“It is what it is” (II)

There is nothing more there than what is there; but what is there is more than it appears

3,900 words

The previous post titled, “It is what it is,” ended with these sentences:

“Things are ‘just what they are.’ In one sense they never change because ‘they are only what’s there, …’ But in another sense, once we humans acknow­ledge our dependency on the forces that go into our makeup, the relationship of gratitude that we cast over all of reality like a cosmic net, driven by our innate conatus, transforms our world, physically, biologically, socially.

This is the transforming work of human moral power, not of some washed-up ancient war-god with an unsavory résumé trying to reinvent himself for modern times. Human moral power, and the unknown living wellspring that feeds it, is the only thing in our universe that transcends ‘dependent arising.’ This is where metaphysics begins.”

The fundamental argument of these essays is that human relationship has a transforming power over the material universe because by changing the human valence it significantly changes the environment in which material processes work themselves out. That is certainly meant to include everything on earth right up to human evolution, and, given the significance of the human presence within the totality of matter’s energy, ultimately, even if only eventually, the whole cosmic process.

Relationship means bearing. It is basically a noetic phenomenon because it draws its primary significance from human thought and has its greatest impact through attitude, feelings and intentionality which are all the by-products of thought. How I think of myself in connection with any other thing is the ground of how I act and react with regard to it.

Thought as a psychological phenomenon is a key notion in the Buddha’s program. It is the fulcrum around which turn the “four truths” that are often used as a short summary of his teaching. The four truths are:

First: the fact of universal suffering among human beings attests to the dissatisfaction we experience even when our demands are met. Humans are endemically unsatisfied.

Second: this dissatisfaction is born of the uncontrolled cravings that emanate from the unconscious thought stream of the human organism: thought evokes desire, uncontrolled desire creates dissatisfaction.

Third: craving can be controlled and eventually terminated by controlling thought. When cravings are terminated suffering will cease.

Fourth: the consistent practice of basic moral behavior, what Buddha called the “eightfold path” or dharma, made possible by thought-control, will bring justice and harmony to the human community and inner peace and happiness to each individual.

The central factor in both the arising of suffering and its cessation is thought, a general word that refers to the stream of images that run through our minds and the feelings of desire or aversion that are associated with them. The opening words of the Dhammapada, which is said to be the one of the earliest collections of the Buddha’s preaching and a concise distillation of his vision and program, make this point emphatically:

All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with an evil thought, pain follows him, as the wheel follows the foot of the ox that draws the carriage.

All that we are is the result of what we have thought: it is founded on our thoughts, it is made up of our thoughts. If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him, like a shadow that never leaves him.

“He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me” — in those who harbor such thoughts hatred will never cease. “He abused me, he beat me, he defeated me, he robbed me” — in those who do not harbor such thoughts hatred will cease.[1]

It is from this central focus on thought that the Buddha’s emphasis on meditation — and from there the practice of mindfulness which is the continuation of the meditative posture throughout the day — becomes clear.

The control of thought is the practical tool for changing behavior. When we speak of thought in this sense we realize we are speaking of an unconscious process not unlike the instinctive behavior of animals who are obeying algorithms “selected” by evolution and hard-wired into the DNA that controls the neurological and hormonal systems of their organisms. The fact that this thought process is mental has deceived us in the West into believing that in the case of human beings it was a “spiritual” pro­cess and not material. But the Buddha recognized the reflex nature of human behavior, and the paradoxical unconsciousness that characterizes human mental processes. He saw that as the key to transforma­tion: make the unconscious mental processes conscious and you can change them. Since you are what you do and you do what you think, by changing what you think, eventually you can transform yourself. If you want to become a just, generous and compassionate human being start thinking just, generous and compassionate thoughts. If you want to stop being judgmental, self-centered and disdainful of others, stop judging, catch yourself when selfish and disparaging thoughts enter your head even when you are just daydreaming. That’s what Buddha meant by meditation: become conscious of what you are thinking, and think the thoughts you want and they will lead you to the behavior you want.

Now this is extraordinary despite its simplicity. It means that at some point along the line the hard-wired biochemical algorithms that over eons of geologic time were developed to predispose the biological organism to behavior that worked for survival became malleable to human will and intention. Humans, somehow, had developed the capacity to transcend the evolutionary programming of their own organism and change it in accord with their vision of what they want to be. But how can this be? How can a biological organism bypass and even reverse its own programming — which is the very source and basis of its material survival in a material world.

It is even more extraordinary because the Buddha identified the process as completely natural.   There was no recourse to gods or superhuman powers emanating from another world. He insisted that there was no “self” outside the organism — i.e., a “soul” separate from the body that functioned outside of the chain of the organism’s material causes.

