Thursday, February 5, 2015

Not Knowing

We know what we know and we don’t know what we don’t know.  That we can be rather sure of.  But think about this question: “What is the ratio of what we know to what we don’t know?”

That ratio, it would seem, is part of what we don’t know.  If we think about everything that humans currently know – e.g. the information that fills the great libraries -- most of us should admit that the ratio is rather small.  And even if we are among the most knowledgeable of people, the ratio is still likely not very large.

Another question: “What is the ratio of everything that humans currently know to everything that could possibly be known?”  There are cosmological theories that posit countless numbers of other universes.  If these theories are true (whether they are or not being another thing we don’t know), then the ratio is possibly infinitely small.

But to narrow things, what if we just consider the visible portion of this universe?  Well, there might be numerous solar systems with intelligent beings, some possibly considerably more so than us.  Currently we know nothing of their worlds; currently we don’t know if such worlds exist.  So even here the ratio is possibly very, very small.

We could get even narrower and consider just this earth; we would seem to know quite a bit about that.  For instance, it is probably the case that the known and cataloged species of plants and animals currently living are a fairly large ratio of all the currently existing species.  But it has been suggested that for every currently living species there have been a thousand that are now extinct.  If this number is anywhere near being correct, than the number of extinct species we know anything about would seem to be a rather small percentage of the total.  So the ratio of what we know about the living species that have comprised the earth’s biosphere throughout its history compared to everything there is to be known is again very small.

At this point a person may throw up her or his arms and say, “well I know what I need to know!”  But how would a person know this since we don’t know what we don’t know?  Most of the people I know seem to me to be missing some important pieces of knowledge about quite basic things, and they also seem to be blithely unaware of it.

Socrates, who was considered by many a very wise and knowledgeable person, famously stated that “I know that I don’t know.”  From the foregoing discussion, I think this is something of which each of us could be reasonably sure.

To know that we don’t know seems to be negative knowledge, and should we not be more concerned with positive knowledge?  Perhaps, but anyone who spends time reading comments on the Internet might wish that more people understood the limits of their knowledge.  (Why are there so many people who passionately believe in the most un-belief-worthy notions?)   I would suggest that having at least some sense of the limits of ones knowing is actually a very positive kind of knowledge. 

You need to know a great deal, I would suggest, to truly know that you don’t know.  One has to spend a lifetime trying to know if one is going to have any creditability in saying “I know that I don’t know.”  So if the person who says “I know that I don’t know” actually knows a lot relative to most, is this person a liar?  Or is it a recognition that all knowing isn’t equal?  There are the answers to big questions and answers to small questions, and while Socrates and most of us probably had plenty of the later, it is in relation to the former that our un-knowing is significant.  But here again, do we know what the really significant questions are?

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote: “what can be said at all can be said clearly, and what we cannot state clearly we must pass over in silence.”  I don’t necessarily think this statement is true and later in his life Wittgenstein apparently became doubtful about this himself.  But I do think it is sometimes wise to be silent.  Silence, like the knowing of one’s ignorance, might seem the negation of knowledge, but is it?  Perhaps I’ll just shut up and listen to what the silence says.


Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Tao of Christmas

I do not choose to celebrate Christmas, but as an American it’s hard not to.  Christmas is now as much a secular holiday as a Christian one. 

Like many other Spiritual Naturalists, I was brought up Christian but grew to find Christianity both spiritually unsatisfying and intellectually unpalatable.  Among the many things I found objectionable was its personifications of natural law.  Around the same time, I discovered the Eastern religions, and in them, particularly Taoism, I found a spiritual philosophy both deeply satisfying to my soul and not in conflict with my reasoning mind (ignoring some of the peripheral bits).

I don’t celebrate Christmas, yet I must admit that the season still has a certain hold over me. I have good childhood memories of Christmas and I applaud the sentiments of good will and peace towards all expressed at this time.  Also, the winter solstice seems a proper time to celebrate the season’s turning from maximum darkness to increasing light.  And, I rather like the central image of the Christian holiday, the birth of Christ. 

Away in a Manger
The central image of Christmas, the incarnation of God into the history of the world, is the epitome of personalizing.  That the being responsible for the creations of the “firmament of heaven” is also the babe in the manger is crazy, but an appealing kind of crazy if one reads it mythically rather than literally.  

