of 11, and realizing that there were, you know, smart people out there in the world who didn’t think the same way as my beloved grandmother. And I remember lying in bed at night after having said my prayers, wondering whether there really was a God, and praying to Him that, if I should lose my faith in Him, that perhaps He would forgive me. So, I was . . . I think I was trying to have my cake and eat it too—you know, have it both ways, there.

James Linder: Pascal’s wager—I think we talked about that before.

James Barham: I suppose so, on an intuitive, instinctive, child’s level. At any rate, that period of time didn’t last very long. And I decided, at the ripe age of 12, that I was an atheist and believed in science—that science was the be-all and the end-all. I should say, perhaps too, that I was exposed to science in the . . . growing up in the 1950s, during the space race, you know, shortly after the atomic bombs were set off in Japan, exposed to science fiction films and novels. I was raised at a time in which science became a mass entertainment, you might say. And there were . . . I remember having a little picture book describing the atom. I mean, it was obviously a very naive, kind of a pre-quantum, planetary model of the atom. But still, you know, as a six- or seven-year-old, it taught me the names of the main subatomic particles and so forth.

I had a set of missiles from the NASA space program that I assembled, put together, made out of plastic. I followed the space program avidly. I remember taking a radio—what do you call it? . . . a small portable radio, to school . . . transistor radio . . . they were new at the time—a transistor radio to school in 1962 to listen to the progress of John Glenn’s flight. And I had to hide it because it was forbidden. But I snuck into the boys’ bathroom and listened to it—you know, the heat-shield had become . . . he’d gotten a signal in the cockpit that the heat-shield was detached, and we thought he was gonna burn up in the atmosphere.Oh, I was sweating bullets—we were 10 years old.

I had a tremendous collection of dinosaur models. I read a book on, I forget his name now, but one of the great explorers, archeologists—“paleontologists,” I should say—who unearthed the dinosaurs in—Chapman, I think his name was, [actually, “Roy Chapman Andrews”–ed.]—in the Gobi Desert in Mongolia. I mean, these are all the formative influences on me that made me just fall in love with science. So, I had this scientific orientation, the scientific worldview coupled with my newfound atheism. And it’s clear to me in retrospect that I was using science as a kind of a substitute for religion, which I think a lot of secular people do, either knowingly or not. I have come to that conclusion. Of course, it’s not a very original conclusion, a lot of people would argue that.

In terms of me, nothing that I experienced in college shook my belief system in the slightest. On the contrary, [it] just reinforced it. And it wasn’t until much later when my life kind of didn’t go quite the way that I thought it was going to go—I did not make an academic career the way I had hoped to, for a variety of personal reasons I won’t bore you with here—but I ended up on the job market in my thirties, trying to earn a living, and finding myself working for minimum wage and kind of . . . even though I had a Harvard degree, I just couldn’t translate that into any kind of a career.

And I think that, and personal problems, health problems, sort of the general first-hand experience of the pain and suffering of the human condition—not to put too grand a spin on it, but the kind of things that lots of people, most people in fact, experience—made it clearer to me what religion was really all about. And that there was this whole dimension to human existence that science really didn’t even begin to address.James Linder: And what was that?

James Barham: I was in my thirties before I began to . . . before my scientistic—I would now describe it as “scientistic”—should I pause and explain what I mean by that?

James Linder: Sure. Please do.

James Barham: “Scientism,” I would define as a philosophy—not a form of science at all, but a philosophy—which claims that all the knowledge worth having, all the real knowledge attainable to human beings, can only come to us through the natural sciences, and no other form of experience or reflection is valid except natural science. And I think I certainly subscribed to that up until my mid-thirties. And then, for the variety of reasons I’ve tried to briefly outline already, I began to question that in my later thirties.

James Linder: Can I ask you a quick question?

James Barham: Sure.

James Linder: About scientism: How is that different from Hayek’s view of scientism? I know you’ve read Hayek pretty widely.

James Barham: I don’t think it is different. I think that I would agree with pretty much everything that Hayek has to say in The Counter-Revolution of Science, I believe is the book in which he discusses these matters. He traces the historical roots of the scientistic worldview through, I think he goes back to the early utopian socialists in the nineteenth century, and he talks about Auguste Comte and maybe Herbert Spencer, I’ve forgotten exactly. But yeah, I remember nodding my head in agreement reading that book, a number of years back.

James Linder: Got it.

James Barham: So, anyway, to make a long story short, I began to have doubts and . . .

James Linder: Doubts about your atheism?

James Barham: Doubts about my atheism, doubts about the all sufficiency of the scientific narrative of, of man’s place in the universe. Now, obviously, one of the key factors, or really the linchpin of the scientists’ worldview is the Darwinian theory of evolution by natural selection, because it’s really that more than anything else, that makes a complete atheistic worldview somewhat conceivable, or coherent, intellectually. And my doubts in general began to coalesce and take on a more definite form, a more intellectual form, when I became interested in the problem of teleology. What is the problem of teleology? Well, teleology just refers to purpose. It’s the study or the phenomenon of the goal-directedness, or purposiveness, with which living things are endowed, seemingly. Now, a Darwinian will, of course, say, “Well, what you’re really talking about, Barham, are functions.”

Everything about organisms seems to be there because of some function or other, serving some purpose or other, but in a functional sense, and a function according to Darwin is something that can be put in place—first of all, it has a mechanical explanation. It can be explained in terms of cybernetics, you know, feedback loops, and that’s all true.

James Linder: Describe that more.

James Barham: Well, feedback is when a system, an artifact, is guided in its behavior in an ongoing way, in real time, by information that’s coming in from the environment. So, take for example, a heat-seeking missile. A heat-seeking missile is a cybernetic device. It has a purpose. Its purpose is to, you know, hit and destroy, say, an airplane, something with an engine that’s hot. And the airplane could take evasive actions, but the missile will then take compensating actions. And how can it do that? Well, because it’s got sensors that are recording information about its target’s position in space and time, and its velocity and, you know, the directionality and all of that. That’s called feedback—when you have information coming back into the system to correct the behavior of the system so that it follows on a trajectory leading towards its goal.

Now, all living things are endowed with such cybernetic feedback systems and the people, scientists, the thinkers—this viewpoint that I’m trying to describe was largely put in place after World War II by a variety of people: John von Neumann figures largely among them. Norbert Wiener is a name that some people may recognize. And once the idea that a purposive action, a goal-directed action, a teleological action can be modeled using feedback systems, negative feedback, I should say—positive feedback, which you get out of a microphone or something is totally different—then it became natural for scientifically oriented people to begin to think of the cell itself, of living organisms themselves, as nothing but machines closely analogous to man-made machines, to man-made artifacts. So, the Darwinian view became expanded into this much broader view, which has it that purpose is basically an illusion. Just as there’s no real purpose in a heat-seeking missile—a heat seeking missile doesn’t know or care about what it’s doing, or its target. It’s just, it’s just a system that has been designed to behave under certain constraints, the result of those constraints being that it will then home in on a hot target as its purpose or its goal.

Now, there’s a problem, though, I mean, it seems like a natural inference to make to say that, “Oh, well, this then gives us our model of living things.” And, of course, how do they come into existence? Well, through the Darwinian mechanism of random variation at the genetic level, you have, we know that you have genes mutate, and they can randomly throw up various phenotypes, and the ones that are successful in terms of reproductive success are the ones that will be propagated into the future, and so forth and so on. So, this seemed to be a very satisfying master narrative of the history of life, which gets rid of purpose, which gets rid of anything resembling mentality.

But I became aware through my reading—this is just on my own now, my free hours, I was working as a bank clerk, in my free hours of reading in philosophy—I became aware that, you know, there are some serious problems with this way of looking at the world, this scientistic view of the world, namely, while the heat-seeking missile’s goals do not reside within the missile itself, but have been imposed upon the missile in a set of rigid constraints, have been imposed by the human designers of the missile, living things are entirely different in that respect. First of all, they’re not rigid in the same way, they’re not constrained in the same way in their behavior. They’re quite flexible and adaptive, and they have some kind of innate ability to improvise and to—now it’s true that they have to still have a mechanical basis upon which to improvise. They still have to be able to have feedback, but they can adapt themselves to new circumstances in a quite remarkable way.

And I’m talking about all living things down to the single-cell level. In fact, in most of my work, I’ve concentrated on single cells. I haven’t spent much time talking about evolution at higher levels until this most recent work I’ve been doing on this book.

James Linder: What’s the name of that book?

James Barham:The Emergence of Freedom. And I’m trying to apply some of the lessons that I believe I have learned or developed in writing my doctoral dissertation at Notre Dame on the conceptual foundations of biology at the single cell, trying to apply that to better understand humanity’s place in nature, and in order to challenge the scientistic program by offering a counter-narrative, a counter–master narrative, or program, if you will.

So, the question is, how to conceive of life, if you’re not willing to say that purpose is an illusion? If purpose is objectively real, how can that be? I’m not saying that it’s somehow transcendent or magical or put there by God or anything like that. I’m pointing in, in the dissertation and in the book, to a body of research, which points out that life is quite different from the way we ordinarily think of it at, at the single-cell level. The cell is not just a bag of fluid. It is a solid-state system, a condensed-matter system, closely analogous to a liquid crystal or to a gel in physics terms, and gels and liquid crystals have very peculiar physical properties, collective properties at the collective level, which raises the whole problem of reductionism versus emergence, which I think probably I need to talk about a little bit.

Maybe we can save that till later, because I think you’re gonna want to ask me how the human being fits into this new picture I’m trying to develop, to expand. But let me just round out the thought about the single cells. So, the way to think about the cell is, it’s highly structured. There are literally thousands, tens of thousands of macromolecules, all moving in some kind of concert, in some kind of symphonic dance, some choreography, so that things are where they need to be, when they need to be there. So, what kind of physical constraint is bringing this about? Now, there are local constraints that we can use to explain each individual interaction, but what about the overall coordination? What’s the whole thing about? Well, apparently the constraint is to keep the system going, to keep it going, to maintain it in existence, for it to persist as an organized system.

