Friday, December 28, 2012

The Mechanism of Immortality?

What is a “self”?  There are many definitions, but none are definitive.  Yet we know fairly clearly what it feels like to be a self, though it is hard to put this feeling into words.  Two things that most people likely would say about the self, however, are that it is what is aware and that it can make choices.  Because it is aware, it can experience pleasure and pain and has preferences about these.  And it can make choices based on these preferences -- it can explore a set of options, select one, and act on it.  Here I will call the ability to be aware “consciousness” and the ability to make choices “intentionality.”

From a naturalistic perspective, there are overwhelming reasons to believe that consciousness and intentionality are the results of something that happens in the nervous system, and intentionality must at least in part be due to a mechanism present in the brain **.  Indeed, it is the view of naturalism that the self, however we care to define it, is the result of neural mechanisms.

Some people find this view troubling.  That which we experience our self to be, they might say, seems in every possible sense different from a cold, hard mechanism.  But here we have to be careful of the way words can trick us.  Rather than thinking that “neural mechanism” diminishes what we are, we can recognize that if we are the result of neural mechanism, than the definition and sense of the word “mechanism” is very different from what we had thought it to be.  We had used the word “mechanism” in such a way that it excluded items that have awareness, feelings, creative thoughts, intentionality, and regard themselves as ends rather than means.  Now we are using the word in a way that includes such items.  Neither the world nor our self has changed; the only change is in the set of things classified by words we use.  The self in no way has lost its awareness, feelings, creative thoughts, intentionality, or its being an end rather than a means in being found to emerge from the processes of a neural mechanism.

The health sciences have shown that biological organs, including the brain, are each quite similar to one another within a species.  If my consciousness and intentionality are the result of neural mechanisms residing in such an organ, then it is reasonable to conclude that in regard to these attributes, my “self” is quite similar to the “selfs” of other people, including people who lived and died in the past, those still to come in the future, and others with whom I currently share this planet.  So if I identify my fundamental self with that which is conscious and that which can intend, than that with which I identify is something that was here long before me and will continue long after me – for at least as long as humans continue to exist.

Now for a person brought up in the humanistic and individualistic culture of the West, this thought probably brings little consolation.  In our tradition, it is precisely the continuation of what is individual and particular that counts – the self with a name and an address.  But for one who accepts the idea that the self resides in neural mechanisms, the idea that mystics of all ages have proclaimed – i.e that the self is but a part of a greater Self and to live from an awareness of this greater Self brings a deep joy and peace to life -- should start to make sense.  While traditions such as Hinduism, Taoism, and mystical Christianity tend to consider the “greater Self” a metaphysical and supernatural entity, to view it as neural mechanism has the same spiritual consequence: that which we truly are, that which forms our essence, is that which endures beyond the death of the individual.  
We may want to see ourselves as unique individuals (and to a limited extent we are).  But the consequences of naturalism are quite clear in this regard: we are so only inconsequentially.  From the naturalistic perspective, we arise from and return to the process of nature – and not even for a moment are we out of that process.

The individual self is a little wave blown by the great winds of that process; it soon breaks upon the shore.  The Great Self is the ocean upon which through the ages similar waves endlessly arise and break.  We can identify our life with the wave or the ocean.  Every wave is an epitome of ocean; every self is an epitome of Self.  That the metaphoric Self is actually the sum total of the great neurological mechanism of the natural world does no damage to the metaphor nor to the mystic’s experience: it still reveals Thou Art That. 

** I make the qualification “in part” because intentionality is partly a learned ability.  Using the analogy of a computer, we might say that there are both hardware and software components of intentionality.  As a matter of speculation, I would suggest that one of the roles of religion has been to store and download this “software”: to help people learn how to become more intentional in their behavior, particularly in regard to the self-governance of their lives.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Entrepreneurial Spirit

(In past posts I have emphasized the difference between religion and spirituality.  Here is another take.)

The religious are like employees, waiting for the boss to give them directions and a share of the company’s resources to help them accomplish their duties.  The schedule is dependable, there is little risk, and the reward is proportional to the effort. 

The spiritual are like entrepreneurs who determine their own direction and strategies.   They develop and transform their own spiritual capital.  They take on the spiritual risk such independence requires and don’t let a few setbacks get in their way.  Those who persist often find themselves owners of a spiritual mansion, invisible to others but of inestimable worth to themselves.

Friday, December 14, 2012

Tao and the Laws of Nature

The Chinese word Tao and Western phrase the Laws of Nature refer to largely the same thing: that which is responsible for the regularity, complexity and organization we find in the universe.   They do so, however, from nearly opposite perspectives.  Tao emphasizes what we don’t know, the mystery of this phenomenon; science emphasizes what we do know and are able to use dependably.  The Taoist approach is existential and holistic; the scientific approach is abstract and reductive.   The Taoist approach is simultaneously cosmological and psychological and its meditative methodology fulfills itself in the complete unity of these two; the scientific approach demands the separation of the cosmological and psychological, at least in its basic methodology.  It is the consequences of this third difference that I want to explore here. 

The physicist Steven Weinberg one stated that “The more the universe seems comprehensible, the more it also seems pointless.”  (The notion that the mechanical universe of science provided neither meaning nor orientation for humans was prevalent long before Weinberg, however.)  This raises a question: Is this alleged pointlessness actually true of the universe, or is it simply a consequence of the particular perspective from which science approaches the world?  We have noted that the perspective of science is connected to a methodology that systematically diminishes the subjective from consideration.  One might ask, if the subjective is eliminated at the base of the scientific enterprise, is it any surprise that it is absent from the world it reveals (and to a certain extent, invents)?   And, is it any surprise that the world science presents to us is not one in which we, subjective as we are, find ourselves at home?  These considerations would support the position that the alleged pointlessness is not necessarily true of the world, but only of the scientific perspective on the world. 

