Monday, December 30, 2013

Why I Am Not an Atheist

Apparently some people are quite impressed with themselves when they make the momentous discovery that the God of the popular imagination is no more real than Santa Claus or the Tooth Fairy.  Having made this discovery they declare themselves to be atheists.  That the notion of God in the popular imagination and the institutionalized churches is not the final word about God seems never to occur to them.

At the level of thought, the reasoning of the atheists, and the support for that reasoning provided by modern science, certainly trumps the feeble attempts to refute that reasoning provided by believers.  That there are ways of knowing outside of such reasoning, however, seems not to be considered.

In the popular imagination, God has a form.  In the institutionalized churches, people who declare themselves ministers of this well-formed God, tell us about his will and suggest that we can influence this will with work and prayers.  They even suggest that God has emotions, that God loves us.  A form requires a limitation in space and time; words require a constraint on possibility, emotions are transient – I will leave what that infers to the reader.

In the realm of art, it is generally understood that average works are not worth much.  It is only the most exceptional works of art that have lasting value.  I would ask the atheist to consider the possibility that spirituality may be much the same.   If you wish to deny God, is it not “reasonable” to seek out the rarest, must exceptional concepts of God, before coming to a conclusion?  There is a problem here though: it takes a rather exceptional viewer to penetrate a great work of art; likewise, it takes a rather exceptional cognitive ability to penetrate a great spiritual teaching.  Cultivating that cognitive ability may take a life time.

Reasoning is a great and very useful item in our box of cognitive tools, but it is not a particularly good tool for penetrating great art and even less so for penetrating great spiritual teachings.  “Restrain the turnings of the mind” – this, Pantanjali declares to be the goal of yoga; it is also, I would suggest, a necessary part of any kind of spiritual approach.  To penetrate a spiritual teaching requires a focused, quieted mind and the act of penetrating such a teaching results in an even more focused, quieter mind.  Spiritual works speak to an intuition in the heart of silence.  This intuition is one of the ways of knowing outside of reasoning that I spoke of above.

And what of God?  There is a Zen koan that tells of a master who holds his staff out and says: “If you call this a staff, you affirm it; if not, you negate it.  Beyond affirmation and negation, what would you call it.”   This is the problem with words.  Every verbal affirmation engenders a possible negation – in that great round that the Buddhists call Samsara, such affirmations and negations chase around like cats and dogs.  To leave Samsara, to enter the Kingdom of Heaven within you, you must find that which is beyond affirmation and negation.

A medieval monk called God “a cloud of unknowing.”  In one way or another, the exceptional teachings all declare the wisdom of “knowing that you do not know.”  They speak of the Mystery that resides at the source of being, and yet of the certainty that presents Itself in the heart of humblest silence – that Thou Art That.  A presence within the humblest silence is not much of an argument to pose against the reams of erudition and evidence put forth by the verbose scribes of atheism – but it has convinced me utterly.  That is why I am not an atheist.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Caring about Indifference

Nature has indifferently brought us forth, sure enough.  It has also provided us, like all other extant living things, the tools to survive and prosper.  We have done pretty well for ourselves, it seems; why would we expect more?

Cheetah’s are uniquely fast and humans are uniquely articulate – Nature indifferently gave to the one its speed and to the other its power of thought, even though Nature is indifferent to uniqueness.

We are not indifferent, however.  We care.  That we can care about Nature does not require that Nature cares about us.  But that we can care -- about other people, other creatures, Nature – well, from whence did humans derive this talent if not from the processes of Nature?

Hidden in the so-call “big bang”; hidden, perhaps, in the darkness prior to the big bang, lay the potential to bring forth beings that cared, beings that were not indifferent.   We are fruit of that potential.  This ever present and currently actualized potential – is it not a most curious fact about Nature?

One can imagine (for Nature has also endowed us with an abundance of imagination) that Nature wanted to see, so it evolved into creatures with eyes; it wanted to care, so it brought forth creatures with sensibility and sensitivity; it even wanted to be able to explore itself, so it brought forth creatures with brains big enough to build precise telescopes to search the depths of its endless space. 