So, the purpose of life is to go on living, basically. There’s a–again, I’m not inventing this, this is kind of a minority view within the philosophy of biology. It really traces all the way back to a French scientist named Xavier Bichat, who was a pioneer of histology, the study of tissues, writing around 1800 in France, who wrote that “life is simply the totality of the functions which resist death.” It sounds like a tautology, but it’s far from a tautology if you think about it from a physical point of view. This didn’t just happen by chance. It seems to beggar belief to think that the organization of the cell, and the incredibly complex structure and dynamics of everything that’s going on inside the cell, can possibly have arisen through a purely random process such as that offered by Darwin’s theory of evolution.

James Linder: And what would the cybernetic theory claim? What would that claim be?

James Barham: Well, the cybernetic theory is a model of how a purposive system, a goal-directed system, works. It’s not a theory of how they come into existence in the first place. But the fact is, there are too many differences between living matter and human artifacts. I know this all sounds vague, but I try to find, in the book, I try to find different examples to make it a little more concrete. So, one way to think about what I’m trying to say, or one way to substantiate my claim, that there’s this fundamental metaphysical difference between living matter and non-living matter, that’s one way to put it, is that there has to be—for life to be conceivable from a physical point of view, for it to be possible—there has to be an internal connection between the matter out of which life is made and the functionality, whereas Darwinism posits an arbitrary connection, not an essential connection there.

So, here’s an interesting example. According to traditional mainstream philosophy of biology, philosophy of science, reductionist philosophy, what matters is that matter carries out similar functions. It doesn’t matter what things are made of, it just matters what they do. So that, for example, an artificial heart, it doesn’t matter if it’s made out of living tissue or if it’s made out of, let’s say, titanium and Dacron. But there’s a huge difference, huge difference, and I’m talking about an empirically observable difference, between a heart made out of living cells and a heart made out of titanium and Dacron.

You take the heart, the artificial heart, it’s a pump—granted, they’re both pumps, they both do the same thing, they both pump the blood—you take the artificial heart, which has no intrinsic connection between the titanium and the Dacron and the goal of pumping blood, it’s all been assembled by human beings in order to fulfill a function—take that and smash it with a hammer and what do you get? You get a bunch of pieces of busted plastic and twisted metal, and it just sits there. It’s inert. What happens if you take a heart, or take a portion of a heart, pass it through a sieve—it has to be the right sized sieve—take the slurry, put it into a Petri dish—it’s gotta be the right kind of Petri dish, the right kind of foundation—and let those myocytes, those heart cells, sit there in the Petri dish, what happens? Over a day or two, they begin to come together, they begin to actually crawl towards each other. They form a clump, and the clump starts beating.

This is empirically demonstrable. You can do this in the laboratory, it’s a little experiment. I submit that there’s something very different in the two cases going on, that we don’t really have a handle on. Now, I’m not a biologist. I’m a philosopher, okay? I’m trying to be a philosopher. So, I don’t pretend to understand, have a better understanding, of what’s going on. I’m simply placing the emphasis where I think it belongs, on the difference between living matter and non-living matter. And then I’m combing the literature—physics, primarily, in this matter, physics—and I’m seeing that, well, there are people who do write about “the living state of matter”—that’s the term that physicists use. Not many, but I can, you know, I have an elaborate bibliography in the book. Anybody who’s interested can go to and look up the book and look up the references.

And it seems to me that we’re driven by all these considerations, these empirical facts, and many more like them, we’re driven to the conclusion that the cell is a quantum system, because all condensed matter is understood at the physical level in terms of quantum field theory, in the most basic way. That means that it has global properties. Now, obviously, the global properties of the living state of matter are different from the global properties of ordinary gels. A living gel is not the same, the cytosol, which is a gel, is not exactly the same as an inorganic gel. It’s different. Of course, it’s contained within a membrane, and then you’ve got these protein molecules. I’m leaving out the DNA, by the way, the genetics. I’m convinced that metabolism is the correct way to think about life, not reproduction. If you’re a Darwinist, all that matters is reproduction. But from a logical point of view, you’ve got to have something there to reproduce before reproduction can even kick in. You’ve got to have life before you can reproduce life. So, it’s metabolism first, as far as I’m concerned.

James Linder: Tell me more about that.

James Barham: Well, in the origin of life literature, there’s this big debate about which came first, the chicken or the egg. I mean, all living things, the simplest cells, you know, bacteria and similar types of microbes, have both metabolism—which means that they consume matter and they use the energy, they transform it into the byproducts that they need and in the transformation energy is released, and they’re able to to manufacture what they need to manufacture to keep themselves in existence, to repair themselves, keep themselves going, and then there’s excretion, what’s left over, what can’t be used—that’s metabolism and everything that lives does that. And in so doing, it maintains itself in existence—the individual organism, the token, as a philosopher would say. All that reproduction does is, it maintains the type in existence, as opposed to the token. Token just means the individual, type means the genus or the species.

There are many other ways to show that . . . there are lots of living things that don’t reproduce. I mean, reproduction is, from the point of view of life as a whole, if there weren’t reproduction, life couldn’t have sustained itself, presumably, over time reproduction was necessary in that sense. But at the level of individual organisms, obviously, reproduction is not necessary. I mean, somebody who’s had a vasectomy is still alive. He’s still, you know, he’s just as alive as he ever was, even though he can’t reproduce. So, reproduction, logically speaking, is secondary to metabolism.

James Linder: Hmm.

James Barham: So, here’s a mystery here that we don’t have hold of, and we’re never going to get a hold of it if we don’t look it squarely in the face and admit that there’s something we don’t understand. The mainstream, both in philosophy and in biology, is very reluctant to abandon the Darwinian worldview, which seems to provide this all-encompassing explanation for everything. But it’s a mistake. I’m convinced it’s a mistake. It’s a fundamental mistake.

James Linder: Why is your view in conflict with the Darwinian worldview?

James Barham: Because it takes purpose seriously. Because it takes teleology seriously. Final causation, in Aristotelian terms. My dissertation was entitled “Teleological Realism in Biology.” Teleological realism is also discussed in terms of philosophy of mind, but in biology, as far as I know, very few people besides me are pushing this. It’s not a popular position, to put it mildly. But . . . structurally, the dissertation has three parts. Part One is about the way we use language to talk about living things. I show that it’s impossible to speak about biological entities for any length of time without invoking teleological concepts, or similar concepts of normativity or agency or intentionality.

James Linder: Give, give us some examples.

James Barham: Oh, well, for example, function, the term function. It’s claimed that the term function is non-teleological, but I maintain that that’s not true, that’s a mistake, function is an inherently teleological concept. And then they make up, biologists make up whole vocabularies, I mean, they import vocabularies from human experience, and they make it applicable down at the level of the cell, like “communication,” cells “communicate” with each other. There’s such a thing as “genetic proofreading.” Well, “proofreading” implies that there’s a correct and an incorrect version of the genetic sequence, right? Well, that’s imposing a norm, that’s normativity right there. Now, the comeback will be, “Well, these are just metaphors. You’re not supposed to take them seriously.”

James Linder: These are just what?

James Barham: Metaphors, metaphors. “You’re not supposed to take it seriously when we speak of ‘proofreading,’ ‘communication,’ ‘functions,’ and ‘purpose’“—they often use “purpose” in biology textbooks. You literally can’t open a biology textbook to any page without finding on it some vocabulary that is sneaking in the concept of purpose.

James Linder: Could that be a limitation of language, or do you think that’s just inherent?

James Barham: That’s the counterargument, that’s the counterargument—that I’m taking a human cognitive limitation which is distorting the epistemic picture in such a way that I’m then taking the ontology . . . I’m extrapolating in ontology from this distorted epistemic picture in a way that I shouldn’t. I simply disagree with that. I don’t think we have any reason to believe that.

The second—let me just finish—the second chapter shows that Darwinian theory presupposes functional organization, so it can’t explain it. Logically, it can’t explain it. At every step of the variation and selective retention mechanism, you’ve already got a functioning cell going, or functioning organism in place. Then, you’re varying that a little bit. And then, it’s creating a—according to the theory—it’s creating a spectrum of diverse phenotypes, supposedly, which, by accident, one or more may be helpful rather than damaging. That’s not what’s really happening in real life. What’s really happening in real life is that when genetic mutations occur, the cell actively incorporates them into itself. And it’s—imagine the difference between dropping a screw at random into an automobile engine and hoping that it’s going to improve the performance of the engine versus having a kind of engine that takes screws from the environment and puts them where they need to be and then adapts itself automatically, you know, to become a better engine by sucking in these screws. They’re two totally different pictures of the way the world works. But the empirical evidence favors the latter story, not the former story. The former story is the Darwinian story—you drop in a screw by random accident and it happens to improve the performance of the engine.

James Linder: Most of those screws are actually rejected in the first place, right?

James Barham: Well, first of all . . . much of the genetic variation is not random to begin with, at the level of bacteria, let’s say. We now know that bacteria are capable of inaugurating increased rates of genetic mutation when they need to find a solution to a problem that they’re faced with. So, it’s already non-random, even the variation itself is non-random. The work of James A. Shapiro at the University of Chicago is absolutely crucial to the claims that I’m making here—that bacteria are not obeying the Darwinian scenario, they’re not mechanisms in the relevant sense, but they are goal-directed systems that are actively capable of adapting themselves, within limits, of course—I mean, they aren’t supermen, they can’t do just anything—but within limits they’re capable of actively adapting themselves and seeking out . . .

James Linder: What’s the source of . . . I’m sorry . . . what’s the source of this purpose? What’s your claim there?

James Barham: Well, again, I’m not a scientist, it’s not my job to . . . but as far as I can see, it has to be something analogous to—or my speculation, let’s say—is that it’s something analogous to quantum conservation laws.

