I want to explore a key notion: “autogenic disease.” I am using the term to refer to what I claim is a generalized, multi-millennial, specifically Western pathology where the human mind, in an act that seems to belie the presence of intelligence, identifies its own body as alien and tries to destroy it.
Contrary to what we in the West like to tell ourselves about our mental prowess, and despite all our brainy achievements in science and technology and our reputed “materialism,” the fact that we are biological organisms in a material universe seems to exceed our ability to comprehend. We do not accept it, and we do everything in our power to refute, ignore, disregard and repress it. We may admit we have … but we do not believe we are … bodies … and we conceive our destiny in other terms entirely.
That other destiny, of course, is spiritual immortality. Thus is generated the potential for an insuperable disgust for what we actually are. We are biological organisms in a material world where all biological organisms of whatever kind die. Western culture, forged in the crucible of its own distorted version of Jesus’ message, does not believe it; and that, I submit, is the source of our malaise. Western Christianity appropriated the message of Jesus and used it to support a ritual and symbolic form of Platonism. It claimed that we die only because our material bodies were corrupted by human sin; it projected another world of “spirit” from which we fell and to which we long to return … and in so doing internalized a disdain for all things material, including our own bodies. That religion shaped European humankind whose culture now rules the planet. The suggestion that this is an ominous development that presages some kind of universal disaster, is fully intended.
Among the myriads of life forms that the earth has spawned, humankind is the only one that is capable of this kind of insanity, for we are the only species that can despise itself. To be fair, it’s not entirely our fault. It’s a function of having an imagination. Since we can imagine being other than we are, we are capable of wishing we were especially when things are not going well. If being happy can be defined as “having what you want … and wanting what you have,” Western culture promotes unhappiness for in fact, it tells us to not like what we have, and it encourages us to want what is beyond any possibility of obtaining.
In our Christian past we had other ways of obeying our cultural imperatives and escaping our organic reality. Mainstream monasticism is a prime example; it offered salvation for the “spirit” through a lifelong programmed pursuit of the “mortification” of the flesh. But generally we have abandoned it, due in part to the Reformation, both Protestant and Catholic, which tried to make everyone a monk and everyday life monastic, rendering withdrawal into monasteries superfluous. In modern times our escape vehicle is technology. We are persuaded that our technology will launch us out of our earthbound lives and into an orbit of cerebral happiness. At the present moment, the pathology of displacement has gone so far that many of our people look forward to the day when technology will make us something other than human.
Popular culture generates images that reflect this dream: bionic individuals, robotic cops, iron men, mutants and laboratory-created superhumans of various kinds. These projections are more than adolescent cinematic fantasy. Already many of us have bodies that have been significantly modified by medical science with joint replacements, coronary bypasses, organ transplants, pacemakers, and a warehouse of chemicals that sustain a functioning balance that our bodies may not be able to maintain on their own. We believe if only we have enough time that someday we will conquer all the inimical forces of nature that cripple us and embitter our lives … we will provide ourselves with the means for the universal absorption of knowledge and control … we will overcome all our shortcomings, our mental and physical limitations, our vulnerability to disease, the causes of misunderstanding and relational disharmony … we will do away with diminishment of any kind … and, yes, someday we will conquer death.
For all our materialism, you will notice, these projected conquests anticipate transcending the stubborn, stultifying impotence of our biological organisms — organic matter that must struggle to survive in a material universe. We see all our problems as stemming from the inefficiency of our bodies to deal with the invariable “laws” of nature. Our bodies do not correspond to the limitless scope of our imagination. We can imagine anything, but reality gets in the way — specifically this body-in-this-world, ours or others,’ betrays us — and we find we are just not strong enough, or fast enough, or smart enough, or detached enough to realize our dreams. What we want slips through our fingers. It is all reducible to a mind-body disparity: our minds can think what our bodies-in-this-world cannot do and we will not accept it … and here’s the rub: our cultural Mother has told us since time immemorial we don’t have to. It tells us to strive for what we don’t … and can’t … have: to live forever in a state of ecstatic happiness.
We have assigned to our technology no less a mission than overcoming the limitations of the way matter has evolved on earth since our planet was formed 4.5 billion years ago. Our efforts are based on a conviction that all our “unhappiness” is due to nature. And so we want to learn how nature works, not because we cherish it and want to collaborate with it, but in order to transcend it and advance our principal goal: to no longer have this body in this universe. We don’t want what we have … we don’t like what we are: human beings.