Taoism, for which the cosmological and psychological are always addressed together, exists in a world in which we humans fit quite snugly.  Nothing emphasizes this better than the great Taoist landscapes.  Here we find humans proportional in size to the landscape, their activities fitting harmoniously with the activities of other creatures.  But one might ask, what justifies addressing the cosmological and the psychological together?  From the Taoist point of view, it doesn’t need justification.  But we can turn to science for its justification.  Although Western science began in a spirit of mind/matter dualism, it quickly evolved to overcome that dualism, at least at a conceptual level.  Whatever mind is, it is based on a material substrate and cannot violate the laws of nature.  At least since Darwin, world, life and mind all belong to the same process (even if we don’t fully understand that process).  Within science, we can find no justification for drawing a boundary between the processes of mind (psychological process) and the process of the cosmos.  Thus the process that enables the mind to find regularity, complexity and organization in the universe is likely the same process as that which brings regularity, complexity and organization to the universe. 

The ideal state of being of a Taoist is a state of deep, dynamic equilibrium and peace.  The Tao Te Ching states: "And even though the next country is so close that people can hear its roosters crowing and its dogs barking, they are content to die of old age without ever having gone to see it."  The modern world, which produced science and in turn has been produced by science, is endlessly restless, chasing after crowing roosters and barking dogs all the way to the farthest galaxies. It is the world that transforms people into consumers, and celebrates and exploits the consumers’ insatiable hungers.   

The modern world, the world we live in, bears scarcely a trace of resemblance to a Taoist landscape.  It is very easy, therefore, to simply dismiss Taoism as a quaint notion from an age long past.  But the spirit of Taoism is flexible, it adapts.  Who is to say it cannot absorb the entirety of the modern world and the scientific perspective into its dynamic equilibrium, its peaceful meditation?  I won’t attempt to answer that question, though.  Here I want to suggest only a simple point: If you find the world pointless, then perhaps you should explore a different perspective from which to view the world. 

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Paths to the Inexplicable

Current scientific cosmology tells us that as we go back in time we lose organization, we lose complexity, space shrinks and eventually we come to something called a singularity, which is next to nothing.  In this view, more arises from less; the logical conclusion of more arising from less is that something arises from nothing.  That something can arise from a nothing, however, is inexplicable.

Western religious cosmology tells us that for all eternity there is a “More,” a God or Absolute, and at some point in eternity, this More gives rise to lesser creatures like us.  The presence of  this superabundant being from the git-go is inexplicable.

Thus, both scientific and religious cosmologies lead us back to the inexplicable.

Can any reasonable cosmology escape the inexplicable?  I don’t think so. But there is an interesting middle ground between the view of Western Science and Western Religion on this topic.  If we are to escape the inexplicable at the base of getting more from less, than we have to posit an eternal something.  (Here eternal can mean either an endless sequence of time or that which exists outside of, and gives rise to, time.)  But that eternal something does not have to be “a More.”   It could be the simplest something capable of giving rise to more.  It could be merely the potential for being – a potential that inevitably become actualized.   This is the nature of Lao Tze’s Tao.

Western theology posits its deity as grand and splendid.  Its predominant analogy is with the earthly King or Emperor.  Its focus is power.  The Jews sought power but were constantly under the feet of conquering forces.  The Christians aligned with the Roman Emperor and became themselves imperial.  Islam created its own empire by force.  (The best way to beat the devil, it seems, is to become the devil.)

Old Lao Tze had seen enough of empire to think it the opposite of the divine.  For Lao, the divine was the lowest and the humblest.  It was the soil into which the seed could be planted and the water which brought the plant forth.  In this cosmology, the eternally Less “gives” rise to ephemerally More.  But the Giver and the Given are a two that is also One; even less than one, perhaps, but never quite a None.  Inexplicable still, yet humanely so.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

The Great Divide

In logic, either A or not-A covers all instances.  Thus one would think that either theism or a-theism similarly covers all instances.  But it does not.  Between theism and atheism, as these words are commonly used, there exist a significant range of beliefs, in particular what might be called pantheistic beliefs in the broad sense of that term.   Taoism and Zen Buddhism are two particularly interesting instances.

I would suggest that if we want a line that cuts across all instances, it would be the line between those who believe the universe is entirely an accident and lacking in purpose, meaning or any reason for being, and those who believe that there is a reason why the universe is here and by extension why we are here, even if we are not able to discern the reason.

There are those who believe that science supports the first view, but this is not correct.  Science has demonstrated quite conclusively that the universe is lawful, and it has come to have a fairly comprehensive grasp of the nature of these laws, at least as they apply to simple physical and biological processes.  But when it comes to the question “How is it that the universe is lawful?”  science has little to say.  There are, of course, theories, but none of the theories are either provable or falsifiable, and thus not genuinely scientific.**  

Since we would have to understand how the universe came to be lawful before we could have any certainty about whether there was or was not a reason creatures such as we exist, any judgment on this question will be made with inadequate information.  From where we stand it is just a mystery; agnosticism on this question is, therefore, the only position aligned with the facts.

** Physicist Lee Smolin argues that his theory of Cosmological Natural Selection, which purports to explain the lawfulness of our universe, is falsifiable and I see no reason to doubt his claim.  But he still has to posit an original something that has the potential to evolve; Cosmological Natural Selection does nothing to explain the existence of that original something or its nearly infinite potential to expand and evolve.