By one’s self alone the evil is done, by one’s self one suffers; by one’s self evil is left undone, by one’s self one is purified. The pure and the impure stand and fall by themselves, no one can purify another.[2]

It was the very same human organism that disappears at death that enters the chain of causes before or beyond behavior and modifies it as behavior. The physical habituation created by repeated patterns of behavior following the urgings of embedded algorithms was not eliminated but rather incrementally modified — nudged — over a long period of time and effort, with the effect that a new physical habituation was slowly introduced in place of the old, but at no point was physical habituation erased or superseded­. The will and intention to transform itself, in other words, functioned within the limits that determine the operation of biological algorithms; their finalities were not obliterated nor ignored, but modified from within — transformed.

What’s so pivotal about this insight is that it offers a compelling explanation of the “mind-body” problem that is a scientifically compatible alternative to the traditional, discredited but intractable western assumption that the human mind is an example of the presence of a different kind of entity in the universe: spirit. Buddhist practice is consistent with the position that, in the case of humankind, the very biological organism made only of matter, without any change in its make-up whatsoever, is capable of a level of activity that other configurations of the same material components are not. Humans are capable of intentionally modifying the algorithms that determine organismic behavior.

Please notice the paradox here: even after modification, algorithms still determine behavior; nothing there has changed, it is still a completely biochemical, material phenomenon. But the bearing, the direction, the inclination, the proclivity of the algorithm has been significantly re-aligned, sometimes by as much as 1800. It is possible to turn the human organism in the completely opposite direction with regard to an object of desire or aversion. Hatred can become love, revulsion can become attraction.

So it appears that in the case of humankind, matter exhibits a transcendence that belies the limitations said to characterize it.

Before we go further on this path I want to make clear what I mean by transcendence. Transcendence for me never means that something — an entity or force — goes beyond matter, because I believe that there is nothing but material energy in our cosmos. I will always use transcendence to mean either a material event that goes beyond expectations (but never goes beyond materiality) or to refer to an unknown factor responsible for known phenomena — a factor which is also presumed to be material but cannot currently be identified by our instruments of observation and inferential tools. Transcendence refers to material events and to our know­ledge of them.

Matter transcends itself in two senses. Evolution is the first. Evolution is responsible for matter’s continual incremental re-configurations of its own internal relationship of elements under the impulse of the need to survive that eventually produce emergent species of being. By emer­gence evolutionary biologists mean the appearance in the material world of entities capable of levels of behavior that the earlier organisms from which they evolved were not.[3] Life, for example, is emergent in the evolutionary process. Organisms that apparently were not alive evolved into organisms that exhibited the behavior characteristic of life. Human conscious intelligence is another example. Animals that appeared incapable of what we call conscious intelligence eventually evolved into organisms that were capable of thought. This ability to produce new organisms that transcend their ancestors in significant ways is why I say that matter is transcendent in itself. Matter has the capacity to transcend itself through incremental modifications. It’s why I call my picture of the world transcendent materialism.

Please notice in passing, the incremental material modifications characteristic of evolutionary change resemble the features of the Buddhist method of modifying feelings and transforming behavior by controlling thought.

The second use of the word transcendence has to do with human understanding, what we have systematized into the disciplines we call science. Our sciences assume that all phenomena are the effects of causes. When there are phenomena whose cause science cannot identify we say that they are transcendent. But, I want to emphasize that the word does not refer to anything that is immaterial. It’s another example that justifies the term transcendent materialism. There is nothing that transcends matter. All the human activities known as “mental,” which includes the very ability to recognize one’s own self, are dependent on the integrity of the material structures of the human organism, like the brain, or they disappear or are significantly distorted. Transcendence in this second sense simply means that matter does things that go beyond what our sciences thought it could do.

The immediate corollary is that these components — comprised of the same material energy released at the time of the big bang — have all along had the potential for such behavior, a potential that was apparently activated by the specific re-configuration achieved in the evolutionary emergence of the organism. This demands that we re-think how we understand matter. It suggests that what we have called matter and defined in a way that was diametrically opposed to “spirit” was an erroneous imposition created by our prejudice. We thought matter was an inert, lifeless, unconscious, inanimate “stuff” that could be acted upon but could not act. We thought matter needed “spirit” if was to live and be conscious … that there had to be two kinds of reality: matter and spirit. But we were wrong.

We now realize that there is only one kind of “stuff” in our universe: something that in the past we alternately called matter or spirit and that now appears to be neither, but some “other” thing entirely that is capable of manifesting both kinds of behavior depending on the degree of the internal integration and complexification of its components. When I use the word “matter,” this stuff is what I mean. These components when integrated at the levels studied by physics and chemistry display none of the characteristics that come to dominate matter’s behavior in its more evolved forms — animal life and then later, human consciousness. Evolution in every case has elaborated organisms whose configurations are beyond the capacity of physics and chemistry to explain using their limited observational and analytical tools, requiring the establishment of entirely new disciplines based on their own premises and axioms — biology, psychology, sociology — to understand them.

