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.
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 even as a child I tended to ask philosophical questions, I took no philosophy courses in college (which was fortunate -- academic philosophy as often extinguishes natural curiosity as enhances 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 was 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 about Nature's beauty 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, heartfelt 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

After the financial crisis of 2008, I heard and read many stories about people who lost their jobs, their saving and their homes during the crisis.  These are stories of people who worked hard, thought they were investing wisely, thought that owning a home was going to be a good thing.  These stories are often accompanied by a statement about pursuing the “American Dream” and the great disappointment in seeing that dream turn sour.  I have great sympathy for these people, but I am not so sympathetic to their "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 throughout America (and the rest of the world).  This army of marketers has but one function, to motivate consumptive behavior by stimulating desire and envy.  In an earlier age, if you had asked someone the name of the being whose sole function is to stimulate desire and envy, they would have said, "the devil."

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 stripping 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, or spiritual contemplation, or enjoyment of natural beauty, or empathy with all living things.  No local bankers can repossess these, leaving us homeless in our homeland.  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.  No, we are not going to change that.  But we can change ourselves.  As individuals or small groups, we can live an alternative American Dream.  We can dis-incorporate the marketers message from our sense of the world and its value.  We can re-incorporate community, spirituality, material simplicity, and natural beauty deeply into our lives.

Imagine that!

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Dance

The Dance

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

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

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

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

Monday, September 15, 2014

The Great Mystery

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Credo of an Organization to Which I'd Like to Belong

We seek knowledge, but know that we don’t know.

We seek wisdom, but recognize our foolishness.

We seek to be generous and loving, but recognize we are often selfish and resentful.

We recognize that in recognizing our own failings we should become more patient with the failings of others, but we are often quick to judge the failings of others.

Yet, we try to do our best to be loving and to find beauty and joy in our brief sojourn on this remarkable earth, and sometimes we succeed wonderfully.  

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

The Marriage of Spirit and Soul

In his book Alchemy: Science of the Cosmos, Science of the Soul, Titus Burkhardt writes of the chemical marriage: the marriage of gold and silver, which is symbolic of the integration and harmonization of one’s spirit and soul.  In the mythic language of alchemy, the spirit is characterized as male and associated with the sun and gold, while the soul is characterized as female and associated with the moon and silver.   In this alchemical ideal of the marriage of spirit and soul, the spirit descends to the soul and the soul rises to the spirit. 

Exactly what the alchemists meant by “spirit” and “soul” is not completely clear; a defensible interpretation is that by “spirit” the alchemist refers to that aspect of our being that articulates with words, plans and sets goals, makes judgments – the part of our being that we call upon for self-governance, that we deem as the seat of reason and rationality.  By soul, the alchemist refers to all the other aspects of our being including the part that gives rise to appetites, emotions, but also the place of dreams and imagination.  

The notion that the spirit should descend to the soul is rather foreign to Western spirituality.  Generally in the Western tradition the role of spirit is to ascend.  The spiritual realm is upward, celestial.  The spirit governs the being, not through the descent to and cultivation of the soul, but by the repression of the body with its irrational appetites, compulsions and imaginings.  Self-control and control of one’s appetites, emotions, and thoughts are the spiritual ideal in much of Western spirituality (and also in the Aryan influenced aspects of the spirituality of India).  Spiritual asceticism becomes a method of attaining this ideal.  There are writings in these traditions that speak of the tremendous embarrassment felt by males in having a spontaneous erection – the ideal of complete control demands the control of even that.

The notion of the chemical marriage in alchemy is quite similar to the integration of yang and yin in Taoism, which has many similarities to alchemy.  Rather than the spiritual ideal of the snow-white mountain peaks, Taoism posits a spiritual ideal of the valley.  Lao Tse writes of the “Valley Spirit,” and posits a spiritual ideal not of upward rising tongues of fire, but the downward flowing of water.  For the Taoist, that which rises will inevitably descend.  In the ascent of the mountain, the spirit may seek to leave the mess and chaos (that is so characteristic of the soul) behind.  But such ascent can only succeed briefly; we are bodily and soulful beings, and the spirit inevitably must come back to the raw facts of its physicality.  The Valley, on the other hands, its more stable.  It collects everything into itself.  The waters from the turbulent mountain rush roiled and muddied to the valley.  The Taoist contemplative does not seek to wrest spiritual clarity from out these turbid waters, but simply to come to a quietness wherein the waters of themselves become calm and clear.  Then the clear waters mirror the peaks.