James Linder: Say more.

James Barham: Well, you know, quantum theory has many aspects to it. And mostly what people think of when they hear about the quantum is, you know, the difficulty of Heisenberg uncertainty, wave-particle duality, the collapse of the wave function due to the observer’s interaction with the system, these kinds of problems. But for condensed-matter physics, none of that is really what we’re talking about. Rather, there are—and this leads on to the more general problem of emergence, I think—in a condensed-matter system, you get a transition to a holistic state, holistic condition, that was not there before. And this can be most easily verified through looking at the role of phonons. So, the quantum field posits a new set . . .

James Linder: What’s a phonon?

James Barham: The quantum field posits a new field, a higher-level field, and the phonon is the exchange particle for this field. But what it is, it’s a vibratory mode, but it acts like a particle. So, it has got the wave-particle duality, but it’s real, it’s not just a human artifact, it’s not a limit of our cognitive ability that we projected onto nature. You can do experiments, you can bounce other smaller particles, you know, neutrons can be bounced off of these phonons. And, therefore, you can measure the phonons. An exchange particle . . . are particles that go in and out of existence, that give rise to a bonding situation—that part of the field is being held together by the exchange particles—is the way I understand it.

That’s a very crude way of putting it, I’m sure. But phonons simply do not exist . . . phonons exist at the level of condensed matter and they do not exist at lower levels. So, here you have a prime example of the certain cases in which the whole has properties which are greater than the sum of the parts—not just the resultant of the properties of the parts. And now, obviously, we don’t know specifically what that is . . . what’s different about life. Phonons can be detected in all kinds of condensed matter, all solid matter has phonons. But living matter . . . so, the conjecture is that there’s something going on in living matter, the living state of matter, the cytosol, which is analogous to that, which is a—I don’t know, I mean, give it a name, you know, you could call it a “bion,” or something—that is an exchange particle of the biotic field, which is creating a global constraint on the cell as a whole. What you need to have purpose is a global constraint, higher-level constraint, on lower-level action.

And so, the lower-level actions are being performed in order to satisfy the higher-level constraint—that’s the essence of what purpose is. Lower-level actions, the ones that currently we think are adequate to give the complete explanation—the mechanistic, local interactions, you know, that can be explained through ordinary chemistry—according to this way of looking at things, are not adequate because they’re merely instrumental to serving this higher-level purpose. Now, everybody will admit that, well, yeah, they are instrumental to the higher-level purpose, but that’s just a figment of the human imagination. We really know there is no higher-level purpose, it’s all just chemistry. I beg to differ. I think there’s too much evidence . . . and then the third chapter of the dissertation goes into this condensed-matter theory stuff.

So, first of all, we’ve got the fact that we can’t even talk about anything to do with biology without invoking teleology. Second, Darwinian theory does not do what it is widely claimed to do, namely, explain teleology, but rather it presupposes teleology, therefore, logically can’t explain it. And, thirdly, the cell, the living state of matter, is such that . . . empirically, we now know, is such that it ought to be the kind of quantum field system that is analogous to other kinds of gels and liquid crystals and so forth, but with something more. And what that something more is, though, I don’t know, I mean, nobody knows. That’s obviously not the job of philosophers to say, but the physicists.

It’s just to show that Darwinism places all of its explanatory emphasis on the concept of reproduction or replication, and that’s the wrong place to put the emphasis. The mystery of life lies in the mystery of metabolism, not in the mystery of reproduction. Reproduction is in fact a subset of metabolism. Reproduction is not independent, it’s under metabolic control of all organisms. Within all organisms, reproduction is a phase of metabolism. So, yet again, that’s another point, another logical point, which shows that Darwinism can’t possibly be an adequate explanation for the phenomenon of teleology that’s observable throughout biology. Of course, we don’t know how life got started. We have no idea, no clue really about the origin of life. But, presumably, there was a first generation where there were . . . there was life coming into existence and going out of existence without reproduction. And then, the genetic . . .

James Linder: Is that the mystery of metabolism that you referred to?

James Barham: Right. If I’m correct—and I’m not the only one that’s metabolism-first, but if those of us who are metabolism-first guys are correct—then that means that there was a phase, a pre-Darwinian phase, of the history of life, in which individual living things came into existence, died, went out of existence, without reproducing themselves. But others came along through the same initial . . . they popped into existence, went out of existence, came into existence . . . But, apparently—and again, we don’t know what’s driving the origin of life, so we can’t say for sure—but it would seem that metabolism has built-in limits . . . that metabolic systems, living systems, have built-in limitations. And, therefore, you could never get much longevity, you could certainly never get a retention and adding on of function, you could never get growth, except through the Darwinian mechanism.

Now, I’m not denying the Darwinian mechanism—that evolution, you know, was a step-by-step procedure and, step-by-step, new functions were accrued to the organism. I’m simply denying that that way of looking at life in any way reduces teleology to mechanism. It doesn’t. The teleology is still there in every step of the way. That’s what I’m saying. So, it’s the complete Darwinian picture, except that I’m denying that teleology is an illusion, I’m denying that the picture explains teleology. I’m saying teleology is objective, purpose is objective, function is purposeful and it is objective, it’s really there, in the things themselves, not just in our mental projection onto the things themselves. And then, certainly, if you were going to have a long history of life with complex beings, you needed something like reproduction.

You needed to be able to . . . one individual . . . you need to retain . . . It’s like cultural evolution, think of cultural evolution. There is some cultural evolution even among pre-human primates, but it’s very limited. Basically, each generation has to learn from scratch how to do things from its parents. It has this limited . . . I mean, it learns through imitation of the parents, but it’s very limited. Any innovations that an individual monkey, say, might make, usually—there are exceptions, but . . . I know there are these macaques in Japan that learn how to wash potatoes more efficiently, get rid of the sand by putting them into the water, and that novel behavior was in fact passed down through the generations. And you can see something . . .

James Linder: There’s not much of a mimetic transfer of information among primates?

James Barham: Well, I’m talking about the novelty. Most of the novelty is still at the genetic level, but there is some. I mean, I’m making a concession that there is some, already, handing-down of learned experience at the social level even in subhuman primates. But one of the . . . one—it’s not the only difference, —but one, certainly, of the main differences between us and all the other animals is this tremendous ability that we have to build upon . . . actually, it doesn’t really kick in that much until fairly late in human evolution, “cultural evolution,” let’s call it. I mean, if you look—it depends on what you take as your starting point, but let’s just take 200,000 years, let’s say, for Homo sapiens sapiens—it’s not until [should be “10,000″–ed.] years ago that you begin to get agriculture and settled living and division of labor and . . . you don’t get writing until, what, about 7,000 years ago, or less, in just a few places.

And it’s really only with writing that we begin to really . . . it really begins to bootstrap itself and to take off, so that what one generation learns is then still accessible to the next generation to build upon that and nothing’s lost—well, sometimes things do get lost, you have the Dark Ages, but, by and large, you see what I’m saying, that there’s this ability that we have for cultural learning that’s highly dependent upon human language and settled life and writing, but . . . and that other animals don’t have.

So, that’s cultural evolution. But genetic evolution is something similar. And you have to have that if you’re going to have any kind of complexification, if you can have any kind of increase in learning. If you look at the biosphere as a single entity, if it’s going to learn and to complexify, and to become more adept at doing different things, you need something like reproduction, genetic reproduction. So, I’m not saying it’s not important. It’s one of the keys that has driven biological evolution to where we are today, no question about it. So, I’m accepting . . . I’m taking on board all of the standard way of looking at the world, the history of evolution from the Darwinian [perspective]. I’m just saying that it doesn’t explain teleology, we need an alternative explanation for teleology; that the living state of matter is metaphysically different, fundamentally, essentially different from man-made machines; that teleology is real and that we don’t understand it fully . . we don’t understand it, really, at all.

I think we really have not yet begun . . . I think in biology, we’re somewhere in the pre-quantum phase in physics, and we really don’t know, in the most basic sense, what life is all about. Yet. That doesn’t mean we won’t or can’t. It just means we’re not there yet. But as long as Darwinism is considered to be the be-all and the end-all, then there’s nothing else left to explain, then obviously we’re not going to be in an optimal position to make progress. We first have to get past this obsession with Darwin to realize that we’ve still got work to do at a basic, fundamental [level].

James Linder: Got it. I wanna ask you a question that’s gonna expose my ignorance—there are glaring holes in my knowledge. And then, actually, after that, I want to touch on a couple of the chapters of The Emergence of Freedom. But, my question is: Is the application of cybernetic theory to biology, is that a category error? And if it is, what is a category error?

James Barham: Yes and no. I’m sorry to be wishy-washy, but it’s true that you can . . . look, it’s true that the heart is a pump—who would deny that?—but it’s really the heart that ought to be the model for the human-designed pump, not the other way around. Similarly, it’s true that negative feedback is an essential feature of behavior—I would say “agency”—even at the cellular level, I mean, throughout the whole ladder of life, throughout . . . in all organisms that exist. But that doesn’t mean that a heat-seeking missile is an adequate model for a cell. It’s not. It’s the other way around, I would argue. Even though we came . . . we human beings, as scientists, as creatures trying to understand the world we live in, first came to the concepts of cybernetics and negative feedback through these systems that we, ourselves built, the real prototypes are the living things, not the other way around. See what I’m saying?

James Linder: Yeah, I mean, it sounds to me—please, again, I’m gonna expose my ignorance as best I can here and correct me where I’m wrong—but it sounds to me like it’s reductionist to the point of pointing in the wrong direction in a lot of these instances. Is that fair?