Every victory in this direction encourages us to trust the path we have taken and to believe in “the dream:” someday we will redesign everything; we will become strong, invulnerable, immortal … and we will be happy … because someday we will stop being what we are; we will stop being human beings.
If getting what you want is one path to “happiness,” wanting what you’ve got is the other. While these two statements seem to have parity when viewed abstractly, in practice they are wildly disproportionate. For in the West, after two millennia of Christian tutelage we have placed all our bets on the first and abandoned the second. What we want is to live forever, and despite the overwhelming evidence that it is the most pathetic of delusions, we now think we have a natural right to it. That we are not immortal we take as standing proof that there was indeed some kind of “fall” that caused all this. For the last 2000 years all our energies have been focused on overcoming the “limitations” of the body — flying off to some spirit world where perishing matter cannot follow us — a world concocted by our “spiritual” imagination. And even when people stopped believing in the other world and spirits, they didn’t change their immortal aspirations — which by that time had been elevated into unquestioned “truth” — they simply re-applied the dynamic to another content: the technological paradise.
Hence from paradise in another world to paradise in this one, it’s still “paradise” — a never-never land that does not exist. The result is that the practical pursuit of learning to live with what-we-are and adjust our wants (and our sense of the sacred) to what we’ve got has totally atrophied. This madness of make-believe has so penetrated every aspect of our lives that our global economic system itself is irreversibly grounded on the myth of endless expansion, satisfying a population of endlessly increasing numbers with limitless desires to accumulate and consume, provisioned by a universe made to yield endless supplies to our endlessly innovative technology. Our global survival system is locked into these fantasies as its only source of drive and direction; the system runs on investment, and investors will not buy stock unless they see growth. Growth is sine qua non, despite the known fact that the earth’s resources cannot meet our imagined needs. It’s as if we were on automatic pilot watching ourselves plummet to disaster, powerless over the very machine we created to carry us aloft.
The role of the Church in promoting impossible aspirations has now been taken over by the new ideological guardians of our well-being: the entities responsible for the production of goods and services and insuring their avid consumption. The message to consumers of an earthly “paradise” is being delivered by a chain of interconnected actors: commercial advertisers, career politicians, purveyors of mass information, paid by wealthy corporate providers of consumer products and services, whose businesses are kept growing by powerful financial, energy and human resource enterprises protected by a coercive legal and police apparatus all run by the very same wealthy and powerful people. What drives it all is the new “immortality:” the promise of the happiness of being endlessly lifted out of the limitations of our material organisms by technology.
Death is “conquered” (in reality, endlessly postponed) by medical technology … or when that fails, death is held in contempt as we are wont to do with an opponent who constantly gives the lie to our pretensions. We take a delusional satisfaction in projecting that someday we will finally get what we want — we will win the definitive victory over death. In the meantime we forego the contentment that comes from cherishing what we are … wanting what we’ve got.
Cherishing what we are. Most people have never had the experience. “Stress reduction” programs … therapies, exercises, meditations, rituals … that aim at achieving such an adjustment are relegated to the private sphere where they are tolerated as “personal taste” or derided as crutches for the weak, but no one would ever consider organizing society around them. And so “speech” that promotes exaggerated need and discontent in order to increase sales is officially “protected.” It is not entirely unlike the mediaeval Church that told us we were all corrupt from birth and damned without its products and services. That “speech” was also officially protected. Any thing that contradicted it was burnt at the stake.
Our wasteful economy is based on the illusion of endless resources mentioned above; it literally cannot function without it. There is no thought of promoting and providing contentment and stasis: a zero-growth goal requiring, first of all, a peace of mind that comes from the elimination of inequality, a guaranteed access to the basics for all, and then simplification, reduction in consumption, the encouragement to eliminate the superfluous, avoid wasteful display and unnecessary luxury, aim at optimal functional efficiency in the energy-consuming machines we use every day: our cars, our houses with their refrigerators, washer-dryers, cook-stoves etc. The word “luxury” has lost its original sense of being “too much” — wanton excess — and has now become a necessity, a desideratum, encouraged, of course, by those who profit from the sale of luxury goods and who are fast becoming the only voice we hear. Superfluous — unnecessary, wasteful, destructive — consumption becomes a value we are encouraged to live for, the conspicuous display of one’s “achievement” as a human being edging ever closer to the ultimate control of everything provided by technology — the new paradise. This pursuit, I contend, is a major source of the inequalities among us; for in order that some may acquire more than they need, others are forced to live with less than they need. Pie on earth is as dysfunctional for us as pie in the sky.