As a myth, I think most Taoists can find something pleasing about the central Christmas image.  The idealization of the baby speaks to an idea easy for Taoist to relate to. The first lines of chapter 55 of the Tao Te Ching are translated by Stephen Mitchell as “He who is in harmony with the Tao, is like a newborn child.”  The first part of chapter 76 is translated by Ellen Chen as:
“At birth, a person is soft and yielding, at death hard an unyielding.
All beings, grass and trees, when alive, are soft and bending,
When dead they are dry and brittle.
Therefore the hard and unyielding are companions of death,
The soft and yielding are companions of life.”
The babe in a manger is an apt symbol of the Taoist ideal of living in a humble, open, flexible and yielding manner.

A Child Is Born Unto Mary
The divine child is born of Mary, and the simple logic of this statement means that Mary is the Mother of God.  Taoism avoids personifications of the divine, but in the instances where personalizing language are used, the Tao is presented as feminine.   In the first chapter of the Tao Te Ching we are told that the “Tao is the mother of all things” and this idea is repeated in chapters 25 and 52.  Chapter 51 tells us that Tao gives birth to Te, which gives shape to the world.  In chapter 6, Tao is characterized as the Valley Spirit and the Dark Mare and in several chapters it is associated with water and darkness, both qualities of “yin,” the feminine principle, in Taoist symbology.

Like Taoism, the image of the birth of Jesus is suffused with a feminine and earthy quality, something rarely encountered in other aspects of the religions of the Levant.  The benign presence of animals in this scene adds to its earthiness.  The quality of yin is more to be found in the Christmas scene than just about anywhere else in the Bible.

Silent Night
Although perhaps a little more of a reach, the divine birth is also an apt symbol of what is perhaps the most central concept of Taoist ethics, wu-wei, non-doing.  Perhaps no idea of Taoism is more alien to the West than the idea that a minimization of action can be the best way to accomplish one’s ends.  The development of a child inside its mother provides a wonderful example of the principle.  It requires no special “doing” on the part of the mother.  Nature takes care of the baby’s development and the changes necessary in the mother’s body to give birth and to provide the child nourishment.  The Tao can be characterized as a kind of “intelligence” within Nature that enables it to self-organize into things as marvelously complex as a human life.  The divine child born beneath the stars is an apt symbol of the ease and naturalness with which the Tao accomplishes its ends.

In the Beginning Was the Logos
One reason Taoism avoids personifications of the divine is that one cannot personalize the Tao for the same reason that one cannot speak the Tao, the Tao is unknowable and unspeakable.  It is the mystery of being.  But one can, I think, personalize Te, which is the second most central concept in Taoism.  In fact, the relation of Tao and Te might well be personalized in the idea of God and God’s son.  Tao is the un-manifested source of creation; Te is the manifested creative process.  But much like the mystery of the trinity, Tao and Te are different principles and yet also the same.          

Te is the principle that brings regularity and shape to the world.  It is something like the Greek idea of logos.  In the Gospel of John, Jesus is called the Logos.  This is often translated as “the word,” but it can also be translated as the source of regularities in the world – the way it is used as a root in such words as “biology” and “psychology.”  In this sense, we might translate Te as Logos.  In chapter 51 of the Tao Te Ching we are told that Tao gives birth to Te.   The birth in Bethlehem is an apt personification of this statement.

Peace on Earth,
In its institutional forms, Christianity is about as different from Taoism as you can get.  Yet, I think that the message of the historical Jesus has many Taoist characteristics. 

Jesus said, “And which of you by being anxious can add one cubit unto the measure of his life?  And why are ye anxious concerning raiment.  Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” This passage from Matthew, except for its reference to Solomon, would not seem out of place in the Tao Te Ching.  The Christian idea of giving oneself over to the divine will, that which the lilies do naturally, is the same basic idea as the return to the Tao, though clothed in different raiment.

Again, Jesus said, “But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.”  The sentiment here would also be much applauded by a Taoist, though I think a Taoist might interpret it a little differently than is typically done by a Christian.  A Christian might applaud the strength of virtue it takes to show love to a person considered an enemy. 

