Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Greater Context

Our life exists in a context.  In naturalistic terms we might say that this context is comprised of intertwined, open systems.  Our physical system is intertwined with the great ecological systems of the earth, which depend on the solar system, which is itself intertwined with the galactic system, which is involved in systems that extend outward beyond the reach of our knowing.  And going the other direction, our physical being is composed of smaller and smaller systems – through the organs and cells down to atoms and beyond. 

Similarly, our mental systems (for lack of a better term) are intertwined with a variety of cultural systems – family, education, media and other communications systems, and a variety of other formal and informal informational systems.  At the broadest extents we call these informational systems civilizations. 

Thinking about the context of our life raises some interesting questions, such as:

1) What is the greatest context, the context that embraces all others?  It strikes me as very important for people to be able to communicate about the idea of the greatest context; we live in a time where there is no longer a common term, a common understanding of this.  From the naturalistic perspective, we await the next great cosmological theory – such as eternal inflation – to suggest an answer.  For the monotheist, by definition it is God.  If there was a piece of information that I could ask for from the distant future, it would be whether humans ever come to share a common understanding of the greatest context, and if so, What is that understanding?

2) Is there some principle of self that exists apart from these systems, or is a self comprised of only the contingent interaction of these systems?  If the first is correct, then what kind of thing is a self?  In either case, I find that thinking of the self in these terms forces on me a humbleness that comes of recognizing that the roots of my self extend immediately into the great otherness of these systems.

3) Some thinkers use the word “process” where I have used the word “system.”  The word process, at least it seems to me, entails a greater sense of direction than the word system.  Is the cosmos a directionless system or a directed process?  Is there any way to know the answer to that without fully understanding the greatest context?

4) Systems can be either in or out of equilibrium.  To greater or lesser extents, we seem to be able to effect (to use a more neutral word than “choose”) the state of our own equilibrium.  There is something very mysterious about a system that can effect it own equilibrium.  We are that mystery.

The questions and observation above all belong to the ordinary concerns of spirituality.  Perhaps all spiritual questions in the end can be reduced to these: What is the self?  What is the greater or greatest context within which the self exists?  How can one bring one’s self into equilibrium or accord with the greater context?

Friday, December 23, 2011

From the Solstice

Yesterday had the potential to bring forth today.  The beginning of time had the potential to bring forth yesterday.  If something gave rise to time, timelessly it had the potential to give rise to time.  The potential to bring forth today must have eternal existence.  There could never have been a complete nothing; at a minimum there must always have been the potential to bring forth what is. 

The concept of the Tao is just that – the potential to bring forth.  As the potential becomes actual, it becomes Te.  Here the grandiose idea of God becomes truly humble; humble as a babe born in manager.  A bare potential is as close to nothing that something can be.  Tao, the cosmological source of everything, is that close to nothing -- yet between nothing and It is everything.  And for what other reason would the original potential exist than to be actualized?  And what is actualization without consciousness?  We are here because of the original potential, the Tao; it is what we share in common.

Is it not a good time when the darkness has become greatest (here in the north) and we now head back towards the light, to dwell on the Eternal Source, the cosmic womb from which all is born? And to respect the multitude of ways that people have come to think of that source?

Happy holidays.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

How can we live in harmony?

The Panhala website ( today shared a poem with text by Thomas Aquinas.  The poem observes that the stars have lived in harmony for the millennia, but humans can’t seem to live in harmony much at all.  It finishes by asking the question: “How can we live in harmony?”  It answers: “First we need to know we are all madly in love with the same God.”

This is a rather nice answer, IF (and it is a really big if), in using the word “God” we were willing to abandon any sense of righteousness in our particular belief about God.  The moment we believe that we know something about what that word means, we will be at odds with others.  And if we madly care about our belief, we will be at odds with others, madly. 

But if we all could love God madly, without in the least caring how the word "God" differed or was similar in meaning or sense to any other person’s imaginings, then a world of people madly in love with God might not be so madly at odds with each other.  Indeed, we might live in harmony.

Unfortunately, though, there is little chance that beliefs about God will bring harmony.  And isn’t that the greatest profanity against God imaginable?   