James Barham: Yeah. Certainly, yeah. I mean . . . I’m trying to present as mild-mannered and acceptable a version of my beliefs as I can, but at heart I’m more of a fiery radical—yeah, I certainly agree. No, but, seriously, the key difference . . . If what I’m saying is true and the living state of matter is in a metaphysically different category altogether from manmade machinery, then how to explain that difference? Okay? The one thing is, you know, quantum field theory, all that stuff we’ve already talked about. But, just philosophically, the difference has to be in the connection between the material mode and the function. So, now we’re touching on emergence again, which I really do want to get to and talk about directly, eventually. But . . . so, there’s emergence. There’s reductionism, which is a part of scientism, the idea that everything that we see around us can be reduced to the lowest level of physics—it’s obviously a kind of a subset of the idea of scientism—but I guess I’m a kind of type- . . . in a sense, I’m a type-reductionist, because I do believe that there’s a strong correspondence between the kinds of materials that things are made out of and the kinds of functionality that they’re capable of, essentially—and that human biology is not just arbitrarily carbon-based, but necessarily, essentially carbon-based, in one way, there’s other ways that one could express that idea.

So, I already used the example about the heart, you know, being made out of metal and plastic versus the heart being made out of myocytes, or heart cells. You can generalize that. The idea is that anything that’s essentially teleological is made out of a kind of matter that itself has agency, that itself has a striving or des . . . I mean, if I say “desire,” then it sounds like I’m talking about consciousness. I’m not talking about consciousness, I’m not talking about feeling, I’m just talking about the way it behaves.

But, if I’m right that there is a category mistake here between machinery and the living state of matter, then it must be the case that the type of matter matters, that the type of matter matters for true teleology to exist. Now, people say, “Well, that can’t be right because at the higher levels, it’s obvious that pain, for example, is multiply realizable in different nervous systems. Because, you know, an octopus can feel pain and a human being can feel pain, but an octopus, or squid, and a human being are very different, and, so, it doesn’t matter what’s at the lower level, as long as it’s arranged in the right way, they’re gonna get pain. So, even a computer could feel pain if you just managed to arrange the digital circuitry in a way that mimicked the neurons.”

My answer to that argument is that the premise is wrong, that it’s not true that there’s a huge difference between the squid realization of pain at the neuronal level and the human realization of pain at the neuronal level. In fact, we actually study squid axons—it’s one of the main types of material that neuroscientists study in the laboratory to learn about human neurons. It’s simply a bit of philosophical mythology that there’s this tremendous difference out there, supposedly, an empirical datum that supports this bogus theory of multiple realizability. It’s not true. It’s simply not true. It’s all driven by thought experiments about Martians and, you know, all the population of China lined up with signaling flags, all of that supposedly has the potential to cause pain. Sometimes, I think that the advent of the computer has driven the human species mad, or philosophers, anyway . . .

. . . because these ideas are so absurd. And yet, what’s wrong with them? Well, what’s wrong with them is simply that they’re based on a false premise, the false premise that just any old kind of matter can support any old kind of higher-level function. It’s just not true. It’s just not the way the world works.

James Linder: I think sometimes that these start out as partial theories that are very narrowly applied, and then people latch onto it and they start to become more generalizable, or at least they think it’s more generalizable, and it starts to corrupt the epistemology. I know in my world, people love to compare the human brain to a computer, which I think makes zero sense whatsoever. And in previous generations, you know, it was compared to a clock . . . I can’t remember . . . it was . . . yeah, like, how ridiculous does that sound? I think it’s gonna sound ridiculous.

James Barham: Leibniz talked about a windmill, all right? Leibniz’s windmill.

James Linder: Exactly, and I think it’s gonna sound almost as ridiculous to compare the human brain to a computer

James Barham: Ah, but what else could it be? What could cognition be, if not computation? That’s what they’re gonna come back at you with. What do you say to that?

James Linder: You tell me, that’s beyond me.

James Barham: Well, there’s a wonderful paper by a philosopher named Timothy van Gelder, came out in ’95 in . . . I forget, you’d have to look it up, in my bibliography. It’s called “What Might Cognition Be, If Not Computation?” And I allude to it in the title of my third chapter of my dissertation, which I call “What Might an Organism Be, If Not a Machine?” Now, what does van Gelder say? Well, he simply points out that all you really need to explain the brain, and the way the brain is capable of functioning, is to have correlations between particular brain entities—which could just as well be dynamical whirlpools of energy or something like that—and particular external, you know, situations, objects, events in the world. So, all you really need is a dynamical heat engine. You don’t really need computation at all.

And in fact, we know that computation, that machines based on computation, have real, very real limits. Now, people right now—we’re having this conversation towards the end of 2023 and, just recently, the brain is a computer analogy has gotten a new lease on life through this little gimmick called ChatGPT. But it’s just something that comes in and out of fashion over the last several decades. You know, there’ve been various periods when it was in fashion and periods when it fell out of fashion. There’s a wonderful book called The Myth of Artificial Intelligence, I think is the title of it, by a gentleman named Erik J. Larson, that I recommend to people . . . it’s for a general audience. But, anyway, he talks in the book about how it’s one thing to have a computer system that’s able to use statistical sampling to teach itself how to do a particular task like pattern recognition, better and better. It’s something very, very different to have general intelligence. General intelligence implies abduction or inference to the best explanation, whereas all we know how to do is to program deduction and induction into machines. We have no clue how to program abduction into the machine. But until we learn how to do that, computers won’t resemble brains in the slightest.

James Linder: I lost you for just a moment there.

James Barham: Oh, I was just saying that until we’re able to program inference to the best explanation, or abduction, into machinery, we have no right to call them “intelligent.” Now, this also relates back to what I was saying a moment ago about matter, that the matter that things are made out of matters, because one individual neuron in the human brain has, oh, I forget, but, I mean, orders of magnitude more—I want to say “millions,” I’m not quite sure that’s right, but, anyway, a tremendously higher number of connections possible—than anything in a machine that we’ve been able to devise so far has. Now, of course, the comeback there would be to say “Well, that’s just because we haven’t, computer science hasn’t advanced far enough yet, and maybe we will be able to create machines that have artificial neurons that mimic the human brain capacity more closely.” Well, that’s conceivable, but my money is on the side to say that’ll never happen. What will happen, as technology advances, is that we will try to do the things we want to do, such as help paraplegics and all this, you know, many other kinds of human-computer interface problems—we will start using neurons grown in Petri dishes to replace computers, I think is the way we’re gonna go. Because you can look at the history . . .

James Linder: I might be interviewing a gal about that in a couple weeks, as a matter of fact.

James Barham: Well, that’s where I’d put my money if I were a betting man. I mean, you can see the same history being repeated all over again because, you know, there was this flurry of activity in building artificial hearts made out of metal and plastic—what, back in the ’60s, ’70s?, a long time ago, I can’t remember exactly, it was the craze. People kept dying, they were terrible, they didn’t work well at all. Some of the later ones worked marginally better than some of the earlier ones, but basically they just stopped doing it because it was a death sentence. Nobody wanted them anymore because nobody survived on them. I mean, that’s an infinitely simpler problem than an artificial brain. So, I think that we’re gonna be able to undoubtedly do a lot with transforming the human body, for better or for worse—that’s a whole ’nother conversation you can have, about the ethics of it—but it’s gonna come through bio-engineering, not through a machine.

James Linder: Yeah, I couldn’t agree more on those last couple of points. Let’s transition. You wanted to talk about emergence, let’s specifically put that in a context of your book, The Emergence of Freedom.

James Barham: Okay. Well, so I decided, after I . . . you know, so, I went back to school in my old age—I was fortunate enough to try to kind of make up for the errors of my youth by going to grad school a second time, got my PhD at the ripe age of 59—and a lot of people try to polish up their PhD and make that their first publication. I had some papers under my belt already, but no books. So, I decided “I’m too old for that, I’m not looking for a career path in academia, anyway.” So, I decided to go for broke, because at the very end of my [should be “dissertation”—ed.], just as a kind of a teaser, I say “If this view about objective teleology in biology is correct, then this has the potential to revolutionize our view of many other topics,” such as our place of nature, the freedom of the will, human nature in general, and so forth and so on.

So, I decided to try to make good on that and to try to . . . basically, I’m shrinking the book down to a single chapter . . . I’m sorry, shrinking the dissertation down to a single chapter of the book, Chapter Four . . . I believe it’s . . . or maybe it’s Chapter Five . . . anyway, the chapter on life, life in general. And then, I have three or four chapters upstream from that, before you get to life, talking about fundamental issues in the cosmic evolution of the universe as a whole, but focusing not just on the evolution, but on the philosophical issues connected to scientism that crop up in each of these phases or epochs of cosmic evolution. And, then, after . . . so, then the book, the idea for the book kind of turns on an axis of this chapter—I think it’s Chapter Five, actually, it’s the chapter that draws directly on the dissertation—and then the second half of the book is downstream and talks about morality, and I even make a little foray into political theory. So, I, you know . . . it’s an absurdly ambitious project, but what have I got to lose? I’m 72 years old.

James Linder: That’s the best kind.

James Barham: So, emergence and freedom are the key points here. And the subtitle is, let’s see, “The Human Spirit and the Natural Sciences” . . . “The Natural Sciences and Human Spirit after Darwin.” So, I’m trying to pack into this title and the subtitle a lot of what we’ve talked about. But I want to talk about the human spirit. My real goal is to try to . . . so I had the thought that, you know, each one of the elements to scientism—reductionism, determinism, genetic reductionism, neural reductionism, in the philosophy of time there’s this position called “eternalism” I discuss, and then in morality, I would argue, consequentialism, and, certainly, socialism—these are all scientistic efforts to try to force the human spirit into a box that’s way too small for it . . . to shoehorn it into something that’s several sizes too small for it, in my view.