The Taoist, on the other hand, would recognize that it is only attachment to our own field of action that makes us consider anyone an enemy. The enemy is one who threatens that to which we are attached: no attachment, no enemy.  So the Taoist might say. “Love your enemies and pray for them that you might learn the nature of your attachment that has made of you an enemy-creating fool.”  Considering that it is actually impossible to love your enemies – you can only truly love by overcoming enmity itself, which is to say by ceasing to find in the other any reason for enmity – the Taoist interpretation might actually be closer than the traditional Christian interpretation to what Jesus was trying to get at here.

While many of the sayings attributed to Jesus are in accord with Taoism, many are not.  While the image of divine birth may harmonize with Taoist sentiment, the images of God triumphant – God as king or emperor – do not.  And the passage from chapter 76 that I quoted above, that “the soft and yielding are companions of life,” is given a particular poignancy when we contemplate that other central image of Christianity, the hard and unyielding cross.

God Will Towards All
For a Christian, the later events of the story of Jesus are key to the redemption of humanity.  The Taoist believes the world, and humanity as part of the world, is what it is and has no need of redemption.  I agree here with Taoism.  But I live in a country dominated by Christians, I am part of an extended family even more dominated by Christians.  Although I see it from a rather foreign point of view, at least I can share with Christians the sense of beauty and meaningfulness in the Christmas story and its central image of the divine incarnated in the world.

In the spirit of the season, I hope for each Christian, and every other kind of person in the world, that the peace that goes by many names – God, Tao, Nature, Allah, Brahma, and others – will settle deep into their soul and guide them forward in the increasing light.

Friday, November 14, 2014

Encounters with the Goddess?

When I was thirteen, I had a wonderful dream. The dream was quite complex and involved, but here are the main elements. I was in a huge arena, which I came to understand in the dream was the “arena of the world.” There was a large crowd of people walking up stairs into the arena, but I was walking down a set of stairs away from it. I walked down many flights of stairs, and came to an underground passageway. I entered the passageway and I saw a door ajar with a golden light coming from it. I opened the door, and inside was a beautiful woman, giving off a radiant golden light. We exchanged no words, but I felt a great joy in her presence.
The dream was so beautiful and powerful, that I wrote it down when I woke up, so I was able to remember many of the details. I had never heard of Jung at the time, but years later, when I read Jung, I immediately recognized the woman as the Jungian anima. While I know a Freudian would quickly read such a dream in a youngster at the age of puberty in sexual terms, there was nothing sexual about the dream.
Many years later, at the age of twenty-two, I had a dream that contained the following: I was on the North Shore of Lake Superior at a place like Gooseberry Falls. There was a gas station built out on the rocks by the water, a Mobil station. I stopped in the station and went into the bathroom. There was a stairs leading down into a lower level, and men were walking up the stairs. I walked down. When I got to the bottom there was a woman there lying naked in a pile of rags. Semen was dripping out of her vagina. I looked at her and I knew she was the same woman I had visited in that earlier dream.
A few years before this second dream, I set about living the hedonistic life style. I wanted to explore every avenue of pleasure and maximize the amount of pleasure I could have. Being the early seventies, there was a great opportunity. I lived the sex, drugs, and rock and roll scene to the maximum. I had a great time, but after a few years, I felt like ashes.
It was at this time that I had the second dream. It had a very powerful effect on me. I understood immediately the connection between the two dreams. The first dream was a calling, and the second told me I was failing in my calling. Recognizing this, I put an end to my pursuit of hedonism, and went back to my Zen Buddhist practice that I had abandoned. (The Mobil station and the North Shore are personal elements of the dream — my earliest sexual encounter is associated with a Mobil Station, and the North Shore has always been for me a sacred, holy place.)
The encounters with the Anima, the Goddess, did not end there. The most recent was a few years ago on an October night at Gooseberry Falls on the rocks by the Lake. I was meditating in the moonlight. During the meditation, I had made a commitment towards a certain course of action in my life. But as I was getting up to leave, a female voice said to me, “No, that is not the way it is to be,” and then told me the way it was to be. From the distance of a few years, I can now see that the course of action I was told to take was both wise and also aligned with that original calling.
Now, I understand if at this point the reader thinks I’m simply crazy. It is very un-modern to hear voices and heed them. I write all this only to give a concrete example of how the archetypes can operate. I do not believe that the Goddess I have so wonderfully met exists as an entity out in the world, but nor is she something solely in “my” mind. I do not think she belongs to the supernatural, or is in violation of the dictates of naturalism, but I do think she challenges any simplistic understanding of dreams or the nature of the unconscious.
While I’m not sure what level of reality all this occurs on, I do know that through these dreams and in this calling, I feel deeply blessed, and I wouldn’t trade that blessing for anything.
Afterword
I wrote this piece several years ago for the Humanistic Paganism website.  I am now in my early sixties, and it amazes me the degree to which this dream from my youth speaks so much about my life. 