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Relationship of Myth and Science

One of the most important mythic/philosophic/spiritual ideas across human civilization is the idea of the great chain of being.  Part of this idea is the notion of distinct hierarchies within existence, i.e. the material, the living, the cultural, the intellectual, and the spiritual.  The number and naming of these hierarchies differ somewhat in different traditions, but the basic distinctions are named in each civilization.

Western science, by and large, has attacked this hierarchy.  Rather than the differences, it has emphasized the points in common between matter and life, the biological and the cultural, and on the whole it has simply denied a category above the cultural.  It is interesting to note that although science has attacked this hierarchy, the divisions of science itself are built upon it; we still commonly divide the sciences as the physical sciences, the life sciences, and the social sciences.  Within academia, beyond the sciences, we have the humanities, the domain of a fourth level.  (Here, I will ignore the category of the spiritual.)    While the division between the physical and biological sciences has blurred somewhat in recent years, the division between the biological and social sciences seems to have become more and more distinct.

In a recent post, I emphasized that from the perspective of creativity, humans are unique among living creatures.  I have made this suggestion many times over the years, and the response is predictable.  Inevitably people will deny any human uniqueness, and point out some vestigial intentionality, creativity, or symbol manipulation in some other species of animals as evidence.  The magnitude of the difference between a chimpanzee using a stick to get termites and sending a spacecraft to the moon and back is apparently considered unimportant.   

It seems to me that the idea of the non-uniqueness of humans is a religious idea for some people with a scientific outlook in much the same way that an absolute distinction between humans and other animals is a religious idea for many Christians and followers of other religions.   Probably it is a reaction to it.  It seems to me a matter of common sense that the distinction is striking and noteworthy, but not absolute.  Similarly, the distinction between the living and the non-living is striking and noteworthy, but not absolute. 

On most matters about the world, I think the religious view needs to accept the superior answer of science; on the matter of this hierarchy, however, I think it is science that most give way.  It is correct that the distinctions are not absolute, but wrong in not recognizing that the distinctions are striking and noteworthy.

It is interesting to note that within science itself, there has emerged the idea of emergence which provides grounding for the ancient idea of the hierarchy of being.   Whether emergence qualifies as a theory or not, is not important.  If it is nothing more than an alternate way of describing the world, it still accomplishes this task. 

Recently the idea of “big history” has become popular, with several books providing the outline of the great story of physical, biological, and cultural evolution.   It will not surprise me if the battle between the hierarchical and non-hierarchical views of our world will get played out in big history.  There are those who hope that big history will provide a common story that all humanity can share.  It will do so, I think, only if it fairly incorporates the distinctions common to the great chain of being.  In doing that, science and myth could at last come to some common ground.

(This post is a response to a post at the Humanistic Paganism site, titled “Saving the marriage of science and myth.”  Although my own thinking on this did not come from the writings of Ken Wilbur, I will note that he has written quite extensively, and quite well, on this topic.)

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Nature Appreciation 1.0

Schools offer courses in the appreciation of art and literature, but rarely does one find a class in the appreciation of Nature.  I wonder why?  It requires considerable knowledge to fully appreciation the beauty of great works of art and literature; but is any less required to appreciate the beauty of Nature?  If I were to teach a Nature appreciation course, this might be my syllabus:

Section One: Introduction to What Is There.  We will investigate the variety of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, fish, insects, trees, flowers, ferns, fungi and others. We will also take a look at land forms, rocks and crystals, clouds – the earth and sky.  And to put the earth in context, we’ll explore the night sky.  We will investigate all this, because you can’t appreciate what you don’t see, and often you will fail to see what you don’t know.

Section Two: Seeing Without a Frame.  Paintings have their frames; theater, dance and music have their stage; books have their covers.  Frames, stages, and covers point to the availability of an aesthetic event.  But Nature has no equivalent.  Nature is an open, but un-signified, invitation to an aesthetic event.  (An exception is the roadside overlooks on scenic highways.  I suspect there are people who never stop to look except when the highway department tells them they should.)   In this section we will explore how to stop, look and listen, even when unbidden.