Immanence

It would seem there is little more to be said at this point since we know so little. But at least we have clarified that the answer lies within matter itself beneath the surface of the phenomena perceptible at primitive levels of evolution. At other, more developed levels, matter’s transcendent behavior is altogether without explanation if matter’s primitive form — studied by physics and chemistry — is all we assume is there. There has to be something more to matter or life and thought remain utterly incomprehensible. What is that “something” and how do we speak of it in a way that does not contradict our belief that there is no dualism? We know there are not two realities but only one, and it is the one that we experience with our eyes, ears, nose, hands and minds — material reality.

Clearly we cannot say what it is, or even that it is a “what.” Perhaps it is a mere modulation of the frequency of a wave, or an imperceptible dimension, or a relationship as we have suggested earlier in this essay none of which are “things.”

But to know that we not only observe and can measure material phenomena for which we have no explanation whatsoever, and that these indisputably material phenomena for all their mystery and impenetrability are some of the most familiar, universal and successfully utilized capacities of the untrained human organism, like human thought and moral transformation, is to deepen and intensify the sense of transcendence. It makes it clear beyond question that transcendence is an entirely immanent quality of our cosmos’ material energy of which we are made. This transcendence, in other words, whatever it will ultimately turn out to be, does not belong to another world or plane of existence; it is interiorly part and parcel of the very components that make up our human organisms. It resides deep within matter and is constitutive of what matter is. We, and apparently all things made of matter, are the ground of that transcendence. There is no duality here, no “other thing” or other place, for we are talking only about matter in this cosmos. The source of our ability to stand above and beyond our own material algorithms and re-configure them so they transform who we think we are, is part of the very material fabric of our being. In one sense it is not mysterious at all for we live and use it every day … but we have no idea what it is.

We are nothing more than what we are, but what we are is more than we thought.

Religion

It is this more that corresponds to what the various world religions have identified as a divine principle, the source of our sense of the sacred.  I call it LIFE.  And while the Buddha never appealed to this divine principle either theoretically or in practice for the implementation of his program of self-transformation, he never denied its existence and he utilized the mind’s power to transcend organismic programming as the primary tool for achieving individual liberation and social harmony.  The point I am making is that despite the fact that I reject any claim that this divine principle is a rational “God” entity, a person, not made of matter, who is responsible for the existence of the forms and features of all other entities in the universe and for all the events that occur during the passage of time, the indisputable transcendence manifest in our world supports but does not obligate the fundamental religious conclusion that there is a divine principle resident in the universe. Those who choose to relate to this transcen­dence in a way that validates our sense of the sacred cannot be dismissed as irrational. By the same token, the absence of any clear knowledge of what exactly creates this transcendence, also validates those who, without dismissing it or its primordial influence on the human condition, choose to attribute it to unknown causes. Their parallel claim that the spontaneous sense of the sacred that has given rise to the world’s religions can be understood as the affective side of the conatus sese conservandum, an unavoidable echo of matter’s existential energy, is no less legitimate. “Atheism,” like religion, is reasonable but it is not obligatory.

In either case, however, the Buddha’s discoveries are compelling. Whether or not you choose to utilize his methods for transformation, you are enjoined to embrace basic morality — the eightfold path, the dharma — as indispensable to the survival of human society and to transform yourself accordingly. Social immorality — greed, hatred, exploitation, injustice, sexual violence, murder, larceny, prejudice, disrespect for persons or groups — is not an option no matter how it is presented in the movies. Whether or not individuals choose to integrate these insights with what they have inherited from their ancient religious traditions, all are faced with finding ways to live with gratitude and loving-kindness, suppressing greed, rejecting hatred, eliminating injustice, forgiving and having compassion on others, respecting and defending one’s own rights, repudiating the claims to superiority that lie at the base of all inter-tribal rivalry and conflict, protecting species other than human, defending the earth’s life-support systems by which we all live.

Basic morality is the key to social harmony. And social harmony is indispensable for human survival. Basic morality, therefore, is not optional. All religions may be thought of as different ways of motivating basic morality. But the Buddha showed that motivations other than the desire for individual peace of mind and the survival of society were not indispensable. Clear insight into what creates harmony and disharmony among people is all that is required. Anything else meant destruction. The Buddha appealed to common sense.