Do not misunderstand. I am not starting a new list of do’s and don’ts or advocating the rejection of technology. I am using these examples to illustrate a mindset. I am talking about changing the foundational attitudes that stem from our primary perceived relationship: who we think we are and how we are related to the world around us. How we apply technology to everyday life follows from those attitudes; that primary relationship is what I mean by religion.
Part Two: energy and entropy; LIFE and death
“Ultimate control” ultimately implies, of course, the conquest of death. It has been the West’s holy grail since ancient times, and Christianity, once our program of choice to win this victory, has been abandoned by the dominant culture and its quest taken up by technology. Through the marvels of medical science today we are experiencing the postponement of death to a degree that we never have before; it seduces us into thinking success is just around the corner. But death at some point, even for those who have unlimited access to the technology of postponement, must be embraced. We are material organisms in a material universe. Death comes with the kind of existence we enjoy. It is not an alien intrusion or a punishment for “sin,” much less an unfortunate anachronism come too early for the predicted conquest by technology. Matter is what we are, and this is what matter does. We need to know why that is.
Understanding what matter is helps us understand why it behaves the way it does. Matter is not a “thing” it is energy. “Energy” is another word for disequilibrium. Energy refers to a state of tension that results from things not being where they should be … and which are therefore driven … pulled, drawn, impelled … to traverse the distance that separates them from the place where they belong. Energy is not a fixed and stable quantum. It is the manifestation of an instability under pressure to do whatever it takes to rectify imbalance and achieve stasis. The resulting potential-for-movement is the energy LIFE uses for its purposes.
All energy sources are examples of the same fundamental instability. A gently meandering river becomes a violent torrent when a precipitous drop over a cliff creates a huge disequilibrium in the water’s mass and hurls it through space at speeds exponentially accelerated by gravity. The energy in a waterfall is the force generated in the water in the effort to restore gravitational equilibrium. When that force is exploited to accomplish work, it is called power. In another example, the way batteries work is that electrons are forcibly stripped from the atoms of a particular substance, like lead, in one location and forcibly introduced and held with anoither substance, like acid. The artificially displaced electrons attached to the acid are under tremendous pressure to return to the lead atoms from which they were taken — atoms that are now highly charged because their protons are bereft and “hungry” for their electrons. When a pathway — a circuit — is created allowing those electrons to return and restore the equilibrium that was lost in the transfer, their compulsive motion in traveling “back home” can be exploited to do work, much as falling water can be used to drive machinery. This is how we harness power: we interrupt and exploit matter’s attempt to restore equilibrium and stasis.
The very nature of energy is disequilibrium; it is not a thing but a “need” to restore stability. It only lasts as long as the need lasts; once balance is achieved, the energy disappears. The dissipation of energy in the effort to restore equilibrium is called entropy. The very nature, therefore, of material energy is entropic. It tends, of its very nature, to seek equilibrium, to dissipate itself and disappear. This even happens to the more fundamental particles which are composites of even smaller energy packets. Protons, for example, are composed of quarks held together by gluons, the “strong force.” But even that force is not eternal and someday the quarks will return whence they came, the proton will succumb to entropy; it will disintegrate and its energy disappear.
We call the disappearance of energy, death. A biological organism dies when the various components at all levels of composition — bio-chemical, molecular and atomic — which had been gathered out of various locations, assembled and held together “unnaturally” (i.e., it is something they would not do on their own) under the forcible drive and direction of a zygote’s DNA to form a living individual, can no longer hold together and they return to their former states. The “particles” remain, their individual energies now determined by their own entropy. Nothing ever disappears except the energy gradients involved.
That is how LIFE lives: it appropriates the force of entropy and diverts it to its own ends. LIFE is anti-entropic. The living energy available to an organism during life is the expropriated tension-toward-equilibrium (= dissipation and death) of its gathered components. It is precisely its “being-toward-death” that provides the organism the energy — the ability to do work — like a battery whose artificially skewed electron-to-proton ratio creates the energy we call voltage. The irresistible “gravitational pull” — like falling water — to restore equilibrium is the energy utilized by LIFE, and which we exploit for our identities and our endeavors, just as we exploit the movement of electrons to start our cars and power our cell phones. So the very LIFE we cherish so much is really the appropriation of our components’ “desire” to abandon their unnatural conjunction as us and return to their former state … i.e., to die. To dissipate energy — to die — is the energy source tapped by LIFE.
If somehow you were able to do away with “death,” therefore, you would also eliminate the very well-spring of living motion: entropy. Death in a universe of matter, I submit, is intrinsic to LIFE.