Perhaps we satisfy some deep itch lodged in that originating potential of which we are the fruit when we study and contemplate the great questions of cosmology.  There is no way of knowing; but such imaginings can, I think, remind us that we are without exception part of Nature’s great process -- and perhaps allow us to feel how wonderful it is to be able to care about Nature’s abundant indifference.

Monday, November 25, 2013

A Prayer for Thanksgiving Day

A Prayer for Thanksgiving Day

Lord, let me more than a consumer be
on this commercial-ridden holiday.
Let your Light shine within me
and satisfy me and satiate me,
that there be no lingering hunger
even after I have eaten my fill.
Let my football-addled t.v. go dim
that I do not waste this day
or any other day
watching silly sports or any silly thing
on these shallow, soulless screens.

Lord, let your Light shine through this day
and through the darkness of Black Friday
and through the darkening days till Christmas
and beyond…
that I may crave no more than I already own,
even if all I own is this windy prayer
to your unsubstantiated presence,
of which I am substantially thankful.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

One Metaphor Riding Another

We are waves on the ocean -- so goes an old metaphor.  Ephemeral, yes!  But is there any more to the metaphor?

A wave is a movement of water.  Less than the water, perhaps -- the water was there before the wave rose and is still there after it subsides.  More than an abstract imagining, though -- like sound and light waves, the waves on the water can be represented through mathematical abstraction, but you can’t surf on a mathematical wave.  Not quite matter, not quite an abstraction, a wave is a form, a shape the matter takes for a brief time.  The water makes a wave sensible, but the wave is something other than the water, something not quite sensible.

We are like waves.  We are a form that matter takes for a brief time.  We are not the matter – the carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and various minerals that comprise a body.  The ashes of a cremated person have no more resemblance to that person than has any other soil of the earth.  Nor are we but an abstraction, a sign pointing toward something else.  Like the wave of the ocean, matter makes us sensible, but what we really are is not quite sensible.  Upon death, the material corpse, like the water that comprises a wave, remains; but we are gone, as the wave is gone when it crashes upon the shore.  

Perpetually the waves arise and travel toward the shore; perpetually life arises and travels towards death.  In essence each wave, each life, the same; in particulars each different. 

Old Plato might have said that each wave is a brief, not quite real, appearance of the Great Wave, the eternal archetypical wave -- and each person, a brief but not quite real appearance of the Great Person, the eternal, archetypical person.  Is there any truth to what Plato says?  Who knows, though it seems worthy of a moment's contemplation on our journey towards the shore.

For we are the form that can contemplate forms.  We are the form that can sit by the ocean and imagine our self a wave.  And we are the form that can surf – that can catch the wave and a give it a ride, balanced and attentive; like one metaphor riding another.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Being a Post-biological Being

Modern science has the threefold division of the physical sciences, the life sciences, and the social sciences.  While a common faith believes that in theory biology can be reduced to physics and sociology and culture could be reduced to biology, in actual practice this cannot be done.  Further, the modern idea of emergence suggests that the faith in this reduction may be misplaced.  There are interesting implications of this threefold division of the sciences. Here I will suggest one of those implications: it can help clarify some of the ambiguities of the concept of “nature.”

In modern Western culture, the word “nature” is used in two, quite different ways.  In one sense we use “nature” in opposition to artificial.  Artificial means intentionally created by humans.  Taken to its extremes, this opposition represents a dualism that has long been a part of our culture, and finds its most extreme expression in the dualism of Descartes.  But we also use the word “nature” to refer to everything that exists.  This is what it means to say that all of nature had its beginning in the big bang, or to say that humans are a part of nature.  

If we reject dualism, we are still left with the question of why the division between natural and artificial seems so natural.  Indeed, according to anthropologist Mary Douglas, this divide is pretty universal among peoples.  I will suggest an answer to this based on the tripartite divisions of the sciences.  

The division between natural and artificial is equivalent to the division between the biological and the social sciences.  Unifying ideas of biology include the cell, genetics, and Darwinian evolution.  Perhaps the most important unifying idea of the social sciences is culture.  

