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  • Reverend James Squire

What Planck's Law Has To Do With You

When students took ethics with me, they were surprised to learn that we would cover important developments in physics to understand human behavior. This was a deep dive into a Law of Consistency that concludes that what occurs in the physical world must also be true in the world of relationships and the study of why people do what they do. My brother, the physicist, would applaud this understanding of reality and relationships.

Max Planck who gave us Planck’s Law in 1901 ushered in the age of quantum mechanics. He discovered that matter always has two dimensions, a wave and a particle. I made a Wilson Cloud Chamber in High School (you can always tell the nerds) which was a class cylinder that sat on metal which sat on dry ice. I placed a radioactive source in the middle of the metal plate (scraped luminous dial from a watch on a thumb tack). Two copper bands with different electrical charges were placed around the class cylinder and electricity was run through them setting up a cloud in the chamber. When you looked down into it from the open top, you could see waves of light which would turn into particles which would turn again into waves in an unpredictable fashion. In this wave/particle theory, neither one on their own, wave or particle, could explain the phenomenon of light, but seeing them both working together made for a clear understanding of the ingredients of light. This countered Newton’s Law that everything was predictable.

The conclusion of the wave/particular theory is that the physical world vacillates between particles and waves and is never static. So just as matter does not exist as one or the other so our ethical world doesn’t either. Our world is not a world of either/or but it is a world of both/and.

What does this have to do with you and me and how we see important elements of our lives?

For example, there has historically been the argument of what determines how we act. Some say nature. Some say our environment. Most research shows that both are needed to produce what makes you and me tick. Taking both into account is needed to understand why we do what we do.

Let’s apply this to the current political crisis after the discovery of top-secret documents at Trump’s Florida residence. As we think about Trump and us, is our character determined by the environment in which we were raised where character is something that we develop over time or is character something that is aspects of ourselves that have already been a part of us and is not so much developed as it is revealed. Most would agree that it is not one or the other but both as our character is shaped by life and revealed to others at the same time.

We see that there is a pattern during this past week’s retrieval of top-secret documents. Most commentators feel that Trump has never been held accountable in his life. His actions seem to have a pattern similar to that of the mob. At the same time his inner life of character or lack thereof reveals a pattern of narcissism, self-promotion, and lies. His inner life has fit a pattern including burying Ivana on the first hole of his golf course for a tax deduction. But you have to see that all of his actions relate to his development and as his constant revelation of a skewed understanding of the ethical life. Both are true for him. Not either/or, but both/and!

Second, let’s examine the response to Trump from his irresponsible followers. They have been off the wall! They have encouraged the same kind of violence that we had before January 6 including giving out the personal information of the judge who signed off on the raid and the FBI agents that were there. Now law enforcement has a target on their banks.

Some say that Trump has created all of this immoral action in our culture, and he has. But Planck’s Law says that there has to be more. Who is using who? Trump’s behavior just revealed the unethical parts of our society that were just waiting for someone like Trump and the MAGA Republicans to come along and mirror his lies and behavior creating a party of outrageous statements and attitudes. They are performers who cling to Trump and not people who advocate conservative policy. (We need the pre-Trump Republicans to get their party back.)

So, who is using who? We all think that Trump is using these domestic terrorists. That was the term used to introduce Trump at a conservative action convention recently. He is. But it is just as important to see that they are using him. They need him to legitimize their actions. It is a marriage made in hell. Trump thinks they love him whereas they love what they can do with his blessing. It is not either/ or. It is both/and.

Students like deep dives into an issue as opposed to superficial understanding. They thrive on it! It is exciting to them. I have mentioned that I had a high-profile student athlete in ethics who was a Division One recruit in basketball. He became captain of his university team for two consecutive years. The press loved him. When he was taking the ethics course, he demonstrated that you could be a great athlete and a great student. He would drop ethical language in his interviews like mentioning Planck’s Law and works of supererogation, and he could explain what they meant.

Ethical decisions are known as reflecting those decisions where we feel caught between a rock and a hard place. They are choiceless choices. They are choices that we would rather not make, but we have to. You have to be aware of both the nature of the rock and the nature of the hard place. We have Max Planck to thank for helping us to see that dynamic in ethics. It is a matter of both/and rather than either/or.

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