There are many different callings in life – a life of leadership or service to the community, to scholarship and research, to the arts and crafts – to name a few.  There is not one best way, but for each individual I would suggest that the best way is to find and follow your true calling.


I was called to be a mystic or what in earlier times would have been a shaman.  There have been cultures and times when this was a respected calling, but ours is not such a time.  There have also been cultures and times when the Goddess -- the divinity of the earthly, dark, and soulful -- was the main object of human veneration.  Our time is also far removed from those.  

Because our times are the way they are, it has been a prerequisite of this calling to be an outsider (to walk away from the arena of the world); that has its costs, but it is a small price to pay for the deep abiding joy comes from fealty to those eternal inner values the Goddess symbolizes.


Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Joy of Big Questions

About twenty years ago I was roaming around in a Redwoods grove in California, and in response to the grandeur of the scenery, I began to think about what it meant to call something in Nature beautiful. At first I just started thinking about the question, and then I began to read about it, and later to talk with other people who were interested in the question. For about 10 years this question became a focal point of my reading and contemplation.

In tangible terms, all of this mental focus has resulted in little more than a few of my posts on this site such Nature Appreciation 101, Beauty in the Equation, Something Special May Happen, and The Teleology of Beauty, though it enters into most of what I write. Yet I can imagine few better uses of my time than pursuing that question. It was a joy, and remains a joy.

I grew up in rural Minnesota on the banks of the Mississippi River and have taken joy in wild nature from as early as I can remember. Nobody taught me this or even encouraged it, it was just ingrained in my temperament. In particular I loved animals, and living on the river brought me each spring and fall the great bird migrations. 

I studied natural history as much as I was able in college, and worked as a park naturalist and outdoor education instructor for several years after college. Though I have a naturally philosophical way of thinking, I fortunately took no philosophy courses in college (fortunate, because I think academic philosophy tends more to extinguish natural curiosity than enhance it).

After college, I started reading philosophy quite widely -- my introductory text being Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy. By the time I took that walk through the redwood forest, I had gained a pretty good understanding of Western philosophy. After that walk, I focused for a few years on aesthetics and the philosophy of beauty. One thing that surprised me was how little had been written on the beauty of nature. Indeed, many philosophers of beauty denied that nature had beauty. In the final end, I realized I as not going to find an already prepared answer to my question -- that I would have to work out the answer for myself. And that is where the fun really began!

The question led me from philosophy to what I might call the anthropology of nature -- what other people's and their cultures thought about the value of nature. This also lead to a long study of how various religions valued (or failed to value) wild nature, which included the study of mythology (another joyful intellectual excursion). It led also deeper into scientific findings and particularly cosmology. 

My readings went on and on in all kinds of different directions, but I won't go on and on about that. At a certain point in time, I felt I had answered the question to my satisfaction. So, what is the answer? Partly that beauty is like a butterfly -- it is best to enjoy it on the wing. Trying to pin down beauty in a verbal formula is like killing the butterfly and pinning it in a box. I won't do that. If you are interested in this question, I suggest you pursue it yourself.

Philosophy, IMHO, should be the asking of deep, heart-felt questions; it should be as impractical and beautiful as watching birds or butterflies. Unfortunately, it has been turned into a somewhat soulless, impractical, often egotistical activity. If you love big questions, the questions proper to philosophy, I suggest you follow your own inner philosopher and not get too caught up in the formal discipline.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

An Alternative American Dream


“They say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one.”
 --John Lennon

I have heard and read many sad stories about people who say they worked hard all their lives; people who say they thought they were investing their money wisely and cleverly using leverage to increase their wealth through home ownership; yet when the financial crisis hit in 2008, they lost much of their savings, their jobs, and their houses.  These stories are often accompanied by a statement about pursuing the “American Dream” and the great disappointment in seeing that dream turn into something of a nightmare.  I have great sympathy for these people, but I am not so sympathetic to “the American Dream.”