In the language of emergence, culture is a genuine emergence from biology, analogous to the emergence of life out of chemistry.  It has been noted that humans are genetically very similar to chimpanzees.  Yet, humans have organized the Library of Congress, put members of their species on the moon, and instantaneously communicate intricate ideas to fellows humans located all over the globe.  Chimpanzees have figured out how to use a stick to help them get ants.  

If humans are genetically similar to chimpanzees, then the obvious conclusion is that genetics has little to do with this difference.  The real difference isn’t in genetics, it is in the evolution of culture over the past 100,000, or so, years.  The chimpanzee is a biological being with a small addition of learned behavior.  Humans are cultural beings that (often to our dismay) are still thoroughly embedded in biology.

In sum, the dualistic division between the natural and artificial should be viewed not as a division between nature and human, but as a division within nature between the biological and the cultural.  From the narrow perspective of biology, humans may be just another species of animals, but from the more cosmological perspective of emergence, humans are the loci of one of the three major emergences (each the subject matter of one of the three divisions of the sciences) in this part of the Universe.  Far from being just another species, we are another type of being all together, a post-biological being.  This is the reason that the social sciences cannot be reduced to the biological sciences and the reason that we need a third genre of sciences, with unique methodology, to study humans.

Being post-biological beings does not put us apart from nature, but shows instead how we are a very interesting part of the evolving, self-organizing, wildly creative, all-inclusive realm of Nature.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Matter Thinking over Mind

The mind is made of matter!  So I’ve been told, and I don’t disagree.  But I have to wonder what this really means.

What is matter?  The keyboard I type at is made of matter; I see it with my eyes and feel it with my fingers.  The seeing and feeling, though they appear to be outside my mind, are in fact in my mind.  How do I get from these appearances to something real?  Logic tells me it must be real, otherwise the whole world is just an appearance in my mind, and such solipsism leads to absurdity.  But logic is just in my mind, too.  Yet I will trust it on this matter and have faith that there is reality behind the appearances.

Now all of this consideration of appearance and reality has been contemplated and analyzed in subtle details by the great Enlightenment-era philosophers going from Locke and Hume to Kant and beyond.  There is no final conclusion to be drawn from this long, wonderful discussion, but following it certainly helps us appreciate how large and interesting the question is.

As I trust that matter is more than an appearance, I also trust that the scientific analysis of matter, which leads to modern atomic theory, is on the right track.  This theory tells us that matter is made of atoms.  The word “atom” was borrowed from the ancient Greek materialists, and it means that which is utterly simple and indivisible.  But the modern atom can be split, it is not indivisible, and it is certainly not simple.  In fact, the atom as understood by modern science is bewilderingly complex.

For starters it has three main ingredients – protons, electrons and neutrons.  Protons, however, are apparently made up of quarks, three quarks per proton.  And neutrons are made of protons and electrons and a little entity called the neutrino which seems to be about the closest thing to nothing that something can be.  Further, the electrons aren’t really things that occupy a particular space and time in the atom, but are smeared out over space and time, except when an experimenter decides to take a peek.  And indeed, all these little particles of the atom are as much energy as matter.  And then we have the gluons that comprise the strong nuclear force that holds the quarks together but also serve double duty to hold the protons together.  Protons are about as happy being near one another as a husband is being near an over-bearing mother-in-law, but the gluons make them stay put.

Protons and electrons carry electrical force, which is yet another ingredient of the atom. The electrical force is pretty strong, at least compared to the force of gravity.  It is about 38 magnitudes stronger than gravity (each magnitude represents another zero).  What this means in concrete terms is that all the gravity of the earth does not create enough force to make the protons of one atom invade the territory of another atom – it takes the weight of a star to accomplish that.  When protons from one atom invade the space of another, it creates a huge amount of energy and a heavier atom, which means it’s a different element.