So, I’m trying to create a counter-narrative because you can, and other philosophers have, try to refute each one of those topics, those scientistic propositions, within each of those topics that I mentioned, individually, but philosophy doesn’t have much impact on the wider world unless it appeals to the broader imagination and can be translated into ideas or a narrative that the man in the street can understand. As long as it’s purely academic analytical philosophy, it’s not going to have any real-world impact. What those of us who want to protect the human spirit against the inroads of scientism have to do, I believe, is come up with a counter-narrative. Because the narrative of . . . the current narrative of cosmic evolution with Darwinian theory, natural selection, at its core, is functioning as a kind of creation myth for millions and millions of people, currently.

And until a counter-myth can be put in place, a counter-story, a counter-narrative can be come up with, can be devised, that’s as compelling as the Darwinian story, I don’t think we’re ever going to defeat scientism. The only way to defeat scientism is to have our own version of what it means to be a human being—how we got here. And in order to do that, it can’t be religious, it can’t be based on any particular creation myth of any particular culture, it has to have universal appeal. It has to be . . . to be accepted in the public square, for better or for worse, it has to appeal to publicly available reasoning. Of course, this is John Rawls, who famously made this requirement . . . articulated this requirement upon accepting people as participants in debate or dialogue in the public square, so that it excludes sectarian religious belief altogether. So, in my book, I have rigorously set aside all questions having to do with the transcendent. I do not ask where the world originally comes from, why there is something rather than nothing. I simply say, in the beginning, I’m putting those kinds of questions off to the side.

James Linder: I wanted to interject: a second ago you were talking about Rawls. Can you explain his thought experiment where, you know, if you’re born into the body of someone from a different race, ethnicity, gender, you know, you’re just trying to—you were explaining how your theory has to appeal to a wide audience—I think it would be illustrative to walk through that thought experiment.

James Barham: Okay, well, I think you’re talking about the veil of ignorance concept?

James Linder: Yeah, the veil of ignorance.

James Barham: As he originally articulated it, it had nothing to do with identity politics, sex or gender or anything like that. It’s simply the idea that in order to think about what is a just political system, you have to extrapolate away . . . or I should say, abstract away from your own position in the system. So, you have to act from behind a “veil of ignorance.” You don’t know where you’re gonna wind up, whether you’re gonna be the king or a beggar or somewhere in between. You don’t know that. So, because, you know, often the argument, of course—and Marxist-type arguments try to psychoanalyze people’s political beliefs—and you would say that, well, people who are apologists for capitalism are profiting from capitalism, so naturally they’re gonna be supportive. Unfortunately, there was the inconvenient fact that, in America, that the working classes hated socialism and loved capitalism, for the most part. That’s why they had to abandon, in the original version of socialism, the class struggle, and transmogrify it into what we have now, this identity politics, this race struggle and sex and gender struggle. And they had to infiltrate society—“the long march through the institutions” of society, as Antonio Gramsci famously put it—because the original Marxian formula was seen to fail, it just wasn’t working. But, anyway, you asked me to talk about Rawls and, it’s just the simple . . .


James Linder: Well, I wanna . . . more specifically, what I was getting at is that I want you to talk about how . . . it sounds to me like you started from the veil of ignorance when you were writing this book, The Emergence of Freedom, and I wanna know, How do you do that? How is that possible? How do you put yourself in somebody else’s shoes?

James Barham: Well, I mean, again, what can one say? It’s not possible and yet it’s not impossible. Obviously, we can’t fully share in another human being’s experience. We lack that . . . we’d have to live their life, you know, to have an identical experience. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t experience a lot of what they do. And I think the reason is very simple. Human nature is, in its most fundamental aspects, is quite universal. I profoundly believe in human nature and an essential human nature. I try to argue for that in the chapter on morality. I mean, it seems, the most direct and straightforward argument for there being something like natural law based on universal human nature, is that without it, you have legal positivism, which means that what’s right is whatever the law says.

But under such a doctrine, you can’t even critique the law. There’s no way to critique any law. There’s no such thing as an unjust law. By definition, justice is what the law says, promulgated laws, “positive law,” it’s called—but that’s just intuitively ridiculous. And, interestingly, I’ve discovered in doing some reading, that in America several early proponents of the Civil Rights movement, all the way back to Frederick Douglass, explicitly call on the natural law in the name of justice in their quest for equality. Martin Luther King, in the famous “Letter from [a] Birmingham Jail,” explicitly invokes the natural law and human nature. So, this idea of moral relativism, cultural relativism, is something quite foreign to the idea that morality is, you know, that there are objectively . . . that right and wrong has an objective basis, let’s put it that way.

James Linder: Got it. Let’s go back to the book. Can you just walk me through, what are the chapters of the book? What are you trying to cover?

James Barham: Okay. Well, it’s—pretty much everything—so, it starts off, in the first chapter, trying to understand the concept of emergence, in the most fundamental way, because everything rides on emergence. Emergence is a very controverted, controversial concept. Scientists, more and more, are latching onto the phrase and using it, but in a way that does not have a whole lot of operational significance. And philosophers are very leery of it. Some philosophers are interested in it and think it has potential to be sharpened up, made more coherent, but most philosophers think it’s an abomination, want nothing to do with emergence. So, I have a big task in front of me. Now, the . . . what’s published already, the 150-some-odd pages that I have on my site, does not present a lot of argumentation, it’s mainly just laying out the ideas. Here and there, I mention some of the most prominent counter-arguments and, then, my replies to those. But I’ve still got a lot of work to do and especially in this area. So, what is emergence? Emergence is the idea that two things are simultaneously true: that higher levels of the world—which also means later, by and large, from the point of view of cosmic evolution—are both ontologically dependent upon lower, earlier levels, but, at the same time, also semi-independent, semi-autonomous, they have a certain measure of autonomy.

They have their own causal powers, which are novel and different from anything at the lower level, at the previous level. And, therefore, they are real, because there’s a principle that most philosophers would sign onto, which states that for a thing to be real is for it to manifest some kind of causal power, the possibility at least, of interacting causally with other things. Without such a power, there’s absolutely no way we could ever know that something existed. Perhaps, theoretically, it could exist without such a power, but there’s certainly no good reason to believe in such powerless entities. So, now, it’s a very complicated problem, because, first of all, there’s a scientific problem of explaining what you mean by the same thing being simultaneously partially dependent and partially independent from what went before. That seems like a contradiction.

And, then, stepping back, there’s the question of: Well, even if you admit that there’s some novelty and there’s some independence, a lot of philosophers would say: That doesn’t matter, because what really matters is that all you need to explain the higher levels are the fundamental level, that fundamental physics is the rock-bottom explanation for everything that happens, and, theoretically—even though due to our cognitive limitations, we can’t spell it out in detail—but in theory, in principle, that’s all you need to explain the whole world, I mean, the whole rest of the cosmos. Well, to me, that’s not an argument, it’s a profession of faith, really. The reductionist view is a profession of faith. It’s highly counterintuitive, it places so much faith in metaphysics as something that ought to trump our everyday, commonsense understanding of the world, that I simply lack the faith to go there, to follow the reductionists that far.

I mean, all of our experience points in the opposite direction. I mean, the idea that you could put an equation on a T-shirt, which an omniscient computer . . . by means of which an omniscient computer could predict the words coming out of my mouth, right now, today, here, in Pella, Iowa—it’s ludicrous, absolutely ludicrous. It’s just, you know, Laplace’s demon, that already articulated the idea a long time ago. No, science is not like that, common sense is not like that, only philosophers think this way. Well, I’m sorry, if metaphysics says that, you know, reductionism is the truth—flies in the face of common sense and the science—then, I’m sorry, I have to just say “to hell with metaphysics, I’m no metaphysician.” But I don’t think that metaphysics has to say any such thing.

What is metaphysics, first of all? “Metaphysics” is just a fancy word for an effort to be general, to say, in the most general way, how things are, how things . . . Was it [should be “Wilfrid Sellars”—ed.] who said, “How things in the most general sense of the word hang together in the most general sense of the word”? That’s all that “metaphysics” really means. Now, the people who posit this reductionist view, this anti-emergentist view—that all you need is the fundamental physics to explain everything—they’re articulating a vision of reality. What’s motivating them? I think it’s misguided understanding of science itself. They want to be scientific. Philosophy . . . analytical . . . Anglo-American, analytical philosophy is driven by physics-envy, has been for many, many years—less now than before, actually—but, you know, many philosophers still are driven by physics-envy.

They want philosophy to be as rigorous as physics. So, they apply Ockham’s razor, you know, as scrupulously and as severely as they possibly can. That seems to them to lead towards what Willard Van Orman Quine called “the desert” . . .

James Linder: Who?

James Barham:

. . . Quine, W.V.O. Quine, famous Harvard philosopher, called the “desert landscape,” a “taste for desert landscapes”—as little as possible. So, the real reality that’s really there independently of our minds is hardly anything, and all the rest of the stuff we think is there, is just our contribution. That’s, like, at one extreme of metaphysics. At the opposite extreme is Alexius Meinong, you know that name?, he was an Austrian philosopher, early 20th century, and he believed that everything was real, including concepts—even contradictions were real. So, we . . . people talk about “Meinong’s jungle.” So, you have the taste for land . . . deserts versus a taste for jungles.

What I’m trying to do is have a nice, middle of the road, Aristotelian taste for the polis, for the city, you know, the cityscape with houses and gardens and public squares, which is based on nature, but is sculpted by the human being in certain respects, and trying to tease apart those respects in which the human mind contributes and those respects in which it doesn’t contribute. Another metaphor that I like to use is “the map and the territory.” One of the most difficult things about philosophy is to avoid confusing the maps we make in our minds for the territory, the reality that’s out there. But people can go to the opposite extreme and say, “Well, it’s all map, there is no territory, except the maps in our minds.” And that’s wrong, too.

