Friday, April 4, 2014

Re-imagining Naturalism

(The piece below is a response to an article on the Spirtual Naturalism site.  The article can be found at

My undergraduate degree is in anthropology, which perhaps gives me just enough knowledge to be dangerous.  From that limited understanding, I would suggest that people have always been primarily naturalistic, at least in the most general sense of that term: that there is an orderly progression of cause and effect.  At the same time, people have always perceived the world through a filter of imagination, in the most general sense of that term – mythological, ideological, or metaphysics world views. 

Modern naturalism has included a somewhat systematic attempt to decoct what it considers to be the real world from the element that the imagination brings to that world.  It has tried to present a picture of the world cleansed of the mythological, ideological and metaphysical, which is probably an alien notion to earlier people.

To some extent the scientific enterprise (the main methodology of naturalism) has succeeded in this decocting (though I personally believe science is much more fraught with myth, ideology and metaphysics than is generally supposed).  And I think in doing so it has also succeeded in devaluing the imagination.  This, I think, is unfortunate.

The human imagination provides us a tool for looking at the world and seeing what is not there.  Now there are two very different sides to that tool.  Long ago some human or group of humans looked out on the Saharan Desert in Egypt and imagined pyramids where in reality there was only the blowing desert sand.  They then initiated the effort of making the imaginative vision into a reality.  These Egyptian pyramid makers understood only a tiny fraction of modern science and mathematics, but this did not prevent them from making the physical world dance to their imaginations.  This story can be repeated across the globe and the ages – Angkor Wat, the Parthenon, Chartres, the Empire State Building.  The human imagination, for better or worse, has transformed the surface of the earth.

The other side of seeing what is not there is that we imagine unreal causes of real effects, like lightening or a deluge; and project unreal effects of real causes, such as certain behavior that might be thought impious.  We also come to fear things that are not there – such abstract fear, anxiety, is practically epidemic in the modern age.  (Perhaps one of the reasons there is still such a large number of faith healers of various sorts is that imaginary methods can be effective against the large array of imaginary fears and illnesses.)

In devaluing imagination, naturalism perhaps has paid too little attention to the creative side of the imagination.  Naturalistic reality is a rather bare, meaningless phenomenon.  Why wouldn’t we want to dress it in myths?  Why wouldn’t we want to organize it with a meaningful metaphysics?  The challenge for a healthy naturalism should not be diminishing imagination, but learning to appreciate it for what it is.  This includes not mistaking the imaginative and the real – taking metaphors as metaphors, myths as myths, but not taking either literally.  (Metaphors are among the mind's most imaginative creations.  Going back to the those who imagined the pyramids, a pyramid was probably a kind of metaphoric mountain, which itself was probably a metaphoric place closer to the gods).  

In seeking a “spiritual naturalism” I suspect that one of the things we are seeking is a re-integration of imagination and reason.  Reason has proven to be a very powerful tool in manipulating the external world.  Note that whether we are talking about building a pyramid or putting a person on the moon, we start with the product of the imagination and then call in the reason to help us actualize the imaginative vision.  This, I believe is the proper relationship of imagination and reason – imagination should lead and reason be the servant.  Unimaginative reasoning is can make us barren.

Imagination is also the tool, and the only tool, that can navigate our inner experience.  This is the key to the poetic function of any art -- to explore experience and then pull from that exploration deeper meanings and articulate those meanings in extended metaphors.  Such productive contemplation of experience is one of the highest elements of any spirituality.  Unfortunately, it seems that people are increasingly alienated from their inner experience, and thus unable to make blossom the meanings of the great spiritual metaphors that have been handed down to us.

I suspect that those early hunter/gatherers who created the great cave paintings that still impress us today were not alienated from their inner experience.  Compared to those primitives we may be giants in the exploitation of the earth’s resources, but we may be but pygmies in the creative marshaling of inner resources.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

A Random Walk?