Sex and evolution
All biological organisms are manifestations of matter’s conversion of its ultimate weakness — entropy, death — into the energy of LIFE. Matter does what it does because it evolved that way over eons of geologic time; its “limitations” are an intrinsic part of its development, the accompaniment and by-product of the process by which organisms adapted themselves to their environment and survived. In our case human weaknesses like our strengths emerged organically from the process of surviving under environmental conditions that obtained over very long periods of time … and they persist because those conditions have not changed. What evolved is now internal to us and binds us with an unbreakable valence to the environment that elicited that evolution. There is no “essence of humanity” independent of that particular process. We humans are-here … and we are what we are … because of it, and for no other reason.
One of matter’s more creative achievements was to use reproduction to bypass the natural entropy of all living matter. But there was a twist. We have to remind ourselves that at the dawn of life simple cell division — cloning the same individual — was superseded two thousand million years ago by the counter-intuitive innovation of coupling two distinct individual organisms producing a third independent of each; sexual reproduction was invented by eukaryote single-celled animals and it allowed for the production of genetically superior cells with a far greater range of capabilities. We are the beneficiaries of those seminal discoveries; they determined the basic structure of the bodies and behavior of everything that came afterward. It happened before the Cambrian explosion, and those advances made possible the emergence of all complex multi-celled organisms in existence, including us. The sex-based relationships that are so fundamental to our personal identities and our social lives originated in that epic achievement.
Sexual reproduction outflanks death but it does not overcome it. This was the “immortality” devised by matter’s living energy, and it was obtained at the cost of the reproducing organism which dies. Individual organismic death was integrated into matter’s energy transcending itself and evolving. Nature’s concern is not the individual, it is something else … .
“Matter” evolves by working with and within itself. It’s a very slow process of random interactions that may (or may not) finally yield a viable result — a result that can “live” within the whole. Matter is one thing and one thing only — material energy — homogeneous, universal, invariable. Because it is the one and only thing there is, every new form that its internal intra-actions take can survive only if they continue to “fit” within the ultimate sea of homogeneity of which they are a part. There is no other option. Matter has to work this way because there is no “existence” apart from this ocean of being. The metaphor of rockets that break free of earth’s grip and reach into “outer” space doesn’t work here. There is no escape velocity to take us outside matter’s “gravitational field” because outside matter there is nothing. Material energy, such as it is, is the absolute condition of anything being-here at all, and entropy — the process of reducing all energy to a lifeless equilibrium — is the source that LIFE mines for its energy.
I am convinced that very few people realize this and there are even scientists and technicians that work with matter’s properties everyday among them. I vigorously contend that this view is difficult for people to understand, not because of the complexity or abstractness of the ideas but because we have been programmed to think of things in the opposite direction. We reject matter’s existential universality and ascribe LIFE to an outside “spiritual” source that — no matter how it is contradicted by what we see with our own eyes — we cling to as our escape vehicle from a material world that we have been taught is alien and hostile to our destiny as human individuals. The inability to understand that we are matter is the source of our disrespect for matter and disdain for its ways. We have been telling ourselves another story for so long … and we have developed so much of what we think and do around that other story … that we spontaneously project that matter is inferior to “mind” and supine before the “will” of our rational intelligence, as if they were two different things and our brains weren’t themselves organic matter. Matter to western culture is alien, and at best a slave to kick around, not the sacred matrix which spawned us and in which we remain always immersed like a sponge in the sea, the root and ground of our intelligence itself. We behave as if there were nothing in matter we need to listen to … to learn from … to be patient and deferential toward, to collaborate with, to embrace, to serve … nothing sacred. We think of ourselves as “spirits,” cerebral “gods,” all-powerful bodiless brains, whose destiny it is to mold a lifeless profane matter to suit our individual desires — to remake the world in the image and likeness of our personal illusions. And we have been encouraged in our self-exalting hubris by our mother culture’s various epiphanies through the millennia — the principal one of which for us has been mediaeval Catholicism and its “reformed” Protestant progeny — and the legacy they passed on to our modern culture of finding ways to escape from embracing our reality as biological organisms in a material universe.
I do not reject technology. I propose we use it to deepen our contentment with what we are — individuals within a material totality — not to run from it into a world of illusion. Part of contentment, of course, is the commitment to equality among us for access to the goods of the earth. Knowing who we are and how we are related to our source and sustainer is what I mean by religion. I believe such a radical reformation of religion would transform the way we organize our life on this earth — an earth which gave birth to us and to whose limits we remain forever bound.