A prominent Western myth is that of St. George and the dragon.  In this myth, as with much Western spirituality, the spiritual goal is to kill the dragon,  In alchemy, the soul is often associated with reptiles, and such reptiles as the snakes in the Caduceus of Hermes and the dragon of Chinese fable are favorable creatures.   In the alchemical and Taoist systems, the ideal is to cultivate the dragon, which is to say, to cultivate the soul.*

The soul is the realm of Eros, to bring yet another mythic system into the discussion.  Eros brings great pleasure, but also great turmoil to our life.  For one who seeks self-control, Eros is a snake in the grass.  For one obsessed by self-control, Eros is a dragon.  For one who seeks to cultivate the soul, Eros is much as the myths portrayed him/her, a lovely but troublesome part of our being -- a bringer of pleasure and depth, but also of turmoil and obsession.  Cultivation of the soul is, above all else, cultivating a habitat for Love.  

It is in relation to sexuality that Western spirituality, and particularly Christian spirituality, seems most badly to fail us.  That a significant portion or the Catholic priesthood, who have vowed themselves to chastity, are found guilty of rather perverse sexuality, may well be viewed by that priesthood as just further evidence of what a horrid and powerful dragon they are fighting.  From the alchemical point of view (and the Freudian), however, it is simply a mistake.  While Eros, and the soul as a whole, is complex and troublesome, nothing in the soul is intrinsically bad – there is no weed in the garden of the soul that does not have a proper place and role within that garden.  And a weed in its proper place is not a weed at all, it is a flower.

And here we return to a metaphor suggested earlier -- the soul as garden and the spirit as gardener.  The spirit descends to the soul and cultivates it -- finds the proper place for each aspect of the soul to flourish.  A flourishing soul is a fulfilled soul, a deeply content soul.  A content soul fills the spirit with joy.  And this is the reward and value of the marriage of spirit and soul spoken of by the alchemist – soulful contentment and spiritual joy.

*  Care of the Soul: A Guide for Cultivating Depth and Sacredness in Everyday Life, is the title of a book by Thomas More.  More’s writing is deeply influenced by the psychologist James Hillman.  Hillman has waged something of a one-man crusade to bring our restless spirits back to the soul, gaining allies like More, the poet Robert Bly, and Phil Cousineau along the way.  Cousineau’s book Soul: Readings from Socrates to Ray Charles is a particularly informative and enjoyable exploration of the soul’s realm.  Hillman was influenced by Jung, who was highly influenced by alchemy.  Paganism, nature religions, and religions of the Goddess also in their various ways work for the re-integration of spirit and soul.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

A Random Walk?

In his book Full House: The Spread of Excellence from Plato to Darwin, Stephen Jay Gould presented the idea that the appearance of progress in evolution can be explained as “a random walk.”  According to Gould, in evolution there is a left bound, a minimum at zero complexity, but no right bound on complexity.  Evolution thus has only one direction to move in, and that is toward greater complexity over time.  There is no need to posit a direction of increased complexity or progress, only a random process, which leads to increased complexity because it can’t really lead to anything else. 

While the idea that evolution is a random walk certainly is reasonable, I find at least one reason to question it: If we accept some form of the big bang theory, then our universe starts off in a highly disorganized state.  Yet several billion years later, when the first life appears on earth, the universe has become organized into stable galaxies and planetary systems.  Just how to account for this increase in cosmic organization is a rather contentious issue, but I don’t see any way that “a random walk” describes this process.