In his book Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin, Stephen Jay Gould presented the idea that the appearance of progress in evolution can be explained as “a random walk.”  According to Gould, in evolution there is a left bound, a minimum at zero complexity, but no right bound on complexity.  Evolution thus has only one direction to move in, and that is toward greater complexity over time.  There is no need to posit an direction of increased complexity or progress, only a random process, which leads to increased complexity because it can’t really lead to anything else. 

While the idea that evolution is a random walk certainly is reasonable, I find at least one reason to question it.  Here is the reason.  If we accept some form of the big bang theory, then our universe starts off in a highly disorganized state.  Yet several billion years later, when the first life appears on earth, the universe has become organized into stable galaxies and planetary systems.  Just how to account for this increase in cosmic organization is a rather contentious issue, but I don’t see any way that “a random walk” describes this process.

Further, at a certain point in the history of evolution, we find one species, the human, who starts to organize his world.  Over a few hundred thousand years, we find this creature going from organizing simple shelters to creating such highly organized entities as the Library of Congress, the I-Pod, and the space program.  Again, how to account for this massive increase in organized complexity is rather contentious, yet again, it cannot be accounted for by a random walk.

So the question arises, if what happens between the big bang and the rise of life on earth seems to have a direction of progress, and the development of human learning and technology clearly has a direction of progress, should we feel so confident that evolution, which lies between these two, lacks a direction of progress? 

There is a lot of talk about a theory of everything in physics, but one thing seems clear to me – such a theory of everything won’t actually explain much of anything outside the realm of physics.  I would like to predict here that somewhere in the future there will be another kind of theory of everything that will actually explain a good deal more.  This theory will be a theory of organization – a theory that comprehensively accounts for how the universe self organizes and in the process of self organizing generates new forms of organization, such as the algorithmic organization by which genes produce organisms and ideas create buildings and machines.  Darwinian Evolution will be a part of this larger theory, rather than a theory somewhat isolated from the other forms of development and organization occurring in the universe.

Friday, March 28, 2014

We Are Stardust?

As much as I like the music of Joni Mitchell, the fact that I am made of stardust makes no emotional impact on me.  But in the spirit of that oh-so reasonable one, Mr. Spock, I do find certain things about that fact interesting. First, the fact that the universe has stars at all strikes me as very curious.  Amongst the many things required for a star to exists, one is that the ratio of the strength of gravity to the strength of the electromagnetic force has to be roughly in the proportion that it is -- the electromagnetic force is roughly 38 magnitudes stronger than gravity.  Thirty-eight magnitudes is a huge number – something in the order of the number of atoms in the planet earth.  Of all the proportions available to nature, that it should have that particular one is certainly interesting.

Even more interesting, perhaps, is what happens after you gather enough gravity together to overwhelm the electromagnetic force.  New elements are forged, and huge quantities of energy are released via E=MC2.  But for new elements to be forged, there must be available another force strong enough to overcome the relatively powerful repulsion that protons feel for one another. The strong nuclear force, which is roughly 137 times more powerful than the electromagnetic force, allows this, and allows nature to develop about 90 stable elements. 

What use the universe has for so many elements is any body’s guess, but without a rich diversity of elements, we wouldn’t be here.  Being so powerfully attractive, you would think the strong nuclear force would pull everything together in one big lump.  But despite its great strength, the range of that strength drops off steeply, so steeply that it is not felt beyond the atomic nucleus.  Could a force be designed with more perfect specifications for the task of creating a multitude of different kinds of elements?  That, of course, is a terribly unscientific way to frame the question.  Nonetheless, I think it is just the kind of question that a curious person might be inclined to ask.

Our universe seems to have been born (if one can be permitted poetic language here) with the proportions of its forces already set – we might even think these forces are something of an analog to the genes that guide the development of an embryo into a fully realized creature.  Why these proportions?  There are many theories (though I don’t believe any of them are either falsifiable or provable). 

