Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Fertile Ground between Theism and Atheism


The two concepts, “God” and “Tao,” have much in common and significant differences.  The concepts “Tao” and “Atheism” also have much in common and significant differences.  By examining these commonalities and differences I hope to show that there is a fertile ground between theism and atheism.   In this fertile ground, there are forms of spirituality of great depth that are free from untenable, supernatural beliefs and the mindsets such beliefs engender.  Here we highlight one of those forms, philosophical Taoism, and compare and contrast it with theism and atheism.

God vs. Tao
The concepts “God” and “Tao” are both totalizing concepts, i.e. concepts that embrace all that is.  Both can be thought of as the invisible, unknowable source of the visible, knowable world.  As such, they represent that from which we arise, which sustains us, and to which we ultimately return upon death.  Both represent the ultimate principle of Nature, and also the ultimate principle of our sense of being, our awareness and sense of agency.

It is around the concept of agency, that the two ideas are most divergent.  The theistic concept of “God” generally includes the idea of a being that has agency in much the same way that we think of ourselves as having agency.  If we imagine God as the creator of the world, we imagine him (for convenience I’ll stick with the convention of using the masculine pronoun) creating it in somewhat the same manner as a human architect creates a building.  First he has an idea and from this idea he creates the material world.  For the theist, the world is the realization of God’s idea of the world.  There is a master plan and purportedly we humans fit into that plan in some way.  Specific theist religions specify various ways in which we fit, and how we are to behave in this life based on how we fit.

In addition to being its creator, the theist god is also the source and sustainer of the world’s order.  As governor of the world, his agency is often portrayed as being analogous to a great king or ruler.  Something of the theistic idea of the relationship of God and nature’s order is exemplified in the Greek mythic figure of Helios and his son Phaethon.  In the myth, Helios promises his son any wish and the son choses to drive the chariot of the sun.  Helios immediate sees his mistake, but cannot break his promise.  Phaethon is unable to master the chariot’s steeds which causes the sun to veer wildly from its course causing all manner of damage.  Zeus has to destroy Phaeton in order to restore the natural course of order.

We can see behind this myth the idea that a powerful governing agent is needed to control Nature, which otherwise tends toward chaos.  Though this myth comes from Greece, the Judeo-Christian God is conceived as having much the same relationship.  Throughout much of the West, there is the idea that Nature tends toward chaos and it takes the active intervention of the deity to keep Nature in order.

As it is in the great cosmos, so it is in the microcosm.  Thus a strong ruler is need to govern the people, who otherwise tend to rebellion.  Thus parents must be strict in governing the forces of chaos in their children.  And thus we as individuals must actively wrestle with the chaos of the inner demons which threaten to overwhelm us. The general principle is that left alone, things tend to disorder.  A teleological agent, whether divine or human, must actively intervene to maintain order.

Taoism has a diametrically different idea of agency.  The Tao is neither an agent nor a plan.  Nature arises from the Tao and sustains itself spontaneously.  There is no master plan, no governing agent.  For Taoism, Nature left to itself tends toward organization.  The celestial orbs follow their path through the sky and the seasons follow each other in due succession.  And again, what is true for the great cosmos is true for the microcosm. 

Left to themselves, the people will find a proper organization for the conduct of their affairs and well-being; thus the ruler should as much as possible should rule without interference.  With a due amount of care, nurture and education, a child will naturally grow to be an adult; thus parents should not impose their idea of what the child should grow into, but allow the child to grow to its natural strengths.  Similarly in our own person, rather than trying to become some preconceived ideal of a human, we should seek to become the human we most authentically are.  For the Taoist, this is most readily achieved through the cultivation of inner quietness and passive achievement, rather than the active pursuit of external goals.  Contemplation is the method of this inner quietness and passive achievement.

Taoism present no theory of how the cosmos achieves organization.  For that Taoist, that is simply a mystery.  From the viewpoint of modern cosmology, we might point to three different aspects of this mystery.  The first is the simple mystery of why there is something rather than nothing.  The second is the mystery of how, in a cosmos ruled by entropy, Nature in the first place obtained such a vast concentration of energy.  The third aspect is why this cosmos, starting as it does from what appears to be a simple thermodynamic event – the Big Bang – evolves into a world of such intricate order.  To put this another way, given the Big Bang, the overwhelming probability is that after a billion years or so there should be nothing but the background radiation.  Yet this universe has not only the background radiation, but an improbable collection of galaxies. And on at least one of them beings who can observe and ponder the mystery of being.

Taoist acceptance of the mystery of the cosmos has a simple honesty to it.  Note that in theism, God’s agency is offered as the answer to the mystery of the cosmos; yet if we interrogate the idea of God, we have to conclude that the presence of a God and his agency is certainly at least as great a mystery as the appearance of an organized cosmos.  God is inexplicable. Thus theism uses one inexplicable, God, to explain another inexplicable, the presence of a highly organized cosmos.  Why multiply inexplicables?  Why not simply accept the primary mystery, ala the Taoist, and let it rest at that?

Taoism’s positing of a cosmos that organizes itself, as opposed to a cosmos organized by an agent, presents a rather radical alternative to theism and the traditions based on it.  Before going further, I would like to take a brief detour to explore some Western ideas that provide a naturalistic justification to the idea of a “self-organizing” universe.

Spontaneous Self Organization
The idea that good things can come about spontaneously has much in common with a modern idea that is termed “self-organization.”  To the best of my knowledge, the first appearance of this idea in Western thought is in Adam Smith’s idea of the invisible hand of the markets.  For Smith, markets need neither a plan nor external governance; they can arise spontaneously and function as a well-organized system merely from the desire of humans to maximize their own gain. 