So, to me, emergence is . . . to make sense of . . . I’m not claiming to have made perfect sense of emergence, I’m claiming that we’ve got to try to make sense of emergence if we’re to have any chance at all of understanding how we fit into the larger scheme of things in a realistic way, in a commonsense way, in which there are such things as human persons, in which there are such things as concepts, in which there are such things as languages, in which there are such things as computers, and interviews, and firms, enterprises, I mean, you know, the whole panoply of what humanity has created exists in this kind of quasi-real, quasi-abstract space, for lack of a better term, which I call “spirit”—I’m borrowing from Hegel’s term Geist, the German word Geist, which translates as “spirit” in English—which transcends any individual human mind and yet is grounded in individual human minds. So, it’s just one more example, one more instance of emergence.

Life, of course, is another instance of emergence. Now, my own . . . I don’t have any personal contribution to make to the underlying nature of emergence, the debate about that, other than to point out that the most promising approach, I think, is based on the idea of “more is different,” which was the name of a paper published in 1972, I believe, by a Nobel Prize–winning, condensed-matter physicist named Philip W. Anderson. He simply points out that even if you have some very simple particle, if you add more of the very same kind of particle, you get a system that can interact in much more interesting ways and will create novel possibilities . . . will have novel properties that weren’t there before. Now, again, the reductionists are gonna be quick to say, “Oh, well, yes, but that’s all explainable from the initial system. You don’t need to wait and see what happens, it’s all there in the equations.”

Well, turns out that it’s not, turns out that real science posits a sequence of levels, each one of which is stable with respect to the underlying one upon which it’s based. And what is stability? Stability is precisely indifference of the system to minor changes at the lower level—which defies determinism, as well as reductionism. I mean, think of a candle flame. A candle flame is a somewhat stable, [nonequilibrium—ed.] thermodynamic system, and if you blow it, not too much, just a little bit, or if you put . . . if you try to divide it with a sheet of metal, you can see it do, you know, gyrate in different ways, do different things to try to maintain its stability.

A hurricane is a stable system. And I would argue that life is stable in that sense. It’s emergent because the underlying . . . It’s well known, of course, that in all living systems, the individual level is supported by a constant turnover of the individual particles, the token particles, at the lower level. You need particles of a certain type to be coming in and being where they need to be, when they need to be there, but it doesn’t matter which particles they are—that’s completely indifferent to the stability of the system. So, tokens can be freely exchanged. So, it has nothing to do with multiple realizability, but it has a lot to do with stability. And the fact that mathematical equations, many times, have, you know, decimal expansions that go on to infinity, which would make science totally impossible if we didn’t just arbitrarily lop them off at a certain point.

But, then, you’d think that, “If determinism were true, well that would spoil our ability to do science,” but it doesn’t, because science . . . What do scientists call those digits we got rid of? They call them “negligible.” They are negligible. Why are they negligible? Precisely, because the system under experiment, under investigation, is stable, because it can withstand a certain amount of shifting about, of shuffling about, of insult, of tension, of pressure, of stress at the lower level, and still maintain its integrity at the higher level. I submit that these things are real. They are objectively real features of the real world. They are not merely the result of our inability to do the equations that would be necessary to, you know, to make it all come out, if we had minds, you know, as large as the universe or something—some supercomputer thought experiment.

So, I look upon emergence as . . . I think it’s a big mistake, too, and . . . I would say 90 percent, or maybe 99 percent, of the philosophical literature on emergence focuses just on the problem of consciousness, the relationship between the mind and the brain, specifically, the conscious, experiential feeling and the brain. I think that’s a huge mistake for understanding emergence. I think emergence has to begin at the lower level, much, much, much lower levels. And once you latch onto Anderson’s “more is different” principle, it’s not very mysterious at all. And the fact that physics gets by with what are called “effective theories,” which are not theories from first principles, but theories that are specific to a particular level of organization. And that’s what science does . . . I mean, all the sciences are organized that way, not just the so-called “special sciences,” not just psychology and economics and sociology, but physics and chemistry, too.

You know, there was a big debate between Anderson and Steven Weinberg—I don’t know if you know that name—Steven Weinberg was at the University of Texas. Earlier, he was at Harvard. He’s one of the most important contributors to our modern theory of subatomic particles. I believe, if I’m not mistaken, he worked on the theory of quantum chromodynamics and . . . which has to do with the strong force—I’ve forgotten the details. So, he felt . . . he was a reductionist, he believed that all you really needed was high-energy physics, the kind of physics he did, the rest of it was just “stamp collecting.” Well, Anderson, who worked on condensed-matter physics, the physics of condensed matter, the physics of solids and liquids, begged to differ. So . . . but I think, clearly, Anderson had the better of that argument. And any objective outsider looking on at that, it seems to me, would have to admit that Anderson had a point and that Weinberg was too arrogant, too full of hubris, by far.

James Linder: Would you explain that point again?

James Barham: Which one? The . . .

James Linder: The Steven . . .

James Barham: . . . between Weinberg and . . . Well, Weinberg is simply the reductionistic view that all you need . . . all that’s real, is the stuff he works on, elementary particles, you know, the four forces of matter, which are, what?, gravitation and electromagnetism, the strong force, strong nuclear force and the weak nuclear force. And, again, you could . . . in theory, you could have a single equation you could put on a T-shirt, and it would explain everything about everything. And Anderson—who’s . . . I think he got . . . he also won the Nobel Prize, they both did—I think Anderson’s prize came for his work on superconductivity. Well, superconductivity is a property of certain kinds of materials, right? I mean, there is no superconductivity until you get solid matter, specific kinds of solid matter, like ceramics . . .

James Linder: Tell me more about that. I think that’s a very important point.

James Barham: Well, it’s similar to the ideas that I was talking before about phonons. Superconductivity was explained as . . . by a modification . . . Anderson made a mod- . . . as I understand it—which is probably not very good, not very well—Anderson made a modification of quantum field theory as it was done before him. [Actually, Anderson contributed to the theory of symmetry-breaking in particle physics, among other things; later, he worked on high-temperature superconductivity in ceramic materials—ed.] Let’s see, that’s not right, because it was Bardeen, John Bardeen and his colleagues, that came up with the answer for superconductivity. So . . . I’m sorry, I’m . . . Superconductivity may not be relevant to the debate between Anderson and . . . But, anyway, it’s a similar type of emergent phenomenon. The trio of people that won the prize for superconductivity explained it as the result of what are called “Cooper pairs.” So, one of the guys was [Leon] Cooper—Bardeen, Cooper, and [John R. Schrieffer]—and the Cooper pairs (I don’t know if they were phonons or if they were elec- . . . I guess they were electrons) adhere together. And that adherence, under certain conditions, in certain circumstances . . . and that coherence that they undergo, the quantum coherence, is what allows them to be transmitted without any friction at all, essentially. Superconductivity is done with almost . . . is electricity without the friction, without the resistance, where the Ohm—you know the Ohm symbol for resistance?—goes to zero, at the limit.

So, it’s another example of an emergent property associated with a certain kind of matter. So, I’m trying to displace the emphasis from the problem of consciousness, to make it more general. And I’m trying to say that Anderson’s idea of “more is different” is the way to go—that’s the way to think about emergence. And that, you know, what you see is what you get, that what appears to be the case in the sciences and common sense is in fact real, and that there’s no good motivation for reductionism other than just physics-envy and a taste for desert landscapes, as Quine said. Well, I have a taste for Aristotelian moderation, so that’s the kind of metaphysician I am. But, now . . .

James Linder: What are some of the other concepts that you tackled in the book?

James Barham: Well, I was just gonna say, I . . . It’s just called The Emergence of Freedom, so the other sort of master-concept that I’m trying to knit the book together with is the concept of freedom. And, again, I’m trying to say that freedom is ordinarily conceived to be an all-or-nothing concept. You either admit that human beings have freedom of the will or you say they don’t have it . . . it’s inherently deterministic, therefore, they don’t have freedom of the will. But what I want to say is that freedom comes in degrees, and that you can already begin to see it at the physical level. And then, the more and more time goes by, in cosmic evolution and the complexification of the universe, the more freedom begins to put in an appearance. And, certainly, the transition to life is a huge transition towards greater freedom.

What does that mean exactly? Yeah, it’s a pretty woolly idea, I grant you, it’s pretty abstract. But . . . so, for example, think about . . . in some sense life is a “dissipative structure,” in the sense of [Ilya] Prigogine, nonlinear . . . nonequilibrium thermodynamics. It just means that it’s exporting entropy to the environment . . . you know what I’m talking about, entropy? . . . Hurricanes already do this. They have a kind of individuality to them, we name them, we give them names. They can speed up and slow down, depending whether they’re over land or over water, whether they’re being fed energy or energy’s being subtracted from them. When they’re over warm water, there’s more energy being pumped into the system, when they’re over land, there’s energy being subtracted, that’s why they slow down, and they kind of disintegrate into storm fronts. They’re no longer hurricanes.

The living thing is also a dissipative system. It also has that same property of dissipating energy to its environment, but it’s not so directly tied to its environment in terms of its energy source. The living thing carries its energy sources internally—“on board,” as they say—it stores energy in the form of the ATP molecule, in a higher orbital level. And if you subtract energy from a bacterium, it’s not gonna slow down, it’s gonna speed up. It’s gonna try to . . . it’s gonna start moving faster, it’s gonna try to get the hell outta there, where there’s no food, it’s gonna go try to find food somewhere else. So, it’s a completely different kind of a system—that’s an emergent property, I would argue. And we can also see that it creates more freedom, in the sense of more “degrees of freedom” [actually, this informal usage is misleading; speaking more precisely, it is the reduction of the degrees of freedom within a system that creates novel entities and properties—ed.], more capabilities, more possibilities.

The organism has a far greater amount of things it can do than the hurricane does. The hurricane is not alive, it’s very limited, it’s still a physical system and all it’s doing is minimizing energy, given the physical constraints, external and internal, acting upon it. You cannot explain a single cell in terms of minimizing energy, given the external and internal constraints. You can only explain the activity of the cell in terms of its goal of remaining in existence . . . you know, assuming the cybernetic structure we’ve discussed at length already. So, I want the reader to think about cosmic evolution. I want this to be a narrative. I want this to be something that . . . it can replace the Darwinian narrative. Once you get the origin of life, you get this stepwise advance through the different kinds of animals, kinds of organisms.