Now as strong as the electric force is, the strong nuclear force is even stronger, about 137 times stronger.  This allows the strong nuclear force to hold up to about 90 protons together (after that things get increasingly unstable) and this allows our universe to have about 90 different types of stable elements, each with different properties.  Why the universe needs so many elements is any body’s guess, but without a rich diversity of elements, we wouldn’t be here; make of that what you will.  Now you might be thinking that, wow, since the strong nuclear force is so powerfully attractive, why hasn’t it pulled everything together in one big lump?  The answer is that despite its great strength, the range of that strength drops off steeply, so steeply that it is not felt beyond the atomic nucleus.  Could a force be more perfectly designed for the task of creating a multitude of different kinds of elements?  Oops! That’s a terribly unscientific question.

In sum, the atom is not the ultimate constituent of matter, but a complex, dynamic interrelationship of parts, none of which seems to be any more ultimate than the other.  So coming back to the original statement, “the mind is made out of matter” we have the problem that we don’t really know, ultimately, what matter is.  Further, we clearly have no sensory information about this ultimate thing; as it stands, the ultimate constituent of the world is but a vague idea in the mind (an immensely tiny string perhaps?).  So is it possibly equally correct to say that “matter is made out of mind”?

Scientific dogma would say that there is no necessary dependence of matter on mind; the physical world would still be there even if there was no mind to perceive it (but then again, science is an enterprise driven by values, goals, and a special quality of attention, and some adherents of science deny that values, goals, quality and even attention have any real existence). On the other hand, science insists that there is a necessary dependence of mind on matter — mind exists in and is dependent upon the nervous system and the body that nourishes and protects that nervous system and the environment that provides for that body and the earth that holds that environment and the solar system that holds the earth and the galaxy that holds the solar system and the Universe that holds the galaxy and whatever it was that gave rise to this intricately organized universe where even the merest atom of matter is a complex relationship….
And here typing away is this tiny mind, which I fondly claim as “my mind,” and it holds thoughts of this earth and solar system and galaxies and even the whole Universe.

A potter might shape a cup from clay, out of which he can sip his morning tea.  Has the Universe shaped the mind so that it has a vessel in which it can collect itself and reflect upon its mysterious beauty?  Over a cup of tea perhaps?  Well the Universe needs to shape a whole lot better mind than mine to get an answer to that question!  But at least I have been able to raise the matter and sip its mystery.  Not a bad way to spend the morning.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

A Brief History of the Enduring

A central concern of spirituality is the pursuit of the enduring amidst this world of change.  The flowers of the field last but a day, but the old oak has been there longer than anyone can remember.  (The word “endure” has the root drus, which is cognate with the Greek word for "tree" and the English words for "oak," "truth," and "trust.")  The ancient-seeming oak is itself but a flicker compared to the constellations of the sky.  A forest people may have found the oak to be the epitome of the enduring, but agricultural people found the constellations, with their rebirth of the ever changing season, as the epitome of the enduring.

In the West, we can pick up the great debate about what was enduring with the Greek philosophers Heraclitus and Parmenides.  Heraclitus noted that all is change, but there is a timeless order to change, a logos.  Parmenides argued that the real can never change, so all change is merely appearance.  The timeless reality was thus supersensible.  Democritus believed that what was really real and enduring was matter, and matter was composed of timeless tiny bits, atoms, and all change was the arrangement and rearrangement of atoms.  Pythagoras noted the timeless truth of mathematics.  Working with the mathematical notions of Pythagoras and the Parmenidian idea of the supersensible, Plato argued that there was a timeless world of forms or ideas, and the ephemeral world (the world of our senses) in which these ideas take on material form.  The Christian idea of an eternal heaven and degraded life on earth borrows much from Plato.

On the surface, it might seem that modern science is much closer to Democritus than Plato.  But in its notion of timeless “laws” science is following in the Platonic tradition.  Newton’s discoveries of the timeless laws of gravity were generally embraced by the European spiritual traditions.  But the scientific discovery of “geologic” time, which required a revised notion of time and endurance, has not sat as well with those traditions. 