One such theory that currently is popular is the idea of infinite inflation.  To give the briefest sketch of the theory, it posits that the so-called big bang and ensuing period of inflation that created our universe is just one of countless such periods of universe creation.  Most such periods result in a sterile univerese, but by the sheer force of numbers, some of them have what it takes to create interesting universes and even beings that find such universes interesting.

Note that this theory (and I believe all such theories that involve a multiverse) requires an infinitely potent entity, the multiverse, to create an infinite quantity of universes.  Consequently, the multiverse must not be subject to entropy, indeed must be dis-entropic.  But if it is, than we simply cannot assume it is naturalistic in any sense we understand that term, for entropy is absolutely core to our own understanding of nature.  How the multiverse operates is beyond anything we currently can understand.  It is pure mystery.

Now I find all this very interesting, and I do not draw any conclusions from it.  But it does strike me that an omni-potent multiverse has something of the characteristic of a God.    I might even say that when it comes to the great mystery of the source of it all, theism and atheism have about equal status, which is to say they both purport to say more than a reasonable person ought to say. 

So I'll leave the rest to silence...

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Desire and the Contemplative Life (or the Marketer’s Worst Nightmare)

It is natural to desire and civilized to repress desire, at least some of the time.  The question is, and it is a central question of morality and ethics, which desires to express or repress and how much so?  A culture provides a provisional answer to this question in the form of laws.  We may desire to do bodily harm or take possessions from another, but the law may dictate serious consequence for any who give in to these desires.  

Religions and quasi-religious systems have proposed moral codes that are often quite different from the law, generally more restrictive concerning which desires we are encouraged to give into and which we are encouraged to repress.   At the most extreme, we find a religious philosophy like Buddhism that sets as its ideal the cessation of all desire.

Religions, often but not always, posit consequences of our actions here on earth in some form of afterlife or reincarnation.  Their moral codes, the system of “oughts” and “ought-nots,” generally do not make complete sense without reference to that specific notion of an afterlife.  Thus the moral clarity that a religion can provide requires faith, and many of us can see no clear reason for such faith.  For a person who does not believe in an afterlife, there really is no clear or authoritative directive as to which desires ought and out-not be pursued.  For such a person, how our desires affect the quality of our life in this life or the life of those we care about, is much more central. 

There is a general idea, derived from the philosopher David Hume, that you cannot go from an “is” to and “ought.”  This is not really correct.  Within a goal directed context, it makes perfect sense to go from “is” to “ought.”  Thus, if your goal is X and Y is necessary to achieve X, then it follows that you ought to do Y.  But to the question, “What ought to be the ultimate goal of my life?” there are no facts that lead to a clear answer. 

Most people probably give little thought to the question of the ultimate goal of their life.  A society provides a set of standard aims and ambitions, and most people simply grow into one of those normal roles.  Wealth, status, love and friendship, raising a family, pleasure and security are among the accepted aims of most secular societies, and most people aim to maximize some or all of these.  Each of these aims defines a certain set of oughts and ought-nots.  For instance, the pursuit of wealth requires a certain kind of prudence: the repression of the desire to have and enjoy now for the expectation of having more and being able to enjoy more in the future.  Even the exclusive pursuit of pleasure requires some consideration about the consequences of giving in too completely, such as the negative consequences of having too much to drink.

While the normal goods, and the societal forms through which we channel our desires to attain these goods, are enough for most people in most societies, we may raise the question whether any of these goals, individually or in combination, provide the best or highest quality of life? There is no clear answer to this question, but there is the testimony of various thinkers, artists, mystics through the ages that suggest that they are not.

The philosopher Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, suggests that eudaimonia is the goal of most people.  (Eudaimonia is often translated as “happiness,” but I would suggest that the term is closer to well-being.)  He also states that intellectual contemplation is the highest form of happiness.  This idea is rather alien to modern Western society, but it was a highly respected ideal in the West for nearly 2,000 years.  A contemplative ideal has had an even greater standing and longevity in India and other parts of the Orient.