Eventually. you get to animals, which are significantly different from plants. How? Well, they move around. They don’t move around at random, they move around purposefully. In order to do that, they need to know already what’s ahead of them before they get there. So, they need to pick up long-distance signals to use in their cybernetic feedback operations. This is what gives rise to the five senses, this need to coordinate multiple cells moving together cooperatively in a given direction that’s good for the totality of the organism. Animals are all multicellular organisms. All those cells . . . each one has its own individual life, but it’s been tamed, somehow, and recruited to work together as a team for the good of the whole organism. All of these are mysteries. All of these are things that need further elucidation.

But, now, Aristotle had this beautiful, you know, three-step model of the soul: the vegetative soul, the sensitive soul, and the rational soul. And I modeled the chapters in my book on that. So, the chapter on life itself—that’s the metabolism we were talking about earlier, how life differs from inorganic matter—and that corresponds to Aristotle’s vegetative soul. And the animals—we just got through mentioning—correspond to his sensitive soul. So, now, we are . . . animals are alive, so, each higher-level soul incorporates the lower level. It’s not either-or, it’s that, plus the next level, plus the next level, and, generally speaking, that’s the case with emergence. You don’t leave anything behind, you simply accrete new capabilities to the old ones. So, the human being is the rational [soul]. So, there’s something about us that makes us extremely different from all the other animals.

And yet we have the same metabolic functions as plants, we have the same sensory functions as animals. We are animals, but we’re not just animals. We are rational animals. In Greek, we are the zōon ekhōn logon, “that animal having reason,” or it can even be translated as “speech,” the word logos is in between the concept of reason and the concept of speech—for a good reason. Human rationality—I and many others would argue—is more or less bound up, essentially, with language. Human rationality is inconceivable without language, once you get language, you’re bound to have certain things that are “spandrels,” you might say, that come along with it, that give rise to these incredible powers that we have that no other animal . . . we live in this whole world . . . Now, to make the transition to the second half of the book, it’s important to spend a minute talking about what I mean by “spirit.”

I already touched on it earlier . . . I like to use the analogy of the difference between what I experience and what my dog experiences when we’re both in the same environment. So, let’s say I’m watching TV. Well, the dog is picking up the same auditory signals . . . you know, they’re impinging . . . the same energy . . . the same airway energy is impinging upon his eardrum as on mine. If he looks at the screen, he’s picking up the same visual energy being transmitted, but he’s not seeing the same patterns in either medium. They’re not meaningful to him in the way that they are to me. In a very real sense, I live in a world that he doesn’t even know exists, that he can’t imagine, that’s totally beyond his ken. I’m just using the dog, of course, as a stand-in for any animal. Even a chimpanzee, even a gorilla, even an orangutan, is gonna be in the same position vis-à-vis a human being.

There’s a wonderful example that I like to use to stress the fact that I’m not just talking about differences in intellect. Well, I am, but the difference in intellect has ramifications that go beyond the intellect, I guess is the way I should say it. So, there’s a passage in one of Jane Goodall’s books in which she describes a chimpanzee mother who has a baby who’s dead, and she watches the mother’s interaction with the corpse of this baby. And the mother’s showing tremendous signs of distress right after the baby dies, and is obviously perturbed. And it’s probably not too anthropomorphic to say that it’s sad, because we do share so much in common, hormonally, even neurally, with our cousins, the chimpanzees. But, after a couple of days, she gets tired of it, or she forgets about it, and she just throws it away like a piece of garbage.

Compare that to a human mother, who may think about that baby every day for the rest of her life, for 50 years, potentially, and feel the same sadness. Now, what’s the difference between the chimpanzee and the human mother? It’s not in their capacity to feel, I don’t think. Well, it is, but the difference . . . what makes the human mother’s capacity to feel so much deeper, is the intellectual capacity that she has to imagine herself as this ongoing person that has this narrative attached to her, this human . . . this life story attached to her, so that in 50 years’ time, she can still experience that reality, she remembers it in a way that the chimpanzee mother just can’t. The human being escapes the boundaries of time and space through our imaginations. And what makes the imagination possible? I submit it’s language, and our reasoning ability, our imaginative ability and our reasoning ability are closely connected. Much of reasoning is asking ourselves, “Well, what would be the case if I did that?” If I’m tinkering with something and I’m trying to make it work, “Well, if I do this, this will happen, let me try to do this” . . . So, this counter- . . . argument . . . what am I trying to say?

. . . counterfactual reasoning, the ability that we have is absolutely at the heart of what it means to be human . . . gives us the human difference. So, I wanna say two things about . . .

James Linder: And the theory of mind that you and I had emailed back and forth about, I think you had agreed that the dog has a very rudimentary . . . in our email, you agreed that the dog has a very rudimentary theory of mind, but, you know, that for humans, it’s orders of magnitude greater.

James Barham: Yeah, if you want to use that terminology. I myself don’t like it very much because I don’t think dogs have any kind of theory, of any kind. But it’s certainly true that they have an expectation about how humans around them, that they know well, will behave. They have a set of expectations—you can call that a “theory” if you want to, I suppose, but it’s rudimentary. So, it just gets back to the Aristotelian point that we are animals, but we’re not just animals. And that point is the death blow to scientism, which cannot accept the fact that we’re not just animals, that we have this spirit that we live in, which is just as important to us as our individual . . . it’s a collective . . . and the language is collective, it’s something that we learn from other human beings. It wouldn’t make any sense just to have a language that consists of only one person. I’m not talking about [Ludwig] Wittgenstein’s [private language] argument, which I’m not even sure I understand, but just simply from a commonsense point of view, it seems clear that language has to be a social phenomenon. Therefore, it transcends the individual. Therefore, it’s a source of objectivity.

We escape our subjectivity by participating in this intersubjective realm. So, it’s a special theory of objectivity as intersubjectivity. But out of that feature of what I’m calling “spirit,” the “realm of spirit,” flows all of human culture and all of the arts and sciences, flows our concepts of truth, beauty, and goodness, mathematics and science . . . you know, the fact that . . . so, I . . . again, I’m trying to be moderate, I’m trying to draw a middle line here in between the desert landscape of Quine and the jungle of Meinong. I’m not a Platonist, I don’t want to say that “two plus two equals four” has some objective reality totally independent of human beings. But it’s independent of any individual human being. As far as each individual human being is concerned, it’s something that we come upon as we come upon a rock or a tree or a dog. It’s there.

But at the same time, it’s created. I mean, there’s . . . I guess you can talk about the “fact that” two pebbles here and two pebbles here, if you put them together, equal four pebbles. I guess there’s some sense in saying that that’s an “objective fact”—it doesn’t depend upon human beings at all. But I still want to say that mathematics as a formal awareness of that fact is . . . well, obviously awareness has got to be human . . . but, I don’t know, these are hard things to articulate . . . but I’m striving . . . perhaps not very successfully . . . striving to articulate a middle position that acknowledges objectivity, that acknowledges freedom, acknowledges the objectivity not just of truth, but of goodness, while at the same time remaining Aristotelian, and connecting it all back to our material existence, and not flying off into a Platonic realm, a dualism that is completely disconnected from the physical universe. That’s the goal.

James Linder: Well, let’s actually wrap this up by talking a little bit more about the second half of your book, and maybe we’ll get adventurous and even talk about the political for a little bit. Okay?

James Barham: Well, when I say “second half,” I guess I really . . . that wasn’t quite accurate because it’s less than half . . . [just] the last two chapters, really. So, there’s a chapter dealing just with spirit . . . with the human mind, of the language-using animal. So, there’s three central chapters: there’s the chapter on life, there’s the chapter on . . . basically, the vegetative soul, the sensitive soul of Aristotle, and the rational soul of Aristotle. And, then, I try to tease out some of the implications of that Aristotelian view of objective teleology in the modern world from a scientific, non-theistic perspective. I try to tease out some of the implications for morality, for politics, in the last two chapters. So, for morality, basically, just . . . talking about the reasons for believing there is an objective, universal, human nature.

One thing I’ve gotten interested in in recent years is non-Western philosophy. It was partly out of doing a little bit of research for this book. So, I talk in Chapter . . . I think it’s Chapter Eight—the chapter about morality—the Golden Rule. I’m kind of letting the Golden Rule stand in for human morality: “Do unto others as you have others do unto you”—which also is closely connected to the idea of putting yourself in the position of the other person—“walking a mile in the other fellow’s moccasins”—it’s expressed in all these different ways. Well, it turns out that the Golden Rule is expressed . . . well, it’s expressed for us in the West by Jesus in the [should be, “Sermon on the Mount”—ed.], I think, in the Gospels [Matt 7:12—ed.], and by Rabbi Hillel, in the Talmud. Now, he expresses it in the negative: he says “Do not do unto others what you would not want them to do unto you. That is the whole of the law,” he says. “Go and study.” So, now, of course, there, there could have been just influence, in one direction or the other. But, then, it turns out, there’s the same idea expressed in very similar words in Buddhism, in a couple of places: in the Pāli canon, which is . . . you know, Buddhism is divided into two main portions, or parts, the Theravāda—or Hīnayāna, which is insulting to them, but others call them that—and the Mahāyāna.

And so, the Pāli canon is the . . . written in the Pāli language . . . is the earlier part, it’s recognized by the southern, Theravāda Buddhists, in what is today SrI Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos. So, they have it—the Buddha himself, in his own words, is supposed to have said something very similar. And, then, the Mahāyāna Buddhists have it—a philosopher named Śantideva writes almost in the same words as Jesus, as I recall, very similar, in the Mahāyāna tradition. So, that’s two more. And, then, it turns out that it’s to be found in Confucius, as well, in very similar terms. So, now, somebody might argue, “Well, again, it’s just cultural diffusion, it’s just Buddhism, it’s just the fact that Buddhism influenced ancient Greece, and Jesus is really the Buddha . . . Yeah, but what about Confucius?