Further, at a certain point in the history of evolution, we find one species, the human, who starts to organize his world.  Over a few hundred thousand years, we find this creature going from organizing simple shelters to creating such highly organized entities as the Library of Congress, the I-Pod, and the space program.  Again, how to account for this massive increase in organized complexity is rather contentious, yet again, it cannot be accounted for by a random walk.

So the question arises, if what happens between the big bang and the rise of life on earth seems to have a direction of progress, and the development of human learning and technology clearly has a direction of progress, should we feel so confident that evolution, which lies between these two, lacks a direction of progress? 

There is a lot of talk about a theory of everything in physics, but one thing seems clear to me – such a theory of everything won’t actually explain much of anything outside the realm of physics.  I would like to predict here that somewhere in the future there will be another kind of theory of everything that will actually explain a good deal more.  This theory will be a theory of organization – a theory that comprehensively accounts for how the universe self organizes and in the process of self organizing generates new forms of organization, such as the algorithmic organization by which genes produce organisms and ideas create buildings and machines.  Darwinian Evolution will be a part of this larger theory, rather than a theory somewhat isolated from the other forms of development and organization occurring in the universe.

Friday, March 28, 2014

We Are Stardust?

As much as I like the music of Joni Mitchell, the fact that I am made of stardust makes no emotional impact on me.  But in the spirit of that oh-so reasonable one, Mr. Spock, I do find certain things about that fact interesting. First, the fact that the universe has stars at all strikes me as very curious.  Amongst the many things required for a star to exists, one is that the ratio of the strength of gravity to the strength of the electromagnetic force has to be roughly in the proportion that it is -- the electromagnetic force is roughly 38 magnitudes stronger than gravity.  Thirty-eight magnitudes is a huge number – something in the order of the number of atoms in the planet earth.  Of all the proportions available to nature, that it should have that particular one is certainly interesting.

Even more interesting, perhaps, is what happens after you gather enough gravity together to overwhelm the electromagnetic force.  New elements are forged, and huge quantities of energy are released via E=MC2.  But for new elements to be forged, there must be available another force strong enough to overcome the relatively powerful repulsion that protons feel for one another. The strong nuclear force, which is roughly 137 times more powerful than the electromagnetic force, allows this, and allows nature to develop about 90 stable elements. 

What use the universe has for so many elements is anybody’s guess, but without a rich diversity of elements, we wouldn’t be here.  Being so powerfully attractive, you would think the strong nuclear force would pull everything together in one big lump.  But 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 designed with more perfect specifications for the task of creating a multitude of different kinds of elements?  That, of course, is a terribly unscientific way to frame the question.  Nonetheless, I think it is just the kind of question that a curious person might be inclined to ask.

Our universe seems to have been born (if one can be permitted poetic language here) with the proportions of its forces already set – we might even think these forces are something of an analog to the genes that guide the development of an embryo into a fully realized creature.  Why these proportions?  There are many theories (though I don’t believe any of them are either falsifiable or provable). 

One such theory that currently is popular is the idea of infinite inflation.  To give the briefest sketch of the theory, it posits that the so-called big bang and ensuing period of inflation that created our universe is just one of countless such periods of universe creation.  Most such periods result in a sterile univerese, but by the sheer force of numbers, some of them have what it takes to create interesting universes and even beings that find such universes interesting.

Note that this theory (and I believe all such theories that involve a multiverse) requires an infinitely potent entity, the multiverse, to create an infinite quantity of universes.  Consequently, the multiverse must not be subject to entropy, indeed must be dis-entropic.  But if it is, than we simply cannot assume it is naturalistic in any sense we understand that term, for entropy is absolutely core to our own understanding of nature.  How the multiverse operates is beyond anything we currently can understand.  It is pure mystery.

Now I find all this very interesting, and I do not draw any conclusions from it.  But it does strike me that an omni-potent multiverse has something of the characteristic of a God.    I might even say that when it comes to the great mystery of the source of it all, theism and atheism have about equal status, which is to say they both purport to say more than a reasonable person ought to say. 

So I'll leave the rest to silence...