Section Three:  How to Read a Tree.  The poet Joyce Kilmer famously wrote: “I think that I shall never see a poem as lovely as a tree.”  Poems are full of words, little signifiers, and our brain loves signifiers – we look for them everywhere.  A tree, seen under the aspect of beauty, signifies nothing.  It is the thing signified; it is the referent.  How do we move the brain from its fascination with signifiers and signification to fascination with the thing itself?  How do we move from the map to the world?  Artist are the people who go to the world itself and feast on it.  Following this metaphor down the alimentary canal, the work of art is the artist’s poop, a plop of well digested signifiers.  Why settle for that.  In this section we will explore how to be creators rather than consumers, learn to feast on referents rather than the signified.

Section Four: How to Seriously Become Un-serious.  How often do we journey through the world with our mind in turmoil – filled with the endless problems, big and small, of our life?  To stop, look and listen, we have to take the world as seriously as we take our selves.  The great advantage here is that if we learn this, not only will we gain more joy and delight in the beauty of the world, but we might also learn that most of our problems are the fabrication of our own mind.  How practical is that?  So in this section we will also explore the link between the appreciation of Nature and wisdom.

Section Five:  What Is Nature?  Searching out the beauty of Nature, one might hike through forests and across prairies, wade ponds and swim rivers.  One might stand by the ocean and feel the pounding of the waves.  But are such journeys necessary? In the final section we will search for the boundary that separates Nature from humanity, the natural from the artificial.  The final grade for this course will partially be determined by how long does it takes to realize that no such boundary exists?

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Two Paths to Affluence

 To be affluent is to have, or be able to obtain, the things you need and desire.  One way to become affluent is to garner enough wealth and power that you can purchase or take whatever you want.  The other way to become affluent is to desire only what you have or can readily obtain.  The second way would seem to be far the easiest way to become affluent, yet the first is certainly the more prevalent way to affluence in our culture.

The second path to affluence requires that one can be content, even joyful, with what one has.  But it’s precisely because we are not content with what we have that we crave – there is an emptiness, a hole in our being and we need to consume to fill that hole.  A hole lacks content – to be content is to have no holes.  To have no holes, is to be whole.

Consumption provides the content to fill the hole that creates our craving.  But the contentment of consumption is always transitory.  How quickly we become hungry again, become horny again, become bored, restless and dis-content again.  And so it goes throughout a lifetime.  And yet in the back of our minds a little voice says, if only we had that (bigger house, sexier spouse, fancier car) than I would be set, then I’d be content.  Nature, I think, creates us with these holes – they are the result of the struggle to survive and reproduce – but the persistent ingeniousness of the army of professional marketing agents does everything in its power to deepen and widen these holes, to fill us with discontent, and to make the act of consumption appear as attractive as possible.

To find the second path to affluence requires that we find a way to fill the natural holes of our being in a way other than consumption.  The Stoics of the West, the Yogis of India, the Taoist of China, the Warriors of the plains and woodlands of pre-Columbian America, each in their way have marked out this path.   But the directions are anything but easy.  In their various ways, what each of these groups is finding is the way to equilibrium, to inner balance and harmony.  But there is no way to instruct a person on how to bring their own being into harmony – and no one can do it for another.

I cannot give directions to this path of affluence, but I can give testimony that these Stoics and Yogis and Taoists and Warriors have not sought in vain.  They have found a way to affluence, and unlike the material affluence of the market, one person’s having is not at the expense of another's.  In this affluence, the abundance is only increased as more partake of it (the meaning of the Christian parable of the loaves and fishes?).  Further, the carbon footprint of this type of affluence is as light as can be.  


Monday, November 28, 2011

On the Uniqueness of Homo Sapiens

We live in a creative universe. To the best of our knowledge, the universe has only three means of creativity: 1) the self organization that gives us the galaxies, planet system, and the origin of life on earth; 2) Darwinian evolution that has given us the amazing biosphere and our biological existence; and 3) the intentional creativity of humans, that gives us such things as Chartres Cathedral, Bach's French Suites, and the computers that we're all typing away on.  We humans may be of no special importance to the universe (for importance is a category of the living, and the universe as a whole is not alive), but as the loci of one of only three types of creativity, we are certainly quite unique within the universe.