Because that’s, like, really old, I mean, it’s just as old as the Buddha. So, it’s pretty impossible for there to be direct cultural diffusion between China and India about 500 B.C. So what? So, these three main civilizations—Mediterranean civilization, let’s call it . . . Mediterranean/European civilization . . . the Indian civilization, the Chinese civilization—all come to the same conclusion: that the heart of morality is treating the other person like you would want to be treated . . . that is to say, being able to look at the world as the other person sees it. That is the heart and soul of morality.

Well . . . so what?, is . . . I claim . . . the “what” is that it shows that there’s something deeply human about it, deeply essential about it, something that all human beings, at least potentially, share and can respond to, no matter what culture it is. It shows that cultural relativism, especially moral relativism, is a deeply, deeply mistaken idea. Now, obviously, many things that we may consider to be moral may differ from culture to culture. But even then, there’s nothing that other human beings do that we can’t understand on some level by putting ourselves into their position, reading about them, learning about the way they see the world, understanding . . . coming to understand. So, I infer that human nature is one, essentially one, in the most important respects, and that therefore the phenomenon of morality can be directly grounded in human nature, understood in an essentialist and normative way. Now, obviously, you’ve got to qualify that statement in various ways, hedge it around with conditions. You know . . . so, somebody might say, to push back, “Well, what about . . . ,” oh, what’s it called?, the practice of widows—sati—of widows jumping on their husband’s funeral pyre, in India.

Well, it’s not as if other Indians can’t feel that this is something terrible and wrong—they can be brought to feel that. And it’s not as if we can’t understand that in Indian society, where a woman’s identity and her livelihood were completely dependent upon her husband, this might have been a way out. Or, a better example—or a similar example, I should say, not better—Have you ever seen a movie called The Ballad of Narayama, a Japanese film?

James Linder: I have not.

James Barham: It’s something to seek out. It talks … it illustrates the Japanese practice from former times—it’s set in the Middle Ages—of old people being encouraged to “go up the mountain”—they’ve become a burden on the village—and just basically sit down and stop eating and die, freeze to death. And it shows this woman who doesn’t want to do it!

And it’s funny, the way it manipulates you, because you can see the villagers’ point of view and you can see her point of view. It really . . . the film really . . . This is the magic of art, because art stimulates the imagination in a way that’s quite similar to moral thinking. It encourages us to put ourselves in the place of other human beings, to experience the world in the way they do, just like basic morality does, so that the moral imagination and the aesthetic imagination, I think, are closely connected. At any rate, it’s a wonderful movie, you should check it out. And, he ends it—actually, it’s been refilmed, the earlier version, by Kenoshita, [should be “Keisuke”—ed.]? Kinoshita . . . that’s not right . . . anyway, Kenoshita is the last name, that’s correct . . . of the older version from the ’50s, in Kabuki style, just a beautiful film—he ends with a shot of modern Japanese going by on the bullet train, up in the mountains, the snow falling—the “snow country”—and passing a little mark . . . and then the subtitles show that the marker’s showing this as a place where people used to practice this.

So, what can you say? You know, moral . . . morality is something that can be learned. But the very concept of learning morality also implies its objectivity, also goes against the idea of cultural relativism. Anyway, that’s kind of what I do in Chapter Eight. In Chapter Nine, I take that same basic idea—of there being such a thing as a normative human nature—and I try to give some arguments for the implications that flow from that for our communal living, for our living in the polis, together in a society. I don’t know . . . I indulged in some contemporary remarks in a couple of footnotes, but by and large, I’m . . I was trying to stay away from controversial current topics and try to do something that’s more . . . has a longer horizon. But it’s basically the same idea: that a politics based upon moral law jurisprudence, let’s say, is not something that ought to be dismissed out of hand. It’s something that . . . it does deserve a place at Rawls’s public . . . at the table of public debate . . . or debate in the public square.

So, it’s not too profound, but it’s just kind of an extension of the previous chapter on morality.

James Linder: Say more.

James Barham: Ahh . . . what else do I do in there? Well, one of the little gimmicks I came up with to try to make it more intuitively plausible, this connection between human nature and politics . . . So, I do develop the concept of virtue ethics a little bit in the preceding chapter, the chapter on morality, as distinguished from . . . in contrast to consequentialism and also to deontology—although I do think that there’s certain aspects of deontology that have to be incorporated into a virtue ethics. I don’t think that’s necessarily a big problem, but I think, you know, [Immanuel] Kant was right, that there are certain things that are just wrong, period, and that we have to take that into account as we develop, or try to redevelop, the virtue ethics of the ancients into a modern moral system.

So, one of the gimmicks that I—I shouldn’t use that word—but one of the devices that I devised to try to explicate . . . that is, the idea of a “spectrum of virtue” and a “spectrum of freedom.” So, in the spectrum of virtue, you have . . . in one extreme, you have the liberal “anything goes.” There’s no . . . Oh, I’m leaving out the part that you can also associate two fundamental virtues—I mean, there are many virtues, right?, but there are two fundamental ones that I want talk about: one is compassion, the other is just self-discipline, which are associated, traditionally, with male and female, or paternal and maternal. So, at one spectrum, if you had all discipline, all self-discipline, all paternal, and nothing . . . no compassion, no feminine at all—that leads to brutality. So, going to that extreme is bad. Going to the other extreme, though—which is where we’re at now—where it’s all compassion and there’s no self-discipline at all, there’s no paternal, it’s all maternal—leads to sentimentality.

It leads to a kitsch approach to the world—unrealistic, utopian, wish-fulfilling, Pollyannaish, for lack of a better word, “sentimentalist” approach to the world. So, what you want is something in the middle, where you’re balancing the two elements, the self-discipline and the compassion. Okay? That’s one spectrum. Now, that already applies to morality: What’s the best way of looking at . . . or the best combination of virtues? But in the next chapter, on politics, you have to add to that, I think, a similar spectrum for freedom—and this, of course, touches back into my theme for the whole book. So, if you have absolutely all freedom, anything goes, then you have anarchy, and anarchy is not a pretty picture. I was in Bosnia, the summer of 1993, I’ve seen anarchy up close and personal. It’s not something that you want. Sounds good in theory to some people, such as Kropotkin, but it ain’t pretty.

James Linder: Say that again.

James Barham: Kropotkin, Peter Kopotkin, he was the theorist [of anarchy], I think he was . . . But, of course, if you go to the opposite extreme, if you have no freedom, then you end up with Stalinism, a totalitarian system. Now . . . So, we’re combining the worst of both worlds—this is in a footnote. So, on the moral plane, it’s . . . we’re losing the self-discipline component completely, and it’s all towards the compassion component or sentimentality, while on the political component, we’re rapidly approaching totalitarianism—we’re putting people in jail for dissent, for not following . . . not toeing the party line. That’s pretty scary, if you ask me.

James Linder: Tell me more.

James Barham: Well, I don’t want this to devolve into a political conversation.

James Linder: That’s all right.

James Barham: But, anyway, that’s . . . these are some . . . these devices are really kind of visual aids, like crude illustrations, in the text itself. So, the ideal society would hit the sweet spot on both axes. So, you can combine them in a Cartesian coordinate system, the moral axis and the freedom axis. So, your best political system is going to give you . . . contribute to . . . So, politics is about, or ought to be about, seeking the common good. Well, what is the common good? Well, I would define it as the combination of a set of policies leading to the sweet spot on the moral spectrum, combined with the middle-ground sweet spot on the freedom spectrum, so that you have some freedom, but you also have some order, or “ordered freedom,” I think, is . . .“ordered liberty” is the term that’s used in conservative circles a lot.

I think it may be descended from Edmund Burke—I’m not quite sure if he said that. But, I’ve traveled a long way in my political ideas, just like I have in my religious ideas, all my ideas, from being a pretty conventional left-winger, to an atheist and loyal follower of Darwin, to being a critic of Darwin, to being a conservative . . . and I’m still working on the anti-atheism component, but I’m certainly not any longer a doctrinaire atheist. What I am is harder to say, some sort of theist, perhaps.

James Linder: Some sort of theist, perhaps?

James Barham: Well, I think you corrected me last time. It sounded to you like I was more of a deist with a “d,” but . . .

James Linder: Yeah, it did sound that way to me, that’s how . . .

James Barham: But I’m still evolving, I don’t know, maybe I’ll . . . the thing is, I’m very much . . . I want to combine two things, when it comes to this concept of cosmopolitanism. I very much believe in being a “citizen of the world,” in the sense that we take into account the whole world—all human beings everywhere are equally morally worthy. That does not, however, necessarily translate into the morality of consequentialism, where I have to . . . you know, “the greatest good for the greatest number,” in an abstract sense, where I can’t privilege my own kids over kids somewhere in Africa. What it does mean is that I think Western intellectuals ought to know more than we typically do about the great civilizations besides Western civilization.

I think that . . . for example, if we wanted to talk about education, one of the things I would say is that one of the primary raisons d’être for education is to pass on the tradition of civilization. Now, for a Westerner, that means Western civilization primarily, but for an Indian, it means Indian civilization, for a Chinese person, it means Chinese civilization—and I think that each of those three should know something about the other two. And I suspect the Indian person and the Chinese person know a heck of a lot more about Western civilization than we know about theirs. Well, I think that should change, I really do. It’s only recently that I’ve begun to study . . . my goal is simply . . . is very modest . . . is to try to just become conversant with the basic names and most prominent works of philosophy and literature of the Chinese and Indian civilizations. That’s already a big project, very big project. I’ve spent the last three or four years working on it. And people will say, “Well, you waited long enough, Barham.” I always say, “Better late than never.”

James Linder: Better late than never.

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