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Desire and the Contemplative Life (or the Marketer’s Worst Nightmare)

It is natural to desire and civilized to repress desire, at least some of the time.  The question is, and it is a central question of morality and ethics, which desires to express or repress and how much so?  A culture provides a provisional answer to this question in the form of laws.  We may desire to do bodily harm or take possessions from another, but the law may dictate serious consequence for any who give in to these desires.  

Religions and quasi-religious systems have proposed moral codes that are often quite different from the law, generally more restrictive concerning which desires we are encouraged to give into and which we are encouraged to repress.   At the most extreme, we find a religious philosophy like Buddhism that sets as its ideal the cessation of all desire.

Religions, often but not always, posit consequences of our actions here on earth in some form of afterlife or reincarnation.  Their moral codes, the system of “oughts” and “ought-nots,” generally do not make complete sense without reference to that specific notion of an afterlife.  Thus the moral clarity that a religion can provide requires faith, and many of us can see no clear reason for such faith.  For a person who does not believe in an afterlife, there really is no clear or authoritative directive as to which desires ought and out-not be pursued.  For such a person, how our desires affect the quality of our life in this life or the life of those we care about, is much more central. 

There is a general idea, derived from the philosopher David Hume, that you cannot go from an “is” to and “ought.”  This is not really correct.  Within a goal directed context, it makes perfect sense to go from “is” to “ought.”  Thus, if your goal is X and Y is necessary to achieve X, then it follows that you ought to do Y.  But to the question, “What ought to be the ultimate goal of my life?” there are no facts that lead to a clear answer. 

Most people probably give little thought to the question of the ultimate goal of their life.  A society provides a set of standard aims and ambitions, and most people simply grow into one of those normal roles.  Wealth, status, love and friendship, raising a family, pleasure and security are among the accepted aims of most secular societies, and most people aim to maximize some or all of these.  Each of these aims defines a certain set of oughts and ought-nots.  For instance, the pursuit of wealth requires a certain kind of prudence: the repression of the desire to have and enjoy now for the expectation of having more and being able to enjoy more in the future.  Even the exclusive pursuit of pleasure requires some consideration about the consequences of giving in too completely, such as the negative consequences of having too much to drink.

While the normal goods, and the societal forms through which we channel our desires to attain these goods, are enough for most people in most societies, we may raise the question whether any of these goals, individually or in combination, provide the best or highest quality of life? There is no clear answer to this question, but there is the testimony of various thinkers, artists, mystics through the ages that suggest that they are not.

The philosopher Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, suggests that eudaimonia is the goal of most people.  (Eudaimonia is often translated as “happiness,” but I would suggest that the term is closer to well-being.)  He also states that intellectual contemplation is the highest form of happiness.  This idea is rather alien to modern Western society, but it was a highly respected ideal in the West for nearly 2,000 years.  A contemplative ideal has had an even greater standing and longevity in India and other parts of the Orient.

Contemplation is a focusing of one’s awareness and attention on some object, idea or experience.  Such a focusing requires the quieting of natural desires (deepening contemplation requires the virtual cessation of such desires).  Desire makes us aware of something we lack and points us toward objects that we believe at some level will fill that lack.  In a state of desire, we are not content with where we are and we are impelled to move (mentally, physically or both) elsewhere.  In contemplation we can feel deeply content with where we are and what we are doing.  We are content – not in the sense that someone who has just satisfied a desire (say eating a bowl of ice cream), but content with the very nature of our being.  During contemplation the contemplative needs nothing but contemplation to be perfectly content.  The seated Buddha is the image of such contentment.

It is not my intention to conclude that Aristotle or Buddha is correct about what leads to happiness or contentment.  If I have anything to conclude it is that each person has to figure out his or her own goals and ways to achieve those goals.  Further, I would not wish to conclude that because some way is good, more and more of that way is better and better.  Life is a dynamic affair; why not have multiple goals?  I do wish to suggest, though, that though the contemplative life is no longer one of the standard norms of our society, those old masters where not incorrect about it.  Its rewards are wonderful, and you really do not have to pay a penny for them – contemplation provides joy for free. 