Contemplation is a focusing of one’s awareness and attention on some object, idea or experience.  Such a focusing requires the quieting of natural desires (deepening contemplation requires the virtual cessation of such desires).  Desire makes us aware of something we lack and points us toward objects that we believe at some level will fill that lack.  In a state of desire, we are not content with where we are and we are impelled to move (mentally, physically or both) elsewhere.  In contemplation we can feel deeply content with where we are and what we are doing.  We are content – not in the sense that someone who has just satisfied a desire (say eating a bowl of ice cream), but content with the very nature of our being.  During contemplation the contemplative needs nothing but contemplation to be perfectly content.  The seated Buddha is the image of such contentment.

It is not my intention to conclude that Aristotle or Buddha is correct about what leads to happiness or contentment.  If I have anything to conclude it is that each person has to figure out his or her own goals and ways to achieve those goals.  Further, I would not wish to conclude that because some way is good, more and more of that way is better and better.  Life is a dynamic affair; why not have multiple goals?  I do wish to suggest, though, that though the contemplative life is no longer one of the standard norms of our society, those old masters where not incorrect about it.  Its rewards are wonderful, and you really do not have to pay a penny for them – contemplation provides joy for free. 

Back in the sixties, people would speak of “an alternative lifestyle,” which meant an alternative to the market based lifestyle.  Now the term is used by marketers to sell an array of products that help define one of the many so-called lifestyles.  The market needs consumers, people who desire.  Contemplation offers an alternative to being a consumer.  A person who has learned to find deep inner happiness without having to pay a penny for it is the marketer’s worst nightmare. 

Tuesday, February 11, 2014


Yes begets no, good begets bad, left begets right – such is the symmetry of verbal things. Yet symmetry begets asymmetry.  So to assert a truth is to invite its denial; to praise a value is to invite a scoffer.  It hardly seems worthwhile to assert or deny at all.  Yet silence begets noise. So when I wish for silence I often speak and when I speak I wish for silence.  Thus, if I speak of big things, may I do so humbly and may my words reach toward a rarified clarity or an unresolvable ambiguity.  

Wednesday, January 29, 2014


For a few centuries now there has been an accelerating pace of technological change, which has also led to an accelerating pace of social change.  Some people call this change progress, and I would certainly not totally disagree with that assessment.  But I would caution that the perception of progress is greatly distorted by a certain bias, a bias I am not sure has yet been clearly articulated.

In every change there is something gained and something lost.  The distortion of technological change is that what is gained is gained rapidly and is relatively easy to quantify, while what is lost is lost slowly and is qualitative.  The quantitative improvement makes a far greater impression on us than the qualitative loss.

As an example, in the late 19th century in America, houses often had large porches and during the hot summer hours people spent time on these porches.  From the porches people could communicate with neighbors walking by on the sidewalk or with other neighbors sitting on their porches.  These interactions enhanced a neighborhood’s social culture. When air conditioning came along, the early adopters could stay inside on the hottest days to escape the heat.  But they probably also expected that the porch culture, and its enjoyments, would still be there if they wanted to go out and participate.

Air conditioning provided an immediate and quantitative relief from the unpleasantness of the heat.  But over a period of many years, as more and more people installed air conditioning, the porch culture diminished greatly – and the enjoyments that had come with it also diminished.  It may well be the case that the early adopters of air conditioning years later complained about the loss of the porch culture without even suspecting the role that air conditioning had played in it.  The loss was slow and its causes not immediately clear. 

One could refer to many such examples, but I will explore just one more – photos.  In the early years of the 20th Century, when my parents were born, photos were relatively rare. I thus only have a few photos of them when they were young.  But I value those photos and have examined them closely trying to derive every piece of information I can from the few available. 