The American Dream, as it stands today, is almost entirely defined by ownership and consumption.  A big house, with a big lawn; a big lawnmower to mow that lawn; a big car or two or three; big vacations, like a cruise aboard a big ship; big catalogs filled with things to fill those big houses, cars, plans and bellies….  This is not surprising, since the images of what comprises the American Dream have largely been created by marketing executives and their staff in hundreds of offices through out America (and the rest of the world).  This army of marketers has but one function, to motivate consumptive behavior by stimulating desire and hunger.

Closely associated with the myth of the American Dream is that of “a lifestyle.”  In the sixties, when I was coming of age, we talked about an "alternative lifestyle."  Such a lifestyle was to be an alternative to the “normal” work and consumption filled postwar lifestyle.  It was an attempt – a short lived, largely failed attempt – to cease being a consumer.   The marketers quickly saw the commercial potential of the idea of an alternative lifestyle and quickly co-opted it.  Like the American Dream, one's lifestyle is largely defined by what you own, wear and consume.  In addition, one's lifestyle now is portrayed in advertisements as something to which we have nearly a God-given right. 

Well, if we are going to dream, let’s dream.  How about an American Dream of community – a diverse community of people who actually share each other’s lives and enjoy each other’s company?  And, in this country that calls itself the most religious country in the world, how about a dream of people in deep communion with ultimate things, whether they call that God or Nature or the Great Spirit or something else?  How about people who find such joy in that deep communion, that they really haven’t time for trips to the mall or on-line shopping.  How about a dream of people who love the American ecology and would never think about striping from the great web of being a sterile swath of grass lawn, much less waste hours mowing it?

No investment bankers can feast their fat, ugly egos on authentic human relationship, spiritual contemplation, enjoyment of natural beauty, and empathy with all living things.  No local bankers can repossess these, leaving us homeless in our home land.  How about an American Dream that cannot be sold and repossessed? 

Unlike John Lennon, I am not a dreamer.  I have no illusions.  The marketers have won, and that is not going to change.  They are powerful and clever and well camouflaged.  They infiltrate and co-opt alternative dreams.  We are not going to change that, but we can change our selves.  As individuals or small groups we can live an alternative American Dream.  We can dis-incorporate the marketers message from our sense of the world and its value.  We can re-incorporate community, spirituality, material simplicity, and natural beauty deeply into our lives.    Imagine that!

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Dance

The Dance

The great galaxies dance
Upon their darkened stage
In languid pirouettes
Their graceful arms wave.

The radiant stars dance
Throughout the timeless scenes
Creating with their light steps
Astrologic dreams.

The crusty earth dances
Its jig with the sun
As the horny moon entrances
His waters to swoon.

And trees dance with seasons
And flowers dance with rain
And people dance together
Through life, love and pain
And people dance together
And live and love again.

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Great Mystery

In Vol. 19 of The North American Indians, Edward Curtis writes: “there is a tendency, both by observers and the Indians themselves, to translate Wakónda (Wákan-tanka) as ‘Great Spirit.’ Such a translation is not borne out by the primitive use of the word nor by Siouan thought. The translation should be ‘Great Mys­tery.’ Without putting it in words, Siouan philosophy says, ‘We know not what it is, but we do know that it is.’”

I would suggest that the world would be a far better place if people everywhere, when speaking of “God,” “The Great Spirit,” “Tao” (or whatever other word they might use to refer to that which is the ultimate source of the world, of life, and of our selves) were to recognize and admit that “We know not what it is, but we do know that it is.”

The poet W. B. Yeats wrote in the Second Coming, “the best lack all conviction, while the worst are filled with passionate intensity.”  The Siouan philosophy forms a wonderful middle ground between these extremes.  It has great conviction that this ultimate source exists -- it is not agnostic in the least -- but it also recognizes that IT is a mystery, IT’s what we don’t know.  What could be more absurd that being passionately dogmatic about a mystery?

I have to wonder if the reason people get so passionate about their religious beliefs is that it gives them the right to feel exclusive, that “I have the truth and you don’t.”  Such spiritual egotism is the opposite of a genuine spirituality.  If the Dakota tribes really adhered to an approach to God as Curtis suggests, they were spiritually superior to the average Christian (or Jew or Muslim or Hindu or Buddhist).