Earlier this week I made the following post:

The Tie that Binds

Have you ever seen birds fly in formation, or observed a group of fish turn on a dime? These animals have some tie that binds them together, some greater life they hold in common.

Is it then irrational to believe there is also a tie that binds together humankind? Is it superstitious to believe we are part of a larger life, and to consider those bonds to be sacred?

To my surprise, the post evoked a polite but intense conversation questioning whether such a view is scientific or even ethical. One responder wrote:

O dear!  Sometimes i wish i could read lovely thoughts like these without the critical scientific voice popping up.  But….
Birds and fish are highly sensitive to the “wake” of those in the lead or in front and beside them.  There is, of course some built in physical inclinations and instincts, but I have also observed on numerous occasions flocks of birds “practicing” their flight assembly and probably training the younger ones for a longer flight. In other words – the practice is in part learned. 
Also quantum mechanical is not same as metaphysical.
Thank you for putting up w the nerd in me!

Another took a different angle in critiquing my appeal to the common life:

It becomes superstitious if the claim is that non-causal, immaterial, supernatural “forces” tie us together.  If the claim is that the mind-boggling complexity of our social organization and interpersonal relationships can be subjectively experienced as “sacred,” then I can’t object.

Many of us (well, I’ll just speak for myself) are suspicious of notions that some greater collective entity than our individual selves actually exists.  This isn’t because we don’t appreciate the rich and amazing nature of social cooperation.  The objection is to do with the way that abstractions about the greater good–usually in trappings similar to those in your post–are inevitably used as an excuse for one individual (acting as an agent of the collective) to inflict harm on other individuals.  These actions, when not performed in the name of a greater entity, would be considered violations of fundamental human rights (to not be killed, to not be caged, etc.)

I lay awake last night thinking about the importance of this conversation. Some of the most important conversations moving humanity out of the Medieval mind centered around this same question of the one and the many. One of the questions could have come straight out of William of Ockham:

Jim, just to tease this out, can you relate a time that you helped the common good without helping any individual people?

Obviously it isn’t possible to help a group without helping the individuals within that group. Thus it can reasonably asked why not eliminate the notion of “group” and just deal with the individuals? Appeals to universalism have unleashed some of history’s worst nightmares. The question just asked (if I understand what he is saying) is very close to Bertrand Russell’s paradoxical question, “can there be a soccer team without any players?” Russell’s posed the paradox to imply that universals are an invention of the mind. If I remember correctly, he called his approach “punctillianism.” (I tried to Google the word and could not confirm that was his exact word.) I remember Russell somewhere questioning whether the world was a unifying element at all. His said at one point that “the universe is all spots and jumps.”

But, if that is true, why on earth would he spend his life studying mathmatics? What kept drawing back to the universals? The fact that the universe has form implies some kind of mathmatical nature to things. thus Einstein said famously:

“A human being is a part of the whole, called by us, “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest — a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness.

This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty.

Nobody is able to achieve this completely, but the striving for such achievement is in itself a part of the liberation and a foundation for inner security.”

Even Bertrand Russell understood this at some level. At one point he mused:

(It is) Much better, like Archimedes, to be killed because of absorption in eternal things… There is a possibility in human minds of something mysterious as the night-wind, deep as the sea, calm as the stars, and strong as Death, a mystic contemplation, the “intellectual love of God.” Those who have known it cannot believe in wars any longer, or in any kind of hot struggle. If I could give to others what has come to me in this way, I could make them too feel the futility of fighting. But I do not know how to communicate it: when I speak, they stare, applaud, or smile, but do not understand.

In this conversation we are discussing the paradox of the universal verses the particular. It may seem like splitting hairs, but, in fact, in this discussion we are grappling with what our fundamental categories of value will be. I believe our nation is stuck on one horn of the paradox. It is called a “paradox” because either of the opposite positions seems logically unassailable from its initial assumptions. As Zeno illustrated with his image of the sand pile, if you start with a grain of sand, no one particular additional grain can rationally be said to turn it into a “pile.” But if you start with the pile and remove one grain at a time, no one grain can be rationally said to remove what you are calling the “pile.”

I agree 100% with those who say if we begin with the individual as our primary value, there is no rational reason to speak of our common life. But we can kill ourselves for perfectly logical reasons, which is why our nation of atomized individuals can find no rational reason to save our planet from climate change and finds no necessity for international standards for membership in the human race. For us to make the sacrifices necessary to save our planet we would have to believe there is a greater value than our own individuals lives. Like the ancients we now call “primitive,” we would have to feel the earth to be our mother, and to view ourselves as belonging to the web of life.

In my opinion, choosing either pole of the paradox of the universal or particular spells doom. We must learn to live in a mystery that resembles our human thought only analogically. We must learn to see the earth as our context not ourselves the context for earth. I do not need to be told that my position is illogical to the individualist. That is as obvious to me as to anyone. I only warn that, if we are not very careful, the tombstone on the grave of humankind will read, “Died of enlightened self interest.”