Back in the sixties, people would speak of “an alternative lifestyle,” which meant an alternative to the market based lifestyle.  Now the term is used by marketers to sell an array of products that help define one of the many so-called lifestyles.  The market needs consumers, people who desire.  Contemplation offers an alternative to being a consumer.  A person who has learned to find deep inner happiness without having to pay a penny for it is the marketer’s worst nightmare. 

To be a marketers worst nightmare seems an honorable goal!

Tuesday, February 11, 2014


Yes begets no, good begets bad, left begets right – such is the symmetry of verbal things. Yet symmetry begets asymmetry.  So to assert a truth is to invite its denial; to praise a value is to invite a scoffer.  It hardly seems worthwhile to assert or deny at all.  Yet silence begets noise. So when I wish for silence I often speak and when I speak I wish for silence.  Thus, if I speak of big things, may I do so humbly and may my words reach toward a rarified clarity or an unresolvable ambiguity.  

Wednesday, January 29, 2014


For a few centuries now there has been an accelerating pace of technological change, which has also led to an accelerating pace of social change.  Some people call this change progress, and I would certainly not totally disagree with that assessment.  But I would caution that the perception of progress is greatly distorted by a certain bias, a bias I am not sure has yet been clearly articulated.

In every change there is something gained and something lost.  The perception of technological change is distorted because what is gained is gained rapidly and is relatively easy to quantify, while what is lost is lost slowly and is often of a more qualitative nature.  The quick, quantitative improvement makes a far greater impression on us than the slower, qualitative loss.

As an example, in the late 19th century in America, houses often had large porches and during the hot summer hours people spent time on these porches.  From the porches people could communicate with neighbors walking by on the sidewalk or with other neighbors sitting on their porches.  These interactions enhanced a neighborhood’s social culture. When air conditioning came along, the early adopters could stay inside on the hottest days to escape the heat.  But they probably also expected that the porch culture, and its enjoyments, would still be there if they wanted to go out and participate.

Air conditioning provided an immediate and quantitative relief from the unpleasantness of the heat.  But over a period of many years, as more and more people installed air conditioning, the porch culture diminished greatly – and the enjoyments that had come with it also diminished.  It may well be the case that the early adopters of air conditioning years later complained about the loss of the porch culture without even suspecting the role that air conditioning had played in it.  The loss was slow and its causes not immediately clear. 

One could refer to many such examples, but I will explore just one more – photos.  In the early years of the 20th Century, when my parents were born, photos were relatively rare. I thus only have a few photos of them when they were young.  But I value those photos and have examined them closely trying to derive every piece of information I can from the few available. 

Photos are now ubiquitous.  Many children will have thousands of photos taken and saved by the time they are adults.  Again we have a rapid and quantitative gain – but the question is, will any of these photos be treasured?  Indeed, will anyone even bother with them as they are so common?  The rare is valued, but not the common.  It is very possible that what seems now a great a treasure of photos, will end up largely ignored.

I speak to many young people today who are keenly aware of the wonderful new things their digital tools and toys provide.  As a person who grew up in a world where we made our own entertainment from the outdoors, our friends, and a lot of imagination, I am keenly aware of how much young people have lost. The entertainment we made for ourselves was a wonderful old thing, and the new digital entertainments seem shallow and shoddy to me in comparison.

Okay, I've turned into a sentimental older person who is slowly becoming a Luddite.  But the point here is to say “when evaluating progress, recognize that it generally takes a good deal more effort to account for what has been lost than what has been gained.”  If you fail to make that effort, you very well may be blinded by progress.

The greatest qualitative loss, IMHO, from the great rise of modern technology, is the loss of inner resources.  Around 2,500 years ago, Aristotle argued that contemplation the greatest form of human happiness. This notion was well understood and respected in Western society for the next 2,000 years, and was even more well understood and respected in the East.  How many people today have a clue what Aristotle was talking about. How many people have access to this amazing inner resource, this dependable source of inner joy?  Technology has greatly increased the quantity of information at our disposal, and this is arguably a gain.  Contemplation allows us to penetrate to the deepest qualitative core of the information we are given.  Perhaps, just perhaps, the gain does not equal the loss.