While scientists like Einstein could take spiritual comfort in the timelessness of the fundamental laws of physics, in the 21st century even this notion is under attack.  In theories like Lee Smolin’s cosmological evolution, even the laws of nature are not truly lasting.  Here, the only thing that can be considered truly timeless is some shadowy cosmological potential for being

Oriental spirituality has taken a different approach to the pursuit of the timeless.  Where the Occident looked outward, the Orient looked inward.  The originators of the yogic tradition of India (which has very little in common with what is practiced as yoga today) noted that a distinction could be made between the movements and turnings of the mind (citta vritti in Sanskrit) and that which was aware of these movements and turnings.  Where Western dualism split the world between matter and ideas, Oriental dualism split the world between consciousness and the contents of consciousness (Purusha and Prakriti in Sanskrit).  The yogic traditions provided the methods for decocting a purified consciousness from its muddying movements. The experience of purified consciousness is the epitome of the enduring in much of Eastern spirituality. 

As inheritors of a global culture, we now have access to both the Western and Eastern spiritual traditions; we can explore and compare the various understandings.  But as inheritors of a triumphant consumer culture, many may wonder why bother?  The ephemerata of the consumable world are so various, so interesting, that we may think that they are quite dependable.  Was it not their lack of trust in the ephemeral nature of pleasure that caused earlier people to seek something more enduring?  

Does our consumer culture offer a better product than the old spiritual traditions?  Or does it mostly offer cleverly packaged distractions that keep us from confronting the deeper issues of life?  Obviously, I believe the later to be the case, and feel ever blessed that I can occupy myself with the timeless ideas of Western philosophy and science as well as in the deep states of timeless rapture offered by the Eastern traditions. This is one of the alternatives available to us even though we can't find it for purchase at the local mall.

Monday, June 17, 2013

The Response of the Populous to Global Warming

The scientific enterprise has occupied a fairly clear and distinct role within our culture, at least in the United States, but the clarity of this role is blurred by the role of science in the call for new policy that addresses global climate change. 

The scientific enterprise in the U. S. is financed primarily by the federal government and by corporate R&D.  Corporate support for the science is almost exclusively directed to the development of products that will make a profit for a given corporation and thus enrich the company’s stock holders.  Taxpayer support for the scientific enterprise is provided because the government’s investment in the science has provided valuable increases in military strength, health care technologies, and ideas that generate new products and new businesses that keep the economy growing. (The scientific community is rightfully proud that it has also given us wonderful new knowledge about the world we live in -- the kinds of knowledge that Carl Sagan waxed poetic about in his show Cosmos --but if this were the only value of science, I suspect that government and corporate investment in science would be roughly at the same scale as their investment in the arts and humanities.)  In other words, science is supported because people expect it to make life better – more secure, healthier, and more comfortable.  Science produces, it gives.

With global climate change, we find science in a rather different role.  Rather than giving more, it seems to be taking away.  It is asking for, even demanding, sacrifice.

It may well be the case that the general culture will more and more have to get used to the scientific enterprise under this aspect of asking for sacrifice, but it is important that we understand that at this time the general culture does not recognize this as a legitimate role of science.  Indeed, the general culture recognizes only one institution that legitimately has the right to ask for sacrifice, and that is religion. 

Since the culture expects science to produce and to fix things not ask for sacrifices in rectifying problems brought on by expanding technologies, it should not be a great surprise that the attitude of that culture to the problem of climate change is something like “you scientists created the problem, you fix it.”  That science created the problem is, of course, only partly true – the endless appetite to consume resources, fossil fuels in particular, is OUR appetite.  But the prestige of science has come from its ongoing ability to feed that appetite – the few within the scientific community that have questioned the wisdom of feeding that appetite and its ever increasing expectations has always been an easily dismissible minority.

You hear it said that people are “skeptical” of climate change, but this is an overly simplistic statement.  As suggested above, it is not just skepticism about observations and theories regarding climate change, it is questions about the legitimate role of science in the realm of culture and politics that come into play.  Thus it is not enough to simply do a better job of making the case regarding climate change and what is required to reverse the conditions that have led to it.  The perception of the role if science within our culture also needs to be addressed.  

Communicating better about climate change is not just about presenting the data in a clearer way, it is about the whole art of communicating and relating.  Communicating, relating, understanding culture – none of these, in my experience, has ever been the strong suit of scientists.  People with these skills tend more toward the arts, humanities and social sciences.  Perhaps enlisting more input from these areas might prove valuable in creating a more effective communications strategy