Metaphysics

Social harmony and therefore basic morality are obligatory because we cannot survive without them. Other human pursuits, like the desire to understand, are not, despite the innate thirst that drives them. The search for understanding, admittedly an almost insuppressible desire of the human mind arising from the leadings of conscious intelligence, cannot be considered obligatory for we can survive without it. But the universal experience of understanding through causes is operational for every human being from a very early age and those who try to prevent it, or control it, or deny it, are doomed to frustration. The ability to understand cannot be exterminated; it is the ground of personal freedom. As much as any other feature of our organism, it defines who we are as human beings. The hunger to understand is an intrinsic drive of human nature.

The very fact that there is an undeniable transcendent feature of the human condition — the power of moral transformation — for which we have no explanation leaves the human mind uneasy. Human beings are not comfortable in the face of mystery. And the discomfort created by being confronted with an effect for which we cannot assign a cause can reach such a level of intensity that it is not unusual to hear it described as painful. It is significant that once the cause is known and understood, the pain and tension quickly dissipates.

There is no way to suppress the desire to understand the source of the transcendence that we encounter in human life. Because of our abstract and convoluted history, however, many will not engage in this pursuit. Those who join the effort are all “scientists,” for that is the meaning of the term: those who explain effects by identifying their causes.

At the risk of oversimplification, I would agree that much of what we have inherited as religion in the West was the ancient habit of imagining other-worldly causes for known effects. Thus ancient religion has been correctly criticized as an ersatz “science” that flourished in the vacuum created by the absence of true science. Ancient religion imagined invisible causes which supposedly belonged to another, imaginary, world.

The scientific continuation of that religious search took the form of metaphysics, a branch of inquiry developed by the Greeks. What made metaphysics different from physics was precisely the visibility. Physics looked for the visible causes of visible effects, even if those causes were only visible to highly sophisticated instruments of observation. Metaphysics, on the other hand, assuming the existence of “spirit,” looked for the invisible causes of visible effects, causes that were invisible precisely because they were believed to belong to another world … a world where invisible ideas that were considered immaterial — spirit — were the only reality and extended their causal power to the visible world of matter.

Metaphysics as constituted in that historical context is no longer valid because there is no other world of invisible causal immaterial ideas that explains this material world of visible effects. But the process of understanding observable effects by identifying their sufficient and necessary causes remains. The difficulty arises that such causes are not necessarily discoverable by physics, not because they are not material, but because they are not visible either to the naked eye or to any currently extant tool of human observation or measurement. We simply do not know what portion of the spectrum of matter’s energy is occupied by the causes of human evolutionary transcendence, transformation and our inability to explain either.

But we know there is something there, because we can see its effects and they are clearly transcendent. So, do we need metaphysics? Drop the name if you insist, but the search will go on.

 

[1] Dhammapada, ch 1, # 1, Müller, F. Max. Wisdom of the Buddha: The Unabridged Dhammapada (Dover Thrift Editions) (Kindle Locations 60-64). Dover Publications. Kindle Edition.
[2] Ibid., ch XII, # 165, (Kindle Locations 279-280).
[3] Encyclopædia Britannica from Encyclopædia Britannica 2006 Ultimate Reference Suite DVD. [Accessed January 11, 2018]. “emergence,” in evolutionary theory, the rise of a system that cannot be predicted or explained from antecedent conditions. …
The evolutionary account of life is a continuous history marked by stages at which fundamentally new forms have appeared: (1) the origin of life; (2) the origin of nucleus-bearing protozoa; (3) the origin of sexually reproducing forms, with an individual destiny lacking in cells that reproduce by fission; (4) the rise of sentient animals, with nervous systems and protobrains; and (5) the appearance of cogitative animals, namely humans. Each of these new modes of life, though grounded in the physicochemical and biochemical conditions of the previous and simpler stage, is intelligible only in terms of its own ordering principle.
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2 comments on ““It is what it is” (II)

  1. Brian Coyne says:

    Tony, I made mention of this essay over on catholica at http://www.catholica.com.au/forum/index.php?id=207726 and there is some feedback and comment over there in that string. Cheers, Brian Coyne

  2. saluman73 says:

    Tony, I am responding to both Dec. 29 and Jan. 14 blog posts, and also sharing both with all on my list. I  want to thank you for all the work you have put into “It is what it is” posts I and II. It is amazing to me the way your thought develops so consistently and surely and leads me ever further into the Wholeness of Being. I have been reading Sister Ilia DeLio’s  “The Unbearable Wholeness of Being/ God, Evolution, and the Power of Love.” Between the two of you, I have enjoyed the most fruitful, comforting, and grateful meditations of my 89 year life.  I am reminded of Einstein’s famous statement which I cannot repeat word for word. He says that time is a  construct of the human imagination. In reality there is only the present moment which has been happening for 13.5 billion years, is now, and will be forever. The ancients got it right. “As it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be.  Amen.    Thank you, thank you, thank you. Is this the gratitude you are talking about? Sal Umana  

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