Photos are now ubiquitous.  Many children will have thousands of photos taken and saved by the time they are adults.  Again we have a rapid and quantitative gain – but the question is, will any of these photos be treasured?  Indeed, will anyone even bother with them as they are so common?  The rare is valued, but not the common.  It is very possible that what seems now a great a treasure of photos, will end up largely ignored.

I speak to many young people today who are keenly aware of the wonderful new things their digital tools and toys provide.  As a person who grew up in a world where we made our own entertainment from the outdoors, our friends, and a lot of imagination, I am keenly aware of how much young people have lost. The entertainment we made for ourselves was a wonderful old thing, and the new digital entertainments seem shallow and shoddy to me in comparison.

Okay, I've turned into a sentimental older person who is slowly becoming a Luddite.  But the point here is to say “when evaluating progress, recognize that it generally takes a good deal more effort to account for what has been lost than what has been gained.”  If you fail to make that effort, you very well may be blinded by progress.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Comment on Quote from James Hillman - One

“To speak of my anima and my soul expresses the personalistic fallacy.  Although these archetypal experiences of the personal give salt and substance to my personal individuality, making me feel that there is indeed a soul, this “me-ness” is not mine.  To take such experiences literally as mine puts the anima inside me and makes her mine.  The more profoundly archetypal my experiences of soul, the more I recognize how they are beyond me, presented to me, a present, a gift, even while they feel my most personal possession.  Under the dominion of anima our soulfulness makes us feel unique, special, meant – yet paradoxically this is when we are least individual and most collective.  For such experiences derive from the archetype of the personal, making us feel both archetypal and personal at the same instant. “
                                                                        From Revisioning Psychology
James Hillman is one of my favorite thinkers/writers.  I often agree with him, often disagree.  It is in the areas that I disagree that I enjoy him most.  Wrestling with his thought when I disagree is almost always an educational experience, an occasion for a growth of understanding. 

Hillman frequently criticizes spirituality.  His reasons for this are very complex, well thought out, interesting.  Ultimately, though, I think Hillman is in fact the most spiritual of psychologists – it’s just that his spirituality cuts much deeper than most of the tender-minded spirituality of our time.  The above quote (where the emphasis are mine), is one example.  It would be interesting to do a lengthy compare and contrast of this piece with something like Emerson’s The Oversoul, but here a few brief comments will have to do.

In the so-called “Perennial Wisdom”, it is a common place that the spiritual traditions from all over the world have in common a particular experience -- I will term it the experience of non-duality, though the different traditions characterize it under many terms and symbols.  In brief, that experience is a direct experience of the contingency of individuality and the experience of the “otherness” that is the real foundation of our being.  This is sometimes characterized as a unity with God, Nature, the Tao, etc.  “Unity,” however, is understood to be a kind of poor approximate for this experience, which ultimately defies all words – “The Tao that can be spoken is not the real Tao.”

Hillman’s quote above (unintentionally I think) provides a somewhat novel formulation of the perennial wisdom.  The “otherness” in this case is archetypal experiences of the soul.  This otherness, paradoxically, is precisely that which gives "me" my experience of “me-ness”, yet this otherness is common to all – we all get our sense of individual “me-ness” from a collective source.  The self, which to a large extent is created out of words, states “I have the experience of these archetypes,” but in fact it is the archetypes that give rise to the “I”. 

It is this illusion of the “I” that the various forms of perennial wisdom seek to penetrate – “Thou Art That” is the formulation of The Upanishads, which are probably the earliest and most comprehensive source of the perennial wisdom. 

One last note, “the anima” is symbolized as feminine; Hillman’s formulation can be seen as a return to the perennial wisdom as experienced under the aspect of the Goddess, rather than its common later formulation under some form of male personage.  The whole body of Hillman’s writing, in some ways, is a great call for a return to the Goddess – not the sentimentalized Goddess of the New Age, but the all encompassing Goddess, represented by Kali and Hecate, that contains all the horror and ugliness of life, all the beauty and goodness, and finally represents a wisdom that comes of giving honor to all that is encompassed in living deeply.