Who Am I? Who Are We? – Dik Van Iten

Dik Van Iten* gave a reflection entitled “Who Am I? Who Are We?” on 25 November at our Fellowship. His notes (below) arose from a discussion which took place afterwards.


“Notes on the notion of a “Principled Life” [prompted by conversations following our discussion of 25 November 2018; from Dik Van Iten

In the areo-space industry it is not uncommon to hear or read of something referred to as structural integrity. This notion has to do with designing vehicles for outer space travel-vehicles that can maintain their design function while encountering a wide range of stress factors. A vehicle able to “weather the vagaries of life” common to the stresses and strains that it will most likely encounter while under way on its long and dangerous journey is a vehicle that has successfully maintained its structural integrity. By parity of reasoning, the crew members manning this space vehicle, assuming no performance malfunction, have maintained their structural integrity. Each member is trained to perform as per the mission plan’s specific duties, duties which are collectively integrated into the design and performance functions of their vehicle. This is a very complex and performance-sensitive arrangement. Shift now to an everyday context in which several human beings work as a team in carrying out their specific duties which, taken collectively, comport with and bring to life the business model that rationalizes the business model by means of which the firm in question operates. This notion, rationalize, is a shorthand term meant to express the logical framework which provides this firm with its reason for being-its goals, operational methods and monitoring of outcomes. Put somewhat loosely, a well-run business faithfully practices the actions that must be performed-if it is to succeed per its model. Invariably included in a smart business model are methods and procedures for the timely detection of malfunctions-while the business is in motion. Human performance is part and parcel of its operation. Businesses are much like space travel vehicles in that both systems, operating according to plan, are expected to perform as designed. As crew members have specific duties to carry out, so, too, do the employees of the firm for which they work.  Thus, structural integrity is reliant upon both mechanical and human performance.

Once again, by parity of reasoning, a principled life lived according to its foundational principles, is intended by design to achieve and maintain a certain structural integrity whereby actions/decisions and their outcomes accord with the principles upon which a specific person’s life-plan is based. There are limits, however, to how far we can go in suggesting the notion of structural integrity is fairly applied to the lives we actually live. We frequently “change our minds.” Often without taking into account “unintended consequences.” It is not unusual to fall back on those ever-present vagaries of life to rationalize decisions that prove to be counter to our own best interests and in conflict with the principles to which we are committed. Then, too, there is the matter of human-to-human interaction. Recall Sartre’s mantra, Hell is other people.” Soon, however, the integration of human intelligence and artificial intelligence (AI) may relieve us of the to-err-is-human burden. We shall literally have on board our persons high-tech AI chips to put an end to this structural flaw!

Finally, bear in mind that human experience is very likely “open ended.” We learn and learn and keep on learning. This apparently unending process suggests that, however deeply committed we may be to our beliefs and principles, open minds are near ideal for this human condition. How open? Quite another matter! There is something very appealing in having come to a settled state of mind about what to believe/what not to believe. Minds closed off to new ideas in conflict with our settled beliefs often turn out to be their own heavy burden. Very much like a well operated business, to live a principled life requires us to be ever alert to changing conditions in our human-to-human environment. Thus, we can fairly say it is contrary to our own best interests to expect that living a principle life requires performance perfection. Once again, to err is human…always having in mind the caveat, it remains our duty to persist. Ideals are all well and good, living a perfect life does have a certain appeal…but we understand full well the place of ideals, they inspire us and have the ennobling effect of urging us on!


A final observation: vehicles designed for space exploration have built into their structure a certain amount of flexibility-think of the vertical flexibility deliberately built into the wings of a Boeing 747. We know from experience and ground-based evaluation-it is wise to make it possible for the wings of an aircraft to flex a little. This feature of aircraft is functionally equivalent to shock absorbers on automobiles. There is a close analogy between structural flexibility and the wisdom of being open to the lessons to be learned from new experiences lived through in our daily lives. The eclectic character of Unitarian Universalism is at least in part evidence that it values the experiences, beliefs and survival strategies of virtually all culture-based value-belief systems, East, West, North & South.  As I said on Sunday last-25 November-the challenge members of this tradition must face amounts to articulating how its Seven Principles come to life in concrete existential circumstances. I believe that meeting this challenge commits those who intend to live by those Principles to a variety of what is commonly labeled Contextualism, a view according to which what counts as a just decision in any particular existential context may not do so in another. Pressed to its extreme formulation, this view is open to the idea that no two situations are so very much alike that the very same ruling must apply to both, for what is just in one situation may not be just in another-no matter how like one another they may appear to be.  You may now recall the place of appeal to precedent in American Juris Prudence-when attorneys frequently argue that one case is so close a match to another with regard to the matter at dispute, the court should rule in the same manner regarding the case now before it as was ruled in the case that preceded it.


*Dik Van Iten is a retired Professor of Philosophy who taught at the University of Maryland, Iowa State University, and Duke University where he taught for the Duke Institute for Learning in Retirement. He worked in administration for several years at Iowa State University as chairman of the Department of Philosophy, Associate Dean in the College of Sciences and Humanities, and Acting Dean of the same college.