While Smith’s idea of the hidden hand of the markets marks a kind of introduction to the idea of self-organization in the West, it is in Darwin’s idea of evolution by natural selection that we find the idea in a more full blown form.  The Reverend Paley gave voice to the predominant teleological idea of his (pre-Darwinian) times when he argued that the complex structures and organizations of living things and the remarkable adaptations of plants and animals required an intelligent designer.  Darwin demonstrated that living things could adapt and organize on their own without any central plan or external interference.  This idea, along with Smith’s, was a truly radical innovation for the West, and has still not really penetrated to the core of Western culture. 

The basic principle of self-organization is that organization can arise without a pre-existing plan or central agent.  The cosmos self-organizes because matter is attracted to other matter (by gravity) and both attracted and repelled by the other forces.  Living organisms self-organize within an ecosystem, because they desire to eat and not be eaten.  Human cultures and institutions self-organize out of the desire of humans to interact or not interact with other humans.   In all cases it is the relationships of the various elements and the strength of the attraction and repulsion motivating these relationship that lead to self-organization. Neutral things to not self-organize. 

That we live in a highly organized cosmos is based on the fact that the fundamental parameters that comprise the laws of nature have the precise values that they do.  Cosmologist have shown that of all the possible values of these fundamental parameters, only an astronomically tiny sub-set of them can lead to any form of enduring organization.  That the parameters of this universe do lead to an organized universe has been called the “the mystery of the fine-tuning of the parameters.”  I do not think it a reach to state that here, when the cosmologists speak of this “fine tuning,” they are referring of the same mystery contemplated by the Taoist, though with much greater detail and no spiritual implications.

One last point, before ending this brief description of self-organization.  If we try to present a typology of organization, it would seem there are at least two main types: self-organization and organization based on a central plan.  Interestingly, there is no English word to denote this second type of organization, but I will call it “algorithmic organization,” because a central plan can be thought of as a kind of algorithm.  Within this typology, we might note that there are at least two different types of algorithmic organization.  I will call these the organic and synthetic.  By organic I mean that the plan is immanent within the set of elements that are being organized.  The way the structure of a living cell develops from the “plan” carried by its genes is the good example.  By synthetic I mean that the plan is external to the elements being organized.  A building based on a blueprint is an example.  It should be noted that all three types of organization – self organization and organic and synthetic algorithmic organization -- can be present in a single phenomenon, such as a natural garden.

Tao vs. Atheism
There are many forms of atheism and attempts to generalize about atheistic belief undoubtedly will not apply to all of them. For the purposes here I use the word “atheist” to refer not only to those who reject all forms of the notion of God but also the efficacy and meaningfulness of any form of religion or spirituality. 

While atheism rejects the notion of a cosmic agency, often atheists celebrates the triumphs of human agency in its effort to create a better world.  Typically for an atheist better means a world where people are happier and have more pleasure and less pain.  Such pleasure is often associated with a material cause; the improvement of our material conditions is seen as the main way in which human well-being will be increased.  Many atheists place great faith in technology to produce such improvements in our material condition, and at its extreme it generates a kind of technological utopianism. 

Philosophical Taoism is similar to atheism in its rejection of a cosmic agent that creates, governs, and cares about the Universe.  But it differs from atheism in its attitude toward human agency and dependence on material conditions to improve human well-being.  Taoism is a form of spirituality and all meaningful forms of spirituality are based on the notion of cultivating our inner resources.  This cultivation of inner resources leads both to liberation from external conditions and a sense of well-being based on that liberation.  Taoism neither rejects technology nor celebrates it – Taoism accepts the world as it is, and technology is simply part of the world as it is.

Further, all the major forms of spirituality call for the diminishment or turning over of the human ego, the basis of human agency, to the “otherness” that brings us forth.  In theism, this is turning one’s life over to God.  In Taoism it is bringing one’s life into complete harmony, even absorption, with the Tao, the way of Nature.  These two are different, but in relationship to an atheism that puts its faith in human agency and technological progress, the theist and Taoist view are relatively similar.

In regards to their view of the individual’s relationship to this spiritual other, perhaps the difference between Taoism and atheism can be best clarified through their potential approach to something like the twelve step program of Alcoholics Anonymous.  Step three of the twelve steps is “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.”    For the purposes of this step both God and Tao can represent a “higher power” to which we can turn over our will and our lives.  This is a recognition that there are limits to human agency and beyond the ego’s agency there are “forces” beyond that ego that can lead to spiritual transformation.  The theist sees this “force” as an at least partially external deity.  Taoism simply accepts it as part of the mystery.  The important thing for the Taoist is the efficacy of this presence, not the how or why of it.  Many atheists, on the other hand, express antagonism to this idea of turning one’s life over to a higher power. Some have attempted to develop alternative forms of substance abuse treatment that emphasis the individual’s will power as the means to a cure.

There are many other similarities and differences between theism, Taoism and atheism, but we need not go into them here.

The Fertile Ground
In logic “A” and “not-A” contain all cases.  Thus one might be inclined to think that theism and a-theism similarly include all cases.  But language tricks us here.  The terms “theism” and “atheism,” both in their denotation and connotation, do not contain all cases: between theism and atheism there is a large and fertile ground, a ground that for lack of a better term I’ll call “pantheism.”  Taoism is one form of pantheism, but there are many others. 


Many people, when their sense of rationality and meaningfulness cause them to reject theism, jump to its opposite, atheism.  Here, in summary, I would like to simply suggest that before making such a leap, one might profit by exploring the fertile ground the lies between theism and atheism.  

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.