Afterword Two; Sept. 3, 2015:
I dawns on me that one of the reasons we have so much trouble keeping our resolutions, particularly the kind many people make on New Years Day, is similar to the reason we can get fooled by so-called progress.  Let's say we are trying to eat more healthfully.  We desire this because we think that it will improve the quality of our lives overall, and it probably will.  But this improvement is subtle, qualitative, and spread out through time.  Eating a big bowl of ice cream gives us a definite, quantitative, even if very short blast of yum.  Our minds register these quantitative blasts of yum much more strongly than such subtle improvements as eating healthily, and so by Valentine's Day, most of us have forgotten our New Year's resolutions.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Comment on Quote from James Hillman - One

“To speak of my anima and my soul expresses the personalistic fallacy.  Although these archetypal experiences of the personal give salt and substance to my personal individuality, making me feel that there is indeed a soul, this “me-ness” is not mine.  To take such experiences literally as mine puts the anima inside me and makes her mine.  The more profoundly archetypal my experiences of soul, the more I recognize how they are beyond me, presented to me, a present, a gift, even while they feel my most personal possession.  Under the dominion of anima our soulfulness makes us feel unique, special, meant – yet paradoxically this is when we are least individual and most collective.  For such experiences derive from the archetype of the personal, making us feel both archetypal and personal at the same instant. “
                                                                        From Revisioning Psychology
James Hillman is one of my favorite thinkers/writers.  I often agree with him, often disagree.  It is in the areas that I disagree that I enjoy him most.  Wrestling with his thought when I disagree is almost always an educational experience, an occasion for a growth of understanding. 

Hillman frequently criticizes spirituality.  His reasons for this are very complex, well thought out, interesting.  Ultimately, though, I think Hillman is in fact the most spiritual of psychologists – it’s just that his spirituality cuts much deeper than most of the tender-minded spirituality of our time.  The above quote (where the emphasis are mine), is one example.  It would be interesting to do a lengthy compare and contrast of this piece with something like Emerson’s The Oversoul, but here a few brief comments will have to do.

In the so-called “Perennial Wisdom”, it is a common place that the spiritual traditions from all over the world have in common a particular experience -- I will term it the experience of non-duality, though the different traditions characterize it under many terms and symbols.  In brief, that experience is a direct experience of the contingency of individuality and the experience of the “otherness” that is the real foundation of our being.  This is sometimes characterized as a unity with God, Nature, the Tao, etc.  “Unity,” however, is understood to be a kind of poor approximate for this experience, which ultimately defies all words – “The Tao that can be spoken is not the real Tao.”

Hillman’s quote above (unintentionally I think) provides a somewhat novel formulation of the perennial wisdom.  The “otherness” in this case is archetypal experiences of the soul.  This otherness, paradoxically, is precisely that which gives "me" my experience of “me-ness”, yet this otherness is common to all – we all get our sense of individual “me-ness” from a collective source.  The self, which to a large extent is created out of words, states “I have the experience of these archetypes,” but in fact it is the archetypes that give rise to the “I”. 

It is this illusion of the “I” that the various forms of perennial wisdom seek to penetrate – “Thou Art That” is the formulation of The Upanishads, which are probably the earliest and most comprehensive source of the perennial wisdom. 

One last note, “the anima” is symbolized as feminine; Hillman’s formulation can be seen as a return to the perennial wisdom as experienced under the aspect of the Goddess, rather than its common later formulation under some form of male personage.  The whole body of Hillman’s writing, in some ways, is a great call for a return to the Goddess – not the sentimentalized Goddess of the New Age, but the all encompassing Goddess, represented by Kali and Hecate, that contains all the horror and ugliness of life, all the beauty and goodness, and finally represents a wisdom that comes of giving honor to all that is encompassed in living deeply.